Message from Provost Serio: Equity Action Plans

Dear Colleagues,

In February, my office, in collaboration with the Office of Equity and Inclusion, launched an initiative to develop Equity Action Plans for each department in Academic Affairs. In my discussions with faculty in the intervening period, I have learned that the context and goals of this effort may not have been shared widely within departments, and I am writing to you now to directly provide that information. 

Background and Goals 

The 2018-2023 Strategic Plan of the University explicitly adopts as one of the institutional values, Diversity Equity, and Inclusiveness: 

We are committed to the success and well-being of every individual in our community regardless of group identity. 

During the Fall of 2021, our campus launched our latest Campus Climate Survey. In announcing this survey, we acknowledged not only our ongoing commitment to understanding perceptions of but also to making measurable progress on equity and inclusion on our campus. I believe that the collaborative engagement of all members of our campus community – faculty, staff, and students – in translating this commitment into action is the only path to living up to our values.  

The Office of Equity and Inclusion and my office have collaborated on a number of initiatives to encourage and support this engagement. In the Fall of 2022, the Campus Climate Survey report and interactive dashboards were released, and Campus Climate Survey Engagement Guides, which include resources and toolkits on different themes, have been released regularly throughout this academic year. The campus was invited to engage with these resources as the foundation for developing Equity Action Plans in each of the vice chancellories. For Academic Affairs, the timeline for developing these plans was announced at the Academic Affairs retreat in September 2022, and a full-day retreat for department heads/chairs, deans and other academic leaders was held at the beginning of February to launch this process.  

The Academic Affairs Equity Action Plans are focused on improving equity in students’ belonging and connectedness, which correlate strongly with traditional measures of student success (e.g. the PASS project).This focus results directly from feedback from our own students, especially those from groups historically marginalized in higher education, on their experiences at the department level through the Campus Climate Survey. To begin to address these inequities, we developed a priority list of equity actions focused on classroom belonging and asked departments to survey their use throughout the courses required for their majors. We then asked departments to choose at least one action, through discussion, to advance belonging and connectedness and to share this information with us in early March (actions outside of this list are also welcome). Ideally, these actions will be targeted to the point in the curriculum and pedagogy where they may have the most impact on inequities in student retention and completion rates based on feedback from the Campus Climate and student success data from Flagship Analytics. The full Equity Action Plans, due at the end of the spring semester, are to outline implementation and assessment of these action(s). In short, these plans are expected to build upon the intentions and aspirations articulated in department strategic plans, AQADs, and EEPs by formalizing a specific path to achieving them that is guided by evidence.  

Relationship to Academic Freedom 

The most frequent question that I have received since launching this initiative is the relationship of these plans to academic freedom. I believe this framing creates a false dichotomy, positioning the advancement of equity in the classroom as a curtailment of academic freedom. As detailed by the former President of the AAUP, academic freedom grants faculty broad discretion over course content and pedagogy, but it does not remove the expectation of educational effectiveness. Indeed, accrediting bodies routinely define expected outcomes at the course level and require departments, colleges, and universities to adduce evidence of achievement of these outcomes and to plan action steps for improvement. 

I embrace a more positive framing: the Equity Action Plans represent an opportunity to reflect on our current pedagogy and to exercise our academic freedom to make improvements that promote the success of ALL of our students. Rather than surveillance of individual classrooms, the goal is to facilitate dialogue within departments to develop a holistic understanding of the current state of best practices within its curriculum and to share experiences on their impact as the foundation of a cycle of continuous improvement. This information, submitted in early March, will also guide the development of resources and connections by my office to support your work. 

Prescribed directives to implement these actions without such dialogue are unlikely to support the goals of promoting students’ feelings of belonging and connectedness and increasing their rates of retention and completion. By the same token, we will not achieve our aspirations without an intentional focus on mitigating barriers for success of students from different backgrounds. I urge you to work in partnership as a faculty to rise to the challenges that our students have directly shared with us through their responses to the Campus Climate Survey. I fully expect this partnership to manifest differently across the campus and view these differences as a strength emerging from academic freedom. It is my hope that the sharing of these innovations through the Equity Action Plans will accelerate our progress. 

I thank you for your engagement in this important work. 

Tricia Serio 
Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs