By: Royel M. Johnson (Assistant Professor) and Ali Watts (PhD Candidate) Center for the Study of Higher Education Pennsylvania State University
In early Feb 2019, the authors (Royel Johnson, PI, and Ali Watts, graduate assistant) along with co-PIs Uju Anya (Penn State) and Liliana Garces (University of Texas at Austin) and graduate assistant Evelyn Ambriz (University of Texas at Austin) convened a symposium titled Envisioning Racial Equity on College Campuses: Bridging Research-to-Practice Gaps for Institutional Transformation. The symposium was funded through the Spencer Foundation’s Small Conference Grant program, which in 2018 sought to facilitate collaborative projects “related to critical questions that interrogate how to create and sustain equitable educational spaces.” Support was also provided by Penn State’s College of Education, Office of Graduate Educational Equity Programs, and the Center for the Study of Higher Education. This two-day convening, held on the Penn State-University Park campus, brought together scholars and institutional practitioners to advance racial equity research in higher education and identify strategies to strengthen its accessibility and relevance for practitioners.
The urgency of this work has been underscored by recent events across the country, from White supremacists rallying on the campus of the University of Virginia, to Black student hunger strikes at the University of Missouri, which issue a clear and compelling message: race (still) matters, and racism still festers on our nation’s college campuses. And despite the significant body of existing education research which offers recommendations to inform campus practices and policies intended to cultivate more racially inclusive environments (e.g., Bensimon & Malcolm, 2012; Harper, 2009; Strayhorn, 2012), remarkable research-to-practice gaps exist in higher education. Our convening sought to explore the nature and structure of these gaps by providing dedicated space for reflection, dialogue, and collaboration. The stated goals of the meeting were to: (a) identify and explore barriers in translating existing racial equity research to practice; (b) encourage discussion of new areas for research driven by practitioner needs; and (c) foster collaboration between invited scholars and practitioners interested in pursuing new lines of research.
In order to structure the symposium discussions, we organized participants into three groups based on their interests related to University Leadership, Teaching & Learning, and Student Life. Each group featured invited scholars, Penn State practitioners, and faculty associated with Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. Practitioners were featured prominently throughout the symposium and were invited to share insights about areas of their practice that could benefit from additional research. These insights were shared during practitioner-centered panels and debrief sessions, as well as during scholarly breakout sessions where practitioners responded directly to research briefs submitted by invited scholars in order to make recommendations about how such research might be strengthened to be more accessible, relevant, and actionable for practice. Topics for these briefs included interrogations of anti-immigration rhetoric on campus (Susana Muñoz, Colorado State University), the importance of encouraging equity-mindedness among institutional governing boards (Felicia Commodore, Old Dominion University), and strategies to enhance the recruitment and retention of rural Black students (Darris Means, University of Georgia).
The symposium affirmed many of our initial thoughts as well as those of other scholars who have written about research-to-practice gaps. Indeed, practitioners and institutional policymakers “face increasingly complex and fast-paced conditions for decision making, unique local challenges, and accountability demands for immediate results” (Maxey & Kezar, 2015, p. 1046). Our invited practitioners shared frustrations with not having enough to time to consume dense scholarly research, and as a result, often had to rely on their working professional knowledge and experiences to respond to crises or challenges. Educational researchers also play a significant role in this translational gap by giving little attention to the implications and recommendations sections of scholarly publications, using academic jargon in publications, and publishing primarily in journals that often do not reach practitioners who stand the most to gain from the work.
As a result, many institutional actors on campus are ill-prepared to address systemic challenges related to racial inequality on campus through evidence-based practice. Recommendations from symposium discussions, therefore, centered on the need to present research in accessible language and venues (e.g., practitioner conferences, public media outlets); the importance of research-practice partnerships to facilitate the production of high-quality practice-relevant research (see Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013); engaging practitioners in the peer-review process for manuscript development (e.g., asking for pre-publication practitioner feedback about analysis and implications sections to ensure that research is true to practitioner experience, and recommendations are actionable); and the usage of diverse research methods such as participatory action research, which helps facilitate change in practice through inquiry.
