On Leadership: Transformative and “Futuristic”*

*Adapted from keynote presentation for the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute luncheon, October 13, 2017 in Richmond, VA.

In April 2002, I received an anonymous email – a very threatening and untraceable anonymous email sent from a remailer in Milan, Italy. The email informed me that I was unqualified for the position at Virginia Tech that I had just been offered and accepted. The position is the one I hold today and was similar to the one I had held at my previous institution, a research land-grant university very much on par with VT. The email further indicated that I (and my partner) would not be welcome in Virginia because “they kill gays in Roanoke”. And, of course, the author provided the link to a newspaper story that detailed the September 2000 murder of Danny Overstreet (and wounding of six others) inside a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, by a man who said he wanted to shoot gays. I would later learn that a hateful and homophobic email announcing my hire was sent to the VT administration and members of the VT Board of Visitors, resulting in the BOV taking unprecedented action to further discourage me and my partner from moving to Blacksburg, Virginia.  In July 2002, we drove 2701 miles to begin our new life at Virginia Tech.

This was definitely a moment, one of many in my professional career through which I was able to face the obstacles, eventually find empowerment, and continue my journey as it would unfold. This moment was actually transformative. All of us have moments in our lives, but what we choose to do with them, how we choose to learn from them (and not be defined by them) provide the foundation for navigating the roles and responsibilities that come with leadership positions and opportunities to lead.

Moments are sometimes called learning moments or Aha moments! Some are brief and some extend over time.  One of the first lessons that I learned from that moment in 2002 was to understand that although it was and felt very “personal,” I could not take it “personally” or respond in a personal way.  It is important to understand the impact of these moments personally and professionally because it is likely that some of our decisions will create intentional or unintentional ‘moments’ for others.

I was honored to speak at the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute that is the legacy of Dr. Grace E. Harris. I have faced challenges in my academic career as a woman, but as a white woman I have been allowed to benefit from the systemic racism in our culture and institutions. Dr. Harris defined herself as a transformative leader in spite of the discrimination she faced. I can only imagine what kind of ‘moments’ she confronted throughout her life and career as an African American female challenging the racially exclusionary system of our society and of higher education. Returning as the first African American faculty member at VCU, to the very institution that had years earlier denied her admission as a graduate student due to her race, providing 32 years of exemplary service and serving as Provost and Academic Vice President (and twice as interim President), her story, her journey, and her determination to turn obstacles into opportunities are inspirational.

In my presentation, I offered two initial reflections about leadership which I learned mostly from life’s unexpected ‘moments’ – nuggets of authentic experiences that offer great insights, assuming that we are able to listen and learn from them. First, leadership occurs everywhere and should be recognized in everyday life. Leadership often happens without an official administrative title or position of leadership. Second, when we hold an administrative title or leadership position, one of our primary responsibilities lies in providing opportunities for, and encouraging, others to feel empowered and to act as leaders in all that they do.

While some leaders have their careers planned early in their lives and know where they want to be by a specific date, others chose a different path or, more accurately in my case, a different path choose me. Although paths do vary, I believe strongly that career development is more of a journey that unfolds across time. The path isn’t necessarily straight and the journey should be dynamic; and, as such, it will naturally include many unknowns.  We need to look for doors, or the slightly ajar doors, the spaces that open up sometimes unexpectedly that one can move into and explore.  We need to be willing to seek and work to open doors when they are slow to open. I’m not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that we wait passively for something to happen. I am suggesting that keen observation, and an attentiveness and willingness to explore the unknown, will lead to unexpected opportunities. This requires us to understand that there will be times when we will be outside of our comfort zone, that will we need to embrace being open and vulnerable, having courage and a willingness to accept risk.

