Trauma-Informed Academic Leadership
In academic leadership, we periodically find ourselves returning to a basic orienting question: What is my role as a leader? The daily grind easily fills in answers that involve the managerial tasks of keeping an organization running from convening meetings to creating budgets. The deep-cut responses, however, get at many of the leadership intangibles that invite a different kind of attention, such as helping an organization make meaning or assisting a group to feel more reconciled moving forward than when they arrived. In short, the role of an academic leader is ultimately about catalyzing the kinds of conditions and environments that support the success and wellbeing of the students and colleagues with whom we work.
Trauma-informed leadership offers a pathway to establish and protect these conditions. In higher education, it’s not just a matter of providing resources to those primarily impacted by trauma; it’s about creating academic environments where all members of a community can thrive. Whether due to sexual violence, a car accident, racial injustice, gun violence, or a global pandemic, trauma is increasingly recognized as commonplace, and cultural as much as personal. Given this ubiquity, a trauma-informed lens on our work emerges as a leadership imperative.
How does trauma travel in higher education organizations?
Trauma is destabilizing for those who endure it. In the aftermath of trauma, issues of safety, control, and trust take on heightened importance (SAMHSA, 2014), and traumatized individuals may experience a higher baseline stress level as a result. This means it may not take much for that person to feel their stress response reactivate as if a new threat were present. In both tangible and metaphorical ways, trauma retunes the nervous system.
Trauma shapes workplace interactions for everyone, regardless of whom it primarily affects. Consider a faculty meeting as a possible illustration. Imagine a heated exchange erupting (even over what seems to be an innocuous issue) and a colleague storming out of the room or abruptly disconnecting from Zoom. In response, some members of that faculty group may label the colleague as “unprofessional,” “overreacting,” or “out of control.” Yet a trauma-informed perspective invites a richer interpretation of this interaction. For example, perhaps that colleague’s intensified reaction reflects one of many possible patterns of traumatization, which include signs of hyperarousal—such as an increased startle response, anger, or irritability (van der Kolk, 2014).
Trauma-informed approaches ultimately require us to work proactively with trauma as much as reactively. Similarly, they call us to confront some difficult realities about our postsecondary cultures and our roles as leaders within them: We create and exacerbate trauma in our organizations through our policies, procedures, and practices. We respond to harm as well as create it. Thus, the imperative for academic leaders is one of not only creating cultures supportive of the success of those impacted by trauma and being attentive to the possibility of trauma in our academic communities but also actively reducing the potential for harm creation.
What would it look like to be a trauma-informed academic leader?
Trauma-informed leadership begins with educating ourselves about trauma and its impacts and there are many excellent resources available to that end. Here, we want to focus on trauma-informed leadership version 2.0, which we envision as not simply being informed about trauma but also being attentive to particular ways of being. In other words, trauma-informed leaders operate in particular ways and create particular conditions supportive of wellness-centric organizations through such approaches as emphasizing humanity and relationships, investigating policy and practice through a trauma lens, and slowing down.
Emphasizing humanity and relationships
Trauma complicates individuals’ capacities for connection, especially when survivors sense that those around them don’t understand what they’re going through. Survivors sometimes internalize a dehumanizing belief that they are “too much” for others. Genuine empathetic relationships, then, are foundational to trauma-informed practice.
Trauma-informed leaders champion authenticity and empathy as cornerstones of healthy organizations, anchoring relationships in genuine connections instead of mere work transactions. Leaders demonstrate care with individuals by prioritizing relationship building, approaching others with respectful curiosity, asking open-ended and nonjudgmental questions, and listening with genuine interest. In private and public settings, leaders normalize expressions of anxiety, doubt, error, grief, struggle, joy, and vulnerability (Manning, 2022). By acknowledging and even modeling these behaviors, trauma-informed leaders send a strong signal across their organizations: it is human to bring both successes and struggle to work, and we acknowledge that humanness.
Investigating policy and practice through a trauma lens
Trauma-informed leadership invites both intentional interpersonal sensitivities and different orientations to organizational policies and procedures. Ironically, practices anchored in principles of consistency, fairness, and reliability can harm students, faculty, and staff. An appeal process might require students to relive traumatic events at home to explain declining academic performance. A room change request might force BIPOC students to enumerate chronic microaggressions from roommates. A workplace bullying investigation might compel postdoctoral researchers to detail threats, belittlement, and harassment from tenured professors who control their professional futures. These bureaucratic realities reveal a need for institutions to audit policies and procedures for potential harm. A trauma-informed leader recognizes that the same attention to empathy and humanity that defines their individual behaviors can also shape the reform of taken-for-granted organizational practices. By adopting a beginner’s mindset, leaders can anchor a comprehensive review of policies in trauma prevention to understand how their institutions create additional harm for individuals. A review of student policies, for example, might be disciplined by the question, “What would the experience of completing this process feel like for someone who has experienced trauma?”
Trauma-informed leadership also requires that we encourage a habit that isn’t reflexive in higher education: slowing down. When we are left without space (whether physical white space on our calendars or metaphorical space to think between interactions and projects), we run the risk of depriving our nervous systems of sufficient resources to decompress. This shortfall affects not only personal trauma but also organizational performance. When workplace norms embrace logics of more-more-more and quantity over quality, we forfeit space for creativity, wellness, and curiosity, which precludes rich interactions that foster understanding and temper snap judgments. In response, trauma-informed leaders understand that slowing down enables sustainable performance over time. A slowing-down agenda might include limiting the number and frequency of meetings, scheduling meetings to brainstorm ideas more than to relay information, empowering (and protecting) faculty and staff to say no, safeguarding blocks of time for creative rumination by establishing email and meeting embargos, and supporting faculty and staff in flexible work arrangements when possible. A trauma-informed leader resists the temptation to cram more into the overloaded portfolios of faculty and staff and instead acknowledges and respects the basic human need for restoration and renewal.
Is one short article sufficient to learn how to embrace a trauma-informed approach to academic leadership? No. But we do hope we have offered some useful starting points. The role of the academic leader is that of creating conditions for faculty, staff, and students to thrive. Trauma-informed leadership nudges us in that direction by prioritizing wellness-centric decision making and interactions and policies that foreground our basic humanity with one another.
Manning, K. (2022, March 31). We need trauma-informed workplaces. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/we-need-trauma-informed-workplaces
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach (HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf
van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
Tricia Shalka, PhD, is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Rochester whose research investigates the impacts of trauma on college student and faculty experiences.
Nathan Harris, PhD, is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Rochester whose research interests explore the challenges of university leadership and governance through the conceptual lens of organization theory.