Karin Edwards focused on Clark College’s commitment to racial justice in her first official address this week as president of the Vancouver-based Community College. Edwards also shared a challenge facing many higher education institutions in 2021: tackling an impending budget deficit amid the uncertainty of a pandemic.
Edwards stepped into her role as president last year after a discrimination scandal revolved around the last head of the college, Bob Knight, and ongoing concerns about equity concerns raised by students, staff and faculties.
Edwards was originally scheduled to provide her state address in January, but this has been postponed due to technical difficulties. Most of Edwards’ remarks on Thursday focused on the college’s work to center equity in the future.
A sign marks the campus of Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.
Molly Solomon / OPB
“Why lead with racial justice? Because our data shows marked differences in the way color school students and other systemically non-dominant communities experience Clark, ”said Edwards.
For example, last year 53% of white students completed introductory English courses (English 100 and 102) in their freshman year, Edwards said. That compared to only 43% of color students.
Edwards also said the college finds differences between 7% and 16% in graduation and retention rates between white students and different color communities.
“What we know from research is that color students experience additional barriers in the classroom and in the community due to disenfranchisement, systemic racism, microaggression and racial aggression,” said Edwards. “As a result, there is a call to action to do all we can to fill the equity gaps that exist for our historically underserved, including students and color workers.”
Edwards said the college uses a “justice lens” to review all of its policies and programs, including recruitment and hiring, curriculum and student services.
“Equity is part of everything we do,” said Edwards.
All of this is tied into the college’s social equity plan, Edwards explained. Part of this plan includes a requirement that all employees complete an annual “Power, Privilege and Inequality” training course. Clark College also launched a year-long employee development program last year that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion work.
Edwards said the college also received $ 1 million through the state’s Workforce Investment Act, which will prioritize including improving education and skills across the college, developing culturally relevant and anti-racist curricula, and expanding outreach for Color communities.
“It’s important to celebrate progress,” said Edwards. “It is also important to remember that we still have much work to do to fill the equity gaps and increase student success.”
Edwards also recognized the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color as well as the entire community at Clark College.
“In a typical year, many of our students have difficulty getting basic needs,” she said. “For far too many of our students, 2020 wasn’t a typical year – it was worse.”
Edwards said the college worked on running its student pantry during the pandemic. The college has also lent hundreds of laptops and WiFi hotspots to students, she said.
As with many other public colleges and universities in the Northwest and across the nation, Clark College is struggling financially during the pandemic.
“We are committed to financial stability at Clark,” said Edwards. “Over the years, as enrollment has decreased and spending has increased, we have seen persistent budget deficits that have required faculty and staff reductions, recalibration and reorganization. … It’s even more difficult now because of COVID-19. We have a deficit this financial year, mainly due to the drop in enrollments. “
Edwards said Clark College saw enrollments fall 15% in the fall and winter, and the college had a deficit of $ 2.2 million for the current fiscal year – but this was partly thanks to CARES funding Federal law balanced last year.
“We’re working on the amount that we need to cut before the end of the year,” said Edwards.
She said the college also expected further cuts from Washington lawmakers.
Edwards said the school plans to fill at least part of its budget gap by using CARES funding of $ 7.7 million as part of the additional federal funding announced in January.
“Early guidance suggests that we can use some of these funds to offset lost earnings and cover the increased costs associated with our COVID-19 response,” she said.
The college also plans to use under-spending savings in its current budget, but Edwards said this will not fully close the long-term gap of rising costs and falling revenues.
“I want to be optimistic, but I also have to be realistic,” she said. “We anticipate cuts at the state level, and those cuts will affect our ability to serve students. We believe that as enrollment improves, revenue will increase, but it will take time. “