Today higher education faces the challenge of change and the challenge to change. Throughout the 21st century, many issues have surfaced and challenged higher education, including the cost of higher education, access, accountability, diversity, the meaningfulness of a degree, ethics and more. There have been numerous calls for reform to which higher education must respond and leaders are those who can embrace transformational change. Transformation occurs over time, is intentional, is deep and pervasive, affects the whole institution, requires changes in policies, procedures, programs and people; and ultimately, it can alter the institutional culture for the better.

Due to recent events, including #charlottesville, higher education has been challenged to engage with issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, civil discourse, and protests. There is much unrest and tension in the nation and in the Commonwealth right now and university leadership must find a way to navigate these waters and move our institutions forward; the solutions and paths forward will require strong and transformative leadership from both current leaders and the next generation of leadership in academe.

Transformative leadership is a broad umbrella term under which I’d like to highlight specific aspects and actions. Included among these are thinking differently; looking for that which is the ‘unobvious’; having a vision and framing a positive agenda with long-term perspective; identifying the problem that we are trying to solve; focusing on the underlying principles, and to “live a life of meaning and worth” as articulated by the late African American law professor, Derrick Bell in his book, Ethical Ambition (2002).

In sharing my musings and reflections about transformative leadership, I want to begin with the “meditations” found in Ethical Ambition: Living a life of meaning and worth. This book helped inform and enriched my journey since my initial reading of the book following the transformative moment of 2002. In particular, Bell wrote:

“Ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions.” (p. 50)

“Ethical life is not a life of sacrifice; it is a life of riches. The satisfaction of choosing ethically enriches the fabric of our daily lives in ways we might have otherwise thought impossible.”

Bell (2002) challenges us to choose to work with passion and integrity; to be authentic, courageous and assume risks; to find moments of inspiration, build relationships and a sense of community, and to do all of these with humility. From a leadership perspective, I would expand the notion of humility to include prioritizing institutional over personal ambition.

Leadership is about having vision (which, in my view, should sometimes include ideas not fully in focus, rather than adherence to a preconceived plan, etched in stone) and direction (a general path to follow but also allowing the journey to unfold). It is about clarifying and identifying the problem we are trying to solve before considering solutions or possible outcomes. This seems like it would be intuitive, but we are not often enough encouraged to carefully assess the problem and reflect on possible solutions, before the institution tries to move forward.

Leadership is also about examining our underlying assumptions and identifying the principles by which we will consider and make decisions. In the decision-making process, I will often ask what are the principles that we will use in making the decision. This also requires that we ask “why” and “to whose benefit” more often than we do. If there isn’t an immediate satisfactory answer, I often put something on the “stop-doing-this” list while answering the why and who benefits questions. And, of course, we must see and understand the whole and not just the parts as depicted in the visual of the blindfolded individuals and the elephant.

Not only does transformative leadership require a holistic view, but it also requires us to think differently and look for that which is not necessarily obvious – seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo.  It is about seeing and seeking that which is “unobvious”.

It is about seeing the subtle messages and seeing that which becomes clearer only after more observation (how many faces).




Transformative leadership must be focused on inclusion and diversity and in that order. If we focus only on diversity, we might never achieve inclusion. But if we focus on inclusion we will have diversity.

Transformation leadership requires us to act: to respond and not react. Leadership is action and we need to balance patience and perseverance. There are times when our actions are seen and sometimes our actions go unnoticed except by a few.

And, we must also remind ourselves that “silence is the voice of complicity.” As I mentioned in the beginning, higher education is in need of transformative leaders. These are leaders who are not afraid to speak out. Leaders must think about the future and be willing to take some risks – to be ‘futurisktic‘.

Gandhi has challenged us individually to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I would encourage us to embrace this as individuals, but to also suggest that it is our job as leaders to help our institutions of higher education “become the change we wish to see in the world.”

