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Transforming Higher Education

Capstone Conference Transports Lessons of MOST

Higher education attendees examine how best to achieve diversity and excellence through department-wide change

by Lee Herring
ASA Director of Communications

On June 6-7, 2002, the ASA’s Minority Opportunities through School Transformation (MOST) Program held an invitational conference of higher education leaders from throughout the nation to consider the lessons learned from this major initiative to promote diversity and excellence in departments. Nearly 100 participants and speakers met to discuss this long-term effort to transform “business as usual” practices through systemic change in 11 sociology departments. Selected competitively to reexamine patterns and practices in how to attract, educate, and retain students, these departments focused on five areas—curriculum, research training, mentoring, outreach, and pipeline—devising strategies appropriate to their institutions and circumstances.

Held in Washington, DC, this conference, titled Transforming Higher Education: New Ways for Academic Departments to Advance Excellence & Inclusiveness, aimed to share the lessons of MOST regarding the process of change and best practices. The ASA convened the meeting both to start the process of transporting the lessons of MOST and to generate discussion and feedback about a pre-release version of the report. The final MOST report will be released on Friday, August 16, at ASA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago.

With national guidance and overall direction from the ASA, these 11 sociology departments worked individually and as a group to transform the educational experience of the major. The premise of MOST is a simple one: Departments that make intentional, systemic, and sustainable change can enhance the education and training of students of color and of all students. ASA’s former Executive Officer, Felice J. Levine, was the key architect of MOST—with Havidan Rodriguez and Carla Howery as long-term collaborators and Alfonso Latoni joining the national team. Sustained funding from the Ford Foundation from 1994 to the present provided resources to facilitate reinvention and change.

“We are very proud of the results,” said Levine addressing the conference attendees. “The MOST departments worked diligently and creatively to revise their curricula to reflect a more inclusive approach and to devise a sequence of courses that would attract, retain, and train minority students for the profession. They intentionally created mentoring opportunities for students. They more thoroughly incorporated research methodology and research experiences into their programs. They created policies, practices, events, and even physical spaces that improved the climate for minorities and all students. And, they conducted creative outreach to secondary students and undergraduates who were undecided about their majors or their prospects for graduate education. We are eager to share the results of the MOST program and, in particular, to focus discussion on its meaning and import.”

Levine explained that a major purpose of the conference was to launch the process of transporting the “MOST model” to other fields and disciplines across higher education. “We see the centerpiece of the conference to be the views of higher education and foundation leaders who are well positioned to consider how working with departments can truly promote diversity in education,” she said. During the conference, Levine emphasized the key role of partnerships between educational institutions and the public and private sectors in fostering sustainable change. A panel of academic presidents reflected on their roles in making organizational change happen. Leaders experienced in the foundation world were similarly asked to reflect on how public institutions or private organizations could help to address the challenges of diversity in colleges and universities.

Why Bother?

The prepublication MOST report considered at the conference showed that in 2000, African Americans constituted 12 percent of the U.S. population but received only 9 percent of bachelor’s degrees and only 6.6 percent of doctorates. Hispanics were 12.5 percent of the population but received only 6.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 3.8 percent of doctorates. Even more grim is the proportion of degrees earned by minorities in the sciences. With the exception of Asians, minorities make up a small portion of the science and engineering (S&E) workforce in the United States. In 1999, for example, 11 percent of scientists and engineers were Asian, although they constitute 4 percent of the population. And, Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians together constituted 24 percent of the population but only 7 percent of the total S&E workforce.

The “why bother is simple,” Levine said. “Equality of opportunity in education is certainly important. Also, excellence in producing knowledge and in teaching depends on diversity of perspective and the capacity to rethink and challenge assumptions and ideas. Bringing higher proportions of persons of color into academic, scientific, and other scholarly career lines begins in school and requires new practices in higher education.”

Fresh Paradigm

MOST, according to its designers, brings a fresh perspective, Levine explained. “MOST is unique among diversity-related projects because it focused on the academic department as the instrument of systemic, institutional change. We chose not to pursue a student-by-student or institution-wide approach, because we wanted MOST to function right where education and training occur—at the department level. Departments have the capacity to initiate curriculum changes, recast the academic climate in which majors learn, make deliberate choices about mentoring, and conduct their own recruitment and training. We considered departments to be the strategic location of change in higher education, and the project’s results bear us out,” she said.

