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Interview with Beth E. Bukoski, Ph.D. from Virginia Commonwealth University on Promoting Equity for LGBTQ+ Students, Intersectionality, Cultural Taxation, and More

About Beth E. Bukoski, Ph.D.: Beth E. Bukoski is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where she is also Director of the Ed.D. in Leadership program. A researcher, educator, and practitioner, Dr. Bukoski applies critical feminist and post-structuralist perspectives to challenge status quo practices and advance equitable structures in higher education.

Dr. Bukoski’s work has been published in leading journals including Journal of College Student Development, NASPA Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education, To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, and more. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, and the Journal of Men’s Studies. Her contributions as a faculty member and practitioner were honored with the inaugural Dean’s Distinguished Career Faculty Award from The University of Texas at Austin College of Education, where she served as a Dean’s Leadership Fellow.

Currently, Dr. Bukoski is Chair of the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s (ASHE) Council on the Advancement of Higher Education Programs (CAHEP). Prior to joining the faculty at VCU, Dr. Bukoski was Associate Professor of Practice for the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Administration from The University of Texas at Austin and her Master of Arts in Education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Curriculum and Instruction, where she also received a B.A. in English.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in critical perspectives in higher education research and working to advance educational equity with respect to race, gender, and sexuality?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] I started my career in education as a high school English teacher. I taught for five years, and I fairly quickly realized three things about teaching in K-12. First, this was at the beginning of the implementation of No Child Left Behind. Teaching was becoming very accountability-driven and testing-driven, and I did not like that. Second, I realized that I did not want to continue teaching the same things year after year. I taught Macbeth every single year that I taught. It is a great play, I love it, but I was done. Third, I am not a morning person, and when you work in K-12 you need to be there in the morning ready to go with the kids.

I love teaching, but I realized that K-12 was not a good fit for me, so I applied to Ph.D. programs. I did not know what I was getting into, to be honest. I imagined myself being an administrator in higher education in some way, perhaps working in student affairs. As I went through my program, I realized that I enjoyed the research, and I still enjoyed the teaching.

I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2012, and I secured the coveted tenure track faculty role. But when I got into the faculty role, I realized that I did not love being tenure track. “Publish or perish” did not appeal to me. I wanted more of an opportunity to put my knowledge of theory and critical thought into practice. I wanted to be able to focus on student learning, growth, and development. I was recruited back to The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, and I became non-tenure track faculty with a focus on teaching and administration. That is when I started to get more into graduate socialization. I coordinated the Master’s program and Ph.D. program, and I was involved in creating the Executive Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership program that they have now.

I became very involved with the systems and processes surrounding graduate students, in particular. I wanted to understand how to improve and streamline what graduate students were experiencing not just from a systems perspective but also from a class, social, and interpersonal perspective. For example, students experiencing microaggressions, feeling invalidated, or not feeling supported by their institutions were of critical interest to me. UT-Austin provided me an opportunity to hone both my administrative skills and my skills in supporting students and learning to create mechanisms for feedback loops and things like that.

Then the pandemic hit, and I realized that I wanted to be close to family. So, I quit my job at UT-Austin. I went on the job market and got this great gig at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I am coordinating their Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership. This is a very large program. All of the things that I have learned along the way are bearing fruit in this context. I have worked to systematize things. I have done a lot of curriculum development. I have hosted feedback and listening sessions with students to understand what is working and what is not working. Where are the pain points? How can we mitigate those? It has been a lot of work, but it has also been very fun because this is the work that I love.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your research and practice? In particular, you describe your approach to the study of higher education as rooted in critical, feminist, and post-structuralist thought. In what ways do these critical perspectives offer a unique vantage point on issues of academic equity?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] Though I often do not explicitly define it in my work, I think of equity as having sufficient processes, structures, and systems in place to ensure that everyone has a floor: that everyone has something solid to stand on. This means they have access to opportunities to gain knowledge and resources that support their growth and development. It also means, to continue the house metaphor, that people not only have a floor but also have walls to keep them safe. It means our house has an open concept design so there is no roof, so people can grow and develop and flourish in all the ways possible without hitting a ceiling. Whatever systems and structures are in place create the floor, but we do not want them hemming people in.

