By Greg Varner
The historical record shows that higher education in the United States was designed primarily to benefit white males, with others often entirely excluded. Though access to colleges and universities has widened over time, effects of the inequalities built into the initial design are still clearly visible. How should today’s administrators and faculty confront this reality?
For graduate students interested in learning how they can offer greater support for students, faculty and staff members, especially those who have been historically marginalized, GSEHD is offering a new master’s program in higher education administration with a concentration on social justice.
GW Today asked Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, assistant professor of higher education administration and director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives for GSEHD, to discuss the new program.
Q: Please tell us how the new concentration came about.
A: The idea for the concentration came about as a direct result of the conversations held by GSEHD faculty in general, and especially within the higher education program, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery; the uptick in anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic; and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. We decided that we needed to do something, rather than just say things, that expressed our commitment to produce transformative scholarship and build practitioners who could help our nation heal and address some of the problems we identified.
Q: Who should be interested in the new concentration?
A: Everyone who is interested in inclusive excellence, anti-racist pedagogy, and social justice might want to participate in this new concentration. Specifically, those looking to get into diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) work, whether within educational institutions, NGOs, nonprofits, or the corporate sector; those looking to become full-time student affairs practitioners such as directors of LGBTQ centers, multicultural centers, student conduct officers, chief diversity officers, etc.; and those committed to ensuring equity in their local communities—clergy, police officers, community organizers—may be interested as well.
We are building on exciting partnerships such as our dual degree programs with the School of Business (dual MBA/MED) and the GW Law (Dual JD/MED); students in those areas might want to take a look at the concentration as well.
Q: What will students in the new concentration learn?
A: They will learn to use and apply the principles of inclusive excellence, antiracist pedagogy, and transformative leadership. Our hope is that at the end of the program students will be able to use critical social theories to understand historical and contemporary contexts of higher education and evaluate policy; be able to facilitate educational programs and critical dialogues around issues of social justice; and be able to critically evaluate and apply research to practice in ways that transcend, rather than compromise with, oppressive structures in higher education.
While our core courses will begin to address the foundational knowledge that students will need, we also have three additional courses that are already taught in other concentrations of our program. In addition, the faculty have developed two new courses: Critical Theories in Higher Education and the Art of Facilitation. The first will allow students to take a more in-depth look at critical theoretical frameworks that apply to different aspects of higher education and how to practically apply them to create more just and equitable outcomes. The Art of Facilitation course will focus on developing the practical skills needed to develop and facilitate programs that address issues of diversity, inclusion and social justice.
Practitioners in higher education are commonly asked to facilitate conversations among undergraduate student groups about complex topics involving racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Increasingly, these conversations are occurring immediately after a critical incident has occurred that harmed the community. This new concentration will educate graduate students on how to approach such professional experiences.
Q: What will students be encouraged to research?
A: They will be encouraged to conduct research on various aspects of social justice practice, including (but not limited to) the school-to-prison nexus, the safety of transgender students in schools, race-conscious college admissions, socialization of students of color, and the creation of anti-racist curriculum. We are committed to ensuring that topics covered in class will reflect the students in the class and the needs of the communities they come from and serve. Therefore, we anticipate guiding students toward new areas of research that have to this point been unexplored or ignored.
Q: Will there be a focus on serving the community of the institutions where the students get positions?
A: We hope the skills learned while completing the program will allow our graduates to empower communities they live in. Most of our graduates enter the field as early-career professionals close in age and proximity to undergraduate students on the campuses in which they work.
There is a high burnout rate among early-career higher education professionals, and sometimes that burnout is the result of not being prepared academically and emotionally to take on stressful environments and deal with workplace tasks. This curriculum will equip students with strategies to help them engage in intergroup dialogue and seek sustainable approaches to being a practitioner in higher education.
This is an absolutely critical task. In recent years, we have seen an exodus of talent from student affairs. With this new concentration, we intend to take the lead in reversing this trend.
Q: What will be most different about this new concentration?
A: What makes this concentration unique is its explicit focus on social justice and anti-racism, its design to build a nexus between theory and practice, and its goal of producing leaders who have the ability and desire to tackle the most pressing challenges that face America. We plan to utilize all that GW has to offer, including partnerships with DEI units within our various schools, not just GSEHD.
We will take a city-as-classroom approach as much as possible to ensure that our students get to experience social justice praxis in a world-class city, and also to fulfill GW’s ongoing mission of giving back to the city we call home. We hope our students will be able to immediately use what they learn in the classroom to make D.C. a better, more just, more equitable place.
We hope that students in other concentrations take some of these courses as electives to augment their own graduate career experiences!