By DONOVAN HARRELL
Leigh Patel, the inaugural associate dean for Equity and Justice at the School of Education, has spent her first year on the job as a strong advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity across the Pitt community.
In several speaking engagements on and off campus, Patel, who started at Pitt on July 1, 2018, has talked about how the effects of colonialism and racism, and various systemic injustices, have affected modern-day higher education.
She also regularly disseminates information about historical events to her peers in the school to help drive tough conversations about civil rights, injustice and other topics.
Patel most recently was a professor at the University of California Riverside Graduate School of Education, where she held an appointment in the Education, Society and Culture program, according to her bio.
In addition to her work in higher education, she has done extensive work on marginalized youth and teacher activists. Her main areas of focus include education, sociology, policymaking and colonialism.
The University Times talked to Patel about her year at Pitt so far, her research, and what’s in store for the near future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity
How are things going? How was your first year?
Things have been going very good for me. I have joined the School of Education at a time when we are thinking a lot about refocusing our intentions and our energies, relative to what the context of education learning is in many communities, particularly marginalized communities.
I came in, and was hired by, in my mind, a once-in-a-lifetime dean: Valerie Kinloch. Most of the folks in my position, they have titles like “diversity and inclusion.” And at the university-level, we have an Office of Diversity and Inclusion. And that is helmed by an outstanding person named Pamela Connelly, one of the smartest, smartest people I know.
But my position is purposely not titled “diversity and inclusion,” it is titled “equity and justice.” So that brings to fore certain questions that we must ask continually: What is equity? What gets in the way of equity? What are different versions of justice, even conflicting versions of justice? And as a school of education, as educators ourselves and preparing future educators and researchers of education, if we cannot grapple with those questions, we’re not doing our job.
What attracted you to this position in the first place?
Well, it’s very specific, it had to do with the leader, with Valerie Kinloch, and knowing that I would be able to bring to bear a scholarly and research background that I have about oppression and domination into this position. So that attracted me to it. But this is a chance for us to work with material structures in an institution. And as you know, and I’m sure as many others know, institutions, particularly higher education, are very slow to change in even structural proceedings. And this was an opportunity to make material changes in what we do.
It provides an opportunity that is very rare. And it’s very important to note that it is deeply connected to the dean, to the primary leader of the school. It provides an opportunity to look at our admissions processes, for example.
The impact remains that we are not serving the populations in Pittsburgh who could be Pittsburgh public school teachers and not preparing them to be public school teachers. It provided an opportunity to look at that at the level of institutional. How do we engage? How do we prepare? How do we understand ourselves and reach out from Oakland into areas and understand the deep knowledge and deep expertise that already resides in many communities and be answerable to those communities? So that’s one of the reasons why this job was very appealing to me. I would never be an administrator, but (if it weren’t) for this once in a lifetime dean, I would not do it.
How has your role changed over the past year, if at all?
My position description reads “school-wide.” And at first glance, that’s very large. But that doesn’t mean that I am meeting with every individual in the school. I take it to mean that I am paying attention to every conduit through which we are properly an axiom both at the same time, equity and inequity. And I want to lift up sharpen, focus, our staff and faculties abilities to see like, “Oh, this isn’t an equitable process right here.”
It hasn’t shifted that much. I provide programming through the School of Education, sometimes directly to staff, faculty, sometimes to staff, faculty and students. I work on making sure that we are collaborating with our centers in the School of Education, for example, the Center for Urban Education, the Healthy Lifestyle Institute, the Office for Child Development, and signal boosting how the efforts that they’re doing relate to equity and justice. We’ve done school-wide readings of books to enable us to talk about race and racism in particular with each other.
I’ve had the opportunity — this is very, very rare — to create my role, to create how I think the work should be done, to imagine what are the best pedagogical structures, teaching and learning structures for faculty, for staff or students.
What are some things you’re focusing on for this upcoming academic year? And what are some issues that you’re hoping to address?
