LG6: Values

Part 6 in this early draft of Leading Generously. This puts us a little over halfway through, so it seems a good moment to reiterate: what I most need in order to make this project into the thing it should become is examples. Stories of institutional transformation, both successful and failed, from a broad range of perspectives and institutions. Drop me a message at kfitz @ kfitz.info if you’d be willing to share yours with me. All such contributions can be fully anonymized or attributed as you prefer, and I’ll check my inclusion of them with you before publication.


* * *

You are what you measure.

We live and work in a world that is deeply invested in assessment. We need at all times to know how we’re doing at both a program level and individually, whether we’re working adequately toward our goals, how our work compares both with our own expectations and with those around us. Whether we think of the situation in these particular businessy terms or not, we are all constantly evaluating our work with reference to a bunch of KPIs, or key performance indicators, metrics that someone, somewhere, has decided are relevant in thinking about effectiveness and productivity.

KPIs vary widely from domain to domain. In a library, the KPIs used to evaluate units and services might include numbers of patrons served, numbers of books checked out, numbers of articles retrieved, numbers of searches of the catalog, numbers of unfulfilled requests. In a college or department, the KPIs might include numbers of course sections that fill, numbers of students per section, numbers of students on waiting lists, numbers of majors, percentages of students who graduate within five years, and so on.

Individual faculty members are likewise asked to report on a range of KPIs, though they’re rarely given that label. For faculty, KPIs include numbers of publications, numbers of citations, numbers of presentations, average ratings on course evaluations, and more. And in some fields there are indexes that perform calculations on raw numbers in order to convert them into something more comparable, like the h-index.

KPIs, in other words, are the data we get assessed upon. These figures can be important to track, but like all metrics they boil an often complex story down into a set of numbers that can be used in comparisons that are often competitive in nature. And what those metrics often leave out is their purpose: Why are these the things we’re measuring? Why, in the larger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish, do they matter?

KPIs can be useful in that they can help us set goals: if we want to expand the reach of a community-oriented project, for instance, we might figure out how many people we’ve reached with that project and how many we’d like to reach in the coming year. Assessing our progress toward that goal can tell us something about the effectiveness of our outreach methods and, if we can drill down further into the data, we might be able to learn something about which outreach methods have been most effective.

But there are a lot of things that we can’t learn from standard, quantitative KPIs. We can’t really begin to understand why members of the communities we want to work with are engaging with us. And we certainly can’t understand why they aren’t. We can’t understand what the purpose of building engagement is, and whether we’re serving that purpose or merely growing a number. We can’t really measure the good that we’re doing based on metrics.

That is to say: Goals such as these are important, as is assessing our work relative to those goals. But the goals themselves are empty unless they are grounded in our deepest values, unless they speak directly to our purpose and mission. And likewise, the metrics we use to assess our progress will likewise be empty unless they include a full reckoning with those values.

It’s not a coincidence, after all, that the root of “evaluation” is “value.” Reflecting on the role that our values play in the goals we set and the ways we mark our progress toward them can help us refocus our work, and our assessment practices for that work, not on an abstracted set of KPIs but rather on the things that matter most to us. But how can we begin to develop a set of goals that are fully infused with the values that we bring to our work? How can we measure our progress toward those goals when neither the goals themselves nor the evidence of progress are numerically representable, but instead require deep reflection and narrative response?

The first step — obvious, perhaps, but not easy — is to begin by articulating the values that we bring to the work we do. Part of the challenge in this process lies in the pluralness of that “we.” We often assume, especially when we’re working in collective contexts, that our values are shared and that our terminology is as well. The process of articulating a set of shared values, however, can bring to the surface all of the different experiences and perspectives that different members of our communities bring to understanding the terms we use and the values they represent.

This was what the team behind the HuMetricsHSS initiative discovered early in their work. Their project is focused on developing a set of humane metrics for the humanities and social sciences, ways of thinking about evaluation that might allow scholars to focus in on the things that really matter to their work, rather than abstract, competitive, quantative goals of the KPI sort. The principal investigators on the HuMetrics team had worked together for some time on developing a shared language for talking about the things that matter most to them in academic work, and at an early workshop they brought that language into the discussion — only to find that the participants wanted to discuss, and even dispute, the language itself. This move could easily have been dismissed as being no more than a bunch of scholars quibbling about terms, but the team took the opportunity to refocus the workshop on those discussions, recognizing that what they were seeing was not mere resistance but rather the need that every community has to be able to shape and describe its own values, for its own purposes.

The process of articulating those values is of necessity a recursive one, and one that will likely never reach a fully finalized state. But connecting the naming and defining of values with the development of methods of evaluation is a necessary part of building the assessment systems that can support those values rather than working at cross purposes with them. This is especially true when the object of our assessment is people rather than programs: ensuring that we’re evaluating the right things requires us to think long and hard about what we value and why, and then to develop means of focusing in on those things that we value.

No doubt this sounds obvious: of course we should evaluate our work and our colleagues’ work based on the things that matter most to achieving our collective goals. The problem is that in many cases we’re still assessing the wrong things. We strive to be as objective as we can in our evaluation processes, with all the best intentions: we want to minimize the effects of bias by restricting our attention to things for which there is empirical evidence. And somehow we’ve decided that the most neutral form of empirical evidence is numerical. After all, some numbers are bigger than others, and all numbers can be ordered and compared.

But the result of this focus on the numerical is that what counts in our evaluative processes is too often boiled down to those things that we can count, as if those were identical usages of the same word rather than two parallel definitions. We focus in on our KPIs — serving x number of patrons; publishing y number of articles; raising z dollars in external funding — as if the numbers were the matter itself, rather than a means to an end.

This question of means and ends in personnel evaluations is being investigated by my colleagues in the College of Arts & Letters at MSU, including our dean, Christopher P. Long, and our associate deans, Cara Cilano, Sonja Fritzsche, and Bill Hart-Davidson. The ends, as they frame them, are about intellectual leadership: things like sharing knowledge within our communities, expanding opportunity for those around us, and stewardship of our institutions and our fields. Those are the goals, the things we strive for as we do the work. But the things we actually measure in faculty evaluations, for instance, are numbers and venues of publications, average student course evaluation ratings, key committee and field-based service roles. Those things are our KPIs, and they’re the means to an end, the ways we share knowledge, expand opportunity, and care for our institutions. But because these are the things we assess, they have a tendency to become ends in themselves, rather than remaining means: we value the publication as if it were the goal rather than a step along the way toward the goal. And worse: we have a tendency not to acknowledge other potential means (things like public-facing writing or community-engaged research) even when they help us better reach those desired ends.

