27 September · Episode 174
SCOTUS, Affirmative Action, and the Future of University Diversity
45 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Explore the implications of SCOTUS decisions on Affirmative Action and their impact on the future of university diversity in this insightful podcast discussion.
University Diversity and the Drive for Inclusive Campuses of Tomorrow
In the wake of SCOTUS’ ruling against Affirmative Action in college recruitment, higher education institutions are struggling to identify alternative ways to diversify their student bodies. This move couldn’t have come at a worse time. Recent studies show that only 22.6% of Black Americans have a college degree, which is significantly less than the national rate of almost 33%.
Colleges and universities can emulate the initiatives at the California State University (CSU) System, which was forced to create and rely on other diversification methods when an earlier ruling imposed similar restrictions on California schools with the passage of Proposition 209. In this podcast episode, Dr. Drumm McNaughton speaks with two leaders from CSU who have led successful systemwide programs to help its Black community, President Dr. Thomas Parham of CSU Dominguez Hills and Deputy Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs Dr. Dilcie Perez, who serves the CSU System. Drs. Parham and Perez discuss CSU’s successful Juneteenth symposium and the resulting comprehensive report that now informs the efforts of all 23 campuses.
- For years, the Cal State System and every other higher education institution in California have been dealing with what the nation is grappling with now since SCOTUS did away with Affirmative Action. Proposition 209 amended the California Constitution, which prohibited discrimination or the granting of preferences based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, etc. CSU realized early on, however, that Proposition 209 doesn’t prohibit CSU from studying how its system may be failing to fully address the needs of its students, particularly those who may be negatively or disproportionately impacted by race, ethnicity, or gender group.
- CSU also wasn’t impacted too much by Proposition 209 because CSU never made totally race-based decisions for admissions. CSU uses a comprehensive review of nine, 11, or 13 factors that impact how a student gets admitted. Proposition 209 only forced CSU to eliminate one of these factors.
- In June 2022, CSU held its first-ever Juneteenth symposium. It lasted for two days, and resources from the chancellor’s office and every CSU president supported the symposium. Part of the symposium’s goal was not just to pay attention to the legacy of Juneteenth but to listen to the experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff.
- A designated committee released a report following the symposium on June 18 of this year called “The Black Student Success and Elevating Black Excellence within the CSU.” It is a data-informed document with an in-depth analysis and 13 recommendations for its 23 campuses to consider. The report invites CSU to acknowledge that there is a gap between the system’s aspiration of providing Black equality for students, faculty, and staff and actualizing it. The report also invites CSU to develop a “divine dissatisfaction” with the way things are in favor of the way things might be, with more intentionality.
- The committee consists of subject matter experts from across CSU and recognized that Black student success is linked to faculty and employee success. To hear the voices of everyone at CSU, the committee held separate listening sessions across the system for students, faculty, staff, and administrators. These perspectives informed the basis of the report and shed light on the climate on campuses and how to move forward.
- One data point shows that as Black student enrollment and persistence continue to decline, CSU is facing a potential future where Black students and Black excellence may be unrecognizable if action is not taken.
- CSU values access over exclusivity to ensure a more diverse cohort of students. CSU is also not working to exclude the non-Black community. The data says those suffering most at CSU are Black students, staff, and faculty, so they are CSU’s first intentionality. Once a successful model is in place for the Black population, it will be employed for other populations.
- CSU understands that diversity is more than demographics. For example, it looks at what happens when there are women leaders, but the institution is still run like when their male counterparts did. CSU works to move beyond a desegregating mindset. Rather than looking to “desegregate buses,” the question should be, “How do we empower the bus to create new modes of transportation?”
- CSU is striving to create a lifelong relationship with the Black community that starts as early as elementary school with outreach and academic preparation programs and continues after they graduate. CSU understands not to use a one-size-fits-all approach because every student is different. Each CSU campus is now reflecting on the report’s 13 recommendations and identifying what their goals will be for the next 18 months. CSU will be identifying a statewide central office that will lead these efforts.
- To emulate this initiative, higher ed must have a cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and, in some cases, spiritual pledge of support that clearly articulates its importance, sound programmatic planning, and some measure of accountability. Faculty, staff, and students must also participate in their own recovery and empowerment beyond leadership. They must not only trust in the system but trust in themselves to take a risk with leaders.
About Our Podcast Guests
Thomas A. Parham
Thomas A. Parham was appointed president of CSU Dominguez Hills in March 2018.
