Launching Transformation to Advance Full Participation

by Roger Brooks, Dean of the Faculty, Connecticut College; Shirley Collado, C3 Principal Investigator, Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer, Middlebury College; and Susan Sturm, George M. Jaffer Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and Director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change, Columbia University

It isn’t every day that we have the chance to experience collective transformational moments, particularly in higher education. At the recent C3 Summit, a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff shared ideas and learning together in unusually engaged ways.

  • A graduate student enlisted the group in strategizing about how to teach effectively in an elite research university and a prison; she was credited by a faculty member in the audience for “modeling what it means to admit what you don’t know as a teacher and to engage with what it means to be an outstanding teacher in a research institution.”
  • An undergraduate student who dazzled the group with his research presentation remarked that he now felt empowered to strip down “what has been placed on me and what I really want to do.”
  • And perhaps the most inspiring moment occurred in the closing plenary given by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski when, for the first time, a sophomore who created a mentorship program to support under-represented first years publicly committed to getting his PhD.

What makes these extraordinary stories of transformation so moving?

With students’ voices and experiences at the center of the conversation, the faculty, staff, and leaders present too became deeply engaged in their own learning and renewal of hope. By the last interactive session of the three days, we saw the group as a whole move from a desire for change to a collective commitment to the meaning, practice and possibilities of “full participation.” This concept, introduced in Professor Susan Sturm’s scholarship, is now built into C3’s mission:

To advance innovation and transformation in higher education, to enable students and faculty, whatever their identities, backgrounds, or institutional positions, to access, thrive, succeed, realize their capabilities, engage meaningfully in institutional life, and contribute to the flourishing of others.

How the Summit launched transformation

The C3 Summit was the culmination of a year of intensive cross-institutional and cross-sectoral collaboration among C3 partner institutions, who are working to address the challenges of diversity in higher education by building capacities, investing in cohorts of talented students and faculty from underrepresented groups, and creating and nurturing connections between partners interested in institutional change. Many of the ideas at the Summit, such as the importance of mentoring and cohorts, were not in and of themselves new. Nor is it unusual for conferences to involve research presentations. But the collaborations themselves were new and unprecedented: the liberal arts colleges of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers group (LADO) working with two premiere research institutions, the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia University; these 25 institutions establishing deep partnership with the Center for Institutional and Social Change at the Columbia Law School. Practices and experiences happening along the way clearly indicate that those working along the full spectrum of higher education feel committed to common purposes and values.

The inaugural Summit, held at Connecticut College, offered an extraordinary level of engagement, energy and sense of possibility. Through activities ranging from multi-generational workshops to cross-institutional networking and multi-disciplinary inquiry teams, the 175 Summit participants— faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, staff and leaders—generated ideas, collaborations, and a sense of cross-institutional community that C3 will build on in the coming years.

C3 as a hub for academic pathway development and culture change

Working at the intersection of theory and practice and in deep collaboration with LADO and the Center, C3 has launched programs at critical junctures along the higher education pathway, including summer research institutes for undergraduates, post-doctoral fellowships on liberal arts campuses, and graduate school visits aimed at knowledge development, network building and recruitment. Mentorship and cohort development strategies cut across all of these programs, and are enabling C3 to draw connections among liberal arts college undergraduate students, research university graduate students and faculty and leaders of both sectors. At the Summit, participants built on the relationships and knowledge developed through these programs, with the goal of launching the coming year’s ongoing work.

But C3’s approach goes beyond a set of programs and events. Its premise is that the success and broader impact of the programs rest upon the capacity to catalyze a new normal that embeds the practices and values at the heart of C3. The Summit reverberated with the theme of culture change, eloquently and passionately conveyed by the closing plenary speaker, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski: “If the climate is not one in which people expect that every student will get necessary support, so many of the students, who are not part of the main group, can be slipping through the cracks.” Conversations echoed a core tenet of C3, that vision be connected to practice. The world of today can be different tomorrow; we can have full participation and inclusive excellence, provided that we build community to transform culture.

Culture change in higher education requires the capacity, in Dr. Hrabowki’s words, to look in the mirror. With that aim in mind, C3 has undertaken a process of cross-sector strategic design and ongoing reflection, supported by the Center for Institutional and Social Change as a backbone intermediary. That process, along with C3’s ability to harness shared commitments across institutions, positions, sectors, and identities, is designed to meet the challenging questions posed by the goal of full participation. Do our institutions’ environment work as effectively for all groups? How do we bring “specificity” to that question, and build the capacity to listen to “the voices of people who might not be heard”? And how can we work to build settings that empower people from different backgrounds to realize their potential?

Catching the moment

C3 has formed as a consortium at a particular historical juncture, in which major changes in the educational landscape now confront every institution. Never has higher education been more important to a generation of students who will face an unpredictable world. Those graduates will need to embrace inclusive engagement with communities both local and global; they will need nuanced and flexible habits of mind, rigorous critical thinking, and facility of moral reasoning. As higher education shifts its aims to producing graduates interested in and prepared to take on the problems of the 21st century, we have an opportunity as never before to ensure that we are preparing students of all backgrounds. Our society needs the contributions of these potential leaders who embody ethical perspectives and are driven to contribute to and improve our communities.

The Summit served to mobilize networks and momentum for the next year of the consortium’s hard work, but even more, to build capacities and structures that will allow for change. In higher education we have an opportunity to transcend some of the structural issues that block people from their highest aspirations. With clearly articulated vision, real leadership at all levels, and cooperation throughout higher education, we may accomplish the shifts we are launching through C3: not only attaining common minimum standards of access and affordability, but raising our sights to pervasive expectations of excellence and inclusion.

We anticipate many transformational moments as C3 moves forward on the sometimes bumpy road ahead. We invite all to embrace our audacious (but simple) goal:

We seek nothing less than the creation of full participation of all in academia.