As a result, Dean Long and his team have begun implementing modes of review that highlight long-term goals, and that focus on the degree to which short-term accomplishments pave the way toward those goals. Each member of the faculty and staff, in their annual review materials, is asked to reflect on that deeper vision for themselves and their careers — the kinds of intellectual leadership that they would most like to embody — and then to think about their shorter-term projects in light of those goals. Supervisors and department chairs are asked to treat the annual review process as a moment of checking in on progress and as an opportunity for mentoring, focusing on the objectives and needs of the person under review rather than on the KPIs. This process opens up room for a faculty member to make the case that their goals would best be supported by publishing in nontraditional venues, or by participating in unusual collaborations, and it opens up room for a staff member to describe their desires to grow and develop in their work. And it encourages evaluators to explore ways that they can support that development.

This process, you might be thinking, seems to imply a highly individualized set of evaluation criteria, rather than a standard that can be applied objectively to everyone. It’s true! What this evaluation process rests on, however, is the bedrock of values that the college has collectively articulated and continues to re-articulate for itself. Objectivity is not among those values, in large part because of the ways its presumed neutrality in fact covers a range of inherent biases. Our values instead include transparency, community, and equity: ensuring that our processes are themselves open to evaluation, that we work to support one another, and that we champion a wide diversity of goals and paths toward reaching them. These goals not only require individuated attention to the actual people with whom we work, but also a determination to move away from a review system that focuses on competitive metrics and toward one that facilitates the best work that each of us can do.

A few challenges lie in this values-oriented mode of working, however. As the HuMetrics team discovered, values are not universal; they imply radically different things for different people. Surfacing those differences and figuring out how to honor them is a key component of the articulation of values. And that articulation must be a recurrent, recursive process: circumstances change, communities change, and with each change we must return to our discussions of values to ensure that they appropriately represent us.

Perhaps most importantly, articulating your community’s values and assessing the work done by that community in ways that uphold them only matter if each of the members of your community is held accountable to those values. Breaches of those values must be taken seriously. What that means will differ from community to community, and will vary based on the nature of the breach, but at root level accountability requires an acknowledgement that the value has not been upheld and a commitment to doing better. And this requirement that we hold ourselves accountable applies to everyone in the hierarchy, but it is most important for leaders themselves: if our failures to live out the values we espouse for our communities have no consequences, the values themselves will become meaningless, and we will erode the trust required to make a values-based approach work.

But if we are able to work with our communities to articulate our deepest values, to set our goals in keeping with those values, to create forms of assessment that center those values, and to establish means of remaining accountable to one another for upholding those values — all of this has the potential to radically transform the ways we work, the reasons we work, and the collective joy we bring to that work. And not least, it has the potential to transform our assessment practices from sterile moments of bean-counting that pull us away from the work that’s most important to us, creating in their place moments of deep reflection that feed and support the work itself.

LG5: Vulnerability

Here’s part 5. And boy, do I feel this one. Looking forward to any thoughts or stories you’re willing to share. Please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to write me at kfitz at kfitz.info.


* * *

Show up.

The approach to leadership that I’m describing here — starting where you are, focusing on the people around you, listening deeply to their concerns and desires — is not always easy. Working on building the kinds of connections that can bring people together to create transformative change requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. Opening yourself to really hear what those around you are saying entails lowering the protective barriers provided by your own assumptions and experiences in order to let other perspectives in — but lowering those barriers also creates room for criticism and sets the stage for a range of difficult emotional responses.

There is a kind of leader — especially one in a highly visible leadership position, likely to have been trained in traditional styles of management that privilege the strong leader who speaks clearly and decisively from a position of authority — who may worry that the passivity and discomfort implied in deep listening set them up to appear “weak.” And particularly the potential for emotional responses: showing their unease, their sorrow, their uncertainty, their regret feel too much like showing their belly. They may feel overexposed and vulnerable to attack.

Vulnerable, certainly — but vulnerability does not imply openness to attack. In fact, the association of vulnerability with weakness is part of the problem that we face in organizational life today. Leaders, we have long been told, are supposed to be strong. Decisive. Respected. Looked up to — and therefore elevated above the crowd. This remove creates protection, but it also creates distance. If we understand leadership to be grounded in relationship-building, in connection, we’ll begin to recognize that our leaders need to come down from their platforms in order to reach the people with whom they need to connect. This is not weakness, but it does require a willingness to make oneself vulnerable.

But if vulnerability is not weakness, what is it? Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”1 In fact, it’s letting go of the need to control the outcome. It’s a willingness to engage directly with the people in your institution and the people that your institution serves, both those who agree and those who disagree, and to see what you might do together. Vulnerability is a willingness to try ideas out, and a readiness to acknowledge when your ideas are wrong. Vulnerability is an admission that you are human, that your knowledge is partial, and that you need the input and advice and support of the people around you in order to make the best decisions you can.

In this, you might begin to get a sense of why vulnerability’s apparent opposite — invulnerability — is not merely impossible but also undesirable. Invulnerability isn’t strength. True leaders aren’t armor-plated, not least because that armor prevents them from interacting with their environment, from sensing change, from connecting. Strength in leadership in fact requires vulnerability: removing the armor, engaging with difficulties, with changes in the environment, and even with criticism. Only through such willingness to be vulnerable — to have the courage to show up unarmored — can you model real engagement and connection and remain open to moving in a better direction.

This is never more true than during times of crisis. When the community you lead is frightened or hurting, it’s crucial to be with them not just rhetorically but in action, to acknowledge and reveal not just their fear and pain but your own as well. This is risky: if you haven’t earned the trust of your community, it’s easy for public expressions like this to sound like a calculated, empty form of faux empathy, of the “I feel your pain” variety. And this leads us back to the question that started part of this project: How can you enact generosity in hard times? In no small part the answer is by having built the foundations of generosity before times get hard, by having established the generous principles and practices that build trust and then relying on those principles and practices to help get you through.

If you have that trust, you can build upon it by sharing your own concerns with your community. But if you haven’t yet built that trust? Acknowledging that, admitting mistakes, and expressing your genuine desire to repair the breach can begin the process.

The key here is recognizing where the concerns of your community in the midst of crisis are concerns you genuinely share, and where they are concerns that you need to understand, where those concerns are about you and your willingness and ability to work through the crisis with them rather than at their expense. When your community is looking to you for solutions, it’s vitally important to share not just what you do know but what you don’t, what you need their help with, where pockets of uncertainty make clear answers difficult. And it’s especially important to remain in open communication — and that this communication not become a one-way transmission of announcements and updates, but an opportunity for dialogue.

