1) This interview in the Scholarship to Practice Series originally aired on November 5, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
2) This transcript is intended to serve primarily as a guide to the full conversation. We apologize for any inaccuracies and encourage you to listen to the podcast.
Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
Truly, if a year ago today you had said to me that higher education could do this and that literally hundreds of thousands of college instructors could teach millions of students online in a matter of in our case hours, or days, or a few weeks, I would have never believed you.
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration and leaders to help you improve students' success. I'm Bridget Burns.
Welcome. Today we're having an episode of Scholarship to Practice. And as an administrator, I don’t know about you, but for me, I've been part of far too many conversations where I hear things like if only we knew, or I wonder if, and later on I find out that most of those topics, there's actually relevant research that we could have been drawing upon that already existed.
Too often, limited time capacity, or even academic writing, can get in the way. At the UIA, we know that we need to bridge that gap between scholarship and practice if we're going to stand a chance to improve student success. We all need to be working together, leveraging research in the field and identifying where we need more research to support greater innovation in higher ed.
So this show is designed to help bridge that gap by elevating relevant research we all could be using in our daily lives in a short and conversational format. Welcome to Scholarship to Practice.
I'm Dr. Derrick Tillman-Kelly with the University Innovation Alliance, and I'm delighted to co-host this episode of Scholarship to Practice. We're joined by Dr. Kristen Renn, professor of higher education at Michigan State University. Kris is the former A.S.H.E. president who studies things around diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education and has an explicit portfolio of work on LGBTQ students in higher education. And she also served as associate dean of undergraduate studies for Student Success Research at M.S.U. So Kris, welcome to the show.
Hi, thanks for having me, Bridget and Derrick. It's great to join you today.
We are so thrilled to have you here. So this is a real treasure. This first question we wanted to start with was asking you, you know, how do you introduce yourself and specifically the work, the research that you do, to someone you meet on the street or in an elevator or perhaps even to your family?
So you know, I don't actually like strangers, so I actually don’t talk in elevators about what I do. But when I am forced to explain to my family what it is I do, here in Michigan, I often say – or to other people – so I study college student learning, development and identities. I'm particularly interested in the ways that students with minoritized identities, whether it's LGBTQ, students of color, low income students, first gen students, the way that they experience higher education and sort of how that impacts their student success going forward, sort of identities in learning.
That's super helpful, Kris. And so I know that you certainly study the student population and that sort of perspective. But you also bring a lens of [ORC 00:03:13] theory to your work, particularly with that relation to change in higher ed. Can you tell us if you found anything surprising in relation to that experience in higher ed with the pandemic?
So thinking particularly around the pandemic, I feel like, you know, I've grown up in higher ed as a professional for 10 years before I became a faculty member, and working at a small institution, but working in small institutions, a very large public institution I'm in now, I think I felt before the pandemic like higher ed was pretty durable and pretty enduring and not really ready to change.
And there's a bunch of organizational theories about why that's the case, sort of why things don't change faster. There's a lot of inertia, there's a lot of turfiness, there's a lack of resources, there's a lot of jealously, competition, competition within institutions, competition across institutions. So a lot of the organizational theories would sort of tell us that's why things don’t change. And then I was sitting in a faculty meeting at 10:30 in the morning on March 11 and got an emergency text on the phone, and we all did it at the same time, and that text said 90 minutes from now Michigan State University is going to full remote teaching.
And so we took a second and we said we should probably end this faculty meeting because actually we have some people who teach at 12 o'clock. And truly if a year ago today you had said to me that higher education could do this and that literally hundreds of thousands of college instructors could teach millions of students online in a matter of in our case hours, or days, or a few weeks, I would have never believed you.
In fact, higher ed had been pushing faculty and more instructors to do more online. It's destructive. Be the MOOCs. Do all the things. And higher ed, particularly bricks and mortars institutions, had resisted that really well. And then one day we didn't. And I was floored when I stop and think about what higher ed was able to do. Now, how do we think moving forward about who, which students got particularly harmed in that transition, which students have left us because of that transition, which students we'll never see? How do we begin to put that back together? And how do we use other things we know about higher ed, including some organizational theories, to think about moving that forward?
