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

Finding Your Genius

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Einstein

This quote (and that picture) gives me chills. We are nearing the end of the first month of a new year. Students are settling into new semesters, and some folks are settling into new jobs and/or resolutions.

I’m going to give you the some advice I was sharing with two student leaders earlier this month on a trip to the Twin Cities. In talking about their future goals, I wondered if they and other knew how much I love what I do? I literally make a good living AND live my passion. So often people assume those are mutually exclusive goals. I have heard students say, “I love playing piano and making music, but I’m going to medical school – I have to make money somehow!” Or I love this one…”I’ll go be a business person and make a lot of money, then I’ll do what I want to do.” I have an idea; what you should do is sell that time machine you have. You know, the one that gives you the foresight that you will be alive long enough to spend your whole life working, and then “do what you really want to do.” Let me suggest that you don’t have time for that. None of us do. And what happens in the midst of foregoing your true talent, passion, and genius? You get beat down, worn out, and spend your entire life trying to climb a tree, when you were meant to swim.

There are philosophers studying engineering; engineers studying psychology; great architects studying to be economists; and business women studying pre-med. There is something to be said about being “well-rounded,” but I personally believe, as do the authors of the StrengthsQuest works, that the best of the best leaders and professionals are not well-rounded, they are sharp. They know that they are fish, and they swim better than the rest. They reject the belief that what they did well in high school (an infinitesimally small moment in time) or in some random summer camp has set their path in stone. The best of us are explorers, willing to take risks on themselves to find and live their true genius.

Going into this new semester, or job, or experience, know that it is a new day. Life is too short, and life is too long to live it out of your purpose.

Stop.

Ask yourself if you are pursuing what you know you should doing. Either affirm that and be excellent, or stop the madness, and go be who you are called to be.

You Are Stronger Than You Think

Image

I want to slightly modify and repost something I wrote a few years ago. I think it’s important to share a quote that resonates when doing tough work. Tough work in these times is sometimes just living. Such death in the world, and uncertainty, and fear. Politically things are uncertain (which is always the case with a change in new leadership), but in particular on the tail of such a vitriolic election campaign. It is also the start of a new year, and in my world students prepare to start a tough new semester on their road to commencement. This comes with its own fear and anxiety. Facing uncertainty, being afraid and unsure of yourself can be debilitating, even for the most accomplished of us. So these words are for you:

“I can be changed by what happens to me. I refuse to be reduced by it. In the face of such uncertainty believe in these two things – you are stronger than you think, and you are not alone.”

~Maya Angelou

What the master poet Maya Angelou reminds us, is that we can do so much more than we think. And that if we just take a moment to look around, there is help everywhere. So despite your anxiety and fear right now – take some ownership in your great strength, and take a moment to count (literally count) your blessings and friends. If you are short in the “true friends” category, then it’s time to make some new ones. In the meantime lean on me and others like me to be a sounding board and word of encouragement as you transition yet again from one chapter to the next. Take care people, of yourself and each other, and never forget your own strength.

Y-Of-U

Purpose

I had an amazing opportunity to speak with a group of student leaders at DePaul University over this past weekend. I spoke with them about finding their “why” and what they should be doing/thinking at this phase in their life to do that. It is a message I have valued and personally held close for a while now, and I find myself continuing to refine how I talk about it.

In short, finding our why is about creating habits that position us to learn about ourselves, create and sustain powerful relationships, and pay attention to both small and large choices we make. Finding our why is also about not focusing on the “what” we do (or degree we earn, or the job we have). Those things are how we do our why, but definitely not the why itself. Finding our way is a discipline – one that requires commitment throughout life – not just through college, or the military, or parenthood. This is how people can live full, rich lives across a number of jobs and experiences. They know their why, and so how they live their why takes so many shapes. I believe I know my why, and it feels amazing. I want that for everyone.

Yesterday a member of our team at my college shared this powerful post. It is good – and says what I know to be true so clearly. Thank you for sharing my friend, and I hope it helps clarify how others can find their why.

Read post Everyday Calls HERE.

Dr. Anthony

Rights and Responsibilities

RightsAs I meditated this morning I came across a scripture, 1 Corinthians 10:23 and 24 that reads,

“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.(NIV)

In my daily work as a chief diversity/inclusion and senior student affairs officer at a public institution, the notion of rights and responsibilities is always on my mind. In our world, and in the United States in particular, we use our rights as a hammer and permission to do whatever we want. The debate about gun control, also relevant to college campuses, is one such example. The right to be be biased, or hate, is another. This scripture, Christian in its context but clearly applicable to us all regardless of our beliefs, states some obvious facts, “not everything is beneficial” and “not everything is constructive.” It applies standards to our rights, and asks us to ask if what I will do will add value to others, or should I do it just because I can. And notice these standards are not simply “good or bad,” those are too simplistic. Beneficial and constructive is the goal. I have the right to buy an AK-47, but is that beneficial (literally: favorable or advantageous; resulting in good.) I have the right to use most any names I want to refer to someone else, but is it constructive (literally: serving a useful purpose; tending to build up.)