Critical feminist and post-structuralist thought feeds into my teaching and my administration in terms of examining who is the least served and who is left out of the conversation. I avoid doing comparisons of, for instance, men and women and non-binary people, or Black people and Latino people and White people, because doing those kinds of comparisons tends to wind up norming on Whiteness and norming on maleness, heteronormativity, Christianity, and able-bodiedness. The feminist piece and the critical piece are about attending to intersectionality to understand how systems are felt differentially based on people’s identities, past experiences, and their access to certain resources.

First-generation college students do not have as much knowledge of college, which means faculty and administrators have to work hard to make that hidden curriculum apparent. When you are embedded in the system — when it is what you do every day and it is the water that you swim in — it is hard for you to see it. This means that we have to do a lot of work, personally, interpersonally, and administratively, in documents and policies, to make things as apparent and as legible to students as possible, depending on how much prior knowledge and experience they may have. Even if they have prior experience, it includes students in the conversation when we say, “Here’s how we do things, and this is why.”

That is the critical piece, coupled with an understanding of intersectionality. The post-structural piece is trying to figure out where people’s values and assumptions lie. I teach a course on epistemologies, and you can hear in how students talk about their work and how they work through problems and solutions that they have post-positive or structural functionalist approaches to thinking about different issues. You can see them leveraging subjectivism as a perspective to understand students and their voices, or constructivist paradigms to get people together to collaborate. I can see how those values play out in the way that both students and my colleagues talk about their work and in how they visualize the implementation of the changes that they are trying to make.

As a post-structuralist, my approach leads me to ask, “What is the box people are thinking in?” and then, “How can we look outside the box? How can we disrupt that?” I apply this to myself as well. Maybe I am thinking of a problem through a collaborative, constructionist lens, but at some point things have to get done, so I need more of a structural functional perspective to help me push towards an action. That is where the post-structuralism piece comes in: breaking those things up and disrupting them in order to arrive at new solutions and innovations that we otherwise might not get to.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] An important thread of your research concerns what you call “cultural taxation” and how it informs the experiences of faculty of color. Would you provide us with some background on this concept, what it captures about inequities in higher education, and what this tells us about the scope of struggles for equity and social justice in higher education?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] Cultural taxation is a very cool concept. It is grounded in Amado Padilla’s work and has to do with the tax that anyone bears based on their identity. I have worked at predominantly and historically White institutions. If you think of the experience of, say, a Black student coming into that organization, there is a strong likelihood that they are going to gravitate towards Black faculty because that is where they see themselves. They will see the possibility of connection with someone who will understand their experience in a way that someone with more dominant, hegemonic identities is not going to be able to understand.

But when we flip the script of that narrative from looking at the student’s perspective to looking at the faculty’s perspective, there are so few Black faculty at predominantly White institutions that all the students of color are often going to gravitate toward just those few faculty. This works the same way with Latinx faculty, with queer faculty, with disabled faculty, and with anyone who has marginalized identities that are visible or that they are willing to share in some way. Students who hold those identities are going to gravitate to them because they understand their experiences in a deeper, more fundamental way.

Even if the experiences of faculty with minority identities are not the same as the experiences of their students, which is what our anti-essentialist perspectives tell us, they are going to have more proximate experiences, and they are going to have the ability to have deeper conversations about their students’ experiences. I have experienced forms of cultural taxation based on queerness and my relationship with mental health. That also looks different because those can be hidden identities.

Cultural taxation generates more labor and, in particular, it generates more hidden labor and labor associated directly with solving equity issues. If students gravitate toward People of Color and other people with non-dominant identities for support, all of your White faculty and staff will not have to deal with those things because the students are not coming to them. It both creates more labor for some people who are already dealing with levels of marginalization that people with dominant identities do not live with, and it decreases the labor of members of those dominant groups.

As a consequence, you have faculty of color who have higher dissertation loads, who have more advisees, and who get looked at in tokenizing ways as “the diversity person,” whether or not that is actually their area of research. They also have assumptions and stereotypes associated with certain identities projected on them. For example, they may be told, “You’re Latinx, so you must understand this thing,” even though people within that identity group have a tremendous diversity of individual experiences.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your work also focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race in shaping student experiences, for example, in, “Exploring How Gay Latinx Men Cope in College Using Emotion Regulation,” and your recent essay “Critiquing Oppression and Desiring Social Justice: How Undergraduate Latina Students in STEM Engage in Acts of Resistance.” Would you discuss how intersectionality is critical to understanding issues of equity in these examples?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] My perspective aims to couple Kimberlé Crenshaw’s account of intersectionality with Patricia Hill Collins’ idea of the “matrix of domination.” Those give us ways of understanding how dominant discourses, ideas, social norms, and expectations can influence the way that people can enter spaces and whether and how they are able to be some version of themselves in those spaces. For gay Latinx men, being gay is already hard but gayness also tends to be normed on White men. To be Latino and to be a gay man is a transgression, because you are neither normatively gay, nor normatively Latino. Stereotypically, being Latino means you are expected to be machismo and heterosexual. You can see the way that those tropes are reified through pop culture as well as representation and lack of representation in the media.

