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

Go and Do

As the world is continually made smaller through social media, I find some of us are lulled into thinking we “know” people and things because we read a post about it. Or that we are somehow worldly because we have a few friends in international places. My challenge for you is to go further in 2017. Do not hide in your own neighborhoods, with your own friends. I can think of no more important message than this: go places, and do things.

This is the way the world can be made safer – this is how we begin to dismantle hate and bias. No class or workshop will fully teach you how to value others – only your relationship with others can do that. Despite what you may hear from the highest political leaders in our land, the path to peace and happiness is through embracing differences, not hiding from them or sending them away. Here are some tips to get started and get the most out of your “going and doing”:

  1. Locate a place that is “culturally” different from you (e.g., another part of town, another city/state/country, a place of worship where no one talks or looks like you, etc.). Notice these don’t require a lot of money to do this. Of course maybe you do have resources to spare and do want to travel across the world – that is good too.
  2. Before you go, read something (objective/academic) about where you are going. This will help you a great deal in appreciating the “going and doing.” This means you look outside of the popular news media to gain understanding.
  3. Tell people about it! You never know who may want to help you get there, go with you, or have experience in that culture. Share what your going and doing goals are so we can support you!
  4. Meet someone while there and exchange information with them. Follow up with them on a regular basis. Wanna know how to lead and follow in diverse environments? Build relationships with people different from yourself – you’ll be forever changed:)
  5. Write about it. Don’t let the feelings, the ah-ha’s, the anxieties escape you. John Maxwell said that reflection is like the crock pot of the mind – let the thoughts simmer until they are ready. You have to capture those moments if you are ever to make meaning of them.

Now share this with people you care about, and set out to do it!

Give…because you got it

Gifts

I recently visited a friend’s church in Chicago, and during service they talked about tithing. Now if you go to church you are already side-eyeing this whole conversation – you know what I mean, but stick with me. If you don’t go to church/mosque/synagogue you may be inclined to stop reading as well – that’s OK, but I think what I’m about say is beyond religious babbling, rather its a principle that shows itself true over and over: giving is good, and worth it.

I decided to “step out on faith”on that day and give – and in doing so I was literally saved from a situation I wasn’t able to handle. I’ve also recently joined a non-profit board, not really having as much time as I want for other things now, and not knowing how it would turn out. Without going into too many specifics for either situation, my faith this time showed itself true. I say “this time” because stepping out on faith is not like rubbing a genie and getting what you want. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. But faith simultaneously allows me to know that whatever the outcome, I’ll be OK. I think about this in the service I do, both within my region and across the world. I also think about it academically as one who studies leadership and its purposes. In fact an entire philosophy of leadership is driven by the believe that leaders should first be servants, and through serving improve the world, community, and individuals. More about Robert Greenleaf and his seminal work on the topic can be found here: https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.

This is not a new principle, but I think its one we have to remember, and reframe. At least I did. I think it is easiest to hear and do this in times of abundance and good times, but we miss something when we do that. You see, biblically speaking, the first “tithe” was given by the father of all Abrahamic religions (Abraham) after he had seen a victory over his enemies. There was no need to give first in order to get something in return. If we think about our own lives, treasures, time and talents, we must think about all that we have already. Whether by your own hard work, by family, or by some other means, we all have something to give. Take what you have been given, and give it back. Not in anticipation of anything in particular, but because you have it to give. Whether the giving is financial, spiritual, with your time, or with your talents; give…because you got it.

Sweat the Small Stuff

LittleThings

Much of my life I have heard the phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Usually that is followed by “and everything is small stuff.” I lived by that quote for much of my life – using it to help me get through, over, and past my disappointments with myself and others. I used it when doing my professional work, realizing that there is always something bigger, badder, and worse that could have been happening. Lately however, I’ve begun to realize that the “small stuff” may mean more than I once believed.

Many of you reading this may have heard of the term microaggresions. If not, google it. These fall under the larger rubric of a micro-insults. They are a form of oppression so small and so slight, that it often goes unnoticed by the person using them. Like a paper cut, to the hearer, they very much so hurt – despite their size or the intention of those using them. Enough of them can cause a tremendous amount of lasting pain. This is often the “small stuff” that many are asked to not sweat. But that’s not really fair is it? I think we need to shift to sweating that small stuff very much, and the people who are subject to those slights should do the same.

The way I see it, if it is indeed that small, perhaps it should be easy to shift our language and behavior a bit to make someone feel like they belong, and that they matter. 

I also want to extend this conversation to the “small stuff” we see physically around our campuses that may lead people or communities to feel that they don’t matter. As I visit campuses across the country and indeed my own campus, I wonder how small changes to the environment can go a long way in helping the community feel pride and joy about the space they call home for much of the day. A fresh coat of paint here, a new sign there, a deep cleaning of this area. Some would argue, “but we have so many other big things to worry about.” And to that I would simply respond; then this should be easy! Like the great coach said in the quote above, the little details are vital. In what we say, how we present ourselves to our community, and what we do and do not do; it all matters. Just think about the big things you can make happen once you start attending to the small details I’ve mentioned in this post. People who feel valued do more and better work, people who have pride and joy in their work and learning environment are happier and more productive. I think that’s worth sweating the small stuff.

