Missed Equity & The Authoritarian Approach to Fairness in Higher Ed

“The most effective justice and equity work in history has been led by the marginalized (see: South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, American Civil Rights Movement, etc.). Justice and equity work should be led by the marginalized — by those who have firsthand knowledge of the unjust systems that are in need of dismantling.”

Christena Cleveland, PhD.

Becoming Aware of Lip-Service to Multiculturalism in Higher Ed —

I recently interviewed for a Multicultural Post-Doctoral Fellow position with a research and teaching focus in sustainable food animal production. It was my first ever video-conference interview. The video interface made it difficult to judge my volume, because I tend to get very excited when discussing issues I am passionate about.

The search committee was seeking someone with:

“…understanding and commitment to bringing multicultural perspectives to the curriculum, research, teaching, and service, and promoting the success of those in underrepresented groups.”

For those that do not know me , I hold a Doctorate in Animal Sciences, a Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture, a Bachelor of Science concentrated in Human Nutrition, and was trained in a National Science Foundation IGERT designed to create a new generation of scientists who seamlessly integrate sustainability science for effective communication with public policy makers. During the last five years I did my best to elevate the voices of international students, students of color, students in the LGBTQ community, and individuals who are currently without permanent shelter.

And yet, I bombed the interview. I prepared to discuss all the energy and effort I put into helping students, both from a policy and an educational standpoint. I even recognized that two of the committee members use mixed or social science methods in their research. I hoped to engage those faculty members about the importance of incorporating stakeholder engagement methods in the classroom. But, the search committee only seemed to want specifics.

That is, how would I incorporate a multicultural perspective into my curriculum or research?

Rather than be bold, I stumbled and failed. In trying to directly answer their question I found myself doubting what I know to be true. I wanted to answer their question correctly, so I did not challenge their question. Yet, their question needs to be challenged.

Their question does not have a correct answer. Why?

Because multicultural student perspectives in higher education are a matter of equity. Equity denotes fairness, and fairness will be defined differently by every student including each multicultural student.

Thus, I cannot prescribe a multicultural perspective for my students to learn. Doing so would be far too authoritarian of an approach. The power structure of an authoritarian or prescriptive approach is inappropriate for incorporating multicultural perspectives, because there is no fixed position on what is determined as a multicultural perspective. For an educator to claim they can incorporate a multicultural perspective is to suggest they have the correct vantage point from which to judge both sameness and fairness.

Based on my cross-disciplinary training and experiences, the search committee is going about it the wrong way. There is no blanket prescription for addressing multicultural perspectives. Each class will have different backgrounds, different concerns, and different future interests. The committee asked the question as if there is one correct answer or solution, but there is not. There is only a process for which to engage multicultural students.

I believe the university and those faculty members on the committee want to address an inequitable higher education system. But, it was clear their solution was a prescriptive approach to a complex problem. Unfortunately, a prescriptive approach is the major approach by most Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) practitioners I encounter. A prescriptive or ‘we have the right answer’ approach is as narrow-minded as the solutions that led to inequity. Prescriptive approaches are no different than the approaches that created the oppression we are trying to dissolve, because they leave out “the other” from the discussion. Prescriptive approaches stifle diversity rather than allowing it to flourish. The process of participation, however, elevates the oppressed voice and empowers multicultural students to reach their potential.

Numbers to Support My Frustration —

I am sad that the committee’s questions showed they do not understand how powerful the relational component of the collaborative process is to furthering the success of underprivileged students. Maybe my sadness was more a feeling of frustration, because all the extracurricular energy and passion I put forth to fight for international students and undergraduate academic success was unrealized.

Students of color will only succeed when they are a part of their education — when they have a voice in how their education is designed. Multicultural student success is based on their education being a process not a prescription. And yet, not a single multicultural student was a member of the search committee.

The university seeking the Multicultural Post-Doctoral Fellow, like my graduate institution (Washington State University), is only graduating ~60% of their students of color at the 6-year mark and this percentage has not increased in proportion to the number of incoming students of color. Higher education institutions are failing to retain and graduate students of color more so than other students. The 40% of self-identifying minority students that are not graduating are saddled with debt, yet they have no degree and are therefore unemployable.

A Better, Process-oriented Approach —

I was fortunate to be apart of a cross-disciplinary research collaboration with colleagues in the communication and policy sciences. This collaborative effort led to the creation of a framework toward process-oriented decision-making for consensus-based management of “wicked” problems. The COMmunicating a MUltilateral Network for InclusiviTY and Management (COMMUNITY) framework encourages back-and-forth communication between all participants, rather than one directional control. In other words, the process of an inclusive dialogue takes place. As such, the COMMUNITY framework results in a common knowledge base among stakeholders allowing for equitable engagement for all stakeholders.

Equitable engagement for ALL.

Which means the space is created for students of color to discuss their concerns, interests, and needs within each course or potential research project.

Ultimately, a commitment to bringing multicultural perspectives to the curriculum, research, teaching, and service looks like:

1) actively listening and respecting diverse forms of knowledge,

2) amplifying the voices of vulnerable populations, and

3) helping to effectively remove barriers to scientific information within these groups.

A dedication to the work of justice and equity should not be judged by expert knowledge and professional successes in academia, but rather by a dedication to the selfless work of empowering and equipping marginalized students to better reach their potential.


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