Showing what you value


While financial investment is one place to determine what a college deems important, it’s not the only indicator. Leaders’ time and attention, among other ways, also can show what a college values.

A panel of community college leaders last week discussed a range of social justice issues as part of the virtual 2023 Teaching and Learning Symposium on Social Justice in Higher Education held by Hudson County Community College (New Jersey). Investment in programs and activities such as professional development sends a message, but so does what’s on a president’s “calendar,” noted Paula Pando, president of Reynolds Community College in Virginia. That includes the types of meetings, events and activities a president attends, she explained. A college’s hiring process and what’s on its website and other materials also signal an institution’s values, she added.

Even subtler things, like a writing assignment, can show whether the college is connected with its students and understands their experiences and needs, Pando said. For example, an essay on a vacation trip may seem innocuous, but many community college students may not have the luxury of going on vacation. Instead, ask students to write about a person who means a lot to them to get to the same writing assessment while being more sensitive to their circumstances, Pando said.

Invest in instructors

Although those types of signals are important, where the money goes definitely shines the spotlight.

When he arrived at Colorado’s Community College of Aurora (CCA) in 2021 as its new president, Mordecai Brownlee reviewed the college’s “planning budget assessment innovation” cycle to strategically determine how it helps the college serve students’ needs. From that, the diversity, equity and inclusion division was created, along with a vice president position to lead it. Also, CCA is about to implement plans for a cultural center in the college’s student center that will provide opportunities not only for students but for faculty and the community as well.

Colleges also show where their values are when they invest in professional development for faculty, the leaders said. Each of the participants noted the recent Achieving the Dream conference in Chicago as a top-notch opportunity to not only share promising practices but also to inspire faculty and leaders to do the work.

Related article: Building social justice degree programs

Deborah Preston, president of Mercer County Community College, said it is important to stress that closing the student success gap is everyone’s responsibility at a college, but it starts in the classroom.

“I think for years, that was our philosophy — add another mentoring program, hire some more advisors, create some more clubs. All those things are critically important to making students feel welcome and included. But if we want students to succeed in the classroom, then things have to happen in the classroom that will help them succeed,” she said.

Pando agreed: “Investing in our people is of primary importance to us because they do the work. They are in front of our students every single day.”

Campus challenges

Preston, who is in her first year as president of the New Jersey college, noted how a campus looks can also send a message. She observed the college’s Trenton campus doesn’t look as nice, it has fewer staff and it often doesn’t have the same food services as its West Windsor campus, which is close to Princeton University. Some students near the Trenton campus finish high school and opt to travel 20 minutes to enroll in the West Windsor campus simply because it’s nicer.

“Those students feel that difference,” said Preston, who noted she aims to provide the resources to change that perception.

But Preston added that she is inspired by how students at both locations understand each other’s challenges and are interested in social justice issues. While students at the Trenton campus “are living the issue of social justice,” West Windsor campus students, for example, travel to Trenton to participate in activities at the campus, such as the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service.

Providing the resources and support for students to engage is important and can result in real change. Preston came from another New Jersey college, Raritan Valley Community College, which has an extensive prisoner education program. When student members of the college’s chapter of the honor society Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) learned that incarcerated students could not join PTK, even if they met all other criteria, they drafted a resolution that they took to the national PTK conference and got it changed. And they also raise money annually to cover the PTK membership fee for those incarcerated students.

“Those students had a passion for doing something great. And all we had to do was give them a little support and encouragement,” Preston said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.