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Trustee Chair Jean MacCormack shares her thoughts about racial justice and equity

Story Series
Action: Racial Justice and Equity

Dr. Jean MacCormack served as chancellor at two University of Massachusetts campuses and has worked in the state’s higher education system as a faculty member, dean, and vice-chancellor for administration and finance. She was deputy chancellor and interim chancellor at UMass Boston and she retired in 2012 from her most recent position as chancellor of UMass Dartmouth, a post she held for 13 years.

She became a BSU Trustee in 2014, ultimately serving as chair. As she comes to the end of her term, we asked Dr. MacCormack about issues that have long been a priority for her – those connected to racial justice and equity – and where BSU has been on this front and where it is hoping to go in the coming years.

Can you talk about your formative years as they relate to racial justice and equity?

I grew up in Dorchester and attended Boston public schools. At that time, the schools were not that diverse. You went to school in your neighborhood, but the neighborhoods were not racially diverse. All the schools were supposed to be equally good educationally, but they were not. So, our exposure to people “different” from us racially really came through my father who worked at the Ford Motor Company, which attracted a diverse workforce. My father’s view was: ‘You treat everyone equally. He welcomed his work friends- of all races to his home. If any of us brought home a friend for dinner who was different racially, my parents would welcome him or her as a member of the family. You know, that’s just how they were. We did live in a neighborhood that was culturally diverse. There were Italians, Irish, Polish-- a lot of immigrants, and everybody was from the same working-class background. There was a feeling that we’re all in the same boat economically- we had more in common. I saw my parents didn’t treat people differently because of either what they had or what they looked like, so that had a strong influence on me from an early age. And then in my own work in education it became important to me that everybody have equal opportunity, because it was clear to me that not everybody came to the table with the same kinds of experiences. So, I began asking, how do you really make it equitable so that everybody can succeed? Those were questions that I had to grapple with when I first taught in high school and then, of course, when I had a long career teaching and leading in higher education.

Can you please talk about your relationship with BSU and the racial justice and equity work you and the other Trustees have been involved with?

I was a trustee representative on the search committee that selected President Clark. We all knew (President Emeritus) Dana Mohler-Faria and admired the work he did during his term as president to try to eliminate the gaps in achievement between black and white students. So, I think when President Clark came to the table as a candidate for president and said he was energized by a commitment to every student succeeding, no exceptions, and wanted to lead an institution that embraced racial and cultural diversity and saw it as an asset and strength , we were impressed. He committed to do everything in his power to ensure that every BSU student would graduate and would go on to be a contributing leader in their field and become an engaged citizen. We knew he was the right choice for us.

At some point during the selection process, we also became conscious that our own board was not very diverse, and that we didn’t really have different racial perspectives informing our board’s deliberations. Since the Board is appointed by the governor, it’s not something we can just fix on our own, but that was the first time we all said we need to be sure that when we nominate people to be on the board that we are presenting diverse candidates. We also need to lobby the governor to make sure that these diverse candidates get appointed. I think that self-reflection was the beginning of our journey to become more equity minded. We recognized that we needed to lead by example. Our current board has four African American members, and hopefully in the next round of appointments we will add a Latinx member.

How do the Trustees promote racial justice and equity on campus and beyond? 

When President Clark set up the Division of Diversity and Student Success, he said to us Trustees the reason he wanted to do this is to have the person leading that office have a seat at the table so that all the cabinet members are always aware that we’re committed to diversity and student success. He wanted it not to be the responsibility of one office, but to be infused across all the work each division was doing. Therefore, he also wanted the board to have a standing committee, which is how you say to Trustees, ‘I want you involved in this, too.’ And the Trustees readily agreed to that, and I was asked to chair that committee. Right away we realized that we needed some training because we didn’t all have a common language or a common understanding about everything we were talking about or wanting to do. What did we mean by diversity? What did we mean by real inclusion and belonging? How do you ensure high achievement and also ensure equitable outcomes? Did we really understand what our achievement gaps and equity gaps were? Did we have data to help us identify what our challenges and opportunities were? We did this training with the BSU Senior Leadership team so that we would all learn together and be on the same page in terms of policy and management.

Has the work of the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Equity and Justice (est. 2020) helped with this work?

