Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Bridging the Gap: Advancing Racial Equity in Higher Education by Connecting Research to Practice

By: Royel M. Johnson (Assistant Professor) and Ali Watts (PhD Candidate)

Center for the Study of Higher Education
Pennsylvania State University

In early Feb 2019, the authors (Royel Johnson, PI, and Ali Watts, graduate assistant) along with co-PIs Uju Anya (Penn State) and Liliana Garces (University of Texas at Austin) and graduate assistant Evelyn Ambriz (University of Texas at Austin) convened a symposium titled Envisioning Racial Equity on College Campuses: Bridging Research-to-Practice Gaps for Institutional Transformation. The symposium was funded through the Spencer Foundation’s Small Conference Grant program, which in 2018 sought to facilitate collaborative projects “related to critical questions that interrogate how to create and sustain equitable educational spaces.” Support was also provided by Penn State’s College of Education, Office of Graduate Educational Equity Programs, and the Center for the Study of Higher Education. This two-day convening, held on the Penn State-University Park campus, brought together scholars and institutional practitioners to advance racial equity research in higher education and identify strategies to strengthen its accessibility and relevance for practitioners. 
The urgency of this work has been underscored by recent events across the country, from White supremacists rallying on the campus of the University of Virginia, to Black student hunger strikes at the University of Missouri, which issue a clear and compelling message: race (still) matters, and racism still festers on our nation’s college campuses. And despite the significant body of existing education research which offers recommendations to inform campus practices and policies intended to cultivate more racially inclusive environments (e.g., Bensimon & Malcolm, 2012; Harper, 2009; Strayhorn, 2012), remarkable research-to-practice gaps exist in higher education. Our convening sought to explore the nature and structure of these gaps by providing dedicated space for reflection, dialogue, and collaboration. The stated goals of the meeting were to: (a) identify and explore barriers in translating existing racial equity research to practice; (b) encourage discussion of new areas for research driven by practitioner needs; and (c) foster collaboration between invited scholars and practitioners interested in pursuing new lines of research.
            In order to structure the symposium discussions, we organized participants into three groups based on their interests related to University Leadership, Teaching & Learning, and Student Life. Each group featured invited scholars, Penn State practitioners, and faculty associated with Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. Practitioners were featured prominently throughout the symposium and were invited to share insights about areas of their practice that could benefit from additional research. These insights were shared during practitioner-centered panels and debrief sessions, as well as during scholarly breakout sessions where practitioners responded directly to research briefs submitted by invited scholars in order to make recommendations about how such research might be strengthened to be more accessible, relevant, and actionable for practice. Topics for these briefs included interrogations of anti-immigration rhetoric on campus (Susana Muñoz, Colorado State University), the importance of encouraging equity-mindedness among institutional governing boards (Felicia Commodore, Old Dominion University), and strategies to enhance the recruitment and retention of rural Black students (Darris Means, University of Georgia). 
The symposium affirmed many of our initial thoughts as well as those of other scholars who have written about research-to-practice gaps. Indeed, practitioners and institutional policymakers “face increasingly complex and fast-paced conditions for decision making, unique local challenges, and accountability demands for immediate results” (Maxey & Kezar, 2015, p. 1046). Our invited practitioners shared frustrations with not having enough to time to consume dense scholarly research, and as a result, often had to rely on their working professional knowledge and experiences to respond to crises or challenges. Educational researchers also play a significant role in this translational gap by giving little attention to the implications and recommendations sections of scholarly publications, using academic jargon in publications, and publishing primarily in journals that often do not reach practitioners who stand the most to gain from the work. 

As a result, many institutional actors on campus are ill-prepared to address systemic challenges related to racial inequality on campus through evidence-based practice. Recommendations from symposium discussions, therefore, centered on the need to present research in accessible language and venues (e.g., practitioner conferences,  public media outlets); the importance of research-practice partnerships to facilitate the production of high-quality practice-relevant research (see Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013); engaging practitioners in the peer-review process for manuscript development (e.g., asking for pre-publication practitioner feedback about analysis and implications sections to ensure that research is true to practitioner experience, and recommendations are actionable); and the usage of diverse research methods such as participatory action research, which helps facilitate change in practice through inquiry. 

We are energized by the symposium and are excited to see what comes of the collaborations developed during the event. It is our hope that attendees continue to engage the conversations initiated at the convening about the importance (and urgency) of policy- and practice-relevant research in higher education on their campuses and in the field of higher education broadly. We are currently exploring opportunities to advance this work in a range of outlets, including the release of the full conference proceedings later this spring, which will provide institutional practitioners and policymakers with clear and concrete recommendations for applying evidence from research to their work. Notably, several collaborations facilitated during the symposium are underway, and we are excited to see these new partnerships into fruition. To see some of the highlights from the conference, be sure to search the hashtag #RacialEquitySymposium on Twitter. 

Bensimon, E. M., & Malcolm, L. E. (2012). Confronting equity issues on campus. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Coburn, C. E., Penuel, W. R., & Geil, K. E. (2013). Research-practice partnerships: A strategy for leveraging research for educational improvement in school districts. William T. Grant Foundation, New York, NY.

Harper, S. R. (2009). Race-conscious student engagement practices and the equitable distribution of enriching educational experiences. Liberal Education95(4), 38-45.
Maxey, D., & Kezar, A. (2015). Leveraging the Delphi technique to enrich knowledge and engage educational policy problems. Educational Policy30(7), 1042-1070.
Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. London: Routledge.

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