So I think that what we have seen in higher is that there actually is more potential than I think we ever imagined for change. I'm also really aware that it's come out of, at the expense of particular populations. So that's kind of part of what I'm thinking today, you know, mid-November or early November 2020, eight-ish months into this. Maybe eight months from now I'll think differently about it.
OK. So I'm curious about digging a little deeper even on that. Because I agree with you that higher ed has a lot to be proud of right now, that, you know, for all of the doom and gloom conversation that we actually have done quite a bit and that people should be quite proud of the amount of change. And in fact I hope that it changes our perspective of ourselves and our ability to change, because we really do buy into this idea that we're somehow resistant and yet seem to be quite capable under the time crunch.
I'm curious about, you know, given your various roles that you have, that you play, you wear a lot of hats, researcher, administrator, faculty member, mentor, I'm curious about, as you, especially as you work as an administrator and you spend time out in the field with people who are implementing, I'm wondering what you see in the field that from your expertise really needs to be more widely understood that you know from your research, academic, faculty member hat.
I want to focus a bit particularly on research on LGBTQ students and thinking about what this pandemic has – the ways it has particularly affected these students. There is a fair amount of research, some of it was done relatively quickly, about mental health issues for LGBTQ students. And in general there's been lots of research on climates for queer students on campus that have not always been friendly. And that queer students tend to have more mental health concerns, and need more invention than other students do.
And that has absolutely been exacerbated. So an example, my campus is currently looking at name policies, where students can indicate their preferred or chosen names vs. their legal name. So a class roster, when a faculty member gets it, could the faculty member get it with the student's preferred name instead of their legal name? Because for students who, transgender students, this could out them, right, as you know, if the roster says Sally but the person who shows up in class is John, you know, this could out a person potentially as transgender.
So we're in the middle of talking about how to do this with our student information system and we're in the middle of a really good conversation. And the director of our LGBTQ center at Michigan State reminded this committee of folks that when our students were on campus they experience a lot of micro-aggressions from faculty and other students, not using their names, using the wrong pronouns, OK.
And now when students are doing college from home, many of them, we are hearing from our trans students in particular that the college experience right now is, well, from all students, not just trans students – the college experience right now is being very much delivered through instruction. So what used to happen in the buildings on the space, in the interstitial spaces of campus, it's all being delivered through instruction, right?
And for students who are living at home and are not out, those instructional moments are the only time during the day when someone might be using their correct pronouns or their correct name, right? So we sort of flipped it. Instead of classes being and faculty being very concerned about micro-aggressions for faculty, what we find is that we have this opportunity now as higher education to become a space of what I called micro-affirmations, right?
Like, so what does it mean for a trans student if the four hours a day that they're in the online classes, they're being called by their chosen name and their correct pronouns. And then the rest of their day, the other 20 hours a day, they're home perhaps with a family who doesn't understand that about them. So we actually have flipped from not just trying to avoid harm and micro-aggression, but how do we capitalize on this opportunity to really be a connection for students and provide a lifeline?
We've got a lot of students at home with all kinds of identities who are doing counseling. I mean counseling services at a number of institutions have done a phenomenal job in transforming to doing online delivery of mental health services. But if you're living in a shared space or you're sharing your computer with your little brother, like you can't have access to that. So we've got a bunch of students who are disproportionately affected by the inability to get place based programs and services for health and mental health, but also this really cool opportunity we have to provide affirming spaces for students. So a really complex landscape.
But I can say the research on LGBTQ students in the pandemic, they are at greater risk for mental health issues, they have a higher percentage of students with food insecurity, a higher percentage of students with housing insecurity, and a higher percent of students who report that they do not have a safe place to live. So we have a lot more sort of challenges in that way for our LGBTQ students at this point in time.
