How Higher Ed Leaders are Creating BRAVE Spaces

Blog Closing Equity Gaps

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Insights from Civitas Learning’s Summer 2020 Virtual Leadership Summit

Leaders are not alone in their work to navigate the compounding national and acute impacts of COVID-19, economic instability, and systemic racism. Last week, we kicked off our summer Leadership Summit to discuss that work specifically.

In many ways, these crises have magnified the vulnerabilities of the students we serve. Yet, the courage demonstrated by college and university leaders from across the globe highlight the promise of education to create a more equitable and inclusive society.

While educators grappled to ensure academic continuity, the previously hidden or reduced barriers to student success and learning were brought to the forefront. Both the learning and student support infrastructure offered by higher education had to be delivered remotely — and quickly. And now, in the face of deepened inequities and important conversations about racial justice, it’s important for student success leaders to reset their focus and talk to each other about the road ahead.

Leaders and experts from across our community of practice joined the dialogue. Here are a few things we heard:

  • Move into the discomfort. We cannot move the national needle on equity and social justice if we don’t design more inclusive teaching practices and eliminate the implicit biases in our classrooms. Safe spaces for discussions with faculty, staff and students are important; however, it’s not enough. Aim to create brave spaces that spark listening, learning and action.

    Leaders should be open and authentic in their communication, both internally and externally. Don’t be paralyzed by finding the perfect answer or decision. It’s action that matters. This kind of leadership is uncomfortable, but it’s needed now more than ever. In fact, higher ed’s future and very financial viability require it.

Related resource: ‘Smart Change’ for Turbulent Times by National Advisory Board member, Dr. Linda Baer.

  • Keep your students at the center. Different students have different needs. For some, online (or more accurately, remote) learning isn’t working. They need an in-person or on-campus experience. For others, it’s giving them flexibility and convenience they’ve needed. Education should be an equalizer. Yet, digital divides, stability at home, and competing priorities present just some of the challenges faced by students, especially now. Before new plans or processes are determined, listen to your students. Don’t try to serve students without context on what they need. For learning, outreach and support, multiple modalities may be required. Adapt to their expectations. The panacea? Personalization. It mattered before, and it matters even more now.
  • Choose Maslow before Bloom. Students and educators are humans first. If we don’t ensure they both feel safe and secure, learning will not happen. If they don’t feel like they belong, they won’t stay. Leaders who first solve for the all-too-common needs of their students and staff create the stability required for a productive educational experience.
  • Disrupt the things that need to be disrupted. While challenging to navigate, this season is showing us how to better support our most vulnerable students. Look closer at the systems and processes that were dismantled, or in some cases — built, in response to the crises at hand. What is necessary? What systems or structures are racist or inherently biased? What is actually working? What can be done differently and more effectively to accelerate student success? It will take courage and hard conversations, but do it anyway.

Related resource: ATD’s Toolkit for Actionable Decision Making in Times of Disruption.

  • Look closer at your data. It will show you what you need to know. Historically, we’ve often focused support services on the students who raise their hand in the classroom, make advising appointments, or ask for help. Often the students who need our support the most don’t do these things. They’re stressed or busy. Or, in many cases, they’re dealing with other real and important priorities, putting their education (and opportunity) on the back burner. Democratize your data so that your faculty, advisors, tutors, staff and even your board, can see what is going on before it’s too late. When they know what is needed, they can work with you to deliver the support your students deserve.

There are no playbooks, shortcuts, or best practices in this new era. Though — necessity, as the mother of invention, is creating new, better practices to improve outcomes and equity for the students we serve.

We’ll create more brave spaces for the conversations that leaders today need. We’ll keep connecting and learning, together.

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