Chapter 5: Innovation in a Time of Transition
Posted on December 07, 2020Download as a PDF
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There have been few moments as filled with transition and innovation as the spring of 2020. With limited warning, all of American higher education pivoted to respond to the global pandemic brought forth by COVID-19. In the face of a global public health and economic crisis, we found that what we value most in higher education was suddenly pathologized: no longer were we allowed to be in proximity to one another as we learned and lived together.
Our classrooms moved from predominantly face-to-face at most of our institutions to online to ensure our faculty, staff, and students' safety. Our residence halls were emptied, and students faced significant physical and emotional disruption as learning, student cocurricular activities, club meetings, honor society inductions, athletic awards, ROTC commissioning ceremonies, and more went virtual. Our faculty, many of whom had resisted the ubiquity of online learning, suddenly found themselves teaching, advising, connecting with students, holding critically important faculty meetings, and presenting research all online. Board of trustee meetings, higher education conferences, and more were adjusted to a virtual world. Within the span of less than 30 days, we innovated to continue the important work many of us believe we were called to do.
We innovated through and with technology to transition into a new world, letting go of what was known and familiar in order to succeed in this altered landscape. While few would say the pivot was done perfectly, without equivocation, we innovated and transformed. As is often the case, because innovation is often uncomfortably disruptive, this moment was born of necessity. Rarely does a moment of incredible disruption result in a single challenge, however, and the spring and summer of 2020 was no exception.
As we focused on navigating the pandemic on our campuses, the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd entered our lexicon. These three Black Americans, like many before them, were killed at the hands of police. Their deaths, and their communities which had dwelled in the shadow of systemic injustice and racism, facilitated an outcry that could not be dismissed. In the United States, and around the globe, the resistance of a 402-year history of white supremacy and racism culminated on the streets of America. Moreover, while few of our students were in residence on our campuses, it also became a day of reckoning for higher education. As leaders, we were suddenly called to respond to systemic racism and injustice in our world and, most importantly, on our campuses. Choosing silence would be a response in its own right: an intentional and damaging response to courageously expressed feelings of anger, frustration, and pain.
As leaders, we were compelled to use our voice and our platform to ensure we are not complicit in racist and unjust structures and to actively work to dismantle centuries-old structures that have disenfranchised and harmed communities of color. In addition, we were tasked with the necessary work to ensure that our institutions can thrive in the future. Can we harness this unique, multifaceted, disruptive moment in our institutional history, or will it be yet another missed opportunity in the pursuit of justice?
This shift in response to injustice is markedly different from the sector’s shift in response to the pandemic. Our need to engage and improve our campuses as it relates to injustice is not a transactional process. It is transformational. As a result, it will be inherently more difficult, important, and necessary. In fact, exemplary leadership in the space of adaptive challenges means we have to release many of the traditions and sense of stability that we hold so dear in order to move into a critically important new space. We have to make ourselves and our institutions vulnerable to challenges, both internally and externally, as we learn new ways of not only being, but leading, a community. At a moment in time when we most crave stability, we have to—of necessity—let go of those programs, policies, and practices that, while stabilizing, may also be disenfranchising.
Our need to engage and improve our campuses as it relates to injustice is not a transactional process. It is transformational.
To truly lead our institutions into the space of becoming anti-racist, of becoming who we say we are, who we say we want to be, we are called to embrace the work of inclusion. We must acknowledge that we all renew our call to an inclusive community every day as we dwell together in pursuit of a shared and common mission.
To do this work as leaders, we must first recognize that we are not engaged in unidirectional transformation with our community. We, too, must be willing to be altered at our core, personally and institutionally, by the students and communities we serve. In order to be open to that transformation, we have to question and challenge ourselves.
As presidents, we must explore our own will around diversity and inclusion. We must determine if we are willing to tackle these broader issues of inclusion and build and support a network of campus and community partners to help do this work. If inclusion is viewed by the leader as merely nice to have, we will encounter great difficulty and be unable to move the campus beyond the “heroes and holidays” perspective of inclusion. Leaders have to craft an entire ecosystem of inclusion that casts a critical yet hopeful eye on our policies, programs, and practices that inhibit inclusion, and be committed to making the necessary changes.