That's super helpful, Kris. And hearing the micro-affirmations for me is a reminder that we don't always have to think about what goes wrong for students, but also how we can make situations better. And so I'm wondering if, if we take the learning that has captured in COVID and we help faculty better understand why a chosen name or preferred and pronouns are important, how might we translate that to the post-COVID world when people are back on campus in higher numbers, say, at Michigan State, and then faculty may be less apt to think about pronouns and things because they're not at the bottom of their name on a Zoom screen, for example? What do we do?
So how do we sort of use these moments? Because – at Michigan State in particular we have this new student information system coming in, this new opportunity to do names and pronouns, blah blah. Most people that isn't coinciding exactly with COVID, but some of it is. But this idea that we can use the transition back to more place-based education, to think about what are the positives that we have learned through COVID – so knowing students' names, calling on them by name, which isn't always possible in large classes when you sit in a classroom.
But yeah, we maybe have that on a screen. That can be an advantage, right, that we can more affirmatively include people. I think talking about the differential impact of the pandemic absolutely on people of color and particularly on Black and Latinx students or Native American students, thinking about what are the pandemic lessons that come back with us. Do we bring back more compassion? Do I bring back at my university – so early in the pandemic the city Detroit was a super hot spot and it was before there was great – before the medical community had figured out how to treat – so it was a very high fatality rate.
So how do I bring back into my humanity at Michigan State the knowledge that a whole lot of my students in the state of Michigan and particularly from Southeast Michigan know someone who died, or a grandma or a grandpa or uncle or parent. Like I've got a graduate student who lost two parents who worked in health services in the Detroit area. So how do we bring that humanity back with us? That humanity of my students seeing my house or seeing my cat run through.
How do we bring that humanity back with us? How do I bring back the voice of the student who said my professors insist we keep the computers on so they know we're there and they don't trust us. Right? Like how do I bring that back and say, what was it about students we weren't trusting? How do we – why didn't we trust students to do that? And how do we sort of bring some of those lessons back with us and not lose that?
So five years from now, how are we different and hopefully more humane? Certain attention to anti-Black racism that's kind of been concurrent with the pandemic. How do we bring – and many campuses, because we've been remote since then, most of us who've stayed more remote, haven't had to deal with the embodiedness of many of our Black students on campus because we haven't had them on campus, right? So as we repopulate campus in a very embodied way, and particularly identities that are embodied identities, students with disabilities, queer students, students of color, how do we re-enter our spaces in a way that is more humane and more compassionate? So I think that's one of the sort of lessons I'm looking forward to implementing, looking forward to implementing, for sure.
So I'm curious about in particular what have you found in your academic research around LGBTQ students that administrators get wrong? And what – can you talk through a bit more about the consequences of that for the students that we care about?
I think it is, because administrators live in a different campus world from students, there's a lot of things we don't know that happened to them. An example at Michigan State, not [specifically translated 00:14:25] – there are so many computer systems that the way I interact with them, I never see what the student interface is, right? There are dozens, I would say, or more, potentially spaces and experiences students have on our campuses that we are not aware of.
So even somebody like me, who's like pretty on top of like LGBTQ awareness stuff, right, like I see the world through that lens, there are still things happening for my students I'm not even aware of. Like random, our students' chosen names, when computer systems started back up at the start of the year, if you were a student employee, that was through one campus system vs. your student registration system, through [NOAH 00:15:01] campus system, and the employee system overrode, and all of a sudden legal names were showing up for students who'd had their chosen names for years.
Like I wouldn't have known that, and when it started happening, we had no idea that's what it was. It took us a while to figure that out, right? So I feel like administrators walk in a world where there's ways that students are that we have no idea. We can attune ourselves to thinking about campus climate and you're looking for graffiti, you're looking for homophobia, looking for explicit things. But what we don't see are the ways that everyday policies and procedures affect students.
