In November 2016, Evergreen’s Equity and Inclusion Council released its 2016-2017 Strategic Equity Plan. The central commitment in the plan is to “substantially improve the experiences of underserved students on our campus so that we close equity gaps in student learning and student success.” Strategic plans don’t necessarily lead to change but this one has great promise because it links two big ways to think about equity–what Estela Mara Bensimon from the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California describes as representational equity and resource equity.
Representational equity is the kind of equity most people are familiar with. It means we want the student body and the faculty of our colleges and university to be representative of the general population. When the Black Liberation Collective, an international group of black students working across more than eighty campuses, demands that “at the minimum, Black students and Black faculty (to) be reflected by the national percentage of Black folk in the state and the country,” they are demanding representational equity.
Part of the challenge in achieving representational equity, ironically, lies in the fact that it doesn’t exist yet. For example, as the table below shows, while whites make up 72.4% of the population in the US, they make up 74.3% of those earning PhD or equivalent degrees in the 2009-2010. Whites are slightly overrepresented in degree earning at that level, and even more overrepresented in terms of holding full-time faculty positions (84%).
In contrast, Black/African Americans make up 12.6% of the US population, but they are underrepresented in terms of bachelor degrees awarded (10%) and even more underrepresented in PhD or equivalent degrees awarded, at 7.4%. In terms of faculty representation, Black/African Americans continue to be underrepresented, holding only 4% of full-time faculty positions.
The underrepresentation of Hispanics in higher education is even more pronounced. While Hispanics constitute 16.3% of the US population, they earned only 8.8% of bachelor degrees, and only 5.8% of PhD or equivalent degrees. Hispanics too are underrepresented in terms of faculty positions, holding only 3% of full-time positions.
Table: the numbers behind representational equity
|Associate’s degrees 09-10||Bachelor’s degrees|
|American Indian/Alaska Native||.2%||.6%||.8%||.6%||.7%||<1%|
Sources: Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010, 2010 U.S. Census Briefs; Degrees conferred by sex and race, National Center for Education Statistics; Race/ethnicity of college faculty, National Center for Education Statistics.
Hiring and retaining a representative faculty is an important goal. However, given the underrepresentation of Black/African Americans and Hispanics earlier on in the higher education system—beginning with bachelor degree earners—change efforts need to start sooner.
That’s where resource equity comes in. Resource equity provides the resources necessary for students to succeed. In contrast to an equal distribution of resources, where each student gets the same set of opportunities, an equitable distribution of resources means that students who need more resources to succeed get them. A student returning to college after working in a job that required no formal mathematics may need more one-on-one tutoring sessions than a student who is coming directly from a high school calculus sequence, and they get them. The critical principles are recognizing what students need to succeed, and then finding ways to provide those resources. The Equity and Inclusion Council is proposing Evergreen make that commitment—and that’s where there’s likely to be push back.
Historically, Evergreen’s educational philosophy has been grounded in a commitment to freedom—for students to design their educations, and for faculty to design courses and programs with their colleagues based on their own criteria. This Equity Strategic Plan commits faculty to figuring out how to make sure, as a collective body, students have sufficient opportunities to develop a common set of skills and abilities that transcend specific fields of study. From another perspective, the Equity Strategic Plan calls on faculty to take up the work of teaching effectively in a deliberate way, where teaching effectiveness is inextricably tied to student learning.
This represents a paradigm shift. For instance, Evergreen expects all of its graduates to communicate clearly and effectively. All faculty at the college are expected to teach writing in their programs, and most report on annual surveys that they do so. Yet, in an assessment of student writing conducted in January 2016, only a third of the samples were considered to be successful. Faculty may be teaching writing, but students aren’t demonstrating the ability to write effectively, at least in this assessment. The resource equity paradigm flips the discussion so the question is no longer whether faculty teach writing, but rather whether students have learned to become strong writers. To the extent that students haven’t developed that skill, faculty have more work to do creating appropriate and sufficient learning opportunities.
Some faculty have already raised objections, claiming that gaps in student learning are the result of students not doing their work. To support that claim, however, faculty would need to demonstrate how they are providing opportunities for students to learn, and then show how students were refusing to take advantage of those opportunities. A more productive outcome of this new Equity Strategic Plan would be conversations among faculty about how to create better and more frequent learning opportunities for students—in other words, how to teach more effectively.
The process of implementing the equity plan has yet to be worked out, and it will surely continue to generate conversation and controversy. Nonetheless, the new Equity Plan, endorsed by President Bridges and other members of the senior staff, marks a turning point for Evergreen in terms of making a commitment to insuring that all students, particularly students from historically underrepresented groups, have access to high quality learning opportunities.
Emily Lardner directs the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education at Evergreen, and serves on the Equity and Inclusion Council.