Parham previously served as vice chancellor for student affairs and an adjunct faculty member at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to these positions, he served as assistant vice chancellor for counseling and health services, Counseling Center director, and director of the Career and Life Planning Center at UCI. Parham has also held an appointment on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In 1986, he was appointed to the City of Irvine’s Human Relations Committee. After being elected chair of that committee, he helped draft the city’s first human rights ordinance, which was passed by the city council. He also served as chair of UCI’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium for 10 years and sought to extend the boundaries of the university community countywide.
For the past 35-plus years, Parham has focused his research efforts in the area of psychological nigrescence and has authored numerous articles in the area. Writing in the areas of identity development, African psychology, and multicultural counseling remain his primary focus.
Dilcie D. Perez
Dr. Dilcie Perez was appointed deputy vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs in April 2023 and co-leads the division with Dr. Nathan S. Evans through June 2024 while the CSU conducts a national search. Through this co-leadership structure, the division centers its support for student success by maximizing the knowledge and expertise of both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs and creating space for collaboration and innovation at the intersection between the two.
Perez joined the Chancellor’s Office as associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Equity and Belonging in June 2022, with more than 23 years of experience in many facets of student affairs. In this role, she served as the Chancellor’s Office liaison to the CSU campuses’ vice presidents of student affairs and the senior diversity officers. For her efforts to advance student success and equity, Perez was recently recognized with the Cal State Student Association’s Administrator of the Year award.
She formerly served as vice president and assistant superintendent of Student Services for the Cerritos Community College District, where she led the restructuring of student services to focus on learning and career pathways to ensure high-impact student services and support, co-led the development for The Village (California’s first housing facility for students experiencing homelessness), and led the creation of the Falcon’s Nest—a comprehensive center focused on addressing student basic needs. Prior to that role, Perez served as dean of student life and judicial affairs at the MiraCosta Community College District in Oceanside and for 13 years in leadership positions at her alma mater, CSU San Marcos.
Perez holds an Ed.D. in educational leadership from San Diego State University, a master’s degree in administration from Central Michigan University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from CSU San Marcos.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 174 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guests Thomas Parham and Dilcie Perez
Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered.com. And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.
Drumm McNaughton 00:31
Thank you, David. Our guests today are from the nation’s largest public school system – Cal State – Dr. Thomas Parham, president of CSU Dominguez Hills, and Dr. Dilcie Perez, deputy vice chancellor of academic and student affairs for the Cal State System. Dr. Parham, or Dr. P as he’s known to many, has had a 40-plus-year distinguished career in higher education before assuming the presidency at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He served in multiple positions at UC Irvine, one of the top research institutions in California and the nation, including vice chancellor for student affairs.
Dr. Perez has been in the California higher ed system for well over 20 years focusing on student affairs. Her current position, deputy vice chancellor of academic and student affairs, has her responsible for student affairs, student academic advising, Veterans Affairs, international programs, the Center for Community Engagement, student wellness and basic needs, as well as equity.
Doctors Parham and Perez join us today to talk about alternative strategies for diversifying the student body in the wake of the SCOTUS decision that did away with Affirmative Action in college recruitment. Thomas, Dilcie, welcome to the program.
Dilcie Perez 01:52
Thank you and good morning, Drumm. How are you?
Drumm McNaughton 01:55
Doing very well, sir. And yourself?
Thomas Parham 01:58
I’m doing as well as a university presidents can do. So I’m doing great.
Drumm McNaughton 02:02
I hear you. Well, the latest stats that I’ve seen is that the average tenure of university presidents is about 3.9 years now. You’ve exceeded that. So I’d say you’re doing pretty darn well.
Thomas Parham 02:15
Yeah, that’s what I say. I’m blessed to do what I do. The California State University System is the largest system of public higher education in all of America, so we’re proud to do it and as long as my creator and ancestors keep blessing my path, I’ll keep doing what I do.
Drumm McNaughton 02:29
Very good. Let’s get started. What I like to do is have our guests introduce themselves, and in this case, we’ll do ladies first. Dilcie, can you give us your background on who you are and how this relates to our topic?
Dilcie Perez 02:44
Sure. Good morning. I’m excited to be here. I am currently the deputy vice chancellor of academic and student affairs as the primary chief student affairs officer in the CSU. I have been in the CSU for almost 20 years. I graduated from Cal State San Marcos with a degree in political science and from San Diego State with an EdD in higher education leadership, so I’m excited to be back in the CSU. I also had a wonderful opportunity to serve in the California Community Colleges.