And when I do work on campuses about LGBTQ climate, one of the things we talk about is doing like a climate audit, right? So how do you use, engage students in a process that is similar to the process [unintelligible 00:15:47] uses a lot of process [unintelligible 00:15:50] all right, so let's walk ourselves through a student's application process to our institution. And let's look at all of the communication, all of the interfaces, all of the forms, all of the feedback they get from us, all the emails they get from us, and let's look for signs of welcome and inclusion for LGBTQ students, and let's look for things that are exclusive, that binary sex category on the application or not offering gender inclusive housing when we get to first year housing.
So how do we walk ourselves as administrators take the view of students and begin to do this? And what I often suggest to campuses is you might, adults, grown ups, if you will – I realize many students are adults so let me go with like, so administration staff, they can walk through this process yourselves first and see what you get before you have students join you, because sometimes if students are with you at that first thing it's incredibly embarrassing when you yourselves notice things that you've been doing for years that are pretty easy fixes but that are just not good.
So I like to sort of let staff and faculty kind of go through it first, but then bring students in and say like where are you experiencing these things, how is this for undergrads or grad students, returning adult learners, students with intersecting identities across kind of different categories. So thinking about what are we not seeing?
And every campus has a million [unintelligible 00:17:05] forms and spaces and things we don't see because that's not – my world at Michigan State isn't the same world of Michigan State as an undergrad. I see the world differently. I have to interact with different parts of it. So I think that's – climate anymore is physical, it's emotional, it's classroom climate, it's digital climates. And there's so much that staff and faculty don't see and aren't exposed to.
Small example – we had a student panel talking to us at the start of the semester about their experiences in online learning. And they talked about what happened in the chat in Zoom, for instructors who keep chat open. And they talked about the racist and homophobic stuff that comes up in the chat. And why didn't the instructor shut it down. It's like – and then all of sudden I started thinking, oh my gosh, what's happening in my chat. Now I teach pretty small classes and every class I appoint like a chat monitor to say like hey, let me know if I need to jump in because I can't run my PowerPoints, put you in breakout groups, read my chat, all at the same time without occasionally accidentally disconnecting myself from the Zoom classroom, which I've done I think three times so far this semester.
It's a lot going on. Right? So I see where a student is seeing that and, you know, it's horrific, right? Like they are being totally isolated from their peers and unable to learn the material the day when their identity, the humanity is being attacked in a Zoom chat. And they're thinking the instructor isn't intervening. It could easily the instructor sees it and isn't intervening. It could also be that like the burden on instructors is a lot right now, to run these kind of multi-dimensional things. But that impact on that student is the same, whether or not it's intentional on the part of the instructor. So there's all these kinds of places and spaces that under typical circumstances and in like Zoom University, I think faculty and staff, we just don't know they're there, and we need to learn ways to identify them and surface that. So we can pick of that.
Yeah. I really appreciate your calling out the solution, right? So you talked about, in the chat, you might appoint someone who's designated for that role so that at least it's managed, because that is the reality of the day. So now I'm thinking though if we were to bring you to our campus, it's artificial, it's pretend. But you the consultant who has LGBTQ student expertise, if you were looking at our institution and you wanted to say this campus is successful at supporting LGBTQ students. What sorts of things would you specifically call out to folks that like this is a must have or this is – you're doing the right thing?
So, you know, fortunately we have some kind of guides in the field for some of these things. So some are kind of straightforward. I'll start with things that don't cost anything. Doesn't actually cost anything to make sure that your employment and student facing forms and formats have non-binary options for entering gender. It doesn't cost anything. Just as it didn't when we let people check more than one race. That didn't actually cost anything, right?
It's a different kind of [unintelligible 00:20:09] question, check more than one. It doesn't cost anything. So doing a policy audit, looking across all of your policies to make sure that they are not just not discriminatory but affirmatively including trans folks and thinking about the ways that gay, lesbian and bisexual and queer people are interacting, like are all of our forms, all of our systems set up for that; you know, does the faculty, the employee benefits, does it still say husband and wife, or does it just say spouse, right?
