Mitchell Chang Honored by ASHE with the 2020 Research Achievement Award

UCLA professor of education is the first Asian American scholar recognized by the national organization for his work on affirmative action.

UCLA Professor of Education Mitchell Chang is the 2020 recipient of the 2020 Research Achievement Award, given by the Association for the Study of Higher Education, in recognition for his career contributions to the field of in empirical and theoretical higher education research. Chang, whose work is centered on diversity-related initiatives on college campuses and best practices toward democratizing institutions, is the first Asian American scholar to be given the award.

“Congratulations to Professor Chang on being honored by ASHE, the leading professional association for higher education scholars, as the recipient of the Research Achievement Award,” says Christina Christie, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Department of Education. “This well-deserved award recognizes Professor Chang’s productive career and the importance and impact of his work on the field and in policymaking. It is a privilege to have a scholar whose scholarship is held in such high esteem in our ranks, as a colleague, teacher, and mentor.” 

Professor Chang earned his Ph.D. in education at UCLA in 1996, in the wake of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles against racial injustice. He says that that those experiences influenced his future career as a researcher.

“Those were pretty critical years in terms of how race was playing out, not only in L.A., but also nationally,” he recalls. “Those events very much influenced what I ended up doing, and all of this work was basically realized through UCLA. 

“It’s a career award, and that’s why for me, it’s an especially important honor and a career-defining one,” says Chang. “I follow in the footsteps of some of my UCLA colleagues, and three giants in the field: Burton Clark (1985), Sandy Astin (1987), and the most recent awardee among UCLA faculty, Arthur Cohen, in 2005. I was here as a graduate student and this is where it all started and continued to build from there. It’s been a great place for me to continue to conduct this work.”

Chang has written over 100 publications, and is one of the very few members of ASHE who has had their research cited in Supreme Court cases. Chang’s work in particular was cited in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark case involving the use of race sensitive admissions practices at the University of Michigan. He says that since then legal battles over affirmative action have only increased. 

“Unfortunately, each decision didn’t end it,” he says. “It just started a whole new set of legal cases. I didn’t plan to have my whole career devoted to this, but each case takes on a different twist.”

Professor Chang is examining the current case involving Harvard University, where Asian Americans plaintiffs allege that race-conscious admissions practices are discriminatory toward White and Asian American applicants. In addition, he recently authored a statement by ASHE in response to President Trump’s recent executive order to ban diversity training.

Chang’s research is also cited in a Statement in Support of Anti-Racist Education by the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Chang served on the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2016-17. He is currently the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Higher Education, the oldest journal in the field of higher education research.

Professor Chang was also honored by ASHE in 2014, with the Council on Ethnic Participation Founder’s Service Award. In 2016, he was elected as an AERA Fellow, and received the Citation for Outstanding Leadership from the AERA Council in 2014. He is a Fellow of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Researcher Coalition and the National Education Policy Center. 

In 2008, Chang received the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Asian Pacific American Network (APAN) Outstanding Contribution to APIDA Research Award, which he shared with the late UCLA Professor of Education Don Nakanishi. In addition, Professor Chang was selected as a 2004-05 Fellow for the Sudikoff Family Institute for Education and New Media at UCLA (now the Sudikoff Public Forum), a 2001-02 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow, and a Salzburg Seminar’s Universities Project Fellow in 2001. 

Professor Chang, who will be honored by ASHE in a virtual ceremony on Nov. 21, took the time to answer some questions from Ampersand on how students are advancing equity and diversity on college campuses through social media, and the ongoing challenges to affirmative action – even among those it serves.

Ampersand: In the wake of the the rejection of Prop. 16 by California voters, what do you see as some of the greatest challenges to equity in college admissions and other areas that would have been affected by overturning the ban?

Mitchell Chang: I was disappointed to see that it didn’t pass. The good news is that the UCs have put in place a wide range of practices and policies to improve access since the passing of Proposition 209, which include enhanced outreach, changes in how we review applications for admission, and higher rates of transfer from community colleges. 

Just as important, more effort has been placed in retaining those underrepresented students who enroll in the UCs. Now that Proposition 16 is behind us, we need to double down on those efforts and continue to improve educational access for those from the most underserved communities. (For Professor Chang’s recent comments to NPR on the rejection of Prop. 16, visit this link.)

I’ve been working – I often work with a lot of my students – on trying to understand what’s going on and how we got to where we are today. More importantly, what that means moving forward – especially regarding civil rights for Asian Americans specifically – and the future of protecting civil rights generally.

One important way [affirmative action] has evolved is that Asian Americans are the main plaintiffs of a case regarding Harvard University, to overturn the use of race-conscious practices in admitting students. It’s a complicated issue, to be sure. But in this case, the plaintiffs who are challenging these practices, they think it’s a disadvantage. Their positioning is very nuanced, so we’re trying to untangle those nuances and help us better understand what’s at stake.

Affirmative action is a much broader policy than just college admissions, and people often fail to understand that. It includes public contracting, and it includes addressing issues that have been a chronic problem for Asian Americans, and that is breaking through the glass ceiling. I think Asian Americans need to continue to protect these practices because if we don’t continue to protect them, they undermine not only the future protection of African Americans and Latinos and other historically excluded groups, but certainly also the civil rights protections of Asian Americans.

&: Do states vary greatly in their adherence to affirmative action policies?

Chang: Absolutely. And they vary because of public referendum. Different states have voted like California, and they put it up to state voters on whether their government should consider race. But the court cases, that’s a different mechanism when it comes to legality and constitutionality of race consciousness. 

And so far, the U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear on this, after hearing a couple of very important cases over the last 15 years, one concerning a university in Michigan, another concerning Texas, that race is one of many things that universities and colleges can consider. At this point, there seems to be tension between how [states view] it and how the federal government – at least the courts – view it. 

&: Where have you been able to see change toward more equity and inclusion created by college students on their campuses? 

Chang: I have another project with a couple of my graduate students that is using social media data to understand how students influence administrative leadership in colleges and universities to effect change for greater equity and inclusion.We’re looking at Twitter data and looking at patterns of how how Twitter posts influence and continueto reach other audiences over time. And that gives us some evidence of how certain ideas spread and looking at historical record, how that may then influence the decision makers.

Yale is an example of an institution that has over time become increasingly more invested in and committed to equity and inclusion, but they’re not doing it on their own [through] administrative leadership. We were able to track students’ influence toward those changes, who are making those changes. We’re looking at what happened at Yale over a five-year period and we’re seeing how changes have been made over time, trying to map the social media action with those changes. 

It’s a new approach for me, looking at social media data. But it’s one of those great things about being at UCLA, where a lot of my new work is heavily driven by the graduate students that we have. They contribute to me learning new things and new approaches to doing research.