Drumm McNaughton 03:21
Thank you! And now Dr. P, please.
Thomas Parham 03:23
I am a graduate of the University of California at Irvine. I hold a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and my doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. So there are Salukis [the Southern Illinois University mascot] in the house every now and then. I’m a former Ivy League professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I was one of the first if not the first African-American academic psychologists ever hired in its 200-year history after it was founded by Ben Franklin. I was then recruited back to California in Irvine. I thought I’d be there five years and wound up being there for 33. Now I am doing what I never planned on, which is serving as president of California State University, Dominguez Hills. But I’m loving the role, and this is year six for me.
Drumm McNaughton 04:09
Wow, six years! I imagine you’ve learned just a little bit in the job over those six years.
Thomas Parham 04:15
Quite a bit of it has happened on the job. The consistency is always trying to transform lives that ultimately will transform America, which is what we both do in the CSU system as well as at my Dominguez Hills campus. As a person of color and a president who is of African descent, I always remind myself of the great Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who says that each generation out of relative obscurity must reach out and seek to fulfill its legacy or betray it. So I get up every morning looking to fulfill the legacy I’ve been blessed to inherit and not betray.
Drumm McNaughton 04:54
Those are great words to live by. I’d like to dig right into today’s topic because with the SCOTUS decision doing away with Affirmative Action, it changes the face of higher ed significantly. But at Cal State System, which has 23 campuses, you’ve had to deal with Prop 209 20-plus years ago, which essentially did the same thing. So how did Prop 209 change things for the Cal State system and all public education in California?
Dilcie Perez 05:34
As we have reflected on this topic for, as you just alluded to, a number of years, what Prop 209 amended, as you said, was the California Constitution, which prohibited discrimination or the granting of preferences based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, etc. When it was first passed, people panicked and thought that you could not support students in this way. But what it does not prohibit, though, which we have had to examine within CSU, is the study of how our state university system may be failing to fully address the needs of our students, particularly those who may be negatively or disproportionately impacted by race, ethnicity, or gender group.
So the work we’ve done in the system is to help examine the root causes of why students may not be accessing and coming to the CSU. It is why they may not be succeeding, persisting, or graduating that Prop 209 does not prohibit an institution from examining. So while the SCOTUS decision has significantly impacted the nation, I believe that CSU has wrestled with this topic for a long time and are doubling down and investing in this work, quite honestly.
Thomas Parham 07:06
Not only have we wrestled with Proposition 209, but people wonder how we can continue to make the progress we’ve made even in the midst of Prop 209, even though there have been some impacts. The truth is that our ability to interrogate all the factors, processes, and practices that we’ve employed has allowed us to explode some of the myths.
What’s true is that we never made totally race-based decisions for admissions. We never made that in the first place. Most of us use a comprehensive review of 9, 11, or 13 factors that impact how a student gets admitted. Proposition 209 only forced us to eliminate one of those factors by not using race. It hasn’t taken away the other elements that allow us to comprehensively review enrollment.
More importantly, another dimension to what Dr. Perez added is that it changed the climate. When you are a person or student of color, you expect there will be alligators in the water. You expect there will be hostile forces that want to keep you from getting to a particular destination. So even with Proposition 209 leading the charge 20 years ago, what SCOTUS did is not new.
What we worry about are not the hostile forces, but rather the folks who sit in silence while this happens. As a psychoanalyst and scholar, part of the question that I’ve always wanted to interrogate is, how do we bear witness to the suffering of other people in silence and still maintain our humanity? That’s the question we want answered. It’s not the 10% of folks in the far right who are charging forward. It’s the other folks who sit in silence and say nothing about it. That’s what people look at when assessing whether a campus is a good climate for them to go teach if they’re a faculty member, work as a staff member, or explore, discover, and create as a student. Those are the things that we’ve had to shore up and try to say, “Yes, you do belong. Yes, it is affordable. And, yes, you can both be admitted because we’re providing access, be retained, persist, graduate, and thrive upon graduation.” That’s what we’re proud of doing in the California State University System.
Drumm McNaughton 09:39
Well, you’ve just given us a whole lot to unpack there, Thomas. So let’s go ahead and do that.
I didn’t do it.
So, it’s pretty clear when you look at the numbers that we have an inequality issue in higher ed. Only 22.6% of black Americans have a college degree, which is significantly less than the national rate of almost 33%. I don’t know the numbers for Latinos or Asians, but I would be willing to bet that those numbers do not compare with 22.6%. They’re probably higher. So if we look at higher ed from the perspective of freedom, how do we interrogate those things that you mentioned? You’ve done some good work with this with the Juneteenth symposium. Let’s talk about that just a little bit.
