[W]e’re working towards a better society, not just towards individual gain.
Walking into Mary Gates Hall (MGH) — home to First Year Programs, Undergraduate Academic Affairs (UAA) Advising, the University Honors Program and the Center for Experiential Learning and Diversity — University of Washington students might come across a group tutoring session or the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Whether they are looking for classes or just taking a lunch break, it's not hard to find a resource or opportunity for them to deepen their learning or explore something new.
They are examples of the abundance of hope and possibility which Ed Taylor (PhD ‘94), vice provost and dean of UAA, believed that schools and universities could offer to students.
In their leadership roles at local higher education institutions, Taylor, Joy Williamson-Lott and Sheila Edwards Lange (PhD ‘06) — alumni and faculty of the UW College of Education — are working to open access to meaningful college experiences that empower students to achieve success and become engaged citizens.
Starting with the truth
As leader of UAA, Taylor works to ensure that all undergraduate students have deep learning experiences — through research, community engagement and academic scholarships — that prepare them to serve their communities.
“My goal for all undergraduates is [for them] to have an opportunity to challenge and lead themselves and to be successful in the University … and be successful citizens once they leave the University,” he said.
Some of the issues which UAA is addressing include equity, access and the effect of the political discourse on undergraduate experiences. “[W]hen the political discourse is conflicted, and in some ways detrimental to civil life and decent living, then that’s reflected in the college campus as well,” Taylor explained.
He is working with leaders across the UW to ensure that students engage thoughtfully with one another and use their knowledge and skills for the public good. Part of this work includes providing students with a broad education because, compared to the past, fewer students at the UW have chosen to pursue degrees in the humanities.
“We’ve become a public and nation that rewards certain professions more than it does others,” Taylor said. However, it’s important to have students understand the value of studying the arts and humanities because “we know that the humanities help us to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of our world.”
In addition to his leadership of UAA, Taylor continues his research and teaching at the College of Education. He has written several journal articles and co-edited books about repairing inequitable school environments and creating an understanding that ethical decisions, when seen through a racial lens, can be inequitable.
Taylor has drawn on this scholarship, including his research about truth and reconciliation in South Africa, to inform his role as co-chair of the UW Community Engagement Steering Committee and as co-chair of UW’s Race and Equity Initiative.
“Part of the process of truth-telling is being clear that we’ve created programs, policies, even institutions that are partly responsible for some inequities .… And I’m hoping that the University can lead a conversation about what it means to engage in truth-telling, reconciliation and repair,” he said.
Students will be able to engage in that process in part, Taylor said, through connection to the UW’s Population Health Initiative, which focuses on issues such as environmental justice, equity and public health, among many other important initiatives on campus.
Meanwhile, ensuring that all students have access to postsecondary education remains a core part of UAA’s mission. Taylor said, “For me, creating opportunities for students to have access to meaningful lives through education is always the future of our work.”
Shaping graduate education
With her recent appointment as dean of the UW Graduate School, Williamson-Lott is making strides to push forward the School’s mission to advance research. “I want people on this campus — on all three campuses — to see the Graduate School as a resource,” she said, “and I want people outside the University to see the University of Washington as a leader.”
At the Graduate School, Williamson-Lott focuses on strengthening student programming by drawing on data to inform decision-making. Insights from student and national data will benefit programs such as the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. The program strives to diversify the graduate student body by providing funding for graduate students of color and opportunities to help them feel part of their community and embrace other aspects of their identity.
“Another role that I want the Graduate School to play is in creating synergies across programs in this interdisciplinary space,” Williamson-Lott said. While the School already has a number of interdisciplinary programs, she aims to further engagement between academic programs that don’t normally collaborate, positioning the School as a national leader in efforts to provide students with a breadth of experiences.
While at the Graduate School, Williamson-Lott is continuing her teaching and research at the College of Education, where she served as an associate dean for five years. During the research for her most recent book, in which she examined higher education during the black freedom struggle and Vietnam War era, she also studied graduate education and came to appreciate how its quality impacted the overall reputation of institutions.
Having a graduate program gives an institution greater academic freedom, sustaining spaces where “faculty are able to pursue knowledge to its natural end and aren’t pressured to come to a particular conclusion,” Williamson-Lott explained. “Academic freedom allows you to talk about your expertise and your conclusions even if people disagree with them — and that’s important for our democracy.”
With a deeper understanding of the vital role graduate education and higher education in general play in catalyzing social and political change, Williamson-Lott brings a firm commitment to the Graduate School’s mission to advance research. “That it is not just research for research’s sake, it’s for the public good,” she said. This involves preparing graduate students not only to be more competitive in the workforce but also to help tackle pressing issues in society.
“I want the Graduate School to be a partner with [the] larger university in helping to get students to understand the positive impact that they can have on the world,” Williamson-Lott said. Regardless of the kind of work students do, she noted, “we’re working towards a better society, not just towards individual gain.”
Strengthening student programs
During her graduate studies at the College of Education, Edwards Lange had a passion for widening access to higher education through policy and legislation. Now serving as the president of Seattle Central College, she brings that same passion to her work and new approaches to better serve her students.
Critical to shaping her approach to educational justice were her studies at the College of Education. “I just had a feeling in my heart that there was something not quite right in our education system going through the classes and some of the books that I read,” Edwards Lange said, “and class really gave me language and words for the things that I cared about and felt like I needed to change in education systems.”
Before assuming the presidency of Seattle Central College, Edwards Lange served as vice provost of the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity for nine years. “I could see how all of the things that I cared about in terms of racial equity and more inclusion could really be shaped and influenced from that position,” she noted.
“Seattle Central has such a great reputation for equity and social justice. And those are things that I care about deeply, and so, the campus — the values of the campus — were consistent with the things that I wanted to work on,” she said.
At Seattle Central College, Edwards Lange is preparing students for the jobs of today and the future. As the technology sector grows, she works to ensure that the college’s programs broaden access to STEM education and careers for students, particularly students of color. At the same time, she focuses on making vocational programs more responsive to regional workforce changes.
To better advocate for her students, Edwards Lange takes an entrepreneurial approach to her work. Recently, she formed a partnership with Year Up, which provides individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 who are neither in school or the workforce a year of education and training that will help them find career opportunities. Program participants will be students at Seattle Central College, which will also provide wraparound services.
Additionally, Edwards Lange has partnered with low-income housing developers in the Seattle area to build residence halls that, once completed, will provide more affordable housing options for students, faculty and staff as well as strengthen the sense of community on campus. It is part of her broader effort to ensure that all students and faculty members have the resources they need to thrive.
“Those folks who are shaping what other people are learning can have a huge influence on what people believe. If you don’t get access to education, then you’re totally dependent on what other people tell you is truth,” Edwards Lange said. “In many ways, education is liberating, because once you have it, then you have the tools to be able to make decisions for yourself about what is true, or you have the skillset to go out and research and find it for yourself.”
Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications