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

Privilege and Perspective

It warrants repeating that traveling, even within your own community, is vital to developing a more caring an empathetic mindset. It allows you to appreciate what you have, how little you know, and how much good there is in the world.

As I wait to board my flight to Vienna, Austria (country #2 on my Eastern European trip, I want to focus on my own privilege as an American citizen. How fortunate I am to be able to travel across the world and still have my language spoken, and be able to read signs, order food, and even hear my language on the radio. I also see familiar companies and brands that give me some odd sense of being comfortable and at ease. It was cool to see the Securitas company handle in security at the Berlin airport. They wore the same badges my security guards did at Louisville Hall when I was a Resident Director. Despite this privilege, traveling amongst others and in places that are unfamiliar is still challenging. That is the thing about privilege – while unearned and advantageous, it doesn’t mean life is always “easy.”

Having stated that, I think about conversations about privilege I have with my colleagues, students, family, and strangers. I am usually met with the futility of the guilt that comes with these discussions, and the lack of an ability to see the both / and dynamic of privilege. I can only examine my own practices and hopefully reflect how to best use my privilege in constructive ways. At the very minimum I don’t want to abuse my privilege. This means while I’m abroad I work hard to try to learn and speak the native language. I try to be conscious of what I wear or have, knowing that I may or may not have income advantages that others do not. I try to listen, and learn, and frequent local establishments, and most importantly share what I’ve heard and seen so that people in my circle can appreciate the humanity of others.

If only we could do more of this at our local synagogues and mosques, government debates, cookouts and BBQs, or with the people with whom we have little in common. If only. Take time to a) do some work on what privilege is, b) think about the privilege(s) you have, and c) make a commitment to not abuse that privilege, and even better, to share it to uplift others.

Dr. Anthony

Heading East

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I last blogged. I’m going to do better. I find my blog let’s me make my thinking explicit: as much for myself as anyone else. It also serves as an important record of observations and experiences in my life. With that, I wanted to use my current trip to dive back in.

It’s been four years since my last trip to Europe. This time I’m spending time in Eastern Europe, starting in Berlin (via London) then to Vienna, and then in Slovakia over the next 10 days. This will prove a much needed opportunity to take stock of my own life and what I think I know, by immersing myself in the culture and land of others. I’ll continue to post through my trip with my ah-has, as I find traveling one of the greatest ways to discover yourself and the global community. I find it makes me a better man, dad, son, VP, leader, consultant, and citizen. I am blessed and privileged to be able to do this, so I hope what I write allows others to experience this vicariously through me, or it motivates them to book their next trip.

Dr. Anthony

Finding Harmony

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A friend and colleague said to me at a recent professional conference that she doesn’t believe in work-life balance, rather she looks for work-life harmony. If that didn’t capture exactly what I’ve been trying to say to students and other colleagues for so long, I don’t know what could! This is not a new concept, but one I’ve been trying to re-frame personally.

Then a few days later I read an article in Business Insider saying the exact same thing. The CEO of Amazon expresses some of these same sentiments. When you find your true calling and passion, it gets very difficult to turn work or life outside of work on and off. To try to do so is self-defeating.

The difference is not trivial. The clues are in the definitions and synonyms you find through a simple web search. Balance is about even distribution and equilibrium. It connotes impartiality. Harmony, meanwhile, is about agreement, combination, and even peace. What words would you rather choose or embrace related to the relationship between work and life? I really appreciated this author’s very personal and practical take on Balance vs. Harmony.

I’m curious how those of you reading this experience work-life harmony. Is there a real difference? What do you actually do to achieve harmony?

Whatever you feelings about this – know that it is OK that your work and non-work intersect. Embrace it; understand it is messy and sometimes confusing; and at the end of the day try to achieve harmony between the two. You spend so much time thinking about or doing work, it just seems to make sense that you seek harmony as opposed to some artificial sense of balance.

Dr. Anthony

The Power of My Black Hand

When I was an undergraduate at NC State University, I was a counselor for the African American Symposium, a per-orientation experience welcoming new undergrads to NC State and helping them get a strong positive start as an African American scholar. I hate I didn’t attend as a freshman myself. There is a poem by Lance Jeffers (1972) that was read to the incoming freshmen, and it gave me so much strength and sense of purpose and power. It helped that it was read by a legendary faculty member and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, Dr. Lawrence Clark. I had the opportunity to read this poem to a room full of students today, kicking off our African American Read-In at Rochester Community and Technical College. I am so blessed to have had people and experiences in my life to remind me of my own power. I hope this poem can remind you of yours. 
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Here Are Your Flowers

There is an old gospel song that says:

“Give me my flowers while I yet live; so that I can see the beauty they bring. Speak kind words to me while I can hear them; so that I can hear the comfort they bring.”

It is a touching song that laments how we often wait to give people praise, love, thoughts, and gratitude until it is way too late. At their funeral perhaps, or on their sick bed. I want to take this time as we enter a new year, to say I love you to so many of those in my circle – and I encourage you to do the same. I’m doing it here and will find ways to do it more. Hear me when I say that your love, encouragement, and influence make me who I am today – even though you may not know it. I love you and appreciate you more than I’ve told you! Here are your flowers.

Michael Anthony (Dad, son, brother, friend, colleague, teacher and mentor)

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*photo courtesy of proflowers.com

The Push Back

I don’t know about other leaders, managers, or supervisors out there, but I love to be challenged by members of my team. I call that “pushing back,” and I can think of no better way to come to really good decisions, while increasing  satisfaction in our work.

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I do my best work with the people around the table (who are highly trained and highly skilled) say…”but what if we did it this way,” or , “the concern I have is…,” or “let me offer a different direction,” or, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…” This sends a few important messages:

  1. They are listening. If they weren’t, they would have nothing to say.
  2. They care. If they didn’t, they would not bother offering feedback.
  3. They are smart. Not only do they listen and care, but they have the wherewithal to synthesize what I offered and transform it into something unique.

Maybe it is better, maybe its not; but without the push back, how would we ever truly  engage our teams. Almost as much as I value it in my team, I value it from my supervisor. My President in a recent conversation literally said, “go ahead, push back,” when we were discussing a recent staffing and space issue. First she noticed that I had something to offer, and that maybe it didn’t sync with what she was thinking. She invited the push back! I love it. Doing that for me sent a few important messages:

  1. She is not afraid or threatened by me. My intelligence, or energy, or ideas. A real leader is not scared of their subordinates, rather they embrace the challenge and input.
  2. She trusts me. She knows I care about my job and about our work. She knows what I have to offer is given from that solid foundation.
  3. She values me. Everyone loves to be affirmed and agreed with; that’s not leadership it’s human nature. Leadership is inviting feedback when you know it will fly in direct opposition to what you think, say or feel. That is true guts, and true leadership.

I have not always felt this in my work environments. Ask yourself, how often are you invited to push back? How often do you invite the push back? I invite you to put yourself in a place where your input and expertise is embraced, and to embrace the input and expertise of those around you. It’s good medicine, both in your personal and professional life.

Dr. Anthony