Thomas Parham 10:40
Okay. In June of 2022, the California State University System held its first-ever Juneteenth symposium. While we wrestled with the question of whether to do a two-hour celebration of Juneteenth or longer, I had the chance to volunteer my campus to align with the CSU Chancellor’s office and say, “No, if we’re going to celebrate it, then we’re going to celebrate it the right way.” So we sponsored a two-day symposium that was supported by resources from the chancellor’s office, as well as every president in the California State University System. We put on a two-day symposium that had hundreds and hundreds of people from across the system in a room. We also had thousands online who were able to support the symposium as well.
We nominally interrogated what this notion of Juneteenth was about. It was about that delayed emancipation of Black folks in Texas who didn’t receive word that the Emancipation was signed in 1863. They didn’t learn about it until ’65. What we talked about is, what does the parallel look like if we have delayed emancipation or freedom for African American folk within the CSU system? In fact, the subtitle of the symposium was “Listening to the voices of the ancestors and everyday people.”
So, again, we were trying to pay attention to the legacy we had inherited but to also to listen the voices of this current generation of students, faculty, and staff, to say, what is your experience like? What are the assets? What are the liabilities? What are the things you’re loving? What are the things that are just toxic that we need to change? And through those voices of everyday people, we came out of that symposium with a good charge.
To her credit, Interim Chancellor Dr. Jolene Koester of the CSU system, who displayed enormous courage, decided to stand up at the committee that rose out of that Juneteenth symposium. Through this, that committee has now produced a report that was finished around April but released on June 18 of this year. It is called “The Black Student Success and Elevating Black Excellence within the CSU.” Not only is it data-informed and make some bold analysis, but it also has 13 recommendations, the 13th being significant. Everything in Africa is a world of symbolism. Thirteen represents the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.
More importantly, we invited folks to do two things in the introductory letter. One, we wanted to abandon the romantic illusion that there was such a thing called Black equality in the CSU. It isn’t new that we want to support our African-descent students, faculty, or staff, but we know that there is a gap between the aspiration we have and our ability to actualize that within the context of the work that we’re doing. Two, we wanted to develop what we call a “divine dissatisfaction” with the way things are in favor of the way things might be, with a little bit more intentionality applied to it. That’s what the report now articulates. It includes our recommendations that allow each of the campuses to consider how to adopt those and move forward.
Dilcie Perez 13:58
That Juneteenth was actually my third day back in the CSU. I had been in the system for 16 years. I left to go to community college and came back. I literally walked in that room and said, “This is not the same CSU that I left. I don’t know what happened, but this is amazing to see.” It really was in all honesty. While the topics were difficult, it was a celebration of Black excellence, and the students, faculty, staff, and presidents. And the Board of Trustees were all intentionally focused on what Black student success and excellence meant.
What I will tell you is at the end of the Juneteenth symposium, there was a panel. Dr. Parham was on that panel as well as our chancellor who talked about what the next steps would be because we did not want this celebration or this symposium to be performative. Our chancellor and, I think, the entire system realized that we had a moment of reckoning. We had a choice to make in that moment of whether we were going to continue to talk about the value or if we were going to move advocacy to action. And as Dr. Parham mentioned, our interim chancellor said, “This is imperative. It is important. We need to create a bold and visionary strategic plan so that the CSU can be a nationwide leader in student success.”
Words matter. As you’ve heard, Dr. Parham has a wonderful order and uses words with power. But we spent time on the one term “nationwide leader” because we were making it a part of our vision, which holds us accountable to a certain standard. As the workgroup came together, we all embraced that challenge. We knew that as an institution that is the most diverse and largest in America, it was our moral responsibility and imperative for the system to step up in this way.
Drumm McNaughton 16:24
I think it’s a fabulous charter to have. It’s really important. But it goes beyond students, doesn’t it? It goes across faculty. It goes across staff. It goes across all these different areas.
Dilcie Perez 16:37
It really does. When we put the committee together, we wanted subject matter experts from across the system. We couldn’t have a large group because our timeline for delivering the report was short. But that was key. We started by looking at disaggregated data and understanding the state of Black students in the system. As a workgroup, we knew that Black student success is inextricably linked to faculty and employee success as well.
