This week, Central Michigan University continues the tradition of honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a day of service followed by a series of speakers, activities and events. Our Multicultural Academic Student Services has done a phenomenal job of creating a schedule of virtual programs, allowing us to celebrate together in spite of the pandemic.
As MLK week continues, I wanted to share some additional thoughts about how we, as a university community, can continue to work for greater equity in higher education.
I am reminded of a phrase often used in business leadership and education circles: “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.” In higher education, there is a plethora of research confirming our students have equal capacity for knowledge, skill and talent. However, their opportunities — both prior to and after enrolling in college — are not equal.
This lack of equal and equitable opportunity leads to a number of disappointing outcomes, sometimes including the inability to attend college and earn a degree.
Students choose to pursue higher education because they want to expand their opportunities for career success, personal and professional growth, and more. Yet, nationwide and here at CMU, there are significant gaps in degree attainment, ranging in some cases as high as 20%, between students of color and their white peers.
When students stop out before graduation, they miss out on opportunities to further their careers — many of the fastest growing and highest paying careers now require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree — and to increase their lifetime earning potential. And when some of the brightest and most talented minds in our community are unable to achieve their full potential, our entire society suffers.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote: “We are caught in an escapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
As an institution of higher education, we are dedicated to student success and the improvement of communities everywhere. To that end, we have previously committed to a goal of increasing overall retention and graduation rates, and through direct and concerted efforts, we have made incredible progress in this area.
However, increasing overall rates is insufficient if we cannot also ensure that every student who demonstrates grit, determination and excellence has an equal and equitable opportunity to feel welcome, safe and supported and to be included in those figures of success.
Today, we know there are talented, hardworking students being left behind or falling through the gaps, and this means we are not yet achieving our mission.
Therefore, we must also make it our ambitious goal at CMU to eliminate our degree attainment gap, and we must pursue it with focus and passion.
To do so requires us to examine every aspect of the student experience, from the day they begin to consider college to the day they receive their diploma. Currently, this means an examination of how equitably our policies and practices:
- Promote college access and ease the transition to college.
- Maximize financial support for students in need.
- Provide essential advising and registration support.
- Meet students’ academic and career support needs.
- Implement inclusive teaching practices.
- Address basic-needs insecurity.
- Increase engagement and sense of belonging.
For example, we are rethinking our approach to recruitment, admissions and enrollment processes. This includes forming partnerships with programs such as Target H.O.P.E and College Greenlight, as well as enhancing partnerships with community colleges and high schools, to increase outreach to traditionally underserved groups of students. We also are intentionally recruiting diverse admissions directors and ambassadors and providing more opportunities for students to apply to CMU for free.
Increased financial aid will help students stay on the path to graduation. Late last year, thanks to a generous gift from a graduate, we established new scholarships aimed directly at closing the graduation gap and preventing stop-outs due to financial concerns. In addition, institutionally funded need-based aid grants, which once only applied to the first two years of college, are now extended to all four years.
We also are examining all aspects of student life on campus. I am incredibly grateful to the members of the President’s Student Advisory Network for providing additional insight into the student experience, and we are moving forward with many of their suggestions. For example, we have allocated additional funds to staffing and program initiatives aimed directly at serving underrepresented students, to be administered by Multicultural Academic Student Services. We also will do more to promote the important work of registered student organizations, as well as amplifying diverse student programs, events and activities.
Representation matters, and increasing the diversity of our faculty and staff is a priority. Job opportunities here at CMU are promoted on websites and publications aimed at increasing the diversity of our applicant pool, and implicit bias training is required for search committee members involved in searches for senior-level positions. In addition, a new diversity advocates initiative is underway, aimed at recruiting diverse candidates and implementing best practices in selecting finalists for faculty positions.
As you know, we are searching for a new Chief Diversity Officer. This individual will be responsible for developing and sharing a strategic plan for our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that will include specific, clear, and measurable goals and outcomes, as well as a timeline for progress.
There are many additional initiatives ongoing, and we will be transparent in sharing and communicating our progress. We are currently overhauling our website to make it easier to navigate and to find information about CMU and the work happening here. I will continue to use this blog to provide additional updates throughout the year.
As a community, we have pledged to do this vital work, and it will take all of us to achieve our goals. Our Board of Trustees prioritized this effort with the Resolution Affirming CMU’s Commitment to Social Justice and Equity, and, as I mentioned previously, members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior leaders are engaged in a review of our policies and practices. The university-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council is leading and supporting the development of new initiatives designed to make our university a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all.
It is important to note that much of the great work is happening — and has been happening for many years — among our student organizations, as well as our academic departments and student service areas. Students, faculty and staff truly set the leadership standard in the way issues of justice, equity and equality are approached on our campus, and will continue to lead the path forward.
Dr. King believed education plays a vital role in creating social change, and our community has an immense responsibility and opportunity to work for that change. As we work toward transformational change within our university, each of us also can work for change in our own lives.
Let us each resolve to:
- Expand our understanding of the unique experiences of others through readings, workshops, trainings and more.
- Practice respect and compassion in all our interactions.
- Stand up for justice and fairness.
- Connect with people with different ideas and perspectives.
- Listen and learn.
Remember Dr. King’s words: “What affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We all benefit when we lift each other up.