10th Anniversary Interview Series: Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

by California Competes


Topics: Community Colleges, Data Systems, Degree Attainment, Race and Ethnicity, Ed Equity


Recorded on August 26, 2021

A pioneer in “equity-minded” scholarship—a term she created—Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon is one of a small number of University of Southern California (USC) professors honored with the title University Professor for her multidisciplinary contributions. As the founding director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE), Dr. Bensimon has spent her career advancing racial equity in higher education and beyond.

Dr. Bensimon created CUE in 1999 and has worked tirelessly in the years since to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion on college campuses nationwide, empowering staff and students to enact meaningful changes for minoritized students. Though she retired from USC at the end of 2020, her books and other scholarship continue to heavily influence the discourse, and she is an elected member of the National Academy of Education as well as an elected Fellow of the American Education Research Association. Over her long career she has held many leadership positions, including serving as associate dean of the USC Rossier School of Education from 1996–2000 and as a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico in 2002. She earned her doctorate in higher education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Today, Dr. Bensimon is currently the chair of the board of directors of the Campaign for College Opportunity, one of our close partners, and she continues to consult, research, and write on issues of racial inequity. California Competes Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez asked about her engagement with our work and how her findings relate to developing and sustaining a resilient, high-skill workforce in our state.

Please continue reading for highlights from a conversation between Dr. Bensimon and California Competes Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez.

Dr. Jez: You have been a champion for racial equity for decades. Where do you see progress being made in dismantling institutional racism? And what concerns you most about where we are today?

Dr. Bensimon: When I started this work around 2000, very few people were willing to speak about equity—and for sure not about racial equity. They thought the agenda I was advancing could be divisive, that you would be perhaps more beneficial to focus on socio-economic status. Nowadays, equity is very much trending, and even much more so as a result of last summer’s racial reckoning! So, I do see progress in the willingness of people to speak about it more openly.

For instance, [California Community Colleges] Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, even in the strategic plan for the community colleges, speaks about racial equity in his communications with college presidents and has urged them to take on the issues of systemic racism and inequality. I don’t think that would have happened even five years ago. I also see it among foundations that I work with. I do a lot of work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success team, and they have been quite willing and forceful about being more intentional in addressing racial equity. So, all of those things are good.

I think that there is still a lot of performative work, meaning that people make statements about solidarity with Black Lives Matter or against police brutality, but their work doesn’t always reflect those sentiments. So, this is all to say that we’re seeing progress in people’s willingness to talk about it, to disaggregate data by race and ethnicity, but I would say we’re still not at the point where there is a willingness to address how to de-center whiteness. And so, we still have a way to go.

I think that sometimes people confuse talking about racial equity with action, and that’s why the title of our book was From Equity Talk to Equity Walk.

There is a tendency for us to speak about students in a universal way, and we don’t realize that the imagined student typically is a white student. When we do that, we forget, or we leave out that the lived reality of a Black or a Latinx student is not the same as all students—and that is why we continue to reproduce inequality.

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

Dr. Jez: Your comments about starting the work in the early 2000s reminded me of when you and I first met. I was an ASHE-Lumina Fellow graduate student and feeling the pressure that you had noted around focusing on socioeconomic status instead of issues of race. And so my dissertation ended up being focused on the impact of wealth on college access. But from our many conversations when I was a grad student, I did include interactions with race. Thank you for that. It was really pivotal for me to meet a scholar who encouraged the continued focus on issues of race in my research.

Yes. I'm glad you mentioned that. Soon after that, I started a series of institutes on critical research methods. I don't remember whether you participated in those, but one of my concerns was that in higher education research, we were not centering methods that would enable us to look at race, not as a demographic variable, but to look at it as a property or a quality of organizations.

Dr. Jez: In your work, you talk about the “values of whiteness” and the role they play in higher education. Can you break that down for us today?

Dr. Bensimon: So, when I say whiteness, I’m not talking about white people; I’m talking more about whiteness as a process or whiteness as values, or even whiteness as a mental schema that impacts the ways in which we frame problems. For example, in higher education, there is a tendency for us to speak about students in a universal way, and we don’t realize that the imagined student typically is a white student. When we do that, we forget, or we leave out that the lived reality of a Black or a Latinx student is not the same as all students—and that is why we continue to reproduce inequality.

So, when people thought about professional development or about teaching, they did not take advantage of an opportunity to educate faculty members and others on classrooms, or the advising center, or the transfer center or the math tutoring center—all these places that don’t think of themselves in racialized terms. And because of that, they’re not serving the students who use the community college as an entry point into higher education. Sometimes I see the same happening with equity work in that people think that they can just do it because they have good intentions. But they don’t understand the conceptual principles, and so they end up continuing to reproduce racial inequality, because they don’t always understand how race and racialized tension is manifested, for instance, in the tenure process or in the process of choosing college presidents.

Looking at the statistics on your wonderful California Postsecondary to Prosperity Dashboard underscores what I just said; it shows, for instance, Black students going to the for-profit [college] sector at twice the rate of other groups, which is very, very alarming. So that’s what I mean by overcoming the values of whiteness: us being able to notice those things and to do something about them. And we have to teach ourselves how to think specifically about how this policy impacts Black or Latinx students, not how this policy will impact all students.