Conference Succeeds in Generating Momentum

The MOST conference brought a highly engaged group of leaders from higher education and the private foundation community to explore the results of this program, discuss its future, and plan for scaling up the program in order to implement it in other institutions.

Teresa A. Sullivan, Vice President and Graduate Dean at The University of Texas-Austin, began the MOST conference with a keynote address, “New Ways of Thinking about Diversity and Affirmative Action,” at the opening reception and dinner. Sullivan, a veteran of large, organizational change efforts, praised MOST as a positive, intentional program that demystifies education and makes it more accessible and universalistic. She saw it as similar in intent to the Texas Longhorn PREP Program (Partners Responding to Educational Priorities) that aims at admitting at least 10 percent of the graduating class of every high school in Texas to a Texas college or university. Providing a mix of services and financial support, this program reaches to “every high school in every neighborhood.”

The Opening Plenary introduced MOST. Levine began with an overview of the MOST program, including its origin, goals, and accomplishments. Beth Schneider (chair of a MOST department at the University of California-Santa Barbara), and Jose Z. Calderon (faculty member and MOST coordinator at Pitzer College) poignantly reflected on their first-hand experiences in becoming MOST departments and transforming how they worked.

Higher education leader Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, praised MOST for “seeding diversity and programmatic excellence together” through the lens of departments and for making this activity a “shared commitment.” Cantor’s talk addressed the issue within the context of recent challenges to achieving sufficient diversity in higher education. “Excellence and diversity are inextricably intertwined together,” said Cantor. “We have to constantly remake our institutions to preserve and promote excellence, and MOST is doing this.”

Joyce A. Ladner, former President of Howard University and now Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, and Patricia A. McGuire, President of Trinity College, also praised MOST as pitched to the right purpose and innovative in promoting intentional institutional change. Both relayed informative personal tribulations and experiences related to deliberate attempts to transform institutions from their long entrenched practices to sustainable new paradigms of operations. They offered insights about progressive and proactive efforts that will help guide future implementation of MOST principles at other institutions.

Troy Duster, of New York University and the University of California-Berkeley, invigorated the mid-day luncheon with an engaging keynote address, “Achieving Diversity and Strategies for Social Change in Higher Education.” Pointing to MOST as a model program at the “vanguard of institutional change,” Duster advised higher education administrators who are interested in producing organizational change to ferret out and support such initiatives. He emphasized that even small investments or incentives to support MOST-like activities can position proactive change-minded faculty as central change agents on campuses.

The afternoon plenary panel explicitly addressed the role of both public- and private-sector support in fostering and sustaining higher education change, with speakers that included Judith A. Ramaley, Director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Education and Human Resources; Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council; and Kenneth Prewitt, Dean of the Graduate Faculty at the New School University and a former Senior Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Prewitt stressed the importance of being able to demonstrate that one has a solution to a problem in which the potential funder has an interest. Diversity, for example, is not supported by business for the purpose of ameliorating past social inequities but rather for the purpose of improving economic well-being. Among other important points, Calhoun stressed that key to appealing to any potential funding source for “venture philanthropy” is a system of accountability and clear and objective evidence (i.e., not simply anecdote or declaration) of the program’s potential for success. Ramaley characterized NSF, among all the federal government’s research funding agencies, as the “people agency” and the “change agency” for U.S. higher education. Thus, she indicated, NSF is an appropriate agency to support innovative efforts to change how the nation’s higher education institutions generate the nation’s science human resource pool.

Christopher Edley, Jr., of Harvard Law School and the Civil Rights Commission, delivered the closing plenary speech on the “Road from Here.” Also citing the significance of intentional, systemic change, he emphasized that the MOST philosophy needed to be integrated into higher education. Because MOST has demonstrated its ability to redesign departments of sociology, Edley said that MOST is capable of “engineering the kind of community that we need” in higher education. Edley focused on the social sciences and sociology in particular as uniquely positioned to confront the nation’s diversity problem. Edley encouraged pursuing all avenues of change and promoting MOST across more departments. He urged conference attendees to be “imperial and entrepreneurial in your aspirations.”

Beyond the Capstone . . .

The Capstone conference provided just the right feedback and support to reinforce the ASA’s national MOST team and its collaborating departments in bringing MOST to fruition and transporting it further. While the formal program and final report will be issued this summer, the MOST group plans sessions and workshops at higher education conferences and at regional sociological meetings into the future. Also, a number of MOST departments brought deans and other academic administrators to the Capstone conference as institutional representatives. Each of these representatives left the conference seeking to have increased diffusion of MOST in their “own backyard.”