In 2013, UNLV was on the cusp of reaching the enrollment requirements to be officially declared a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). But what exactly that would mean was vague. Was it an accolade or just a stat? Would it bring new resources, new responsibilities?
Doris Watson, professor of educational psychology and higher education, wanted clarity herself and introduced a new special topics course — Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) — to explore the values, missions, characteristics, and issues related to the institutions.
Her students examined how the federal designation in higher education affected on-campus communities and climate as well as student learning, and engagement. Class discussions were rich, but definitive answers were elusive and policies and programs, sadly, remained largely unchanged in the higher education ecosphere.
These questions were not new as UNLV had already attained Asian American and Native Pacific Islander-Serving Institution status (AANAPISI) in 2012. When the HSI designation was added in 2015, many expected the doors to open to new opportunities (and funding) to soon follow. UNLV quickly learned that being a minority-serving university is more than enrolling a diverse student body.
“It’s a shift in mindset from access and equality to equity,” says Watson. “Without equity, we cannot truly be a MSI.”
Have vs. Serve
The difference between “minority-having” institutions and minority-serving institutions can be traced to the differences between enrollment-based MSIs and mission-based MSIs.
Mission-based MSIs include historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities. Both institution types were founded with the specific mission to serve Black communities and tribal nations. For mission-based MSIs, serving is woven into the very definition of their existence. There is no question as to who they serve and to their role in addressing racial injustices of the past.
Enrollment-based MSI designations were also created to address issues brought to light by the civil rights movement. But the designations took decades to materialize and be granted to existing colleges based on the percentage of students of defined racial and ethnic groups and income levels. These colleges had been created to serve an undefined, but largely white, population.
Many MSIs focused on improving access, which was helpful, but stopped far short of truly serving students of color.
“Despite UNLV’s minority majority student population and efforts to celebrate diverse cultures, we are still a historically white institution based on our policies, practices, faculty hiring, and more,” notes Watson.
So, does that mean that enrollment-based MSIs like UNLV are doomed to superficially serve the needs of its diverse student population and the Las Vegas community? Watson and her colleague, professor Blanca Rincón, see hard work ahead but hope is on the horizon.
They point to schools, like the University of Texas, El Paso, which have been successful enrollment-based MSIs because of their focus on student engagement, resources to encourage student success, and efforts to foster welcoming environments.
Numerous studies have shown that informal interactions within diverse friendship groups and living spaces sets a positive stage for enhanced cultural competency in addition to reductions in racist behaviors. Watson is reminded of this every time she walks into the Student Union around lunchtime.
“You’ll see a variety of groups that encompass multiple identities,” notes Watson. “This socialization is just as impactful as formal classes and workshops.”
Faculty and staff are also key to a successful MSI, as faculty of color are role models and mentors who are instrumental in creating welcoming environments, keeping students on track for graduation and successful careers after college. At most enrollment-based MSIs, including UNLV, the faculty is still primarily white, making finding those role models for the student body more difficult.
Rincón expounds, “Students need to see themselves represented in front of the classroom. They need mentors who understand their experiences firsthand and who recognize and leverage their cultural assets in the classroom.”
Simply being designated as an MSI will help with the recruitment of faculty of color. Latinx and Black faculty tend to have a strong sense of purpose and duty to serve their communities, and they often appreciate the difference a college education can make in the lives of their students. So they appear to be more attracted to the promise of what an enrollment-based MSI can become.
Watson also sees beyond the headcount. “Most faculty of color are at the assistant level. We need to get them through tenure and hire existing full and associate professors of color to mentor junior faculty through the process."
Embracing the Uncomfortable
Rincón and Watson encourage the campus community to prepare for discomfort as UNLV continues this conversation.
“It’s an important part of the recognition of getting students, faculty, and staff what they need for success,” Rincón advises. “We feel an energy at UNLV that folks want to do this work — it’s just about how we go about fixing policies and practices that have held students, faculty, and staff back.”
UNLV Provost Chris Heavey recognizes the long road ahead and the need to accelerate the university’s pace of progress. “We need to spread the breadth of this conversation across the university,” he stated at a recent Professors’ Circle discussion on MSIs. “We have an opportunity to serve our community by growing our students into the professors that will come back to serve the next generation.”
Growing the Future
Watson and Rincón are proof positive of this concept. When Watson stepped into an administrative role in the College of Education, Rincón stepped in to lead the MSI class. In addition to delving into the differences of mission- vs. enrollment-based MSI designations, she leads her students through discussions on funding, faculty issues, and culturally responsive practices both inside and outside of the classroom.
“We take an asset-based approach to the understanding of MSIs, so we try to focus on what institutions are doing, not what they aren’t doing, so we can assess successes and build on them.”
Looking forward, Rincón hopes to see bold, race-conscious leadership that recognizes past injustices and exclusions. She hopes that by learning from higher education history, universities can bravely respond to the needs of the communities and students they serve.
Continuing the Conversations
In addition to the MSI Student Success Summit, The Intersection, a one-stop resource for UNLV’s diverse students, offers academic and social support services as well as mentors. Its Professors’ Circle series is scheduled for 10-11 a.m. on the first Wednesday of every month and is open to students, faculty, and staff. The fall schedule includes:
- October 6 - How Do I Enact “Servingness” as a Faculty Member? (via Zoom)
- November 3 - Moving Towards Serving: A Look at UNLV Faculty Initiatives (in SU 218)
Diversifying the Next Generation of Academics
The Holmes Scholars Program at UNLV supports doctoral and postdoctoral students who self-identify as racially and ethnically diverse with aspirations of careers in higher education. Students in the program gain access to a national network of peers, mentoring, and opportunities to present their research. In addition, the national program has bolstered recruitment and retention rates for graduate students of color.
Dr. Sharolyn Pollard-Durodola, who has served as the coordinator for UNLV’s program since 2019, believes that developing national networks for doctoral students with similar research interests and professional aspirations is key to diversifying the next generation of academia. “We bring a critical consciousness to the table, including non-Western perspectives, different cultures and belief systems — all of which influences students’ mentoring needs.” The program also serves as a bridge between their current doctoral experiences and the road ahead of them as professors.
This year’s cohort of five scholars includes returning scholar Adriana Hernandez, a first-generation graduate student. In reflecting on her experience so far, she strongly values the program’s learning experiences, including the Holmes Policy Institute, where students participate in interactive policy discussions and briefings—mentorship, proposal submission, professional development opportunities, and networking with fellow Holmes Scholars.
Adriana, along with Elizabeth “Eli” León, Kamilah Bywaters, Averill Kelley and Joseph Abueg will be assigned mentors outside of their fields and departments to broaden their networks and gain valuable insights from other areas of study.
UNLV’s program kicked off the academic year with a research and mentorship summit in August where attendees learned about finding their academic voice and building confidence in their work. They will gather again throughout the year, both in half-day summit sessions and monthly meetings to support each other’s academic journeys.