Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Join us in Academic Innovation for the Public Good

Register now for our online, monthly book conversation series with authors. Next event: October 11.

Book conversation on equity in higher education challenges participants to translate values into practice

Main content start

Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College host an online discussion that suggests that practical steps for advancing equity should be rooted in an understanding of social and historical context.

By Jenny Robinson

For higher education professionals seeking to advance equity at their institutions, Tia Brown McNair and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux have some advice. Remediate practices, not students. Pay attention to root causes. And unlearn the “meritocracy narrative.” 

Equity, they say, is as much about addressing injustice as it is about examining data on student participation, course retention, and graduation rates.

Brown McNair, vice president in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Malcom-Piqueux, chief diversity officer at Caltech, are two of the authors of From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. On Oct. 26, they were interviewed by Anita Davis, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Trinity College, as part of the book series Academic Innovation for the Public Good. Coauthor Estela Mara Bensimon was unable to attend the event, but Brown McNair and Malcom-Piqueux expressed gratitude for her vision and initiative.

Davis began by noting that the book asks readers to differentiate between equality and equity. Malcom-Piqueux expanded on the difference: “Equity is about fairness and justice; equality is about sameness.” Administrators might seek to guarantee that students have access to the same opportunities, to answer calls for equality, but a focus on equity might lead them to go further, to be responsive to the circumstances that students come from and the supports they need. To help attendees envision equity, she offered the image, an internet meme, of three children of varying heights at a baseball game who might need different sizes of stools to be lifted to the height that would allow them to see the game over a fence.

Brown McNair issued a challenge: “Justice, inclusive excellence, antiracism, whiteness, equity-mindedness… We throw around a lot of words within higher education…that many of us are not translating into practice. We have to decide, okay, what perspective, which lens are we going to be examining our policies and our practices and our structures through…How are we going to use this to build our own knowledge base and sense-making for really investigating and interrogating our data and thinking about student success?”

The authors suggested that a focus on equity means being race-conscious; advancing equity must begin with the acknowledgment of historical harms, such as slavery and Jim Crow. That social and historical context is key to why students enter college with wide differences in their primary and secondary education, enrichment experiences, and level of academic preparation for college work. Moreover, an equity mindset would mean recognizing that stereotypes that identify aspects of students as the source of the problem—i.e., an idea that certain categories of students or their families don’t value education—are limiting. Institutions should focus on their own practices, they said, to make sure that all students can learn and engage.

As an example of a practical improvement made with equity in mind, Malcolm-Piqueux described a course syllabus that was revised to explain subjects like office hours and study groups, which are unfamiliar to students who are the first in their families to attend college. The change reflected the faculty member’s effort to remove the embedded assumption that all students would come with the same baseline knowledge about how college worked.

In the energetic Q&A component of the discussion, topics ranged from public school funding, which Brown McNair said should be redistributed and reimagined, to what practical steps universities can take to support employees with caregiving responsibilities. Brown McNair affirmed, “That burden tends to fall on women and in particular women of color.” She suggested that institutions that value recruitment and mentoring of students from racially diverse backgrounds should recognize when that job is disproportionately shouldered by a small number of faculty members, and should give it more weight during the tenure and promotion process.

In answer to the final question, from a recent PhD recipient who wanted to find out how to make a lateral career move into the equity field, Malcolm-Piqueux recommended concentrating first on improving equity within the space that you already inhabit.  Learn by doing, follow experts in the field, take advantage of professional development opportunities, and lean on research and data, she suggested. “Sometimes people who are doing the work, who are steeped in the discipline,” she said, “are the ones who can actually make the most difference.”

This conversation was the final event in the inaugural year for Academic Innovation for the Public Good, which consisted of 10 online conversations with authors of books that examine higher education’s role in sustaining democracy, achieving social justice and promoting equity. Find videos of the events at the Academic Innovation for the Public Good website.

Academic Innovation for the Public Good is co-organized by Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College. Its co-sponsors are Bentley University, Brown, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke Learning Innovation, Georgetown University Center for Design in Learning and Scholarship, Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton, Minerva Project, North Dakota State University Graduate School, Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northwestern University Women's Center, Notre Dame Learning, University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, University of Missouri Online, and University of Pennsylvania Online Learning Initiative.

Published November 2, 2022

Follow Stanford Digital Education: Sign up for Stanford Digital Education's quarterly newsletter, New Lines, to learn about innovative research and teaching in digital spaces, as well as our team's events and initiatives. Subscribe to New Lines.