The Power to Reimagine: Equity and Institutional Transformation

Tiffany N. Polite, PhD, Program Manager, University Innovation Alliance

The diversification of the U.S. necessitates a reimagining of higher education. The current structure was designed for and is largely aligned with the political, cultural, and material interests of those in power—interests largely concerned with preserving their power. Years of reform has done little to solve for the persistent inequities found in our education system. This is because the system has been designed to maintain its structure. Reform leaves existing power relations in place, merely creating new pathways to achieve the same results. This explains why higher education outcomes have stagnated despite the plethora of resources that have been invested over time. We find ourselves more than ever before needing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of an educated populace—especially those from perpetually marginalized and underserved communities— but we’re operating within a structure that was not created to serve such a function at scale.

The field must be willing to intentionally turn its attention to the power dynamics between students, communities, and institutions if it truly seeks to solve for the challenges of equity.

Equity is not just closing gaps in student outcome data; it is also providing the opportunity to engage in the system without more risk than reward, and integrity in acknowledging and rectifying past impediments to success. This expanded understanding provides insight into the perpetual nature of the—plight of students and institutions, as both endure the pressures of stratification that undergird persistent inequity. Solutions to challenges of equity require a willingness to objectively evaluate what we believe about public higher education and how to use its intrinsic agency to create more contemporary and beneficial ways of knowing and being, i.e., to transform.

Transformation is dramatic rather than incremental change, and addressing equity quickens institutional transformation. Refreshing the bounds of logic, integrity, and responsibility begins with intentional assessment and evaluation of the current state. This work must center on a process that uncovers and unpacks power relations, with specific attention to the complexities of problem definition, stakeholder positionality, research, expertise, and historical narrative. A thorough review and understanding of these dynamics positions us to create a future state that appreciates and addresses the needs of all learners while being attentive to the demands of institutional success. Below is a four-step process that can guide the institutional transformation process:

  1. Identify the issue being contested.
  2. Situate the current status and context.
  3. Contextualize the situation with research, history, and supporting narratives.
  4. Reimagine the future.

UIA institutions have engaged in multiple activities in support of institutional transformation to design more equitable experiences and outcomes for all students. These include training in human-centered design and strategic foresight, reimagining career services, a Black Student Success Initiative, advising reorganizations, and exploring how to design technology implementations around unique student needs. These initiatives, along with many other exemplars across the Frontier Set, demonstrate that institutions have the agency to create conditions and environments that improve student outcomes despite the existing system’s maintenance function.

Systems of power do not willingly relinquish power. As 2021 dawned, we faced the consequences of our complacency, and quickly realized higher education is not the only institution in need of transformation. We must enhance and strengthen the institutional integrity of higher education to ensure forward progress toward the democratic ideals of our nation. But we cannot solve problems using the same logic, tools, and structures that created or perpetuated the problems we seek to solve. The future is in petitioning higher education to change now so that we may guide our nation through its transformation. How we answer the call today determines democracy’s fate tomorrow. We must transform, but first we must believe we have the power and agency to do so.

Tiffany Polite serves as Program Manager for the University Innovation Alliance’s engagement with the Frontier Set. Her inquiry and contribution center on the dynamics of power, organizational design, and institutional change, with particular emphasis on the role of educational institutions and organizations in creating and maintaining of inequitable outcomes.