We are energized by the symposium and are excited to see what comes of the collaborations developed during the event. It is our hope that attendees continue to engage the conversations initiated at the convening about the importance (and urgency) of policy- and practice-relevant research in higher education on their campuses and in the field of higher education broadly. We are currently exploring opportunities to advance this work in a range of outlets, including the release of the full conference proceedings later this spring, which will provide institutional practitioners and policymakers with clear and concrete recommendations for applying evidence from research to their work. Notably, several collaborations facilitated during the symposium are underway, and we are excited to see these new partnerships into fruition. To see some of the highlights from the conference, be sure to search the hashtag #RacialEquitySymposium on Twitter.
Bensimon, E. M., & Malcolm, L. E. (2012). Confronting equity issues on campus. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Coburn, C. E., Penuel, W. R., & Geil, K. E. (2013). Research-practice partnerships: A strategy for leveraging research for educational improvement in school districts. William T. Grant Foundation, New York, NY.
Harper, S. R. (2009). Race-conscious student engagement practices and the equitable distribution of enriching educational experiences. Liberal Education, 95(4), 38-45.
Maxey, D., & Kezar, A. (2015). Leveraging the Delphi technique to enrich knowledge and engage educational policy problems. Educational Policy, 30(7), 1042-1070.
Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. London: Routledge.
Paul Rubin, PhD Postdoctoral Research Associate Department of Educational Leadership and Policy University of Utah
As academics, we train to become experts in our field by reading, writing, and engaging with a topic for years. Nevertheless, many lament the limited inclusion of empirical research in the policy process and question why researchers themselves are not more involved in policymaking. Academics have even described empirical research’s use in policy as “trees without fruit” (Keller, 1985) or “shipyards in the desert” (Weiner, 1986), suggesting its minimal impact. A contributing factor to the division between researchers and policymakers has been framed as differences between “two communities,” where each side maintains distinct language, norms, and goals that ultimately impede effective cross-communication. Questions remain—are policymakers intentionally avoiding empirical research? And, more importantly, what can researchers do to make their work more policy relevant and policy applicable? After spending last year as an AERA/American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional fellow, I would say the answers to these questions are “no” and “lots.”
Let us first consider the context and timeline of the policy process. Politics and individual agendas are ever-present throughout policy development and implementation. Regardless of political party affiliation, geography, and other broad factors, a politician’s primary objective is to pass bills that align with their goals and the needs of their constituency. The use of research to inform these decisions becomes secondary and will only be considered when it aligns with their broader goal and agenda.
Moreover, even if research was prioritized, there are limitations for policymakers to access and consider the extensive history of empirical work on a given topic. First, the timeline for decision-making is short and the staff member in charge of informing the elected official is likely overseeing several topics (each with pressing deadlines). For example, in many congressional offices, the staffer in charge of education policy is also responsible for health, labor, pensions, and possibly more depending on how their office is staffed and the committees their boss is involved. The utility of academic research is further stymied by academic jargon, the lengthy publication process, and the overall specificity of most academic studies, which limit their applicability to broader policy conversations. Of course, this assumes staff members can even read these journal articles through paywalls and other barriers to access.
Staff members must turn to other parties that can translate and repackage empirical research into a more digestible form. Often these information sources are intermediary organizations—think tanks, advocacy groups, and research consortia—that are able to devote extensive time to translate academic research into a more policy applicable form. The utility and association with specific organizations for staff members are again based on the broader agenda and politics of their boss, but should not be dismissed by academics as a viable avenue to share their work. In fact, recent research has begun to untangle and highlight the critical role of these groups in influencing policy and dissemination of information (see Gándara, Rippner, & Ness, 2017; Orphan, Laderman, & Gildersleeve, 2018).
