Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Diversity Champion: Dr. Kay McClenney Has Dedicated Her Career to Identifying and Fixing Issues of Race Disparities, Achievement Gaps and Retention That Trouble Minority Youth

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Diversity Champion: Dr. Kay McClenney Has Dedicated Her Career to Identifying and Fixing Issues of Race Disparities, Achievement Gaps and Retention That Trouble Minority Youth

Article excerpt

In the early years, Dr. Kay McClenney was among a group of education reformers who were consistently pushing community colleges to not only collect and analyze data about their students, but to disaggregate that data.

"Data was a foreign object in community colleges at one time," says McClenney, an expert on community colleges and the former founding director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. "One of the sea changes in our world has been the increasing acceptance, willingness and then the enthusiasm for using data to really paint a picture of what's happening to our students and who is making it through and who is not."

As the 2017 Diverse Champions award winner, McClenney still sees the utility of data disaggregation, but worries that not enough community college leaders are using the information that they gather to address broader social inequities that impact their respective institutions.

For example, during a visit to one Texas community college recently, McClenney became disheartened by the cavalier discussion among college leaders about the widening achievement gap between Black and Latino students at the school.

Agitated by the tone and direction of the conversation, McClenney turned to the administrators and gave them a mouthful.

"Where is the outrage? I'm missing the outrage here," she later recalls telling them after listening to the dismal numbers. "I'm missing the part about let's roll up our sleeves and figure out what to do about this."

That kind of tough talk has been the hallmark of McClenney's fascinating career.

While the collection of data is important, McClenney worries that when it comes to large-scale problems that beset communities of color--particularly Black and Latino males--too many of the nation's colleges have resorted to what she calls "boutique style programs," that barely make a dent in reaching the masses of students who are impacted.

"The solution is just too small for the magnitude of the problem," says McClenney in an interview with Diverse. "What happens when you put solutions on the margins of the college like that, in my view, is that it takes the heat off the college to address much more fundamental issues that have to deal with structural inequity and institutional racism and things that occur even when you have a lot of people of good will working really hard to try and help students."

Though she has technically retired from a career that has spanned more than three decades of advocating for community colleges at the university and public policy level, she is showing no signs of slowing down.

"I am redefining retirement," she says with a chuckle, even as she continues her work as a senior advisor to Dr. Walter Bumphus, the president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and as a leadership coach for Achieving the Dream, an organization that focuses on student success for community colleg-esstudents.

"Kay is passionate about all students and when she started the Center for Community College Student Engagement, her desire was to learn about the student experience from students," says Dr. Evelyn N. Waiwaiole, the executive director of the center. "Her focus is not about what colleges had created, but how students were experiencing our institutions. As a national thought leader, she always puts the student voices in the middle of problem solving."

A progressive upbringing

McClenney says that her passion for education was birthed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the relatively small city located about 50 miles north of Tulsa. That is where she grew up. Her father was a high school teacher who became the president of the local school board.

In the year following the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, she recalls having a discussion with her father as a first-grader that forever changed her perspective. …

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