Octavio Villalpando and Dolores Delgado Bernal are partners, in life and in their work. They were both first-generation college students, and today they agree that their academic journey has been guided by a professional and personal passion to pursue academic work that can lead to social change.
Villalpando has been the associate vice president for Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah since early 2007, as well as a professor of Educational Leadership & Policy. He and Delgado Bernal—a professor of Education, Culture and Society as well as Ethnic Studies—met in graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles, have been married for 17 years, and share scholarly interests in understanding—and achieving—racial, gender, sexual orientation, and class equity in education.
As the University’s chief diversity officer, Villalpando has been a member of the president’s cabinet and helped shape institutional policies and practices related to equity and diversity. He teaches courses in the areas of critical race theory and higher education, for which he has won Outstanding Faculty Teaching and Outstanding Faculty Research awards from the University’s College of Education. He received master’s and doctoral degrees from UCLA, where he also conducted research at the Higher Education Research Institute. He was one of the first recipients of a National Academies/Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the field of education, which led to his scholarship being cited in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in higher education admissions.
As the first (and currently, only) Chicana full professor on campus, Delgado Bernal merges her teaching and scholarship in the fields of education and Chicana feminist studies by examining the social and cultural context of education. Her work explores systems of race, gender, home, and community knowledge that stand in contrast to Euro-American perspectives. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as well as being widely published and an award-winning researcher. She also co-directs the Westside Pathways Project, a community engaged research project. For her mentoring of young women and her commitment to creating educational access, the Utah YWCA honored Delgado Bernal in 2011 for Outstanding Achievement in Education. She received her doctorate from UCLA and was both a National Academies/ Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow.
After more than seven years of leading equity and diversity efforts at the University of Utah, Villalpando recently decided to return to one of his passions as a full-time professor, teaching and conducting research on diversity in higher education. Before transitioning back into that role, he and Delgado Bernal have accepted invitations to serve as senior visiting scholars in the University of California System’s All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC/ACCORD) while in residence at UCLA for the 2014-15 academic year.
Here, Villalpando shares his perspectives on equity in higher education, how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go.
Why is diversity important in this place, at this time?
The U is at a critical crossroad concerning the racial and ethnic diversity of the student body, faculty, and staff. Even though we have enrolled twice as many students of color than a decade ago, we still place last among our Pac-12 peers. We have also made substantial gains in hiring more women over the last decade, but there has been no improvement in the percentage of staff or faculty of color hired.
In order for the U to achieve the next level of educational excellence, it is imperative that we recruit and retain diverse talent, which is widely available nationally and locally. Faculty, staff, and students need to see diversity reflected in every level of leadership across campus, and they must feel that the University respects, supports, promotes, and builds upon their success as the University’s collective future is created.
But we cannot simply strive to have more of “them” (diverse peoples) on campus and hope they become integrated into the existing social and academic fabric. Educational excellence— and public support—is increasingly grounded in our ability to ensure that “they” and “we” succeed together. Institutions like UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard have done so, as reflected in their diverse campuses. There is no magic to making progress in this direction. It takes courageous leadership at every level and in every corner of a campus, explicit institutional goals, a willingness to confront individual and collective biases and historical facts, and perhaps most important, strong voices to insist on change.
How has the campus changed since you took the reins in 2007?
Two major changes had a dramatic impact on diversity: the “great recession” and student tuition. The state of Utah and the U managed the economic downturn much better than most, but we still experienced a decline in financial resources. That led to fewer open faculty positions. Though recovering, our faculty ranks would be more diverse today if we had not had to slow our recruitment.
The second major change is student tuition. For decades, U students have benefited from low tuition and fees—and it is still the lowest among our Pac-12 peers. The U offers an excellent education at great value and strives to keep costs affordable and increase financial assistance. But our students and their families have to absorb a greater financial burden due to declining state support.
Research shows that the most financially vulnerable students are first in their families to attend college, students of color, and young married or single parents—those who have much to gain from a college education. The state offers little need-based financial assistance, so the competition for meritbased scholarships on campus is fierce. Solid students with limited financial means are often forced to choose between pausing attendance or working while balancing school priorities. Quitting or delaying graduation has social and economic costs for our people and our state.
Are there obstacles to maintaining a diverse campus?
The single most significant obstacle is what I describe as diversity “on the down-low.” The political and cultural climate in our state is often out of sync with the goals and initiatives that have proven successful in enhancing the diversity of other campus communities. For example, offering race-conscious student scholarships is lawful, but slow adoption of those and similar programs hampers the U’s diversity, with very real consequences for the campus.
Fortunately, the U is in a unique position to help bring about a more informed understanding, especially among political leaders, of the value and benefits of diversity in higher education. Health care and business leaders clearly understand the competitive advantage and social value derived from diverse pools of college graduates. I am hopeful that a joint partnership between the U, other state campuses, and health care and business leaders could bring greater understanding of the value of diversity in higher education.
An additional challenge is misperceptions of Utah that abound in the media, making it difficult to recruit diverse faculty and students from out of state. To counter this, we worked to bring a national academic conference to the U every couple of years. Our “conference strategy” attracted an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 diverse faculty, postdocs, and students from out of state to the U. Seeing our campus and the natural beauty of our state results in very positive impressions of the U and the state, and hopefully, changes perceptions.
How will we know when we’ve succeeded?
After World War II, the federal G.I. Bill provided returning American service men and women with benefits to help them reintegrate successfully into society—including financial assistance to help pay for college. As the number of veterans enrolling in colleges increased, most campuses realized that they needed to create practices, policies, and programs that supported the different needs of this new student population.
