On Leadership: Transformative and “Futurisktic”*

*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 is often credited with saying 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.”

Post-2016 election challenge and opportunity for higher education

Fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy introduced the phrase that “one may live in interesting times”.  He stated that “like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history…” (speech given in Cape Town, June 1966).  It appears to me that today, we are also living in ‘interesting times’.  For most, uncertainty and danger for many are clearly perceived for 2017 and beyond. There is so much that is unknown at the moment that it becomes unsettling. But perhaps these post-2016 election times might also challenge us, the words of RFK to be “creative”. That is, to ponder, reflect and act.

In her book entitled Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (2015 reissue of 2004 book) writes  about ‘hope’ but not as optimism per se but rather that “hope locates itself in the premises that we d9781608465767-f_mediumon’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.” (from her Facebook page in November 2016).    “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand.”   As she proposes, recognizing uncertainty allows us to recognize that we might be “able to influence the outcomes”.  Thus, it appears that now is the time to take action.

Although a rather simplistic statement, the 2016 elections revealed so much more about the current state of U.S. society and higher education’s connection (or lack thereof) to that reality for many. Higher education has been often accused of being elitist and out of touch with society and I would argue that sometimes we have been. University towns are sometimes called a ‘blue bubble’ in an otherwise red state. A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the phenomena of “blue bubbles”  and provided some perspective on why universities are sometimes isolated from the surrounding communities. And this is where change must begin.

From the perspective of higher education, I would argue (along with many others) that higher education has not only a role to play but a responsibility to get involved and even to assume a leadership role.  As educational institutions, colleges and universities must continue to educate our students as well as our faculty, staff and administrators about social justice, equity and civil discourse.  We must be intentional about engaging with the dialogue around difference, encouraging all to speak up and speak out and to do so by understanding difference and through listening and hearing the voices of others.  It is also important that we focus our attention to communicate with clarity and to enhance our skills and ability to determine the accuracy of information and seek truth.  Articles about programs, strategies and workshops as well as analyses, opinion pieces and reflections are found frequently in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd, and Times Higher Education to name only a few.

Let me offer a few examples.

In the days following the 2016 election, an increase in hate motivated campus-climate incidents occurred and was reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The data were compiled by Southern Poverty Law Center which issued a report including historical context and detailed information about type and location of the hate-related incidents.  I believe that in part these data provided the impetus for the call for higher education to respond and a focus on citizenship was one such response. Although there are many others, recent articles suggest how colleges can teach students to be good citizens and urge colleges and universities not to retreat but rather to teach citizenship.  Examples of programs and initiatives for understanding difference, increasing awareness of micro-aggressions and implicit bias and sustaining affirming campus-climate environment appear regularly in the higher education news and social media.

Given the rhetoric of the 2016 election campaign, it has become very clear that “racism still exists and can appear” on university campuses according to racial-equity scholar Harper (2017) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.  “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher-education leaders.”  Once again,this speaks to the opportunity and the need to act and educate.

Education is critical and universities must do their part.  Universities can provide opportunity, programs, space (real and metaphorical) for dialogue, and messages that foster inclusion.   A recent example of a timely message is the address provided by Andy Morikawa (Blacksburg, Virginia) at the December 2016 Virginia Tech Graduate School Commencement.  (Note: his remarks begin at minute 35 on the recording).  Morikawa encouraged us to get involved, get engaged in civic life and community engagement, to be attentive, to listen, to have tough conversations with those who don’t share the same views and to do so regularly in community.

As we know education is a primary mission of higher education and for many universities, research is also a primary mission.  Science, discovery and the search for truth are critical and remain even more so in the post 2016 election era.  Besides ‘teaching citizenship’ and encouraging civil discourse, how do we engage our students with determining facts and uncovering ‘fake news’?  A recent article from Times Higher Education (THE) suggests that it is education not regulation.  Seargeant and Tagg (2016)  wrote that “the heightened need for critical literacy skills in tackling fake news and media manipulation highlights the central role that higher education can play for society as a whole.”  Further, Virgo (2017) writing in Times Higher education suggests that the university must accept its “role as critic and conscience of society”.