Dr. Parham can talk about this because he really pushed for it, but the workgroup decided that we wanted to hear the voices of the people within the system. So we held listening sessions, one specifically just for students, one specifically for faculty, and one for staff and administrators. Over 250 people participated in those listening sessions. When we heard the stories from these various perspectives, they were raw. They were concerning. They were inspiring, but they were sobering. Those voices, experiences, and perspectives are what informed the basis of the report that we presented. Dr. Parham?
Thomas Parham 17:59
I absolutely agree. You’ve articulated that beautifully. So our academic affairs, student affairs, and other campus communities exert a profoundly reciprocal relationship on one another. Success in one domain is contingent upon the success in the other. So you can’t have Black student success, unless you have success and support for your faculty and unless you have success and support for your staff, who are all connected to student success as well.
If you look at the report and even the recommendations that emerged from them, there are categories that speak to students, to staff, to the faculty and the curriculum, and to the climate on campus and holding people accountable for that.
This is the clinical part of me as a psychologist, but in the midst of planning the report, we realized that it’s difficult to design interventions in absence of consultation with the people that the interventions are designed to serve. So as co-chair of this committee, I was really insisting that we had to listen to the voices of what we call “the everyday people.” In those narratives came praise, joy, and how grateful people were for the experiences they were having. But it also came with heartache, pain, raw feelings, and conversations about things that people had experienced and things that we could do differently. That’s what really helped us realize the gap between the aspirational version of CSU that wanted to support our Black students and the version of CSU that was just short of where we need to be. The reality of what was happening on the ground needed to increase.
So these recommendations are not a new attempt to say we’re now caring about Black students. We’ve always cared about Black students, faculty, and staff. But it’s that that aspirational version of ourselves is now setting a bar that the reality-based version of ourselves is trying to now catch up and move forward to. Not only will this help our system, but it can serve as a model for the rest of the nation to follow, particularly when people are scratching their heads on how they are going to support a diverse environment on their university campus, particularly in the wake of a Supreme Court that is wanting to move back. When you go to states like Texas, North Carolina, and Florida that are trying to retrench back on diversity, equity and inclusion and where woke goes to die, people are proud of that. Those are the kinds of things that university presidents and leaders across the board are now wanting to ask and interrogate, and this will be a good blueprint and template, if you will, for them to follow.
Drumm McNaughton 20:47
I think you’re absolutely right in that. What also comes to mind are the types of things that are experienced by Latinos and everybody else. Even white folks across the board are wondering how they can do better. One of the things that struck me, Thomas, was when you said that this was a holistic approach. This speaks to me because you have to look at how things interrelate, which is what you talked about. It’s really an integrated environment. Can we talk a little bit about that? Once you have somebody in the door, that’s great. But how do you keep them? How do you get them to graduate? How do you make sure they feel like they belong?
Thomas Parham 21:47
Let me try to unpack that because there are three elements you’re talking about there. The first is that we spend a lot of time in higher education analyzing the merits of our student body and whether people are meritorious enough to be admitted into the ranks of our institution. We take a lot of pride in the selectivity ratios we choose. Like, “Aren’t we wonderful because we only admitted the top 3%, 4%, or 5%?” That’s nice. I’ve been in those places. I’ve been an Ivy League professor. However, one of the things we value in the Cal State University System is access. What we are trying to do is provide access to the broadest swath of the state’s citizenry. We want to make sure that’s there and includes a very diverse cohort of students. That’s number one.
The second piece you talked about is the notion that everybody is involved in needing help and support. That is absolutely true. So we are not trying to stand up a Black student success workgroup to the exclusion of anybody else. We are trying to invite people to abandon that traditional, Eurocentric worldview that says, in order to affirm myself, I have to denigrate somebody else. That is not the logic we’re trying to employ. But what we’re also clear about, and Dr. Perez can speak to this very clearly, is that the data doesn’t lie. According to the data, the people who are suffering the most in this particular system are Black students, staff, and faculty. So they are our first intentionality.
But it’s not exclusive to that. Once we have that model in place, it allows us to employ some of the same tactics to support our other populations, whether they be Latinx, Asian Pacific, our indigenous Indian brothers and sisters, or white students. It’s for anybody who wants to be in this space. Anybody who is a student, staff, or faculty member needs to be supported in our space.
Lastly, you mentioned how this all sounds integrated. But I want to make sure that our listeners don’t get confused here. I think that higher education generally still wrestles with the question of what is a truly integrated diverse environment. Higher ed as a whole doesn’t understand the difference between a disaggregated environment and a truly integrated one. So we diversify our ranks and talk about how it’s wonderful that we have 5% of this, 10% of that, and 15% of the other thing without understanding that diversity is more than demographics.
