Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU
A few months ago, driving to work, I was listening to NPR. The story was on legislative bills either being considered or passed in several southern states regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), particularly as it related to teaching about critical race theory, systemic racism, social justice, and other issues.
I was reflecting on how shortsighted those actions were, when I had to hit the brakes on my 2016 Nissan Frontier pickup, because a concrete truck turned on to the main road I was traveling on. Luckily, it turned out okay, in part, because my pickup has antilock braking system (ABS).
The modern ABS system was patented in 1972 by Mario Palazzetti, while he was with the Fiat Research Center. Starting September 1, 2011, the United States federal government required all new cars to have ABS.
I was glad I had ABS and I was mulling over the same as I was driving, when it dawned on me: the acronym could stand for a new way to think of creating an environment in our colleges and universities to promote student success and close equity gaps: Access, Belonging, and Success.
Access, as a noun, has multiple meanings, but the one of relevance in our context is, “the opportunity to use or benefit from something,” i.e., to avail ALL students the opportunity to achieve their educational goals and become contributing members of their communities.
Belonging, as a noun, refers to “an affinity for a place or situation.” In the context of higher education, belonging as a verb, i.e., “to fit in a specified place or environment” or “be a member of a particular group,” is more apropos. The idea is how can we help create community and a sense of belonging, so students thrive and succeed. By creating a community in which students feel like they belong, we are also ensuring they are invested in and investing into those communities.
Success, as a noun, refers to the “accomplishment of an aim or purpose” or the “(good) outcome of an undertaking.” Both meanings are relevant in the context of higher education. We know that outcomes contribute to both personal and financial growth and satisfaction and, thus, higher education offers an exquisite mechanism to facilitate social and economic mobility for students.
During the last several months, I have engaged in conversations with an array of people inside and outside of academia on issues related to what is incumbent on the higher education enterprise to promote student success and close equity gaps; every one of these individuals, regardless of political stripe, agreed that access, belonging, and success are a meaningful and effective way to frame the conversation. Indeed, there’s agreement they may not generate the kind of negative reaction that terms such as diversity, equity, and inclusion seem to have generated in some quarters, in part, because the former are not teleological terms.
Teleological words relate to or involve the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve, rather than of the cause because of which they arise. Terms such as diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, critical race theory, and CRT, unfortunately, have been misinterpreted from the perspective of their purpose, rather than the cause by which they arise. These phrases have become charged, and one might even say that have been hijacked and weaponized in some parts of America.
In contrast, access, belonging, and success, by definition, convey purpose. If our intent is to focus on outcomes for our students, i.e., their success and achievements, then it makes sense to use words to convey the need to address the challenges faced by students from underserved and socially and economically disadvantaged communities.
As an accreditor, we can be laser-focused on student outcomes by empowering member institutions to promote access, belonging, and success, contributing to measurable improvements in equitable outcomes and achievement of ALL students.
So, how does one operationalize this concept of promoting access, belonging, and success.
Exceptionally successful institutions create highly personalized, student-centric, and transformative educational opportunities, catering to each student individually by, for example:
There is, however, no one-size-fits-all model to create the student-centric, transformative educational ecosystem to promote access, belonging, and success: it is context and mission dependent. However, effective programs share many elements. Indeed, in a previous issue of The Beacon, I wrote about the results from an informal survey on efforts to promote community and a sense of belonging amongst students – there were as many approaches as the institutions that responded and, yet, they shared several characteristics. Practically every one of the institutions took a hands-on, personalized approach to ensure their students were cocooned in an environment to ensure access, promote their sense of community and belonging and, thus, contribute to their success
A characteristic shared by successful institutions is that they create an environment of inclusive excellence by offering programs to promote the complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual student by engendering an environment where obstacles are removed to ensure students have access, feel a sense of community and belonging, and, thus, secure their success. Institutions that are highly successful know that student success requires a combination of providing the relevant cognitive, subject-matter learning experiences and inculcation of transferable, noncognitive skills in a transformative educational ecosystem. Ultimately, transformative education is not just about the student learning experience in the courses they take; rather it is about a combination of the learning experience and the environment where students thrive because they are supported, belong, and are connected and engaged.
Strategies to promote student access, belonging, and success can indeed result in measurable improvements in addressing inequities, enhance diversity, and create a sense of inclusion on campus.
In an inspiring essay in this issue of The Beacon, Carl Hernandez, Brigham Young University’s (BYU) very first Vice President for Belonging, writes about his personal journey and the efforts to promote access, belonging, and success at his institution.
Carl grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley as a child of migrant farm workers, toiling in olive groves and vineyards. Carl attributes where he is today as a senior executive at a major university in America to opportunities he was afforded and the mentoring he received at multiple points in his life, including while a student at BYU. He credits his success to the access BYU afforded him and the environment of belonging that was created at the institution.
Carl is an example of an individual who succeeded, not the least, because of the mentoring he received, but that BYU offered him access to an excellent education and did everything to ensure he belonged in the community. He is now paying forward as the Vice President for Belonging by helping create the supportive environment for other students from underserved and disadvantaged communities to succeed at BYU.
There are many Carls at our colleges and universities who have succeeded because of the opportunities and support afforded them; yet, there are many, many others who need doors to be opened, offered the mentoring and support, and nurtured in an environment of belonging, so they can succeed. This does not have to be fraught and weaponized. It’s in our nation’s best interest to enable the same.
Our Republic’s founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, called for the democratization of higher education, so the children of the masses could also aspire to higher education, which then could pull them out of the morass of poverty and allow them to become contributing members of society.
Anything we can do to promote access, belonging, and success can help further democratize higher education and contribute to the well-being of our democracy.
In light of the above, we have articulated a new vision:
The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is the premier accreditor whose member institutions foster access, belonging, and success of every student.
As Victor Hugo stated, “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
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