Two men sitting on the right and a woman sitting on the left
This month, VCU's Minority Serving Institution (MSI) eligibility status took effect. (Getty Images)

Scholar on Minority Serving Institutions: VCU’s new status marks ‘an opportunity for active reflection’

VCU’s assistant vice provost for academic programs shares his thoughts on how creating a sense of belonging makes a difference for all students.

Share this story

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Minority Serving Institution (MSI) eligibility status from the U.S. Department of Education takes effect this month. VCU’s MSI eligibility is based on a focus on students who are from Asian American and Pacific Islander backgrounds.

“Becoming an MSI supports our commitment to putting the needs of students and patients first at VCU,” Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health, said earlier this year.

Andrew Arroyo, Ed.D., assistant vice provost for academic programs in VCU’s Office of the Provost and associate professor of educational leadership in the VCU School of Education, echoed these sentiments and shared thoughts on Minority Serving Institutions’ potential in creating “a preferred future where societal and technological advancements reflect equity, inclusivity and justice for all people.”

Headshot of Andrew Arroyo, Ed.D.
Andrew Arroyo, Ed.D.

Arroyo, who studies Minority Serving Institutions and their leadership across the country, as well as diversity, inclusion and equity, particularly as it relates to student success, has co-authored and edited several books on the topic, including “Effective Leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions” (Routledge 2017), which explored how strong, effective and innovative leadership makes a difference for Minority Serving Institutions.

His latest co-edited book, “Understanding the Work of Student Affairs Professionals at Minority Serving Institutions” (Routledge 2022), offers guidance to student affairs professionals at Minority Serving Institutions on best practices to foster student growth, ensure culturally relevant approaches and enhance collaboration between academic and administrative departments. Last month, he launched a LinkedIn newsletter called MSI Futuring to “ignite thought and action for the future.”

While working at Norfolk State University in 2017, Arroyo, who also serves as a faculty affiliate for the Rutgers University Center of Minority Serving Institutions, co-founded the HBCU Consortium, where several universities worked together to increase the number of graduates at HBCUs with degrees that prepared them for meaningful careers.

VCU News spoke with Arroyo about his latest book, his research and his insights on what Minority Serving Institutions like VCU have to offer.

How do Minority Serving Institutions differ from other institutions? What unique challenges and opportunities do Minority Serving Institutions face?

MSIs encompass hundreds of diverse institutions, so I try to avoid too many generalizations. However, one uniting factor that distinguishes all MSIs is their common federal designation. Being an MSI comes with potential recognition and resources that can be used to support students in distinctive ways.

The challenges and opportunities facing MSIs depend partly on what type of MSI they are, and partly on how fully they want to embrace their specific MSI identity.

Some MSIs are part of fixed-membership categories based on historical legislation. HBCUs are an example. New HBCUs will not be created, so investing in them is important. Institutions in this category are more likely to fully embrace their historical identity while positioning themselves for the future.

Other MSIs are part of transient-membership categories that are based on factors like the percentage of undergraduate students in a particular racial/ethnic population. Examples include Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Asian American Native American and Pacific-Islander Serving Institutions. The number of institutions in these categories changes each year.

Institutions in the transient category might find themselves having complicated relationships with their MSI designation. Without the benefit of an historical MSI identity, they have to figure out how to create and embrace a new one.

This reality means MSIs vary in their degree of servingness. Some go all-in. They have tough conversations. They confront the explicit and implicit ways their campus culture might be antagonistic to the students they espouse to serve. Others are less successful. There’s misalignment between who the MSI designation says they are with what they actually do.

For me, this is where research and practice get interesting. I like to look at how MSIs are answering the opportunities presented by the designation. I try to encourage all MSIs to enhance their degree of servingness so their federal designation is more than skin deep.

