Gathering Voice for Context-Informed Institutional Change

April 14, 2022

Although inclusive, diversity with equity, access and accountability (IDEAA) challenges have become more apparent in pre-secondary and post-secondary institutions in recent years, these issues have always existed, and at least in the United States, many are intentional by design.

While broad ideas from literature and outside organizations are a good starting point for taking action to improve IDEAA, positive change is more likely to come about if the initiative is tailored to the unique context of an institution and its members and considers institutional history and the surrounding community.

Enacting large-scale change isn’t quick or easy, but gathering voice across the institution, or within a department seeking change, is one of the very first steps forward. To gather voice, an institution must consider the "values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives and cultural backgrounds" of its members – including employees/staff, full-time faculty, part-time faculty and students. To accomplish this, all members must be empowered to reflect openly on institutional culture, policies and practices and to suggest bold solutions to address institutional challenges related to IDEAA.

By gathering voice, and then honoring it, through formal planning and action, an institution can foster a narrative that serves as a compass for long-term IDEAA transformation. However, ensuring that all members of an institution are given equal agency—and that voices from marginalized groups are systematically sought and elevated—is key to the success of this approach.

Including Every Faculty and Staff Member

It is essential to understand what faculty and non-teaching staff experience, and the changes they desire to see and experience, within their institutions. What does it say when departments and institutions solicit and enact advice from leadership and full-time faculty but ignore, or don’t even ask for, the advice of non-teaching staff and part-time faculty? To some, it might say that the experiences, knowledge and opinions of employees in higher-paying, and potentially longer-term, positions are more valid or important than those with lower-paying, and potentially shorter-term, positions.

Unfortunately, this experience is common in postsecondary institutions and in industry and suggests an unhealthy organizational hierarchy is at play. Not only is this type of culture demoralizing, but excluding perspectives of people who are a fundamental component of an institution also makes it impossible to understand the institution as it currently exists.

While some hierarchical attributes can serve an important purpose in organizations, they also potentially represent a structure that prioritizes the wants and needs of those with more power and silences those with less power. Research has shown that individuals with "psychological feelings of power" tend to "devalue the perspectives, opinions and contributions of others." They’re also more likely to objectify and stereotype others—ignoring individuals who they don’t see as having the potential to help them achieve their goals—and less likely to understand outside perspectives or listen to others.

These dysfunctional hierarchies can destroy department culture and interpersonal relationships. Individuals with power, who dominate social interactions and discussions, implicitly signal a lack of support for those with less power and a lack of value for different perspectives. At the group level, this can lead to less open communication between colleagues and lower team performance. At the individual level, it can lead to resentment and conflict.

However, research has shown that when those with power are reminded of the importance of their so-called "subordinates," they’re more likely to see them as instrumental to achieving collective goals. In other words, if a culture of voice and genuine listening can be cultivated, then negative aspects of hierarchies can be challenged.

To accomplish this, gather input from employees who do not traditionally hold power within the department or institution, and treat their experiences, knowledge and opinions as factual and valuable, because they are. This can be done through focus groups, a climate survey or by simply inviting them to departmental meetings and making a point of gathering input on a regular basis.

Valuing Student Voices

Engaging student voice is "a form of participation or involvement that sees staff working in partnership with students as equals to influence change, empowering them to take an active role in shaping or changing their education." Ideally, institutions, departments and faculty are not simply listening to and enacting student wants—reflecting a "consumerism" model of higher education—instead, they are involved in co-creating activities like curriculum planning and pedagogical approaches that promote a community of learning and position students as change agents.

Faculty redesigning a course in EU Law had an interesting experience when comparing the utility of curriculum redesign literature and student voice. After their first curriculum redesign, using only peer-reviewed literature, pass rates for the semester fell by about 10%, and attendance decreased by about 40%, over the course of the semester. However, after conducting focus groups to gather student voice and undergoing a second curriculum redesign, pass rates spiked by about 35%, and attendance remained steady over the semester. This observation suggests that allowing the students enrolled in a course to pursue self-actualization through reflection and dialogue is a more relevant source of promising practices than expertly written and peer-reviewed literature alone.

The student voice strategy described in this study reflects the "student representative" role, where a smaller group of students represents the larger student body. This approach is an accessible way to start gathering student voice for departments or institutions who are new to the process. Alternatively, another study borrowed from other notable scholars to present even more intensive co-creating approaches, including the following:

  • Acting as a consultant or intern, often in a paid position, for collaborative projects.
  • Partnering for research.
  • Co-designing curriculum and instruction strategies.
  • Evaluating courses.

By listening to and considering student voice, institutions can better understand the efficacy and desirability of the current culture, curriculum and instructional approaches in a given department and engage students in co-creating new approaches for aspects that aren’t working. If this is already a common practice within your department, consider the mechanisms available to scale up the model so that all students can engage as agents of change for teaching and learning.

Understanding Oneself

Drawing on multicultural education and Deep Teaching in STEM, part of genuine listening and empathizing with others involves understanding oneself. Thus, in addition to understanding staff and students, it’s important for each leadership and faculty member to understand themselves before jumping into large-scale change like curriculum redesign. Scholars argue that changes to curriculum and instruction are much less impactful without an understanding of what the instructor brings to the classroom and how they influence course climate. The same could be said for leadership and faculty in relation to the climate of a given department.

That said, self-understanding is another long-haul strategy for equitable curriculum reform that requires intense reflection. Some areas of self to explore are identity, beliefs, biases, social positioning, privilege and institutional access. To assist with this, institutions can explore resources to help faculty, staff and students learn more about their internal and external sense of self. One strategy is to write autobiographical lists of privilege, such as privilege due to class, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. Here are some additional resources that might help to kick-off such a journey, but can be tailored for your institution and members:

In All Change Processes, Be Inclusive and Elevate Marginalized Voices

A fundamental component of institutional change is to encourage colleagues to join IDEAA initiatives and to help them grow in their pursuit of these goals. However, institutions must be careful not to formalize punitive policies that serve as shame devices or threats to employment, as these can ultimately demotivate, and even build resentment, toward the desired change.

For example, new faculty evaluation criteria could require one inclusion goal per course with a simple measure to evaluate its success. If this is a new requirement, support should be available to help faculty understand what it means to increase inclusion and to identify a measure of inclusion. And if their inclusion goal is not met, that isn’t the time for punishment, it’s an opportunity to help faculty design a new method or measure to reach their goal.

In other words, your change practices should aim to be inclusive and foster a growth mindset, which may have positive mental health impacts for all members of a community.

Equally important is elevating marginalized voices in your context for equitable change. It’s becoming increasingly accepted that supporting the most historically underrepresented groups groups in society might be the key to increasing IDEAA. Universal Design for Learning was designed around this idea, and elevating marginalized voices works on a similar premise. By gathering and elevating marginalized voices, which speak to marginalized experiences, communities are better positioned to create action plans that are aimed at IDEAA for all.

So, not only is it important to gather voice, but to also gather voice in a way that considers whose voice is needed most. Doing so gets a department or institution one step closer to large-scale change for IDEAA.

Interested in learning more about IDEAA? Watch the recording of Chelsey Nardi discussing her JMBE paper, Antiracist Opportunities in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education: Considerations for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Author: Chelsey Nardi, M.S.

Chelsey Nardi, M.S.
Chelsey Nardi is a research manager at Empirical Education.