Student Affairs

Student Engagement and Inclusive Campus Environments – From Magical Thinking to Strategy and Intentionality

Presenter:  Professor Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D, University of Pennsylvania

@DrShaunHarper | #CSUNmagic | Terry Piper Lecture Series | Organizing Committee Members

This is the fourth annual event for the Terry Piper Lecture Series.  Previous speakers have included Dr. Laura Rendon, Dr. Vincent Tinto, and Dr. Marcia Baxter-Magolda.  I personally had the pleasure of reporting directly to Dr. Terry Piper when I started working at CSUN back in 2006.  I make sure to attend this event every year.

“Change is inevitable, progress is optional” – Dr. Terry Piper

Started faculty career at USC, and talked briefly about his relationship with Dr. Brandon Martin and Debra Hammond.  Before becoming a faculty member, Shaun was involved with Student Affairs and credits Debra’s leadership as a major inspiration to him.  While Shaun did not know Terry,  he acknowledged his work (“I feel as if I knew him based on legacy”).

Student success requires a lot from a university – it doesn’t happen out of thin air.

Some Common Occurrences of Magical Thinking Assumptions

  • The assumption that powerful educational outcomes will be automatically manufactured through student-initiated engagement with peers who are different.
  • More racial diversity = increased sense of belonging for students of color
  • The curriculum will diversify itself
  • Students will engage themselves
  • All 40,000+ CSUN undergraduates will be learned persons who are prepared for a democratic society
  • Students will confront their own biases

Dr. Harper and his graduate students did a content study of mission statements of universities with enrollments over 20,000 students. They made some interesting promises, i.e. students will be prepared for a global economy, ready for a diverse and inclusive workforce, etc.  The reality is that cultural barriers put student groups on the fringe of the university experience.

Diversity is often reflected in the student body, but this is not sufficient.  It needs to be reflected across the institution.  However, we see cultural clustering that effectively perpetuates racial segregation.  If students do not feel substantively engaged, they leave.  This can produce “accidental” racists, sexists, and homophobes.  Universities are often the most guilty institutions in perpetuating these attitudes.  Overwhelmingly, these attitudes are from men.

Dr. Harper shared some learning from his work:

  • Deliberate strategies that bring principles of good educational practice to fruition on college and university campuses.
  • Individual and Collective Reflection:  What am I doing to involve all students equitably?  When was the last time I read about these principles and intentionally attempted to implement them.
  • Remediation.  Deficits are not all the students’!  It’s completely possible to become an educator without ever teaching students.  We’re now four year into a study, the race and student affairs project.  What have we learned?  People learned in their student dev theory course about a racial identity model from the early 1970s!  It doesn’t teach how to deal with racial inequity issues.
  • Literacy.  You must read to keep up with developments within the field.  I often have people come up to me and tell me that they can’t read because they don’t have the time to.  This is not intentionality!
  • Collaboration with students
  • Cross-sectional partnerships
  • An actionable written document.  So many campuses do not have this.
  • Assessment.  How do you measure success?

Intentionality Examples

  • The professor who does not wait for the one Native American student in his class to approach him about research opportunities, but instead invites her to have a conversation about how their mutual interests might be collaboratively pursued via a research project.
  •  The academic advisor who asks commuter and part-time students how they would prefer to receive information about engagement opportunities, then communicates this information in a systematic way to the campus activities office and later checks the database to ensure her advisees are receiving info in ways they requested.
  •  The office or department leader that predetermines with colleagues who will attend which sessions at a conference, insists everyone takes copious notes, provides time during the next staff meeting to recap and collectively determine adaptability of ideas from sessions, and then signs reimbursements.

Real-World Examples from the Study

The Lumina Foundation provided a grant to work with 5 institutions to do something about enhancing and improving Black Male success – Institutional Change for Black Male Student Success Project.  Those campuses were:  UCLA, Stanford, University of Wisconsin, Community Colleges of Philadelphia, North Carolina Central University.  Teams from each university had to include:  two tenured faculty, at least one cabinet member, at least two students (black undergraduate men).  These teams created the ingredients/artifacts of the intentionality and strategies mentioned above, and then took them back to their home campuses.

At UCLA, their opportunity was to address the low first-to-second year black male retention rates, plus campus size and experiences with racial stereotypes.  The team included tenured faculty, senior admins from academic affairs and student affairs, grad students, staff from various student support services across campus, and black students.  Key components:  bringing resources to black male students (“blacklimated”).  Increased social and cultural capital via “deans day” where students could sit with their deans (deans actually gave out cell phone numbers).  Stereotype threat strategizing:  role of grad students was that they shared their experiences for effectively responding to issues (i.e. microagressions).  Introducing black male students to their first/only black male professor.  Result:  across 3 cohorts of 77 students, all but one returned to UCLA for a sophomore year.

North Carolina Central University opportunity:  black male six year graduation rate was 27 percent.  Disaggregated data showed that honors students that received additional support were most successful, and black male students who received 2.7 GPA in high school were least likely to persist.  VPSA, tenured faculty members, black undergraduates.  Key Components:  strategic “scholar” languaging (call them “Centennial Scholars”).  Apply what works for honors students to the Centennial Scholars.  Residential learning community with centralized support, RAs, and resources just for them (also moved into super-shiny residence halls like the honors students).  Result:  across 3 cohorts of 90 undergraduates, only two students left before completing their bachelor’s degrees.

Each institution received only $20,000 to accomplish these results!

Post Script:  Black Male initiatives are in vogue right now, and this I think is dangerously close to a form of “magical thinking.”




By Paul Schantz

CSUN Director of Web & Technology Services, Student Affairs. husband, father, gamer, part time aviator, fitness enthusiast, Apple fan, and iguana wrangler.

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