Transforming our reality together: Moving from Equity & Assessment to Assessment for Justice and Liberation

Transforming our reality together: Moving from Equity & Assessment to Assessment for Justice and Liberation

Dr. Divya Bheda

Dear Colleagues,

I have been feeling frustrated lately. More so than usual. Here is why: How can so many of our student support colleagues and assessment leaders—who are all so strongly and passionately motivated by the need to be of service, who want to and often do make a difference in the lives of so many, who help and nurture students and units to realize their potential—how can so many colleagues be struggling to feel valued at our institutions? Why do we feel so disempowered, overworked, overwhelmed, and unheard/unseen?

Why is it that despite access, diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging (ADIEB) being so central to our work and roles, we often feel so unsuccessful in our efforts of making a meaningful impact at scale? Why do many of us who do our best to increase opportunity for our students and advance success for our communities feel so stymied in our own power and ability to ensure that ALL our students can thrive? Why are we often left feeling helpless--like nothing is going to change? Why do we feel like the education journey is just going to continue to be oppressive for many and that we just need to keep our head down and do the best we can to help those we can when we can, how we can? Where do we begin if we want to change the system?! 

These are the questions that have been on my mind lately, plaguing me. Why and how are we as student support education and assessment professionals complicit in perpetuating oppressive ways of being in our education system even as our intent is to dismantle it? This blog is the beginning of a journey—a thought experiment if you will. The answers coming up for me involve a bit of a paradigm shift in the way we currently operate, and I invite you along to explore that shift with me. So, here goes:

I had offered an equity framework in the final chapter in the book Reframing Assessment to Center Equity (2022). I offered the framework as a way to find entry-points to engage in equity work in and beyond assessment. The framework laid out equity arenas, equity actors, and equity actions which needed to be founded upon equity anchors—building community, imbuing social justice knowledge and values, rethinking time and prioritization, and restoring effective communication. When I deployed this framework on the questions above (i.e., those I began this blog with), the paradigm shift occurred for me. 

My question now became—why is student affairs not at the center of faculty development? Why is student affairs not leading faculty development work? Why are assessment professionals not in centers for teaching and learning? Why are assessment professionals officially charged more often with accreditation compliance rather than organizational responsiveness and educator capacity-building? 

As all of us know, faculty are often trained in their discipline rather than in how to be an effective educator of said discipline. For a faculty member to be a strong educator, they need strong pedagogical/andragogical skills, curricular development skills, assessment skills and knowledge, and a strong understanding of the student lived experience—all this in addition to knowing their subject matter and its applicability in the real world really well.  And yet, once again, the system ensures that well-meaning, well-intentioned faculty are often lacking everything save their disciplinary knowledge. Capitalism, colonialism, racism, ableism, nationalism, meritocracy, and patriarchy to begin with—all very successfully at play. 

Faculty development offices do not realize the resource they have in assessment professionals who can support the improvement of their teaching and learning endeavor, curricular development, and assessment efficacy. Student Affairs is not at the table in guiding faculty-student relationship building and humanizing both students and faculty to each other so that there are more humane educational experiences and less dehumanizing experiences for all parties involved at our institutions.

These institutional Isms successfully downplay the role of student support offices and assessment professionals so that institutional change seems nearly impossible. So that the burden continues to be carried by students—especially those already underserved and resource-starved. If we educators are tired and overwhelmed, if we feel undervalued, unsafe, and powerless—it is a reflection of the interconnected systems of oppression working really well—preserving unearned privilege and status quo. Preserving injustice, inequity, and shackled lives for those who most need to break free.

If we feel like it is faculty vs. professional staff, that is further evidence of the pervasive success of institutional oppressive forces. Just the way divide-and-rule worked for those colonized by the British, we are now trapped in a divide-and-rule system of our own making. Systemic oppression at play. Our apathy, our learned helplessness, our disempowerment, our angst against each other—all of this is exactly what oppression results in and thrives on. We are feeding it. We are letting it dictate how we define our success and worse, our ability. 

And while these hegemonic forces thrive, the blame continues to be carried by students more often than not. It is the bridge called their backs. The very offices that do know the student lived experience are not at the table in decisions and policymaking for our students. And seats will not be offered until they are demanded/taken—as a struggle for freedom to save our collective future. Because this is how systemic and institutional oppression works—powerful, historically successful Isms that need to be dismantled now more than ever. By us. 

