In the past 18 months, students, faculty, and staff experienced what can only be described as trauma. Many have returned to campus after enduring the loss of family members; others are exhausted from nursing sick loved ones back to health or shouldering extra caretaking responsibilities with children. Some have family members who lost their jobs and are struggling to survive financially; others yet are struggling with the visceral examples of systemic racism demonstrated through police violence that were so apparent and visible during the social movement for racial justice. This is compounded by sociopolitical concerns overlapping with the pandemic, including the January 6, 2021, coup attempt as well as far-right legislative assaults on education, trans people, and voting rights.
One thing is for certain: leading in status quo ways will fail. Whether you are a provost, dean, or department chair, it’s time to rethink how to be effective in this new environment. My research on leadership within environments that have been traumatized can provide some direction for leaders as they return to campus this fall. My colleague Sharon Fries-Britt and I developed a collective trauma framework that helps leaders to identify appropriate actions when they are in environments that are experiencing various forms of trauma. Our model, which I lay out below, has three parts: active listening, speaking from the heart, and “acting with.”
Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker (instead of on one’s own perspectives) and improves mutual understanding without debate or judgment. It is a powerful method of responding to stressful and traumatic situations and events. It allows faculty, staff, and students to share problems and struggles, engage with difficult feelings, gain perspective on the experience, take ownership of the situation, rebuild relationships, find their own solutions, and build self-esteem and resilience. Yet most of us have generally poor listening skills, preventing us from actualizing this important practice. Frequently, administrators and faculty think that they are engaged in active listening when they are not. Now is the time to do some professional development and learn about how to be an active listener. There are websites with advice to help do some quick study (such as this one), and there are courses offered online through groups like Udemy and Skillpath as well as through many colleges’ and universities’ communication and social work departments.
As leaders you need to not only enhance your individual active listening skills but also set up avenues for institutional communication venues—forums, town halls, and listening sessions—where campus stakeholders and community members share what they are feeling and as well as their needs. These community meetings need to be done in ways that ensure people feel safe; having a facilitator is often helpful. In forums leaders need to be open and not defensive. When people share their needs and concerns, leaders often interpret it as a critique and defend decisions and actions. This is not helpful. Campuses should train key individuals to expand capacity for active listening in different units. A common refrain from faculty, staff, students, and community stakeholders is that they attend events, forums, and meetings but do not feel heard, as administrators act in ways that don’t honor what was shared.
Speaking from the heart means acknowledging, invoking, and responding to emotions. It involves honest verbal and written communication from administrators, free from political spin and staff editing or polishing. Too often it is the impulse of leaders to use prepared comments in times of trauma so they do not say anything “wrong” that might offend any groups given people’s heightened sensitivity. When leaders speak from the heart, they build the trust needed to overcome fear and fatigue. Prepared comments do not authentically engage community members, who need to have a sense that their leaders can connect to the trauma that they are feeling.
There are various strategies you can employ to speak from the heart. Leaders can be supportive of their community simply by acknowledging that many are experiencing trauma and dealing with difficult emotions. They might also describe their own experiences with discrimination, of losing someone in the pandemic, or of loneliness that they felt from the isolation. Another approach is for leaders to discuss resources—counseling centers, leave policies, financial assistance—available for individuals who might be experiencing difficult emotions and circumstances. Speaking from the heart also means simply asking questions about how people are doing. It is critical to work with staff in your department or unit and help them to recognize the emotions that people are bringing back to campus and explain how they can support students and colleagues.
“Acting with” suggests that leaders need to move forward by directly engaging with community members, especially those most affected by traumatic events. Too often leaders rush ahead with actions to “solve” the problem when there has been a crisis and do not engage with the community, impeding collective recovery from the trauma. “Acting with” requires leaders to move in a measured way that deeply connects with community members and allows them to inform the strategy going forward. During the pandemic we have seen many campuses make unilateral decisions that have harmed their communities. There may be some distrust about whether academic leaders are really willing to work with others given this recent history.
There are several ways that academic leaders can act with the community. Academic leaders need to work to exhibit a democratic leadership style and seek feedback about emerging policies especially related to promotion and evaluations that will shape people’s future. In developing new policies, create broad planning mechanisms that include all stakeholders; as we know, women and especially women of color were particularly hard hit in the pandemic, and we need to make sure their voices are included. Given the unilateral decisions made in the past 18 months, there may be some bad feelings and difficult conversations. It is important for academic leaders to learn how to model difficult discussions. Part of acting with other people is being able to engage different perspectives in a respectful and constructive way. Another vehicle for acting with is making governance structures more inclusive, creating more two-way communication channels with faculty, staff, and students and by proactively reaching out to them for recommendations.
I hope the above considerations can assist academic leaders as they return to campuses that will be mired in trauma this year. For more information, please see our full reports:
Fries-Britt, S., & Kezar, A. (2020). Leading after a racial crisis: Weaving a campus tapestry of diversity and inclusion. American Council on Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Leading-After-a-Racial-Crisis.pdf
Kezar, A., & Fries-Britt, S. (2018). Speaking truth and acting with integrity: Confronting challenges of campus racial climate. American Council on Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Speaking-Truth-and-Acting-with-Integrity.pdf
Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Wilbur-Kieffer Endowed Professor and Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Southern California.