I’ve had experiences with leaders who are good at this kind of openness, and I’ve had experiences with leaders who are disastrous at it. Far too many of us will recognize the description of the university president who effectively builds walls around the office, using an inner circle of advisors to keep others away. Directives and pronouncements emerge, but crucial information that the president needs to know may never make it to them. Worse, they may receive that information without being required to acknowledge or act upon it. Worst of all, the distinction between those two circumstances — between engineered ignorance and willful ignoring — is invisible to the community, which is left to deal with the consequences alone.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with some phenomenal leaders, and I hope that you have as well, leaders who can provide models for the kinds of openness and vulnerability we should all work toward. For the last several years I’ve worked directly with a dean who, in the midst of an unimaginably painful crisis of conscience for our institution, spoke openly and frankly enough with the college that we were able to see his emotional response and understand that he was genuinely in the same turmoil we were — and that he would work with us to forge a new path.

This same dean has brought transparency to a whole series of the processes of his office, including budgeting, developing more collaborative discussions and ways of working among the chairs and directors and other leaders who report to him. In the usual budgeting process, for instance, chairs make requests of the dean for new lines and other forms of strategic investment, and those requests disappear into a black box of sorts, with a result emerging that may or may not come with much in the way of explanation. Our dean instead asked all of the chairs and directors to share their requests with the entire group, enabling everyone to better understand the needs that exist across the college, but also providing opportunities for units to collaborate with one another in thinking about how to fulfill those needs. The entire group then discussed the college’s values and priorities and rated the requests based on them. It was a messy process, and at times an uncomfortable one, as many of us found it hard to rank the needs of our colleagues when all are so pressing.

In many ways, however, that discomfort was the point, as it allowed all of us to understand viscerally the kinds of difficult choices that always have to be made in processes such as these. In the end, the decision-making moment remained with the dean, but allowing those who lead the units within the college to see and genuinely advise on the process leading to those decisions has produced both deeper recognition of the complexity of the choices that have to be made and deeper trust in the reasoning behind the decisions.

Most importantly, that process began during a relatively good year, budget-wise, when there were strategic investments to be made. We are now in the thick of a disastrous year, as is so much of higher education in 2020. And the dean has convened a group of task forces to advise him, in much the same manner, on ways to make the cuts that are required while maintaining the college’s values. Those task forces, like so much else in organizational life, will wind up being advisory rather than authoritative, but one key to getting the unit leaders’ investment in the extremely painful work we’re doing has been that the dean continues to show up. We have all summer had a weekly call — not a memo, not a webinar — in which the dean lets us know what he knows, lets us know what he doesn’t know, and does his best to answer any questions that we may have. His willingness to acknowledge when he doesn’t know how to answer a question, and his determination to keep showing up for the dialogue, have been crucial to maintaining the trust that he’d built in better times.

There are risks involved in opening up your decision-making processes, in inviting participation, in remaining open to ongoing communication. And there are certainly risks involved in allowing those you work with to see your own uncertainty, your frustration, your anxiety. But not doing so presents guaranteed problems: invulnerability breeds communication failures and active distrust. Acknowledging and revealing your vulnerability can be painful, but it creates the possibility for real trust and communication to grow.

One word of caution, however: few things are more infuriating than the performance of vulnerability. Wearing your worries on your sleeve can wind up looking like a transparent attempt to fend off criticism through an appeal to sympathy. Genuine vulnerability is not about display, but rather about being wholly present in a difficult situation, opening up real communication, and inviting participation in thinking through solutions. It also requires follow-through: keeping the lines of communication open once decisions have been made, ensuring that the reasoning that went into the decisions is in line with the values that your community upholds. Not everyone will agree with those decisions, but your willingness to show up, to accept criticism, to hear new ideas, can help maintain trust in difficult times.

LG4: Listening

This is the fourth in a series of eleven or so posts, opening up my in-progress project, Leading Generously. I’m posting this material at this highly drafty stage in large part because I recognize the inescapably partial nature of my perspective on the kinds of transformative change I’m hoping to foster, and I need your help to make this project work. I invite your suggestions for expansion and your stories of change, both successful and not. Please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to write me at kfitz at kfitz.info. Thanks for joining me, and for any thoughts you’re willing to share.


* * *

Lead by learning. Learn by listening.

In the last chapter, we explored the distinctions between management and leadership, and on the importance of focusing on leading people rather than institutions. I also noted that leading people is not a matter of telling them what to do, but rather of building a collective sense of purpose and finding ways to support everyone as the work toward living out that purpose. Doing so requires you to know the people you’re working with, to understand their concerns, and to learn from their ideas. And that demands that a leader do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.

I have explored the importance of listening as a practice at length in Generous Thinking, so I won’t rehash that here. The key, however, is recognizing that in every exchange, with every member of your broader community, you have more to learn than you think. In fact, if you open yourself to it, you have more to learn than you do to teach.

And real listening requires being open to what you hear, rather than simply performing a listening state. There’s all too much of that these days: organizational life is filled with “listening sessions” that ask key stakeholders to take the time and exercise the significant effort to share their experiences and opinions. Our campuses are filled with advisory committees, task forces, working groups, all of whose members are asked to invest their energy and care in developing recommendations for the administration to act upon. When those listening sessions and task force reports pass without appreciable results — with management instead making the choice everyone knew it was always going to make — all that labor and investment winds up not just unproductive but counterproductive. It breeds distrust and disinvestment.

On the other hand, listening sessions that result in real action — that invite further investment and involvement on the part of those sharing their thoughts, and that give them a genuine sense of having made a contribution — can actively build community. And advisory groups that are truly heard by those they advise, and that are able likewise to communicate openly with the constituencies they represent, can build trust.

The factor that makes the difference in these two outcomes is deep listening. Deep listening is not just hearing others out but really attempting to understand, internalize, and act upon what you’re being told.

That is of course not to say that you can adopt or act upon every idea or opinion that you hear. Some ideas might be undesirable. Others might be desirable but difficult. Those ideas still need to be spoken, and listened to, and acknowledged. If you have a genuinely open forum, with a broad enough participation, the undesirable ideas are likely to be countered by differing perspectives, and the difficult ideas might begin to suggest possibilities. The key is the role of the leader in the listening sessions: not just nodding, not just taking notes, but instead asking further questions that can help to elicit more input rather than shutting that input down. It also requires, as Arlie Hochschild demonstrates in Strangers in Their Own Land, checking in to see if you’re taking the right things from what you’re being told, reframing what you’re hearing and asking whether you’ve gotten it right.

Deep listening requires a willingness not just to lead people in the directions that we already want to go, but instead to take our lead from those we are supposed to guide. If we’re willing to do that — to put aside ego, expectations, presumptions, and instead focus on what we’re being told, what we might be missing — we can develop plans that will be better because they’re more matched to actual community needs.

This is especially true of support services on campus, as those who use existing services know far better than we do what’s working and what’s not. But it’s also true of the curriculum. In fact, this is where listening becomes most important, because the faculty and the administration have lived within the curriculum for most of their lives; we bring to it not just long-standing field-based expertise but also a host of assumptions about the forms of knowledge necessary to produce the outcomes we seek to create.