Like – so how do we look at kind of a first pass through some pretty easy stuff that can be changed? And then there's some investments that can be made, right? Like an investment in doing a campus climate study itself, to hear voices from students. That takes time and energy. The investment of specific programs and service for LGBTQ students. So whether that is a resource center on campus, assigned staff members, depending on the size of the campus – do we have queer affirming members in our counseling center, ideally [unintelligible 00:21:12] identified but also potentially, you know, identified as queer affirming?
What about medical health services? When I talk to a lot of campuses, students talk about their medical health providers. There's that old stereotype, at least back since I was in college, of like if you go to the student health center, they're going to give you a cough drop and ask if you're pregnant. Like that was sort of the thing. You either, you know, you needed a cough drop or were pregnant. Apparently that's still the case. The stereotype for students is, you know, every time I go they ask me, well, they're going to give me a cough drop or they think I'm pregnant – well, they're making the assumption that, you know, as a woman I have sex with men, for example.
So there's a lot of inherent bias kind of going on, I think, in medical settings, in student health centers, at least anecdotally. There's also some great training and some great experiences reported. But making sure that spaces where students are most vulnerable, they have access to equitable inclusive care. So I'm going to say our health centers, our counseling centers, [unintelligible 00:22:07] advising, places where students are coming for help and assistance, making sure those are places that are explicitly inclusive.
So that would be sort of another one. We cross over into the curriculum and, you know, faculty teach what faculty teach. But gosh, the University of Arizona managed to do a cluster hire for people doing trans gender studies a few years ago. And they hired, you know, a leading expert in trans gender education, [Z. Nick Alozo 00:22:32], and two scholars in fields other than education. So what does it mean to like go all the way out there and be super inclusive across your hiring on transgender education? Amazing. Or transgender studies, excuse me. So that would be like, boy, that's the Cadillac, right? I don't know everything else about the climate for trans and queer people at Arizona. But I do know they did that one amazing thing, right? And that sends a message to everyone. So that would be sort of like a high-end version. But starting with this kind of audit to get a sense of like what are those easy things we could just make sure are welcoming and inclusive?
You know, continue to use in our language, not saying, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our show, right? Like well, that's a binary introduction. You know, helping people with language, de-binary-izing how we think about ourselves and our students and our staff and colleagues I think is, is a way forward for that.
[audio gap] I know that for folks at home, that was a master class that was very quick and easy and we didn't even have to fly you in in the midst of COVID to come and do an assessment, so this is great. We have such clear steps. I also want to ground this, though, as accessibly as possible, in that I know a lot of administrators who have been in higher ed for a very long time, that the terminology, they are sometimes not sure exactly what to use that not be offensive. Because in some spaces they'll hear queer, in some spaces they'll hear LGBT. I remember when I, I was younger, it was LGBTQQI. And so could you just speak a little bit to that for those at home who just want to be as thoughtful as possible but it does change? And so just what's the thing today?
So in early November 2020, so I was speaking to some folks the other day and I said, you know, when I started doing this kind of work at Brown University as an administrator in the late 1980s, I was appointed as the liaison for gay and lesbian issues or gay and lesbian concerns. I can't even remember which. But it was either issues or we were concerned. I can't remember. It was gay and lesbian. That was it.
Things have changed since then, right? We're not just concerned and we don't just have issues, right? And we have expanded what sometimes folks in the community would call the alphabet soup, those kinds of things. I think a very, very standard now, very recognizable across much of society at this point would be LGBT, so lesbian, gay, bi and trans. Those are two categories, the sexual orientation and gender identity, but we often have put them together and I think that we – it's a sort of recognizable name for multiple communities of people who often are working on some of the same kinds of issues or concerns, if you will. Or celebrations. Or righteous rage, depending on the day of the week, for me.
