The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UW Oshkosh) has long served a diverse group of first-generation college students, including students from rural and urban areas, white students and students of color, and students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The campus has made diversity, equity, and inclusion central to its vision. Yet UW Oshkosh also recognizes disparities between its ideal of inclusion and the real experiences of underrepresented students, particularly students of color.
Since 2010, UW Oshkosh has tackled these disparities in a systematic way. The result has been an inspired and energized movement dedicated to transforming the experiences and increasing the academic success of students of color and students from other underserved groups. The movement has advanced a broad understanding that diversity benefits the entire university community, and that work done to advance the inclusion of students of color thus benefits the university as a whole.
Sparking a Movement through Dialogue
In spring 2010, at the invitation of the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor, the College of Letters and Science dean’s office began participating in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Give Students a Compass project, part of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. The national project aimed to help participating institutions build an infrastructure to support student success, particularly among traditionally underserved students. The dean’s office focused participation on creating a concerted movement among faculty and instructional academic staff to transform gateway courses in ways that would address growing disparities between the success rates of students of color and those of white students.
After an initial meeting of volunteers was dominated by a single voice blaming students of color for their lower success rates, the dean’s office developed an intentional approach to shaping the movement. The office decided to frame perspective-taking and equity-mindedness as key components of all dialogues; invite diverse members of the college community to the table along with experts on diversity and inclusion; engage college leaders who were flexible, creative, and action oriented; and create a structure with no resemblance to a typical college committee.
Following these principles, the dean’s office organized dialogues during summer 2010 that brought together three overlapping groups: academic leaders with a record of supporting diversity on campus, newer faculty and academic staff members with reputations for encouraging positive dialogue around diversity, and leaders of departments and programs within the college. The dialogues focused on four topics: (1) challenges posed by the gateway courses themselves, (2) challenges faced by students of color both in courses and on campus, (3) contributions that students of color make to the classroom and the campus, and (4) proposed strategies for increasing the success of students of color in gateway courses.
Exploring Disaggregated Data
The dialogues were driven by the Oshkosh Student Achievement Report. Created by the assistant vice chancellor of curricular affairs and student academic achievement in collaboration with the Office of Institutional Research, the report compiles a wide range of data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, including GPAs, retention and graduation rates, and DFW rates (measuring the percentage of students that withdraw from a class or finish with grades of D or F). The 2009–10 report revealed a steadily widening gap between gateway course success rates for students of color and those of their white peers. It also told a devastating story of the many challenges confronting students of color from the moment they set foot on campus. Roughly one-third finish their first semester with a GPA below 2.0, a measure that predicts a high likelihood of leaving the university. Thus one in three students of color at UW Oshkosh feels intense pressure to leave college after only one semester.
By encouraging college leaders to view the data through an equity lens, the dean’s office fostered a strong ethos for what is now called the Gateway Success initiative. Stressing that change would not happen through mandate, the dean’s office asked instructors and departments to take responsibility for the success of students of color by developing their own strategies for improving these students’ success rates. Over the course of five summer meetings, participants addressed their underlying assumptions about students who perform poorly, increased their understanding of how challenges in the gateway courses relate to students’ persistence at the university, and identified pedagogical and curricular transformations that would increase student success. The result has been movement toward a campus culture that values students of color as crucial contributors to courses and to the campus community.
Advancing Change through Leadership
After almost three years, the Gateway Success initiative is thriving. The leaders who participated in the summer dialogues have inspired others to take leadership in the movement. The resulting proliferation of diffuse, dynamic, and diverse leadership has ensured that rich and varied strategies to transform the gateway courses continue to develop. Five strategies have been particularly popular: (1) strengthening students’ ties to the instructor and to each other; (2) connecting students to crucial academic services; (3) teaching students the fundamental academic skills central to the disciplines; (4) infusing content about diverse peoples into the curriculum; and (5) promoting active and collaborative learning in the classroom.
Several departments have responded to the summer meetings by hosting collaborative dialogues where faculty review disaggregated data for their department’s gateway courses and propose solutions to disparities reflected therein. For example, the history department held a retreat in fall 2010 where instructors agreed to work toward implementing five goals in all gateway courses: (1) to place course texts on library reserve for those who cannot afford them; (2) to reach out to students who receive a D or lower on an assignment; (3) to take attendance regularly as a way of encouraging persistence; (4) to employ small group work and intentionally shape the make-up of groups to achieve inclusiveness; and (5) to collaborate with the Center for Academic Resources to connect struggling students with tutors. Through these strategies, the history department effected change in three gateway courses, where they lowered DFW rates for American Indian, Southeast Asian, and white students during the 2010–11 academic year.