What might happen, however, if we were to recognize that the outcomes are not ours to create? The outcomes in the end belong to our students, and so might best be shaped in collaboration with those students. We have the potential to work with them to build something entirely new, instead of reproducing our own structures of knowledge.

This potential is perhaps most enhanced if we’re willing to listen to the experiences and goals of first-generation students, rural students, as well as students from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. Many, though by no means all, of these students come to college and university campuses with different needs and intentions for their educations than do middle-class suburban white students. Their goals are often far less individual than they are community-oriented, and they bring family and community concerns with them to campus. What might be possible if, rather than finding ways to inculcate these students into the conventional structures of the university, we instead took our lead from them and their needs and desires? What if we genuinely listened to what they had to tell us, and learned from it, and built structures and curricula that centered their experiences and goals?

In moments of crisis and conflict, it’s especially important that leaders listen carefully to those who have been harmed by the failures of existing systems and structures. It was the voices of the Sister Survivors at MSU, testifying about their experiences in open court and at great personal cost, that finally forced overdue institutional attention to be paid not just to a horrific campus predator but also to the structures that enabled him to assault hundreds of young women. Those assaults were made possible by the number of people who refused to listen when they were told what was happening, who refused to believe what they were being told, who refused to act once they’d heard. And the case at MSU is far from unique: on campuses around the country, predatory behavior is not just ignored but facilitated by policies and processes that punish those who speak out against it. Genuinely transformative justice — justice that seeks not retribution against the individuals who cause harm but rather fundamental change in the circumstances and structures that enable the harm — can only start with deep attention to those who have been harmed.

When you listen to the people most affected by your institution’s policies and processes, you’re likely to be confronted with a lot of things you’d rather not hear. They’re painful, they’re inconvenient, they’re at odds with the ways you’d prefer to think of yourself, your institution, your commitments. But none of that makes the things you’re hearing untrue. None of it is cause for refusing to listen. It is cause, rather, for some difficult work, both personal and structural, seeking ways to open yourself to the possibility that everything you’re hearing is true, and demands action.

LG3: People

Well, that was a week. Days of anxiously reloading every news outlet I could, followed by some precious hours of celebration and relief. And now… the fight continues.

This is part three in a roughly eleven-part project-in-process, collectively entitled Leading Generously. Your help in expanding my thinking is enormously appreciated! For the story thus far:

* * *

Lead people, not institutions.

In the introduction to this book, I talked a bit about why I focus on individuals as agents of change. It is without question the institutions and systems that hold sway over our lives that require transformation. These are the structures that enact and sustain privilege and oppression, that keep us ignorant of one another’s struggles, that keep us competing for resources and support. These are the structures that must be reimagined and rebuilt in order to foster the kinds of generosity, equity, and integrity we’d like to see in the world — but these structures are not going to transform themselves. If anything, the institutions and systems around us are self-reinforcing.

If we’re going to change our institutions, we — people — are going to have to plan, execute, and follow through on that transformative work. The initiative for that work needs to begin with individuals and proceed through the coalitions and communities that they form.

And that leads me to the key claim for this chapter: those coalitions and communities are far more important than institutions. The relationships they foster and represent are the source of our institutions’ humanity, and without them, even the most ostensibly mission-driven not-for-profit may as well be a soulless private equity firm. None of our structures and processes matter at all unless they are at the service of people, rather than the other way around.

People first. Relationships first. Coalitions and communities first.

The corollary to this? If you are in a leadership position, your job is to lead people, rather than the structures within which those people operate.

Don’t misunderstand me; I recognize that managing an institution is key to its survival. The institution must have appropriate budgetary processes and governance structures and so forth if it is going to survive. And of course one requirement for managing an organization is a willingness to make hard choices when they are necessary for the organization’s survival.

But the mere survival of an institutional structure is not enough, because the structure without the people is a hollow shell. And if an institution is going to become genuinely, structurally capable of generosity, of both fostering community internally and supporting rich connections to communities externally, it must put those people first. The relationships and connections with and among those people are necessary to ensuring that a mission-driven organization or institution can remain true to its mission, especially where that mission is centered around the public good.

It’s of course a bit of a commonplace in management to say things like “people are our business,” to emphasize with pride the role that “human capital” plays in the organization’s success. All without hearing the deeply dehumanizing effects of terms like that: human capital, human resources. Relegating the human to the position of adjective, used to qualify one part of an organization’s assets, is an utter failure of humanity. People are not adjectives in the service of capital. In order to lead, it’s crucial to understand who you’re leading: people, not capital, not resources. The terms need to be flipped, not just rhetorically but structurally: we must understand our organizations and institutions as existing in service to the human, the humane.

Doing so requires leading people rather than leading institutions. It requires seeking at every turn to refocus on the needs and concerns of those who contribute to the institution, and it requires working to maintain a clear vision of the humanity not just of those whom the institution serves but also of the structures through which you serve them.

The need to ensure that connections and relationships come first poses a real challenge for many in leadership roles. The org chart often reveals the problem: the higher you climb in the organization’s hierarchy, it seems, the fewer opportunities for connection with others are readily available. Too many top executives are surrounded only by their senior executive team. Some are isolated by happenstance and some by choice. And all of the members of those executive teams — like any of us — have gotten where they are through a particular kind of attention to the institution and its needs. Those senior executive teams are often hand-picked and nearly always comparatively homogenous, leading to a narrowing of perspective and a flattening of focus.

The results can be devastating. Communication between management and rank-and-file becomes a one-way transmission of announcements. Senior management filters information before it reaches the top executive. Morale and trust throughout the institution suffer, as the concerns of employees and constituents go unheard and unacted-upon, and as the announcements from above come from an increasingly remote and incomprehensible perspective.

This gulf between management and the rest of the organization becomes all the wider in moments of crisis. Expressions of care from the top ring hollow as it becomes clear to everyone that “we’re all in it together” is merely rhetorical, when there’s no sense whatsoever of the we that could conceivably be together. In 2020, astonishingly, a few university presidents have publicly expressed their willingness to sacrifice the lives of a small percentage of their students, faculty, and staff in order to “save” the institution, opening a serious question about what those leaders think their institution is for, if not those people.

I want to linger on this situation a moment longer, because it’s a far starker example of the need to remember that the object of leading is people than I ever wanted to be provided with. During the summer of 2020, calls to restart in-person instruction within institutions of higher education were frequently framed as a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we were told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.

Shining through that concern for students is thus the actual locus of concern: the future of the institution. As I hope Generous Thinking made clear, I am a deep believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned, if imperfectly, as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I, like the vast majority of faculty and staff, will do a lot to ensure that those institutions survive. But institutions do not automatically deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of the people they comprise in order to do so.