So I think LGBT is pretty safe. If you are a senior leader in your campus, that's what you want to go with. LGBTQ would add perhaps – in some communities it's queer, in some it's questioning. Most folks I know right now would say that stands for queer. And queer is not as comfortable a word for a lot of people to use, inside or outside the community. And honestly, I would say, if you are not, if you are not queer identified yourself, and/or super already in an allied position, if you are, you possibly know who you are, I would probably stay away from queer. I would go with LGBT to be pretty solidly down the middle. Now if you're in a pretty conservative place, that may be solid down the middle with some of your people and your board of trustees may freak out at you. And that's your job of educating them.
That's super helpful. I appreciate how just open you are about that. So folks can have that conversation and move on and be able to have as inclusive a language that makes folks comfortable.
Kris, I know that there are folks probably thinking I want to talk more to Kris Renn; I have questions, she has answers. So how can people connect with you on follow-up? What's the best way?
Well, thank you. You know, [unintelligible 00:26:41] with a pandemic, one is to talk to people. So I am always happy to have people email me. You can just Google me up. You can find me on the Webs pretty easily to find my email. I'm on a remote working campus, so don't call my phone there on campus because I don’t even know how to check those messages from off campus. But email is probably pretty good, and it's pretty easy to find me at Michigan State University.
OK, and I've linked your domain below, which I believe is the updated one. So I just so appreciate you having this thoughtful conversation with us and giving us the sense of context about how we can support LGBTQ students right now, generally, always, but especially during COVID, when we know they're being disproportionately affected in ways that folks need to be thinking about.
So thank you again. We appreciate you and your scholarship, Dr. Renn, and also for all of your excellent support as an administrator and a liaison within the alliance. So – and Derrick, thank you again for being a fantastic co-host. So those at home, we look forward to having another episode weeks of Scholarship to Practice. And please be sure to send Derrick or I a DM if you have a particular scholarly focus that you think we should be elevating in this conversation. So everyone have a great day.
Bios of Guest Luminary and Co-Hosts
Guest Luminary: Kristen Renn, Professor and Associate Dean, Dept. of Educational Administration, Michigan State University
Dr. Kristen Renn is professor of Higher, Adult & Lifelong Education (HALE) in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University, where she also serves as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies for Student Success Research. Previously, she was assistant professor of higher education and qualitative research at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, a policy analyst for the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, and a dean in the Office of Student Life at Brown University. A Mount Holyoke College alumna, she received her Ph.D. in Higher Education from Boston College. Dr. Renn’s research interests include student success and persistence, identity, and identity development in higher education; mixed-race college students; women in higher education; and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) issues in higher education. She is M.S.U.’s co-liaison to the UIA and co-PI on several grants related to increasing success for low-income and underrepresented students. She has been Associate Editor for International Research and Scholarship for the Journal of College Student Development, a Senior Scholar of the A.C.P.A.-College Student Educators International, and a member of the governing boards of A.C.P.A. and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (A.S.H.E.).
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Derrick Tillman-Kelly, Director, University Innovation Alliance Fellows Program and Network Engagement
Dr. Derrick L. Tillman-Kelly serves as the Director of the UIA Fellows Program and Network Engagement for the University Innovation Alliance. He previously served in multiple roles at The Ohio State University, including as the inaugural UIA Fellow and special assistant to the director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise. Dr. Tillman-Kelly earned his Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership with a specialization in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State; a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University; and a bachelor’s degree from Illinois Wesleyan University.
About Scholarship to Practice
Scholarship to Practice is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. We interview higher education scholars, researchers, and academics that distill how a practitioner or administrator could apply learning in real-time to improve student success. At the UIA, we know that we need to bridge that gap between scholarship and practice if we’re going to stand a chance of improving student success. We all need to work together leveraging research in the field and identifying where we need more research to support greater innovation in higher ed. With its short and conversational format, this show is designed to help bridge that gap by elevating the relevant research we all could be using in our daily lives.
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