By MARTY LEVINE
From four-year research institutions to community colleges, students would benefit if higher education focused on re-wiring our educational systems, said panelists at the last morning session of Pitt’s 2022 Diversity Forum
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Moderator Clyde Wilson Pickett, vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, posed a series of questions the panelists did not shy from answering frankly:
What is the responsibility of higher education to be a catalyst for change in society?
We keep looking at diversity as something we are pushing into education, replied Daryl G. Smith, senior research fellow and professor emerita of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. Instead, she said, “it is core to excellence for a democratic society that works.”
Decades ago, when higher education institutions saw technology was changing higher education, she said, they prepared for those changes without hesitation — even though some feared books and libraries might disappear. Diversity is now in the same position and should be “embedded in everything we need to do,” Smith said.
Michael Anthony, president of Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Ill., pressed faculty for the highest level of work toward diversity and inclusion: not just at the individual level; not just creating a week to celebrate one thing or a month to concentrate on another; not only working to “transform our thinking about what students have the opportunity to learn,” but also taking social action. “The students actually want to do something. … The work can’t stop” at classroom lessons, he said.
What are some of the core metrics we need to understand to dismantle inequities?
The leaders of four-year institutions, Smith said, should all know graduation rates by race, class and gender for undergraduates and the same for their graduate programs, as well as such statistics concerning faculty hiring, promotion and retention. They should also know “which people are included in our research. I would look not only at the curriculum but research grants” for their diversity and inclusion, she said, adding: “If you don’t have the data, you don’t know if you are making progress.”
Achievement gaps have been accepted rather than overcome, she said, yet “higher education has the knowledge to interrupt background characteristics” such as race or gender and upbringing in poverty as a predictor of success. Instead of student demographic characteristics, higher education institutions should examine their own make-up and whether this will help students succeed. “We know what we need to do,” she said.
Indeed, said H. Richard Milner IV, former Center for Urban Education director at Pitt and now Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University, higher education sometimes takes a very myopic view of equity and inclusion: “We talk about systems very abstractly.” But people make the systems and can remake them, he said.
Anthony pointed out that 40 percent or more of undergraduates in the United States attend community colleges, and they are mostly Black and brown first-generation students. “We have to do much better in that space as well,” he said.
How does higher education put focus on opportunity?
“We often say we are asset-driven in higher education,” Milner said, “but the next sentence is, ‘I wish students didn’t come with …’ (or) ‘our students lack ….’ When mechanisms are in place to support students, they can succeed. We should really be focused on the education debt,” rather than student debt, he added. “What the education systems actually owe the young people who are entitled to an excellent educational experience.”
Anthony hears colleagues ask what qualifications he expects from students at his community college when it has open enrollment. Schools ask students, “how do you not know this?” if they lack certain preparation, he said. Instead, they should ask, “What can I do to set higher expectations and provide supports to support you through this?”
In what ways should leaders themselves be shifting their thinking?
“The way we hold our leaders responsible will shape everything in this country,” Anthony answered. “Many people know what they need to start doing… but they don’t do it.” Presidents, deans and department chairs “understand that this topic matters, but what do they do about it?”
Not knowing statistics about your student achievement gaps — those metrics Smith earlier recommended all higher education officials have at their fingertips — “is willful negligence,” he said. “We have a real problem in higher education in allowing poor performance, in allowing foolishness” among leadership when it would not be allowed in other sectors.
“How do we support leaders and push them at the same time” to take diversity, equity and inclusion further, asked Smith.
“How do we co-create space that allows each of us to reach our capacity” beyond the white, straight, male spaces, asked Milner. Being an ally is not just saying, “I’m glad you said that,” he added. Being an ally is doing the work and being willing to sacrifice your power and privilege.
As one forum participant added in the online chat: “I need an ally to be an accomplice.”
“I learned a lot at the University of Pittsburgh,” Milner said. “I wasn’t doing anything unless” the community around the University supported it.
The reputation in the community where your university is located ought to be another metric of success in diversity and conclusion, Smith said. “If I say ‘the University of Pittsburgh,’ what do you say back to me?”
What do we do when diversity is seen as antithetical to excellence?
“If we can’t give concrete examples” to counter this notion — examples that the average person can understand — we won’t be able to explain how diversity, equity and inclusion “is core to excellence,” Smith said.
Education is one of the most inefficient industries, Anthony said. “Who produces 40 percent, 60 percent of their product and calls it success?” referring to graduation rates. But when colleagues say, “I want to make sure they are qualified,” concerning incoming Black, brown, poor or other students, he answers, “Who doesn’t?”
How can the wider world be part of this conversation?
The more diversity you have around the table, the easier it is to think of issues through different lenses, Smith said.
Anthony compared the value of fresh perspectives to lessons he learned in playing football and then racquetball. In football, he learned to plant his feet so as not to be moved by the opposition. But when he tried that strategy in racquetball, it didn’t work; he found instead he needed to be loose and limber to place himself where the ball would be next.
“I tell people to play racquetball, not football, with the work,” he said. “If we become frustrated and are not able to move with (diversity, equity and inclusion), we become the problem. We need to stay the course and don’t be bogged down in the nonsense. We need to get the job done.
What are we doing to counter some of the impediments that are in place? When do we move beyond re-wiring to dismantling?
“Each of us can and must build skill sets in the positions we are in,” Milner urged. “Let’s move away from being woken up without work.”
“What is the core part of your mission — and what should stay the same and what has to change?” Smith asked. “If our institutions won’t change, our students will make us change.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at [email protected] or 412-758-4859.
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