Diversity is a question all our institutions of higher ed have to interrogate, which is, how do the policies and practices of my institution or agency change when there are changes in the demographics. For example, what happens when I have women leaders but I still run them like our male counterparts did? Nothing changes if I have more black, Latinx or Asian Pacific students there, but we are still in a space where we argue and run them just like our Eurocentric counterparts. In those cases, diversity doesn’t matter. So we have to move past merely desegregating spaces. We’re doing more than just trying not to be segregated buses. What we’re trying to do is ask, what route should the bus go? Is it going right to this neighborhood? How do we empower it to create new modes of transportation? We are trying to move past the segregated kind of mindset from the 1950s and move into the 21st century to say, we have to clearly operationalize what cultural diversity and multiculturalism looks like in this 21st-century world. Dr. Perez?
Dilcie Perez 25:23
I just have to tell you that the process of the workgroup was transformational, not only for what we recommend to the system, but for the individual members. As we processed what we were hearing from the people and seeing in the data, there’s a line on page seven of the report that people might miss, which talks about why this is so critical. It says that as Black student enrollment and persistence continues to decline, CSU is facing a potential future where Black students and Black excellence may be unrecognizable if action is not taken.
I believe all three of us have acknowledged this, but when we looked at the 13 recommendations, we had a conversation about whether they were bold enough, were visionary enough, and if they were going to do what we wanted them to do. What we as a workgroup realized and reconciled was that when you take all 13 of those recommendations together with intentional focus and action and when all 23 campuses are working towards all 13, that is bold and that is visionary.
We took away two key points from the process that have resonated with the universities. One, our relationship with Black students and their families in the Black community does not start when a student comes to the university to take classes. What we need is a lifelong relationship with the Black community, Black students, and their families starting as early as elementary school with outreach and academic preparation programs. We haven’t talked much about it. But this is a community effort. There are many community-based organizations who are doing this work as well that universities should be partnering with to impact their local and regional communities. We realized that we wanted to establish a relationship when they’re exceptionally young and then we want to adopt a cradle-to-grave mindset. We want to have a relationship far after they graduate with their bachelor’s. We want them to get a master’s. We want them to get a doctorate. That’s a shift for us. And I agree with you. It’s not just for Black students. It’s for all our students and the communities that we should be aspiring to provide these services and programs for.
The second piece that we learned is that while we could apply these recommendations to all student groups, what we have to be careful about is a one-size-fits-all approach because every student is different and unique and has a different set of circumstances and life story. So these recommendations can apply. But it’s important to recognize the individual needs and circumstances of each student. All Black students are not the same. They are not. You cannot think that and put everyone in one category. It really is about individual relationships, assessments, and understanding in order to ensure that once they get to the universities, they have what they need to progress towards completing their educational goals.
Drumm McNaughton 28:49
I want to come back to a story that you told me yesterday about a young Black man who was a gang member.
Tell our audience a little bit about that. That was a story that really touched me.
Dilcie Perez 29:03
I’ll tell you the short version. Nedrich Miller from Sac State is a student who has changed my life forever. I went on a campus visit, and he was in the student session. He was hardcore and straightforward. It took me aback when he said he experienced more community in prison than he had on some of the college campuses he had been on. That gave me pause.
So, he’s a project rebound student who grew up in Los Angeles. He said there were no outreach efforts in his school, and that he was trained and aspired to be a gang member. That’s what he was conditioned to do. He was going to be the best gang member he could be. So he dropped out of high school around the ninth grade, entered the court system, was sentenced to 24 years, and served, I believe, 17-and-a-half years. When he got out, he had to really think about what he was going to do. So he got a job, and someone told him to apply to community colleges. As you know, oftentimes it is one person who makes a difference for us when we attend college. He had a counselor who really invested in him. I think her name is Laney. Laney really guided him to get an associate’s degree.
What’s exciting about Nedrich is that he never realized he was a good student. Nedrich left community college to go to Sac State with a 4.0. He came to Sac State as a physical science/kinesiology major, I believe. He has a desire to go to medical school. He takes the bus two-and-a-half hours a day, he goes to school, and he is essentially teaching himself how to be a student. Dr. Parham can probably say this better, but what’s inspiring about his story is he’s taking courses that many of us never take.
Right. He is teaching himself via YouTube on how to be a good student. As we met him, we began to understand that, oftentimes, we tell students that you have to take 15 units if you want to get out in a timely fashion. And Nedrich reminds us is that there was no way he could take 15 units with all these types of classes and still do well and be a good student. So he pushes back on our status quo and in the way in which we think students might need to progress towards getting their degree.
