Using an Equity Lens to Inform Practice: Learning from the Middle Leadership Academy

By Thad Nodine, Senior Fellow, EdInsights

This is the third in a series of blogs by the CSU Student Success Network to share information about efforts to eliminate equity gaps in the CSU.

CSU campuses are using a wide range of strategies to eliminate opportunity and outcomes gaps for underserved students. The efforts include using data to identify barriers for students, redesigning first-year experiences, understanding challenges in student success initiatives, developing wrap-around services for first-generation students, engaging with faculty about pedagogical practices, and improving the campus climate for students—to name just a few that were workshopped at the Middle Leadership Academy in December 2018 at Cal Poly Pomona. The Academy is a structured, year-long professional learning program that brings together teams from CSU campuses to develop and advance their equity-based work.

Despite the different approaches under discussion at the Academy, the teams of participating faculty, staff, administrators and students from 12 campuses shared many common perspectives and overall goals, including a sense of urgency about making headway in reducing opportunity gaps on their campus. They also had a keen awareness of the difficult challenges ahead—namely, that gaining traction would likely require institutional changes across campus roles and functions, rather than short-term fixes within a department or school. As one campus administrator said, “It was helpful to see all the different plans and stages that people are at across the CSU. The trajectory of this work is a long-term process, and I’m looking forward to digging in and moving forward with my team.”

“It was helpful to see all the different plans and stages that people are at across the CSU. The trajectory of this work is a long-term process, and I’m looking forward to digging in and moving forward with my team.”

The campus plans are being developed partly in response to Graduation Initiative 2025 and partly based on institutional efforts to improve support services and academic interventions. Taken together, the plans spanned all six of the “pillars” addressed in GI 2025: academic preparation, enrollment management, student engagement and well-being, financial aid, data-driven decisionmaking, and administrative barriers. The campuses’ specific areas of emphasis can be grouped into three main categories, with considerable overlap across them:

  • Data inquiry and sharing. All of the 12 campuses are working on gathering and examining student data to understand the barriers facing underrepresented student groups and to identify high-impact practices to support their learning, progression, and completion. 
  • Student experiences. Many of the campuses are working to identify student needs—throughout their time on campus—and provide targeted, holistic services to support them more effectively.
  • Campus climate. Many campuses have experienced changes in the demographics of their student populations and some are developing efforts to engage with faculty and staff about equity-minded practices and approaches to serve diverse student groups, including in the classroom and in advising.

A faculty member said that for her campus, “equity mindedness is a cultural shift, so we’re not just trying to solve a problem with a program, we’re talking about a transformation” across the institution. A staff member from a different campus agreed, saying, “This is not a programmatic reform. A single program will not fix equity challenges. It’s much broader and more robust than that.”

In reflecting on the various campus approaches, Dr. Robert Gabriner, an adviser to the Academy and the former director of San Francisco State’s doctoral program in educational leadership, said, “Each team has its own tactics about where to start, but what’s crucial is the high level of unity in this room. There’s a general agreement about what equity work entails and the importance of doing it. There also appears to be a commitment to the process: coming together as teams of middle leaders to develop a plan and implement it over the year, with the support and structure that the Academy provides.”

“Each team has its own tactics about where to start, but what’s crucial is the high level of unity in this room. There’s a general agreement about what equity work entails and the importance of doing it. There also appears to be a commitment to the process: coming together as teams of middle leaders to develop a plan and implement it over the year, with the support and structure that the Academy provides.”

The Academy focuses on supporting “middle leaders”—faculty, staff, and administrators—because of their positions of influence on campus and their connections with students. Middle leaders tend to remain at their institutions for years. Many have direct experience in negotiating education reforms and have extensive relationships and networks on campus. As a result, mobilizing middle leaders can be instrumental in developing and implementing changes that affect student success. Given these levels of knowledge and experience, the Academy’s pedagogical approach focuses on providing a space for campus teams to engage with and learn from each other, rather than bringing additional expertise into the room, though discussions with experts are integrated when helpful.

The campus teams comprise four to six participants from across functions, including at least one administrator, faculty member, staff member, and institutional researcher. Most teams also include a student, whose perspectives can help to ground and inform discussions. During the December seminar, for example, one student told his team that creating a sense of “inclusion [on campus] is not just about having office hours. It’s about noticing who’s struggling in your class and actively seeking information from those students, to help them.”

For this academic year, campus teams meet three times at Cal Poly Pomona. Between these three-day sessions, the teams work at their own campus to implement their plans, including engaging with a broader team of staff and faculty back on campus. As one campus administrator said, “We’ll reconvene when we return to campus, to engage our home team and consider the implications of this work. We want to be prepared for dissenting voices. We want to be able to answer those and move forward.” With two more sessions to go in the current Academy class, participants will have many more opportunities to share challenges and successes they faced on campus, and work with each other to strategize next steps.


The Middle Leadership Academy is led by Dr. Bianca Mothé, a professor at CSU San Marcos. The two remaining sessions for 2018-19 will be held in March and May. Applications to participate in the 2019-20 Academy are due April 1, 2019. To receive information about the Academy or other activities by the CSU Student Success Network, please email studentsuccessnetwork@edinsightscenter.orgThe Network is facilitated by EdInsights at Sacramento State.

Student Success Network Calendar

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2019

9:00am Convening: Growth Mindset and Sense of Belonging in the CSU

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 14 - SATURDAY NOVEMBER 16, 2019

10:00am 2019-20 Middle Leadership Academy Session 1

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6 - SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2020

10:00am 2019-20 Middle Leadership Academy Session 2

THURSDAY, APRIL 2 - SATURDAY, APRIL 4, 2020

10:00am 2019-20 Middle Leadership Academy Session 3

View More

Twitter Feed