Summer Institute convenes 28 colleges working toward a more equitable future

Twenty-eight colleges and universities from around the nation recently gathered virtually for the Summer Institute on Equity in the Academic Experience. This year, Xavier University of Louisiana—the nation’s only Catholic historically black college—joined Georgetown University and the University of Texas at Austin as co-hosts with the American Talent Initiative (ATI). Georgetown is a founding member of ATI, which brings top colleges and universities together with the philanthropy and research communities to expand access and opportunity for talented low- and moderate-income students.

Building on a model established in 2019 and work that continued throughout 2020, the 2021 Institute, held June 21-23, extended the invitation to participate beyond members of ATI. It attracted a diverse array of small and large private and public institutions, including six historically Black colleges and universities.

Related: What does the future of equitable higher education look like? 18 schools come to Georgetown to develop answers. >

Lessons from unprecedented disruption and extraordinary adaptation

Event organizers were mindful of the moment, recognizing that the year 2020 brought unprecedented disruption and extraordinary adaptation for many institutions—change that will shape higher education for decades to come. “We have the opportunity to leverage what we have learned amid the pain and loss of this past year to imagine and commit to a deeper transformation of higher education than we thought possible a year ago,” said Georgetown Associate Professor Heidi Elmendorf, who co-chaired the Institute and serves as director of the Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education.

With this context, the planning team sought to design an event that would foster a strong supportive community, bringing together voices from across higher education to find common ground and understand differences. “The Summer Institute presented an invaluable opportunity for ATI members to come together with colleagues at a variety of institutions, including HBCUs, and forge new and authentic connections,” said Emily Schwartz, ATI program manager.

The agenda included plenary talks, panel presentations, team work and cross-team mentoring, and structured work time for participating institutional teams to advance their specific projects and seek expert advice.

“The program was designed to provide both ideas and support to help institutions think innovatively and strategically,” said Georgetown English Professor Randy Bass, who co-chaired the event and serves as vice president for strategic education initiatives and director of the Red House and Baker Trust for Transformative Education. “We wanted participants to come with a problem and leave with a project.”

Thinking big-picture about equity, justice, and innovation

The three-day program, offered at no cost to participating institutions thanks to the generosity of ATI, included 48 speakers and three all-institute “provocations” on topics such as the intersection of equity and innovation, curriculum and campus transformation for equity and justice, and the future of postsecondary education.

In her opening provocation session Dr. Isis Artze-Vega, vice president for academic affairs at Valencia College in Miami, described the symbiotic relationship between equity and innovation. Her provocation challenged participants to approach equity efforts with authenticity, humility, and curiosity, along with consciousness of identity and race. She called on attendees to aim for depth and concreteness in their equity problem, challenge, or opportunity and to “bring the same spirit of urgency, possibility, and care” that has characterized their pandemic response to their equity work both at the Institute and back to their home campuses.

In the second provocation, Dr. Kathy Powers, associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, challenged participants to honor trauma and take an active role in building equitable campus cultures. Dr. Powers echoed Artze-Vega in underscoring the importance of humility and curiosity, sharing her own experience and highlighting the importance of spaces, both within the classroom and beyond its walls, in the process of finding truth and reconciliation.

Georgetown’s commitment to educational equity was reflected in the participation of administrators, faculty, and staff as panelists and provocateurs, including:

Panels build community, highlight diverse perspectives

The program was designed to help campuses develop an integrated and agile approach to institutional change as they work toward a future in which diverse and inclusive institutions support a holistic definition of student success.

The event included 18 panels across six distinct themes, all focused on providing participants with new perspectives and ideas to inform and advance equity work on their own campuses:

  1. Storytelling through Data to Address Equity Gaps
  2. Systems Thinking: Addressing Access, Costs, and Quality Collectively
  3. Curricular Change for Transformational Impact
  4. Building an Equitable Campus Culture: Engaging Faculty, Staff in Strategies for Sustained Change
  5. Equity and Student Success Post-Pandemic
  6. Building an Ecosystem: Strengthening Connections & Networks Among Diverse Institutions

Panels were designed to offer a diversity of voices and generate deep and meaningful thought into framing and defining issues. Carmina Sanchez-del-Valle of Hampton University reported that the institute provided an “opportunity to be exposed to different perspectives that are shaped by institutional context, state requirements, and demographics.”

Setting course for the foreseeable future

The three days concluded with a final provocation and lively discussion on “The Foreseeable Future of Postsecondary Education and Training.” In the presentation, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, gave a macro-level view of the larger systemic forces that make equity work so difficult—and so urgent.

Saying that educational inequity and stratification in higher education are “bred in the bone,” Carnevale highlighted several opportunities to address injustice—including expanding opportunities for community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, requiring public four-year colleges to ensure that at least 20 percent of their third-year classes are transfer students, and increasing transparency about career outcomes to ensure that graduates are flourishing economically and able to “live fully in their time.”

Three days of rich dialogue

Reflecting on this year’s Institute, Adanna J. Johnson emphasized the significance of having “a conversation that was more bidirectional in respect for knowledge from our HBCU, HSI, and MSI colleagues’ perspectives on fostering access, equity, and inclusivity for first-generation, low-income students.” Having those institutions’ “foundational and phenomenal work in fostering student success across socioeconomic and educational backgrounds” represented at the event “made for a richer dialogue rooted in historical, social, and political context,” she said.

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