Lead Photo
SCHOOL OF EDUCATION Conversation with the Dean

Expanding great work

Malik S. Henfield, PhD, took the long road to Loyola University Chicago. Starting out working in a nuclear power plant in South Carolina, he pursued college, then graduate school, and finally a PhD on his way to becoming a researcher and dean.

Before coming to Loyola, he served as associate dean of academic affairs, research, and faculty advancement and as a professor at the University of San Francisco. At the time, he didn’t know exactly what a “Jesuit education” meant, but he did know about social justice and its importance in the field of education. Here, he talks about expanding the definition of educators, as well as a new grant with Duke University, where Loyola students will be traveling to North Carolina to help conduct interviews with students, teachers, mental health professionals, and community members.

 

To you, how does the social justice mission fit into the teaching of education?

The thing about a school of education is that it's not just training teachers. So many people, when they think of “School of Education,” that's all they think of. But we also train researchers, we train counselors, we train administrators, we train so many individuals who go on to do things outside of formal education—and that's a relative unknown. The tie that binds all of these different positions together is this idea of impacting society in positive ways. That may look different for someone who's working as a policymaker in Chicago government versus someone who's working in a classroom in Ghana, for example. But it's still this idea of moving the country forward in your own unique way.

For individuals in Chicago Public Schools, for example, you think about all the marginalized black and brown kids who live here and go to school in one area of the city that looks very different than other areas of the city, for no other reason than policies have placed one group in under-resourced communities and not the other. There is something that speaks to me about addressing this condition, and that can be done in any number of ways. In part, it can be done through teaching the students in the classroom: “Hey, the things that you're going through, it's not your fault. Let me explain to you why.”

It could be focusing on a nonprofit that's working with individuals on community organizing: “Hey, the fact that you're living in this community and your water isn't exactly up to the levels that it should be, let's get together and figure out how to combat that.” All of this is related to education. It just looks different in different instances, and in different contexts.

That's what has drawn me to this place: That mission is already here. We're celebrating our 50th anniversary and thinking about what the next 50 looks like. What are some of the issues that remain from the time this School of Education was instituted and why haven't they been resolved? How might we move towards thinking about tackling issues, as opposed to just thinking about licenses and credentials and degrees?

I don't want to frame it as something that doesn't exist because good work is already being done. If there's anything I want to do, it is to figure out how we can work smarter together and combat complex issues in ways that can make a tangible difference and help move the city forward.

 

Looking at the big picture, probably more Chicago focused, what do you see those challenges being?

I think much of the issues that plague Chicago are related to individuals being pushed into communities without the resources needed to thrive. The biggest issue, which can be identified as a stubborn issue, is this idea that people are in these conditions of their own doing—when they've been placed there by policies that are meant to oppress them. The system is working exactly as it should be. It is not working for some like it's working for others, essentially. I look at our job as exposing that. For example, if we have a course that is focused on the history of education policy: How did culturally biased tests come to be the normative hurdle to jump in order to access rigorous educational environments? Why have we had so many school closings in some sections of the city and not in others? Why are funds being directed towards some schools and not others? I look at the job of everyone in the School of Education as tackling some of those problems with their students and trying to figure out exactly where their role is in responding to those questions.

 

Are there things that you see going on right now at Loyola that you're particularly excited to be a part of?

I'm very excited about the way that we embraced the Rogers Park and Edgewater communities. I think it's important to take care of home and that's the home base for our University. The way that we've embedded ourselves in schools in those communities has made a tangible difference in those student's lives. We've seen the number of students who've applied to Loyola go up by 100s of percentage points since the first day that we set foot in those schools. Many of those students, I would argue, probably weren't thinking about a university, let alone Loyola, which is right in their backyard. I'm very proud of the work that's being done in those communities and I see us doubling down those efforts and doing even more in the future in other communities around the city.

I see the School of Education as valuing everyone who does teaching, research, and service, equally.”
—Malik S. Henfield, PhD, Dean of the School of Education

Can you tell me a little bit about the grant that just got announced?

Working with Sandy Darity and Kristen Stephens of Duke University, we wrote a grant aimed at exposing the experience of students traditionally under-represented in high achieving programs, i.e. gifted education. When you think about who gets identified as gifted and who doesn't, often times it's because of a standardized test. We all know that those tests are culturally biased, but no one's doing anything about it. What we've set out to do is look at districts, throughout the entire state of North Carolina, and take a look at all of their quantitative data in relation to student outcomes and academic achievement over the years. Interview families, teachers, mental health professionals, and community members to try to figure out exactly what is the experience for those select few students of color who've managed to be identified for those programs. Because for many of the parents in those situations, they think that it's a good thing for their kids to be in those gifted programs.

But what does it feel like to be the only one in that class? What are the long-term effects of that? We automatically assume that it's a positive thing, but what we would like to do is track them over the years and see exactly what is this impact that they've had socially, emotionally, as well as academically, with the idea being that gifted education benefits some students but not all to the same degree. And often times it's due to race and socioeconomic factors.

 

That’s interesting because that's something we hear from Arrupe graduates who've moved on to four-year institutions. For a lot of them, this is the first time they've ever been in a predominantly white institution and for almost every single one of them that was an adjustment.

