By: Selena M. Grace, PhD, NWCCU Senior Vice President
Humans have innate tendencies to group and categorize. We want people, places, experiences, and histories to fit nicely within labels and categories based on our own knowledge and experiences. Our tendencies to categorize requires that we be more intentional as we conduct our work addressing equity in higher education. In order to begin our work, we must first seek to understand, seek to be inclusive, and ensure representation of diverse views and perspectives. My own life experiences taught me to listen, to hear, to seek to understand. When you become a mother at 14, you learn some lessons in very real ways. I learned that every choice I made moving forward impacted more than myself. I learned I had to work twice as hard. I always had to prove myself, as I was expected to fail. And people’s perceptions of me were often incorrect. I come from four generations of women who married and had children between the ages of 16 and 17. Four generations of women who didn’t graduate high school. Four generations of women who gave their lives, their dreams, and their passions to raising children and survival. I always believed I would go to college, but I also had no idea how that would materialize. I didn’t want these labels or generational history to define me, yet I recognized that they shaped me and my way of thinking, learning, and doing, and more significantly, they shaped people’s perceptions of me.
I share my experience because I was a non-traditional, first-generation, low-socioeconomic student who experienced the transformative effects of higher education. From a social construction perspective, I’ve been in the categories of undeserving of policy benefits. I bring a different and unique perspective because of those experiences and because of my gender, but I know that I do not broadly represent everyone, and I want people with diverse experiences, cultural backgrounds to be part of the discussions and part of the decisions. Yet, I also know the world of higher education can be elitist and exclusionary. At times, our first impressions are often influenced by a person’s credentials, publications, and positions held. Those impressions heavily influence diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Schneider and Ingram (2005) highlight in their work Public Policy and the Social Construction of Deservedness, how the power to name, categorize, and group individuals into deserving and entitled provides an avenue for institutions and organizations to perpetuate social constructions; thereby, placing people into groups of deserving or undeserving of policy benefits. Anything unfamiliar to what we know and experience becomes part of the other, that which is deemed undeserving by those in power. While social construction theory acknowledges the role that values, perceptions of people, places, and objects play in how individuals view and understand the world, it also plays a role in determining how institutional and organizational policies and practices are operationalized (Ingram, Schneider, & deLeon, 2007). Making institutional and organizational decisions in absence of including diverse perspectives perpetuates monolithic policies and practices. Diversity in race/ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic experiences and perspectives is accomplished by a truly representational organization.
In Frederick Mosher’s (1968) Democracy and the Public Service, he proposed that administrators of bureaucracies played a significant role in determining how policies are actually implemented, and the execution of such policies are significantly shaped by their individual values, backgrounds, education, and associations (social constructions). Arguably, institutions of higher education are one of the most important forms of bureaucratic organizations in the United States as they provide a way to affect the human condition, as education transforms lives both personally and economically.
The theory of representative bureaucracy requires acceptance of two essential elements: 1) that public agencies represent the interests and values of the public they serve, and 2) those values and interests are reflected in the policy decisions made (Fredrickson & Smith, 2003; Dolan & Rosenbloom, 2003; Selden, 1997; Meier, et al., 1989; Wright, et al., 1998). Education isn’t the purest form of a bureaucracy, but a significant amount of research has been done on public education in terms of evaluating representation because they are often the largest employers in their community and they collect tremendous amounts of data (Meier, et al., 1989). Evaluating colleges and universities through the lens of representative bureaucracy provides a framework to truly assess whether the organization mirrors that of the students and communities they serve, and if they do mirror those communities the degree to which those values are reflected in the institutional mission, policies, and procedures. If we are to demonstrate, as a higher education community, our capacity to be inclusive and accessible, the representation of faculty, staff, and administrators who mirror the communities and students they serve matters.
Ultimately, the truest test of the representation of a bureaucracy is the extent to which their demographics mirror that of the communities they serve (Meier & Nigro, 1976; Fredrickson & Smith, 2003; Dolan & Rosenbloom, 2003; Selden, 1997; Meier, et al., 1989; Wright, et al., 1998). Higher education has not historically been representative of the communities it serves (both the students enrolled or communities where they are located). Even today, as institutions provide a greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we know that the faculty and administrators of many institutions are still not representative of their student and community demographics. This lack of representation directly impacts institutional policies and institutional decisions.
If we are to truly take on the work of equity, as campus leaders, we must be willing to have difficult conversations about our past, our present, and our future. About our perspectives and our experiences. But most importantly, as highlighted by the work of McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux (2020) in their book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, campus communities must come to a shared agreement on what equity is, and what it means to their respective campuses, knowing that our individual experiences, understanding of history, and social constructs determine our perceptions and beliefs in the need to address equity. To come to a shared agreement on what equity means for each campus, McNair, et al. (2020) propose that we consider some salient questions around what does equity mean both individually and as an institution, and for whom? Their book provides thoughtful, detailed, and practice guidance for helping institutions become more equity minded. To ameliorate natural biases, requires campus-wide conversations and engagement. A willingness to listen, to hear, to seek to understand with inclusivity. It also requires that institutions look at disaggregated data.
The NWCCU 2020 Standards provide institutions an opportunity to begin and/or continue campus-wide conversations to define equity. As an accreditor, NWCCU has taken the lead in requiring that institutions disaggregate indicators of student achievement that are widely published and available on their website. As an organization that seeks to ensure quality and student success of our member institutions, NWCCU’s Standards require our institutions disaggregated indicators be aligned with meaningful, institutional identified indicators that include persistence, completion, retention, post graduation success and, most importantly, that these data are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, first generation, and other institutionally meaningful categories.
Estela Mara Benisom (2020), a professor of higher education at the USC Rossier School of Education and founder and Director of the Center for Urban Education, highlights in her article The Case for an Anti-Racist Stance Toward Paying Off Higher Education’s Racial Debt, that many higher education leaders are saying a lot of the right things; however, when educational leaders frame their student achievement work around achievement gaps that separate African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous populations from their more successful peers (often white students) we are creating racial inequities. Tia Brown McNair, Vice President in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and Executive Director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), shares in her March 11, 2021 blog how higher education perpetuates a hierarchy of human value when one group of students’ performance is favored over another group of students by setting their performance as the aspirational goal for excellence. Further, McNair highlights that these practices “may contribute to the assumptions, biases, and preconceived notions that some educators have about racially minoritized and marginalized students.”
The practices of setting thresholds for excellence have been based on comparing the highest performing (historically white) students against traditionally under-represented populations, rather than a clear definition of what excellence is and evaluating all students to that threshold, are historical artifacts that are institutionalized into many of our current policies and practices, and unchallenged and unchecked these social constructions perpetuate the marginalization of groups of people who become disadvantaged and disenfranchised. McNair (2021) highlights that educators should “establish equity goals not based on the performance of one group of students (often white students), but on the institution’s definition of excellence and the goals they want their students to achieve.”
Changing the way we define academic excellence and having a common definition of equity across the campus community is a necessity if we are truly going to ensure full demographic representation, participation, and success. A willingness to have inclusive conversations provides a mechanism for multiple viewpoints and perceptions to be heard. And more importantly, as highlighted by McNair (2021), “This approach seeks to dismantle the hierarchy of human value inherent in presentations of student success data and puts definitions of excellence in the purview of educators.”
The NWCCU Standards provide institutions an opportunity to have campus-wide conversations to define equity, to define what their goal for academic excellence is, and in a way that does not privilege the performance of one group of students over another. They also provide a mechanism to ensure broad representation of stakeholders.
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