By Denise S. Bartell, Sandra Robinson and Willie McKether
Only two-thirds of new university graduates complete their studies within six years. For black, Latino, and Native American students, the number is much lower. To close these equity gaps, colleges and universities must focus on the core of the student experience: the time students spend in the classroom. Despite the fact that faculties are so central to the academic lives of students, they are often underutilized as levers for institutional change. In addition, institutions are increasingly faced with faculty burnout, dissatisfaction and resignations.
For institutions to truly transform the student experience in the classroom, they must support the faculty experience as well.
In 2018, the University of Toledo joined the Student Experience Project (SEP), which uses more than three decades of research on the impact of students’ psychological experiences to develop and implement practical approaches to creating more equitable educational outcomes. Recognizing the critical role of faculty in this work, we established Equity Champions (EC), a faculty community of practice intentionally designed to build relationships. The answer stunned us; over the next two years, that community grew to more than 150 faculty members, with more than sixty participating each semester.
Our community was designed to reduce hierarchy and share power between faculty and administrators, and to be open to all who have taught at UToledo. During our weekly meetings, we learned as a community about the persistent and systemic nature of inequities in higher education and shared institutional data so that faculty understood the importance of their efforts to improve equitable student outcomes. To support their work in the classroom, we provided evidence-based tools, including a suite of easy-to-use, high-impact resources developed by SEP and an innovative measurement tool called Ascend, which gave faculty a unique opportunity to gather information in real time. feedback from students about their sense of belonging, perceptions of the instructor’s growth mindset, and other key concepts that SEP research has identified as important to student success. Working together, teachers reflected on their Ascend data and identified SEP resources to support the constructs they wished to improve. As a result, DFW rates decreased and retention rates improved for students who completed the course taught by an equity master, with significant reductions in retention equity gaps.
What we didn’t expect was that by actively working to improve the student experience, we also improved the faculty experience. At a time when teachers were teaching remotely and isolated from colleagues, they needed the same community and support they were trying to provide to their students. Many faculty at UToledo have participated in Equity Champions for several semesters, reporting satisfaction from working in a diverse, multidisciplinary peer community. Through this work, we learned the importance of attending to faculty experiences of belonging, which empowered faculty and fostered their ability to foster the same sense of belonging among their students.
Our experience with Equity Champions provides valuable lessons for institutions looking to engage faculty in improving student outcomes. There is often an assumption that teachers will find such assignments too time-consuming and therefore not worthwhile. As a result, we often provide faculty development through one-off workshops or passive resources, even though research shows that such practices have little real impact on teaching practice. Equity Champions have shown that teachers are willing to do this work when they see the value of the hours they put in and that it actually improves their experience at our institutions as well as student outcomes.
Investing resources in this type of ongoing teacher engagement brings long-term benefits to the institution, as early adopters want to share new strategies and find opportunities to improve not only their own classrooms, but their institution as a whole. Champions have stepped into roles as allies, advisors, and program leaders and have taken more active roles in supporting their departments and institutions in improving equity of outcomes for our students. What started as a small experiment has become a journey to engage teachers across UToledo and empower them as agents of change toward an equitable student experience.
In the end, we learned from our participation in the SVP that the faculty wants to deal with big problems and implement changes on a larger scale. It takes courage and persistence to do this work, and it requires the same sense of belonging and community among teachers that students need to thrive in college. Given the results for students and faculty at our institution and the relatively modest cost of the program, it is not surprising that other institutions are adopting it, including IUPUI (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis). We are proud of the work of all who participated in UToledo Equity Champions, and we are collectively grateful for the sense of community and learning about the value of shared leadership that these three authors experienced while working with faculty on this program.
Dr. Denise Susan Bartell is currently Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Kent State University and previously served as Associate Vice Provost for Student Success at the University of Toledo.
Dr. Sandra Robinson is a lecturer in mathematics and statistics at the University of Toledo.
Dr. Willie McKether is the former vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Toledo.