"At the end of the day, part of the inclusion conversation is just being willing to sit down and have a conversation about something you don’t know anything about. I think that’s part of the blessing in the challenge of equity and justice work."  

Making Inclusion and Equity a Priority in Higher Education

Warner School Professor Focuses Work on the Betterment of Students and Faculty 

Bryan Gopaul headshot photo
While Bryan Gopaul’s interests span a wide range of areas across higher education, one thing is clear:  he is deeply committed to exploring and improving issues of equity and inclusion.  
A native of Toronto, Gopaul, assistant professor at the Warner School of Education, studied management, psychology, and sociology as an undergraduate and higher education, theory and policy studies in education as a doctoral student, both at the University of Toronto. After living, studying and working in Canada for most of this life, studying abroad in Hong Kong, and even working as an entrepreneur, he completed his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. Fast forward two years later, he relocated to Rochester in 2014 to join the higher education faculty at Warner.  
The intersection between Gopaul’s personal and professional lives is something that a lot of educational researchers experience. There is something, he explains, palpable about his interest around studying doctoral education and having had completed his doctorate; his interest in researching academic mobility and having moved from Canada for his career; his interest in examining the Matthew Effect and how scholarships impact student experiences and having been a scholarship recipient himself; and lastly his projects around the experiences of post docs as he was once a post doc.  And, with an interest in civic engagement and civic priorities in doctoral study,  Gopaul has a steadfast dedication and commitment to building community, not only within a school, but also across schools and communities.
What was the pivotal moment that you realized your interest in equity and inclusion?
I finally found the language to talk about these ideas when I came to higher education. During my undergraduate study and as part of my initial graduate work, I looked more closely at the global ‘think management—think male’ phenomenon in which there is this propensity to ascribe masculine characteristics with effective leadership. For example, effective leaders are perceived to be competitive, aggressive and courageous, which are generally masculinized; where as those who are empathetic, thoughtful and generous, which are commonly feminized, are not effective managers. While these gendered assumptions of the characteristics and efficacy of characteristics are problematic, I acknowledge that they have and continue to hold saliency and traction. For me, I was sort of looking at the glass ceiling effect from a psychology perspective. Now I can look back and say that what I was really interested in was the role of people, power, and organizations. I look at that theme as tremendous in my doctoral work about students in doctoral education and inequality, so this idea of people, power, and organizations has been a powerful thread in the rest of my work in ways I didn’t realize when I first started. But now through my higher ed work, I’m able to have the language to talk about it.
Are there any common themes across your work as it relates to higher ed?
My interest is around the configuration of educational contexts. While people are a part of that, I’m interested in stepping back and seeing how the system is configured, the policies and practices involved, and the rituals occurring that are emblematic of how the system runs. But what I’m mostly concerned with is which people are passed over and which people gain illumination from the way in which the system is configured. Some people are passed over while others are recognized, so I’ve been thinking about that in different contexts and different dynamics. I use different tools to look at what’s missing, who’s missing, what voices aren’t being heard in that system, how we can apply different perspectives to identify and acknowledge that there are people who are not part of the conversation, and then how we recast or recalibrate that educational context in ways that are more mindful and equity driven.
The common theme is that the stratification is real, and the context in which I’m finding it is interesting. For example, inequality or different forms of equity are typically centered around social categories of race, class, gender, ableism, and sexual orientation. But in my work on mobility, one of the arguments that I make is that mobility is a new factor in which we need to think about with inequality. For example, there are some people who get to move, some people who can’t move, and some people who have to move. With this idea of physical relocation—and it’s important to note that mobility is not economic and social mobility—I am referring to geographic mobility. Some people have to move for educational and employment reasons, but if they are unable to move, that structures how they are able to exist and be profitable, sustainable, and prosperous in their lives. So, mobility is an interesting layer on how we think about how pervasive inequality is in our lives.
What else are you working on?
My higher education colleague, Nate Harris, and I are working on a quantitative research project where we’re looking at a wonderful intersection of Nate’s interests around senior leader decision making and my interests around faculty work and mobility to see how organizational climates and cultures, as informed by senior leadership, impact faculty work and retention at different colleges and universities.  It’ll be interesting to see how this idea of organizational climate and cultures and faculty work and retention cascades onto different institutional types.
I am also looking at the experiences of post-doctoral researchers. Post docs are increasingly more important as their original intent was to be a springboard to an academic career on the tenure track, so the notion was that these individuals would be sharpening their research toolkits, publishing, and working on grants to be productive members of the academy. While this still holds true for many post docs, we’re also seeing them used in other ways in which they are not as much of a springboard as they were originally intended to be. This has implications for how we think about the future of the professoriate and academic work. For example, who joins the professoriate and who does not, so there is inequality in the experiences of post-doctoral researchers that I want to shine a light on because there’s been a lot of focus on doctoral education and faculty work but not as much on post docs. This is an increasing population that deserves more attention.
