For the past decade forward thinkers in higher education have been researching, advocating and exploring equity as a goal and catalyzing concept. Much has been learned throughout the academy, from the examination of individual assignments in a course section all the way to system-wide policy and analysis. Equity thinking is now found throughout higher education, everywhere that student success is a priority. There is a significant difference, though, between having an equity discussion and doing equity work. That distinction is vitally important, as highlighted in From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. Co-written by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon and Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux, this short volume is a vital contribution to the field.
The authors are experts. McNair is the vice president 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. Bensimon is Dean’s Professor in Educational Equity at the USC Rossiter School of Education and Director of the Center for Urban Education. Malcom-Piqueux heads the Office of Institutional Research at Caltech. The three’s approach to the book is direct, immediate, and geared toward giving professionals the questions and tools to effect change. They rightly begin the book with difficult personal queries, challenging readers to understand and appreciate the “Why?” the reasons for engaging in equity work. They stress that while many may feel good about talking equity, actually engaging in the effort is a different matter. Stressed throughout is that equity and inclusive excellence are interdependent and of mutually critical importance to the broader educational enterprise.
Data, reporting and reports are woven throughout the book. Perhaps of most relevance, the book is grounded in a project from 2015-2018, organized by AAC&U, Strada Education Network, and Ascendium Education Group. Thirteen institutions, including my college, participated in the project with specific and ambitious goals: increased High Impact Practices (HIPs); increased completion, retention and graduation rates for underserved students, increased learning outcomes for underserved students, and increased student awareness/understanding of guided pathways. The participating institutions, baccalaureate and community colleges, joined webinars, academies, conferences, project meetings and other efforts to craft plans and build capacity. Data was central to the project. So, too, was building campus-wide awareness of the project’s expansive agenda. Much of From Equity Talk is based on the work of the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence Project.
Building equity-minded campus culture is critical to the task. The authors note that equity is explicitly antiracist, that it seeks corrective justice, and it places responsibility for addressing inequities with the institution, not the student. It shifts accountability and calls for different kinds of inquiries, often upsetting traditional ways of doing academic business. A key example of this work is disaggregating student performance by race and ethnicity at the class level. Data, more often that not, will lead to better understanding of how systematic structures of power and race influence student performance. As you might imagine, these kinds of discussions are not readily embraced by everyone at an institution. Evasion, resistance, distraction and simple blindness to data can be part of the change process. In the Committing to Equity project, institutions reported on these and other challenges.
Equity Talk takes a close look at what happens after institutions obtain the data. Problems do not identify themselves. Nor does data self-act. Instead, iterative discussion is needed to lead to follow up action. Much like democratic processes, the authors encourage institutions to engage in open-ended conversations about the data. What patterns exist? What is happening to which groups? Any hunches? What do the stakeholders think might be happening. The book emphasizes that practitioners close to the data are often in the best position to understand and act on the data. Support, though, is essential. Distributing data or sharing dashboards is vital, but not sufficient to get to next-level progress.
The authors encourage institutions to be careful and intentional about language and definitions. Drawing from a wealth of institutional histories, they illustrate ways that seemingly well-understood concepts can take colleges in different directions. What, for example, does high-quality mean and how is it measured? From the analysis one gains an appreciation for institutional processes, which may turn out to be of greater long-term value than statements that lack foundational appreciation. Accordingly, communication plays an outsize role in deepening and sustaining equity efforts.
Equity Talk does not pretend to offer all the answers or a simple template. The authors warn that “institutional change efforts are not easy to initiate, scale or sustain. When educators engage with an effort that seeks to address systematic structure, policies, practices and beliefs that challenge inequities and the reasons that inequities exist, the work becomes even more difficult. There are no simple answers and no linear pathways to success.” The book does, though, go far in outlining what can be done, what has been done, and ways that institutions can take up the work.
I am extraordinarily grateful that my college was part of the 13 institutions that participated in the Inclusive Excellence Project. From personal experience, I can attest that Equity Talk provides a very good high-level overview of the challenge, the work, and the possibilities. It is comprehensive, clear and very useful. I would add, too, that as essential and helpful as books like this are, the real work – the equity walk – takes place in classrooms, in meetings, and in the data-informed manner that we shape interactions in our colleges.