The Promise of Transformative Education

Last fall, Juana María Rodríguez, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, delivered a keynote address during the Liberal Arts Experience Workshop C3 hosted at her institution. She has allowed us to share the text of her address below. 

When I first heard about the Creating Connections Consortium, I was immediately struck by the ways my own experiences navigating the ladder of higher education were mirrored in the larger vision of C3. My undergraduate degree is from San Francisco State University, my Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, my Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from Berkeley and my first tenure-track appointment was in an English Department at Bryn Mawr College, a small, liberal arts college for women. My time as both a student and a faculty member at these very different kinds of institutions have all shaped how I have come to see the connection between academic culture, student and faculty success, and the significance of diversity. In my comments, I want to help us think about the work of diversifying the academy, but I also want to open a space for talking about the kind of affective responses that diversity instantiates.

Let me begin by clarifying some distinctions about what we mean when we speak about diversity. Very often diversity means making the spaces of higher education more inclusive of individuals who have historically been under-represented at these institutions. But let us step back and think about what ‘under-represented’ actually means, both numerically and symbolically. According to the US census, Latinos now constitute 38% of all Californians, but on Berkeley’s campus only 7% of graduate students identify as Latino—and less than half of those are enrolled in Ph.D. programs; 13% of the US population is African Americans, but only 3% of Berkeley’s faculty are African, Afro-Caribbean or African American. Native Americans constitute close to 2% of Californians, but their representation among graduate students, not to mention faculty is so low that it is termed statistically negligible, numbers so small they are not even included in the available charts. What might it feel like to be statistically irrelevant? Even the term ‘under-represented minority’ seems to suggest a sort of benign declaration, a failure of representation. In fact, we know that these statistics are directly related to generations of overt federal, state, and local housing, educational and employment policies that have denied racialized minorities access to certain jobs, certain neighborhoods and certain schools, denied the material and social benefits of what legal scholar Cheryl Harris terms “whiteness as property.” For a population like people with disabilities, access can literally mean access to the building, to the classroom, or to basic course materials—access which has all too frequently has been systematically denied or simply deemed too onerous or costly to merit inclusion. Again, what might it feel like to have the academic accommodations that make your education possible, deemed too much of a burden? But what ‘under-represented’ means is also very much context specific, even white women who have historically benefited the most from affirmation action policies, continue to be under-represented in the STEM fields for example. Under this definition, diversity, in terms of race and gender, but also in relation to disability, sexuality, immigration status, and age is very much about championing a belief in a university that is inclusive and representative of diverse bodies and communities. And this is important work.

Diversity is more than that, however. It is more than just counting bodies and checking boxes. At an educational institution like Berkeley, diversity is also a shared principal, part of our collective belief that education should be and can be transformative. As educators, part of our mission is to empower our students to become engaged global citizens in a diverse and changing world. As the recent New York Times story about the experiences of women at Harvard’s business school suggests, success is not predicated on access alone, instead performance outcomes are directly tied to academic culture. At Berkeley and elsewhere that has meant understanding the connection between the ways certain bodies have been marginalized, stigmatized and devalued, and the ways certain knowledge practices have been marginalized, stigmatized and devalued. We can continue to admit more students of color, hire more faculty members who are disabled, offer spousal benefits to gay and lesbian staff members, but if we don’t also do the work of transforming the academic cultures in which we live, we have done little to deliver on our promise of transformative education.

We have long known that one avenue towards transforming educational institutions is by diversifying the curriculum in order to make the histories, social experiences, cultural practices and creative theorizations of marginalized groups core to what it means to be an educated member of society. Very often however, diversifying the curriculum gets translated as sending students off to ‘that class’ or ‘that department’ to learn about ‘those people, and in my mind, that is not just an institutional failure, it is a failure of intellectual imagination. Diversity requirements like the American Cultures requirement at Berkeley are wonderful additions to the core curriculum, but they are not enough to address the systemic exclusion and marginalization that has characterized the academy. We need to teach our students to approach the world in unfamiliar ways, and give them expansive tools of inquiry to help them form compelling interpretations for what they encounter. Valuing diverse perspectives and diverse modes of inquiry is absolutely central to that project, allowing us to ask new questions of familiar materials and to valorize under-researched archives. We need to not just value difference, but learn to value differently. What might happen if we take a canonical literary text, Chaucer, Cervantes, Poe or Morrison and examine it through the lens of disability studies? How might that intellectual exercise allow for new insights into how bodily difference might be imagined or expressed? How might our understanding of national citizenship be expanded, challenged or transformed through an engagement with indigenous ideas of sovereignty? How might the prevalence of third gender designations in India, Indonesia and elsewhere help us contest social science data organized around static gender binaries? What happens if we interrogate the experience of chattel slavery not only as a political, historical and social reality but as a phenomenological reality, a uniquely perverse way of inhabiting one’s own body? The fields of disability studies, queer theory, gender studies or ethnic studies, have at times concerned themselves with the identities, histories and cultures of specific bodies and communities that have been marginalized in academic literature and that work of expanding our knowledge of the world has been crucial. But these fields have also been centrally engaged in posing larger questions, of grappling with what we might term Big Ideas: how are social norms disciplined, maintained and transformed over time? How do we balance the relationship between collective political structures and individual desires? What constitutes the human or what Judith Butler might term a “grievable life”? How is a life worth mourning or grieving made intelligible through race, sexuality, ability, gender, nationality? These interdisciplinary fields, and the disciplines they have influenced and transformed have all contributed to the expansion of academic inquiry, and towards making the worlds around us more just and more inhabitable spaces to live, work and wonder.