Universities realized then—and understand even now—that the initiatives and practices created specifically for returning war veterans were actually important in supporting all students. Universities have changed for the better when they have accounted for the different needs and life experiences of the changing demographics of their students, faculty, staff—and external communities.
We will know we have succeeded when there is clear evidence that diverse students, faculty, and staff are succeeding at comparable rates as others, and there is no longer a need for special initiatives to support their success.
What’s next for you as you transition out of your position as the University of Utah’s chief diversity officer?
I identify as a scholar and have also worked in administration at the U and at other universities for close to 20 years. I accepted the role of chief diversity officer more than seven years ago for the opportunity to combine my research with my practice. I was given the flexibility to draw on major research findings as I led our extremely talented team and faculty in the creation of new and innovative practices. The Office of Equity and Diversity has successfully led the U’s efforts to enhance the presence and success of diverse members of our campus community. Now, I look forward to returning to my amazing doctoral students, teaching, research, and to having more time to contribute to the literature and practice of diversity in higher education. Of course, being able to spend a little bit more quality time with my kids and Dolores is just icing on the cake!
Indeed, Villalpando is quick to acknowledge that his leadership of Equity and Diversity at the U has only been possible because it has truly been a joint venture and collaboration with his wife, Delgado Bernal, who picked up much of the home duties with their three sons—who were only 3, 4, and 6 years old when he took this position—while she maintained her own prolific productivity as a scholar-activist. Here, Delgado Bernal comments on her work in creating an educational K-16 pipeline for students of color.
How have you managed to maintain such a productive research career while being so active in other endeavors, including your family?
I’ve always been a high-energy person, which obviously helped a lot during the last seven years, and we had amazing childcare support when the boys were younger. A second appointment followed Octavio’s initial three-year contract and, before we knew it, three years stretched into seven-plus. Fortunately, our personal and professional interests intersect, so we’ve had opportunities to work together on several projects and see each other on campus more often than we had anticipated.
Additionally, since a good amount of my research time is spent at our sons’ schools or in our Rose Park neighborhood, I was able to balance the personal and the professional. In fact, my professional, personal, and communal identities have come together in ways that bring a clearer sense of integrity to my research and a passion that motivates me to pursue academic work that can lead to social change.
Can you describe the “educational pipeline” and why it is so important for students of color?
Most research on college student success suggests that the earlier students and their families consider college as an option, the more likely it is that students will pursue higher education. Creating a seamless educational pipeline requires nurturing a school culture of high academic expectations and providing opportunities for college awareness and access from kindergarten to high school and through college, which is often not the case for students of color and working-class students.
The Westside Pathways Project—along with the Diversity Scholars Program—attempts to change expectations earlier for students and their families. The Westside Pathways Project includes two college-access partnerships: Adelante: A College Awareness and Preparatory Partnership; and Mestizo Arts & Activism.
Adelante (which means forward in Spanish) is a K-8 partnership that I founded in 2005 with Octavio and Associate Professor Enrique Alemán, then a U assistant vice president, in 2005 at Jackson Elementary, a Title I school on the west side of Salt Lake City. It now extends to Bryant Middle School. The original cohort of mostly Latina/o kindergartners are now finishing their eighth-grade year and getting ready for high school. Adelante is premised on the belief that all young people—including students of color and students from lower-socioeconomic families—should be expected and prepared to enroll and succeed in college. Our research finds that after nine years of partnership work, the culture at Jackson is one that now talks about college regularly and creates awareness via college student mentors and university field trips. It also points to how the eighth graders articulate their desire to go to college, what they need to do to get there, and their concerns about how to pay for college.
The high school portion of Westside Pathways is Mestizo, founded in 2007 by former U faculty members David Quijada Cerecer, Caitlin Cahill, and the late Matt Bradley. Mestizo is a collective of youth of color that exposes high school students to participatory action research, civic engagement, and college readiness. Mestizo youths have distributed their community-based research via blogs, websites, videos, digital stories, community talks, and about a dozen national and local conferences. Most important, in the last four years approximately 96 percent of the seniors, all first-generation college students, have applied to and attended college after graduating from high school.
The University’s Diversity Scholars Program, which is central to the retention focus of the Office of Student Equity and Diversity, supports students of color during their first and second years at the U. The cohort model includes traditionally admitted students, students sponsored for admission due to low scores on standardized college entrance exams, and very high achieving students. The program holds all the students to high academic expectations, achieving outstanding academic accomplishments and retention rates. Students take a yearlong cohort class through Ethnic Studies or Gender Studies and complete 22 hours of service learning. What makes this K-16 pipeline so exciting is that it’s full circle: Mestizo students who go to the U freshman year feed into the Diversity Scholars cohort, and many of the Diversity Scholars do their service learning requirement with Adelante or Mestizo. And while graduate students are not explicitly part of the K-16 pipeline, nearly 50 graduate students, mostly students of color from the College of Education, have served as volunteers or graduate research assistants with some component of the Westside Pathways Project or the Diversity Scholars Program. Many of these graduate students say that mentoring younger students and engaging in the K-16 educational pipeline has been a source of motivation and inspiration for them on their own educational journey as first-generation college students.
Is there one event or accomplishment that stands out to you during your tenure at the U?
What stands out for me is the opportunity to engage in community-based research and be part of a sustained and collective effort to recruit, mentor, collaborate with, and learn from undergraduate and graduate students of color here at the University of Utah. These amazing students enrich this campus with talent, leadership, and intellectual curiosity. Much of my work with students is directly related to my community-engaged scholarship, which—contrary to dominant research paradigms— is not objective, detached, or impersonal. It contributes to the civic mission of higher education and K-12 public education. It is about transformation and breaking down barriers, and recognizing the strengths within communities of color.
—Valoree Dowell is a communications specialist who works for University Marketing & Communications.