One of the great challenges that befalls leaders in higher education is to make fair decisions in a system rooted in hierarchy and privilege. When decisions are made, they often use terms such as “fairness” and “equality” to indicate that everyone has similar opportunities and is not inadvertently disadvantaged. Inequality abounds in higher education, and in most cases, we may have equality but certainly lack equity in our decision making, which often benefits the historically privileged and further disenfranchises the purposefully and systemically excluded (i.e., people of color, women, LGBTQIA individuals, people with disabilities, etc.).
In this article, we want to promote equity-centered decision making in higher education policy and practice. We believe that such approaches to decision making will help close the gap regarding outcomes between the historically privileged and those who are most excluded in higher education.
Sydney often uses the following analogy when talking about implementing equity-centered approaches in higher education:
Let’s take a large academic department. The department head learns that the university has a contract with a furniture vendor and the vendor would give the department a special discounted rate for purchasing chairs in bulk. The department head gets excited and tells their faculty that they plan to buy one particular style of chair for everyone (equality). Many in the department are excited because they have had the same office chairs for the past 10 years. But the department head didn’t take into account that one faculty member has a special back issue and needs a special chair to mitigate stress on their back. Two other faculty members loved the chairs they had and felt they didn’t need or want new ones. Yet another faculty member has a frame too large for the chosen chair. The department head framed the bulk purchase of the chairs from an equality stance and emphasized that it would only be fair if everyone has the same chair.
This is what happens a lot in higher education. The focus of decision-making centers on equality and what seems fair to the broadest group of individuals rather than centering the needs of the most systematically disadvantaged and excluded. What if the department head had conducted a survey or spoken to their individual faculty about the need for chairs? What if they proceeded from an equity perspective, asking faculty what their needs are and taking into account the faculty whom race, rank, gender, and other factors afford the least amount of power?
Here are some further examples related to university financial resources that may illustrate the difference between equality- and equity-centered decision making. For employee salaries, managers or human resources personnel could promote an equality-centered perspective that everyone in a particular role is paid the same amount or receives the same pay raise rate (e.g. a 3 percent increase for everyone); An equity-centered perspective makes salaries accessible and transparent, ensuring that people of color know they are being paid an equitable salary for the same education and experience.
Another example relates to higher education budgets: an equality approach to budget cuts would reduce each budget equally (each unit has to absorb a 10 percent reduction), while an equity-centered perspective might preserve programs and resources for students of color or protect staff of color (dispersed or grouped within particular functions of the university) because they may lack the personal financial resources or generational wealth to be protected during institutional budget cuts. A third example focuses on more flush budgetary circumstances: providing equal amounts or proportions to each unit is an equality approach to budget increases, while an equity approach may provide more funds for resources and support programs that assist students or employees of color. We understand that nine states have banned affirmative action, so institutional leaders in those locations may need to employ alternative strategies to achieve equity: identify proxies for race (e.g., first-generation or low-income status) or ensure that support services are available to all students, with overrepresentation in spaces where students of color are located (for example, by major, student clubs, or organizations).
Equity-centered decision making is not limited to the allocation of financial resources. It must also be infused in academic spaces. As non-tenure-track professors often are assigned higher course loads and fewer resources, department chairs should consider who is assigned to teach introductory courses, where the broadest swath of students enroll. Instead of assigning early career faculty or non-tenure-track faculty to these courses, consider assigning your most experienced and tenured faculty, who can enhance student learning and support students’ continuation in the discipline. Doing so could then provide all levels of faculty with the opportunity to teach specialty and more desirable courses. If academic programs have additional admissions requirements (e.g., nursing, business schools), examine your enrollment patterns to identify who is competitive, and ask yourself why some students are not as competitive. Are additional credentials required for admissions, such as test scores that require access to resources to prepare, pay for, and time to take? Are the reasons for inclusion in program admissions built on historical or early educational inequities? If those criteria are essential for assessing competency, consider having faculty provide additional support to students who may encounter additional difficulties by offering study sessions or scholarships.
Human resources is another space for equity-centered decision making. HR personnel could be reporting out demographic snapshots of folks hired within the past year in order to create transparency and accountability for hiring outcomes. They might also examine policies, practices, or guidance for minimum or preferred qualifications that exclude people, such as driver’s license requirements for jobs that don’t require driving and provide equity-centered training to hiring committees to create equity-focused job descriptions, interview questions, and candidate assessment processes.
Brown McNair and colleagues (2020) promote regularly using institutional data to inform decision making, particularly disaggregating the data by important student demographics, and making it more available for departmental use. There is a myriad of data points that might be closely examined for equity-centered decision making:
Given the hierarchy and stratification in higher education, power, politics, and decision-making authority can sustain privilege and disadvantage or be used to achieve equity. Where and when possible, we recommend engaging the broadest audience of stakeholders in decision-making processes to illuminate concerns and identify solutions that advance equity. Include students, faculty, staff, middle managers, and senior administrators in decision making, whether that’s strategic planning, budgeting, workforce planning, capital projects, or fundraising.
We don’t proclaim to have all the answers for creating equity-centered decision making, but we suggest that leaders ask the following questions to ensure that equity-minded decision making is infused throughout their work:
Equity-centered decision making helps to ensure an institutional environment that is just and creates a sense of belonging for all its constituents. We have provided examples, recommendations, and questions that you can use to inform and enhance institutional policies and practices on your campuses.
Brown McNair, T., Bensimon, E. M., & Malcolm-Piqueux, L. (2020). From equity talk to equity walk: Expanding practitioner knowledge for racial justice in higher education. Jossey-Bass.
Sydney Freeman Jr., PhD, is a full professor in the College of Education, Health & Human Sciences at the University of Idaho and visiting scholar in the Office of the Provost at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wendy Bruun, EdD, is an associate vice president of student affairs at Northern Arizona University.
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