Measuring teachers’ perceptions of diversity

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A recent Teacher job satisfaction survey speak Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), the research-practice partnership based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revealed significant disparities in the perception between teachers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. As more colleges and universities take action on diversity and inclusion, these findings suggest that university leaders need to do more to ensure that work results in meaningful change and a success for all. We spoke to Kiernan Mathews, Director and Principal Investigator of COACHE, on the significance of the survey data for higher education institutions.

Were the results of the investigation surprising?

Since the murder of George Floyd, there has been a sort of new awareness of where the seat of change really needs to be in the academy. It is not the black faculty, the Hispanic and Latinx faculty. It is not the native teachers who have to “adapt”. It is the white faculty – the majority faculty – that must change the broken system it perpetuates, which must adapt to new perspectives and broaden its definitions of excellence. We’ve been an equity-minded project since 2005, but the events of this year have encouraged COACHE to better question the privilege of white professors in the academy.

The surprise is how big the gap is between white professors who believe their colleagues and leaders fully support diversity and inclusion and black professors who disagree that their colleagues and leaders do what they can. This data shows an 18-20 point difference in the percentage of white and black faculty who agree that management and colleagues are committed to supporting and promoting diversity on campus. This is a stark difference between what white professors believe to be true and what black professors know to be true when it comes to supporting and promoting diversity.

What are the implications and how might this affect the support and promotion of diversity?

The question for presidents, provosts, and deans is: is your visible diversity leadership that you tout in the college magazine, that you put on your website, that you show to future faculty and students? , is this visible leadership and diversity really changing the culture of the campus? Or is it just to make white professors feel better about themselves and their institutions? What the data shows is that white professors think we are doing very well. My president says the right things, the faculty and my colleagues in the department say all the right things, but that’s not necessarily what black professors see. What they are telling COACHE – and it shows up in our qualitative data – raises questions about whether this visible leadership is really effecting systemic change. It may be necessary, but it is not enough for a close examination of the status quo. This makes professors who have benefited from the status quo for decades very uncomfortable.

How do colleges and universities really impact diversity and inclusion?

An institution can begin to move from illusion to reality by forming true partnerships with organizations in that country seeking collective action on systemic change in the academy. There are many organizations like the Aspire Alliance Where SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that help institutions hold themselves accountable for their rhetoric.

The question for presidents, provosts, and deans is: is your visible diversity leadership that you tout in the college magazine, that you put on your website, that you show to future faculty and students? , is this visible leadership and diversity really changing the culture of the campus?

The larger change that we believe needs to happen is instead of seeing diversity as just a matter of numbers to see diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging as assets that will change our institutions – y including tenure and promotion – for the better. This kind of change doesn’t happen behind a desk. Judy Singer once told me that this job is “retail job – not wholesale”. Sociologists say, “Culture happens in the workshop,” so I used to tell provosts and deans before COVID to check their FitBits at the end of the day. If you haven’t taken your 10,000 steps, you are probably not doing the work necessary to truly change your institution for the better.

What can we expect from COACHE next?

COACHE has just started asking questions about professors’ student loans. Because talking about our debts is taboo, we suspected that this is an area where white faculty privilege is not considered. Sure enough, more than half of pre-tenured black professors receive student loans, but somehow, only 37% of pre-tenured white professors do, even at this early stage in their professional careers. We’ll also look at the amount of these debts and what steps colleges can take to ease those financial burdens – or at least, distribute them more equitably.

In the COACHE model, we share our data with academics to advance their careers by working on equity in and on the academy. So if they want to investigate faculty student debt, or the experiences of LGBTQ faculty, or faculty with disabilities, or the impact COVID-19 has on faculty decisions to leave or stay in their universities … or any number of other issues, they can work with us to paint a more accurate picture of who professors really are today.


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