When administrators at Portland State University (PSU) recently embarked on its ambitious four-year strategic plan, they decided to implement an innovative component called the Equity Lens, an intentional effort aimed at analyzing the plan through the lens of race and ethnicity and through the prism of the lived experiences of marginalized communities.
While it’s routine for colleges and universities to consider inclusion and diversity as factors in their overall strategic plan every few years or so, PSU — under the leadership of its president, Dr. Wim Wiewel — made it the central part of its ongoing planning process, creating Equity Lens panels and a Diversity Action Council made up of faculty, students and staff. They were tasked with raising questions and finding solutions about a range of initiatives included in the plan strictly from the vantage point of equity, inclusion and diversity.
“We commit to equity as a foundation of PSU’s excellence. We define equity as ensuring everyone has access to opportunities necessary to satisfy essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential. Our aim is to address the roots of inequities, including but not limited to racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, classism, and the intersections of these inequalities,” according to the strategic plan document that took effect this year and will expire in 2020.
“We commit to inclusion of historically marginalized communities and those underrepresented in higher education. We commit to ensuring that equity is integral to all elements of this plan — in its design, substance, implementation and the metrics used to measure progress. Equity considerations are included with each strategic goal to guide implementation.”
The issue of diversity was also considered essential in how the plan was even rolled out to the college community and its stakeholders, says Dr. Sona Karentz Andrews, provost and vice president for academic affairs at PSU.
“[Diversity] is not an afterthought,” says Andrews, who has served as the chief academic officer at PSU since 2012. “From the beginning, this has permeated the entire university in a way none of us dreamed would be happening. We now make decisions using the equity lens model.”
The Equity Lens was part of a broader and much more comprehensive effort by PSU officials to address diversity in a bold and proactive way.
At the urging of the Faculty Senate, PSU faculty across the university have been calling for more conversations about course design and the importance of infusing culturally relevant pedagogy into the academic curriculum. Recently, four faculty members from academic disciplines as diverse as psychology to communications made presentations to their colleagues about how they’ve successfully managed to design their course curriculum, including a syllabus and readings that felt more inclusive for marginalized groups.
In this regard, the onus for diversity has become a shared university responsibility and does not become the sole work of academic programs like Black or Chicano studies or LGBT and women’s studies.
“Everyone is making this work very visible,” says Andrews, who says she has not encountered pushback from faculty in what could have easily become a contentious struggle, particularly around the issue of academic freedom.
In addition, PSU is a unionized campus. “What we try to do on the administrative side, is to create space for faculty members to do what they want to do. This hasn’t been a top-down forced approach. We simply provide the opportunities and resources for faculty to do the work they want to do and we provide the space for them to do it.”
PSU’s approach is an interesting social experiment, especially when one considers Oregon’s historical struggles with inclusion in general, and racial diversity in particular, at its colleges and universities across the state. Though PSU has its fair share of challenges, when it comes to diversity steps the university is now viewed by many as a model.
For example, first-year retention among minority students is higher than majority students. In addition, the university caters to nontraditional-age students, many of whom identify as single parents, members of the LGBTQ community and veterans.
“They are incredibly serious about their work and, in many cases, are paying for their own education,” says Andrews, who adds that, unlike other academic institutions across the state, 28 percent of the student population is comprised of underrepresented minority students.
Latino students make up the largest minority group on campus. Enrollment numbers over the past five years show a 13.4 percent increase in Latino freshmen and a 12.7 percent increase in all Latino PSU students.
“We look very different from the community and the state,” says Andrews. “Ours is a campus that embraces the diversity we have in terms of age, in terms of gender, in terms of life experiences, ethnicity and religion.”
In a state where campus protests are routine, more than a hundred students staged a walk-out in May over the university’s decision to move forward with a 2014 decision by the Board of Trustees to allow campus police officers to carry guns on campus. Two months earlier, students shut down a trustees meeting over a proposed tuition increase.
“PSU is known for its culture of protests,” says a longtime faculty member who did not want to be identified. “While you have the rise of conservatism on some college campuses that are really trying to do away with ethnic studies and other programs, we have an administration [that] is genuinely trying to do the right thing by addressing inequities, but a group of leftist Whites, who claim to be representing students of color, have stifled progress. This is the ultimate example of White paternalism.”
Campus culture improvement
Still, university officials say that a key component of the strategic plan focuses not just on academics but on improving campus culture. The university has allocated resources to the creation of nine cultural centers on campus (two to open this fall).
The Native American Student & Community Center, coupled with the Indigenous Nations Studies Program, has put PSU on the map for its scholarship and programming focused on the native and indigenous populations of the United States and throughout the world.
In addition, 22 percent of PSU students are parents, so the university created a resource center for students with children.
The university has also created the School of Gender, Race, and Nations, an interdisciplinary program that includes Black Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Last year, PSU hired Dr. Carmen Suarez as its chief diversity officer. She says that the university is leading the way because it is thinking outside of the box and that other universities across the nation might consider studying its model.
“I’m one of those that deeply believe that compliance work is an important engine to the bigger diversity bus,” she notes, “because if you can’t change their hearts and their minds, you will govern their behavior and hold them accountable.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.