By Doug Ward

Alma Clayton-Pedersen offers this vision for higher education:

“Imagine what a nation we would be if students really took away everything we wanted them to have,” she said at last week’s Teaching Summit in Lawrence.

Alma Clayton-Pedersen
Alma Clayton-Pedersen at the KU Teaching Summit

Problem is, they don’t. Much of the reason for that, she said, has to do with their background, the quality of the education they received before college, the way they are treated in college, and the connections they feel – or don’t feel – to their peers, their instructors and their campus.

We talk about college readiness as students being ready for college, she said, but “what about our colleges being ready for the students we have?”

Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a former administrator at Vanderbilt University and the chief executive of Emeritus Consulting Group. In her keynote address at the Teaching Summit, she spoke to more than 300 faculty members, staff members and administrators on Aug. 18 about the importance of combining excellence and inclusivity into a single goal.

“There is a disconnect between how we think about diversity and how we think about educational excellence,” Clayton-Pedersen said.

In fact, she said, faculty, staff and administrators too often see students’ diverse backgrounds as something that needs to be overcome rather than something that could serve as a frame for learning. Even students take that mindset, she said, explaining that well-meaning students often volunteer in disadvantaged areas with a mindset of “saving” people from their circumstances rather than recognizing that they are part of a living community.

That same disconnect shows up in universities in such forms as weed-out classes; an unwillingness to adapt teaching to the ways that students learn best; low expectations based on the types of students enrolled; and even preconceptions about students that lead to anger and frustrations among faculty and students.

“We need to be focused on all of our students,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “and we are not doing as well as we’d like – in all categories.”

Most of the enrollment growth in higher education is coming from students that colleges and universities haven’t served well, she said. When universities lose those students, they lose both money and reputation, she said.

Disparities in graduation rates between white students and underrepresented minorities “not only is it a travesty for those students, but it goes to the heart and vitality of your institution,” she said.

“You lose dollars every time one of those students walks out of your door,” Clayton-Pedersen said. “You lose reputation every time one of those students walks out of your door. Remember, they go back to their homes and say, ‘I had a bad experience.’ ”

She followed with a provocative question – “What does that do to you in the long run?” – and a sobering answer:

“If we don’t attend to this now, and do so rapidly, our institutions are at peril.”

Alma Clayton-Pedersen on the steps in Budig Hall, speaking with KU faculty members
Alma Clayton-Pedersen speaks with faculty during her keynote address in Budig Hall

A way forward

Even as she sounded alarm bells, Clayton-Pedersen offered suggestions for how to make the university learning environment more inclusive. Her suggestions drew heavily on research-based strategies and high-impact practices for teaching and learning that increasing numbers of faculty have been embracing. Among them:

  • Help students make connections. This involves creating meaningful, relevant curricula that allow students to see a clear path toward learning, that allow them to apply the knowledge they acquire, and that allow them to see connections among discrete ideas and concepts.
  • Encourage interaction. Students need meaningful interactions with instructors who accept their differences, mentor them, help them gain a deeper understanding of the world and the many cultures it offers. They also need instructors who see them more than just marks on a page. “Take a moment before handing that paper back and tell that student that I believe in you and will help you succeed,” Clayton-Pedersen said.
  • Create safe havens. Students need safe places “where they can go and relish in their identity,” Clayton-Pedersen said. They also need opportunities to move beyond those safe environments and interact with people different from themselves. Providing support systems and places where students feel like they belong, though, “matter as much as what you are teaching in a class because if they feel like they belong, they will listen differently.”
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and courses that explore world cultures. They emphasize active learning, group work and similar practices that allow students to work hands-on with course material rather than have it recited to them in lectures. That is, the best courses work at application of information rather than the transfer of information.
  • Make learning relevant. Encourage students to propose solutions to social problems, take on open-ended questions, integrate ideas from disparate courses, and reflect on their own learning. This helps them learn to learn on their own, and to understand that learning is never a static process. It also helps students see the relevance in their coursework.

An emphasis on equity

In her keynote address and in her later sessions with faculty, Clayton-Pedersen stressed the importance of equity. She challenged the faculty to define both equity and equality, saying that we often misunderstand the terms.

Equality, she said, is the outcome of equity. If we give people what they need to succeed, she said, we can move toward equality.

“Everyone is part of diversity,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “but not everyone is treated equitably.”

Providing more opportunities for people to learn will only grow in the future, she said. Already, the number of jobs that requires people to work with information and to solve unstructured problems dwarfs those that require routine tasks and minimal training. If we are going to be a country that employs all our people, we need to make sure that all have at least some college, she said.

“How many times do we need to have to belabor the point that all students need to learn in an economy that is going to require a lot more skills?” she said.

“Money isn’t the issue,” she added. “It’s the expectation that every student can learn and succeed.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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