As individuals we have rights, as a community we have responsibilities. The whole thing we call civilization falls apart if we don’t keep that in mind, and remind others to do the same.

Prounouns and Posture

The Situation

This latest action taken at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is so outrageous it warranted a blog post. Please read Fear of Pronouns before reading on…I need to make a few large points about what I consider the most important aspect of being “diverse and inclusive.”

Diversity and Inclusion

When I ask my institution, friends, family, and perfect strangers to be “diverse and inclusive,” it is not a static request. Being diverse and inclusive is not a destination, or a place in which one simply finds him/her/their self at a moment in time. Rather, it is a dynamic state of being, one in which you posture yourself such that you allow difference in language, being, understanding, and meaning each and every day. It takes work,and consideration from each of us, every day. I would go as far to say it is a discipline, not just a course. Like leadership, it takes practice and intentionality to get it right. I’ve come to learn that you can never be “done” with this work. By definition there will be some other way of being or knowing that emerges from either scholarship or the lived experience, that challenges us to think differently (diversely) about people, places, and things. Thus my call for a posture that we must take. As the outfielder postures him/her/their self to be ready for whatever may come, so must we posture ourselves. If that posture is needed in a game, how much more is needed in life? Statements such as the one below smack of exclusion, status quo, and the need for things to stay the same.

“That has the appearance of neutrality, but it is not neutral. It is not neutral because it does not say that men should be called by masculine pronouns and women should be called by feminine pronouns, which has always been the unwritten standard in our country,” ~ Family Action Council of Tennessee

This confuses me.Was it not the stated point of this guide – to assert that the “unwritten standard” is no longer appropriate? Have we not made other changes to language, pronouns, customs, and names because of changes in society? I’m pretty sure we have – as we don’t called Black people colored anymore, and it’s no longer acceptable to call women (or anyone) dames and broads in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter). Even assuming “Mrs.” as a title is no longer appropriate. The quote above is anathema to diversity and inclusion.

Gender PronounsDon’t Tell Me What To Do

At the core of so much of the backlash around topics such as this is the strong belief from dominant* cultures that “you can’t tell me what to do!;” in particular when it comes to language, change, and making space for others to be who they are. I honestly believe that’s why non-Black individuals hate when they “can’t” say n***er, or other in-group words used by some cultures. The outrage is not because there is no real utility in the word, or that they even want to say it. It’s that they can’t; and some of those individuals aren’t used to being told no. It is un-American. I can say what I want. But many of us in this country can’t say what we want. Can’t do what we want. Some of us can’t even be who we are without serious consequences.

What is most perverse about this double-standard is that it uses the language of the oppressed to find its strength. Think about that. Oppression – the very thing that creates a need for a guide like the one at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is the very same thing dominant cultures also use to say that they are somehow threatened or being mistreated. The very language of the White Power movement and similar hate movements is one of “we want our country back,” or “we are being wiped out,” or “stop censoring me.” Well there are others who feel they want their country back too (i.e., Native and indigenous populations) and who feel they are being wiped out (i.e., Black and brown and trans people) but their attempts to stand up and fight against that is met with hostility, lies, and #alllivesmatter. People lack an ability to really hear and see the “other” in our country. People lack the ability to make space for people to redefine what is our America. Not only do they lack the ability – they use everything in their power to undermine the good efforts of those trying to widen the circle. They actively sabotage the efforts.

You want to know how supremacy and privilege works – just look to the Volunteer State.

A guide;

put on the office of diversity website;

to help people know how to better include people who have been systematically excluded or ignored or killed;

to make them feel more comfortable;

at an institution of higher education;

was ordered taken down by highest chief executive of the system;

because of pressure from the State Legislature…

That’s power. That’s frightening. That’s a problem. If you don’t agree – look HERE at the site before it was taken down. The language is welcoming, instructive, and in no way mandating anything. Was this really worth the threats and attention from the legislature? This is Tennessee’s biggest problem? This is the University’s biggest concern?

What Can You Do

  1. Educate yourself on the “others.” Whoever they may be to you. You can’t care about something/someone you don’t know or understand.
  1. Get to know an “other.” I mean really get to know that person. You can’t care about something/someone you don’t know or understand. No I didn’t make a mistake by repeating that.
  1. Share your outrage about this – or engage folks in dialogue about why you should be outraged – not over social media. You need a face-to-face for this one. If you don’t know anyone – see #2 above.
  1. Challenge others to do #1 and #2. I am convinced this is the start of any healing or progress.

#translivesmatter #blacklivesmatter

*in the U.S., dominant culture = white, male, Christian, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, English speaking, middle-upper income, to name a few.

Dr. Anthony