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…Bear With Me, I’m Trying…

It’s taken me a bit to summarize my feelings so forgive me for word-vomiting. Over the course of this semester thus far, I’ve taken a few steps outside of my comfort zone and spoke up in this class on topics that hurt me. A few weeks ago in class, a remark was made about people being “passionate” (my word) when they speak on topics like racism and how if people get upset or are frustrated and express that when they speak, sometimes individuals are more likely to not listen and take in the message that the other is trying to convey. When this statement was made, I felt like it was a dig towards me and the way that I have spoken in class recently. I want to provide some context and insight as to why I feel and speak the way that I do.
As a woman, African American, a person of color, it is not often that we are allowed to express our HONEST thoughts and opinion on topics without someone feeling offended. More often than not, particularly for women of color, it is expected that we hold our frustration in, bury it and then move on.
This is especially true when it comes to Black women. Why? Because if we speak passionately, raise our voices, dare to argue and fight back, then we are seen as angry and this labeled, “the angry Black woman”. And you know what, yes I am angry, I have every right to be. But because of how society has stigmatized and labeled us, I can’t be angry publicly. Much like my ancestors, I’m expected to just nod my head in agreement and suppress my feelings. I have done this all my life and I am FINALLY beginning to take a stand and express my feelings public regarding topics such as racism, discrimination and inequality in both the school and workplace. It’s not easy for me to do and as a result, you all see and here more of my passionate side.
I’ll be honest and say that there are definitely times in which my delivery in the classroom could be better. I could be calmer and maybe not as passionate when I speak. However, it is hard for me to speak calmly when a subject that hurts me is being spoken about and I am expected to engage with others in these topics. When a comment like that is made, I take offense because all I hear is you telling me to sit back down and suppress my honest feelings. And maybe that’s not what is meant, but that is certainly how it comes across.
I will do my best to be more respectful of others around me and especially those who may feel as though my passion is too much for the classroom. I acknowledge you and I hear you. I will do my part to be better. But I ask that you all bear with me as I come to terms on expressing my thoughts and feelings on topics that are not typically discussed. I ask that you look past my passion and hear me the words the message that I’m trying to get across. I truly do want to engage in this type of dialogue with you all and I hope that you continue to feel comfortable to dialogue right back with me.
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The birth of implicit bias — when does it start and how do we stop it?

After thinking more about implicit bias, I came upon this article:


The article discusses how racial bias, in particular, begins really young in life. So, by the time we reach adulthood, our biases are hard-wired and pretty set in our brains, making them difficult to disintegrate. Implicit bias, as opposed to explicit bias, appears (to me at least) to be more challenging to eliminate, as we often don’t even know that we are being biased.

The implicit bias tests we took last week clearly demonstrate this.  I like to think of myself as a relatively unbiased person who is very open and accepting of everyone; however, the tests showed that I still have some bias (based on the times it took me to complete the tasks when descriptions of gender, etc are switched). Completing these tests were illuminating – they made me think about how little we know even about ourselves sometimes.

Image result for implicit bias

I found this article especially intriguing, as it discusses how even 9 month old babies showed bias by looking longer at the faces that match the babies’ own race when exposed to “happy” music. This suggests to me that some of our bias may not be learned but innate. However, I wonder about children who are adopted and raised by parents of a different race. Do these children show preference for their own race or for the race of their parents? What about children of bi-racial parents? Which parent would they “prefer?” To me, these are all fascinating questions, and I would love to learn more.

The article also discussed how working in 20 minute sessions with five year olds, implicit racial bias can be eliminated (for a short period of time). To do this, children learn to identify individuals within a given race. This is really interesting as well – instead of looking at a large group of people defined by the color of their skin, look at the individual. It makes sense to me that thinking about an individual rather than a group can help eliminate bias. I personally have seen this in my own life. For example, someone I knew once said “all Jewish girls are JAPS – Jewish American Princesses.” Then, after realizing what he said, he quickly added “except for you, Erin.” This guy knowing me as an individual within a minority group showed him that the stereotype doesn’t hold true for everyone. Unfortunately, knowing me was not enough to stop the microaggression altogether.

Further understanding implicit biases and how they affect us in our day-to-day lives and in our professional lives are both imperative to creating a more welcoming and accepting world.