These become cultural scripts and forms of structural oppression. They get enacted in higher education institutions in the form of programs. For example, there is very little representation of Latinas in STEM, so when Latinas do enter STEM programs, they feel like they have to carry the onus of being the Latina in STEM and contend with all of the stereotypes that come with that. They also have to negotiate the fact that they are a woman in STEM, which is dominated by male discourse and male ways of speaking, presenting, knowing, and being. We have to understand the way that multiple identities interlock with each other. They are not extractable in any way, and these overlapping systems and social dynamics importantly influence students’ experiences.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you discuss the strategies of coping and resistance with which students respond to these barriers? Do you see coping and resistance as being importantly related responses to marginalization?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] I think coping and resistance are interconnected. For instance, the level to which you are able to engage in resistance depends on the other things that you have to deal with. If you are dealing with parents who have thrown you out of their home and are refusing to help pay for your college because you are gay and they found out, you are probably not going to have a lot of extra time in your life to be engaging in major acts of resistance because you already have a major drain on your time and energy.

At the same time, we often think of resistance as showing up at a rally, but resistance can also be merely existing, especially for people with marginalized identities. Sometimes resistance is simply being joyful. Black joy is a form of resistance because it says, “Screw the man, screw the oppressive environment. I will exist, and I will have life, and love, and joy around me.” That, in and of itself, is an act of resistance, because hegemonic norms tell us that, if you are Black, you should somehow be ashamed of it or you should be on welfare. You should not succeed, you should not be successful, and you should certainly not be happy about being who you are. Resistance can look like a lot of different things.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] In your experience working between K-12 and undergraduate education, are there things that you see are importantly similar or different that you would want to highlight between these levels of education?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] K-12 and undergraduate education are similar insofar as schools and educational institutions are microcosms of larger society. That is true in so many different ways: you see hegemony, you see power differentials, you see oppression and privilege. You see in-groups and outgroups form among students, faculty, staff. All of those social dynamics at educational institutions are microcosms of the world. We need to think about educational institutions in that context and about how the grand narratives about identity found in social and popular cultural discourses trickle down to organizations.

The biggest difference is the age of the students and the parents. If I am trying to support an LGBTQ+ student in college, either they have parental support, which is fabulous, or they do not. Either way, the parents are not in my view. As a faculty or staff member, we have Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements. The parents are not calling me up to ask, “Did my child do their homework?,” and the parents are not coming to campus and policing what pronouns the student is using.

For a lot of LGBTQ+ folks, when they get to college is when they start coming out because they did not feel like they could before and now feel empowered to make that shift. Maybe they have been thinking about dressing in a very different way, but they did not feel okay doing that in high school. Now that they are in college, they get to remake themselves, and that is true of everyone.

If you work in K-12 and you are trying to support an LGBTQ+ student, you have to negotiate with parents who do not want to allow students to be themselves. You have parents who fundamentally reject that trans people are the people they know they are: that trans women are women and trans men are men. That is a whole other level of challenge that educators in K-12 environments have to deal with.

On top of that, higher education is, generally speaking, more social justice oriented than K-12. Though there are various understandable reasons for that, I am still sometimes surprised by the lack of attention to intersectionality and social dynamics that some of the K-12 leaders I speak with encounter and experience. Higher education, and student affairs in particular, is a very progressive field. In many ways we are often at the forefront of progressive issues in the field of higher education.

Some of the differences simply have to do with funding and with time. When I was a K-12 teacher, I taught 150 students a day. There are also structural barriers to the ability of teachers to critically engage with their students, plus the parental relationships, plus all of the legislation. K-12 is much more highly regulated than higher education. All of this creates problems that I think prevent K-12 education from approaching equity issues as critically and robustly.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] In more recent work, you have turned your attention to single mothers working in higher education administration. Would you discuss this area of your research? Do you see working mothers as underrepresented in current work on equity in higher education?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] Since I became non-tenure track faculty, most of the projects that I have worked on are student collaborations. This recent research on working mothers is a very student-driven project with Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley. We collaborated a lot in the design of the project. She was lead author and also the project manager, and we had a whole team of students who were learning about research skills along the way. It was a fantastic experience.