Nedrich also came and spoke to our Board of Trustees, and I have to tell you that I am exceptionally proud of the work he has done. When he came to the retreat, we were going to move to the next section, and Dr. Parham said, “Dilcie, we can’t go to the next section. We need to unpack his story to truly understand what he just shared with us.”
Thomas Parham 31:59
My belief as a psychologist, and as an African-centered one at that, is that each of us is a seed of divinely inspired possibility. When it’s nurtured in its proper context, it can and will grow into the fullest expression of all it’s supposed to become. All of us who have seen a plant wither on the side of the road know that it didn’t get enough water or because it was seen as a weed. People stumble. People make mistakes. People make poor choices. But I’m arguing that they don’t lose their divinity just because they committed a crime. They’re not a criminal who committed a crime. They’re not a bad person. If they fail a test, they’re not dumb. They are still these divine seeds of possibility. If you can take a plant up at the bulb level, dust it off, and plant it in some nurturing soil, and water it, it’ll sprout back and grow.
To understand the parallel here and what Nedrich’s story teaches us, our campuses are the soil into which these divine seeds of possibility are placed. We need to water them appropriately with the drops of intellectual nourishment and enrich them with the nutrients of socialization, mentoring, guidance, advising, and mental health support and other basic needs. We need to till the soil to take the weeds of social distraction out of their life. These social distractions aren’t just external forces, but internal policies and practices that are more transactional and don’t meet the needs of the students. We need to give them just enough sunlight of affirmation and monotony, and just enough shade of critique. If we do that, we can stand back and watch them grow in a way that the metrics of the world would have never predicted and that no assessment or GPA would have been able to realize they had talent for.
We were able to nurture Nedrich in our educational system. Now this individual has a bright future full of possibilities. He’s even teaching us how to receive students better. And so I invite our university presidents, Boards of Trustees, and colleagues throughout the nation to think about not simply how meritorious students are as they come to our campus, but, rather, how meritorious our campuses are and if we’re ready to receive them. How nurturing is the soil that we are inviting these divine seeds of possibility to come into?
Drumm McNaughton 34:20
Very well said. I want to follow up with that. If a system wanted to do what you’ve done here, what would you suggest? How would they start this?
Dilcie Perez 34:34
For me, it’s first being willing to recognize the challenge. In America, it’s difficult for us to sometimes acknowledge our history. We have to be willing to confront the real challenge and the real dilemma. That’s what’s commendable about our chancellor.
Someone shared something that has resonated with me and that applies here. If you’re going to change things, you have to first recognize it. Then you have to interrupt it. Then you have to repair it. With the Juneteenth symposium, our workgroup, and the recommendations, we’re using the report to interrupt what is currently happening, not only in our universities, but in our state for Black students and their families. And as we update and do this work, we are hopeful and excited about repairing and improving Black student success in the system.
Thomas Parham 35:41
What would I do? I would, again, do that. I think the psychologist in me remembers Freud’s Law of Inertia and that the human condition will only exert the amount of energy necessary for the immediate need in a given moment. When I was seeing patients, I used to teach them “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If we can’t convince institutions that what they’re doing is not working and it’s not fulfilling the aspirational nature of what we’re trying to be for students, then there’s no motivation to change.
The second piece is that we are making ourselves available. If you’d like to see what we do, we invite you to come visit the California State University System. We invite you to come in and talk to our groups, boards, and other folks about what we’ve done. We don’t pretend to have every answer or the secret sauce. But what’s true is that we are just not afraid to try. We are taking consummate risks. We are consummate risk takers. We’re taking mental risks. To think outside the box, we are taking verbal risks to say something, even if it’s stupid, on the off chance that it might just be a gem of an idea. We are also taking behavioral risks to step outside of what is conventional and comfortable in order to distinguish between our reach, which is comfortable and crass, and what we’re reaching for to make things better. That’s what we’re trying to do on the California State University System.
Drumm McNaughton 37:11
Well said. We are at the end of our time. What are three takeaways for presidents and boards?
Thomas Parham 37:19
I think you can do it. One of my heroes Dr. King was clear when he said, “Our lives, my friends, begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter. Each of you has to decide that this thing matters.” We decided in the CSU that Black student success and elevating Black excellence mattered. That’s been our commitment in that space.
