Next week we observe Juneteenth – a day to commemorate the announcement in Texas that slaves had been granted freedom during the Civil War, a day to reflect on the true meaning of “freedom” and cultural tradition. Inspired by this, today our Steering Committee DEI Working Group presents the first of a new blog series considering the importance of equity within higher education quality assurance. Thank you for the committee for your work and thank you to Chantae Recasner from WGU for writing today’s post.

Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs

“…American Africanism. It is an investigation into the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served. …Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability.”

–Toni Morrison, 1992 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

“Failing to ensure equity is a limitation in quality…”

This year the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Working Group of the WCET Steering Committee decided to bridge conversations between DEI and quality. It’s an inevitable partnering as accounting for equity is an essential feature of quality assurance.

To put it plainly, failing to ensure equity is a limitation in quality. Nonetheless, any conversation about equity that centers on quality must address problematic parallels between advancing equity and diminishing quality.

The Historical Context of this Opening Post

We open this series as we commemorate Juneteenth, a historic benchmark in Black Americans’ journey to freedom in the United States. The timing of this is impeccable in my eyes since I read Juneteenth as a historic cautionary tale that affords a few lessons:

  1. It reminds me of the risks of making decisions fora population and not with a population.
  2. It exemplifies the potential failures of “improvement” efforts rooted in politicized paternalism.
  3. It is a testament to the irony of recognition without accountability (while Juneteenth is rooted in Texas history, some Texas legislators are working incessantly to bar any race-based historical teachings. Thus, we can celebrate but we cannot teach about it).

That Black Texans received notification of their freedom some 18 months after it was declared was a foretelling of ongoing challenges with access that would befall an entire race of people throughout this country. It also is a stark reminder that, for Black Americans, freedom is more than a political ideology. It is a physical state, one in which the Black body emerges as a contested site (Hassard & Holliday, 2001). This celebration of Black Americans’ journey to freedom is thus representative and, perhaps, even a situating of Blackness as synecdoche—alluding to Morrison’s Africanistic other as representative of all that is nonwhite.

Importance of Historical Context in DEI Efforts

The socio-historical context provided by Juneteenth commemoration underpins the complexity of growing institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Since the murder of George Floyd, a surge of efforts to center DEI work in higher education has occurred, but the jury is still out on whether these efforts are more “additive than transformative” (Mcinnis, 2020), especially when efforts are led by disempowered personnel in underfunded offices. Greene and Paul’s (2021) report on DEI Bloat in the Academy argues:

“…large DEI bureaucracies appear to make little positive contribution to campus climate. Rather than being an effective tool for welcoming students from different backgrounds, DEI personnel may be better understood as a signal of adherence to ideological, political, and activist goals.

In addition, high DEI staffing levels suggest that these programs, like many other administrative initiatives at universities, are bloated relative to academic pursuits. It is fair to wonder whether reducing administrative bloat and reducing costs would do more to promote college access and inclusion than the best efforts of any diversity officer.” (p. 14)

While the authors clearly state they are not advocating elimination of DEI efforts, they remain concerned that “colleges’ vast DEI bureaucracy has little relationship to students’ satisfaction with their college or their personal experiences with diversity.” Vast in this context is evidenced by, for example, the 163 identified DEI personnel at University of Michigan out of its total 31, 283 faculty and staff. We might disagree about the definition of vast (among other points), but what I hear from these authors is a concern about a quality return on investment for DEI staffing and initiatives. What I hear is a questioning of the relationship between equity and quality that legitimizes the need for more discussions, like this one, that link equity inextricably to quality.

Considering Quality in Online Learning Today

Quality in online learning and in education generally is variously defined and is associated with:

  • course/program level rigor,
  • institution/program accreditation and compliance,
  • standards for course design, and/or.
  • student satisfaction.

While this post is not attempting to provide a single definition of quality, it is an effort to conceptualize the term as one seeped in power rhetoric. Associating quality with rigor or academic excellence, for instance, is not an exercise in political neutrality as the formation of the academy was not a politically neutral endeavor. In fact, paramount to discourse on democratizing education to enable opportunities for all students is a critical examination of historical limitations to access and the hegemonic formation and use of race as justification for those limitations. In other words, “beliefs about intelligence and belonging, and, in some fields, the prevailing intellectual paradigms” (Posselt, 2018) are tethered to inequitable constructs about race.