We need to be out in front of that. I think that these can be described as predictable crises. We should expect a student of color who's been around people who look like them their entire life—whether that transition to a predominantly white environment happens in second grade or if it happens at 18 when they're entering higher education—we should expect them to run into some hurdles. It's up to us as the adults in the room, as the people who are charged with taking care of these students, to put plans in place to make sure that they're taken care of. And often times we're thinking that because they're smart, they'll be okay. That's the purpose of this study, to expose that thinking and suggest systemic changes.

 

You mentioned research and you've won awards for research in the past, too. Can you talk a little bit about what role it plays in education?

At my heart, I'm a researcher. I think that constructing new knowledge is the way to move the needle on stubborn issues. Thinking about social justice, taking us outside of ourselves towards something bigger. I think research is at the heart of that, looking at problems in new and different ways. I see the School of Education as valuing everyone who does teaching, research, and service, equally. But I also feel like in terms of fixing the things that are plaguing us right now, the only way that we're going to do that is in interdisciplinary ways and coming up with new and original ideas that leverage the skills that we already have to combat the issues that exist.

 

I want to step back a little bit and talk about where you're from and what led you into this field in the first place.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, raised in the 80's crack era, just total chaos. My mom was addicted to drugs and my dad passed away when I was just months old. So I experienced a lot of things that you experience when you're dealing with a family that's suffering from addiction. My mother moved to South Carolina. I stayed for a year behind in New York because I was going to a small, all-black, largely West Indian school that was a very nurturing environment, very different from what I saw in my East Flatbush neighborhood. I moved to South Carolina when I was in ninth grade and it was, surprisingly, the same thing I witnessed in New York: drugs, crime, and that sort of thing. So you can imagine the impact that it had on me in high school to move from a place for a better life and experience more of the same.

It was a difficult ride, and I barely made it out of high school. Once I graduated, I took a job in a nuclear plant. I was cleaning offices and bathrooms, and I just felt like there had to be more than this. I had a kid to look after, I was just trying to figure it out. I knew one guy who went to college and I asked him to tell me about this college stuff, and he played it up like it was so much fun.

He told me about the SAT tests. Didn't do exceptionally well, but I was a decent test taker and got into Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. Great school, all of my closest friends to this day I made during that time, but I had a little bit too much fun. I was on that five-and-a-half-year plan. Barely made it out again.

After graduating, I worked as an industrial hygienist technician. Engineers would go into buildings, wipe down the walls with baby wipes, and put them into test tubes. I would take their test tubes, put acid in them and perform tests to see if there were harmful chemicals in the buildings. I did that for 12 hours a day and after a while a student loan corporation started calling. No one told me about paying these loans back. I didn't have the money, wasn't making a lot of money. I knew one person who went to graduate school and he told me something about loan deferral, which he told me meant I wouldn't have to pay right away.

I was like, "Okay, so what do I need to do to not have to pay this?" And he said, "You know, take a GRE test. It's just like the SAT." So I did that, did reasonably well, and I said, "Okay, so what program should I get into?" He said, "Well I'm in school counseling." I said, "All right, well I'll go into school counseling too." I didn't know what it was. But that was a way for me not to pay back the student loans because I didn't have the money.

Got into the school counseling program, did okay. But at this point in time my son came and lived with me full time. I was now a single dad. I worked in the dean's office as a graduate assistant during the morning after I got my son off to school. Came home, picked him up, helped him with his homework, put him into bed, got my friend to watch him, and then I worked as a bouncer at a club at night from 7 to 2 or 3 in the morning. Came back home and wash, rinse, repeat. Did it all over again.

I finally graduated and became a school counselor. Did that for a while and again said I need to do something more. I remembered a black male professor while I was at the University of South Carolina getting my degree, and I remembered his lifestyle. He was in the office a couple of days a week. I would read articles about things he was working on that I found interesting. It seemed like a cool job so I called him up. He was at Ohio State at the time. I said, "Hey, tell me about this PhD thing." And he told me about the GRE, which I then knew. Took the GRE again, got into Ohio State. Packed my son and all of our things up into a U-Haul, drove to Ohio State for the PhD program. No friends, no family. I worked with the football team there as a graduate assistant, went to class, and took care of my son.

Then I got a call from the University of Iowa saying that they wanted me to come out there and become a lecturer during my dissertation writing year, with the intention being that once I finished and graduated, I would come on faculty full-time. I did that and I there for a decade. That's when I started commuting back and forth [between Chicago where my wife attended graduate school], and then on to the University of San Francisco.

And now I'm here and I love it. I love every minute of it. It's certainly a challenge. But I feel that I was meant to do this work. It's actually a more natural fit in some ways than being a professor because there are clear problems that I know I can solve. When you're a professor, there are some things that you'll never find answers to. You just keep plugging away. Here at least I can grasp something and I can motivate people to do their best work. I take great pride in giving people the support that they need to be successful, and what better way to do that than as a dean.

Side Image
Social action through education

Learn more about Loyola’s School of Education and its mission to impact local communities—and those around the globe.