Pray and Do

In my meditation this morning I was reminded about my own role in fighting for justice. Praying for peace and justice is necessary, as the prophet Habakkuk did: 

“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”

‭‭Habakkuk‬ ‭1:2-4‬ ‭NIV‬‬

http://bible.com/111/hab.1.2-4.niv

But we can’t forget our role. To use our gifts to fight the good fight. Despite my own fatigue as of late I recommit to being an advocate for justice. And beyond advocating, fighting for it. 

Ritual, Innovation, and Change

Friday May 22 and Saturday May 23

Blogging at the end of the night is impossible when my nights end late, which they did on both Friday and Saturday. Friday ended with these now regular chat with Sandra and Jerome over some wine and light snacks. I’m in love with the rituals this family keeps, and am taking notes as I think about how to be a better host. Rituals, like traditions, create a sense of belonging and purpose. A lesson for all of us is the power in daily routines to help us center ourselves, reflect, and prepare for the next day. With a child of my own I’ve learned to appreciate the power of routines. It is vital for her health and well-being. Of course once we get older we seem to drop our routines, and because we are so “busy” we accept the chaos that comes with everyday. I am going to think about my routines more at home and work – which ones are healthy and which ones should I ditch. Oh, and I saw a hedgehog! A real life, in the “flesh” hedgehog. I told my hosts that I’ve never seen one outside of a zoo – and never thought about why. But as it was crawling around their back porch I looked them up on the internet and found out they are not indigenous to the U.S. So there you have it – a hedgehog.

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A hedgehog – on the back porch!

I did have an opportunity to sit with two more staff members at the ROC Sports College in Amersfoort. One of those men was Bas (Sebastian), who was the Director of the college. He is equivalent to a Dean in the U.S., and he is responsible for reporting to the Chairman of the ROC and managing the affairs of the college. He actually started the Sports College almost 10 years ago, along with others I’ve met, including Jerome, of whom Bas speaks very highly. I learned more about the higher education system, and with each meeting I learn something new, gain clarity, and lose some as well! Understanding all of this takes time, and will take more time even after this exchange to get my head around. Bas and others started the college, so I began to think about how at Oakton we have some who have started the college 46 years ago still exerting influence in the college. There are others who have been there a really long time. I think how hard it is to change something that you’ve been so immersed in since the beginning. Part of my interest in doing this exchange is to examine how higher ed is administered, how the organizations are structured, who leaders are and how they lead, and how change is managed. When asked about how change is perceived and managed here, Bas commented that they were excited about change. At least within the Sports College change is welcome as a new opportunity from what I can tell, and because of the involvement of the teachers and others in the execution of change, there seems to be buy-in early in the process.

I mentioned in a previous post about the involvement and care of the teachers. After speaking with the Director, it seems that the teachers’ involvement is encouraged and insisted upon from the highest level of the organization. The teachers and other staff are the decision makers. Yes, the Director gives the larger goal to achieve, but all the details of how that will happen flows up from the rank and file. In fact, the Director said “my dilemma in leadership is to not interfere with how the team achieves its goals.” There is an inherent and well-earned trust among this team, one that lacks in some of the spaces where I work. I believe I can do better to develop trust in those around me, and also trust the people around me more. This trust-building process takes time. Time that we often sacrifice in the name of efficiency and “getting things done,” while in fact our ability to get things done is compromised by our lack of relationship building. I tell my students this all the time – but alas, I don’t always practice it.

There is an “Invocation and Education” team that I have to find a way to model at Oakton. It is something I have thought about a lot in terms of how we institutionalize creative problem solving using the talent within our division. This team is designed to do that for the Sports College. New ideas and ways to approach problems are discussed in this group, and the ideas can be generated from his group as well. At the end of the day you have well vetted ideas and solutions that can be attempted. I need to learn more about this team as I think how to apply the concept back home. I hope to see more people take ownership in the affairs of the College at all levels. I think that is missing – it’s my role as an institutional leader to create space for that culture to emerge.

Saturday was my triumphant return to Amsterdam! Very good day. Lots of walking and lots of sight-seeing (unstructured),

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the Amsterdam Dungeon,

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a canal tour,

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and some good drinks at Irish pubs and a steakhouse. The pictures say more than I can say – but it was a great day. Today is my day off – I won’t blog tomorrow about today as I’m mostly going to be at the house until dinner tonight with the family.

Don’t Worry

I have this bit of advice to share for all you new graduates – and some of us older graduates too:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
~Matthew 6:34 NIV

dont_worry-177931Whether you are particularly religious or not, whether you are Christian or not, my hope is that you can see the wisdom in those words. I’m actually practicing doing this more myself. In higher education, particularly leadership education within higher ed, we always implore people to be present. Part of the reason people are not present is because they are distracted. And many people are distracted not by technology but by their own worry and stress about tomorrow. This scripture reminds us of two important facts. One, tomorrow will worry about itself. And two, there are too many troubles to deal with today to be worrying about tomorrow.

So as you start off in your new careers, particularly in higher ed, remember that balance starts with realizing that for today, focus on dealing with today. Today really needs you. The students in front of you, the meeting you’re in, the program you’re planning. Those are problems for today. And as I always say to those in my workplace – that other stuff…that’s a tomorrow problem.

Dr. Anthony