Equity Q&A: Paul Pribbenow
Although Augsburg University is located in George Floyd’s hometown of Minneapolis, President Paul Pribbenow says that his murder wasn’t the wake-up call for his institution as it was for others. That’s because Augsburg had already been focused on equity work in response to the private university’s growing number of students of color. He says the past year has further fueled Augsburg’s efforts on inclusion, equity, and anti-racism.
“This is the challenge to my presidential colleagues,” he says. “At this moment in time, this is the calling for those who have the privilege to serve, to explore the democratic ideals of your institution and the commitment to equity and justice.”
Pribbenow spoke to CASE’s Currents magazine for the “What is Equity?” feature story, but has more to share as a leader and former advancement professional. What follows is an extended Q&A that has been edited for clarity and brevity.
During your time in advancement and leadership, when do you remember the term equity becoming prominent?
This work at Augsburg [related to inclusion and equity] has been going on for 14-15 years. Equity became part of the parlance seven or eight years ago, when we were being faced with the changing nature of our student body that was challenging us in new ways.
For any institution to go back into its history, you’re both trying to be appreciative but also have to face the times when you failed to live up to your values. There’s a need for truth and reconciliation. That’s part of the role of a president, trying to lift up those issues in the context of an institution’s reckoning in this moment.
For me, the urgency of this moment has been driven not just by the George Floyd murder, but how, in the past couple of years, our students—whether Indigenous, Black, or other students of color—are presenting in a way with the trauma that their communities have borne; their lived experience that becomes part of your institutional narrative. When you listen carefully to them, it can’t help but change and challenge you. That’s the way I’ve experienced it.
Because of these efforts, do you feel that when communicating internally, there’s a sense of common agreement about what equity means?
We’ve worked very hard at that. We have developed an institutional set of definitions for diversity, inclusion, and equity. We think of it as a continuum.
We have diversity, that’s a given. We aspire to inclusion, the more integrated work we do together in building a community of this diverse population. Equity is really recognizing that our students come to us out of varied life experiences and that we can’t treat everyone the same. Whether a family situation or economic challenges or immigrant status, there are barriers there that we need to be prepared to respond to.
We’ve used the phrase equity-mindedness. This is the lens to looking at everything we do, whether it’s curriculum, policies and practices, institutional budgeting and resources, and so forth.
The truth is that as a faculty and staff, we’re still predominantly white, so we come to the work with a privilege that blinds us to obstacles that we might not even be aware of. You look at everything including student and employee handbooks, all of your communications, the various governance structures of your institution. It’s amazing the things you catch. You don’t even see it until you recognize how that equity lens changes your perspective.
You have required training for staff and faculty, correct?
We’ve had a diversity and inclusion certificate program for six years now. It’s been voluntary for faculty and staff, though we are moving toward making it mandatory. We do require staff to do the Intercultural Development Inventory, and many faculty take it as well. It is an effective tool for helping folks grow in their intercultural competency.
What we’ve done following George Floyd’s murder—we were headed this way anyway—we’ve added anti-racism training. We did seven hours of required anti-racism training. It’s just an effort to get the entire community on the same footing with what anti-racism means with specific examples. That training is mandatory for faculty and staff.
Training doesn’t solve all of your problems, of course. You can train all you want. You can get people to a certain place. But more and more, to truly build this anti-racist community, it’s got to be top down and bottom up. I can mandate certain policies and practice, but you also have to have people in the community who share the commitment to anti-racism.
So, what I’ve seen, and this is the beauty of a long-term presidency, I’ve seen change in the makeup of the faculty and staff who are attracted to this place because of those commitments. These are people who know about our commitments and want to be part of that work.
Externally, do you feel that your constituents understand these efforts?
We have a board that embraces these commitments and is willing to come alongside of us in the hard work. And we had this board-charged task force, with faculty, staff, alumni, that did the work of creating the recommendations that we have used to set up our equity plan.
Having the board mandate means that we communicate our equity commitments consistently to our constituencies, through the magazine, e-newsletters, or my letters. We are constantly reminding folks that these commitments are at the heart of who we are.
Seen alongside the makeup of our student body, it makes sense. We have diverse students here now and we tell their stories. We’re able to weave the commitments to equity and inclusion into the ways we tell the story of the institution. The board mandate was there and then it got baked into our new strategic plan as well, so it’s pretty hard for folks to miss. We say we are educating students to be stewards of an inclusive democracy, that’s our vision statement, and that makes it pretty easy to get our message across.
How do you view equity’s application in advancement?
I think there are two or three issues here. One is the makeup of advancement professionals. We’re constantly looking at how we try to diversify that population. We’ve looked at internship programs and involving students of color in our advancement office who might be interested in the work as a profession.
We’ve had to pay attention to how these more diverse students who’ve graduated in the past 15 years ask different things of us in terms of potential giving or alumni relations. How do we engage with alumni of color? We have mentor programs that go back into the ’90s. But now, my advancement leadership team is focused on the alumni council, and they’ve done a wonderful job of diversifying that group. We already have a diverse board of regents; we are about 25% people of color on the governing board.
The other thing with advancement—we attract staff who come with pretty progressive equity commitments. On the gift side, they come with an ability to articulate those commitments to donors. If we had a major gift staff that wasn’t comfortable with that, there’d be trouble with the translation back and forth.
This didn’t happen overnight. We built our team with this in mind. In the broader advancement world, this is a pretty compelling message to share. There are amazing stories to tell about an institution that’s doing this equity work each and every day.
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