On Fairness, Meritocracy, and Forgiveness in Higher Education

A Conversation with Harvey Mudd College’s Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity, Sumi Pendakur

By Editor, Joyce Chen

When it comes to talk of diversity, few people have had a bigger influence in helping shape my own lens than Sumi Pendakur, who was the director of the Asian Pacific American Student Services department back when I was just an undergrad at the University of Southern California. It was under her tutelage that I began to recognize the necessity of fully understanding not just my own history, but also my shared history with the Asian American community at large; put another way — roots before branches.

Sumi has dedicated her life’s work to dissecting the different labels that we place upon both other people and ourselves, and researching how our perceptions of them can be both limiting and freeing at the same time. She is a staunch advocate of equality across all axes — race, gender, sexuality, ability — and isn’t afraid to broach topics that might make people uncomfortable, but ultimately, more well-informed.

At present, Sumi serves as the associate dean for institutional diversity at Harvey Mudd College, where she works with students, faculty and administrators to ensure a campus-wide understanding of why it’s necessary to create an inclusive environment, one in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life can not just survive, but thrive.

Here, she talks to The Seventh Wave about the issues surrounding inclusion in higher education, the ways in which we exist in a precariously built system, and why, at the end of the day, grace and forgiveness will help us all in our ongoing conversation about diversity.

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SUMI PENDAKUR: My feeling about idealism is that if you don’t start with idealism and you start with pure pragmatism, then you’ll end up with something fairly corrupt. So I think it’s always better to start from an idealistic place. You might as well stay mission-focused.

THE SEVENTH WAVE: Right, right. Because that’s the driving force behind what we’re doing, right? The pragmatism is just what we use to make it happen.

SP: Exactly.

TSW:  Sumi, I feel like I should record your voice just for inspiration, to remind me that idealism isn’t a bad thing when times get tough, ha. So just to start things out, can you tell me a little bit about your role over at Harvey Mudd? What does it entail being the associate dean for institutional diversity? What kind of programming do you do, and what kinds of events do you help put on?

SP: So I see my job as divided into three parts. Obviously, my title is associate dean for institutional diversity, and in that role, one of my primary responsibilities is that I direct our social justice education center on campus, called the office of institutional diversity, and through that department, we offer weekly skill-building workshops for the entire campus, for both staff and students. So on a weekly basis, I’d say anywhere from 40 to 70 campus constituents attend, and we learn everything from tackling stereotype threats to navigating micro aggressions to talking about the formation of white identity and white history. Yesterday we did a workshop on hip hop and reggae and their influence on black history and vice versa — so it really is a wide range of topics that we cover, and we really try to meet the needs of the campus through a really strong assessment and evaluation model so that we can continue to give the campus what they need and make educators feel like they’re gaining the skills to create more inclusive programs and a more inclusive campus.

So in addition to our weekly workshops, we also have an evening seminar called Building Bridges, which is a multi-week seminar program with a small cohort, just 10 to 15 students every semester, who go through a six-week cohort model to work on increasing cultural competence, and to develop better cross-cultural communication skills.

Basically, we have ways for folks to dig in and really grapple with issues on a multi-week format as well as a single week format to learn something to add to their toolboxes. That’s one half. The second half is I serve on the president’s cabinet, and in that role I get to partner with and advise at the cabinet level for the campus, which is made up of all the senior administrators. And the way our President, Maria Klawe, has designed the cabinet, basically anything that is a major decision we bring to the table and we discuss together. It’s a really, really neat collective environment — so whether it’s anything from implementing a new policy for the entire campus or thinking about curriculum changes to thinking about faculty hiring, fundraising, or budget, I get to have my voice in all of that, which is very exciting. President Klawe just appointed me to her cabinet in December, so that’s super exciting.

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TSW: Congratulations! That’s super huge. I mean, first of all, it also sounds like you’re wearing a lot of hats.

SP: Thanks! And there’s one more — the third hat is that I partner with our associate dean for diversity in academic affairs. His name is Darryl Yong, and he’s a math professor, but he’s also the associate dean for diversity in academic affairs, so the two of us have roles almost like co-diversity officers on the campus. Together, we work on capacity building for faculty departments, do implicit bias reduction workshops with them, work with them on their faculty search processes, and interview all of the candidates that come on campus for various faculty positions. So we’re seeing how are we’re actually shifting how this campus looks at hiring and curriculum development and pedagogy as well as how the campus is looking at inclusive practices across the board, whether you’re in the dorms or in the classroom.

TSW: So that’s one big thing I’m curious about. It sounds like you have your hand in many things, in terms of hiring, in terms of faculty, in terms of student organizations, as well as current and incoming students. Man, that’s a lot.

