Dignity, equality and social justice drive Campus Conversation

Two professors offer a peek into CU Denver's research role

December 5, 2017
CU Denver faculty members and Chancellor Horrell
Faculty members Stacey Bosick, left, and Manuel Espinoza join Chancellor Dorothy Horrell for a Campus Conversation that highlighted research.

One professor turned a presentation invitation from the Denver District Attorney’s office into a full-fledged student research project set on boosting faith in the city’s criminal justice system. Another professor developed a lasting program aimed at defining dignity in the classroom and making education a legally and socially recognized human right.

Both award-winning University of Colorado Denver faculty members – Stacey Bosick, PhD, of the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Manuel Espinoza, PhD, of the School of Education & Human Development – shared their work with nearly 50 attendees of the November Campus Conversation, offering a glimpse into the university’s research.

“We talk a lot about our role as Colorado’s only public urban research university,” Chancellor Dorothy Horrell told the audience gathered in the Terrace Room of the Lawrence Street Center when introducing the pair. “And a vital part of  what brings that to life are the faculty members who share their expertise and connect its relevance every day in their work with our students.”

Seeking equity in justice system

Bosick, winner of the 2013 CLAS teaching award, has focused some of her research on structural and individual factors that push people into and out of lives of crime. “For instance, one typical finding is that men who are active in crime, once they become married, tend to desist from crime,” Bosick said, adding that the reason for the trend remains debatable.

Bosick looks for other ways disadvantages accumulate and perpetuate criminal behavior, netting her a request this spring from the district attorney’s office to share her findings on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Bosick recognized an opportunity for a collaborative project that would benefit her, her students, the district attorney’s office and the Denver community at-large.

“As academics, we have a lot of data on policing, courts and prisons. But we know nothing about prosecution, because it’s a black box.” Seeing the need for change, District Attorney Beth McCann welcomed the project idea, which so far includes four CU Denver student interns working in the office with the city prosecutorial data.

City-CU Denver project a boon for all

“It’s been a great experience on both sides,” Bosick said. The DA’s office is reporting that they love our students and that they are doing great things. And our students are having the opportunity to go into the DA’s office and see what it’s like to be an attorney and if they like this sort of data analysis.”

Grecia Portillo
Grecia Portillo, president of the CU Denver Student Government Association, delivers an update on SGA news at the Nov. 29 Campus Conversation.

By creating an audit system, CU Denver will help city prosecutors better understand what types of disparities are influencing case acceptance and plea bargains, which can subsequently shape a defendant’s future, Bosick said. “There are many factors involved in those decisions, and one of those factors might be race and ethnicity, whether it’s overt  ̶  which we doubt  ̶  or not.”

Bosick received National Science Foundation and American Sociological Association funding and foresees expanding the program, which she notes will benefit the entire Denver community. “We know about racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” she said. “By performing these sorts of audits and allowing these data to become transparent, in the long term, we hope that all citizens of Denver can come to have more pride in their system.”

A decade dedicated to dignity

Ten years ago, Espinoza, winner of the 2015 CU Denver Rosa Parks Diversity award, was propelled to action, largely by an unauthorized immigrant student worried about her chances of achieving her higher-education goals in a system that sometimes failed to treat everyone equally and with dignity.

Together, the two founded the Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L), now 10-persons strong and still involving founding student Tania Soto Valenzuela, its lead research associate. After years of growth and studying how dignity was defined through scholarly articles and court documents, the group of first-generation students is on the brink of publishing in a major law review.

“We became dignity scholars, historians of the experience of learning,” Espinoza said of the R2L research group aimed at changing society’s view of educational rights. “We live in a time when the personhood of immigrants, especially unauthorized immigrants, remains in question.”

Making its case a challenge

With no such protections in either state or national constitutions, making the argument that education should be a fundamental human right has been challenging, Espinoza said. Moreover, the group’s aim of basing its argument on social fact rather than pure belief requires research, charting and analysis of interactions that represent fairness and dignity in learning, he said.

Now, through studying landmark court cases that involved the concept of dignity in some context, R2L members are compiling a handbook to guide social scientists in writing about dignity and educational rights. “It’s an intermediate step for us toward the larger, longer-term goal of writing this argument,” Espinoza said.

The group’s preliminary iteration of the argument is slated for presentation at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities conference in March at Georgetown Law School and submission to the Public Interest Law Journal at Boston University in August. “We intend for it to be an argument that can withstand legal scrutiny,” Espinoza said.

Master Plan gets regents’ nod

During leadership updates, the chancellor focused largely on the recent approval of the university’s first stand-alone facilities Master Plan. Applauding the work of the “dozens of folks across the campus” who worked on the Master Plan, Horrell encouraged campus units to request presentations from the facilities team.

The chancellor highlighted the three guiding principles behind the plan:

  • Expected growth in both students and research during the next decade, which drives the need for high-quality laboratories and classrooms.
  • Recognized importance of connective living and learning on university campuses, calling for attractive student-housing options to include up to 1,500 beds.
  • Continued improvement of CU-city connections, which calls for leveraging CU Denver’s location downtown and on the Auraria campus and maximizing facilities in both places.

The chancellor also noted that she and Provost Roderick Nairn, PhD, and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Raul Cardenas, Jr., PhD, recently attended the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities meeting, often focused on the topic of student success. That conversation has evolved from the importance of access to completion and, more recently, to employment, Horrell said, noting that work-force readiness and helping students translate the meaning of what they are learning to employers needs to remain a chief priority.