Moving Closer to Equity with Explicit, Race-Conscious Language and Goals

Using explicit language about race and racism can lead to more successful culture change on campuses


Frontier Set institutions have long been committed to increasing student success and ensuring that race and income are no longer predictors of that success, but with last year’s reckoning with racial injustice it was more critical than ever for institutions to express a clear commitment to racial equity. An explicit equity strategy can help everyone on campus, including students, better understand and act on institutional values, priorities, and commitments.

Using race-conscious language is key to operationalizing racial equity, but there is a challenging learning curve to developing a new shared vocabulary about race, racism, inequity, and justice.

As institutions strive to thoughtfully and meaningfully articulate what equity means to them, it’s important to both work and plan at the individual level of both employees’ and students’ lived experiences, and also at the strategic level with bold commitments among leadership and actionable institution-wide commitments to racial justice. Only then will equity truly begin to be embedded and operationalized across all facets of an institution.

When approaching equity work, Frontier Set members have found it beneficial to define what racial equity means at the institutional level. As Wake Technical Community College put it: “Defining equity in terms of ‘Equitable Outcomes’ and ‘Equitable Access’ as tangible goals, rather than ‘Equity’ as a general value, was key. While many at the college had, and still do have, difficulty untangling and embracing the known concept of equality (everyone gets the same) versus equity (everyone gets what they need to succeed), most of our stakeholders who engaged in the strategic planning process … were able to recognize and agree that according to the data, there are persistent, inequitable outcomes occurring for Black/African American students at our college. The next step is establishing why, and what we as a college can do about it.” The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, which works with the 12 Frontier Set community colleges, noted that they are continuing to learn from the colleges they support about the importance of being explicit about equity. They continue to support their institutions to “push toward greater shared clarity about their definitions and measures of equity so as to be able to align strategies and evaluate impact more effectively.”

Once institutions have embedded racial equity into their goals and priorities, it’s important to bring campus administrators, faculty, and staff along. As the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said in their reflection looking across the six regional comprehensive campuses they support as part of the Frontier Set: “We recognize that the equity conversation is not just the responsibility of one office at the institution but see it as everyone’s responsibility at the institution to challenge the status quo around racial injustices and inequities.”

All campus employees must share equity as a priority, and should be trained to use explicit, equity-minded language.

From trainings to open dialogue, campuses have found continued success hosting conversations to empower faculty to reform their practices and curriculum to be more equitable. To address equity in the classroom, Sam Houston University will be redesigning the curriculum of their first-year seminar course to incorporate discussions of equity and inclusion, and beyond that, equity dashboards are being published to highlight challenges as well as successes in closing racial and gender equity gaps in all courses on campus. Similar efforts are underway at Northern Arizona University. In addition, Davidson-Davie Community College hosted professional development sessions with a clear focus on race, to allow for powerful, transparent, and transformative conversation. They noted that “participants from across all levels (including all Vice Presidents and the President) have been engaged in these conversations, with the intent to make progress on difficult subjects such as race, privilege, implicit bias, stereotypes, and ethnicity.” Morehouse College noted: “The greatest asset any institution has is its faculty. Create opportunities for them to learn what equity looks like, and they will become the most potent advocates.” These urgent conversations continue to lead to growth and change on campuses as they relate to student success.

But having conversations and hosting training isn’t enough. Institutions in the Frontier Set recognize the importance of hiring racially diverse talent in order to support students of color, especially Black students. The University of North Carolina Greensboro, for example, launched an equity, diversity, and inclusion website and included a statement that committed the college to hiring and retaining more Black faculty, and Northern Arizona University noted their commitment to faculty who represent the student population, in order to “build a culture and institution where diverse administrators, faculty, staff, and students want to be.”

While many Frontier Set members addressed racial injustice and equity both publicly and internally after the killing of George Floyd, some took it a step further to gather feedback. For example, the chancellor of San Jacinto College asked for input on what the college could do to make its anti-racist stance clearer and more actionable—a great example of taking a step from rhetoric toward real action. That input has resulted in much more explicit criteria for hiring based on equity and anti-racism competencies, mandatory training on implicit bias during new-hire onboarding, and reflections on contributions to equity required as part of faculty and staff performance reviews.

When developing equity-centered strategies on campus and setting goals, it’s important to use clear, race-conscious language so everyone on campus has a shared understanding of the commitment and how it should be brought to life. As Frontier Set members have continued to define and commit to racial equity, provide staff and faculty training on racial literacy and equity-mindedness, facilitate campus conversations, and hire diverse leaders, they have been able to operationalize and make progress on closing racial equity gaps.