We keep noting how siloed higher ed institutions are (as though it is not an intentional value-laden effect of these oppressive forces). We acknowledge it is problem without realizing the sociopolitical forces that caused it in the first place. We don’t realize or often seem to ignore how and why systemic oppressive forces keep us siloed. Hence my call to you. To be activist professionals. For each other and for our students. 

We need to move beyond equity in and via assessment to begin thinking seriously about Justice and Liberation and what that would look like for us in our own contexts/arenas. Why are we so busy as assessment professionals and higher education professionals demonstrating our worth in ways (compliance driven) that do us and our students more harm than good? Why are we often preserving compliance at the cost of responsiveness? Why are we so beat down that we are okay that not all of us nor our students are thriving? Why are we defining our success based on metrics that often do not serve our own best interests? How can we tell a more meaningful story using meaningful data for meaningful change? 

To begin with, as assessment professionals and educators, we need to go beyond disaggregation at the student level to disaggregation at the policy and process level. We need to shift our focus and help tell a different story. Together, we need to be asking, who is the policy serving? Who is the process working for? What are the current power structures and ways of being that preserve these oppressive systems? We need to demand that seat at the table to make change. It would be the responsible thing to do. It would be activist thing to do (please see Chapter 2 of mine of the same book mentioned above). 

To scale our impact, we need to stop being like Sisyphus. Instead of assessing the effort we put in to moving that boulder up the mountain and telling the story of how many times we moved that boulder up the hill, we need to be telling the story of how high that hill is and why we need to raze it down. This means what we measure and track to define our and our units’ success needs to change or the story around that data is rethought/reframed. The story we tell with our programs and units, as assessment professionals, needs to change. We must consciously, intentionally, proactively see ourselves as and  also become players with significant agency within the system so that we are not unintentionally preserving it. We need to mobilize and deploy information towards dismantling oppressive structures and forces at play because we have the power to track the information that can do so. We need to tell our stories in ways that can break the system rather than feed and reinforce it.

A few easy examples. Imagine telling the story of 300 students being served by one single advisor. Telling the story of how many students did not get check ins because there are just not that many hours in the day. Rather than it be about an advisor’s inefficiency, it needs to be about the system’s failure. To track how many students then got pushed out of the university because they didn’t find a support system—that is the story that needs to be tracked and told. Another example: imagine tracking what policies most come up in the student conduct or ombuds office cases. Those are the policies that need scrutiny and that need to be presented to academic senate or in faculty development/centers for teaching and learning for review. 

One final example. Imagine doing a pulse survey rather than a climate survey asking students where they feel most safe and unsafe respectively on campus and why. Similarly, asking students in residence halls which subjects/courses/departments they have witnessed/experienced racism or implicit bias/ microaggressions in could offer insights into which educators need more learning opportunities? Imagine tracking this kind of data and sharing the results across campus. Not to shame or blame but to address institutional oppression. Yes, it may create trouble. But it would be good trouble. Efforts to make the organization more responsive. It would be about leadership. About not just being reactive. It would be about handling problems not just with band aids after the fact but by identifying the source of the problems and addressing it proactively. It would mean rethinking the use of time and prioritizing differently. It would be about communicating a different story to different communities across campus. It would mean breaking down those siloes and demanding a seat at the table. It would be powerful storytelling via assessment.

I know this may sound scary and hard to some because we live in this current system where we can blame the system or others for lack of action. There is comfort in failure and disappointment because chasing change feels very scary and risky. It feels safe to absolve ourselves of responsibility because we have tried hard and failed or been burnt. I have. Multiple times. Personally, and professionally. But I invite you to join me in reimagining a different future. Of us working together, of us coming into our power. Of us enacting change. I am hoping reading this blog created a paradigm shift for you. In you. That you begin the conversation—why aren’t you and your offices the leaders on campus and more importantly, that together, you explore—“what are we going to do to change that?” I hope what I have shared creates or reignites a spark in you to aspire for justice and liberation as a practitioner. To begin having those tough, courageous, vulnerable conversations with colleagues about how to seek transformation and how to be the much-needed education leaders on campus. To be assessment activist allies for our students, faculty, and staff. Together, we can make an impact; make a difference. Together, we can lead the way. We should. The question for you—like in the Matrix is—Are you ready to choose your future? Status quo or justice-oriented, liberatory activism? What would you prefer--the red pill or the blue pill?


Dr. Divya Bheda

Please cite as: Samuga_Gyaanam+Bheda, D. 


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