To be clear: an effective, inclusive leader engages a different set of skills than merely running the enterprise. Yes, there are operational, programming, and structural issues when leading with inclusion, but we are also getting to the very heart of people's belief systems. That is difficult, vulnerable, and risky work. If ever there were three words to act as a disincentive to choosing to do the work, I imagine they are difficult, vulnerable, and risky. The work of inclusion is difficult because conversations about race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity, etc., have never been easy and are more politically fraught than ever. If your campus is having these conversations, and they are not difficult for you and the community, then you are likely having the wrong conversations. This transformational work is hard.
If your campus is having these conversations, and they are not difficult for you and the community, then you are likely having the wrong conversations. This transformational work is hard.
Nevertheless, these challenges cannot stop us from being leaders. In fact, the research highlights the unique importance of university leaders having quick and thoughtful responses to student and campus concerns in relation to inclusion. Others, a dean for example, may have a more proximate role to addressing the matter at hand, and under different circumstances, we may be inclined to delegate these concerns to others on our teams. Yet when it comes to issues of inclusion, students, faculty, and others are looking to the presidents to step up, step out, speak up, and speak out about these issues. A singular strategy of delegating the challenges is not an effective one with this topic.
What does this mean for leaders? It means you have to be willing to do four things. First, you have to be a learner when it comes to this topic. None of us have mastered the topic of inclusion or anti-racism. None of us can say we fully understand everyone's experience on our campus, especially given the diverse demographics we see today. We cannot be effective leaders of educational institutions without an openness to seeking and addressing deficits in our own personal learning. We must prioritize and share our inclusion learning agenda with others. Let your community know that you are prioritizing this work and how you are going about it. Support your cabinet in doing the same thing.
Next, accept and acknowledge being uncomfortable. As educators, we know that learning requires some degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance. The process of learning does not change simply because we are presidents. We will be uncomfortable at times. We have to experience that, or else learning cannot occur. Also, keep in mind that some of our students are routinely and systematically made uncomfortable on our campuses. Our discomfort is necessary to grow and make the community stronger for everyone.
As educators, we know that learning requires some degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance.
We must understand and accept that there will be moments of vulnerability. Moments when we have to acknowledge our limits of experience and knowledge. Moments when we will likely need help to better understand the various dimensions of inclusion. I would encourage you to ask for assistance and acknowledge the vulnerability of what that feels like. Good leadership, especially regarding inclusion, is about being vulnerable to those you are leading and being willing to learn from them.
Finally, you have to proactively and consistently listen and do the work of inclusive leadership. As leaders, so often when inclusion issues arise, we treat them as a crises instead of cultural or strategic issues. Doing so is harmful because it makes inclusion a sporadic issue that does not get a president’s ongoing and strategic attention. Further, it damagingly casts the students who raise the issues as problems to be dealt with as opposed to valuable assets pushing our institutions to be better.
The work of inclusive leadership is the work of strategic cultural change. Examining our traditions through a new lens, with a willingness to evolve, rethink, or sometimes even remove these oft-cherished (by some) entities for the longer-term benefit of a healthier and more inclusive community, is vital.
We must intentionally hear from others whose experiences may be dramatically different from our own. We need to hear truths about our culture and create policies reflective of those truths.
As leaders, we can learn and talk about how institutional history and traditions impact what happens on campus today. Personally, and institutionally, we must learn and listen to people who, and moments that, interrogate our shared past and call us to new ways of knowing, being, and acting. Even, perhaps especially, when that learning is counter to what we currently pride ourselves on, we must acknowledge the need to change the culture without that feeling like a loss even as we move away from traditions and toward inclusive innovations. We must intentionally hear from others whose experiences may be dramatically different from our own. We need to hear truths about our culture and create policies reflective of those truths. Just because it is not the truth we want, just because it is not our experience, does not mean it is not true or did not happen or should not be addressed. We must endeavor to hear those truths in a way that empowers our leadership.
As presidents, we already know that leadership is so much more than navigating a crisis, giving speeches, reconciling budgets, and being the living logo. Leaders not only see the beautiful humanity of all those they lead, but they also reveal their humanity in service of that endeavor. At no time has this been more important than this moment, when our communities rely on us to make good decisions and protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. Of no less importance is our literal and symbolic leadership as our nation struggles to address issues of systemic injustice. Today, in no arena is this work more important than in building an inclusive campus community. Our campuses need us to lead with grace, humility, and compassion in all things. Let us be worthy of their hopes.