SP: I really do love it though because they’re taking a pretty comprehensive approach here [at Harvey Mudd] and I love partnering with everyone here — our admissions team has me or one of my team members come in and do a workshop for admitted students who have been flown in from overnight programs who are considering coming to Harvey Mudd, and when I talk to the students afterwards, most of them say no other campus has anything on social justice or diversity or inclusion, or any kind of truly honest conversation, during the admissions process.

TSW: I noticed on the site that you mention the ideas of access, equity and inclusion. I know that you’re mentioning inclusion now also in addition to diversity. So because I’m not too familiar, is there a movement toward saying inclusion versus another term — diversity — and does that point to there being a different perception of what diversity means nowadays?

SP: The way that I describe it is that diversity and inclusion are in a relationship. I think, and I think many people think this way, that diversity is about who’s in the room. And that can be around multiple axes — gender, class, race, gender identity, ability, or even first-generation student status. All of these axes of identity and intersections are there. And that can be around students, that can be around faculty bodies, or that can be around administration, so diversity is essentially a question of representation. But I think what happens a lot of times is the conversation stops at diversity and it doesn’t actually get to the word inclusion, which is more about how the lived experiences of multiple communities are integrated into any environment. So if I’m in a classroom, am I only going to see examples in the curriculum of white, male scientists? Will I only read problem sets with names like John and Sally? Or will I read names that include Jorge and Tien Ho, right? So do I see diversity being integrated in the way curriculums are being developed? Do I see it in pedagogy? Do we have inclusive pedagogy in the classroom? Can multiple learners’ needs be addressed? Or is the learning style only targeting one type of learner? For example, we know that active learning strategies benefit all students, but has a disproportionately positive impact on how first generation college students, students who have varying levels of preparation, do — if you choose not to use active learning strategies, you are benefiting students who traditionally have an advantage in a rigged educational system. If you use an active learning strategy, you will be benefiting all students —  both the students who traditionally are thriving and succeeding in higher education, as well as the students for whom higher education has not traditionally been built.

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TSW: It’s interesting that diversity and inclusion are things that need to be included in a campus, but they’re not meant to be checked off on a list the way I think some people view it.

SP: Right. And you know what? That’s what often happens. Tokenizing. Because it’s like, Oh we’ve got one Asian woman and one black guy, so I guess we’re done. But are their experiences validated? Are their voices being integrated into the conversation? One of the things we do know about diversity — and there’s reams of research on this — is one, there’s the social justice angle, that education, due to the way we know K-12 is funded (through property taxes) results in segregated schools with certain levels of resources, and by the time students get to higher education, there needs to be measures in place to ensure that you’re getting the most diverse population, because we know that diversity matters. Race matters because racism matters, number one. But diversity matters because there are learning benefits for all students. And we learn better when we are challenged, and challenged in a place of support, not just in a place without support. And that we can learn more from one another when we’re given different ways of doing things and when we have to think critically about, “Hey where did you get that idea?” and “How did you develop that?” Or “Oh, that could be a new framework of thinking about how to build a rocket.”

TSW: I feel like the way that you’re positioning it now, there’s no way that anyone would say, Nah, I think we’re good. I don’t think we need to be critically thinking. But has there been pushback in terms of efforts to expand upon diversity and expand upon inclusion and bring those kinds of thoughts into the classroom?

SP: Yes. And I think the common narrative at a lot of particularly elite or higher education institutions is to focus on diversity — meaning, increasing who is at the table, meaning we must be undermining standards or quality on some level in order to do that. Which is a false equivalency that is so patently repulsive if you think about it, because it’s saying that the only way that you’re able to get in black, Latino, Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander students is by lowering the quality, when you say it explicitly. And that’s a really ugly statement. And I can point to my own college as a small success story in that until this past fall, we had 29 black students at Harvey Mudd college, including all four years. This past fall, we enrolled 28 black students in the freshman class. And the way our admissions offices work, they are very, very clear. They do not enroll students who cannot succeed at Harvey Mudd College because that would not only be setting up those individual students to fail, but would also reinforce any of those kinds of negative ideas in the water.

Because you know how this works, right Joyce? If a white person makes a mistake, they have the privilege of being considered an individual. And therefore it’s just their individual mistake. But let’s say I make a mistake or you make a mistake. Oh, she’s a bad Asian female driver. So your whole group along gender and race lines gets lumped together, so it’s not just you the individual who has made the mistake. You don’t have the luxury or privilege of being an individual. Your mistake is being a credit or a discredit to your entire community, whatever that community is. And that’s an incredible pressure that a lot of people carry.

TSW: The idea of burden of representation is something I remember we talked about so much with APASS and with APASA [back at USC], and you’re right, that’s an incredible amount of pressure thinking about how one person’s actions or thoughts or words are going to then bear the weight of all these other people’s thoughts and actions. But on the flip side, have you noticed burden of representation motivating students to succeed more as well?