In this post-2016 election era, faculty and academic administrators have much to contemplate not only about our defined missions in research, teaching, and engagement but also as critic and conscience of society in accepting the responsibility of the university as a social institution and to do so with “intentional and ethical scholar activism“.

Higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.  Let us work individually as well as collectively.

Intentional and ethical scholar activism

The issue of ethics–ethical choices, ethical decision-making, and ethical action–is a longstanding topic of concern for academics, both as scholars and teachers.  When we think about ethics in higher education, we usually think first about scholarly integrity (e.g., plagiarism and scientific misconduct) and then perhaps codes of conduct and standards for professional behavior.  But there are additional aspects of ethics that should be discussed especially ethics associated with teaching and the ethics of service or engagement.  In this blog post, I will share briefly some musings about the ethics of service or engagement and scholar activism (e.g., scholar-advocate, citizen scholar).

Derrick Bell (2002Ethical Ambition), author of Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, wrote that ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions” (p. 50).  In this statement, Bell didn’t reference academia specifically but the application to those of us in higher education (faculty, administrators, students) should be clear.  There are many issues facing higher education in general (e.g., accessibility, affordability, student debt, relevance, null curriculum) in addition to matters that might arise within a discipline (e.g. controversial research topics, methodology), but “taking principled stands” is not necessarily something that has come easily or often to many of us in academe. On the other hand, there are disciplines (e.g., sociology, counseling, Ethnic studies) in which “taking principled stands” is common and perhaps even a foundation for scholarship and teaching/learning.

In addition to the research and teaching/learning missions of the university, “taking principled stands” also applies to the service mission of the land-grant university or more generally the social responsibility of the university.  At land-grant universities, we are quite familiar with the “service” or engagement mission and regularly have employees with strong ties to the community (e.g., extension agents, service learning).  In some disciplines, faculty who engage with society are identified as scholar-activist or scholar-advocate.  But faculty from most disciplines are not and wouldn’t necessarily identify as scholar-activist or advocates but faculty could take “principled stands” on issues.

Whether or not one identifies as scholar-activist (advocate or citizen scholar) directly, I believe those of us who work in higher education have an ethical responsibility to society. In our roles as faculty (and graduate students) or administrators we are often seen as an “expert” and having “expertise”.  And we are sometimes asked to share this expertise beyond academic circles and within the broader society. We need to respond to such requests but acknowledge that acceptance of these requests comes with additional responsibility; that of understanding the perceived and real power associated with being viewed as an expert and to understand the ways in which we can ethically interact and engage the public and with the public. It is a given that there are various ways to solve problems.  When sharing our expertise, it is also important to acknowledge the involvement of others with differing roles and associated responsibilities and explore how best to invite, interact and engage with others to share their expertise.  It is important that we do not intentionally or otherwise allow our academic expertise to silence others.  So where do we begin the process of thinking about “principled stands”, being intentional and taking action, and becoming citizen scholars or scholar activists?  Graduate School provides a good starting place.

Through the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School, graduate students have multiple opportunities to compliment their academic disciplinary degree and better prepare themselves for future and perhaps multiple careers. Two examples of many opportunities seem applicable here: Future Professoriate graduate certificate and Citizen Scholar engagement program.  Graduate students who wish to become future faculty gain knowledge and understanding about what it means to and to prepare to become faculty for 21st century universities through GRAD 5104 Future Professoriate course in which ethics and scholarly integrity are addressed.  In this class and in keeping with Bell’s premise above, we discuss what it means to think deeply about issues and to take principled stands as future faculty members.  In advocating for strong connections between academia and society, we have also developed a citizen-scholar program where graduate students can explore, learn and demonstrate their commitment to and be recognized for engagement with society.  These are relevant and fairly straightforward ways to encourage “ethical ambition” and “living a life of meaning and worth” as an integral part of graduate education.

In Ethical Ambition, Bell (2002) offers some reflections and personal stories that can guide us toward success ethically. In particular he challenges us to “live a life of passion” and to have the courage to take the risks for what we believe in.  He shares the importance of community (family and friends) for “support in hard times”.  And he indicates that humility should be our watchword and that we should have ‘humility to know when our best intentions go awry”.

An “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).

Be thoughtful and intentional. Engage honestly and ethically with society.