The Trustees knew that when we got the task force’s report, we would have the responsibility to ensure the recommendations were implemented. The board has both an advocacy role and an accountability role. To meet our accountability responsibilities, we established the Racial Equity and Justice Committee, and that committee is made up of the chairs of all the other Trustee committees. We were saying to ourselves this is not just another thing to do-- this is something we need to be conscious of in all the trustee work that we do. We need to bring our equity minded perspective to our financial work, to our academic and student affairs reviews, to our advancement and alumni development work and to how we view our mission and strategic planning and assessment of the President. This Committee of the Board get reports from the senior leadership team about the various groups working on the implementation of the recommendations of the task force, and we also hold ourselves accountable for how we’re integrating racial equity into how we do our own work. As trustees we delegate the management of the campus to the President and his team. Our role is to establish policy, affirm the mission, approve the strategic plan, and ask the right questions to ensure that there is true accountability to meeting the goals established. The Racial Justice and Equity Committee of the Board is trying to ask itself and the campus the right questions to ensure we are making progress on becoming more racially just and equitable.

How has the training been paying off?

It's been an eight-year journey and we are making progress. We have really benefited from participating with the campus in the self-reflection and training programs. We have close to 100-percent participation by the Trustees, because it’s the common-sense view that as the demographics of the commonwealth change and future students are much more diverse, we need to make sure that there are not some things that we’re doing that create obstacles for them that we haven’t identified. Bridgewater takes the view that it’s our job to help students be successful, and it’s not the students’ fault that if they don’t have everything they need when they come, let’s figure out what they need and make sure that we are doing our utmost to make sure they can get it.

Can you talk a little more about the ways the Trustees are guiding this process? 

We are becoming better about making sense out of the data we see about achievement, retention, graduation rates etc. We see disaggregated data and we can ask questions about what might be causing the gaps that we see. The Trustees have been asking, are there any barriers that we put up at Bridgewater, not on purpose, but because we haven’t thought about it enough? For instance, we found first-generation students were slower to register from the first semester to the second semester, and we first said to ourselves is that because they’re not doing well academically? No? Well, is it because financially they don’t have the registration fee? Yes, for some but sometimes just reminders were needed. What we forced ourselves to do is to not assume what was causing this but to dig deeper. Often the digging is quite revealing.

We also started to realize how important using data was in helping us figure out what interventions to make. A lot of times in higher education, we make an intervention and then keep it forever and we don’t ask ourselves, did this intervention really make a difference? So, what I really like about Bridgewater is the trial-and-error approach. We say, let’s try something, and if we see it makes a difference then we could integrate that into the way we do our business. If it doesn’t make a difference, we’ll try something else. But the responsibility for trying is on the university, not just on the students. Now the students must do their part, don’t get me wrong, but we were taking responsibility for saying, let’s be sure that we’re not putting up obstacles, and then let’s provide all the support the students need to be able to be successful. Students do have to have some college readiness- our admission standards identify those. But BSU also has to be student ready and we have been challenging ourselves to ask are we student ready for a more racially and culturally diverse student body?

You said this equity work has been like an eight-year journey. What are some of the things you learned from the process? 

We have learned that we need to be learners ourselves. We needed to develop a common language and understanding of what we meant by a racially just and equitable campus. We needed to share this understanding with the President and senior leadership team. We needed to communicate to the campus that we are committed to this work. We needed our committee structure to reflect our commitment. We needed and now have effective data tools to help us make sense out of where we are and whether we are making progress in helping all students be successful. As Trustees we all come from different professions, and we needed to learn how to bring the equity lens to the normal things we do as Trustees.

You’re leaving the Board of Trustees; is BSU well positioned to make further advances on the equity front?

Yes, there is strong and committed senior leadership and the Trustees are open to learn new ways of doing business. I think most of the campus is open to that as well. But change takes time. Higher-ed institutions can be set in their ways and not want to change. I find Bridgewater is open to ask itself, are we doing everything we can? The Trustees clearly want to model that same approach. Most people on campus don’t know what the Trustees do. We’re not a big, visible presence to them, and that’s the way it should be. But when the Trustees say this is something you should pay attention to, then that that has an effect. I think you will continue to see the Trustees be strong advocates for BSU but also be willing to ask the hard questions about racial justice and equity and to support the campus efforts to truly ensure that every student, without exception is successful.

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