SP: Absolutely! Critical mass is so powerful. And when you don’t have to feel like the individual or the only one — what happens at a lot of elite institutions is that you have a lot of hyper-minoritized students of color, especially within the black and Latino communities, who have been the one for a long time. Sometimes from as far back as K-12 or 6-12. And then they come and find community and it’s really powerful. That’s why I think diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, because the way that I often describe this question is, it’s one thing to say, Hey fish, come to our pond! If the pond is not well-stocked with the nutrients the fish needs to survive, with other fish for the fish to be with, to play with, to mate with, with people who will continue to feed the fish and give it fresh water, then how is the fish expected to thrive? You put the burden on the fish to thrive without crafting the environment in which the fish can actually survive. That’s the inclusion and equity conversation that needs to go well past the diversity conversation.

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TSW: So your entire department is talking about how they can create a more inclusive environment for the students, for the faculty, and for the university, to take it to the next level. What do you think is maybe the most difficult thing in terms of having these kinds of conversations? Is it just that we’ve grown so accustomed to not talking about race, not talking about diversity, that it feels uncomfortable still?

SP: That’s a great question. Okay, I’ll say two things. You know me, I can never just tell you one thing. (laughs) I think one thing is that change is hard. That’s the thing: the baseline along any kind of issue, that  change is difficult. And people are slow to change. People get set in their ways, across any corporation or educational institution — and then when you bring up the question of change and how it’s related to true inclusion of community along gender lines, along racial lines, along class lines, for those who have truly never been given full citizenship in American society, what you’re really challenging is the very fabric of American notions of fairness and meritocracy. The notions of fairness and meritocracy is built upon a house of lies. It’s a deck of cards that the second you start to deconstruct it, breaks apart. And there’s reams and reams and reams of research on that. But the thing is that probably from when we’re children onwards, we go to school and we learn our lessons in grade school history classes, our middle school history classes, and we’re taught that America is the land of equal opportunity, hard work gets you everything, everybody plays fair, some bad things happened in the past, but everything’s a lot better now, and if you don’t achieve, it’s your own fault. And that’s an incredibly insidious message if you really think about it. It allows for a lot of things. It allows for ethnic groups to be pitted against ethnic groups, especially if you have a lack of sociological or political understanding of how some ethnic groups are thriving versus other ethnic groups.

And so it ruins the ability to truly build coalitions, it harms the ability of people to see that there have been mechanisms put in place for some groups to thrive and for some groups to gain access and advantages to certain resources and for other groups to be systematically disadvantaged. And nobody likes to think that their country is so deeply unjust. But you can’t look at America without — and that’s best part about being America, is being able to look at it and also critique it from how housing discrimination works to the prison industrial system to sentencing for small drug crimes to segregation in schooling. If you look at a system that is so deeply rigged but is masqueraded with fairness and meritocracy, it becomes deeply difficult for people to want to shake those long-held ideals and to actually make change. Because that requires actually destabilizing everything we’ve come to hold dear.

TSW: In a way it’s kind of turning power on its head, because it’s saying that the people who have decided that this is the way that society is going to work or these institutions are going to work are flawed, and therefore, these are alternatives and ways to look at it and deconstruct. our beliefs. And is part of that discomfort too of not just change but also letting go of certain things that felt like they were the foundation of this country?

SP: Yeah. That’s exactly right. So I’m not saying that everyone has to sit there and look at the foundations of this country and how from the very foundations we set up a flawed system that allows some to succeed and sets up others to fail, because — I like doing that. I think that’s fascinating. I think a lot of people think that’s fascinating. But that isn’t the point, exactly. I think the challenge that I put in front of people is, in your sphere of influence, what change can you make that pushes against the way that society has set things up? Everybody participates in change and social justice and their version of the revolution in their own ways. Like when I think about what you’re doing with The Seventh Wave, that’s your sphere of influence. You have this power as a writer and a journalist and a truth-teller to shake people up and to get them to stop being complacent and to tell powerful stories that move people, right? And so me, as an educator, my job is to sit in an educational institution and ask tough questions and equip people with skills and tools to create better environments. And if I’m a middle school history teacher, my job is to go look for counter-narratives and not just teach what’s in the textbook, which has been funded by Texas, which has the most power in terms of developing textbooks and has chosen to include some really horrific stuff — and this is in school age textbooks.

There are some who are ready to rip up the entire system, and I think that’s phenomenal, and I think many of us want to do that in different ways, but wherever you sit, whatever’s in your locus of control, within your sphere of influence, I think the thing to think about is what can you do right now and tomorrow to change the patterns that are kept in an unjust system?

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TSW: Yes. So articulately put! I think it’s a really interesting point in time right now, just in terms of what people are talking about and what’s in the news and people being more open but also, on the flip side, letting their ugly out. Case in point, Trump. It feels like people are a little more unafraid to express where they’re coming from, whether or not it’s kosher or it’s polite table talk. Is there anything that you think might be missing from the conversation in terms of discussing all of these different issues?

