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A Tale of Two Transitions

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

That’s perhaps an opening so predictable as to wander blithely into the terrain of the cliché, but it captures all too well the weirdness of the last month for someone who’s trying to write about academic leadership in chaotic times. Part of me wishes everyone and everything would settle down long enough for me to get this book revised and out. And part of me recognizes the altogether — “instructive” might be the most diplomatic word I could select here — examples by which I’m surrounded right now, and the ways that they’re challenging me to think hard about the arguments I’m making.

If you pay much attention at all to the higher education press, you’ll no doubt have seen that there’s been a month-long battle going on between MSU’s upper administration and its board of trustees. It’s not entirely clear when hostilities commenced, but they became public when one or more members of the board anonymously leaked a story to the Detroit Free Press saying that they’d given President Samuel Stanley a deadline by which he needed to announce his resignation or be fired. This salvo not only caused grave concern among higher education leaders about the board’s interference in campus operations (see, for instance, the statement released by the president of the Association of American Universities) but also set off waves of anxiety and anger on campus as everyone tried to find out, not to put too fine a point on it, what the fuck was going on.

For a couple of weeks, the battle was carried out via a wide variety of statements and stories, each of which managed to make the situation less clear. Was the president under fire because he’d supported the provost in her decision to relieve the dean of the business school of his duties due to his failure to fulfill his obligations as a mandatory reporter? Or was it that the president had failed in his responsibilities to properly certify the campus’s annual Title IX report? Did it have to do with the ongoing failures of the Office of Institutional Equity to handle cases in a timely fashion? Or was it something else entirely? The radical lack of transparency around what was going on left everyone on and around campus guessing.

It came, however, to seem that the original assumption — that it had to do with the dismissal of the dean of the business school — was the correct one. Senior members of the business school faculty had apparently reached out to key members of the board (and perhaps to other influential donors as well), and in response the board hired an external law firm to investigate the dean’s dismissal. It’s a significant move, not least for a board that refused to commission such an external investigation into how Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of hundreds of young women was abetted by administrative inaction. The board defended its move in an unsigned statement from “the majority” of its members in which they claimed that the review was appropriate because, among other points of support, the preamble to the board’s bylaws states that the board “exercises the final authority in the government of the University.” This quotation leaves out some key details, however:

The Board of Trustees, elected by the voters of the State and responsible to all of the people of Michigan, exercises the final authority in the government of the University, within the limits fixed by the State Constitution. In exercising its responsibility, the Board delegates to the President of the University and through the President to the faculty, appropriate authority and jurisdiction over matters for which they are held accountable by the Board. These matters include educational policy and the development of a strong and efficient organization with which to accomplish the objectives of the University.

“Responsible to all of the people of Michigan” seems like an important bit, as do the limits to their authority and the delegation of “appropriate authority and jurisdiction” to the president and the faculty. “Held accountable by the Board” can’t be overlooked, of course, but one might be within bounds to insist that such accountability run both ways.

In any case, this unsigned statement was delivered to the entire faculty on October 11, just minutes before the Faculty Senate gathered and issued a 93% vote of no-confidence in the board. And on October 13, President Stanley issued his own vote of no-confidence in the form of a video message accompanying his official letter of resignation. That resignation is in the letter qualified by the term “without Good Reason,” making clear per his contract that he’s abandoning a substantial golden parachute as he leaves.

But with good reason or without, the president’s departure and the board’s responsibility for it leave the campus in turmoil. As I write this, we don’t know who our interim president will be, whether there will be a real search for a new president, and what kinds of repercussions campus strategic planning will face. What we do know is that several years of delicate work trying to repair trust on a campus torn by the Nassar horrors has been utterly undone.

The worst of times, indeed. But what’s the other transition?

Alongside my work as a member of the faculty of MSU, I am currently the president of the board of directors of the Educopia Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting communities that develop, share, and preserve knowledge both inside and outside the academy. Educopia is, as its about page describes, a values-enacted organization that strives, among other principles, for “radical transparency coupled with reliability and responsiveness.”