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Waiting on the World to Change

In last weeks class, we talked about biases and other forms of discrimination. Why is it when some people see a specific group of people walking together in a group or even by themselves they automatically think the worst of those people?

As an African American male living in the US the stigma that surrounds us is that we must be in a gang and most likely live in the “ghetto”. Or my favorite one is when a white person thinks that because I’m black that they’re my “bro” or even feel comfortable enough to say “what’s up my n***a”.

Now I’ve only had that happen to me one time in my life that I can remember, and after a long day at work I was honestly just so livid at the time. However I was able to keep my cool and tell this kid that what he said was highly inappropriate and then proceeded to ask him why he thought that was a good thing for him to say to me? He honestly thought that because we worked together and that I knew his older brother that must have made us “cool” and therefore felt comfortable using that language around me.

Had I been raised to be a different person, I might have taken a more aggressive approach to this situation, however I personally feel like by taking those kinds of actions just feeds more into the stereotype of being a black male in America. I prefer in situations like those to approach it educationally rather than aggressively, even though sometimes it is more of a struggle to be strategic in the way I engage in that type of conversation.

This world that we live in today has embolden individuals to come out and not hide the fact that they discriminate against people of color and it gets hard and very frustrating to have to decipher which ones genuinely have no concept of how things are perceived when they speak and the others who know and mean exactly what they’re saying.


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Police weapons of choice

On the other hand, following my previous post I want to talk about the case of the student, Scout Schult,  in Georgia that was fatally shot by the police.


I haven’t heard many updates of this case lately. I think this is because so many things happening lately that this is one will not get as much attention anymore. A couple of things stood out to me from this case, one is the police choice of force and options. Until after reading this case, I wasn’t aware that cops do not always carry taser guns. This was a surprise to me, especially because I think  a taser gun would have been enough to deal with this student as he was at a distance that it would have reached. Also, Scout was walking slow as you see can see in the video. This looks like a student in distress and emotionally unstable but not trying to cause harm. Again, these are just my observations from the video but I do also agree that the “area was secured”. I am curious to know if campus police have any training on how to handle students that could be going through mental health issues or suicidal? If not, I think they should and also definitely carry a taser gun ….or any other type of nonfatal weapons to deal with students on campus.

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Guns on campus, media and racial discrimination

After our class conversation about the Texas Tech student who fatally shot the police officer, I came across this article to learn more about it.


This case is bringing up many debates regarding gun control and what roles do universities have in regulating these? I personally believe that campuses should be able to ban concealed weapons from campuses. Our current president has brought out a lot of hate from people, specially to people of color. Therefore, I do not feel safe knowing that other peer students could be armed on campus.

After doing some quick research I found that there “16 states that ban carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus” and “In 23 states the decision to ban or allow concealed carry weapons on campuses is made by each college or university individually” (http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/guns-on-campus-overview.aspx)

Virginia is one of these 23 states that allows individual campuses to make their own policies regarding this. It is also not surprising that even after 10 years, this article mentions Virginia Tech’s shooting because it is still the most deadly campus shooting. Lastly, the first article mentions that Daniel (the shooter) was not even handcuffed when he was brought to the police station, which to me it’s crazy because they had enough evidence as they found drugs in his dorm…to at least have him handcuffed. I personally think this is because he was white. If he would have been Black, Hispanic, or Muslim.. I don’t think this would have been the case. Tami mentioned a picture she saw online… I am not sure if this is what she was talking about but just want to end this with the one I found that I think is very much how  media portrays these kinds of incidents…..