SP: I think that there is a lot of anger and fear, from multiple angles and multiple sides. And I think if anything, the creation of more spaces for active listening would be incredibly beneficial. I think there’s space for grace and forgiveness when people try with the best of intentions and fail but commit to learning and commit to doing better. And I also think the flip side of that coin is space for people to express their pain and their anger and their frustrations without being silenced. Because I hear from both sides. I hear, Well sometimes I’m afraid to use the wrong word, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Okay, but I don’t want language to be the barrier to people having honest conversation. We should have space to say, Oh, you made a boo boo, let me help you correct your language, let’s move on. Because language is obviously powerful and carries a lot of meaning. On the flip side of that, when particularly marginalized communities express their sorrow or rage, there are a lot of folks who say, Oh, don’t you have more constructive ways of expressing that? or Oh, you shouldn’t be so angry. And I find that incredibly patronizing and totally disconnects people from a history and a cycle of violence and oppression. Both of those things go hand in hand, and require grace and forgiveness and space to allow for rage.

TSW: Yeah. And sometimes, when you’re in a conversation with somebody, you don’t know what point they’re at completely. If this is the first time they’ve encountered this issue and they’ve never talked about it before and all of a sudden they’re confronted with guilt or they’re hit with a history or politics that falls on them, they really do need that grace and forgiveness, because how can we know where they’re coming from initially? Rather than presume that someone is saying X because they’re Y — I mean, speaking of labels —

SP: Right, the idea is one of assumed best intentions, but be willing to correct and give feedback when errors do occur.

TSW: And on a personal level, what drives you, what motivates you to do the work that you’re doing? Because that’s one thing I’ve always admired about you is that you’re so passionate about everything that you’re doing, and especially with something like diversity and inclusion, it’s a never-ending kind of work. So what drives you?

SP: That is a very, very fair question. I guess a couple things. From childhood, growing up in a household where we talked about a lot of issues — I remember being at the breakfast table with my dad, talking about Contras and Sadinistas in Nicaragua, and I was just a kid! — and so really having these conversations from an early age, that set a pretty strong framework for what I thought was wrong and right. I think my own motivation is in trying to tackle that inherent unfairness in the level of injustice experienced by my community, so I think there’s some kind of piece that I held onto from childhood and that’s been shaped by getting a double-major in women’s studies and history in college to becoming a student activist in college and fighting for Asian American studies. And the there were my eight years at Asian Pacific American Student Services at USC and trying to create space and voice for communities that are often invisible or used as tools when convenient.

And I’m sure you’re following the Peter Liang case right now, and we can have a whole other conversation about that, but it makes me think about my own positionally as a woman of color and an Asian American woman and as a South Asian American woman — how do I want to fit into the struggle for justice? Do I want to be on the sidelines or do I want to be on the playing field? What I do know is that I don’t want to be used. I don’t want to be used.

And I guess the last piece is that especially now as a mom — I have a three-year-old, and he’s a brown boy, and I don’t know what the future holds for him. I hope it holds something better than some of the experiences my brother and I faced with bullying, especially during Iraq War I,  when we were told to “Go back to your country.” We’re not Iraqi. (laughs) Things like that stick out in my memory and so I think it starts off with me as a child and sort of ends with my child. That’s the arc of why I think this work is exciting and important and intriguing. And I temper it all by reading tons of romance novels, so…

TSW: That’s the balance! That’s Roxanne Gay’s balance too. She’s watching reality shows and then fighting the good fight.

SP: It’s all about romance novels set in the early 1800s England, as well as the 1600s in Scotland.

TSW: That’s very specific. But I like it! It’s important that all parts of our brains are exercised, not just the part of the brain that’s going to run on forever if there’s no barrier stopping it.

SP: Exactly. Exactly.


SumuSumun Pendakur_headshotn Pendakur EdD is associate dean for institutional diversity at Harvey Mudd College. She is a member of the president’s cabinet and serves as the co-chief diversity officer, partnering with the Office of Academic Affairs to focus on campus-wide efforts related to access, equity, campus climate and inclusion. She also directs the College’s social justice education center, the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID). Pendakur serves as a consultant, speaker and facilitator regionally and nationally, helping campuses, nonprofits and other organizations build capacity for cultural competence, social justice and equitable practices. She is a scholar-practitioner whose research interests include critical race theory, Asian American and Pacific Islander students and institutional transformation. Pendakur is a graduate of Northwestern University with a double major in women’s studies and history and a minor in Spanish. She holds an M.A. in higher education administration from the University of Michigan and received her doctorate in higher education leadership from the USC Rossier School of Education. Pendakur is married to actor Sunil Malhotra and is the proud (and permanently tired) mommy of toddler Shashi Veer Pendakur Malhotra.