I will continue to do programming, which means sending out information. I send out what I call flyers. But basically, they’re very short essays with links and information that provide factual, historically accurate histories of what has transpired on these lands — How we have arrived at such a state of inequity, in terms of income, race, class, gender, sexual identity? So that will continue.
An additional priority this year is to do an equity audit on what are the ways through admissions, recruitment hiring, tenure promotion? How are we doing?
So that means beginning with numbers of who is represented, but then also looking at our procedures. For example, in the admissions process, I did a fictional Apply Yourself, and noted the places where I saw issues like: Why are we asking this? Why do we not have an option for gender outside of the binary of male and female, because everybody has transgender people around them. They may not be aware of it. What are the ways where our application system —and that is University-wide, that is not just specific to the School of Education — What are the ways where we are telling people you don’t belong here?
Student activists have been doing this for a very long time. So, we need to take it on as our work, as part of our daily business.
And one of the things that I started last year and will continue this year is, is helping and supporting our faculty who are in charge of search committees not confuse pedigree with potential.
Can you expand on that a little more?
Higher education is hierarchical. How do we look for somebody and hire someone who can be a catalyst for change in our school, but doesn’t have this pedigree of coming from one of the Ivy League schools or coming from one of the top 10 rated schools, having done a postdoctoral fellowship? Having had not just publications, but grants.
These are things that people who have pedigree, they’ve been mentored to do, and they’ve been guided to do. How do we understand somebody who comes out of a straight trajectory of state school system but has not been in a situation where, “Oh, you need to apply for this grant, this fellowship and this fellowship, and need to do all of your work and get these publications out.” How do we see the potential in applicants? And not only through these measures that tend toward people who are in positions that their institutional parameters allow them to do these things?
I saw that you had an article in “The Conversation” where you criticized the new adversity score for the SAT tests. With some graduate schools shifting away from the GRE, how do you feel about the GRE, and is the School of Education thinking of dropping it as a requirement?
We’re in the position right now of considering not requiring it any longer. … We understand through research that GRE scores do not predict performance, achievement, let alone completion of doctoral degrees and master’s degrees. And so, we’re taking that research into account.
And we’re also doing a deep dive into what’s the origins of this test, and how did it become normed? If we pour (the GRE) through our commitment to equity and justice, does it stand up?
There is a book called “Presumed Incompetent,” which has three chapters devoted to the ways in which course evaluations at the university-level more strongly reflect the phenotype and perceived gender of the instructor. The single best corollary, not causation, … to get high course evaluations, is to be a white man.
We think about what are we doing with our course evaluations? Let’s pour that through a filter of equity and justice. What do we ask our students about? And then how do we work with faculty, women, people who are minoritized, and women of color? People who are not of the dominant sexual identity, how do we support them as instructors knowing that course evaluations often act as a conduit for vectors of oppression.
How do you think the national climate around race and the ongoing immigration issues in this country affect your efforts toward equity, justice and attitudes about diversity inclusion on campus?
One of the things that I tried to convey to people, particularly people who understand themselves to be liberal and are aghast at what’s happening — which is appropriate, but weren’t aghast at some of the things that happened under President Obama’s administration and weren’t aghast as they learned about many administrations centuries before President Obama — my message is: This is precedented.
We have always made citizenship a moving line. It’s constantly revocable, except for people who have been deemed white for perpetuity. So, that’s part of the programming. The moment we’re in, it’s been here before when Abraham Lincoln ordered 40-ish Cherokee men to be marched through the streets and had a mass hanging of those men who had charges of rape of white women. ...
This is not brand new. It is precedented. And it’s next level, just in terms of the reach of it. Next level in terms of the constant barrage of things that are said and done every day. And I know that people across the nation in many parts of the world just are struggling to keep up with the news, upon news, upon news, that is a dehumanizing.
But it’s precedented. It has been done before. And people have survived. Not everybody. People die. But people have also survived and found ways to not just live, but to teach each other, to fall in and out of love, to dance, to have joy, to perpetuate their knowledge, to pass that down.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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