Working to Close Equity Gaps in the CSU: Interviews with Dr. William Franklin and Dr. J. Luke Wood

December 2018

This is the first in a series of blogs by the CSU Student Success Network to share information about efforts to eliminate equity gaps in the CSU. For this blog, I spoke separately with two leaders in higher education who have dedicated their professional lives to understanding and addressing equity issues. Dr. William Franklin is vice president for student affairs at CSU Dominguez Hills. He currently spearheads a mentoring program for African American and Latino young men called the Male Success Alliance. Dr. J. Luke Wood is associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion and distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University. He also serves as co-director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab.

This blog explores the broad context for and some current issues associated with equity work in the CSU. Dr. Franklin shares his perspectives on making campuses student-ready, following where the data lead, and ensuring that students are at the table. Dr. Wood discusses the importance of professional development, coordinating across campus functions, gathering and sharing qualitative data, and creating a campus equity council. Future blogs will examine in greater detail efforts by CSU campuses to close equity gaps.

Thad Nodine: How do you define equity in your work?

William Franklin: Equity work has to include a deep understanding of students: Who are we admitting to our university? What courses do they need? How do we help them complete their educational goals in four, five, or six years? What data do we need to understand how well they’re doing? That’s what our work has always entailed, helping all students attain a college education. But equity work also requires us to ask some additional questions. For instance, we have developed many indicators of student readiness, but we have not asked: What are the indicators of our campus’s readiness to help all our students achieve degrees? How ready are we—in advising, in academic programs, or in financial aid—for the students we have admitted? We need to build programs, policies, and metrics that show we’re ready for the students we’re serving.

Luke Wood: Equity work in higher education involves a heightened focus on groups that experience disproportionate impact. That is, when the outcomes of a group’s experiences are disaggregated, are they different than those of their peers? For CSU campuses, the outcomes could involve faculty retention or promotion, student progression or attainment, or outcomes in the labor market. For example, we need to look at the aggregate performance of undergraduates on a campus, and then look at race, gender, and the intersection of the two. And then we need to consider strategic interventions to improve outcomes for the groups that are falling below, because those are groups that we are not serving well.

TN: Through GI2025, the CSU has adopted a goal to eliminate equity gaps. What do you see as important for driving this work on the campuses?

WF: Campuses will need to understand the power of making data-guided decisions. This includes using quantitative data, but it also means employing qualitative methods, through focus groups, town halls, and engaging with students in student government. It’s also important, to ensure equity and inclusion, for campuses to eradicate silos within their major functions. At Dominguez Hills, we’re working to bring together academic and student affairs (as well as other areas), so that we all align our work around advancing student success. We’ve reorganized our planning around the life cycles of students, from being admitted and choosing a major to getting a degree and entering the workforce, so that all university functions are aligned around that life cycle. Our comprehensive Strategic Enrollment Management Plan, and how we have organized around it, ensures collaboration. It has allowed us to disaggregate our data to gauge impact and it has afforded us the opportunity to create key performance indicators and action plans to ensure accountability.

LW: We can do many things. One step is to share our work across campuses, so we’re not reinventing the wheel. We can have campus leaders signal the importance of engaging in equity work and inclusion. We can have intensive professional development for all educators—including faculty, staff and administrators—on how to support groups who are experiencing disproportionate impacts. And we can implement systems—such as early alerts—to identify students who are struggling, so that we can intercede before it’s too late. That’s just a short list of many options that are available.

TN: What do you see as key opportunities to engage faculty, staff, and administrators across campus functions in eliminating equity gaps?

WF: You can’t get there doing the same things you’ve always done. We need to ratchet up the practices that are working and look internally to lower the barriers to student success. GI2025 has allowed us to have conversations that we weren’t having as intensively or intently as we are now. We don’t always agree on how to move forward, but if we do not set ambitious goals focused on students, then we do not have the discussions we need. A case in point: A few years ago we were not examining who wants to and who can graduate in four years. We were not looking at how to package financial aid differently and how to offer course sections to lessen their time to graduation. Now we’re asking these kinds of questions about the goals and needs of our students, and how to improve our own practices.

