2020 Vision: SESP dean David Figlio emphasizes equity in faculty hiring, practicum


Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

SESP Dean David Figlio. In an interview with The Daily, Figlio reflected on successes and areas for growth over his time in the role so far.

Troy Closson, Editor in Chief

This is the fourth article in a series called “2020 Vision” which walks through the reflections and hopes student groups, administrators and others throughout Northwestern have on the past few years and upcoming new decade.

Classrooms and the professors lecturing inside them looked much less socioeconomically and racially diverse when David Figlio first came to Evanston to teach in 2008. Later, as he prepared to take over as dean of the School of Education and Social Policy, Figlio knew that while representation for students and faculty was improving, inclusion still needed to become a higher priority at Northwestern.

In the near two and a half years he has spent in the role, Figlio has worked to close that gap through more intentional faculty hiring and recruitment to attract a wider range of people to NU — like strengthening the SESP Leadership Institute for incoming students. He’s seen the effects of it already.

But he’s still not satisfied.

“Just because I think we’re doing a good job with this, I don’t think we can rest on our laurels,” Figlio said. “I see it as ‘Yeah we’re here, but we’re probably 40 percent of where I want to be’ as opposed to ‘Maybe we’re ahead of some others at the University and we should be happy about that.”

In an interview with The Daily, Figlio reflected on the successes of his past couple years as dean, ranging from strides in diversity and inclusion to incoming curricular changes, while emphasizing a number of areas of growth for the school.

Sixty percent of SESP’s clinical and instructional faculty identify as white, according to NU’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion Report, while that figure sits over 70 percent in every other undergraduate school. In the School of Communication, for example, 84.1 percent identify as white, and more than 93 percent do in the Bienen School of Music.

“We know faculty members of color and female faculty members do disproportionate labor,” Figlio said. “They’re less likely to come to an environment where they’re not going to thrive. I love the fact that now we can hire amazing faculty members of color and amazing female faculty members, because they know that they’re less likely to do disproportionate labor here in SESP.”

Still, as SESP’s ranks of professors have begun to better reflect the rest of the country, Figlio said it’s led to a bigger disparity between junior and senior faculty, as the latter group is whiter and more male than the former. None of the school’s tenure-line faculty in 2018, for example, identified as Hispanic or Latinx. For Figlio, that’s just evidence of the need to ensure he and his staff provide intentional support to younger professors on the path to the brass ring.

For students, SESP lowered its degree requirements from 45 to 42 credits in the 2017-18 academic year, becoming the second undergraduate school after the School of Communication to do so. At the time, the change to offer greater academic flexibility was prompted in part because SESP’s proportion of first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible students was higher than any of the University’s other undergraduate schools.

Now, Figlio said the focus has turned to improving the courses themselves. He said that typically, two-thirds of classes fall somewhere between “good” to “excellent.” The goal, then, is bringing that last third up to the same level, Figlio said.

“I think 100 percent of our classes will be good or excellent if everybody’s teaching classes they want to teach and everybody’s taking classes they want to take,” Figlio said. “That doesn’t sound like rocket science. But it’s actually really hard.”

What makes it so challenging? A number of required courses hadn’t been reevaluated for years, and while professors might have specific interests, Figlio said SESP lacked the structures to connect faculty passions with student interests.

He and other professors and administrators in SESP spent the last two years redesigning SESP’s curriculum to emphasize global engagement, advanced research methods and experiential learning. It’ll be rolled out over the next few years, Figlio said, in hopes of better engaging both students and faculty.

Following student concern, SESP also announced a new pilot program to provide a stipend for students who are part of a federal work study program during their practicum, which is an off-campus, quarter-long internship mandatory for all students in the school. In their presentation to Figlio and other University administrators last spring, undergraduates who designed the program said “students were essentially paying NU to have an internship.”

Those financial challenges — most often felt by students who are part of a federal work study program — were something Figlio said he learned of as he spent more time in the role.

“Nobody intended for that to happen,” Figlio said. “Frankly, it probably dates back to a time in which we were educating (a) more advantaged population at Northwestern.”

Still, some students have questioned why the pilot program was needed in the first place. Why, they ask, are students essentially paying full tuition to complete an internship?

Figlio said he while he understands the cons to that structure, one of the biggest motivations is to allow students to obtain credit while on their practicum.

Since it’s required, Figlio said it’d defeat the purpose of decreasing SESP’s degree requirement to 42 if students weren’t receiving credit, since students would in effect have another quarter’s worth of classes to take.

“On the one hand, it looks a little funny,” Figlio said. “On the other hand, I think it’s highly justifiable and from an equity point of view, I think it’s better to be having it as part of a credit-bearing, tuition-paying (program) than not.”

Still, Figlio said he hopes to encourage more employers to pay students while on the practicum — since many sites are often unpaid.

Either way, in his next few years as dean, he plans to keep in mind one of the core messages Harvard University Prof. and author Anthony Jack, whom the school invited to speak last month: “Access ain’t inclusion.”

“Access is the necessary condition, but it’s not sufficient,” Figlio said. “You have to create the conditions under which the people you recruit to Northwestern — both faculty and students — are going to be extraordinary.”

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Twitter: @troy_closson