Educopia was founded in 2006 by Katherine Skinner, executive director, and Martin Halbert, then board president, in order to provide administrative and strategic support for collaborations growing across the information management landscape. After 16 years, however, Katherine recognized that Educopia was at risk for one of the problems she’d long seen facing the communities with which she and her colleagues worked: “founder syndrome.” As she noted in her blog post this July in which she announced that she’d be stepping down at the end of September,

Founder-led organizations often begin with visionary leaders who can marshal resources and create a safe, secure atmosphere that appeals to funders and community members. If founders stay too long, though, their organizations tend to become too reliant upon and too influenced by the founders’ personalities, which can lead to stagnation and an unhealthy reciprocal dependence between the founder and the organization.

Replacing such a visionary leader, however, and especially one as successful, respected, and frankly loved as Katherine Skinner is no easy task. I count myself among those who love Katherine and who had a hard time imagining Educopia without her, and I admire beyond words the selflessness and ethical conviction that led her to say that that was precisely why it was time for her to step down.

Katherine began planning for Educopia’s leadership transition at least two years ago, thinking carefully about ways to share her knowledge with other members of the staff, as well as about the work the board needed to do in order to help see the organization into its next stage. In that vein, the board began a development process late last year, plotting out our own needs for growth in this moment of significant change. We worked with Tracy Kunkler and Dee Washington of Circle Forward to think about what the role of the board of directors of an organization committed to equity and collaboration should be, and how we might best support the work of the staff rather than governing from above. In the process of that work, we came to the realization that Educopia might be better served by establishing a shared leadership model rather than by investing leadership in a singular executive, and that such a distribution of authority and responsibility might help make the organization more resilient (and less subject to the turmoil involved in executive transitions) in the years ahead.

And so September ended with celebrations both within Educopia and among its many friends of the extraordinary work that Katherine Skinner did over the years, and with a warm welcome to its three amazing new co-directors, Jessica Meyerson, Katherine Kim, and Raquel Asante. While we have a lot of work ahead, I am honored to get to collaborate with them as the board and the staff figure out the organization’s path forward together.

The best of times, without doubt.

So what am I carrying away from this experience of two radically different leadership transitions, and what does it mean for my ideas about the future of academic leadership?

First, that transparency is not just a good idea but an absolute necessity for organizations that are (or claim to be) “mission-driven.”[1] Without transparency there can be no trust, and without trust the people that make up the organization cannot sustain the level of care that the work requires.

Next, that while it’s not often possible to plan for a leadership transition with the level of thoughtfulness that Educopia has done, there are many ways to avoid plunging an institution into chaos by forcing a transition without any preparation. If an institution’s governing board is going to uphold the values it claims to espouse, it must undertake transitions carefully and with respect for the many lives that will be affected in the process.

And finally, that a leadership transition conceived and enacted as a means of sharing power, of creating collective strength, is radically different from one conceived and enacted as a means of coalescing power and of augmenting individual strength. One builds commitment. The other crushes it.

I’m not going to close with Dickens’s last words from A Tale of Two Cities (“It is a far, far better thing that I do” is a little on the nose this week), but rather with his admonition from the beginning of the final chapter:

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

A damaging leadership transition isn’t just damaging in the moment; it does lasting damage to the organization’s ability to function, by twisting the relationships between the people that make up the organization and the people that control it into tortured forms that cannot easily be reshaped. Changing that — reshaping the relations and recovering the institution — will require change throughout the structure. We have an election coming up, in which voters in the state of Michigan will select two members of the MSU board of trustees — but only two of eight, and for eight-year terms. These elections cannot change the relationship between the board and the university without additional pressure. And that pressure can likely only come through organizing and protest at all levels — among faculty and staff, among students, and among voters who want a state university that they can trust.

About which more, I hope, in the weeks ahead.

  1. Noting here something I want to take up in another post: the idea of "mission" is awfully laden with settler-colonial freight. My own team is working toward substituting "purpose" instead, but "purpose-driven" loses a little of the intended idealism of the common phrase. Something I want to keep pondering. ↩︎


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