Leaders Create Informal Support Network Amid DEI Opposition

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A coalition of higher education presidents and industry leaders is serving as an advocacy network for promoting and defending DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts as political powers continue to engineer unprecedented legislative attacks on programs, policies, and institutions across the country. So far this year, 50 anti-DEI bills across 20 states have been introduced, according to a recent Associated Press analysis.

Known as Education for All, the informal group is comprised of nearly 200 members, mostly community college leaders, who have collaborated over the last year to provide guidelines, perspective, and support as leadership seeks help championing equity values. It was formed with support from nonprofit organizations Achieving the Dream and Campus Compact, which provided the initial infrastructure for virtual and in-person meetings, as well as expertise.

Members convene through meetings and events to strategize on effecting change and tackling challenges at all levels.— local, state, and national, says Mike Gavin, PhD, president of Delta College and leader of the group. This frequently entails sharing personal experiences to help others learn how to address similar challenges at their institutions.

Support and Solidarity
It shouldn’t be surprising that community colleges largely make up the organization, Gavin says, as these institutions have traditionally taken a democratic approach to education and are crucial to educational access.

While many administrators privately endorse inclusivity initiatives, some may hesitate to speak publicly due to fear of repercussions, including the possibility of job loss and concerns about the intentions of their potential successors.

“These are very public and very lonely positions,” says Tammeil Gilkerson, EdD, chancellor of Peralta Community College District. “[Politicians] go after leaders’ careers. … We’ve seen the number of African American female presidents of universities who have been taken out of their jobs.”

Education for All’s informal structure enables members to quietly find support and advance equity initiatives. It also offers an opportunity for those who are not facing serious threats to use their influence to help others.

“Particularly [for] institutions that are not only doing this work, but doing it with relative safety and support, there’s a really important allyship or accompliceship component [in speaking] out,” says Steve Robinson, PhD, Lansing Community College president.

In addition to concerns over legislative attacks, Education for All leaders highlight the need for a network to turn to when facing issues. Even in states that are more progressive, it’s sometimes difficult to advance equity initiatives at the most basic level because of long-standing higher education structures and systems, especially for leaders of color, says Gilkerson.“We’re all under a tremendous amount of pressure, and of course, that’s layered the more intersectionalities that exist,” adds Julie White, PhD, chancellor and CEO of Pierce College District. “[This is] a space where you can [share your struggles]. … The health and well-being piece of doing this work is super critical for us to foster, to be able to continue [a high] level of strategy that we need to bring [to the job].”

Projects and Initiatives
Beyond serving as a network, ad hoc committees are advancing a variety of projects, one of which is known as the Education for All Student Voting Campaign, focused on encouraging college employees and students to register to vote, led by Keith Curry, EdD, president and CEO of Compton College.

“For me, as a Black male who’s a community college president, I understand the Civil Rights Movement, and I understand what Black people fought for.— to give people like me a chance to vote,” Curry says. “I feel like this is a way for me to give back.”

He is reviewing survey results from Education for All members regarding practices for promoting civic engagement at their own institutions and plans to develop guidance for community college leaders to enhance initiatives, informed by expertise from organizations already doing the work, like the Fair Elections Center and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.

“I think it’s important for students to know that the policies that are being set locally, regionally, and also nationally can impact them and their community, and their voice should be heard,” he says. “They should be able to participate in the civic engagement process. And they should want to participate, and they should know that their vote matters.”

Another initiative is a video series led by White and produced by international college honor society Phi Theta Kappa. The material amplifies student voices on what equity and anti-DEI legislation means to them.

A supplementary effort is focused on developing content for operationalizing recommendations laid out in the 2023 guide “Making the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in a Challenging Political Environment: A Resource Guide for Campus Leaders” by the American Council on Education and PEN America.

Overall, the group aims to provide ongoing and evolving insights so leaders can react appropriately to legislative threats. Members are constantly informing each other on new tactics used by lawmakers to progress anti-DEI bills.

“[For example,] many of the things that show up in the bills that are coming out are making claims about our pedagogy that just simply aren’t being done,” Gavin says. “Sometimes there’s a reaction among presidents to want to go through the curriculum when it’s not necessary to do so.”

‘You’re not alone’
With DEI frequently viewed as a politically charged and contentious issue, many in higher education and beyond may feel disheartened. Nevertheless, members are calling for presidents and industry leaders to continue fighting for the values that initially drew them to the industry — a commitment to success for all students.

In challenging times, Curry provides reassurance, emphasizing that the door is open at Education for All.

“You have colleagues throughout the country [who can] help and support you,” he says. “There [are] resources also available for you as well. But you’re not alone. And you have a safe space to go to for help and support.”