Steps beyond declarations: presidential leadership in building a case for inclusive excellence
To say these are interesting times is an understatement. The confluence of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic upheavals, combined with the structural racism and ensuing racial tragedies that continue to plague our country, have created a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions highlighting the inequalities in our society . . Community college presidents are in the eye of this storm, and it is essential for us to demonstrate our commitment to eradicate racism and support social justice and, most importantly, to develop a strategy to effect reforms and achieve inclusive excellence.
In this brand new academic year, we must ask ourselves: how not only to brave this storm but to emerge stronger? It is not enough to embrace platitudes. Yes, statements are important, but we must go beyond them to be successful. They are the foundation on which we must build a culture of equity and inclusion. Structural racism is based on historic policies and practices and the resulting inequitable outcomes in economic wealth, health, education and life expectancy. Implicit biases – the unchallenged narratives and assumptions about historically marginalized students – are insidious and often overlooked by well-meaning people. We understand that the challenge is great, but the potential of our students is even greater.
To be clear, we are not talking about affirmative action or equal employment opportunity, altruism or undeserving achievement. We need to see bigger than that. To close equity gaps, community colleges must first provide a safe and welcoming environment, create strategic college-community partnerships, and leverage our organizational resources and collaborative leadership to ensure opportunities and fair outcomes for all of our students.
The key words here are Access â the opportunity to fully participate in campus life; Equity â fair and equitable outcomes so that all realize their full intellectual and professional potential; and Inclusion â a sense of individual or group belonging as valued members of campus life. With those words in mind, at Rockland Community College, we began to develop an action plan in June. âSteps Beyond Statementsâ is Rockland Community College’s commitment to life our value of social conscience.
Our first step was to establish a college task force to examine the legacy of diversity efforts led by the former college diversity committee to leverage their results to reflect current realities. The task force was tasked with developing a new college-wide plan with specific results that are measurable using key performance indicators that are to be reported on an equity scorecard. We conducted an in-depth survey of student diversity, and the data analyzed provided us with essential information that will serve as a guide for our ongoing activities.
In June, I hosted a Black Lives Matter roundtable with RCC students and alumni. Having these type of interviews leads to additional dialogue, generating new ideas and ways of thinking. The new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion followed this event, hosting a kick-off conversation with our faculty on inclusive and equitable teaching, titled Listen to learn and conversations to contribute. The program highlighted innovative strategies to engage all students as part of the Certificate Program on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Teaching and Learning at the SUNY Center for Professional Development. The aim of this program is to help professors and others involved in teaching and learning in higher education to develop new mindsets and strategies for more inclusive and equitable practices in classrooms and beyond. learning environments.
Our Connection Advisors and Student Engagement Teams have come together to create a space for the RCC community to have a voice and to suggest ways to make a difference when it comes to systemic injustices. RCC speaks is a space for students to share their thoughts, feelings, perspectives and suggestions through words, pictures and videos, on how to make a difference in our lives, on our campus and in our communities.
Whichever approach you decide to take in approaching equity-focused reforms on your campus, there are some things that should be essential to justify your argument. Institutions would benefit from demonstrating how equity-focused reform:
- Affirms the role of public higher education institutions in nation building
- Illustrates the unique educational and unifying roles of community colleges
- Uplift the mission, vision and values ââof the college
- Extends the college’s institutional overhaul efforts beyond the student experience
- Catalyzes campus-wide collaboration and engagement
Presidents must engage in this work with courage, conviction, compassion and confidence if we are to truly make equity-oriented reforms that will make a difference in our institutions. Declarations in favor of eradicating racism and supporting social justice are an essential first step for every organization, but action must follow so that progress can be real and change can be tangible. We believe our âsteps beyond declaringâ will lead to a more equitable experience for our students, faculty and staff. Community colleges have always been the colleges of democracy, offering a glimmer of hope to those striving to improve their lives. Now we have the opportunity to be a shining beacon for many others who will look to us to keep the ladder steady and allow them to climb higher.
Finally, I would say that it is our fundamental obligation to ensure that history looks at this perfect storm and finds that community colleges were on the front lines in ensuring that we emerge into a better and more equitable world.
Dr. Michael A. Baston is the President of Rockland Community College.