Diversifying academic institutions and the kinds of knowledge practices that are valued within them remains a fraught process, however. In their text, Power, Race and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower?, editors Shirley Geok-Lim, Maria Herrera-Sobek and Genaro Padilla address the anxious process of integrating the racialized bodies of students, professors and administrators into the academy while simultaneously integrating issues of race, gender and sexuality into larger discussions of academic cultures. In the introduction to that book Geok-Lim and Herrera-Sobek write:

While much has been published concerning pedagogical and curricular matters, relatively little attention has been paid to the social and professional pressures on women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, who are frequently assumed to accomplish the mission of multicultural education with their appointment as faculty members. (1)

Their text opens a space within the academy for more nuanced dialogue on what these changes have meant to faculty who have often had to carry the burden of diversity, and the impact these changes have had on a myriad of issues related to hiring, promotion, tenure, service, retention, teaching, administration and institutional culture. But these conversations also invariably reveal how the particularities of race, sexuality, gender or ability are nuanced by the complexities of other factors such as accent, nationality, age, teaching style, fashion style, class, color, degrees of femininity and masculinity, size, and the subjects we teach. What does it mean, when even our names, have the potential to produce anxiety in others? In their introductory comments, these authors frame the problem of narrating these experiences by posing the following questions; they ask, “What are the challenges, problems, proposed solutions, and transformations that face universities when faculty from traditionally underrepresented groups enter academia? What kinds of things happen when traditional outsiders move or do not move into positions of tenure and/or administrative power” (1)? These are thorny questions that face the organizers of C3.

The mission of C3 is to create pathways of inclusion by increasing the diversity of the faculty at high-ranking liberal arts colleges, and increasing the diversity of graduate students at research institutions like Berkeley and Columbia. When I first arrived at Bryn Mawr College as a newly minted Ph.D., I was the one walking that path, I was that outsider who was now entering the ranks of not just the academic profession, but the privileged world of elite educational institutions. And it wasn’t easy. As is often the case, but certainly not always, there was a certain nebulous alignment between my identity as a queer Latina, and my fields of study. At Bryn Mawr College, I was involved in expanding the curricular offerings of the English Department in uncharted directions, adding new courses in Latina/o literature and queer theory, but also teaching courses in critical legal studies and translation studies, which were still considered somewhat novel approaches in literary studies. The only other faculty of color in my department was an African American woman whose courses in the African American literary canon were quite traditional in disciplinary terms. It was in many respects a deeply alienating and emotionally wrought experience, but also rewarding in ways that I never expected.

Bryn Mawr College, with its tree-lined walkways and stone buildings, a student body of 1,300, and a faculty that could all fit in one auditorium, was unlike any place I had ever even visited. The reception I received there was puzzling at times, and other times seemingly ripped from Stereotype Digest. The chair of my department, once commented that my work was so ‘interesting’ and that I wrote ‘so beautifully’ that perhaps I should consider publishing with a popular press. Another senior colleagues in assumed that if my area of specialization was US Latino and ethnic literature (how many books can that really be?), then I must surely also be an expert in Latin American and peninsular letters, in other words all of the Spanish language tradition from El Cid onward. (His area was 18th century British poetry: one country, one century, one genre). And yes, on more than one occasion, I would hear comments about just how well I spoke English. A frequent response to anecdotes of this sort often attempts to mark these ‘unfortunate incidents’ as isolated occurrences, the result of misunderstandings or oversensitivity. Yet, as people of color, we narrate and interpret these stories within a context in which the specter of other stories of inequity and exclusion haunt our sense of belonging in both the academy and the civic spheres in which we live. If the emotional negotiations involved in these professional exchanges are complicated for faculty, we can imagine that they are all the more perilous for graduate students.

Teaching at Bryn Mawr College was also some of the most rewarding work of my career as a professor. It was luxury teaching, small classes with outstanding students, supported by proactive and resourceful librarians and talented technical teams. If one of my students got a paper accepted at a graduate conference (and many did), I could be assured that the College would make sure she was able to attend. Like many small liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr was about manufactured diversity—generous financial aid packages that created access to a wide range of carefully selected students. This had surprising advantages. In my Latina/o Literature classes, I might have a Chicana from a struggling farm worker family from South Texas sitting next to a young woman from Mexico City who had gone to high school with her own personal bodyguard, an Afro-Dominicana from a housing project in Jackson Heights working alongside a Japanese Brazilian whose family had immigrated to Nebraska. With no common referent in terms of what Latina meant in terms of color, religion, class, language or experience, the classroom immediately began as an energized space where our differences, and how they were reflected in the course materials, proved much more compelling than any constructed sense of sameness.

