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Energized about conversations regarding the role of the public university, I find myself reflecting on the role of institutions of higher education more broadly, and commitments to postsecondary access, diversity, and inclusion. There are currently 3,026 four-year degree-granting institutions in the United States. Amongst these institutions are minority-serving institutions (historically black college and universities and Hispanic serving institutions), women’s colleges, small liberal arts colleges, work colleges, and public research institutions to name a few. Prior to my start as a University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University (ASU), most of my experience and engagement in higher education occurred at highly-selective, private institutions. Although I gained meaningful experience in college admissions and learned about post-graduate opportunities for undergraduate students, I yearned for experience at a large public university that by design, was more accessible to underrepresented students. This yearning led me to ASU.
Now as a fellow at the New American University my understanding of access oscillates. One of ASU’s most defining virtues is its bold charter that emphasizes the importance of inclusion. It reads, “ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.” The eleven words “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes,” captivated me and forced me to reassess my own practices and work. The bold proclamation also revealed that the largest public university in the country wanted to challenge the status quo and to expand what it meant to be an institution of higher education.
Nevertheless, I still find myself grappling with the questions regarding the role of the university, and also, how institutions incorporate inclusion at every tier. In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported the enrollment rate for high-income students was 83 percent. Their low-income peers’ rate was only 67 percent. At ASU, 50 percent of students are from families below the Arizona median income of about $50,000 annually. These values signal the need for more considerable investment in the p-12 system, more clearly defined pathways to higher education for low-income students orchestrated by local governments, community colleges, and four-year institutions, and a commitment from universities to provide adequate funding and resources to recruit, enroll, and graduate low-income students.
Furthermore, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, just 16 percent of full-time professors at post-secondary institutions are minorities. That means that 84 percent of those in full-time professorships are white, 60 percent are men and 25 percent are white women. At ASU only 29.3 percent of full professors are women, while nearly 71 percent are men. A major concern of gender and racial disparities is the impact the gaps have on America’s increasingly diverse student population. Lack of representation among faculty and administrators leads to isolation and questions about belonging and fit for both students and educators. Consequently, as the demographics of the college classroom shifts, postsecondary institutions should reevaluate their commitments to access, diversity, and inclusion. Institutions should consider how their faculty and senior administration reflect these commitments and their student population.
In 2013, ASU President Michael Crow acknowledged that higher education had not quite “[taught] how to communicate and teach between all ethnic and cultural perspectives.” Despite this, the university’s committee for campus inclusion and the faculty women of color caucus are two examples of ASU’s investment and advancement of racial and gender inclusion among staff and faculty. Finally, in 2016, ASU hired Dr. Stanlie James as Vice Provost for Inclusion and Community Engagement. James expressed her commitment to addressing “the challenge of holistic inclusion,” in a 2016 interview and the Office of University Initiatives will host James at an upcoming Fellows’ Forum.