So, You Want to Address Inequities?

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021
By Richard Phillips
Photo by iStock/Drazen Zigic
What does it take for an academic institution to make systemic change? (Hint: It’s more than a task force.)

Events over the past 21 months have spotlighted systemic differences among groups in society in undeniable ways. This attention has created great momentum toward addressing inequities in society. Leaders in all industries are asking how they and their organizations can give all employees the opportunity to succeed to the best of their potential, regardless of race or creed or sexual orientation.

Business schools are certainly hosting such conversations. Deans like myself have empowered task forces that have invested their time and talent to generate pages of recommendations, all designed to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their schools and communities. The question is: What impact will these reports have on our own institutions five to 10 years from now? On the ability of our institutions to effect change in our regions? Or in society as a whole?

If we consider these reports as a means to an end, I contend the answer to these questions is, “Not much.” To effect true change, we must find ways to put their recommendations into practice. We will not sustain the changes we identify as critical to addressing inequity unless we institutionalize new behaviors. We must ingrain new habits so deeply that there is no temptation to slip back toward old ways of doing business.

It Starts With Commitment

The key challenge in addressing inequities and disparities within your school, your region, or your community is that these imbalances have been institutionalized at fundamental levels. They are embedded within a school’s policies and practices, and they are even integrated into the mindsets of the people operating within its systems. Without a genuine commitment to identify and credibly overhaul those systems, sustainable change is just not possible.

So, administrators need to think hard, lean into the issue, and ask, “How am I, as a leader, going to create deep commitment to a change management process? How can I ensure this institution follows through on its vision for diversity and equity?”

We recognized that schools could use data to identify and understand institutionalized barriers to degree completion, and we began collecting that data.

Our experience at Georgia State University in Atlanta offers possible answers. A little over a decade ago, our university analyzed our students’ graduation rates and discovered differences that correlated with factors such as race and socioeconomic circumstance. Our hypothesis: The problem was not our students. The problem was us.

We decided to adopt a three-step solution. First, we admitted that institutions of higher education inadvertently hinder student success and that longstanding policies, practices, and structures are among the key drivers of equity gaps. Second, we recognized that schools could use data to identify and understand institutionalized barriers to degree completion, and we began collecting that data. Third, we used that data to inform and implement the right intervention strategies, regardless of our existing practices and procedures, to create more equitable enrollment, retention, and graduation outcomes.

Better Outcomes Through Data

A little over ten years ago, we realized that one significant barrier to our students’ success was that we did not have real-time information on student performance. If students were struggling for any reason, we often did not realize it until we saw their final grades at the end of the semester, when it was too late to help. By that time, students were placed on academic probation, which for many initiated a precipitous downward slide.

We changed our approach in 2012, when Georgia State began using predictive analytics and a system of more than 800 alerts to track all undergraduates daily. These analytics helped us better identify students demonstrating at-risk behaviors. We could have advisors intervene in a timely manner to get these students back on track.

For the last four years, Georgia State has been the only national research university at which Black, Hispanic, first-generation, and low-income students have graduated at rates at or above the rate of the student body overall.

For example, let’s say students are receiving a C in a particular course. A C might be a passing grade, but it does not predict success in the upper-level course they need to take next. In the past, advisors wouldn’t intervene until students received one or more failing grades. But now, advisors are alerted to at-risk students when the first grades of the semester are reported; they reach out to help while there is still time for students to improve their performance.

As a result of this and other strategies, we have seen our metrics for student success improve significantly. We have also eliminated achievement gaps. For the last four years, we have been the only national research university at which Black, Hispanic, first-generation, and low-income students have graduated at rates at or above the rate of the student body overall. Georgia State is showing, contrary to what experts have said for decades, that demographics are not destiny.

These and other ideas focused on improving retention and graduation rates were codified in a universitywide plan for student success that has guided Georgia State’s decision making and resource allocation. Over time, these ideas have evolved into the strategic plan that directs our efforts today. We were especially proud when David Kirp, a contributing writer for The New York Times, highlighted our approach in his 2019 book The College Dropout Scandal. “It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude—and the national implications—of what Georgia State has accomplished,” Kirp writes. “Georgia State has demolished the excuses that colleges have used for generations to rationalize their abysmal track records.”

A New Vision for the Future

At GSU’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, we intended to develop our next five-year strategic plan after we attained reaccreditation. But in March 2020, just one week after completing our AACSB reaccreditation review process, our campus shut down and pivoted to online education. As we managed the hectic demands of running the college during a pandemic, we were tempted to delay the strategic planning process.

But in the end, the team decided to push forward, even amidst a public health crisis and roiling social unrest. Moreover, as we completed our strategic plan, I empaneled an inclusion and equity task force to develop recommendations for addressing systemic inequities within Robinson College and our community.

We are better for having gone forward with this process. By having the two groups working concurrently, we ensured that the thinking of the Inclusion & Equity Task Force was fully represented in our new strategic plan, Accelerate 2025, which was unanimously approved by the faculty in September. The overall vision calls for Robinson to “reimagine innovation for all.”

For example, we will launch a social impact initiative that will inspire scholars, students, and partners to collaborate on breakthrough market solutions that address systemic inequities in high-stakes contexts such as education, healthcare, intergenerational mobility, and the distribution of digital resources. We also will create new courses within our curriculum that explore DEI-related concepts in a business context, and recruit more students from historically excluded populations to our doctoral programs as a way to build a more diverse pipeline of business faculty.

Addressing systemic inequities presents a significant leadership challenge for deans. For changes to stick, you must weave DEI goals deeply into your school’s strategy.

The power of embedding the task force’s DEI ideas in our strategic plan has already been made apparent. Just recently, a high-stakes resource allocation debate arose in our college, the outcome of which could have derailed a keystone recommendation of the task force. If that recommendation had not been a prominent part of the strategic plan, I am uncertain it would have survived. Who knew adopting new habits would be difficult?

Go the Extra Mile to Achieve DEI

My advice to other administrators is this: If you want to increase diversity at your school but all you have is a DEI report full of recommendations, you still have more leadership work to do. If you want to leave a legacy by asking your institution to make a big difference in its community, you must think through how the report will influence your school’s strategic planning. You must go the extra mile to make diversity, equity, and inclusion happen on your campus.

Addressing systemic inequities presents a tremendous opportunity for business schools—and a significant leadership challenge for deans. For changes to stick, you must weave DEI goals deeply into your school’s strategy.

Georgia State has come a long way in the last decade under a strategic plan that emphasizes student success. As I reflect on that success, I am excited about what the Robinson College will be in five to 10 years, and I am pleased that the members of our community worked together to determine our collective vision for how we want to achieve more diverse, equitable, and inclusive outcomes in our school, our communities, and our world.

Richard Phillips
Dean and C.V. Starr Professor of Risk Management & Insurance, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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