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Week 12: Ethics

My beliefs and values are on the liberal side. I think we should be open to new, unconventional things because times are always changing and I would like to change with the times than stick to how things have always been in the past. We are evolving as a people, and this has an effect on my opinions on subjects. For example, I think the students in the first article we read for this week didn’t do anything wrong by looking at an old exam on Koofers.com. Koofers.com is a free online resource that is intended to assist students in learning. It allows students to help each other in their education. I definitely think it is unethical for students to steal exam solutions or any materials from professors and post it online. However, the students who are simply accessing the website to study had no part in that unethical behavior. Professors are always telling students to use the abundant resources available to them today, and Koofers is one of them. I would say that a lot of my ethics come from the Golden Rule. It’s a good way to think about whether something is right or wrong. A lot of times when people act unethically, they have failed to think about how they would feel if the positions were switched and someone were to do something that would affect them. And, if you do think of that and still continue to go through with the act, then you don’t have good ethics and it’ll be very hard to change that. I think a person’s childhood is the most important stage to build good ethics, beliefs, and values. It is important for parent’s to shape their children and teach them because they are the biggest influence on the child’s life at that stage in life. If you have that good foundation when you are young, it’ll be hard for that to change when you get older.

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Week 11: Declining by Degrees

I was able to get through most of the Declining By Degrees film, and I really enjoyed it. It brought up a lot of interesting points, and since it is something that relates to me personally, it is something that I didn’t mind having to watch. There are two points that the film brought up that struck my attention. The first being that many professors today are not teaching in the most effective way. Standards are not as high as they should be because with such big class sizes, the efficient and feasible way to do things is to simply give out multiple choice tests. Many teachers are simply lecturing and not engaging the students in a way that will get them to care more about their education and classes. I think the straight lecturing part is true for many professors and I agree that it isn’t the best way to teach students nowadays. Tom Fleming who was shown in the film has the right idea of the way of teaching to get students thinking and engaged with what they are learning. I can confidently say that I have had experiences with professors like that here at Virginia Tech and it really does make a big difference. Even if it is a really tough class, having a professor that is engaged and enthusiastic about teaching will in turn have an affect on the students’ view on the course. However, I think having multiple choice and T/F questions as the bulk of exams is okay. With so many students, it really is the best way to do things and I think it’s an effective way to test students’ knowledge. Having a few short answer questions on each exam is a good way to get students thinking more critically on the subject, but the multiple choice format is a great way to see if students know the base of the knowledge which is really important and essential for students to go further and be able to think critically about the subject.

The second part that stuck out to me is the financial aspect of attending college. I know many students have to maintain their school work while working to make money just like Salon Hollis from the film. While most students don’t need to work full time like she does, there are students out there who do and it is really straining. Grants and scholarships and loans are available, but even then many students have to pay an extreme amount out of pocket compared to what the cost of education used to be. Not to mention the living costs. A lot of students today choose not to continue on to higher education despite wanting to because of the high costs. This cuts off a lot of capable, talented kids from getting the education that could lead to them making a huge impact on the professional work. Luckily, there are other ways and other jobs that will allow them to do this without attending college. It’s important for students to keep that in mind, so they don’t let the fact that they can’t attend university due to financial reasons keep them from pursuing their ambitions.

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Week 10: Professional Ethics

For this week, I looked into the Code of Professional Conduct published by the AICPA to learn about ethics in the accounting profession. A very important concept in the foundation of this code is that the profession has a responsibility to the public and its clients. When performing their duties, they need to act with professionalism and moral judgements. It is so important that they do their job with care because they are performing for the public and all external users. This means they need to keep the public’s confidence in their work and integrity. This requires accountants to maintain the confidentiality of client information, remain independent, and act with due care. The code goes into much more depth on specific situations and aspects but what I have covered is the basic foundation of public accounting ethics. There wasn’t anything in the code that I was surprised about since most accounting classes at least briefly touch on ethics. For instance, auditing courses has taught me a great deal of ethics. Because accounting is such a formal profession and there has been many incidences in the past when unethical accounting has been brought to the public’s attention, the ethics for accounting have been sculpted in detail to ensure that everyone maintains the integrity and value of the work. Each individual accounting firm has their culture of ethics, and it resonates with the employees of that firm. That is why it is extremely for those in higher up positions to act with integrity so others will follow.

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