Gritting Your Teeth and Rolling Up Your Sleeves: Leading Change on Today’s Campus
Way back in the fall of 2020 I published a piece on Medium, “Ten Ways to Promote Culture Change on a University Campus.” I had originally drafted it in 2019, before the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, we were waiting for the vaccine and hopeful that soon everyone would be vaccinated, COVID would quickly recede, and life on our campuses would return to normal. “Ten Ways” is full of that confidence—lots of active verbs and declarative statements: it was written, after all, on the basis of more than 30 years of university experience, many of those spent in positions that had “associate” in the title (that is, positions with a lot of responsibility but little real authority or power). I was pretty sure I knew a thing or two.
Maybe I still do, but I can’t pretend that the campuses on which we teach and research are the same as they used to be. And I can’t pretend that the students, faculty, and staff who form our campus communities are the same either. The past four years have changed us all. If anything, they have also clarified the need to transform our institutions. The impact of the pandemic, the intensified calls for racial justice, the organized attacks on higher education, and budgetary crises spurred in part by a looming recession all call us to remake our campuses and to do so quickly.
But we are tired. We have watched colleges and universities close, consolidate, and cut programs. We have watched political leaders propose legislation that attacks the fundamental values of our institutions. Florida’s House Bill 999, for instance, provides just one of the most egregious examples of the trend. As Julian Roberts-Grmela summarizes it,
If passed, the bill would prohibit public colleges from funding any projects that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.” It would also give boards of trustees unprecedented power over faculty hiring, tenure review, and rewriting university mission statements; ban general-education courses that teach “identity politics” or define American history “as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence”; and ban academic programs in gender studies, critical race theory, and intersectionality.
Even as amended by the Florida senate, it is a depressing assault on higher education. It is exhausting and dispiriting to face the challenges that we do and to face them day in and day out. Perhaps more troubling than this legislation itself is the recent report that not a single president of a public college or university in Florida is willing to voice their views on the proposed reforms.
But we need to remain optimistic and committed. The intensity of the assaults is a reminder of the successes we have already had in shifting our system of higher education from its structurally racist and sexist roots. We haven’t shifted it nearly enough, of course, but attacks from the political right show their anxiety with the impending shifts that will continue to challenge the status quo. Similarly, attacks on the economic cost and value of higher education reflect anxiety with the changes that have already occurred on our campuses (for instance, to increase the number of low-income students, support diversity, and increase the number of women and BIPOC individuals in leadership roles) and with the changes that are looming—changes in technology, changes caused by climate change, and geopolitical changes. The loudness of the assaults reflects the importance of what higher education is doing. It also indicates a recognition that what the next generation needs from higher education may not be what our institutions have been providing. We need to acknowledge this latter point. We all—regardless of our political positions—share a deep anxiety about what kind of future our children and grandchildren will face and how we can best prepare them for its challenges. We can’t let either our exhaustion or partisan divides overwhelm our commitment.
I find that the easiest way to reinvigorate myself and strengthen my commitment when optimism begins to wane is to work directly with our current undergraduate students. This spring, I am teaching a class of traditionally aged students in a first-year seminar that emphasizes critical thinking, communication skills, and ethical reasoning. These students perpetually remind me that we can’t succumb to our exhaustion. As an example: a recent class discussion opened with a discussion of kinds of frameworks for ethical decision making (drawing from the resources provided by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics), and I asked students to suggest a current news story that we might use as a foundation for our class discussion. It was early in March Madness, and I was hoping they might want to talk about basketball. (The University of Alabama, for instance, might have provided us with a case for discussion.) Instead, they were interested in a much weightier issue: they immediately recommended that we discuss the Biden administration’s recent approval of the Willow Project, which will increase oil drilling in Alaska. They knew about it, cared about it, and had strong opinions about the impact of this decision on the planet and their futures. They want our behavior as a society to change.
Students like these deserve all we can give them.
So, how do we power through our frustration, exhaustion, and anxiety to create the change we know our institutions need?
