Higher ed board vows ‘equitable systemic change’ in Utah’s public colleges

Scott G Winterton, KSL

Higher ed board vows ‘equitable systemic change’ in Utah’s public colleges

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News | Posted - Aug. 21, 2020 at 9:40 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Higher Education adopted a resolution Friday for a systemic change in the state’s system of colleges and universities.

Recent racial and social justice movements worldwide have “amplified calls to evaluate, reform and eradicate systemic racism and structural equity disparities,” the resolution notes.

“I think it probably goes without saying that this is something that all of us have been thinking a lot more about this summer, in our businesses, in our personal relationships,” said board Chairman Harris Simmons.

The resolution calls for creation of a workgroup to examine diversity, equity and inclusion in the Utah higher education system. It also requires “an equity lens framework” for higher education leaders and efforts to close statewide inequities.

The board set a Nov. 20 deadline for its standing committees to develop “equity-driven” priorities and measurable goals.

“I find myself, actually, hopeful as one who kind of grew up through the 1960s, and having seen what happened during the ’60s. There was a lot of positive change made but we never really quite finished the race and crossed the finish line. There’s clearly still a lot of work to do,” Simmons said.

Board member Shawn Newell said history teaches that the issues of inequity and racism that society is grappling with today have long existed.

“We’re not going to be able to pivot this overnight,” said Newell, who is Black and one of a handful of people of color on the newly appointed Utah Board of Higher Education.

Newell said he is “just ecstatic to be a part of this shift. But then I also caution everybody that it’s not going to be as easy as putting it on paper and making the statement that we’re going to do it.”

“It’s a heavy lift,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and it’s going to take some self-reflection and also some resilience out in the community when you’re working with other people talking to them about ways that these shifts will be able to take place.”

He urged board members who have questions to reach out to him. Without dialogue, “we don’t move forward.”

Some people shy away from discussing issues of race and systemic inequality with people who “have had some of these experiences, thinking that you have the fear of being tokenized or something else,” he said. Newell said he welcomes those conversations.

A new Utah System of Higher Education policy brief suggests there’s a lot to discuss.

The brief spotlights some of the many challenges the state system faces amid a growing population that demographers say will become increasingly diverse in the coming decades.

“There is already a postsecondary education enrollment and completion gap represented through racial and ethnic disparities at colleges and universities within the Utah System of Higher Education,” the brief states.

In 2018, people of color comprised 23%-25% of the 18-35 age population. It is projected that by 2065, the percentage will increase to 39-41% of the population.

Data also indicates college enrollment rates of people of color are as much as 40% below that of white individuals for that age group.

Young men of color are least represented attending public colleges and universities. Only female, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders had a lower participation rate, the brief notes.

The report cautions: “If intentional and significant changes are not made to address growing disparities within USHE, the enrollment gap at Utah’s postsecondary colleges and universities will continue to increase as the population grows, and our communities will continue to be negatively impacted.”

There are also disparities in graduation rates.

“Postsecondary educational attainment of people of color is as much as 35% below that of white students,” the brief states.

The document also notes challenges in students’ transition from high school to college. Less than half — 46% — of Utah high school graduates enroll in public higher education institutions one year out of high school.

In Park City School District, 68% of students enroll in college within a year of graduation.

The percentages tend to be lower-than-average in Utah’s rural school districts and some urban districts such as Ogden School District, with only 34% of their senior class enrolling in college within one year on completing high school.

“It should be noted that in Utah, measures of college enrollment within one year of high school graduation tend to underestimate the true picture of college attendance because of the ecclesiastical missionary service system of Utah’s predominant religion,” the brief states.

But it is not the only explanation. “It is likely the case that socioeconomic status, marginalization and structural inequities also play a role in whether a high school graduate attends college,” the report said.

The brief also sheds light on the relatively low percentage of full-time faculty in Utah colleges and universities who are people of color, which suggests “an issue of underrepresentation as well.”

As of November 2019, 19.8% of full-time faculty positions and 18.9% of full-time staff positions were held by individuals of color, the report states.

“The absence of representative staff and faculty also greatly impacts underrepresented student persistence, and completion outcomes,” the report states.

Marjorie Cortez

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