LW: Improving coordination across campus functions is essential for having the impacts we hope to have in closing equity gaps. One option for building bridges is for campuses to create an equity council, with a person at the table from each function or division, including academic affairs, student affairs, advisement, athletics, campus auxiliaries, and so on. The council would meet to set goals, share information, examine data, and share the outcomes of interventions. This could also involve gathering data about and examining who we are purchasing from. Who are our investments with? Are we using local banks who invest in our own graduates? I think that coordination and discussion across the full range of issues is essential for doing this work and for having the impacts we hope to have in closing equity gaps.

TN: What do you think about asking academic programs or colleges to be responsible for the gaps in outcomes in their domains? What are the risks and opportunities here?

WF: I see a lot of opportunities, particularly if we allow the data to guide us in useful ways. This is not about finger pointing or blaming, it’s about how we might use our resources better or think differently about services and pedagogy. It’s about how do we empower one another and collaborate to provide avenues for students to thrive. It’s important to examine the data by department, division, and program, to make sure we’re providing the runways for each student to take off. As I noted earlier, this is not just about a student’s readiness at entry, but also about the university’s readiness. Next semester, for example, our advisors and IT team will work collaboratively on a Chatbot: an electronic tool that will use Artificial Intelligence to answer some of the most pressing and most-asked questions from students. The majority of our freshmen are first-generation, and many of them do not feel comfortable asking questions of faculty and staff. Plus, we are a majority commuter campus. When you add up all of the data points, providing a tool that students can use 24/7, from their cell phones, becomes vital. This is an example of our readiness, or lack thereof.

LW: This is absolutely important. Some of the biggest areas of need involve the preparation of faculty. Most faculty are brilliant subject-matter experts. They know their discipline, but they may not know how to engage with students who are different than they are. Many base their own teaching on how they were taught, but that’s not necessarily the best way to reach the students of today. The best counseling approaches and classroom strategies are specific to the needs of each student group. Many faculty were hired 20 or 30 years ago, and diversity has increased dramatically since that time. If we’re going to reach students, we need to understand, know, and prioritize their needs

TN: From your experiences, can data help motivate people to engage in this work?

WF: It’s really about intentionality and leadership. When we say from start to finish, we’re going to learn and assess as we go along, in that context data can help us understand needs and keep people involved. Here’s an example: when we set out to improve our four-year graduation rates, we discovered that a higher percentage of students were graduating at four and a half years. What data can we collect and examine about those students? Can we pull together a focus group, to find out about these students’ pathways to and plans for graduation in 4 years instead of 4.5 years? Did they want to graduate in four years? Are there things we could have done to help them? That kind of information can tell us a lot. That’s the power data can bring for students, faculty, staff, and the community we serve on this campus.

LW: There are many critical needs in the CSU, and I think that data analysis is one of the most important in closing equity gaps, since data can help to identify where disproportionate impact is being experienced. When we think of data, we need to go beyond institutional records. Qualitative data that illuminate student perspectives can be crucial in helping to engage people. In a recent presentation, we provided quantitative and qualitative data, and then we asked students to share their perspectives. I’ve seen the combination of these three elements—quantitative, qualitative, and students in the room—engage faculty and staff who had not been particularly interested in what we had to say. People can’t fix a problem that they don’t know exists.

TN: What roles can students serve in highlighting these issues on campus?

WF: Most of our campuses have active students engaged from Associated Students, Inc., our student government. We can’t do this for them, without them. At a meeting recently with students, we were talking about enrollment issues and displayed disaggregated data by gender as well as by ethnic group. We could see that African American males and Latino males are underrepresented at the university and some had lower retention and graduation rates. It didn’t surprise me that our student leaders understood the impact and the necessity to close equity gaps. The graduation initiative will help greatly, as we seek to improve graduation rates generally. But what are the barriers that these specific groups of students face? Making sure that students are at the table and that their voices are included is vitally important as we address these issues.

LW: The student governments on CSU campuses have been at the forefront of efforts to shape the interventions that affect them. I think students already do more than they should be expected to do to support student success—through support programs, peer advising, and programming. They need to have a critical role, and we need to make sure that we listen to them, value what they’re saying, and take time to understand their perspectives. As an example, we’re launching a training for faculty, staff, and administrators to help them recognize their own areas of implicit bias, such as stereotypes or assumptions we might have that present barriers to learning or engagement for some groups of students. We’re featuring findings from focus groups with students so that faculty hear directly from students about their experiences in their own classes, in their department, and on their campus.