We double down on the basics:
- We keep saying and doing the things we know must be said and done in whatever situations we find ourselves and to whomever we are speaking. It is awkward and uncomfortable, but it is important to articulate both the change that needs to occur and the dangerous consequences that will result from not taking action. There will be times when we will be the specter at the feast, no doubt, but unless our campuses acknowledge the importance of the needed change, there will be no momentum to move the process forward. We need to make sure that we use all the tools and strategies available to us, such as the Change Leadership Toolkit, developed by Ángel de Jesus González, Susan Elrod, and Adrianna Kezar at the University of Southern California and concisely introduced in an essay in Academic Leader.
- We keep pushing forward the data and the documents we know need to be read, analyzed, and discussed. Remind everyone you meet of the specific impact of potential budget cuts: give them the details in specific terms (e.g., every $100,000 cut is the equivalent of approximately one faculty member). Share the data you have about the impact of the program you are proposing on student retention—and remind them that increasing retention and graduation rates becomes more difficult the higher your student success rates already are. Point people on your campus toward the report of the Boyer 2030 Commission: The Equity/Excellence Imperative: A 2030 Blueprint for Undergraduate Education at U.S. Research Universities (2022), which emphasizes that “excellence without equity” is simply “privilege reproducing privilege” and that equity without excellence is “promise unfulfilled” (p. 3). Yes, you will risk becoming a broken record, but it will be for a good reason. Unless we can ensure that all individuals who seek a college education are able to earn their degrees, we will be unable to achieve the more advanced and specific social and economic goals that rely on a well-educated citizenry.
- We acknowledge that the old paradigms need to change, and we have got to listen to the folks that have new ideas. Cathy Davidson, one of the best thinkers around on how to change undergraduate education, summarizes the situation beautifully: “You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You need to create new structures that support equality.” And the problem often is that those of us who have been working in higher education may not be in the best position to see what those new structures might be. Moreover, we keep teaching the next generation of students grounded in the assumptions we were taught ,and we resist revising the structures that govern how our faculty do their work. In other words, we dissuade our students and new colleagues from being innovative. But there is no place for our arrogance: if we knew how to best achieve our goals, we would have erased equity gaps and structural racism by now. We need to be ready to listen to good ideas regardless of their source, even if they come from those outside our institutions or from our critics.
- We keep our egos out of it and keep our eyes on the common good. That means we collaborate across institutions and across political and cultural divides. As much as possible, we have to not worry about our careers or who gets credit. This is harder than it looks. It seems inevitable that once we have attained a position of visible leadership on our campus, we want to keep it (or use it as a stepping stone to a more advanced and better paying position elsewhere). We are all concerned with our financial security and being able to create a solid retirement fund. Still, these understandable concerns can impede our ability to act. (Think again of the silence of Florida’s public university and college presidents.)
- We quash our inner (or not-so-inner) introvert and talk to people. This is particularly hard for me, but we need to recognize that every encounter of the day—be it in the office, the classroom, or the nail salon—provides us with an opportunity to share our data, our ideas, and our proposals with someone who can help our initiative either directly or indirectly. Most of us are trying to “lead from the middle,” and that requires us to influence our leaders as well as our peers and subordinates. Recently I learned of a classic sociological essay, “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark S. Granovetter. Granovetter’s work demonstrates that “it is through [interpersonal connections] that small-scale interaction becomes translated into large-scale patterns” (p. 1360) and that this small scale influence is spread through our contacts and our contacts’ contacts. Our opportunities to influence change, in other words, multiply. We have the power to transform strangers into our advocates.
- We take care of ourselves and recognize that we are here for the long haul. We need to attend to our own wellness—through whatever strategies work for us—and we need to recruit individuals who can work with us and, when the time comes, take over our mission. Succession planning in all professions has taken on increased importance since the pandemic, and we need to make sure that those of us working for change are as invested in identifying and developing the skills of those who will become the next generation of leaders. Each of us has a responsibility to share what we have learned and to encourage those around us to become more involved in the institutions and organizations we lead.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that the changes we are promoting matter. As our budgets, our governments, and our stacks of ungraded papers all weigh heavily upon us, we need to keep focused on our students, our campuses, and the changes that our societies demand us to make. Our institutions can’t stand still, and they need us to help push them into the future.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.