Seed grant funding leads to creation of equitable education network

The Penn State Equity Pedagogy Network works to support and enhance the racial equity work of faculty, staff and administrators
A computer screen is lit up at a podium overlooking an empty theater classroom.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equity Pedagogy Network increased its reach to four campuses, nine collaborating centers and units and also hosts 130 faculty with about 100 members involved in one of their working groups. Casually referred to as "the Network," the group aims to improve societal outcomes for all students and faculty via improved teaching and learning on equity, bias and diversity.

Credit: Patrick Mansell

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – With goals to enable access to education, engage students, and foster and embrace a diverse world, the Penn State Equity Pedagogy Network (“the Network”) works to support and enhance the racial equity work of faculty, staff and administrators across Penn State by developing a community for resource-sharing, collaborative inquiry and reflective practice.

Funded through Penn State’s Strategic Plan seed grants transforming education theme, the Network, via its professional learning communities and speaker series, serves as a central hub to connect Penn State initiatives aimed at institutionalizing equity education and culturally sustaining curricula. The project leads include Alicia C. Dowd, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of higher education; Leticia Oseguera, senior research associate for the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of higher education; and Paula Smith, director for the Center for Intercultural Leadership and Communication and Abington Campus’ head librarian. 

“There has been this broad question on how universities can be more inclusive and support anti-racist teaching, admissions and curriculum practices; however, this question does not have a swift answer,” Dowd said. “We must rely on our faculty’s expertise and our administrators to help deepen and grow anti-racist education.”

Dowd went on to explain that faculty and institutional efforts have been compartmentalized and spread out in the past. The creation of the Network makes faculty efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion across the University feel less isolated, according to Dowd, by bringing together resources for efficiency, creating solidarity and providing a sense of community for conversations on the topics of equity and anti-racist efforts.

Opportunities Abound: The Network’s beginnings

Dowd, Oseguera and Smith submitted their proposal, “Embracing Diversity by Institutionalizing Equity Pedagogy and Culturally Sustaining Curricula,” during the fourth cycle of the Strategic Plan seed grants in 2019. For their proposal, the trio worked to identify underlying causes of racial equity issues, developed ideas to promote better understanding of inequalities in higher education, and aimed to provide solutions for more interconnectedness that would reinforce values across all the Penn State campuses.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Network has increased its reach to four campuses, nine collaborating centers and units and also hosts 130 faculty with about 100 members involved in one of their working groups. Currently involved in the Network are the University Park, Abington, Brandywine and Greater Allegheny campuses. 

“This is exactly the type of collaboration and innovative thinking that the seed grants were created to foster. The Network not only crosses unit boundaries, but it is also attempting to tackle head on issues of accessibility in education, as well as potential biases that may be hindering the success of students – our ultimate goal. It also clearly speaks to our ongoing commitment to make Penn State more welcoming, equitable and diverse,” said Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost and sponsor of the seed grants. “To date, we have awarded 43 seed grants that have funded wide-ranging initiatives that are making us a stronger, more inclusive, more impactful and more strategic institution.”  

The Network hosts various working groups such as the steering committee named the Launch Group, the Greater Allegheny Crossing Bridges Task Force and the College of Education Equity Team. The organization also boasts eight professional learning communities, including field-focused groups in scienceeducational policyelementary and early childhood educationcounseling, rehabilitation and human services, and multi-disciplinary groups at the Abington and Brandywine campuses. 

“We wanted to create these learning structures so that our Penn State community can share models, agendas and learnings with one another,” Dowd said. “Ideally, we are building communities in which our faculty can hear from experts, both internal and external, and take these lessons into their classrooms. We have faculty teaching diverse subjects who are interested in proactively incorporating attention to racism and racial conflict in their courses, and they also recognize that when teaching diverse groups of students, it’s important to present such information in a way that feels safe.”

Ultimately, Dowd and Smith said, the Network wants to improve societal outcomes with the results of improved teaching and learning for all students and faculty.

“Diverse faculty, diverse thoughts and equity education leads to better results,” Dowd said. “For example, STEM fields are important in racial equity issues. Nationally, we see that there are fewer Latinx, Black and Indigenous students in STEM fields, so we have been intentional in our attempts to involve STEM faculty with the Network.”

Smith further noted that the group began by looking externally for funding; however, the internal seed grant funding allowed the Network to grow into a structure that can be used broadly. 

Included within the Network’s professional learning community are the Abington Equity Pedagogy Faculty Learning Community; Brandywine Professional Learning Community; Counseling Education and Rehabilitation Services Faculty Learning Community; Educational Policy Studies Faculty Learning Community, University Park; Elementary and Early Childhood Education Program Faculty Learning Community; Equity Team, College of Education, University Park; Greater Allegheny Crossing Bridges Task Force; and Science Faculty Learning Community.

Smith leads the Abington Equity Pedagogy Faculty Learning Community. Smith explained that the group has been reflecting on its own education and how the experiences of its members may carry over to the classroom.

“We’re working on being present and thinking of how we extend ourselves in our classes,” Smith said. “What practices do we do just because that is how we were taught? Do we have cognitive biases?  Are there any language biases? We don’t want to be in the category of ‘this is what I do because this is what I was taught.’”

Each learning community is directed by a leader or co-leaders, who meet with each other periodically to share ideas and materials to deepen and improve on the learning designs. The community of participants learn from their own inquiries, through collaboration and interaction with each other, and from invited speakers who share their expertise through a moderated speaker series.

The Network offered a speaker series in which faculty members from Penn State and other universities presented and facilitated discussion of matters such as racial inequalities, inclusive syllabi, language identity, fostering belonging and national narratives surrounding discrimination.

“Due to the pandemic, Zoom allowed us to expand in a way that we hadn’t imagined initially by allowing people to join our events despite their geographic location,” Smith said. “We saw an expansion in faculty from various disciplines coming together to share ideas. Faculty don’t always get these kinds of opportunities, so having both intimate and large group conversations help to enlighten individuals on different teaching methods from an equitable perspective.”

Expansion: The Network’s future plans

For the 2021-22 academic year, Dowd shared that the Network has various plans for its expansion including an academy, new grants received by Network members, syllabus workshops and member evaluations.

Notably, from June 21-23, the Network is hosting an Academy for Equity Minded, Anti-Racist Leadership developed by faculty from the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Designed for administrative leaders at Penn State, the group aims to offer the event on an annual basis with a focus on providing a professional development opportunity.

The academy aims to develop critical leadership competencies, which include racial literacy, race- and racism-conscious schemas (“equity-mindedness”), and perspectives about how policies and practices at historically and predominantly white institutions may need to be altered.

As an outgrowth of the Network, faculty members in the Eberly College of Science and College of Education received a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create a learning community that will be networked through the foundation’s Inclusive Excellence funding program. Mary Beth Williams, senior associate dean for instruction and curricula and professor of chemistry, and Nathanial Brown, professor of mathematics, will collaborate with Dowd, as project co-leads, and a group of colleagues to investigate methods in which the University can make teaching evaluations more inclusive for faculty members across the institution. The team aims to limit the amount of biased and inequitable responses that faculty may receive from student evaluations by reimagining the current system.

“The Network isn’t something that you see being funded at other institutions,” Smith said. “Through imaginative use of resources, we have been able to highlight the importance of equity pedagogy and focus on deeper conversations. The grant helped us gain traction and I am hopeful for the future of this Network and what we can achieve.”