Bryn Mawr’s president at the time, Nancy Vickers, who had come from the University of Southern California also did several things right. She brought in cluster hires to expand the curriculum—within two years Latino Studies positions were opened up in History, Spanish and my own in the English Department. The College also received Mellon monies to fund a writing and professional support groups for female junior faculty of color within our Tri-College consortium, forging friendships and professional connections that have continued to this day. Bryn Mawr partnered with the Posse Foundation to bring in and provide ongoing support to cohorts of under-represented students in order to increase success rates. Strategies such as horizontal support across cohorts, and vertical mentoring between professional stages all work to make the academy a more hospitable place to teach, work and thrive. But there remains more that small colleges and large institutions can do to send the message that diverse bodies, diverse perspectives, diverse knowledge practices are central to the construction of a robust place of learning. Departments taking on the challenge of expanding their curricula, and their faculty, need to do the work required to educate themselves on the value and importance of the emerging areas in which they wish to hire. A tenure review is not the time to figure out what is meant by digital humanities, Afro-Pessimism or transgender theory. In many cases, not only are the methods and archives these scholars deploy unfamiliar, but the journals, conferences, and professional networks in which their work gets evaluated may also prove unfamiliar, if not threatening to entrenched disciplinary norms and practices. Furthermore, administrators need to do more to make sure that the work of diversifying the academy and the curriculum is not shunted off to an under-resourced corner of the campus, but is instead evident in discipline-specific ways in every department and every research unit in order to transform the very foundations of knowledge production.

We create the path, by walking it. My own tribulations in the academy were quite different than those of the generation that preceded me. The stories you will be recounting as professors and administrators 20 years from now, will no doubt be riddled with new challenges as racialized class divisions widen, as the underlying values of a liberal arts education come under attack, and as the connections between the academy and the worlds in which it functions are re-imagined. Campuses need to provide more than just access; they need to do the difficult institutional and emotional labor of interrogating the academic cultures that adjudicate value. They need to dismantle systemic forms of entrenched prejudice that perpetuate the status quo and respond vigorously to the challenges posed by diversity in creative ways. The deep-rooted inequities and injustices that surround us are daunting, but institutions of learning are ideal places to confront and re-imagine the worlds in which we live. Together we can begin to fulfill the promise of transformative education for all.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life : The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London ; New York: Verso, 2004.

Geok-Lim, Shirley, Maria Herrera-Sobek, and Genaro Padilla, eds. Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower? New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2000.

Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106.8 (1993): 1707-91.

Kantor, Jodi. “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” The New York Times September 7, 2013 2013, sec. Education.

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.

Recap: C3 Summit 2014

From March 28-30, 2014, C3 held its inaugural Summit at Connecticut College with the theme of “Launching Transformation.” The Summit gathered 175 faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, administrators, and higher education leaders from liberal arts colleges, research universities, and other associations and organizations. It provided an opportunity to connect the efforts and energies of participants in the other C3 programs, and served as a platform to extend C3’s visibility and reach. The C3 Summit planning committee designed an interactive, action-oriented gathering, with 24 sessions, six of which included research presentations by 20 graduate students and five undergraduates. The workshops focused on connecting individual thriving and success within higher education to common strategies to think about, plan, and act towards institutional transformation.

The Summit created a cross-sectoral, cross-institutional and cross-generational community of individuals who share C3’s values and have a deep sense of commitment for its mission by providing a shared language and vision to connect people across position, institution, and field, and facilitating the development of new relationships and networks. Overall, the Summit was a platform for ideas and interests in how best to structure connections and cross-institutional collaboration, notably around mentorship training and building capacity for difficult dialogues.  Undergraduate and graduate students’ intellectual contributions and perspectives anchored the event, and sparked collective energy to sustain and act on the conversations begun at the Summit.

Announcing the First Cohort of C3 Postdoctoral Fellows

C3 is proud to announce our first cohort of nine postdoctoral fellows from Columbia University and UC Berkeley. Connecticut College, Middlebury College, and Williams College will each welcome three of the fellows this fall for a period of two years.

The fellows will experience first hand the many advantages of working in a liberal arts college environment. They will benefit from frequent interaction with senior faculty mentors and with other postdoctoral fellows in the three host colleges. They will also engage with underrepresented undergraduate students to help them actively consider and be prepared for graduate school. Finally, they will be encouraged to explore open faculty positions at all LADO colleges.

The fellows are: Siri Colom (Environmental Studies with Anthropology/Sociology), Seema Golestaneh (Anthropology), and Tony Lin (Slavic Studies) at Connecticut College; J Finley (American Studies), Alvin Henry (English & American Literatures), and Nathaniel Nesmith (Theatre) at Middlebury College; and Alma Granado (Latina/o Studies), Suelghee Lee (English), and Reginold Royston (Africana Studies) at Williams College.

> Learn more about our postdoctoral fellows and the campus communities they will be joining.