The focus on working mothers came from her. I am not married, I do not have kids, and even though I focus heavily on equity and social justice, I had not looked into working parents in particular. The more I got into it, the more horrified I was, honestly. FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] policies in the United States are some of the worst in the developed world. Neoliberalism has suffused our healthcare system and our ways of thinking about families. While we see conservative rhetoric around the importance of the family, our country is not providing systems such that people can be with their families and actually participate in family life.

I was recently co-chair of a faculty organization that was a shared faculty governance body. Two women faculty members had babies that spring. Our FMLA policies were ridiculous. The school did not have any clear policies. They basically said that you can take six weeks off, but you do not get paid for it. Very few faculty members get paid well enough to take six weeks off from working unless they have partner support. Not to mention the fact that, if you have a c-section, most doctors recommend you take eight weeks off. It does not even cover that.

Additionally, for a faculty member six weeks is almost half of a semester. The way that the policy used to be written said you still had to teach that semester. How is it serving students to have a faculty member for only a few weeks of the semester?

The impact of babies and children on women’s careers and life trajectories is something that cisgender men simply do not have to deal with. We do not account for any of those things. We do not create structures that allow people to step away and to step back seamlessly and without huge burdens. I was talking earlier about floors and ceilings. We do not have an adequate floor. We have low ceilings and closed-in walls. If anything, we have large holes in the floor when it comes to supporting families. I feel real frustration over this. Then, thinking intersectionally, when you take the idea of a working mom and you add racialized dimensions, ability, economic status, sexualities, and gender identities, all of those things just open up more and even larger holes in the floor.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you explore how you apply your dedication to equity and social justice to your teaching and service? How do these commitments inform your approach to pedagogy as well as your approach to leadership — for example, your work as Director of the Ed.D. in Leadership at VCU and as Chair of the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s Council on the Advancement of Higher Education Programs (CAHEP)?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] I think applying these ideas to practice is multidimensional and multilevel. Sometimes it is sitting in a meeting and noticing that someone else picked up the idea of someone who said it previously but who was not heard. That person who was not heard is usually a woman, a Person of Color, or a queer person.

Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “Oh, thank you for bringing up so-and-so’s point.” Sometimes it is a simple disruption like that, while other times it is working on a major system or process and thinking about who is going to be sitting around the table and who gets left out of the conversation. It means thinking about the aims of a policy and also considering its unintended consequences for the least represented.

There is a fantastic concept from Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully’s scholarship from the 1990s that still gets used in higher education as well in grassroots leadership work. It is called “tempered radicalism.” Tempered radicalism is basically the idea that you believe in what your organization stands for and what your organization does, but you strategically attempt to improve it. I believe in education, but I do not agree with everything the organization is doing or how they are doing it. I am radical in the sense that there are things that I want to change and some issues that make me want to flip the table over. But I am tempered because I know that, if I flip the table, I am either going to become a pariah and will not be able to get anything done or I will be ejected from the organization.

Higher education is neoliberal, it is capitalist, it is Whiteness, it is an ivory tower. It is all those things. So, for me, tempered radicalism first means recognizing that I can never fully be outside of that. Second, it means thinking about all the ways that I can resist those things in all of their forms. This might mean looking at a syllabus and saying, “Oh, there’s no parental policy here. Let’s add a policy about how babies are welcome in class,” or, “There’s no policy here about students who may be experiencing homelessness. Let’s add a policy about that.”

Sometimes it is looking through the syllabus and saying, “Oh this is interesting, all of the authors are White people, that is a problem. Let’s add a variety of perspectives.” This brings us back to our discussion of post-structuralism. Making sure we are looking at things in different ways helps me here.

This connects with my work on the Council for the Advancement of Higher Education Programs. How do you then generate knowledge that other people can use in their own equity work? The Master’s of Higher Education guidelines that the Council has are very old, and we have been reworking them for a long time now. We were having this conversation in a meeting convened by Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah Starr Minthorn, who does a lot of Indigenous scholarship. I learned a lot from her in the way that she led those meetings. We wound up deciding we did not want to have standards. We did not want to say, “This is what you should do and how you should do it.”