Both the English and communication departments organized workshops where experts on diversity taught gateway course instructors about inclusive pedagogy and curriculum infusion of diverse content. These efforts were key to the initiative’s overall success, as almost all first-year students take both a Writing-Based Inquiry Seminar (WBIS) from the English department and a Fundamentals of Speech (COMM 111) course from the communication department. These courses teach skills that are crucial to students’ continuation at the university. Both departments focused on decreasing students’ sense of isolation and increasing their sense of belonging. Participating instructors committed to a range of individual action steps aimed at increasing academic success for students of color, including infusing more diverse content to engage a wider range of students, requiring reflective assignments to increase understanding of students’ struggles, and making knowledge of diversity a learning outcome for their courses. As a result of these strategies, DFW rates fell dramatically in both courses. In WBIS, DFW rates reached their lowest point since 2007 for students of every race and ethnicity. In COMM 111, DFW rates fell for African American, American Indian, Southeast Asian, and Asian students, although they rose for white students and Hispanic students. Through a mini-grant from the college, the communication department is continuing to address these inequities and working to lower the DFW rate for all students.
Thus in 2010–11, departments that took leadership in the Gateway Success initiative increased the academic success of most students within their gateway courses, while departments that had no organized response saw disparities between students of color and their white majority peers widen or remain the same. Overall, the transformations made to increase the inclusion of students of color and other underserved students have benefited not only targeted students, but the university community as a whole.
Expanding the Initiative’s Scope
Recent developments promise to advance the Gateway Success initiative’s efforts. Because students’ academic success increases significantly when instructors work collaboratively, the second phase of the initiative supports teams working together to implement pedagogical innovation. Five department teams across the college have received mini-grants in amounts ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 to help them incorporate inclusive teaching practices into their first-year courses.
The dean’s office also created the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) task force to develop an approach to the gateway courses specific to STEM instructors, who were less likely than their peers in the humanities and social sciences to participate in the initiative. In spring 2012, task force leaders formed a learning community dedicated to investigating best practices in STEM teaching. Through collaboration with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), the STEM Task Force has organized a STEM Best Practices Certificate, to be awarded to instructors who participate in a series of five workshops focused on practices that create inclusive classrooms. Participants will receive a $500 stipend after completing the five workshops and incorporating a range of best practices into their courses.
Innovative collaborations have also occurred between leaders of English 100 (remedial English), the WBIS program, and the new University Studies Program (USP), the university’s re-envisioned general education program. Historically, a large number of students of color have enrolled in English 100, and their success or failure in it often predicts whether they will stay at the university. As an initial response to Gateway Success, the Writing Center director (who was also teaching English 100) hired writing fellows who met weekly with students to model basic academic behaviors and provide early assistance in mastering the fundamentals of writing. In fall 2013, English 100 will modify this approach by piloting a model where writing fellows provide support for students’ work in a set of paired USP courses (WBIS and another general education course). Thus English 100 students will learn writing by working on assignments from other courses, fostering their appreciation for writing across the curriculum and underscoring the relevance of writing to their success.
Another collaborative project brought together faculty and instructional academic staff, diverse student leaders, and senior Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) scholars. Together the director of CETL and the dean’s office developed a workshop focused on incorporating inclusive pedagogy and infusing diverse content into first-year courses. The eleven instructors who participated in the workshop received $500 stipends. Five SoTL scholars also participated in the workshop as the first step in a project funded by the UW System to track and evaluate changes to the gateway courses through student surveys and interviews about reflective teaching practices.
Through the workshop and subsequent research, these SoTL scholars discovered that stories told during the workshop by student leaders from the LGBTQ community and multicultural organizations on campus were important motivators for instructors. The student leaders told of the strengths of their communities, the unforeseen challenges that they experienced on campus due to their identities, the specific barriers they faced in the gateway courses, and the strategies they used to succeed. They suggested ways in which the gateway courses could become more inclusive of students like themselves. The researchers shared their findings in public presentations and in organized meetings with instructors and administrators. As a result, the Gateway Success initiative continues to feature student leaders in faculty development workshops.
The SoTL research surfaced important findings about effective pedagogies. At the time of the study, two participating faculty members (one from the psychology department and one from the history department) were both working to encourage active learning by incorporating small group work into large lecture-based courses. In a sixty-seat history course, the instructor implemented ongoing learning communities, leading to an increase in student attendance and a decrease in student isolation as measured by student surveys. In a 230-seat psychology course, the instructor began using guided questions for small group work, leading to significant increases in students’ academic success and to decreased DFW rates for students of color and first-generation college students.
Building an Equitable Future
Collaborations across the college and university continue to shape the Gateway Success movement. The history and psychology instructors who led the changes described above now regularly present to new hires across the college, encouraging best practices for student learning in the classroom. Diverse student leaders also present regularly at workshops and meetings on Gateway Success, inspiring instructors and motivating change. Both remedial English and STEM courses are undergoing transformation.
By combining motivating data, compelling student stories, and collaborative dialogues, UW Oshkosh, instructors, students, and administrators continue to work toward a just and equitable future where diversity is broadly valued. For as Patricia Williams writes, “What happens to one may be the repercussive history that repeats itself in the futures of us all” (546).
Williams, Patricia J. 1990. “Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC: Regrouping in Singular Times.” Harvard Law Review 104 (2): 525–46.
H. Jordan Landry is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.