Thoughts on Susan Sturm and Full Participation

In the 2011 piece, “Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement in Higher Education,” Prof. Susan Sturm of Columbia University alongside three other academics created a framework that has been the conceptual origin of our new curriculum, Connections, and the College’s next strategic plan, “Building on Strength.” An article that allegedly informs very important transformations unfolding on Conn’s academic and social landscape has received little attention in public discourse at the College. This is why I want to shed some light on Sturm’s and her colleagues’ ideas to create a metric against which things happening around us can be understood and judged.

Given the critical importance that full participation has come to have in our lives at Conn, it is worth quoting at length from Sturm et al: “The concept of full participation brings together three different dimensions of higher education’s public mission. First, it involves building pathways to social and economic citizenship for diverse publics through education, particularly for students from communities that have not been afforded access or enabled to succeed. Second, it involves connecting the knowledge resources of the academy with the pressing and complex problems facing multiple communities. Finally, it involves building the capacity and commitment of diverse leadership equipped to tackle these social problems” (emphases mine).

Full participation, for its authors, is “a framework to integrate projects and people working under the umbrella of equity, diversity, and inclusion with those working under the umbrella of community, public, and civic engagement” in institutions of higher education. It is a way to connect “equity” work across institutional boundaries. Universities should, according to the authors, commit to both goals simultaneously in their mission statements and core values. Further, the two goals should meaningfully inform each other. Any “equity” initiatives undertaken on campus are meaningful only insofar as they aspire to create equity in the broader world. Full participation thus provides a way to redefine “equity” work on campus as work that is socially transformative in the local community and beyond.   

Among other things, we can note that for Sturm and her colleagues, diversifying higher education is not an end in itself. Then why diversify? They say it is for “the public mission of leveraging intellectual capital to address the most pressing problems facing underserved communities” out in the world. The endgame of diversity in higher education is to “revitalize communities and democratic institutions” in the world at large. For the authors, the goal of diversity is intimately tied with the other two goals of a college undertaking “full participation”: producing engaged or public scholarship, and ensuring that students succeed at becoming engaged citizens.

The authors point many times to the way that all the goals of full participation clearly enhance each other, and they back this claim up by citing research. A good approach to full participation, according to the authors, will systematically connect “(1) student success with faculty diversity, (2) faculty diversity with community engagement and inclusive pedagogical practices, (3) faculty diversity with engaged scholarship, and (4) engaged scholarship with institutional rewards and supportive institutional cultures.”

To paraphrase the argument, hiring and retaining faculty from historically marginalized communities increases students’ academic success; this is most true when these faculty are interested in meaningful community engagement and are prolific in producing engaged scholarship, in addition to using inclusive pedagogical practices; the way to ensure retention of these faculty is to reward engaged scholarship (most of all) and create a culture of support around it. Engaged scholarship is both increased by and increases institutional diversity and student success, and is a centerpiece for the authors in the ultimate goal of creating “cultures that link inclusion, engagement, and success.”

The authors provide an example of a full participation practice as hiring a faculty member from a historically marginalized group who produces engaged scholarship that has deep local engagement. Here is what it looks like when full participation works: “The tenure review recognizes and rewards her community based work as legitimate scholarship, and she is awarded tenure. The campus is implementing a strategic priority of community engagement. By taking this priority seriously, it is addressing the priority of increasing the diversity of the faculty. Additionally, it is addressing another priority, which is to increase engaged student learning to increase the academic success and retention of students, particularly traditionally underserved students.”

For Sturm et al, “achieving full participation requires a critical assessment of the obstacles facing groups at the various institutional locations that shape inclusion and advancement. It also informs the targeting of initiatives to focus attention on groups and communities that are not flourishing within existing institutional arrangements.” The first step of committing to full participation requires honesty and humility in identifying what exactly is wrong, who is outside, of what, and why. The narrative of an institution wanting to undertake full participation cannot be one where things are pretty great to begin with. An awareness of and willingness to admit to exclusions and failures is critical to begin to undertake full participation. The changes under full participation must “reflect major dissatisfaction with present arrangements.”

The authors tell us that institutions must commit to “changing practices and settings that do not provide full participation.” So the institution must clearly articulate the flaws it discovered and figure out how to change practices so that the groups and communities that were underserved can now be given increased resources. It is clear that full participation, while it might involve starting new initiatives from scratch, involves most of all a redistribution of resources and a rethinking of inequitable structures, identifying precisely those who need institutional support, and working in their interest.

I wonder what Susan Sturm would say to us here at Connecticut College. It should be easy to find out since she is right down the highway in New York City. What better scholar to invite to campus than Sturm, to whose work the transformation of the entire Conn education has been attributed? While we await interest and funding for such an auspicious visit to happen, I hope this editorial urges you to consider Sturm’s work and words as good companions to hold on to as we try to understand what, exactly, is going on.

That’s all. I hope you enjoy the new look of the Voice, and do let me hear from you in Letters to the Editor your thoughts about any of the things we have put into the world through this paper today.•


– Aparna