Precedent is the Enemy of Equity

As a senior leader within the community college sector of higher education, I am constantly challenged by the notion of creating a “precedent” when trying to serve students. Our students are very different from one another. They each have unique challenges, backgrounds, levels of preparation, barriers, and goals. Creating solutions for them to be successful is not possible with a one-size-fits-all approach. I believe during this pandemic, we are all in a place where we need to be reminded that what worked before, may not work now. In fact, there is no “before.” Perhaps this is a chance for us to re-think how we serve students our students, all of whom are really struggling in unique and unprecedented ways.

Let me first note that this is not my preferred mode of operating. This is a learned behavior and perspective. For my personality assessment nuts out there, I am an ESTJ; Consistency is in my Top 5 strengths; in work environments I behave in the Dominance and Conscientiousness sectors of the DiSC. I’m also a Taurus for my Zodiac fans out there. In other words, I prefer a world built on rules, logic, order, convention, and certainty. Precedent used to be my favorite word. I used to want to practice law, and am still fascinated by legalese and interested in law in all its forms. The problem is, I do not work in a courtroom, I work in a college.

Higher education is an environment where policies, processes, and practices are created from a framework built on equality (sameness). Some of us in higher education are most comfortable in that environment (I’m looking at you Registrars, Financial Aid, and Business Office folks). This is why we are faced with the problem of creating or not creating a precedent when trying to serve our students. Complicating this is the fact that policies and guidance from external forces (e.g., state/federal laws, Department of Education, grant agencies, accrediting bodies), compel us to treat students the same, or at the minimum expect sameness in our approach to serving students.

I tend to try and use a better approach. One that continues to emerge as a powerful practice in higher education: equity. An equity lens calls us to make decisions for a specific student, based on their specific needs. When viewed from an equity lens, you can quickly come to see that what works for one student may not necessarily work for another. Even when the student and/or the situation are similar. Extended time on a test (formal accommodation or not), may be appropriate for one student in a particular situation, with a particular test, than for another. Forgiving a financial balance for one student with particular circumstances may make sense for one student, and not for another. Giving a particular disciplinary sanction to one student, and a different one to another student, even for the same infraction, might be appropriate given the unique circumstances of the student. In a world in which we look at each student and their situation as unique, the notion of precedent loses its relevance and its power.

This is easier said than done. Anything worth doing is easier said than done (think about that for a minute!) So I offer the following for my fellow educators – be it in the classroom or office – to adopt an equity approach to meeting student needs:

1. Commitment

This is not easy. You have to start with a belief that this is better, and adopt principles and philosophies to guide your decision making. That is the first step. Read up on equity mindedness, and get a real grasp of what it means. Dr. Estrella Bensimon at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California does excellent work. I have learned a lot from her and her team.

2. Creativity

Think outside the box. I know its cliche, but what did you do to serve students during the last pandemic? What accommodations did you make last time students couldn’t come to campus? Exactly – old solutions and precedent won’t help you here. I find talking to and with other colleagues a great practice. Also read…a lot. Credible sources like the Chronicle of Higher Education and other higher education based publications. You’ll be surprised what they are doing at some obscure college in another part of the country!

3. Intentionality

To do this right you need to prepare before a decision needs to be made. Know your students. If you are part of the teaching faculty you should have a good sense of the barriers, challenges, and circumstances of your students. You also need to do your work to make sure you are not making decisions out of a desire to be a savior to students, or because you just “see yourself in them.” This is where your unconscious biases will get you in trouble. Do your work in this area.

4. Documentation

When you make a decision, explain it. Make sure the student and others who were part of the process know why it was made. Be specific, write it down, and file it. This will help you when you do peek back to know why solution A was applied to student A and not student B.

5. Time

As I said before, this is not fast work. It doesn’t have to take forever, but equity minded practices by definition take more time and intentionality (see #3).

6. Collaboration

Talk with your supervisor, direct reports, colleagues, and others about supporting your student and making decisions. There may be solutions right in front of you that you simply haven’t considered. It also models an important practice that others should be doing.

7. Compassion

You have to care. You have to empathize. You have to see the student and their uniqueness like you have a vested interest in their success. If this was your son, or mother, or best friend, wouldn’t you want care applied to the solution, as opposed to a cold and dated policy?

8. Strategic Thinking

Keep the big picture in mind. What is your real goal as an institution of higher education? Is that balance really unforgivable, if doing so guarantees the student will be finishing up their degree next semester? Also, aren’t they going to pay more back into the college than what their balance is? Is the time spent trying to fight keeping with precedent worth it? There are opportunity costs to every decision, so don’t be so narrow as to not see the big picture outside of your particular role at the institution. If you are a senior level person reading this, give permission and provide cover for your teams to apply equity minded solutions.

In the end, we must be courageous in providing support and help to students in a way that serves them and their unique situation. We can’t just throw precedent out, nor should we. We can look to the past as a factor in determining solutions, but it cannot be our only factor. It is not even the most important factor. We also cannot assume that the decision we are making will automatically apply to the next student. That student gets an equity minded analysis as well. While policies, procedures, and practices provide boundaries, they should not limit your choices in doing what is best for students. Choose equity.

Dr. Anthony

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