Overall, the primary challenges and opportunities for MSIs can be framed as questions:

  • First, how do we develop and sustain an identity of servingness that honors and maximizes our MSI designation while creating a sense of belonging for all students?
  • Second, how might our curriculum and co-curriculum be reviewed to ensure the content and perspectives reflect the diversity of our faculty and students?
  • Third, how do we tell our story to internal and external audiences in a way that spotlights our successes while acknowledging where we have room to grow?
  • Fourth, what frameworks and practices should we adopt to engage stakeholders in creating our preferred future?

Why is recognizing these differences important in serving students?

Being an MSI carries a certain public trust to do right by the name. MSIs are supposed to be different from other institutions on purpose. They have an implicit ethical obligation to steward their resources carefully. MSIs must develop and sustain an identity of servingness for the target student population while extending the same to all students. Research shows the work is not easy but it is rewarding.

Tell me about a story that stuck out to you as you were doing this research.

My research has confirmed what we all know but might forget: Student populations within MSIs are heterogeneous. They have significant within-group differences. Although racial/ethnic categories are necessary ways of grouping students, they can easily mask how students within those groups can vary.

One example comes from chapter four of “Understanding the Work of Student Affairs Professionals at Minority Serving Institutions.” The chapter looks at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, which happens to be one of VCU’s Quest 2025 aspirational peer institutions. It is also an Asian American Native American and Pacific-Islander Serving Institution with 13% of the undergraduate population identifying as Asian American.

Despite its AANAPISI status, the chapter points out something interesting: A subset of the University of Minnesota’s larger Asian American population, Southeast Asian Americans, tends to have distinct experiences and needs that require differentiated attention. These distinct experiences stem in part from their historical arrival in the U.S. and Minnesota as refugees under unfortunate circumstances following wars, poverty and other challenges in their countries of origin. On the surface, it would be easy to group all Asian American students together, but that chapter demonstrates the error and danger in that approach.

The same principle applies across racial/ethnic groups at MSIs.

What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your research?

  • Legal status as an MSI does not automatically equate to servingness. Servingness is the outgrowth of aspiration and intention through sustained effort over time.
  • MSIs have an obligation to honor and maximize the public trust that is placed in them when they receive the federal designation.
  • An institution can have the MSI label but fail to critique its curriculum and co-curriculum for biased perspectives, and to make intentional changes to ensure inclusivity in and outside the classroom.
  • Being an MSI that is designated to serve a particular population of students does not mean excluding other populations — far from it. Efforts to create conditions of belonging benefit all students.

Leading MSIs are willing to do what I call “learning in public.” This means they are willing to be models for other institutions by sharing their successes and failures as transferable lessons. While taking care to tell their own story, they strive for transparency regarding what works and what doesn’t.

This notion of learning in public was behind a multi-institutional partnership called the HBCU Consortium that I co-founded in 2017. Our focus was creating career pathways for our own students, while being an open model for other institutions and partnerships. We had the backing of the Lilly Endowment and United Negro College Fund, which fueled our internal work with external accountability. I would like to see more fruitful collaborations of this sort emerge from the MSI space.

Is there anything else you think readers should know about MSIs or about VCU’s receiving MSI eligibility status?

Personally, VCU’s MSI eligibility status is an opportunity for active reflection. I’ll share a story that might be meaningful to others in the VCU community.

In 2009-2010, I was privileged to co-facilitate an interinstitutional faculty learning community between Norfolk State University and VCU. Our topic was diversity and oppression in the classroom. The co-facilitators were Charles Ford, Ph.D., and me (Norfolk State), and Liz Cramer, Ph.D., and Melani Njeri Jackson, Ph.D., (VCU).

Many in the VCU community will remember Njeri’s extraordinary foundational contributions to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice before her untimely passing in July 2010. Those who knew Njeri will recall her special ability to move people to be and do better.

For me, VCU’s MSI eligibility status is an opportunity to reflect on the good work of Njeri and others. It’s a chance to ask myself how I am honoring and building on it as a member of the VCU community and society at-large.