Again, as I started out with, every generation, according to Frantz Fanon, has an opportunity to fulfill its legacy or betray it. What we want to do is make sure we are fulfilling the legacy of providing excellence, affordability, and academic and research access to our state’s and nation’s citizenry. If we can do all those three things and do it in a way that affirms the humanity and dignity of each individual then we have done our job.
Drumm McNaughton 38:14
Dilcie Perez 38:17
I agree. I love that. Hear, hear!
Drumm McNaughton 38:22
What’s next for you, folks?
Dilcie Perez 38:25
As much as we’ve talked about it, writing the report was the easy part. We are beginning the hard part, which is having our campuses reflect on those 13 recommendations and identifying how they will do it and what their goals will be for the next 18 months. Our chancellor has committed one-time dollars to get the effort started and moved across the system. We will be identifying a statewide central office that will lead us in these efforts. That will be done this year.
Quite honestly, our goal is to make it very clear that this is not one individual’s role. It is not just the university president’s role to lead these efforts. It will take all of us. It will take our community-based organizations. It will take private industry. It will take faculty and the experience that students are having in the classroom to create welcoming spaces where they feel like they matter and belong. It will take staff to make this work. So our goal is to change our cultures, not just to check the box on a report or to feel like it’s just a quantitative activity. The greatest thing we can achieve from this is that students and alumni share their stories with their families and the community about a transformational experience that they’ve had on our campus so that they, in turn, tell their children who tell their children who tell their children. That’s our goal, quite honestly, with the report. Those are our next steps. It’s not to have this report gather dust on a shelf. We want it to be who we are.
Thomas Parham 40:18
It’s a living, breathing document. It’s a template that each campus will have an opportunity to fill out, which puts in a system of accountability. When you think about diversity equations, you have to have three critical ingredients, which I think this report has. You have to have a cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and, in some cases, spiritual pledge of support. Somebody has to say this is important. We’ve done that, from the Board of Trustees, to the Chancellor’s Office, down to the presidents, and to our faculty and staff.
Secondly, we have to have sound programmatic planning, which is what these templates will allow us to articulate. And thirdly, you must have some measure of accountability. That is the single most important ingredient missing from our diversity equation. Who gets held accountable for this? We have to elevate this diversity and lack student success to the same level of accountability as we elevate fiscal integrity and other things that we care about in our educational institutions. For me, that’s what’s important. So if we can do that, we’re going to be in great shape. We look forward to seeing where we go.
I also want to say that as leaders and boards do this, it also will be the students along with the faculty and the staff who have to participate in their own recovery and empowerment. Leadership can’t just do it all. Everyone must have a strong part to play as well. They must have a strong strategic and significant share of behavior. So they’re going to have to learn to be consummate risk takers as well. They can’t make institutions jump through hoops. What we want to do is invite them to say, “Can you demonstrate to us that real trust isn’t an external circumstance? The question that we want to invite our staff, faculty, and our students to take is not can you trust the system, but can you trust yourself long enough to take a risk with us? We are intent on trying to align that trust they placed on us with our measures of accountability and put that in place and see what we can do.
Drumm McNaughton 42:35
This has been fabulous. Thomas, Dilcie, thank you both so much for being on the show. I want to revisit this topic within a year to just see how the campuses are doing. Can we do that?
Dilcie Perez 42:47
Thomas Parham 42:48
We can absolutely do that. We have a Juneteenth symposium, ironically, coming up on June 24 on the campus at Sacramento State. So post that Juneteenth conference, we’ll do a press conference and a report to figure out what our measure of accountability is and where we have gone since the last Juneteenth, which is a pretty good start. But, again, we have a restless spirit and a restless soul that want to make progress. And we’re surrounded by a lot of people who are committed to create that divine dissatisfaction with the way things are and who are in favor of the way things might be. So we’re on our way.
Drumm McNaughton 43:26
Well, again, thank you so much. This has been fabulous. I look forward to the next time we get a chance to talk about this.
Dilcie Perez 43:32
Thank you so much.
Thomas Parham 43:33
Thank for having us. We appreciate it very much.
Drumm McNaughton 43:38
Thanks for listening and a special thank you to our guests Dr. Thomas Parham and Dr. Dilcie Perez for their insights on the importance of diversifying campuses and what higher ed institutions can do after the SCOTUS Affirmative Action decision to make this happen. Tune in next week when we welcome Dr. Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State College and University system. He will join us to talk about higher education leadership and what it takes to lead through crisis and change. Thanks again for listening. See you next week.
Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at changinghighered.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to email@example.com. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.