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July 31, 2021
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Higher ed board adopts guide to look at its decisions through an 'equity lens'

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Higher Education voted unanimously Friday to adopt an “equity lens framework” to guide decision-making at the board and system level.

The framework is a tool leaders and policymakers will use “to ensure all of our decisions, our strategies, our initiatives and our goals are staying true to the vision of equitable systemic change,” said Geoffrey Landward, the board’s general counsel.

The framework was modeled after the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s Equity Lens and has been further developed by chief diversity officers of Utah’s public colleges and universities and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Board member Shawn Newell said he envisions that the framework will become part of Utah System of Higher Education’s “DNA.”

The framework, which was months in the making, encompasses critical equity questions, shared beliefs and common definitions that organizations can continually evaluate existing or new strategies, policies or initiatives.

Critical equity questions ask decision-makers to reflect on how their decisions will impact all students, staff and faculty, starting with those who are underrepresented and/or marginalized on campus. Decision-makers are expected to use data to inform their decisions but also examine the limitations of data in understanding students and employees holistically.

One shared belief is that every student has the ability to learn, and that the higher education system has “an ethical and moral responsibility to ensure optimal learning and workplace environments exist on USHE campuses for all students, faculty and staff.”

Another is: “We believe students who are academically underprepared for college are being failed by the educational system.” To remedy this, the system and its 16 colleges and universities must meet students where they are and work to build on and improve each student’s educational outcomes.

The document includes shared definitions of terms such as anti-racism, attainment gap and equity, among others.

“Equity is the recognition and analysis of historic, persistent factors that have created an unequal (higher) education system,” the document states.

The board put the tool to work immediately with the chairmen and chairwomen of its committees reporting how it will be used as the board examines issues such as college access, completion, affordability and workforce alignment.

Patricia Jones, who leads the the board’s Academic Education Committee, said that in February, the committee will discuss the importance of college completion and students’ need to succeed in introductory courses.

“Some things that we do know about introductory courses and people that struggled with that is, we know that the majority of students come to us academically underprepared for introductory courses. Failing a course greatly decreases the odds of graduating, and then having to take multiple remedial courses before beginning college-level work also greatly decreases the odds of graduating,” she said.

Board member Lisa-Michele Church, who leads the board’s student affairs committee, said that committee will be taking a look at the system’s college access advising program to determine if advisers are talking to all diverse populations.

“We actually have a very diverse group of advisers so I’m very encouraged by that,” she said.

Advisers reach out to first-generation college students, students of color and other students who face substantial barriers to going to college. It uses a “near-peer” approach, meaning recent college graduates work in high schools both as mentors and role models. The Utah System of Higher Education is working to place an adviser in every Utah public high school.

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