Reading higher ed: creating inclusive communities
Posted by Melissa on August 21, 2010
Looking over my book journal recently, I was struck by how the composition of what I read for fun has changed over the years. In particular, since my arrival at Carleton, about 15% of my pleasure reading has consisted of books about higher education — ranging from volumes focused on particular teaching techniques to works surveying the broader landscape of higher education. I’m not sure why I find myself drawn to these books. Some of the attraction comes from a desire to make sense of the experiences I have had at Carleton and those I have heard about from friends at other institutions. Some of my interest is an effort to explore and address challenges I’ve encountered inside and outside the classroom. However, I also find something compelling about the complexity of the higher education endeavor: the opportunities and benefits it can provide society and the challenges and shortcomings it inevitably encompasses. When considering the higher education landscape, it’s too easy to rely on personal experiences at a handful of institutions to make sweeping statements about students, faculty, and institutions in general; reading broadly helps me put things in perspective.
My summer reading this year included two books that I picked up on account of my interest in supporting diversity in higher education. The first book, Establishing the Family-Friendly Campus: Models for Effective Practice, edited by Jaime Lester and Margaret Sallee, contains chapters from a variety of institutions that have successfully instituted programs to promote work-life balance primarily for employees, but some also consider graduate students. The second book, Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations, edited by Shaun Harper and Stephen John Quaye, explores how to increase the engagement of all students, discussing traditional areas of interest such as the engagement of racial and ethnic minorities and first generation students, but also addressing the engagement of white students in multicultural activities, student athletes off the playing field, and many other groups of students.
Although creating family-friendly campuses and increasing the engagement of all students are two distinct issues for higher education, having read these books back-to-back I was struck by similarities. Both student engagement and faculty/staff work-life balance are often viewed as issues of individual responsibility and personal choice, not institutional responsibility. I tend to disagree. Educational institutions are ultimately communities of people engaged in activities that allow community members to learn from and teach each other. When individuals from particular demographic groups find circumstances hinder their engagement, the learning that can occur within that community is no longer as rich because of the exclusion of these potential contributors. In their introduction, Harper and Quaye write, “We argue that students should not be chiefly responsible for engaging themselves (as it has been proven that many do not anyway), but instead administrators and educators must foster the conditions that enable diverse populations of students to be engaged. Put simply, weak institutions are those that expect students to engage themselves.” In a similar vein, weak institutions are those institutions that expect faculty and staff to solve the challenges of work-life balance themselves.
Both books suggest policies and programs that can be implemented to create more inclusive communities. Although institutional policy is an important first step towards creating inclusive communities (be it encouraging student engagement or supporting employee work-life balance), it is not sufficient to ensure a supportive atmosphere. In Chapter 6 of Establishing the Family-Friendly Campus, Karie Frasch and co-authors from the University of California system explore the “devil-in-the-details nature of creating cultural change.” They note that “creating policies alone does not change the culture toward acceptance of career flexibility.” I would suggest that a similar challenge exists for efforts aimed at increasing student engagement. Student affairs offices can’t be solely responsible for supporting student engagement through programming; engaging all students requires a broad cultural change across campus. In addressing both the issue of student engagement and the issue of career flexibility, the many microclimates that exist within a university make institution-wide policies and programs both important for creating an inclusive community and yet, at times, ineffective in producing the desired results. The fact that policies and programs alone are not sufficient for creating cultural change reminds me that, as an individual, I can contribute to making the tiny microclimate in which I operate more inclusive. That awareness keeps me engaged in my community and interested in reading about and learning from others.