Book Review: "Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity," editors Adrianna Kezar and Julie Posselt compile scholarly work on how institutions can build a cohesive plan for promoting social justice and equity within their schools. "The well-researched contributions in this work are targeted toward those serving in higher education as administrators, faculty, or staff. It points to the problems inherent in higher education as they pertain to power structures and provides concrete examples of how to combat that traditional top-down distribution of power," writes Jessica Bracco, who read the book and shared her opinions of its content with NASFAA. 

Reviewed by Jessica Bracco, Financial Aid Counselor at Villa Maria College 

The evocative images of the murder of George Floyd shared through cell phone footage prompted social justice protests the magnitude of which resembled those of the American civil rights movement. During the 1960s, institutions of higher learning were the sites of many of these protests where students stood at the forefront. Demonstrating this link between higher education and social change, Adrianna Kezar and Julie Posselt, the editors of "Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity: Critical Perspectives for Leadership," have compiled scholarly work on how institutions can build a cohesive plan for promoting social justice and equity within their schools. The aim of the book is to both "consider what it means to engage in the work with and for justice and equity" and "provide guidance to that end" (xxii). The well-researched contributions in this work are targeted toward those serving in higher education as administrators, faculty, or staff. It points to the problems inherent in higher education as they pertain to power structures and provides concrete examples of how to combat that traditional top-down distribution of power.

The scholarship in this book differs from previous works because it centers on how social justice should be a focus of daily work, not viewed as a separate or extra role. The editors set the stage in the first sentence of their introductory chapter: "This book is a call for justice and equity in higher education administration."  After a brief historical overview of organizational barriers to equity and neoliberal psyche, they propose a framework for equity and justice in higher education. The following chapters, organized into four parts — Setting and Shifting Priorities, Human Resources, Accountability and Data, and Culture and Structure — are written by contributing scholars who examine the various practices. Each of the sections ends with a chapter offering reflections from a practitioner.

Practices examined and advocated by contributing authors include shared governance, exercising mindfulness relative to power and privilege when making decisions, and harnessing bias. One contributor explains that when monetary constraints are tightened and quick decisions result in equal budget cuts across departments, this practice may "disproportionately affect an institution’s equity agenda" by prioritizing compromise over sound decision making (78). Conversely, practices where a need for caution and equity-minded practice should be taken include mentorship and hiring. Where mentorship has traditionally been viewed as helping create deep relationships, contributing authors warn that traditional ideas about mentorship can exacerbate inequity for those from minoritized communities. Without an equity-driven foundation, the power dynamic between mentor and mentee may become dysfunctional. Likewise, applying data-driven decision making to hiring practices without considering unconscious bias toward the ideas of "merit" and "fit" can make it difficult to diversify your workforce. Think of it in terms of admissions. Making thoughtful admissions decisions by prioritizing the admission of students and providing sufficient financial aid for low-income students despite the organization’s reliance on tuition revenue helps promote social justice.           

In discussing culture and structure, several of the authors dig into neoliberal ideology in higher education, which arose as a major reaction to the social justice and equity work of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement. The editors define neoliberal ideology as "the philosophy and system of political economy aimed at marketizing and privatizing public goods, and of pushing corporate values and practices onto public institutions" (4). They break this down into two main tenets. First, neoliberal tendencies fuel prioritizing revenue or finance-based solutions to problems. Second, they advance a perception that decisions must be made quickly without allowing for proper reflection or discussion. Authors warn readers to be mindful in navigating neoliberal organizational cultures as they can undergird oppressive values. As a step toward achieving this, they recommend institutions clearly define what they mean by "social justice and equity."

They also feel institutions should discard traditionally bureaucratic interactions with students and instead rely on intentional interactions with specific goals in mind. They argue that neoliberal tendencies, which often commodify the student, should be cast aside in favor of centering the student as an active learner and democratic agent within the institution. Beneficial results can be achieved if communications are marked by a mindfulness to what power or privilege structures might be in play between the student and the administrator. By focusing on this student-centered experience, institutions can make great strides toward ensuring just and equitable interactions.

Now is the time to build a foundation of socially just and equitable practices at institutions of higher education. Recent events have demonstrated there is much work to do in this area and institutions have a responsibility to act. In this book, Kezar and Posselt have compiled a work describing broad goals for achieving social justice and equitable practices along with specific decisions that must be made to accomplish those goals. For the advice of the authors to work, an entire institution must be on board with the social justice and equity agenda.

I would strongly recommend this book to  all engaged in the worthy work of educating students in institutions of higher learning. Institutions that implement the detailed actions provided by this book would demonstrate their commitment to both social justice and equity for their students, faculty, administration, and staff. In doing so, they will become destinations for eager students who will contribute to creating a more equitable society.

"Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity: Critical Perspectives for Leadership," by Adrianna Kezar and Julie Posselt, editors. Routledge Press, November 2019, pp. 264.

*****

Jessica Bracco is a financial aid counselor at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, New York, where she also teaches a course in history. Jessica has worked in financial aid for three years and during that time has focused on the default management program in an effort to forward the college’s mission of social justice. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Buffalo State College and a master’s degree in history at the University of Buffalo.

 

Publication Date: 5/12/2022


David S | 5/13/2022 1:4:13 PM

I'm eager to read this book after having read this review, but I always cringe a bit when I read things like "Making thoughtful admissions decisions by prioritizing the admission of students and providing sufficient financial aid for low-income students...helps promote social justice." The bottom line is that, even at schools with the most generous aid resources or most affordable prices, the demand for financial aid exceeds the supply. This does not reflect on higher ed's commitment to social justice so much as America's failure to treat education as a common good that benefits all of society.

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