2020 Theme

Advancing Full Participation

The theme of ASHE 2020 is Advancing Full Participation. Full participation refers to the ability of people of every identity and background to realize their full potential as contributing members of a democratic society (Sturm, 2007). It is an often implied, though rarely met, ideal of higher education. When realized, full participation means talents are optimized and people have the same opportunities to achieve and belong. Although full participation evokes notions of access, equity, and representation, it is also about voice, power, and recognition. The 2020 theme will shed light on the challenges of and possibilities for full participation in higher education. We will further engage this topic in partnership with colleagues in New Orleans, a place known for its diversity, improvisation, and resilience in working toward full participation.

With roots in democratic theory, sociology, and organizational theory, the idea of full participation has an explicit focus on identifying and removing barriers, systems, and practices that exclude or disenfranchise. Within education, full participation has been used as a rationale for affirmative action and equal opportunity, a way to assess whether students have necessary access and resources to fully participate in classrooms, as a goal for community engagement efforts, and a rallying call for the advancement of women of all races in science. Advancing full participation requires dismantling racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of oppression that systematically disadvantage different individuals and groups. It requires that we construct and study “architecture of inclusion” (Sturm, 2006) at various decision points, across sectors, and between siloes. We need to understand the mechanisms most likely to foster inclusion and full participation across public, private, national and international contexts. 

The concept of full participation invites us to ask who is and is not included in our existing institutional arrangements. Whose learning and success is elevated and celebrated and whose is overlooked and invisible? How do the ways we construct and legitimate knowledge privilege some and discount others? How has the gig economy shaped faculty and student learning? How do reward systems and institutional cultures force partial participation? How does the history and physical space of a campus influence sense of belonging? How does the financing of higher education by federal, state, and donors affect full participation? How are disciplinary norms and culture implicated in the lower participation of women students and under-represented minorities in many STEM fields? How do land acknowledgement, monuments, and building names influence sense of belonging? Are we creating the structures, cultures and supports for all students to graduate with the undergraduate majors, or graduate degrees intended at entry? How do the governance structures of higher education institutions across the world help or hinder access and mobility for first generation students? How does intersectionality between multiple forms of identity influence the power dynamics of full participation?

All conference proposals will be judged on the quality of scholarship and ideas, not their connection to the theme. The conference theme will be explored in keynotes, presidential address, community engagement, and research to practice efforts in several ways:

  1. We will examine successful models of change toward full participation—cases where fundamental assumptions of higher education, key practices, policies, or systems were transformed to allow a group to realize their full capabilities and/or be recognized for work that was invisible or undervalued before (e.g. new degree programs created for nontraditional students; criteria that hire and tenure faculty at least in part for their knowledge and skills in supporting a diverse community; and universities reducing the cost of college).
  2. We will examine what is preventing full participation---mechanisms, policies, practices, and structures that result in the persistent exclusion, under-representation, devaluing, and/or differential advancement and rewards of certain groups and kinds of work.
  3. We will consider the evaluation of merit in full participation. Narrow criteria for excellence, structural disadvantages, and social and cognitive biases by decision-makers shape entry into and experiences of many spaces in higher education. We will consider how context and constraints can be added to decisions (whether those decisions are being made by students, faculty, or administrators) to mitigate bias and generate more inclusive evaluation of merit.
  4. We will consider limitations conceptually or practically to using the notion of full participation to study and/or improve higher education.
  5. We will explore the unique role of ASHE members who advance full participation through scholarship, teaching and mentoring, outreach, policy-making, and practice. Some ASHE members have designed programs (nationally and internationally) to improve equity, student engagement, retention, and financial aid. Many have been intimately involved in crafting faculty policies and practices on their campuses. It can be risky and sometimes discouraging to try changing policies, practices, and cultures within our own institutions. Nonetheless, there can be great satisfaction in knowing we have used what we know to change some key aspect of our systems. There is also difficulty and political realities associated with “working at home.” We will discuss both aspects of our own full participation.

Full participation, and research on how to advance it, has never been more urgent. Given 2020 is an election year, many assertions will be made about the value of higher education to individuals and society. ASHE members conduct research that shows the limitations of higher education in supporting full participation, and the concrete ways in which colleges and universities need to transform to fully include and engage all members. We also have research that reveals the small and large wins, examples of new spaces created to foster full and broader participation. The ASHE 2020 Conference will illuminate spaces where full participation is imagined, designed, and achieved.


Note: Conceptualization of this theme was influenced by the work of Susan Sturm (2006, 2007) and Sturm, Eatman, Saltmarsh and Bush (2011) on full participation in higher education as well as the other sources below.
  • Berger, P. L. (1971). Sociology and freedom. The American Sociologist, 1-5.
  • Sturm, S. (2006). The architecture of inclusion: Advancing workplace equity in higher education. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 29, 247-334.
  • Sturm, S. (2007). The architecture of inclusion: Interdisciplinary insights on pursuing institutional citizenship. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 30, 409-424.
  • Strum, S., Eatman, T., Saltmarsh, J.; & Bush, A. (2011). Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement in Higher Education. Imagining America. 17.
  • Pateman, C. (1970). Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.