I want to be clear: I understand that the executive teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival, and a signficant portion of that survival is bound up in the revenue provided by students who pay to attend. And thus getting the students on campus matters far more than their well-being once they’ve arrived, and certainly more than the well-being of those who fall on the expense side of the budget. (There’s another book to be written on this particular problem: the long-term ramifications of the neoliberal turn away from public investment in higher education and toward a market-oriented model of financing has submerged our campuses in the death cult of capitalism. But I digress.)

The bottom line — and I use the term advisedly — is that we must consider what our institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution’s survival is moot.

Even more, caring for the lives of those people means caring for their whole lives, and not just the hours they spend on our campuses or in our offices. This requires understanding that their families and communities are not just at-times inconvenient background noise distracting them from their on-campus roles but are in fact part of the reason they fulfill those roles. It requires backing that understanding up with family- and community-friendly policies that enable students and staff to meet the full range of their obligations. It requires a kind of care that is transitive, that doesn’t just express concern for those directly connected with the campus but that supports those people in their objects of concern.

Caring for the entirety of these people also means working to understand their differences, to support them in those differences. It means hearing and valuing their perspectives, especially when they disagree, rather than requiring that they get in line. Leading people can never mean simply ordering them about, but rather must be focused on building a collective sense of purpose, and finding ways to help everyone work toward living out that purpose. And the collectivity of that purpose means that sometimes you’ll find yourself serving purposes that belong to those you lead. I’ll talk about this more much later, but this kind of solidarity — understanding that those you lead can only be with you if they are certain that you are also with them — is a crucial component of living up to the missions that our institutions espouse.

LG2: You

This is the second draft chapter of eleven-ish in Leading Generously. See the overview and the first chapter for the story thus far.

And given the focus of this chapter, and its most auspicious date, if you haven’t yet, please go vote. Vote like your future depends on it. Because it does.

* * *

Lead where you are.

This book and the principles that it explores begins with and is addressed to you: not just because you’re the one who has picked it up, but because all transformative change must begin with you.

This statement contradicts a lot of our assumptions about change, and about leadership. When we think of leaders, we tend to focus on the people at the top of an organization. Those are leaders, we assume: they are highly publicly visible, and they have the clout and the authority to make a difference in the ways their organizations function.

Perhaps. But I tend to think, more often than not, that referring to the folks at the top of an org chart as “leadership” is a misleading euphemism. It’s true that many of those people got to where they are because they are leaders. But you’ll notice that the cause and effect in the previous sentence is reversed from what you might expect: they got the jobs because they are, at least in principle, leaders; it’s not the jobs that make them leaders.

In fact, most of what comes to us from above in our institutions and organizations is management rather than leadership. Leadership as I explore it in the pages ahead is not a role but a quality. Most importantly, it is a quality that anyone can demonstrate, regardless of where in your organization’s hierarchy you might fall.

Leadership is a willingness to bring people together to cultivate change. Leadership is a willingness to point the way toward more thoughtful, more inclusive, more just ways of working. Leadership is a commitment to bringing out the best in those around you, and to helping them become leaders, too. And that can happen anywhere in the org chart.

The trick lies in finding the things over which you have some input or even control. Within a college or university, the principle of shared governance usually delegates authority over particular spheres or processes to the faculty. For instance, the curriculum is often defined as belonging to and controlled by the faculty. Departments and other units within the institution also have governance processes through which members of the unit can propose change. There are often — wrongly — limitations on participation in those processes for people in less-empowered employment categories, such as non-tenure-track faculty, staff, or graduate students, but there are likely still means for you to make your voice heard. (And if not, that may be the area on which your mobilization for change should focus. More on this to come.) The important thing is to find those structures and processes that you can shape and improve.

Improvement is key: what we’re aiming for is building an institution that is more just, more caring, more generous. One that respects and supports the work of all of its members. One that recognizes that living up to its mission requires serving not just its clients but its own community as well. Building that kind of institution demands that we all examine the ways that we work and make sure they serve this larger good. It may sound mushy, but this kind of ongoing institutional self-examination is the first, most crucial step in transformative change.

Here’s an example — and it’s one of the more famously intractable areas of academic life: tenure and promotion standards and processes. The first requirement in approaching these standards and processes is recognizing that there is a problem. This recognition can be a challenge, given that so many of those in positions of authority over these processes have succeeded under their auspices. However, those standards as written often have not kept up with changes in the fields they address, including innovations in the means and modes of communication. They rely on forms and metrics originally designed for some fields, often in STEM, that have to be retrofitted for others like the arts. They presume that fairness emerges from treating all candidates identically, rather than understanding candidates individually. And they have often been in place long enough that they give the impression of solidity: it’s not clear who really owns them, or how they could possibly be revised.

As a result, the members of any given academic department may feel stuck with the policies they have, bound by their college or university’s authority over them. Senior faculty advising on tenure and promotion cases that contain innovative work, for instance, can be heard to say things like “personally, I’d love to give credit for that kind of publication, but The Administration will never accept that.” In a mentoring situation, this kind of statement is often accompanied by the sentiment that a friend of mine once described as “anticipatory remorse,” in which the senior colleague expresses deep regret for the damage that they would have caused to your career should they have allowed you to take this unsanctioned path.

Very often, however, the cause for this remorse isn’t there at all. Every dean or provost I have ever talked with about tenure and promotion has indicated, to some extent or another, that while they might own a portion of the process, they do not own the standards those processes employ. They do not define or maintain the list of what “counts” in these processes, in other words, but instead take their guidance from field-based experts — and usually from the departments themselves. Their role, as most deans and provosts understand it, is to uphold the standards once they’re defined, but not to define them.

What this means is that a department, and the faculty within that department, have far more power to define those standards than they usually think. If a department were to send a clear, good-faith argument to the dean and/or provost demonstrating that, in their field, these innovative forms of scholarly production or communication are now considered by experts in the field to be just as valid and provide comparable opportunities for research impact to those provided by more traditional forms, the administration would very often be guided by that argument.

My own department at Michigan State recently undertook this work. We opened up the department’s bylaws for revision, hoping to strengthen throughout the description of our governance processes the manifestations of our commitment to equity and inclusion. The voting members of the faculty were divided into subcommittees that examined and made recommendations about particular sections of the bylaws, and one such subcommittee, the one I joined, focused on our annual review and promotion and tenure review processes. Our discussions were challenging, but we expanded the departmental definition of what “counts” under the heading of research from a narrow focus on conventionally peer-reviewed books and journal articles to a much broader range of forms — including public-facing work such as exhibitions, performances, films and videos, and digital projects — and a much broader range of review processes. We maintain throughout a commitment to demonstrated excellence (what some might think of as “rigor”) but without the false assumption that only certain forms or processes can give rise to such excellence, or can allow us to recognize it. Our revisions also explicitly stipulate that even the expanded list of what counts isn’t exhaustive, and that attention must be paid to new forms and mechanisms for producing engaged and engaging scholarship that are developing around us.

