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Empowering Change: Four Key Strategies for Supporting Student Affairs Administrators in the New Affirmative Action Landscape

Affirmative action policies have been instrumental in increasing access and opportunities for historically marginalized groups in higher education. These policies aimed to counteract systemic disadvantages by considering race, ethnicity, and other factors in admissions processes. However, changes in legal and policy landscapes have led to reconsidering or eliminating these measures in many contexts. While many of the immediate concerns in postsecondary education arenas are centered on admissions policies and scholarship support, the potential damage of eliminating affirmative action extends to employees across higher education and beyond. As institutions grapple with this shift, they must adopt innovative strategies to maintain their commitment to diversity and inclusion, honor their espoused values, and care for the broad constituencies they serve and support. Dr. Michael Steven WilliamsDr. Michael Steven Williams

The elimination of affirmative action in higher education diversity efforts presents a significant challenge for institutions striving to create inclusive and equitable learning environments. Evidence suggests that many minoritized students already perceive campus environments as racist. Thus, removing mechanisms expressly intended to support the diversification of campus environments sends a strong signal to racially minoritized students that they do not belong in many collegiate spaces. Removing this critical tool for addressing historical inequities and promoting diversity requires institutions to adapt their approaches to fostering inclusion. Administrators, especially those who work closely with racially minoritized students in various capacities, must play a crucial role in this transition and require adequate support to navigate these changes effectively.

Supporting administrators who directly engage with racially minoritized students is paramount because even before the latest rulings, these professionals shouldered a significant amount of the labor of protecting students in hostile environments. These administrators (e.g., academic advisors, residence life staff, admissions coordinators, counselors, and cultural center staff) and their interactions and interventions significantly influence students' experiences and success. These administrators are essential for intentionally creating the safe spaces necessary to allow students to express their authentic selves, flourish in their studies, and feel psychologically and emotionally connected to campuses nationwide.

Here are four ways that institutions can provide practical support:

1. Support Ongoing and Targeted Professional Development: Administrators need ongoing and contemporarily relevant training for navigating the new policy environment and how it changes the nature of their work. This is particularly important for those working closely with minoritized students because changes in policies and practices may also prompt fear about job security. Training equips them with tools to create inclusive spaces and foster a sense of belonging for all students, but it also offers peace of mind by providing them with transferable skills that can aid career advancement. While national and international opportunities for professional development are valuable, we emphasize the importance of local and digitally-mediated (e.g., Zoom) communities of practice that allow administrators to work collaboratively to reflect on best practices and implement appropriate strategies. These communities of practice should be spaces where student affairs educators at all levels and in all functional areas come together to learn, grow, and problem-solve with other professionals committed to positive personal and institutional transformation.

2. Mentorship, Community Building, & Collaborative Partnerships: Encouraging administrators to establish mentorship programs and affinity groups can facilitate connections and provide spaces for minoritized students to share experiences, challenges, and successes. Collaboration among various departments, including academic affairs, student affairs, and equity and diversity offices, ensures a comprehensive approach to student and administrator support. These groups are also crucial for administrators collaborating with faculty and other staff with shared interests. For example, intentionally drawing connections between front-line administrators engaged in frequent and meaningful student interactions, faculty, and senior administrators who may be more disconnected from the daily work of direct student learning and support will be particularly valuable. These stakeholders need insight into the challenges of each others’ work to create actionable strategies aligned with overarching institutional missions and goals. These programs can also identify and prepare entry-level and mid-level professionals for advancement to leadership roles.Keisha LewarsKeisha Lewars

3. Culturally Relevant and Responsive Practices: Administrators should be well-versed in culturally relevant and responsive practices to engage with diverse students effectively. This involves recognizing and valuing students' unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives while avoiding assumptions and stereotypes. It also means offering personalized support tailored to students’ individual needs, aspirations, and challenges. A critical precursor to providing targeted support is strengthening communication channels. We cannot support people if we do not know what they need. Thus, creating and maintaining open lines of communication between administrators and students–particularly those that facilitate a deeper understanding of students’ cultural backgrounds–helps build trust and offers administrators valuable information about what students need to succeed personally and professionally. This same ethos should be applied to the service and support of administrators.

4. Data-Informed Interventions: Equipping administrators with data on student outcomes (e.g., grade point average (GPA), retention rates, and persistence rates) and socio-emotional concerns (e.g., perceptions of campus climate and academic self-efficacy) can guide targeted interventions. Identifying disparities and areas of concern enables administrators to tailor support to the needs of minoritized students. Offering front-line administrators insight into the data that drives senior administrative decision-making is critical, particularly in times of uncertainty. A clear understanding of the directives and data-driven bases for senior-level decision-making facilitates buy-in for various initiatives.

Eliminating affirmative action policies in higher education diversity efforts necessitates a strategic and intentional approach to maintaining inclusivity and equity. As institutions adjust to the changing landscape, proactive measures are necessary to ensure that minoritized students thrive. Administrators close to these students are vital change agents in this process. Empowering and recognizing the indispensability of these professionals is essential. Institutions can uphold their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion despite the absence of affirmative action policies by providing resources, training, and ongoing support for these administrators and, by extension, the students they serve.

Dr. Michael Steven Williams is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis in the College of Education & Human Development at the University of Missouri.

Keisha Lewars is a senior academic advisor at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY).

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