A group of 175 faculty members, undergraduates, graduate students, administrators, and higher education leaders from across the nation gathered in March for the inaugural Creating Connections Consortium (C3) summit. The event, held at Connecticut College, brought together leaders from top liberal arts colleges and research universities to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education.
The Center for Institutional and Social Change (CISC), which serves as an innovation hub and strategic planning partner to C3, worked in partnership with the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) consortium and five partner universities (Connecticut, Middlebury, and Williams Colleges, University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University) to set the agenda for the summit, the theme of which was “launching transformation.”
Organizers described the C3 Summit as the culmination of a year’s worth of collaborations between partner institutions to address the gaps in the diversity pipeline of higher education institutions. Participants focused their conversations around not only investing in talented students and faculty from underrepresented groups, but towards the type of system building and design thinking required to create structural changes within their institutions.
A key tenant of C3’s mission—and one of the driving concepts at the summit—was the idea of “full participation,” initially developed through the work of CISC Executive Director Susan Sturm. Sturm has written extensively in the past on the need to push for change in higher education so that students and faculty of all backgrounds can succeed at the highest levels possible—to “fully participate” in all areas of higher education, from the classroom to the campus to the community.
Summit participants engaged in conversations on how to effectively apply the concept of “full participation” in their respective colleges and universities, discussing how to build capacities and structures that will allow for change. A major point of the discussion was the lack of mentors and faculty members who share life experiences with those who enter higher education from places of different social and economic status, as well as those of different races, class, sexual orientation and disability.
In order to address this shortfall, C3 has launched programs at critical junctures along the higher education pathway. The program includes graduate school visits aimed at providing information, support, capacity building and new connections at a time when undergraduate and graduate students are contemplating what to do after graduation. C3 has also recently sponsored visiting fellowships on liberal arts campuses for historically underrepresented groups in higher education—students with backgrounds of limited economic means, parents without education, and/or who are ethnic minorities. Almost all were women.
Without mentors and a supportive environment, such underrepresented students are often left to find their own way—a situation which puts undue responsibility on the students themselves. One veteran of C3’s 2013 Undergraduate Fellowship, Sade Williams from Middlebury College asked: “How do you go about changing the culture of the campus without putting the onus on those people who are already silent, already marginalized?”
A good chunk of the Summit was dedicated to breakout sessions, where students like Sade who participated in some of the workshops and programs C3 ran at partner schools brought greater specificity to the conversation. Many brought up the difficulties they face in dealing with a lack of cultural diversity in the communities where liberal arts colleges are typically located. Williams College, for example, is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a town that, as of the last census, is 90 percent white and primarily middle class (median household income is about $52,000—just about the national average). As a result of these demographics, mentors from backgrounds similar to students of color, or from low-income backgrounds are hard to come by. In addition, such students are less likely to engage with the community, due to a lack of shared background and culture.
The Summit closed with the keynote address by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the current president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hrabowski is no stranger to the issues; he was born and raised in the segregated south of the 1950s and 60s, and has written and spoken at length about the challenges of and need for minority participation in STEM education and industry. In his address, Hrabowski drove home the point that there needs to be practical approaches to enact change and work towards truly embedding diversity in higher education.
“If the climate is not one in which people expect that every student will get necessary support,” said Hrabowski, “so many of the students, who are not part of the main group, can be slipping through the cracks.”