The Roles of Middle Leaders in Equity and Student Success: An Interview with Ántonia Peigahi at Sac State

By Kalifa Madden and Thad Nodine

July 2021

Ántonia Peigahi, director of policy and records management at California State University Sacramento, has been integrally involved as a faculty leader in policy development and reform at the university, including as chair of the Faculty Senate twice and chair of the general education/graduation requirements policy committee five times. In this interview, she shares her perspectives about the power of being a “middle leader” in supporting equitable student success, including through her work on the advisory board of the CSU Student Success Network. The Network defines middle leaders as faculty, staff, and administrators in the CSU who have leadership roles on campus regardless of whether their position title acknowledges these roles. This interview has been edited for brevity. 

Kalifa Madden: How did you first get involved in the Network?

Ántonia Peigahi: In 2014 when I was chair of the Faculty Senate on our campus, I was invited to participate in a planning grant that eventually led to the creation of the CSU Student Success Network. I was a new Senate chair at the time, and so for me it was a great opportunity to think and strategize together–and dream–about what students need in this university. That’s one thing we don’t do very well, as a system and in higher education in general: we don’t get the time or space to strategize and dream together about ways to improve the trajectories of students. So from the beginning, I saw this as an exciting and wonderful opportunity to engage in that work. 

It was during our conversations in May 2015, however, that I realized that this planning concept was actually going to go somewhere and it was going to be powerful. We framed the work based on what the community colleges had been doing through the RP Group. We started to really think about and discuss what it means to be a middle leader at a university–someone who works with students and who has deep knowledge of how the campus operates but who does not have a ton of authority. How could we as middle leaders connect better with each other? How could we learn and grow with each other? What kinds of processes would help us build our capacity and our connections, both on our own campuses and throughout the CSU? 

KM: I agree with you, we do need spaces to strategize and dream together in higher education. What are your hopes and dreams for the Network in improving opportunities for students in the CSU?

AP: One of the things that the Network is really working on across the CSU is building a foundation for anti-racist activity. On our campus, we have engaged in the creation of an anti-racist planning document that will be released out to the campus community. What are other campuses doing in these areas, and how is that work going? That’s the kind of sharing of strategies that the Network facilitates, both within and across campuses. 

The CSU Network also helps to structure these conversations and provides leadership development for middle leaders. For example, what’s important from these discussions, plans, and actions is that equity and inclusion become a foundation campus-wide and system-wide for how we build all programs and policies. Equity is not something that somebody over in a DEI office does. It needs to be infused in all the work that we do throughout a campus community. It’s a shared responsibility and it requires a critical examination of all facets of a campus’s activities–up to and including how we talk about sports, how we engage in implicit activities like lactation spaces for students, how we engage in allowing people to have the pronouns they use to be respected on campus. Middle leaders are well placed to do this work, but they need support and connections with others who are also doing it. 

What’s demonstrable from this work–and this is what I hope–is that we create a campus environment and a CSU environment that is truly inclusive to all students. The California Master Plan for Higher Education says that postsecondary education is for every Californian. I believe that. That’s why I came to the CSU and that’s why I’m involved in the CSU Network. Higher education is for everybody and it is not the domain of the rich, the white, the male, the whomever. We need to reframe higher education away from being racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, and ableist. Truly one of the most democratizing things that we can engage in as a society is to provide education to all. That is my dream for the CSU. And one of the things that I’ve learned, both from past experiences and from working with the CSU Network, is that in order to achieve this we have to focus not just on equity but especially on students.

KM: What do you mean by that? Can you say more about how the Network focuses on students even as it works mostly with middle leaders?

AP: Let me start by saying that it can be a challenge for any of us to feel like we have a place on campus. This can include everyone–faculty, staff, and students. Even after 18 years at Sac State, I am still personally challenged to feel like I have a place in a campus community as a woman of color who happens to be transgender. It’s hard to find a welcoming community sometimes and so participating in the Network helps me because I know that there is an entity that is working, grappling, and engaging in these kinds of questions in support of the roles that middle leadership can play in equity and student success. Campuses need to be inclusive and supportive for faculty, staff, and student diversity. 

But when we do the work of policy reform and equity, it is so easy sometimes in higher education, whether we’re faculty or staff, to ask, what about me? Where am I centered in this conversation? I believe that is absolutely the wrong perspective. The perspective should be on understanding our students and how our policies, our practices, and our actions affect our students. And then, from there, how do we build equity into everything so that we improve the educational trajectories of all students, and our diverse faculty and staff know that they have a place? 

As an example, one of the things we do through Network activities is help middle leaders gather evidence and use it to understand student success and support equitable student learning. What barriers do you have on your campus that get in the way for students? The evidence can help identify those challenges. But the point isn’t to focus just on data points and numbers and statistics. The point is to listen to students, to center students as learning people, as individuals. We’re trying to honor that work. That means helping campuses come together and focus on how all of us are going to assist students moving forward. For example, what structures, processes, and tools are we going to provide to students to empower them to be the best possible learners they can be? These priorities have been central to the Network since its inception: students, student success, and equity. And they have strengthened over time as the vision of the Network has matured. 

KM: What has surprised you in working on the Network’s advisory board?

AP: I’m surprised that our problems in the CSU, though different depending on the campus, are so similar in terms of the issues we face. It really speaks to the need for a Network like this because we all have different iterations of the same challenges. We all have our own sets of solutions that, when looked at holistically, could assist other campuses in approaching similar issues that they’re facing. I’ve been in the CSU for 18 years, I’m familiar with my campus, and yet I’ve faced real challenges concerning who else is doing this work. Am I alone on my campus? Where can I find allies and learn about things that are going on? In addition, there are 23 CSU campuses. For middle leaders focusing on equitable student success, there are not many opportunities to connect with the work that colleagues are doing at other campuses. That’s where the Network comes in, providing spaces to bring people together, learn from each other, and build connections. I’ve seen campus groups come together at a Network event, germinate ideas, and then take those ideas back to their campus communities. Given how much is on everybody’s plate, that’s very powerful.

Ántonia Peigahi is an active member of the Network’s advisory board and conference planning committee.

The CSU Student Success Network is facilitated by the Education Insights Center (EdInsights) at Sacramento State University. For more information, email or visit the EdInsights and Sacramento State websites.