We wanted to ask questions and give people food for thought. We wanted to move people to think through their specific context and give them resources to make sense of what they were trying to do with their programs. That is a real flipping of the table, and I find that exciting. We still have a lot of work to do, but it is things like that that I get inspired by. We can actually create change and create something that people can pick up and use to make change of their own.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Prior to joining the faculty at VCU, you taught at The University of Texas at Austin, where you organized the symposium on LGBTQ+ issues Educate Out Loud. Would you tell us a bit about this symposium?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] Educate Out Loud is a symposium and a project that I am really proud of. At the time, the College of Education had just hired a new Dean, Charles Martinez, from the University of Oregon. When he got to Texas, he was horrified at the lack of attention to LGBTQ+ issues, which is understandable because Texas is way behind on that front. As part of his onboarding process, Dean Martinez hosted conversations with everyone in the College. Sawyer Tedder, a former student of mine who is queer and now works as a Senior Administrative Program Director at UT-Austin, said, “Our queer students don’t feel supported. We don’t focus on this work, or highlight it in the College. This is a major problem.”

Dean Martinez came to me and asked me to partner with Sawyer to run a symposium. I cannot emphasize how big of a deal this was. It was the first ever LGBTQ+-focused event at The University of Texas at Austin (the flagship university of the state) that was supported by the College of Education. This kind of top-down, structural support was such an important symbolic message.

We organized this fabulous symposium. We had panelists, discussions, and breakout sessions. We had a keynote speaker, who was a trans activist from Houston and has unfortunately since passed away. I have a picture of the speakers and participants hanging out at the bar after the event, and there are three generations of trans people pictured there. For tragic reasons, it is so exceedingly rare to have three generations of trans people in the same space. It was a special event.

There were just so many people around the table advocating for and planning that event. I just feel honored to have been a part of it. Due to COVID, it has been on hiatus, but the person who replaced me at UT, Michael Goodman, is picking up the mantle and they are moving the conference forward again. It is an example of what it looks like to come together to do something that impacts the community. The feedback we got from the attendees was so appreciative. They wanted and needed resources, materials, and conversations that they were not able to get in other contexts. The symposium was focused on both K-12 and higher education, and the K-12 people in particular expressed that this gave them information they needed to serve their students better. It was an incredible experience.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Based on your research and practice, do you have advice you would give to scholars, practitioners, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Beth Bukoski] The best advice I can give to everyone is to think about who is being left out: whether you are talking about a conversation or publication, or whether it is about who is at the table. You need to think about who is being left out, who is not being accounted for, and who is not thought of. That is my first piece of advice.

Number two is to listen. People will tell you what they need. It is important to not assume that you know but to listen deeply and understand. Third, remember you may not be able to fix all of the things, but you can fix some things, and a little bit can go a long way. Celebrate tempered radicalism. Celebrate small wins and building coalitions.

Number four would be to know your stuff. Be aware of the research central to the issues that matter to you. That way, when people say, “Oh, trans people are going to go into bathrooms and assault people,” you can respond that there is not a single documented case of a trans person going into a bathroom and assaulting anyone. Research tells us this. Know your research so that when people come at you with things that are just simply not true, you can say, “Actually, that is not accurate and here are some resources that I can share with you.”

I will also say that I do not like cancel culture. I used to be part of cancel culture, but that is not going to move us forward as a society at all. We have to bring people in, and sometimes that means listening to people be awful human beings. They still deserve to be heard, because if they are heard, they are more likely to listen. That is a hard piece and something that I am still working on, but I have found that the more that I can listen, the more that I can get the conversation started. Every journey towards being a social justice ally and being an advocate starts with a single step. You have to meet people where they are and just work all the angles that you can work.

Finally, I know this is a time when a lot of people are nervous about speaking up about equity issues because of the politicization of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. If you do not have tenure, this makes some sense. But if you are a tenured professor, I think it is your obligation to speak out in our current moment. Even if you are untenured, a person with a Ph.D. has many advantages in terms of seeking out other jobs and opportunities. We need to be willing to stand up for the things we value and fight the difficult fights.

Thank you, Dr. Bukoski, for sharing your insight on promoting equity in K-12 and Higher Education for LGBTQ+ students and students with intersectional, non-dominant identities, as well as on pursuing equity for working mothers who are higher education faculty members, and for minoritized educators more broadly!