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Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Adriana Kezar and Peter Eckel, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

Know When and How to Act
It is clear that helping students of color succeed is a marathon, not a sprint. To succeed over the long haul, leaders need to assess the campus climate and create challenges that do not push the campus too far—otherwise, efforts may get derailed. Our presidents unanimously noted the importance of taking time to understand the institutional culture by meeting with members of the campus community in focus groups, having one-on-one meetings, and conducting surveys of the campus climate. This can be done at the unit, department, college, or institutional level—and unit cultures may differ significantly.

Successful leaders know when to push their institutions and when to ease off. Moving too far ahead of the institution creates distances between the leader and key campus stakeholders that can be difficult to bridge. One president noted:

“If the environment is not ready, you only serve to remove yourself. Assess, test, and sense the environment as you begin and from time to time. This is one of the most important things that a president can do.”

One way to gauge how quickly to move forward is to determine how much progress the institution has made already. To simplify, three types of institutions emerged in our work: first, the institution that was just beginning to make concerted efforts to improve the success of students of color; second, the one that has a diversity agenda that needs a new boost of energy or a new direction; and third, one with a long and strong history of helping all its students succeed.

Leaders at campuses that are just beginning their efforts might focus on building broad support, both on and off campus; articulating a shared vision for where the institution should be going and why that direction is important; developing the data infrastructure and finding resources to support it; and identifying the right people for the tasks at hand.

Leaders at institutions that have made significant progress might focus instead on assessing campus efforts to date, refining their strategic plans, developing supportive off-campus networks, creating a culture that continually examines data to challenge prevailing beliefs and set new directions, and evaluating the curriculum.

To know when and how to act, leaders need to regularly assess the political environment. Having informants throughout the campus helps leaders to know how faculty, staff, and students are feeling about the diversity agenda and whether it is being pushed too hard or fast. By continuously taking the institutional pulse, leaders can see where they need to slow down and gain more support. Assessing the politics of a campus helps leaders to anticipate resistance, identify allies, and pace the initiative appropriately so that learning occurs, rather than backlash.

Conclusion: Advancing the Learning Mission
While the presidents we spoke to focused on the power of organizational learning, they also suggested that it is important to stress the way diversity contributes to student learning at their institutions. In this way, learning becomes both the strategy of and rationale for their diversity efforts. Said one president:

“At our campus, diversity was seen as a good thing, but not necessarily tied to the work we do. I started to articulate why diversity is important for learning and critical thinking. … The most important strategy is to provide a clear rationale and tie it to the core mission.”

Another president concurred, saying:

“You should not isolate your efforts on the diversity front from the central mission of the college, because they are part and parcel of it. When the mission and diversity become connected, then diversity becomes part of the strategic plan, curriculum, hiring practices, etc., and it becomes much easier to support.”

When it is thus connected to the core business of the college or university, helping students of color succeed becomes an opportunity both for students to learn and for institutions to learn more about themselves. In the process, they may also learn how to address other important challenges as well.

Adrianna Kezar is an associate professor at the University of Southern California in the higher-education administration program and former director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. She has written widely on the topics of equity, leadership, governance, and innovation. Her books include Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century (2001), Organizational Learning in Higher Education (2005), and Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education: The Revolution of Research on Leadership (2006), all published by Jossey Bass. Peter Eckel is director of programs and initiatives at the American Council on Education’s Center for Effective Leadership, where he handles the ACE Institute for New Chief Academic Officers, the presidential roundtables on emerging challenges, and the Advancing to the Presidency workshop. His research focuses on change, governance and administration; his latest book is The Shifting Frontiers of Academic Decision Making (2006), Greenwood Press.