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V3I4: Equity: Arc of the moral universe

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

I happened to be in Washington, DC in September 2011 on a hush-hush trip as part of the intense vetting process when I was to be nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the science and extramural funding agency within the United States Department of Agriculture.

On that visit, I took the opportunity to visit the just-completed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, a few weeks before the official dedication of the memorial by President Obama. I was awe-inspired by the memorial that gorgeous Fall day – by the sheer size of the pink granite sculpture and by the inscriptions from Dr. King’s many inspiring speeches.

One inscription that struck me, which I remember often, is, “We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” from the “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech Dr. King gave in 1968 at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Justice. Equality. Equity. Diversity. Inclusion. While America has always aspired to these ideas, our approach to achieving the same has been fraught throughout our history.

I am reminded of the words of former United States Attorney General Eric Holder, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” Significant proportions of our population have been disempowered, disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disengaged and, thus, unable to achieve justice, equality, and equity, despite our Founding Fathers’’ proclamation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Recent events, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated the historical injustices, inequities, and disparities for people of color and poor people. In education. In jobs. In hunger and poverty. In susceptibility to disease, including COVID-19 infections. In healthcare and health outcomes. In mental health. In access to services. In the judicial system. In housing. In broadband connectivity. In ____, you name it and we see inequities and disparities.

2020 has been a seminal moment in our Nation’s history, not the least being the horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others.

Begging for change.

President Obama speaking at the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on October 16, 2011 stated, in part, “let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.” President Obama provides a stark reminder that change doesn’t come easily. It takes imagination and purposeful action for change.

Experience tells us the most effective change agents are educators, and through education they can help pull the arc towards justice. Our institutions of higher learning have demonstrably shown that they can and do facilitate change. Postsecondary education is potentially a passport out of the morass of poverty and the injustices, inequities, and disparities. We have seen some progress, but inequities and disparities persist at our colleges and universities, and despite the best intentions and efforts, they have been exacerbated, in part by the pandemic and by federal and state policies of the recent past.

It will take a renewed, vigorous, and urgent (re)commitment to student success, to enhance graduation rates, while closing equity gaps, and to improve learning and nurturing skills, while reducing the cost of education.

Through its 2020 Standards for Accreditation and its vision, NWCCU is attempting to help pull the arc towards justice by supporting efforts to promote student success and close equity gaps. We define closing equity gaps as the effort to advance fairness and opportunity by providing support to promote student achievement and close barriers to academic excellence and success.

Unfortunately, over the last few years, discussions and courses taught on college campuses about diversity, equity, inclusion, race, social justice, and other related topics, have become fraught in America, and are caught up in contentious conversations about “wokeism”, “culture wars”, “cancel culture,” to name some extant phrases. We have seen federal, state, and local board efforts to bar academic institutions from providing diversity courses and training. A number of our institutions have also been caught in the vortex of the heartbreaking hyper-partisanship and divisiveness of arguments about issues we can and must agree to solve as part of our humanity. How does one reconcile, as part of one’s faith, subscribing to the idea, “I am my brother’s keeper,” and yet work to curtail or even legislatively ban efforts on campuses to deal with the inequities?

Despite such roadblocks, it is incumbent on academic institutions and institutional leaders to continue to address student success and the inequities we see amongst students who come from underserved backgrounds. In speeches, panel discussions, and writings, I have suggested framing issues by purposefully not using certain words and terminologies that come across as being loaded or (negative) signal words; rather, it is best to focus on positive outcomes, such as excellence and success of ALL students – without resorting to the use of words such as diversity, equity, inclusion, white supremacy, and other, for some, loaded words. Framing is the process of focusing on aspects of a situation that we would like to make more salient and have specific, positive emotional reactions. From experience, I know that focusing on success and excellence appeals to everyone, on all sides of an issue.

There may also be lessons learned from the recent work of Jordan Starck and colleagues from Princeton University, who looked at the impact of the “rationale” for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia, which affects student outcomes. Much of the impetus/support for promoting diversity comes from US Supreme Court decisions, which asserted that diversity provides compelling educational benefits, thus, instrumentally useful. The Princeton study suggests that instrumental rationales for diversity tends to correspond to the preferences of whites and contributes to significant white/black disparities in student outcomes; whereas moral rationales that embrace diversity as a matter of intrinsic values contribute to better outcomes for black students. There may be opportunities for institutions to consider incorporation of instrumental AND moral rationales to support efforts to eliminate inequities and promote student success.

At NWCCU, we have stepped up efforts in the form of webinars, workshops, academies, and training to bring the best ideas and approaches from across America to our region to help promote student success and excellence at our institutions. As I have noted previously, our intent is to continue to grow these efforts and to create evangelizers to work with college faculty, leaders, and staff to adapt and adopt best practices.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my recipe for student success, which includes focus on intrusive advising and attendance, student behavior, ensuring availability of relevant courses and experiential education, use of disaggregated data, financial support, and myriad other strategies.

Strategies to promote success and close equity gaps include high-impact practices such as use of data-informed predictive analytics, digital tools to promote community and group interactions, digital nudging and social media, focus on educational fundamentals, including personalized education and services, intensive mentoring, and academic coaching. These high-impact practices must also include emphasis on student learning programs that inculcate enduring and transferable core competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, oral and written communication skills, technical and digital skills, and ethics and professionalism. In addition to academic support, ensuring student success will require that students, particularly students of color and poor students, are provided help with financial aid, just-in-time grants, social networks, food, housing, child- and health-care support, and mental health counseling.

As described in the last issue of The Beacon, NWCCU, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) through their Intermediaries for Scale and Postsecondary Data Partnership Accelerator programs, is creating quantitative data and analytical systems and resources to create the path to scale transformative, best-practice approaches to promote evidence-informed student success and close equity gaps at all our institutions.

There’s no magic formula to promoting success and achieving equity. It will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck campus effort to remove structural barriers to success of racial, ethnic, gender, and lower socioeconomic groups. Each institution has a unique identity and culture, and within that context must work towards the goal of eliminating inequities. The good news is that our institutions of higher education have the capacity and ability within their grasp to ensure all students are successful and can bend the arc towards justice.

It’ll require imagination and purposeful action.

I am reminded of Verna Myers’ statement: Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”


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