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Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders

In 2020, we saw civil unrest, protest, acts of state-sanctioned violence, natural and manmade calamity, and the exponential growth of the wealth gap. That year brought increased awareness about the continued disregard for Black life: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others were murdered by those who were supposed to make our communities safer. At the same time, COVID-19 illuminated the health disparities that exist between Black, Indigenous, and other Peoples of Color (BIPOC) and white Americans.

In higher education, racially minoritized students were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 precisely because poverty is a comorbidity for most diseases and illnesses,1 and racially minoritized peoples are disproportionately impacted by poverty.2 Of course, these realities predate 2020 — in some cases by centuries — but 2020 serves as a microcosmic example of the realities that racially minoritized and poverty-affected students are forced to navigate in our schools and in our society. This point is made clear by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which reports that post-secondary enrollments declined across all racial categories in Spring 2021, but losses were greatest among Black and Indigenous students.3

This country and its systems are inherently anti-Black and anti-BIPOC, because they were founded and predicated upon a racialized, capitalistic value system that assigns more value to white lives than non-white lives.4 This includes our educational system, which is designed to work in the interest of affirming, standardizing, and promulgating whiteness and, by default, white supremacy.5

Deficit thinking yields the conclusion that the academic struggles of racially minoritized and poverty-affected students are attributable to innate scholastic deficiencies. But a systems view makes it clear that these struggles are because brilliant, talented students are forced to navigate educational terrains laden with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These “equity gaps’’ are antithetical to the scholastic success of racially minoritized and poverty-affected students. The system of higher education is inequitable by design, and therefore, must be redesigned for equity.

Simply leveling the playing field — creating “equality” — won’t do. Equality is achieved when everyone has the same thing, irrespective of their specific needs (or lack thereof). This is very different from equity, though the two concepts are often confused or conflated. Equity is achieved when the varied needs of people are considered when developing programming, policies, and pedagogies. While equality is often deployed in the interests of placation and pacification, equity is deployed in the interest of empowerment for traditionally disempowered peoples.

A systems approach to centering justice — in the interest of equity-advancing work — is the responsibility of the entire campus community, not just individual instructors making choices around their own teaching. Equity-advancing work demands a change in systems and culture, which is a collaborative effort, not an individual one. It calls for the demystification and deconstruction of systemic inequities. This work shapes policies, course offerings, assessments of learning, and curricular content. And finally, it supersedes checklists full of superficial changes.

Getting Started With Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders has a very specific purpose, which is to serve as a first step for department chairs to develop and curate an educational environment that is simultaneously justice-centered and equity-advancing. To achieve this goal, department chairs must work to foment a culture where:

  • An intersectional analysis of race, gender, power, capital, etc., is championed.
  • Critical practices that are equity-advancing, liberatory, and justice-centered are implemented.
  • Educators are encouraged to enter into, or go deeper in, work that holds the potential to disrupt deeply-entrenched macrostructural inequity in higher education.6, 7

We do not contend that this is the guide for educators committed to equity-advancing work; there are many worthwhile resources and tools that illuminate and recommend best practices for equity in higher education. It is not a comprehensive handbook, but a place to start having conversations around how academic departments can work toward equity and justice in their curricula and teaching.

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