By capturing such expansiveness in our bylaws, we’ve established a kind of generosity as part of our department ethos. We’re lucky to have been able to do so with the support of a dean who is similarly working to cultivate generosity and care as the foundation of the work being done across our college. It’s easy to imagine a circumstance under which a less forward-thinking dean, or a more metrics-minded provost, might find our revisions to be not just an opening up of our standards but a lowering of those standards. But we have amassed support from the national professional organizations that guide work done in our department’s fields, each of which has issued a set of guidelines for the evaluation of scholarship produced in new media forms, as well as calls for including more publicly-engaged work under the rubric of scholarship. With this field-level support, the argument for changing department standards and processes becomes all the more compelling.

Changing the form — and I mean that literally here: ours is called “Form D” — that personnel assessments employ is a slightly different endeavor. In all very large organizations, and in an increasing number of smaller ones, there is a form for everything. In recent years, many of these forms have been moved online and turned into systems. And the thing about these forms and systems is that everyone hates them, but everyone feels bound by them. Because there are no alternatives. Because it’s how things are done. This is particularly true where those forms and systems intersect with personnel processes. The owners of the forms and systems (often a human resources department) need the standardization they provide in order to ensure that everyone who uses them is being assessed in the same fashion. The problem, of course, is that providing everyone with the same boxes to fill in and then assessing them according to what they put in those boxes is a poor substitute for genuine equity and inclusiveness, not least because the people whom the forms are meant to represent almost always feel unable to boil themselves down to or fit themselves into the categories that structure the form. The form or system was almost always designed with a particular field or fields in mind — in our case, it’s engineering — and other fields struggle to cram things into the rubric they’ve created.

But the thing about forms and systems is that, at least theoretically, they can be changed. It’s no doubt an uphill battle, but a reasoned, principled argument about why the form or system is insufficient for representing the work being done in a particular field and a demonstration of how it might be improved can result in changes. I’ll dig into the alternative that we’ve been working on in the chapter on Values.

In the meantime, though, you’ll have noted that these two examples of local change have a couple of things in common: each seeks to take processes or structures that are currently restrictive and at times punitive and open them up, to make them more generous in the ways they allow for innovative, engaging work. Each focuses on a part of the process that is under relatively local control — especially in the case of department bylaws — and revises it to create the more generous environment that those who are party to that process want to create. And each emphasizes the need for clear, principled arguments on behalf of the change: why the current process or policy does not work, and how the new process or policy better aligns with the kinds of excellence the institution wishes to model.

The importance of this kind of argument can’t be understated: folks up the chain who are invested in the ways things have always been done are unlikely to let those things go without a persuasive argument. The nature of those arguments will differ, of course, from instance to instance, and from organization to organization. Sometimes there will be higher authorities to whom those arguments can appeal — national professional organizations, for instance. Sometimes those arguments will have to rely on demonstration in order to make the case.

The need for these arguments for change highlights an important set of qualifiers to the slogan “lead where you are.” You have the capacity to transform the aspects of your work processes and environments over which you have some degree of ownership and control, but that capacity may be limited by the hierarchy in which you’re embedded. Figuring out how to navigate that hierarchy and how to bring those above you on the org chart along is a key component of the work. This is no less true of a university president who needs to persuade a potentially skeptical board of trustees than it is of an office administrator who needs to persuade a supervisor.

There are of course great differences in the degree of freedom that individuals in different kinds of roles have to effect creative institutional transformation. Sometimes, for instance, a supervisor will so micromanage those who report to them that the members of their unit feel no wiggle room at all. Sometimes a board will make demands that leave little room for negotiation. These situations may require more specific forms of resistance before positive change can be enacted: outside intervention, protest, demonstration. But even within such situations, there is agency, and figuring out how to organize for change requires individuals willing to build coalitions.

It’s also important to note, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in her exploration of diversity work on university campuses, of the ways that the drive for change can be defanged. Enormous energy can be poured into bold statements and policies that are all too easily ignored. The substitution of documents for action is always a danger. The work of creating real transformative change requires not just rhetoric and promises but a real commitment to follow through. Who will ensure that the new policies and processes are employed and adhered to? Who will review the results of those new policies and processes to determine whether they’re having the desired effects?

This need for follow-through, for ensuring that an at times recalcitrant institution live up to its stated desire to be more generous, can be exhausting. Those who fight for change often find themselves demoralized, disillusioned, worn out. Continually fighting to change an organization or institution that refuses such transformation can leave you wanting to give up. To quit. This potential for exhaustion is one key reason why it’s important to understand leadership not as a solo effort, but rather as a desire to bring together and inspire others who want to work for change. That cultivation of community is the most important step you can take — and more on that in the next chapter.

LG1: Introduction

This is the first chapter of what promises to be eleven in an in-development project, tentatively entitled Leading Generously. For more on why I’m posting this, and the kinds of input I’m hoping for, see Leading Generously. And tune in next Tuesday for more!

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Leadership is admittedly an odd subject for a professor of literature and digital media to write about. This certainly wasn’t on the list of projects I imagined lay in my future as my career began, but then neither did I imagine any of the strange turns that career has taken: from writing conventional journal articles to exploring blogging as a scholarly form; from studying digital media to thinking about the ways networked communication might transform academic life; from being a relatively unknown professor at an isolated small liberal arts college to being the first director of scholarly communication for the largest scholarly society in the humanities. Nor did I foresee the changes that would overtake institutions of higher education — or indeed the world — in that time: deeper and deeper cuts in public funding for colleges and universities; astronomical expansion in student and family educational debt; a growing disbelief in education as a social good, beyond the individual, market-oriented credential it can provide.

Nor could I possibly have imagined that we would have found ourselves, in summer 2020, watching the leaders of colleges and universities struggle to decide whether to reopen their campuses in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

We are facing a massive crisis in leadership in higher education today — not to mention in the world beyond — and we must find new ways of understanding leadership, and of cultivating and empowering leaders, if we want the project of knowledge creation and dissemination, of research and education, to survive.

* * *

Leading Generously picks up where Generous Thinking leaves off. It’s intended to serve as a handbook, or a workshop guide, for folks who want to transform their institutions. Who want to align their actual ways of working in the day-to-day with their missions, visions, and values. Who want, in other words, to do the hands-on work of helping to build more generous institutions. As I hope was the case with Generous Thinking, while expressly focused on the context of North American colleges and universities, Leading Generously may be useful for thinking about transformation within a broader range of kinds of institutions and organizations: educational and cultural, public and private, commercial and not-for-profit. The one requirement for those institutions is that they understand themselves to be mission-driven, and that they be led by people willing to take the time, and to make the effort, to reimagine and refashion their ways of working.

