Wright College’s Equity Initiative: Moving from Implicit to Explicit

Wilbur Wright College, which serves more than 20,000 total students annually, is the largest of the City Colleges of Chicago. As a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), Wright College’s student body reflects the evolving demographic shifts from predominantly white ethnic communities on Chicago’s Northwest side (where Wright is located) to a growing majority of first-generation Latino students. Wright College was one of thirteen colleges selected in 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to create a campus action plan as part of the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project. The launch of the campus action plan, which we call the Wright Equity Initiative, required the college community to move away from an implicit approach based on the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” to an explicit, race-conscious equity framework.

Talking about Race

The Wright Equity Initiative is rooted in the school’s identity as an HSI, and frank conversations about race relations have taken place on campus and in the community. Although some of these conversations were challenging and uncomfortable, they provided a foundation to move thoughtfully toward reflecting on cultural competencies and analyses of student performance. The disaggregation of student data by race was also central to the project. Chicago has a long history of racial segregation that permeates the identities of neighborhoods and institutions, and college stakeholders—faculty, administrators, staff, and students—engaged in direct conversations about racial segregation and white privilege. The dialogue enabled many stakeholders in the college community to openly discuss the challenges faced by many of Wright’s students of color and the need for thoughtful and data-driven practices to improve student success.

Equity Versus Equality

Estela Mara Bensimon from the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education presented at AAC&U’s first convening of teams from the thirteen colleges in the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellenceproject. The simple graphic that she included in her presentation served as a valuable tool for Wright College to think about equity versus equality. The image has been used widely throughout the college, from intimate roundtable conversations to college-wide presentations. The Equity Steering Committee initially experienced defensiveness and resistance to this work. However, rooting conversations in the college’s HSI identity has helped to keep the dialogue student-centered and tied to core institutional goals. The image has helped to focus conversations on the college’s core goal of supporting student success and has encouraged investigation into what obstacles may be obstructing student pathways. The work and time building consensus around equity versus equality have been major change agents at the college.

Figure 1. “Equality Versus Equity” Image

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Composition of the Steering Committee

The relational work of the steering committee deserves much of the credit for the Wright Equity Initiative’s initial success. Cochaired by the vice president of academic affairs and an associate professor of psychology, this joint leadership between an administrator and faculty member has helped this work move effectively through the different institutional and cultural groupings of the college. The five-member steering committee also included the associate dean of Wright College Humboldt Park, an associate professor of English, and the community affairs liaison. The steering committee was charged with leading communication efforts, particularly integrating the Wright Equity Initiative into work already underway at the college. The Wright Equity Initiative advanced the importance of examining strategies through an “equity lens” and created an intentional space for dialogue among faculty, administrators, staff, and students on the college’s identity as an HSI.

Disaggregating the Data

Disaggregating student data by race was an early goal of this work. Prior to the initiative, Wright College had not disaggregated data by race to examine levels of participation and success for students of color in college courses and high-impact practices. The repeated and reinforced discussions on equity versus equality positioned the steering committee to share disaggregated student data by race and engage in tough conversations with academic department chairs and administrators about equity gaps in retention and completion for students of color. Wright’s Research and Planning team has created a standardized report template within the college’s OpenBook system—a business intelligence platform—to facilitate an institutional data tracking system. With baseline disaggregated data, Wright College is now positioned to close gaps through the improved use and assessment of high-impact practices.

Intentionality of the Design

The Wright Equity Initiative goals outlined ambitious yet achievable targets for this work through tying outcomes to college-wide goals and the City Colleges of Chicago’s district-wide key performance indicators. Given the limited resources available and the multitude of initiatives at the college, the committee intentionally designed the work in tandem to college-wide efforts already underway. Wright College already acted as the hub of information technology (IT) pathways as part of the City Colleges of Chicago’s College to Careers (C2C) initiative. Studying the C2C IT pathways through an “equity lens” was particularly beneficial, as it highlighted the need for intentional IT recruitment efforts to bring students of color into the pathway. Additionally, an initial examination of Wright data showed a disparity in success in developmental math for Latino students compared to white students. The math faculty designed cocurricular courses to provide students with wraparound support, which has resulted in initial substantial impacts on student completion rates. Intentional embedding of the equity work allowed it to be owned college-wide, rather than as a finite boutique initiative.

Sustainability and Scalability

The resources allocated by AAC&U’s three-year project grant have rippled through Wright by grounding this work in the human resources and relational networks of the college. Sustainability and scalability are the emphases for the upcoming year, particularly with the continued challenges ahead caused by Illinois’s fiscal state. Wright College is exploring ways of rooting equity in the college’s foundational statements and values. The academic planning committee has identified five core values of Wright College: (1) diversity, equity, and inclusion; (2) academic quality; (3) community; (4) student-centered; and (5) innovation. These core values are driving the academic planning underway throughout the college community. The steering committee is eager to support the leadership and initiatives of fellow faculty and administrators to multiply this work within their respective departments. The current climate in Chicago, Illinois, and our country requires the college to be explicit in our unabashed support of our students of color, particularly in implementing institutional practices and policies supporting the most vulnerable students.


Luz-Maritza Cordero, Associate Professor, Psychology and Addiction Studies; Maureen Fitzpatrick, Associate Dean of Instruction; Janet Knapp-Caporale, Associate Professor, English; Iris Millan, Community Affairs Liaison; and  Nicole Reaves, Vice President, Academic Affairs, all of Wilbur Wright College

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