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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Feb. 2020: Walking the equity walk

If we hold as a basic tenet that our foremost kuleana is to support all students, then we need to discover the areas where we can improve equity on campus.

Last fall, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was ranked by US News & World Report as the most ethnically diverse campus in the country. This rating followed another in the Chronicle of Higher Education 2018 Almanac that named UH Hilo the most ethnically diverse four-year public university in the nation. This comes as no surprise to those of us who live in this diverse state where many of our communities and universities rank highly in this category, but lately we have been talking about what this ranking means, and, more importantly, what it could mean.

Across the country, universities talk about the need to support all students regardless of their race or ethnicity, and across the board, we all can do better. A new book, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education, teaches us to expand our knowledge and tools to better support all our students. Drawing from campus-based research projects sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, the authors challenge educators to specifically focus on racial equity as a critical lens for institutional and systemic change.

In our case, we are rightly proud of our diversity ranking, but this does not mean we can rest on our laurels. The very structures and systems of universities privilege certain students over others, and make it difficult for students who are first generation to attend college to thrive and succeed at the rate of their more privileged peers. If we hold as a basic tenet that our foremost kuleana is to support all students, then we need to discover the areas where we can improve equity on campus. We absolutely, positively do a lot of diversity and gender equity initiatives well, but how do we accidentally discourage students along the way?

I strongly believe all students can thrive when each has full access to all the support, encouragement, and resources needed to succeed. I believe a love of learning and a growth mindset is contagious given the chance, and that it is our job to create an academic environment where all can succeed. Right now I am looking at our curriculum, our processes, and our support programs to discover who shows up and who succeeds, and how do we expand that success to more of our students?

For examples, let me share with you two initiatives—one an academic program that has just received a prestigious national award for its stellar success at inclusive excellence and diversity, and one still in the visionary stage that seeks to establish a hub on campus to coordinate all existing diversity and equity programs.

The Department of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences has been awarded the 2019-2020 Inclusive Excellence Award from the American Kinesiology Association. The national award honors the department’s commitment to inclusiveness in its recruitment, retention, hiring, curriculum development, and administrative structure, specifically noting the diverse student make-up of the KES program: 84 percent come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, of which 35 percent are Native Hawaiian.

Of great interest is that enrollment in the KES program has increased over the last 15 years by over 500 percent. Today, it is the largest undergraduate academic program at UH Hilo with six faculty advising and teaching over 200 students. Of note is that the nominator of the award, Jennifer Stotter, director of our Office of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action, believes the success of KES is largely due to the faculty’s commitment to Uluākea, a program that trains faculty to develop curricula that includes Hawaiian cultural and linguistic applications in support of all-inclusive and place-based education. She also notes that KES faculty have been active supporters of Hawai‘i Papa O Ke Ao, a UH systemwide initiative supporting an indigenous and Hawaiian approach in teaching, research, and service.

Meanwhile, a group of diversity and equity experts at UH Hilo—Director Stotter, Director of Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, and Chair of the UH Hilo Diversity Committee Dana-Lynn Ko‘omoa-Lange—have drawn up a proposal for a Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that would coordinate existing DEI programs for students and employees (support services, resources, training, professional development, curriculum, research and scholarly activities, community partnerships). Although the plan did not receive the originally sought funding, I think this is an idea we should keep alive and continue to explore implementing.

Thank you all for your hard work, dedication, and support in making UH Hilo not only the most diverse campus in the country, but also in our striving to lift up all students to their greatest potential.


Bonnie D. Irwin


Photo at top of post: Standing with students from the incoming class of Fall 2019, Aug. 22, Campus Center Plaza.

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