As I’ll discuss further in the next chapter, however, the leaders this book seeks to support are not necessarily the people we conventionally think of as leaders — those at the top of an institutional hierarchy, those with the authority to steer the ship. Rather, at the center of Leading Generously is the conviction that everyone in an institution has the potential to be a leader, to create transformative change that can model ways of being that others might follow.

This conviction places a lot of emphasis on individuals, in ways that may seem a bit at odds with some of today’s most important ideas about the ways that power operates. Those critical ideas — including arguments about race and racism; about sex, gender, and misogyny; about class and power — understand the issues they explore to be systemic rather than individual. That is to say, they argue that real change requires social transformation. It requires building institutions, creating governments, enacting laws, transforming economies in ways that work toward equity rather than supporting privilege.

I subscribe wholly to those arguments, and I have that same end goal: building institutions that are structurally capable of supporting and facilitating the work of creating better communities and a better world. But the institutions we have today aren’t going to transform themselves.

So the question I am left with is one of where we locate agency: who has the power to make significant change in the world. If we understand power as residing in the structures and systems that govern our lives, there is little agency left to the individual.

And it’s unquestionably true that the problems we face are enormous, and one individual can’t do much to change the world.

But groups of individuals can.

And building those groups starts with individuals who decide to do more, to put what individual agency they do have to work in solidarity with others.

* * *

Over the course of the last several years, both while Generous Thinking was in press and after it was published, I had the opportunity to speak on a number of college and university campuses where faculty, staff, students, and administrators have been thinking about how to create and support a greater sense of connection between their campus communities and their public-facing mission. The folks who invited me — ranging from the officers of campus AAUP chapters to university presidents and their advisors — felt a connection with the arguments being made in Generous Thinking not least because they recognized that their institutions require not just better strategic plans but deep culture change. That culture change demands, among other things, a serious rethinking of how we work, why we work the ways we do, how we assess and reward that work, and how we recognize as work things that tend to get dismissed as service but that play a crucial role in building and sustaining collaborative communities.

Making a better, more sustainable institution, in other words, requires us to move away from quantified metrics for meritorious production — in fact to step off the Fordist production line that forever asks us to do more — and instead to think in a humane fashion about ways that we can do better. Better often in fact requires slowing down, talking with our colleagues and our communities, and most importantly, listening to what others have to say. Better requires engagement, connection, sharing, in ways that more nearly always encourages us to rush past. Turning from more to better goes against some of the ingrained ways of working we’ve adopted, but that turn can help us access the pleasures — indeed, the joys — of our work that life on the production line has required us to push aside.

But after one of the talks I gave, an attendee asked me a question that’s lingered in the back of my head ever since: generosity is all well and good, she said, and something that it’s relatively easy to embrace when we’re flush, but how do we practice generosity in hard times? Can we afford to be generous when we’re facing significant budget cuts, for instance, or is it inevitable that we fall back into analytics-driven competition with every unit — much less every worker — out to protect their own resources and their own privileges?

I don’t remember exactly how I answered then. I suspect that it was some combination of “you’re completely right; that’s the real question” and “the difficulties involved in being generous in hard times are precisely why we need to practice generosity in a determined way in good times.” And I may have said some things about the importance of transparency in priority-setting and decision-making, and of involving the collective in that process.

But I do know that as I stood there saying whatever I said, I was thinking “wow, this is hard, I don’t know.” I don’t know how we find the wherewithal to remain generous when times are bad, except by having practiced generosity enough to have developed some individual and institutional muscle memory, and by recommitting ourselves to our basic values again and again. And I especially don’t know how we remain generous at a moment when our institutions are approaching us — we who work for them, as well as we who rely on them — invoking the notion of a shared sacrifice required to keep the institution running. I don’t know because I do want the institution to survive, and I want to maintain the community that it enables, but I also know that the sacrifices that are called for are never genuinely equitably distributed.

And I also know that however much I may want to keep the institution running, the institution is not thinking the same about me. Our institutions will not, cannot, love us back. However much we sacrifice for them, they will never sacrifice for us. As with so many of my thoughts, this understanding was clarified for me by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who posted a Twitter thread describing the advice she gives to Black scholars who ask her how to survive in the academy. One tweet in particular stuck with me:

That is a pretty impolitic stance but I stand by it. I don’t think these institutions can support us or love us. And I honor the many many people who work to make them more humane. But you, alone, can not do that. And you cannot do it, ever, by killing yourself.

This is especially true for members of minoritized groups working within the academy; it’s especially true for faculty without tenure; it’s especially true for staff; it’s especially true for scholars working in contingent positions; it’s especially true for everyone whose positions in the hierarchies of prestige and comfort leave them vulnerable, especially at moments when “we’re all in it together” is invoked not in the context of resource-sharing but of sacrifice.

Sacrifice tends to roll downhill, and to accelerate in the process. This is how we wind up with furloughs and layoffs among contract faculty and staff at the same time as we find ourselves with a new Associate Vice-President for Shared Sacrifice.

The only way to prevent such sacrifice from rolling downhill is to build structures to channel it otherwise. And this is the deepest goal of Generous Thinking, and by extension of Leading Generously. I’m far less focused on getting individual readers to think more generously — though that’s the place I have to begin — than I am on what is required for us collectively to build a more generous environment in which we can do our work together. And I’m far less interested in building individual leaders who can rise through the administrative ranks than I am in building cohorts of leaders who can work together to transform those ranks. And so, my core question: What kinds of leadership are required for us remake the university into an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care for all of its members, in good times and bad?

There’s a catch in that question, of course: the university is not going to remake itself. It has to be remade. And the “us” that I’m pointing to as doing the remaking is meant to indicate those members of the university community who are to varying extents empowered and motivated to take that work on. But it’s unquestionably true that the empowerment and motivation of that “us” vary enormously, structurally, from position to position, from institution to institution.

I spoke in 2019 at a large midwestern public institution that had hands-down the most demoralized faculty I’d ever encountered. The reasons for that state were painfully clear: they have an activist politician-turned-president who is bent on transforming the institution into a fully corporate enterprise and on undermining everything that ties the institution to the liberal arts, to critical thinking, to public service, to community. As a result, core departments have faced decade-long hiring freezes and are housed in buildings that are literally toxic. The faculty members I talked to during my visit despaired of their ability to do anything with such a force at the top of their institution, much less with the board that hired him.

There’s reason to despair in such circumstances, without question. But for whatever combination of reasons — privilege, thickheadedness, temperamental indisposition, sheer luck in the position in which I find myself — I’m not able to sit back and say, oh well then. Leading Generously is in large part about finding the things that we can do, the basis for and the places of trying. Some of those places are internal: finding ways to engage in a deeper, more attentive manner with the work that others are doing, and drawing out what’s best in that work to build upon rather than focusing on what’s absent from it or what it doesn’t take on. Some of those places are external, but personal: finding ways to develop working relationships with our colleagues, with our students, and with our communities that invite them into the work we’re doing, that share it with them, and that make that work into a form of collective action. And some of these places are external, but structural: finding ways to make it possible for others to engage in this kind of generous leadership as well.

