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Media Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, carmen.chandler@csun.edu, (818) 677-2130

It isn’t enough to want their students to succeed, higher education leaders have a responsibility to identify and uproot the vestiges of historic racism that permeate academic spaces and can stand in the way of their students’ success, according to a team of researchers at California State University, Northridge.

In their latest paper for the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, the CSUN researchers argue that it is only by adopting an antiracist approach to their leadership practices that educational administrators can truly create “student-focused” environments where all students can thrive.

“Academic institutions, historically, have been structured to support only one type of student — white and male — and those students have pretty homogeneous backgrounds — middle- to upper-class,” said Jose H. Vargas, the paper’s lead author and a social psychologist with CSUN’s Health Equity Research and Education Center. “Those aren’t today’s students. They aren’t even the majority of students on today’s colleges and universities. But the historical structures and ideologies remain, creating an environment where so many of our students are forced into the position of ‘other.’ Their cultural backgrounds and experiences tend to be dismissed or treated as something they need to abandon if they are going to succeed. Students are being forced to conform to expectations that are unrealistic, given their lived experiences as minoritized people in a racist society.”

Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, an associate professor of psychology and a co-author of the paper, said this “cultural mismatch” can create seemingly insurmountable obstacles for marginalized students, particularly students of color, that can lead to those students dropping out.

“Those who are in a position of authority in higher education need to acknowledge this cultural mismatch and go beyond their ‘allyship,’” Vasquez-Salgado said. “They need to listen to their students, truly hear what their needs are and use their leadership positions to make the changes that address this mismatch. They can do this by capitalizing on the cultural strengths of their students and help their students turn those strengths into foundations for their success.”

Their peer-reviewed article is titled “Eradicating Dominant Ideologies in Higher Education: The Responsibility of Campus Leadership in Developing a Culturally-Congruent Education Experience.” In addition to Vargas and Vasquez-Salgado, its co-authors are assistant professor of social work José M. Paez, Deaf studies professor Will Garrow and psychology professor Carrie Saetermoe.

The researchers argue that “educational leadership serves a pivotal function in establishing the tenor of campus cultures.

“Executive decisions shape educational policy and practice in ways that either hinder or advance marginalized students’ academic success,” Saetermoe said. “Leaders are in powerful positions to modify unjust academic ecosystems and to de-ideologize the white-centric dominant ideologies that lead to student pushout. 

“Students aren’t the only ones who feel pushed out, so to speak,” she added. “Faculty of color often leave an institution, or academia, because they don’t feel welcomed. They often feel they are the ones who have to make a concerted effort to be part of a community where they’re not sure they are actually wanted.”

The researchers said educational leaders need to confront the challenges, engage in difficult dialogues and apply critical collective practices that promote belonging and cultural congruence for intersectionally-marginalized students and academics of color. 

Garrow pointed out that most educational leaders, regardless of their backgrounds, tend to find themselves in a position of justifying the status quo as they rise through the ranks, and may be reluctant to deconstruct a campus culture that they see as contributing to their own success.

“It’s not like we think this paper is going to inspire changes overnight,” Garrow said. “But hopefully, we’ll have planted a seed for change. Get people thinking about whether they are truly doing the best for their students, or are what they are doing is best for the status quo?”

Paez agreed.

“What we’re calling for in the paper is bold, but sometimes you need to be bold to affect change,” he said.

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Media Contact: carmen.chandler@csun.edu - (818) 677-2130

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