Taking Action for Equity
2019 Fall Symposium
Dr. Frank Harris III studies strategies for and barriers to equity and inclusion at colleges and universities across the nation. During a recent visit to campus the Professor of Postsecondary Education at San Diego State University (SDSU), called out Governors State University.
“We can’t say the problem is in the system and dismiss issues of equity, because the thing is we are the system,” Harris said as he opened up the fall all-campus symposium.
This semester’s symposium welcomed approximately 130 Governors State faculty, staff, and students on the Center for Performing Arts (CPA) stage to define the terms "equity," "inclusion," and "diversity," and to explore how these elements are engaged and executed at Governors State University.
President Elaine P. Maimon said GSU is a university focused on social justice from its founding, but reiterated this is not something the university can merely market.
“It has to be made real every day. It has to be renewed, that’s the point of this symposium,” she said.
The GSU all-campus symposium occurs twice a year and focuses on topics that are timely to the campus. In the spring symposium, the community explored strategies to remove barriers to adult learners.
Last year, the campus looked at the university’s strengths, as well as faculty and staff’s individual strengths identified through the Gallup Strength Finder’s assessment.
At the fall symposium, Harris commented on Governors State’s courage to take responsibility to embrace equity.
“This doesn’t happen at every university—not with this level of commitment it doesn’t happen. Governors State has clear goals and strategies, which makes my job easier. Now let’s bring life to it and make it actionable,” he said.
Harris began the day by initiating critical conversations which were later continued at the tables dotting the CPA stage. Each table seated a diverse mix of faculty, staff, and students to foster conversations among those who might otherwise never meet.
Harris inquired about definitions of “equity,” “diversity,” and “inclusion,” and played words like “access” and “success” against each other for attendees’ reflections. These ideas were not just discussed in theory, as the small groups were challenged to deliberate how these elements exist and function on campus. Reconvening, participants were welcomed to share their insights, like University Lecturer Laura White who noted that she sees equity disparities in the classroom.
“Students are all coming in with equal potential but not with equal preparation,” she said.
The inequity discussed does not exist only in the confines of academia. Harris reminded the audience that when students leave the university they face disadvantages in life, at work, and in the healthcare and justice system.
To the idea of other universities dismissing students as just being angry, under-prepared, or unmotivated, Harris stated simply, “Outcome disparities are not under-performances of students, but the under-performance of the institution.”
For some members of underserved communities, Governors State is the primary pathway to education, which means the impetus is on GSU to disregard, as Harris calls them, the “traditional paradigms” of universities and create a home for all students on campus.
“A lot of people think by questioning the rules, we’re questioning the legitimacy of our own accomplishments. We need to think outside of ourselves,” he said.
The symposium attendees seemed eager for the undertaking. Dr. Crystal Harris, Program Coordinator for Interdisciplinary Studies (IDSS), noted, “I need to be a role model to show how I can be successful in this system, but also show them how to challenge it.”
To Dr. Deborah James, Professor of Media Studies and Chair of the Center of Community Media Steering Committee, GSU’s work has an impact across the region.
“If we don’t practice this here, we can’t expect this in the larger community,” she said.
Harris then directed conversation to the reason he was invited to campus: to explore Governor State’s Equity Plan, one strategically placed at each table.
Participants analyzed a 43-page draft of GSU’s new Equity Plan, part of the Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA) initiative, a collection of 28 two- and four-year colleges and universities working to eliminate racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps by 2025 and prioritize increasing completion rates.
After discussing the plan, Harris invited input from the attendees. Voices across the room echoed the same statement: “We can do better.”
Speaking to actionable concepts, Harris presented his own plan to establish a culture change which, would result in institutional transformation.
Harris’s “Taxonomy of Educators’ Perspectives” cross lists those who are willing or unwilling to effect change in equity disparities with those who know what to do or those who don’t know what to do to effect change.
With the categories identified, a plan was detailed in which faculty and staff:
- “Empower the choir,” who both understand and are willing to make their beliefs actionable
- “Educate the allies,” who are willing but do not know how to help
- “Encourage the passive resisters and the defiant,” who do not understand equity disparities or how to effect change
- “Enlighten the oblivious,” who think they are making a difference but are not
Harris said a plan with a baseline shift is pointless.
“Strategies alone do not close equity gaps, attention to equity culture is essential,” Harris said.
Provost Beth Cada remarked that interaction, as was happening among those who attended the symposium, is the most powerful tool on campus to move forward as an institution.
Harris will be returning for the spring symposium on Feb. 6, 2020 to continue the discussion and to see the university’s progress towards institutional transformation for equity. His leaving thoughts encapsulated the work accomplished that day.
“Inequity should keep you up at night, working with colleagues on it should get you up in the morning. When you leave campus you should be asking yourself, what did I do today to close equity disparities?”