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Center for Urban Education to merge with USC Race and Equity Center

CUE director Estela Mara Bensimon announces retirement

By Ross Brenneman

The Center for Urban Education was founded in 1999. (Photo/Adrian Trinidad)

For two decades, the Center for Urban Education has worked with higher education leaders to reform their practices in order to improve racial equity. On July 1, CUE will merge with the USC Race and Equity Center, with all its staff and contracts retained, the centers’ leaders have announced.

In an online event on June 1 revealing the merger, CUE director Estela Mara Bensimon also announced her intention to retire in December 2020.

Bensimon, Dean’s Professor in Educational Equity, founded the Center for Urban Education in 1999, four years after joining the USC Rossier faculty. Speaking at the June event, she revealed how she founded CUE as a response to a “personal and professional crisis.”

“I was a traditional academic doing all the traditional things to advance my career,” she said. “I don’t regret having done those things, but in 1999 I began to question what my current work had to do with the advocacy work of my twenties.”

Under Bensimon‘s direction, CUE has worked with nearly 700 organizations, including California’s community college system, the Coast Guard Academy and the state of Rhode Island.

Bensimon noted CUE’s accomplishments over two decades, including the institutional reforms brought about by its Equity Scorecard process. CUE also helped shift language from focusing on “diversity” to centering on a race-specific form of equity, introducing the concept of being equity-minded.

Leading on racial equity

The COVID-19 pandemic caused CUE to pivot quickly this past spring, with postdoctoral scholar Marissiko M. Wheaton coordinating a six-part webinar series addressing how administrators can ensure racial equity during remote instruction.

Although presented in a different format, the webinar series continued many of the same lessons that have been a hallmark of CUE’s popular (consistently sold-out) in-person equity institutes.

“We changed how problems are framed,” Bensimon said, reflecting on CUE’s impact. “Instead of focusing on student performance and failure, we have taught practitioners to frame problems of racial inequity as institutional performance dysfunctions.”

Provost Professor Shaun R. Harper, who leads the USC Race and Equity Center, praised Bensimon for her work and expressed his admiration for her.

“You have given me the gift of your trust,” Harper said. “You are trusting me with your staff, your legacy, with the tools and resources that CUE has created that 678 institutions have benefited from over two decades. … I promise you that we will honor your legacy.”

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