How can higher ed institutions create more inclusive environments?
The literature has helped to broaden the institutional tensions around some of these issues. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I think it’s been helpful to say, “let’s start by talking about this; let’s not just sweep it under the rug,” which I appreciate. At the end of the day, part of the inclusion conversation is just being willing to sit down and have a conversation about something you don’t know anything about. I think that’s part of the blessing in the challenge of equity and justice work.  
We need to find comfort within discomfort. I think it’s important that we engage in hard conversations because if we’re committed to dialogue and reflective gaze, we need to remember where we came from and that we might not know everything. One of my responsibilities as a faculty member is to help identify these windows into populations, voices and experiences that don’t necessarily get a lot of attention and to expose people to different ways of engaging and show that there are multiple conversations.  A starting point is for people to acknowledge and nurture a reflective gaze. From there, my hope is that people commit to engaging in hard but clear conversations around what they need and how we can come together through dialogue about how we can do this together. This doesn’t mean consensus—we can disagree on things—but I think it’s important to find ways to acknowledge, nurture and be committed to having meaningful dialogue.
How has your work in higher ed evolved over time?
My doctoral years and my pre-tenure years have been around the configuration of educational spaces and practices, with a particular interest around inequality.  So, the areas of doctoral education, faculty life and work, and international higher education have been part of my pre-tenure work. My post-tenure work will shift to affect and emotion, so I’ll be looking at how the tenets of vulnerability can help shape how we do higher education a little differently. I’ll still be focusing on people, power, and organizations, but I’ll be looking at it from a different lens, which is more of an affective, emotional, and vulnerable perspective. I’m still looking at faculty and graduate students, so that population will be the same, but I’m beginning to look at it through a very different prism.
What do you hope to take away from this new work?
I think we often lose the human in doing this work. What I hope to get at in my inequality work is that in systems there are people who are embedded and who have different experiences, and we need to be mindful of that. I think some of the affective emotional work is to say that people are still human beings—they have needs, they have desires, they have insecurities—and I think that’s important to acknowledge as we do this higher ed work.
Before Rochester, I previously consulted with medical and surgical staff, and one of my charges was to revamp a curriculum on how we train residents. One of my recommendations was to humanize the process of medical care, so instead of saying “the septic hip in 42 …” and so on, you’d say that’s “Jane in 42, and she is a widow ….” so you humanize the process of doing the medical care. Similarly, I think that humanizing the process of academic work has really been what’s informed my interest around affect and emotion.
Can you tell us about the Matthew Effect and the impact it has for students in higher education?
Essentially, the Matthew Effect, a term coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton, is the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. My work has looked at this phenomenon in educational contexts, particularly with doctoral students’ ability to acquire scholarships. However, it’s important to note that it’s not just about scholarships. It’s also about publications, patents and other things that are signifiers of success. Also, the scholarships signal that it isn’t just about money.  It’s about garnering faculty attention as well as legitimacy and autonomy from faculty so that’s why the value of the scholarship goes beyond any monetary value. So, the question becomes what if you don’t get the scholarship, what happens? That’s where cumulative disadvantage comes into play, when we have some students who don’t get all of these things. Scholarships, publications, and patents are all important—yes—but in terms of doing the work there is a systemic question that goes back to Merton’s argument that not everybody can win the Nobel Laureate, so what happens to everyone else? How do we set the conditions so that other people can be successful in other ways? In the context of doctoral study, I argue that there are all kinds of ways.
How do we collectively minimize the Matthew Effect and level the playing field for all students?
I think the institutional imperative has to disentangle the faculty’s role in terms of the success and the mentorship of doctoral students. It doesn’t necessarily equate to reproducing faculty. The mentorship of doctoral students can be more than just faculty prep. One of the things that I do with my doctoral advisees is I ask them, “What do you want to get out of this opportunity?” I don’t assume that my students are going to be faculty members, or that they want to publish, or that they wish to seek scholarships. One student may want to open up an NGO in Kenya while another student may set out to do policy work in Washington, D.C., so I work with them individually to reach their goals. A starting point is to not homogenize success. The commensurate one to that is to have a conversation particularly with doctoral students about what they want to do and how we, as faculty and staff, can help.
What’s in store for the future?
Ideally, a personal goal of mine is to have a research center at Warner with other higher ed colleagues. I envision a model that would allow us to become the fulcrum for which to organize higher education policy and practice, so not only would we train doctoral students, but we would also form partnerships with other higher education institutions and work in the community. I’d also like to continue collaborating across schools and disciplines. With my background in the health and medical fields, I hope to work with medical students, residents, and nurses at the Medical Center in a research capacity. It’s such a wonderfully-rich environment to do research and there’s so much going on all the time. I think that some of my work around doctoral education, which is a socialization environment, continues to be helpful as I collaborate with others across disciplines. I’m also a classically trained pianist so I really enjoy working with faculty and staff over at the Eastman School of Music as well as across other disciplines.
Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: Bryan Gopaul, equity, higher education, inclusion, research