Thus, as Jessica Rowland Williams of Every Learner Everywhere reminds us, we must deeply consider:

Who decides how quality is defined?”

Jessica Rowland Williams
Photo by Mars Sector-6 on Unsplash

Damon Williams (2013) reminds us that since much of educational culture continues to “reflect the values, identity, and mores of dominant culture,” we must be wary of deficit model thinking which often pushes social and cultural assimilation as fundamental to students’ capacity for success in higher education. Moreover, as McKenzie and Phillips (2016) assert, teachers continually fall into the “equity traps” of deficit thinking, racial erasure, and deep belief in meritocracy. These traps are otherwise noted by Olsson (1997) as “detours” in advancing anti-racism. Deficit ideology persists despite the insights of many scholars—including Gorksi (2019), Bensimon and Malcom (2012), Harper (2010), and Kendi (2019). They acknowledge the systemic nature of racism and oppression in education and thus challenge us to frame our equity intentions as directed improvement of policies and practices and not as improvements of people and cultures—especially the people and cultures most adversely impacted by inequities.

Challenges to Equity Limit Quality

So why is it important that we explore equity and quality simultaneously in online learning? Well, the detours along equity journeys are not called out by brightly colored signs contrasting with the subtle everydayness of engineered travel routes. Instead, they manifest suddenly sometimes and microaggressively at other times. They manifest as criticisms of fiscal investment in efforts that yield little to no overall quantitative improvement; concerns about accommodating excuse making for students, which cripples their professional development; or concerns about dumbing down curriculum so that all students can succeed.

On staffing fronts, they manifest as concerns about hiring unqualified workers to meet a diversity goal. On the surface, these concerns appear quite reasonable. If rephrased, one hears the following questions: Are we proper stewards of institutional funds? Are we adequately preparing our students for today’s workforce? Are we honoring the core tenets and the fidelity of our disciplines in curriculum? Are we securing the best talent for the job? But, these questions, when used to stall or otherwise challenge equity efforts, are drenched in allegiance to ideological hegemony and racism.

Equity research across sectors reveals thematic associations of equity with concepts like “trap”, “challenge,” “difficult,” or (as noted above) “bloat.” These terms imply at least anxiety and at most recalcitrance about a move toward equity, and whether epistemological or methodological, challenges to equity limit quality assurance.

Suggested Touchstones in Our On-going “Equity is Quality” Discussion

As this conversant space is intended to be both enlightening and provocative, I offer the following touchstones as we move forward in our explorations of equity and quality.

  1. Equity IS quality. It bears repeating. We should be ever mindful that growing equity does not decrease rigor or shortcut quality. In fact, the conceptual symbiosis suggests one cannot exist without the other: equity cannot exist without quality and quality cannot exist without equity. Where questions about quality emerge at the thought of advancing equity, we must confront the potential implicit bias informing the question and/or reconstruct conceptual understandings of equity.
  2. WHO defines quality? – might be the most important question of all. Who defines quality? Who determines what is needed? Who is impacted by change? Whose voice is heard? In the upcoming posts, we will hear discussions of equity and quality that engage faculty perspective as well as student perspectives. While we often concede the equity imperatives in higher education are about ensuring opportunities and outcomes for students, institutional change efforts—particularly for equity—are not always communicated clearly or in a way that gives agency to faculty. As reported by AAC&U and Hanover Research, “..when it comes to equity goals, there is a gulf in certainty between faculty, deans, and directors, on the one hand, and senior administrators, on the other, with faculty most likely to report being unsure of whether their institution has set such goals.”
  3. Equity is the work of EVERYONE. Recognizing the shared responsibility ensures quality experiences and outcomes for all members of a college/university community. Shorter-Gooden (2013) asserts inclusion work must engage institutional commitment, access and success, infused programs, and an affirming climate. This cross-sector of impact cannot be achieved by facilitated efforts of only those employees with a DEI-identified title.

Chantae Recasner

WCET Steering Committee Chair, WCET Executive Council, Vice President for Instruction, Seattle Central College

LinkedIn Profile


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Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without Racism: How Higher Education Researchers Minimize Racist Institutional Norms. The Review of Higher Education, 36(1), 9-29. Retrieved 6 13, 2022, from

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