New Directions for Diversity at USC Rossier

Robert Filback

Robert Filback
Associate Professor

The term diversity evokes different things for different people: strength and opportunity, a hot button to be avoided, indifference or consternation, to name a few. Wherever one stands on the spectrum, an increasingly interconnected global landscape compels educators to develop broader and more nuanced understandings of this topic. Institutions of higher education are central in this effort, and schools of education have a unique opportunity to exert leadership given their mandate to serve all learners and prepare professionals who have a global reach. Recent activities within USC Rossier illustrate how the call for an expansion of the concept of diversity is being realized, and could be emulated.

The Rossier mission is to improve urban education not only locally and nationally, but globally. Our student make-up increasingly reflects this international facet. In 2013, our on-campus degree programs alone enrolled 128 international students from 21 countries. Moreover, students residing outside the U.S. while completing our online programs were spread over 38 countries. Together, 42 different countries were represented among students enrolled in Rossier’s degree programs. Diversity of peoples, languages, and experiences is a growing reality of the transcultural educational field in which we work. In a recent survey, our EdD and MAT students told us that they want discussions of diversity in more courses and want them to extend beyond traditional topics of race, gender and ethnicity and into other areas like class, ability and sexual identity.

Alan G. Green

Alan G. Green
Associate Professor

Inviting deeper dialogue around diversity means openly discussing concepts of fairness, opportunity, merit and power. This is especially true as our student body reflects a global face. Achieving a more robust definition of diversity cannot occur without surfacing tensions, acknowledging them and working through them collectively. Dealing with these topics at deeper levels, in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, can cultivate curiosity, creativity, growth and innovation. Facilitating productive conversations like this, however, is not easy. Recently, a group of our Global Executive EdD students took on this task. We developed a framework of common educator mindsets and consequences to help the students compare explanations for variations in educational outcomes in a variety of settings. The framework was used to surface and talk about tensions between, for example, an “equality” vs. “equity” mindset, a “deficit” vs. “asset” view and a “categorical” vs. “intersectional” conception of groups and cultures (Milner, 2010; Hancock, 2011).

Rossier faculty member Julie Slayton has provided a process map for navigating tension-filled moments, when they do arise. The process begins by recognizing a triggering event and deciding whether it is a personal trigger to ignore or a teachable moment to explore. Exploration could mean taking the discussion in a new direction, asking students to pause and reflect, or responding to someone directly. The process supports building a culture of evidence, in which assertions are adequately supported with research. Facilitators then must help bring difficult conversations to a close, helping participants reflect on what just took place and following up with individuals when needed.

The growth of technology is also expanding the concept of diversity, transforming communication and travel throughout the world and enabling vastly different constituents to interact in closer proximity and in unprecedented ways. One result is greater visibility of the “push and pull factors” – the pursuit of opportunity by some and the search for stability by others. Prilleltensky recommends focusing on the impacts of diversity in terms of well-being and justice and to explore the ways that power, prestige and possibility are allocated in different contexts around the world. Coursework within our Rossier counseling programs has embraced this perspective. This has helped students analyze people and problems in context and perceive when societal changes create new forms of advantage for some and barriers for others, thereby prolonging inequity.

A core objective in strengthening our concept of diversity is equipping people to challenge assumptions about who can or cannot succeed in school. Moving from shallow to deeper analyses of student achievement urges a shift from static views about the academic performance of groups or cultures toward more careful analyses of students “in context,” “in appropriate detail” and with attention to often overlooked interpersonal dynamics (Pollock 2008, p. 369). We need deeper inquiry into how students in different contexts experience school, and less reliance on predictions about school success or failure based on membership in a group. Rather than accepting general explanations, such as “they care about education more” or “they motivate their children,” we can pursue evidence about school-related practices such as specific ways of talking about school or particular ways of motivating learners. We can also examine how a student’s success in school is determined through myriad interactions over time with adults, teachers, and others in and out of school.

Rossier’s mission compels us to review, grapple with and expand our ideas and practices around diversity. We have an opportunity to create learning environments that serve all students who differ in race, culture, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, physical or intellectual abilities, religious views and political beliefs. We know that expanding our approach requires frank conversations about power and opportunity. It will necessitate time to gather and evaluate evidence, and go deeper in our analysis of the school experience. This takes commitment, courage and willingness to learn from one another, regardless of status. Given Rossier’s rich history of adaptation and growth, we know that our efforts and successes can serve as examples for higher education around the world.

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by Rob Filback and Alan Green

Filback and Green are members of the USC Rossier Faculty Diversity Committee, which is charged with supporting dialogue about issues of diversity and equity, and working to recruit, retain and mentor diverse faculty, staff and students.