To that end, turning to the second question—what academics can do to connect their work better to the policy world—it really starts with these intermediary organizations. Many groups solicit expertise from researchers to conduct projects and to distill their empirical work, or broader literature reviews, into one-page policy briefs. Academics should reach out to organizations that align with their own goals and agenda to see if opportunities exist to author blog posts, reports, or policy briefs (see Hillman & Weichman, 2016; Kelchen, 2017; Long, 2018).
While organizations prominent in policy discussions might turn to established academics more often for such opportunities, newer researchers can still find platforms to establish themselves as policy-facing researchers (and potential resources for bigger-named intermediary organizations in the future). For example, news sources like Diverse Issues, Inside Higher Ed, and The Conversationprovide researchers an outlet to write in a less academic setting and for a less academic audience (see Garcia, 2018; Marsicano, 2017).
Considering policymakers are concerned with their constituency and district/state, an additional resource is within an academic’s home institution in the government relations office. These individuals will have connections to policymakers and have an understanding of their priorities and concerns. By keeping the government relations office apprised of major projects and empirical work, academics may be better attuned to when they can be more effective in influencing policy discussions. Additionally, if there is major legislation on the docket—for example, the Higher Education Act—it may be worthwhile to make your government relations office aware of your willingness to serve as a contact for policymakers and see if any connections can be accomplished in that manner.
Academics also need to consider how they are promoting themselves and their work. Academics cannot rely on academic journals as the primary mechanism for promoting their work. Keep in mind, the staff members that are shaping policy are very busy and are most often hearing about major topics and information sources via Twitter and other social media sites. Consequently, maintaining an online presence is important and being able to summarize research concisely (think one or two tweets) is critical.
Academics need to make their work more accessible if they want to be more policy relevant. This includes considering an audience that might not be fellow academics, necessitating less jargon and a focus on findings and implications. One possible area to consider this is when writing manuscript abstracts. Providing adequate detail on the major findings and implications of a study in an abstract can provide readers an understanding of the contributions of a study without requiring access to the journal or full manuscript.
Policymakers and intermediary organizations translating empirical research are also searching for actionable policy – viable mechanisms to move current policy forward. Therefore, academics should reconsider what constitutes “policy recommendations” in journal manuscripts. If the hope is for research findings to influence policy decisions, this section should not be a place to grandstand and discuss policy as though it is entirely theoretical (see Kelchen & Li, 2017).This is not to say that researchers should not also discuss the ideal policy outcome but the focus must be about actionable steps to reach that end.
Notably, academics face additional obstacles when trying to bridge the two community divide. A key factor to consider is that tenure and promotion committees often do not favor these policy-oriented activities over the traditional responsibilities of research, teaching, and service. Academics need to consider this when deciding how best to devote their time but should also recognize that it is a double-edged sword – if you do not interact with the policy sector, the policy sector will likely not reach out to you. Policymakers already have their “experts” on a given topic, so the onus is ultimately on academics to prove their value as one of these sources and getting their work in the correct hands to influence policy.
Gándara, D., Rippner, J.A., & Ness, E.C. (2017). Exploring the ‘how’ in policy diffusion: National intermediary organizations’ roles in facilitating the spread of performance-based funding policies in the states. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 701-725.
Garcia, N.M. (2018, September 10). An open letter from the “hot tamale” aka your Latina professor. Diverse Issues. Online at: https://diverseeducation.com/article/125140.
Kelchen, R. (2017, September). Higher education accreditation and the federal government. Urban Institute. Online at: https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/93306/higher-education-accreditation-and-the-federal-government.pdf.
Kelchen, R., & Li, A.Y. (2017). Institutional accountability: A comparison of the predictors of student loan repayment and default rates. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 671(1), 202-223.
Keller, G. (1985). Trees without fruit: The problem with research about higher education. Change, 17(1), 7-10.
Long, B.T. (2018, May 25). The college completion landscape: Trends, challenges, and why it matters. American Enterprise Institute/Third Way. Online at: https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-college-completion-landscape-trends-challenges-and-why-it-matters.