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

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.

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.

IMG_5635
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),

IMG_5670 IMG_5673 IMG_5655IMG_5713 IMG_5715 IMG_5716 IMG_5719 IMG_5721 IMG_5730 IMG_5731 IMG_5733 IMG_5734

the Amsterdam Dungeon,

IMG_566611009343_10102839945119240_7815485386352709469_n11329865_10102839945084310_5282223871617415509_nIMG_5669 IMG_5668 IMG_5667

a canal tour,

IMG_5675 IMG_5678 IMG_5680 IMG_5688 IMG_5679 IMG_5694 IMG_5699 IMG_5698

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.

The Community College

Having “officially” worked in the two-year / community college space for just over a year now, I want to re-affirm my total faith in these institutions, and hope to help others gain or renew their appreciation for what they do and can do. Instead of talking about attending them though, I wanted to share this great article from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Rob Jenkins. For my colleagues, students, future students, etc. thinking about teaching – you really need to read this. I am thinking of a companion piece about working as an administrator in two-year colleges. I think it is equally awarding, particularly for those talented Student Affairs folks out there. Happy reading, and share your thoughts!

Why You Should Consider Community Colleges: http://shar.es/9wxLL