We’re seeing progress in people’s willingness to talk about it, to disaggregate data by race and ethnicity, but I would say we’re still not at the point where there is a willingness to address how to de-center whiteness.

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

Dr. Jez: You developed the Equity Scorecard. Can you tell us what that is and how it works?

Dr. Bensimon: It was something that I actually adapted from the business world; there was an article in the Harvard Business Review about the balanced scorecard and how you could choose metrics to show progress to your various constituencies. I took that framework and redid it to fit racial equity, with four areas in the scorecard, because I knew that it would be attractive to higher education leaders to have something with metrics that would provide an entry into conversations beyond metrics.

The scorecard was also an immediate way to spark and mediate faculty and staff conversations about what the data uncovered. It revealed that the problem was not only in terms of the data but also in how the students were viewed in ways that were stigmatizing and alienating and discouraging. But I realized that it wasn’t enough; we had to develop new tools to engage faculty or staff in studying how they were part of the problem. So, we actually created a way in which institutional actors, faculty, and staff could study their own practices through a racial equity lens, and that has been extremely effective because it puts them in charge—they became like anthropologists of their own practices.

When you want to change higher education institutions, you need to understand that academic organizations are different from business organizations—because faculty have so much power and so much autonomy, they have to be given the opportunity to change themselves and to unlearn harmful ways of thinking, with tools to mediate that new knowledge.

Dr. Jez: The 2021–22 California State Budget contributes significant funding to higher education initiatives and workforce training. Moreover, the budget act also aims to do so equitably with some funding being allocated based on enrollment of Pell Grant recipients or student parents. Do you think the state is on the right track to building an equitable recovery? What more can be done to ensure an equitable recovery?

Dr. Bensimon: Money obviously matters, but we’re not going to get anywhere unless we can implement these policies and new practices in ways that are centered around benefiting those with the greatest needs. That’s what equity is about. Equity is not about distributing equally; it’s about giving more to the ones in greatest need. My fear is that we have these great, potentially progressive policies, but that we don’t always have the knowledge, the will, or the levers to deal with how these policies sometimes feel threatening to people who have held power.

A lot of it is knowledge development. Most of the faculty in the community colleges come from programs in the California state system—they tend to be local—so by changing the curriculum of those programs that prepare both teachers as well as faculty, you could recruit more faculty that look like the students in the colleges or address how to teach math or other subjects effectively. Jennifer Ortiz, an English instructor who used to be at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, is now able to create an environment in her classroom that is just so affirming and engaging for her students. And we need more faculty like her and the others I could name—as well as more leaders who are not allergic to race talk.

Most of our institutions of higher education were at one time predominantly white. And even though they may be now Hispanic-serving or something else, their routines and their practices and their culture are still often entrenched in their past...

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

Dr. Jez: You mentioned further disaggregating racial/ethnic groups than what we typically see in quantitative research. Is there any other knowledge that you think is really important for researchers and why it’s important for us to think about how we disaggregate and think about the folks that we’re serving through our research?

Dr. Bensimon: One of the things that bothers me is that, a lot of times, people who don’t understand the politics of race in the United States often think that by disaggregating data they’re doing “equity work,” but what’s more important is the questions asked. I find that a lot of people disaggregating data don’t always know what questions to ask from a critical race perspective, and so, for instance, a lot of times you’ll see people talking about comparing the outcomes of Blacks and whites, Latinx and Asians, and that’s not the right way to do it. The right way to do it from a critical perspective is to ask, why is it that a university is serving white students so much better than it is serving Black students?

We don’t know how to ask questions that are centered on institutions. Most of our institutions of higher education were at one time predominantly white. And even though they may be now Hispanic-serving or something else, their routines and their practices and their culture are still often entrenched in their past, because the faculty a lot of times has not changed. So how do we think of UCLA or Cal State Long Beach or Long Beach City College as racialized organizations, meaning that they still tend to work much better for students who fit the norm, usually white students? And how do we change it? That’s the thing that most of our professional development services do not do. We don’t know how to think about UCLA as having race, we don’t think about policies as having race, just like we don’t think of them as having gender, but they do. They are gendered and racialized.

Dr. Jez: We have a report that accompanies our Dashboard that describes how to use the Dashboard and how to ask questions like, ‘What does this meanHow did we produce these outcomes that I think no one in California, I hope no one in California, would feel good about.’

Dr. Bensimon: Absolutely. And there are things in your Dashboard, like A—G, that show great inequalities. The only way you can get to that is to actually peel the layers of how A—G works at Belmont High School, for example, and better understand the way in which it is done. That’s the only way you’re going to get to the root cause of why A—G works so much better for Asian American students than it does for Black students or Latino students. The data for American Indian students in the dashboard is really shocking.

Dr. Jez: I feel like we don't talk enough about the Native American students, because the data, the numbers are so small. I think lots of times quantitative researchers will just drop the group or we'll put it together with another group, as an “other.” But this is an opportunity that we need to seize and address.

Dr. Bensimon: Absolutely. We shouldn't worry about numbers. I always say, one matters if you can get one to succeed.

Dr. Jez: Thank you so much for joining us today. We're grateful for your longstanding commitment and leadership around racial equity. California students, higher education, our economy, and our communities are better for it. And thank you for your continued work.

Dr. Bensimon: Thank you for inviting me. Congratulations on your 10th anniversary and congratulations for being that ASHE Fellow to now being executive director of this very important organization.