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Campuses are seeking ways to address two major issues: racial equity and ongoing pandemic-related challenges. One approach to addressing these issues that few leaders have considered is liberatory design thinking (LDT). LDT is a well-established process that is uniquely positioned to mitigate these issues. In a recent research study that investigated how campuses designed improved supports for non-tenure-track faculty, we found that design teams used LDT to create innovative solutions to equity-related issues that affect non-tenure-track faculty. The LDT process has also been used in other social settings with similarly favorable results. Prior to our study, however, it had not been empirically investigated in the higher education context.
In addition to introducing the LDT model to academic leaders, we also suggest some key considerations for using it in higher education to foster needed innovations. For more details about the campuses in our study, the innovations they developed, and the equity challenges they addressed, please see our report.
Created by the National Equity Project in 2016–2017, the LDT model addresses the inequities at the root of many social problems and to emphasize power sharing in the design thinking process (Clifford & design school X, 2020). LDT includes seven phases: notice, empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and reflect. It also involves liberatory mindsets: notice bias and power; reflect on identity and values; collaborate and build relational trust; and attend to emotions and healing. Figure 1 provides a visual of the LDT framework.
In the notice phase, designers are encouraged to engage in activities that promote self-awareness of identity, values, emotion, assumptions, and positionality within the team before beginning with the design process, so that the team can engage authentically in the process. This phase also includes identifying power issues both within the design team and relative to institutional power and interrogating the process’s intent to ensure that the design product increases equity. Conducting these activities before engaging in other phases of design thinking helps to build relational trust among the team.
Our study helped us learn about some key variations in activating LDT in higher education that arise from the political and bureaucratic nature of higher education institutions. We offer advice for those wanting to obtain the promise of LDT while also sharing potential challenges within the higher education landscape and suggesting ways to navigate them up front. Our lessons are captured in a modified version of LDT for the higher education context in Figure 2.
With the advice and lessons learned from our study, campus leaders can better engage LDT, a process that is helping campuses create the innovations needed to solve the complex challenges higher education faces in unprecedented times. We encourage campuses that are interested in adapting our modifications to LDT (the Design for Equity in Higher Education model) to access our report and the accompanying guide for practice.
Anaissie, T., Cary, V., Clifford, D., Malarkey, T. & Wise, S. (2020). Liberatory design: Your toolkit to design for equity, version 1.0 [Card deck]. Stanford d.K12 Lab Network. https://dschool.stanford.edu/s/Liberatory-Design-Cards.pdf
Clifford, D. H., & design school X (2020). Equity-centered design thinking framework. Stanford d.school and design school X. https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources/equity-centered-design-framework
Culver, K. C., Harper, J., & Kezar, A. (2021). Design for equity in higher education. Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://pullias.usc.edu/download/design-for-equity-in-higher-education
Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Wilbur-Kieffer Endowed Professor and Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Southern California.
K. C. Culver, PhD, is an assistant professor at The University of Alabama.
Jordan Harper is a research assistant at the Pullias Center for Higher Education and a PhD student in the urban education policy program at the University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education.