Laying a Foundation for Equity Work on Campus: A Profile of the Chico State Team at the CSU Network’s Middle Leadership Academy

Thad Nodine HeadshotBy Thad Nodine, Senior Fellow, EdInsights

This is the fifth in a series of blogs by the CSU Student Success Network to share information about efforts to eliminate equity gaps in the CSU.

October 2019

When faculty, staff, and administrators from Chico State University arrived at the CSU Network’s Middle Leadership Academy in 2018-19, they had ambitious plans for the year-long professional learning program. In seeking to eliminate equity gaps on their campus, they wanted to explore student data, broken out by race/ethnicity and other factors, to identify why historically underserved students leave the university and which administrative processes pose barriers to their persistence. They also hoped to identify practices in the classroom that support the students, so as to share and expand those practices on campus. What the team did not have was a specific project in the works.

“We came to the first meeting [of the Academy] pretty fresh,” said Ellen Ertle, the team lead for Chico State and director of the First-Year Experience Program on campus. “We drilled down in the data and spent a lot of time talking about the things we know to set the foundation for this work in closing equity gaps. This a big, important issue, and the great thing about a team is there are different perspectives and ideas.”

Every CSU campus at the Academy brings a team that includes representatives from a range of roles across academic affairs, student affairs, and institutional research. The Academy focuses on middle leaders—faculty, staff, and administrators who are in positions of influence on campus and who also tend to have some contacts with students. Middle leaders are experts in their field and have extensive relationships and networks on campus, but may not have had training in leadership or communications. The CSU Network believes that supporting professional development for middle leaders can be instrumental in developing and implementing changes that affect students.

Chico State had sent a team to a one-day Convening by the CSU Network on first-year student success. Based on positive feedback from that experience, Ertle said, people interested in equity work on campus began to have conversations about participating in the Academy, whose focus is on supporting campuses in eliminating equity gaps. The final participants were selected by the dean of undergraduate education, who co-chairs Chico State’s Graduation Initiative 2025 committee.

Along with Ertle, Chico State’s team included a faculty fellow from institutional research focusing on student success, retention, and graduation; a history professor who is chair of the campus Curriculum Advisory Board; the associate director of the Student Learning Center; an academic advisor working with first-generation college students; and a first-generation college student majoring in marketing and working as a peer mentor and leader in the first-year experience program.

Academy participants attended three multi-day meetings in the fall, winter, and spring at Cal Poly Pomona in 2018-19. The first gathering provided campus teams with the time, space, and support to identify and understand the equity gaps they were seeking to address, and to begin to identify potential solutions. The second and third sessions engaged teams in addressing their implementation challenges, including problem solving, communications, and coalition building. Given the levels of knowledge and experience in the room (12 CSU campuses participated), the pedagogy of the Academy focused on engaging teams in authentic conversations (within and across teams) and supporting them as they developed and implemented their plans.

Ertle said that an immediate benefit of the experience involved staff, faculty, and institutional researchers from across disciplines meeting each other and finding common ground to address equity issues on campus. “Even before the first meeting in Pomona,” she said, “we were already brainstorming in the car on the way to the airport, talking about our different perspectives on equity. Now, after the three sessions, we see each other as friends and allies on campus. It’s a really good experience that way.”

During the first Academy session, Chico State’s team examined student data, listened to each other’s perspectives, and began to focus on correlations between equity gaps in graduation rates and DFW rates during students’ first two years. DFW rates track students receiving a D, F, or a withdrawal from a class.

“As an underrepresented minority student,” Ertle said, “you’re more likely to get a DFW, compared with other students, and that’s accounting for incoming high-school grade point average.” The team decided to focus on key introductory classes during students’ first two years, a plan that resonated for those from academic and student affairs.

In the process of making this decision, the team examined a data dashboard that the campus was developing to track and share graduation rates and equity indicators campuswide. In viewing data about equity gaps at the course level, they realized that the dashboard could be a helpful tool in identifying courses and departments that are meeting equity goals, in order to learn from and share their approaches campus wide. To lay a foundation on campus for the equity work, the team decided to begin by supporting the inclusion of equity language in Chico State’s new strategic and master plans (both of which were in the process of being developed), and writing equity into the campus’s General Education mission. The team also decided to submit a resolution on the importance of the equity work to the Academic Senate for approval, in order to give faculty a chance to weigh in on this issue.

“At the Academy the discussions among our own team were crucial and the cross-campus consultations were hugely helpful as well,” said Ertle. “Humboldt State had just gone through a process of delivering data to faculty on their campus, and we had great experiences hearing from them on how they rolled it out and what the reactions were.”

Drawing from its discussions and planning at the Academy, the team met together back on campus and strategized about the best roles for each member in moving forward with an equity agenda, based on their contacts and networks. The academic advisor gathered qualitative data from first-generation students who received DFWs. Ertle and others met with the strategic plan and master plan committees. One of the tenured faculty members steered a resolution through the Academic Senate, where it garnered significant discussion, was strengthened over several weeks, and was then passed by the Senate. The approved resolution called for a campuswide focus on equity, and the release of faculty grade and equity-gap data to support the equity work.

Ertle said that the experience confirmed the team’s decision to start by building a coalition of support on campus for equity work in order to lay a foundation for the data dashboard and other efforts to come. She said that faculty on campus were ready to take a stand on equity goals: “People were interested in coming to the table and discussing equity. They were ready to grapple with the hard questions.”

She also said that the Academy helped the team deepen their conversations and sharpen their approach on campus. “The thing that has been most beneficial has been the cross divisional representation of our team and our on-going engagement with this. We met regularly throughout the year and went to the Academy together. Because of that, we have been able to amplify our voices on campus.”

“That is what middle leadership is about,” said Brett Smith, who served as facilitator for the Chico State team. “It’s not about edicts or directives. It’s about working effectively with people who are peers, to reach common aims in helping students.”

The team members continue to meet regularly and they helped select the members who have joined the Academy for 2019-20, where they plan to build on the original team’s goals. Working together, the teams hope to identify classroom practices at Chico State that support first-generation and underrepresented students of color, and share resources for faculty in addressing equity issues.

The Middle Leadership Academy is led by Dr. Bianca Mothé, a professor at CSU San Marcos. During 2018-19 and 2019-20, the Academy is focusing on supporting CSU campus teams in eliminating equity gaps. To receive information about the Academy or other activities by the CSU Student Success Network, please email The Network is facilitated by EdInsights at Sacramento State.