* * *

So Leading Generously is in many ways intended to be a practical handbook for putting the ideas of Generous Thinking into action. It’s also a means of putting my optimism and my ability to maintain some form of hope to work for others: while I recognize the enormity of the transformation that higher education needs today — large enough to require a revolution — I persist in believing that local changes can begin to make a difference, and that we are capable of making those local changes. But there are some key changes in outlook that have taken root for me in the years since I wrote Generous Thinking, changes that cannot help but manifest in this text.

In the preface to that book I noted that I’d struggled as I was writing, especially over the course of 2016 and 2017, to keep the book from becoming fundamentally angry. Writing today, in 2020, I am convinced that this struggle was utterly misplaced. Having been raised a good middle-class Catholic white girl in the deep South, I was taught that my anger was unacceptable, and that it needed either to be transformed into something more productive or to be deeply internalized. I don’t think I realized until recently the degree to which that message still haunts me: given the state of the world today, and especially the United States, operating with the anger meter reading anything less than “full-on fury” feels impossible. This is true of our political scene, which degenerates by the day; it’s true of our cities and our streets, where the thin veneer of law and order has at last cracked wide-open enough to force those of us privileged enough to ignore it until now to reckon with the brutality that has always underwritten policing; and it’s true of our institutions of higher education, which throughout summer 2000 2020 (oops) gave every impression of placing institutional survival above the lives of those who work and learn on their campuses.

Given this widespread dereliction of duty in those who are meant to lead our nations and our cities and our institutions, nothing other than rage will do. I am trying to temper that rage into productive outcomes in this book, keeping in mind my hopes of guiding us all to a better place, but I feel obligated to note that such beating of emotional swords into ploughshares isn’t easy. I ask for your understanding and, I hope, your equally angry commitment to repairing the enormous damage that’s been done — slowly over a period of decades, and then with increasing speed over the last four years — to our institutions, which should always have been a model of generous thinking in action.

Leading Generously

This post is a heads-up of sorts; I’ve got a project I’ve been working on for a bit now, and I’m hoping y’all can help with it.

The project is a follow-up to Generous Thinking (which, oh by the way, will be out in paperback in January!), designed as one answer to the question yes okay but how do we start. It can be used as a workshop guide, or with a small reading group, or on your own as you think about ways to create change within your institution. It’s brief — right now a bit too brief — and approachable, I hope. And it’s directed to anyone, in any role within a mission-driven organization, who believes that there’s a better way.

There are several things I could use your help with as I continue to work on this project. Some are the standard online-peer-review issues: is the thing working, and how could it work better.

But there are more substantial issues as well. This project has been written from my own perspective, based in my own experiences, and for that reason it’s quite limited. What I am hoping is to hear about your experiences with institutional change — good and bad. I want to know about the peculiarities of your institutional type, of your local environment, of your national system. I want to include a much broader range of examples in the guide, and perhaps a few illustrative case studies. And for that I need your help.

There are currently eleven chapters in the project draft, each of which is slightly longer than the average blog post. Some of them are in better shape than others. I’m going to post the first chapter tomorrow, and my plan is to post one each Tuesday morning until the whole thing is up, which should take us through the first Tuesday in 2021.

I’d love your feedback on each chapter as it stands, but I really, really want to hear about your own experiences and questions and concerns. You’re of course welcome to leave them in the comments on each post, but if you prefer, you’re also welcome to email me at kfitz @ kfitz.info.

Huge thanks, in advance. Hope to see you back here tomorrow!


Y’all. I found myself really needing to make some progress on a writing project. In order to do so, I needed to clear both my head and my schedule.

Like a ton of you, I never took any real down time during the summer. I kept saying I was going to, but put it off for one reason and another, and by the time I tried to schedule it I couldn’t. And it wasn’t just a no-break summer; it was a systems-are-breaking-all-around-you summer. Here’s your duct tape and your baling wire; spend hours on Zoom with your colleagues and see if you can keep it all running. All of which meant that, as a colleague of mine said a couple of weeks ago, I felt at the beginning of October like I usually do in April: exhausted, short-tempered, and desperately in need of a break.

And yet: October! Projects! With deadlines! And semester in progress! And then there’s this writing project, which is the second-easiest thing to put off (down time apparently being the first).

Except that the project has some time pressure behind it. I mean, it doesn’t exactly have an expiration date, but the sooner it comes together the better, for a whole lot of reasons. 1

So I made a commitment a couple of weeks ago to deliver a proposal for the project… in a couple of weeks. And then I looked at my calendar and figured out that with a little effort I could totally unplug for a four-day weekend and focus in on getting it done. I warned my colleagues week before last that I’d be completely out of pocket, and then reminded them last week. On Wednesday at 4pm, I put out of office bounces on my email accounts, and set my Slack/Teams statuses to away, and turned off every notification I could. And I settled in for the staycation equivalent of a writing retreat.

By Friday afternoon the proposal was done and ready to send. By Sunday morning I had a schedule for posting drafts of the chapters here to get input into how things should expand and develop as I work. And in the midst of all that, I read a book I’ve been asked to review, sketched out my initial thoughts about what I want to say about it, read half of another book for fun, cooked for the week, and rearranged a part of my kitchen that’s been annoying me.

And I slept over eight hours every night. And I’m actually excited about getting back into the swing of things tomorrow. If this is what unplugging can do, I clearly need to make a regular practice of it.

27 June 2020, 16:53

From today’s campus coronavirus update: “News this week of a spike in positive COVID-19 cases in the East Lansing area highlight the importance and urgency of our collective work to prepare for reopening campus this fall.”

That news highlights the urgency of something for me, but I’m not sure it’s preparations for reopening.

Your Institution Does Not Deserve to Survive

That is: unless you are committed to the survival of the people who make up and serve that institution first, foremost, and above all.

* * *

There’s an awful lot of “shared sacrifice” and “for the good of the institution” rhetoric circulating in higher education circles today, driven both by the collective uncertainty about returning to campus in the wake of COVID-191 and by the resulting budgetary crisis colleges and universities find themselves in. Kevin McClure does a good job of digging into that rhetoric and turning our attention from how we should work to reopen our campuses to focus instead on why.

That why, where it’s addressed, is being treated as if it were a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we are told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.

I am a believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I want to see those institutions survive. But they do not deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of their very publics in order to do so.

The executive management teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival. I understand that. But we need to consider carefully what the institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution should not survive.

My life would be enormously impoverished, both literally and metaphorically, if my institution were to shut down. But it is not worth the lives of my students, my colleagues, the members of my community — not to mention the lives of their families and friends and neighbors — to protect my livelihood.