The Seal of Excelencia is an important recognition, but it shouldn't be the end of your servingness
The Seal of Excelencia was launched in 2019 by Excelencia in Education as a way to acknowledge colleges and universities that do more than enroll Latinx students by actively serving them. The Seal framework represents 20 years of Excelencia in Education’s work with institutions to learn about how to accelerate Latinx college student success and has three core dimensions: data, practice, and leadership. In October 2022, there were 30 institutions that were “seal certified.”
The three core dimensions of the Seal framework overlap with key dimensions of the Multidimensional Conceptual Framework for Understanding “Servingness" in HSIs, suggesting that research is aligning with practice and policy to help Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) embrace and enact an HSI identity and overall culture for truly serving Latinx and low income students. For example, the data and practice components of the Seal are similar to the “indicators for serving” aspects of the servingness framework, while the leadership dimension aligns with the “structures for serving.” The leadership dimension includes mission and strategy, data and practice, human resources, communications, and institutional culture.
I (Gina) believe that the Seal’s leadership dimensions are essential to servingness. When I train and consult with HSIs, I stress the importance of transforming the structures for serving as part of the institution’s efforts to become an HSI. Yet I continue to see resistance to include HSI in the mission and strategy of the institution. I also work with many campuses that are struggling to hire and retain faculty, staff, and administrators of color (human resources). Retention is my biggest concern, as I hear numerous stories of educators and administrators of color leaving HSIs because of hostile campus climates and microaggressions, which aligns with the growing body of research on this topic. I also see that many institutions are reluctant to communicate their commitment to being HSIs, often for fear of seeming exclusionary to non-Hispanic people (communications). And as an organizational theorist who knows that culture must be studied and observed over long periods of time, I rarely get to evaluate the institutional culture of most campuses. My lived experiences left me wondering if the seal certified campuses are doing something different than those HSIs that I work with that are struggling to figure out how to move from Latinx-enrolling to Latin-serving. So I asked my doctoral student Marialexia Zaragoza to investigate these institutions to see what we could learn from them. Here is what she found.
As a product of an HSI, I (Marialexia, CSUF, ‘19) am proud of the work that HSIs can and are doing, but I wonder, “What does it mean for these institutions to take pride in being an HSI?” As students, we watch our institutions' social media accounts, emails, and websites, and wonder why we don’t see HSI representation on these platforms. So I was excited when Dr. Garcia asked me to review the external communication platforms of the 24 institutions that were seal certified in 2021. As many scholars delve into and explore how HSIs are serving their students, fewer have taken into consideration the digital components of servingness. This includes how HSIs promote their HSI identity on social media platforms and websites.
Before we get to what I found, I want to talk about the methodological process I went through. I searched each institution's website to find (1) their mission, (2) any mention of HSI, (3) news articles or press releases about HSI, and (4) HSI specific websites. I created a spreadsheet with my findings. As I dug into the websites I wanted to find out how many times each institution mentioned the term “HSI” or “Hispanic-Serving Institution.”
I had two hypotheses going into this task; the first one being that there is no way institutions are putting their HSI designation in their mission statement, despite the fact that Dr. Garcia keeps telling y’all to do this, but we just aren’t there yet. My second hypothesis was that these institutions would definitely have HSI somewhere on their website, because like, they are seal certified. Of my two hypotheses, I was correct about one, and incorrect about the other.
Some missions were easier to find than others, which was a surprise. I thought that an institution's mission statement would be front and center, but some schools make their mission statements inaccessible. I found that none of the seal certified HSIs mention their HSI designation in their mission, although 3 mention their HSI status on the same page where the mission is located. Maybe we can call that “HSI-mission-adjacent.” I also found that there were minimal mentions of the HSI designation on websites of all the institutions except for 1, which had at least 13 general website mentions of HSI. There were 4 institutions that did not mention HSI on their website at all (please note some websites are hard to navigate, so I may have missed some things). What was pleasant to see was that there were at least 11 institutions that had separate websites that they used specifically to promote their HSI designation. These sites contained information about HSI related events, task forces, and HSI grant initiatives. But it was still only 11 out of 24 (46% of all seal certified institutions).
While the websites generally did not mention their HSI designation, all campuses with the exception of 1 had at least 1 news article related to their HSI designation or grant award. In other words, these institutions seem to celebrate when they first become HSI designated or when they receive a Title V or Title III grant, which should be celebrated; yet the communication beyond that is nearly non-existent. It leaves me wondering what the value of HSI really is to most campuses, and in this case, campuses that have been awarded the Seal of Excelencia. As a former student at an HSI, I find myself reminiscing on my time at the institution. I feel that what made it a great HSI were the people and community I built, not the institution's efforts to serve me or my community. In a way, I feel like their HSI identity was an illusion, and this is reflected in how HSIs are showing up digitally and in what I found with this project.
I (Gina), was not surprised by these findings, but was a little disappointed. As a daughter (alumna), scholar, and champion of HSIs, I want HSIs to do better. I do research and write articles and books and blog posts for HSIs, and host a podcast that centers HSIs because I am committed to learning how HSIs can become spaces of equity, justice, and liberation. I support the Seal of Excelencia and have heard from practitioners on the ground at HSIs that they are using the Seal as a framework to guide their HSI efforts. But these findings leave me worried about the fact that, as my friend Al Solano mentioned recently, “awards sometimes make us complacent.” And that’s the message: don’t let the Seal of Excelencia be your excuse to stop doing the work to transform your institution. HSI grants are good; awards and acknowledgements are great; but the work doesn’t stop, no matter how many you get.
Latinx students are relying on HSIs to do more, do better, and do work that advances their critical consciousness, their racial/ethnic identity development, their commitment to their home communities, their upliftment of their families, and their overall academic success and social mobility. Let’s not fail them.
Marialexia’s research interests include Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) and how they function as an organization to serve their Latinx students, the experiences of Latina faculty, and the implementation of an equity and social justice lens to High Impact Learning Practices at the university level to increase access.