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The recently released report of the Boyer 2030 Commission, The Equity/Excellence Imperative: A 2030 Blueprint for Undergraduate Education at U.S. Research Universities, explains that it is
organized around what the Commission has termed the “equity/excellence imperative,” a belief that excellence and equity are inextricably entwined, such that excellence without equity (privilege reproducing privilege) is not true excellence, and equity (mere access) without excellence is unfulfilled promise. (3)
This is a powerful statement, and one that was echoed frequently at the recent 2022 UERU National Conference, which showcased the publication of the report and featured some exceptionally rich discussion of the complex issues that surround undergraduate education at research universities.
The report expounds upon the implications of its foundational statement through 11 “provocations for equity/excellence”:
With its deep commitment to the importance of the undergraduate teaching mission at research universities, The Equity/Excellence Imperative is an important contribution to the national conversation about the future of higher education in the United States and how we can demonstrate more fully the value of our institutions and their continuing importance to our nation. It builds upon the Boyer Commission’s 1998 report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities, which called for “a new model of undergraduate education at research universities that . . . take[s] advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges” (7).
The Boyer 2030 report gives us much to ponder. Like any widely sweeping document, it points institutions in general directions but recognizes that the details of implementation will vary on different campuses. (One important exception: it asserts that an advising ratio of 250 students per professional advisor and 25 students per faculty advisor are “realistic maximum ratios at large, complex, and academically demanding research universities” .) For each of its provocations, it identifies broad strategies that all of our institutions should adopt, such as “make evidence-based and high-impact practices core, not ‘extra’” (24); “center excellence in teaching via annual reviews and promotions (and tenure where applicable) for all faculty with teaching in their portfolios” (35); and “make fundraising for need-based aid a top priority” (40). Most of us are likely to find ourselves nodding our heads in agreement as we read: the areas the report addresses and the strategies it recommends are those that we have been talking about for years on our campuses and at our conferences.
It is worth acknowledging, of course, that the “we” I am referring to are predominantly white faculty and administrators. We need to intentionally foreground the nature of our institutions. The overwhelming majority of research universities in the US are predominantly white institutions (PWIs), and the percentage of faculty identifying as white continues to hover around 75 percent, despite the changing demographics of our student bodies and our society. To achieve the equity/excellence imperative, we need to increase the diversity of the faculty who are responsible for undergraduate education on our campuses.
The report’s sixth provocation calls attention to the need for teaching faculty to be respected and rewarded (drawing significantly on the work of Adrianna Kezar and USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education), an extremely important topic that I have written about elsewhere. It does not, however, discuss the need for research universities to increase the diversity of their faculty in order to increase student success. We know that our student population is becoming more diverse, and as it does so, voices calling for an equally diverse campus environment are increasing. A recent survey of graduating high school seniors, for example, indicated that nearly half of those surveyed want to attend a university with a diverse faculty. Studies have shown that a diverse faculty has a positive impact on student learning at both the K–12 and university levels. Not until PWIs have administrative and faculty bodies that more closely resemble the composition of the US as a whole will we be able to feel more confident that all of our students experience a sense of belonging on our campuses and that our administrative offices and meeting rooms are listening to all voices. PWI research universities have a long way to go to be equitable and truly inclusive, and we have much to learn from those institutions—especially HBCUs and minority-serving institutions—that have long recognized the inextricability of equity and excellence.
Overcoming the difficulty involved in listening to all voices is key. The Equity/Excellence Imperative addresses this issue powerfully during the discussion of its second provocation: “Freedom of Speech and Expression and Supportive Campus Cultures.” This portion of the report wrestles with the contentiousness endemic to our campuses—with both the fundamental importance of unfettered free speech and the chilling effect that hate speech has on members of our communities. In exploring these difficult issues, the report showcases the words of Dr. Claude Steele, former provost of UC Berkeley and a Boyer 2030 commissioner, to highlight the complexity of the history that impinges upon our ability to hear all voices:
I believe that universities must affirm and protect freedom of speech and expression. The concern I have is this: For groups and identities that have traditionally been disenfranchised in the larger society but are now—over the last 50 or so years—being increasingly integrated into our institutions as we diversify them, there is an issue of trust: can people from these backgrounds and identities drop their guard and trust in the value of free speech when, sometimes, it has been used to license the expression of deeply devaluing ideas about them and their identities? In my own experience, I think of the years of open debate about whether African Americans were genetically inferior intellectually. The centrality of free speech to the integrity of university life is unassailable. But as our institutions diversify, those from previously excluded groups who still have experiences of devaluation in these institutions may wonder if they can trust it. (20–21)
Those of us at PWIs need to hear these words and acknowledge the wicked problem they represent: until our research universities create environments in which our BIPOC faculty and students are willing to trust that their voices and ideas will be heard, we will not achieve the equity/excellence imperative in undergraduate education.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.