Innovation in College & Career Preparation

The Time Is Now to Step Up and Lead for Equity

Tia Brown McNair, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success, Association of American Colleges & UniversitiesBy Tia Brown McNair, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success, Association of American Colleges & Universities

At the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Diversity, Learning, and Student Success conference in Philadelphia, one of the 650 participants stood up and raised a simple — but complicated — question:

“What will it take?”

He was asking what it will take to turn the aspirations and discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education into action.

A silence came over the room as the educators in attendance pondered this question. When the panelists responded, I thought of the words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

We do not have the luxury of time. We don’t have the luxury of being silent. We don’t have the luxury of not stepping up to lead the change we seek. More importantly, our students don’t have these luxuries.

The time is now.

Leading the discussion
During AAC&U’s centennial year, in 2015, the association made concerted efforts to raise awareness of and to address the growing inequities in higher education. That work reflects our determination to, in the words of AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider, “face, publicize and work to reverse the disparities that today disfigure both our educational system and democracy’s promise of quality education and meaningful access to opportunity for all members of our society.”

AAC&U has sponsored national forums and meetings, released a series of equity-focused publications, and initiated campus action projects to help colleagues engage in the conversations necessary to implement the change that is needed to advance equity in student success. With USA Funds®’ support, we have focused on equity and quality learning in national surveys of chief academic officers — with results showing a need for bold leadership to enact programs that promote success for all students.

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As stated in the publication Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Divides, “For generations, the United States has promised universal access to opportunity. It is part of our history and the engine of our economic and civic prosperity. But opportunity in America continues to be disproportionately distributed. The effects of the imbalance are evident. We have persistent gaps in education, income, and wealth, and these gaps are widening as our nation becomes more diverse.”

AAC&U is a strong advocate for Making Excellence Inclusive for all students. That means ensuring that a high-quality, practical liberal education is the standard of excellence for all students.

So, what will it take?

Stepping up and leading for equity requires a paradigm shift in thinking about equity, diversity and student learning. This paradigm shift requires the identification, examination and dismantling of existing mindsets in higher education that serve as catalysts for marginalization, inequity and intolerance. These mindsets impede the exploration and acceptance of difference as a core value in our democratic society and in effective educational environments.

In contrast to the old paradigm, which depends on the assumption that student achievement gaps are rooted in students’ deficits, the new paradigm must focus on institutional assessment, action and accountability, with individual and shared responsibility deeply embedded as priorities. In the new paradigm, campus educators understand and value the assets that students bring to educational experiences, as well as the importance of institutional change and continuous improvement to better meet the needs of students, whatever they may be.

Engaging in action
As part of Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success, a project launched in 2015, AAC&U and the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California are working with 13 institutions to develop campus action plans that address a series of equity goals. USA Funds is helping to fund this project.

Guided by the practices and principles from AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, the goals the project will address include:

  • Increasing access to and participation in high-impact practices for underserved students.
  • Increasing course completion, retention and graduation rates for low-income, first-generation, adult and/or minority students.
  • Increasing achievement of learning outcomes for underserved students as measured using tools, including AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, that directly assess students’ actual work.
  • Increasing student awareness and understanding of the value of guided learning pathways that incorporate high-impact practices and that lead to students’ success both as workers and as engaged citizens.

Our hope is that this type of campus-based work will produce scalable and sustainable strategies that can further advance inclusive excellence and equity — while promoting accountability — as educators step up and lead, and address and respond to the question, “What will it take?”

Adapted from ““The Time Is Now: Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence,”  by Tia Brown McNair, published in the winter 2016 issue of AAC&U’s quarterly periodical Diversity & Democracy.

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