Higher Education as a Social Good

A few days ago, I had the honor of keynoting the annual meeting of the APLU’s Commission on Economic and Community Engagement. The text of my talk is below.

Screenshot from an article on mlive.com, described in the text to follow.

Last week, an independent economic group released a report indicating that the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University together boosted the state economy by $19.3 billion in 2019 — a figure that they went on to note is more than 20 times the funding provided to them by the state.

This is an extraordinary report, which confirms what we all know: public research universities are crucial contributors to the economic well-being of their communities. Our universities not only conduct the research and development that leads to new business opportunities in the state, but also build an educated workforce ready to take on the challenges our communities face now and into the future.

It’s great news, and it’s particularly great to have numbers that can be used in arguments about the value of public investment in institutions of higher education, especially at a moment when relationships between legislatures and universities are strained. But I want to spend a bit of time today talking about why reports like this make me nervous. It may sound odd, but frankly it’s because they do too good a job of tying the public vision of the value of the university to its economic impact, and in the process they inadvertently run the risk of undermining the other equally important areas and modes in which the public research university contributes to the well-being of the publics that it serves.

That is to say, the danger of a report like this one, as positive as its results are, is that it speaks to a particular mindset in American culture that is primed to hear it, with the result that it completely overshadows all of the good that the university does in areas other than the economic. That focus on economic impact may be fine in good times, when taxpayers and legislators feel like they can afford to invest in a broad range of kinds of exploration and education on campus. But in bad times, when budgets are tight and jobs are scarce, many begin to look at those kinds of exploration that don’t have obvious or direct economic benefits as “luxuries,” as frivolous, as extraneous to the institution’s mission — precisely because the institution’s mission, and the public good that it serves, have come to be wholly associated with the economic.

There is, in other words, a deeply ingrained mindset in American culture that lends itself to the assumption that economic development is the primary good that the university can and should serve. This is a mindset that I would love to see us work on changing. It has its underpinnings in our faith in the extraordinary creative potential generated by capitalism, but it leads to the assumption that all of the problems in the contemporary world can and should be approached through market-based solutions.

This tight focus on the market as the telos of contemporary life is often discussed under the umbrella of “neoliberalism” on campus. “Neoliberalism” is admittedly one of those terms that has been so relentlessly misunderstood and misused that it’s become a kind of caricature, an empty critique with all the force that “bourgeois” had in the early 1970s, or “postmodern” in the early 2000s, or, from the other side of the aisle today, “critical race theory.” It’s the kind of term that causes a lot of us just to stop listening, because we know that what’s coming is (a) profoundly ideological, and (b) likely not to mean exactly what its speaker thinks it means.

But neoliberalism is nonetheless an important concept, and one that can tell us a lot about what’s happened within American culture since the early 1980s — the forces that have encouraged the public to question the value of institutions of higher education, as well as the other forms of public investment in the public good. In fact, it’s part of what’s surfaced the question of whether there even is such a thing as the public good. Just as Margaret Thatcher argued in the 1980s that there was no such thing as “society,” but instead only individuals and families that needed to look out for themselves, so we find today a predominant political perspective in this country that holds that all goods are and should be private rather than public, individual rather than social.

The effects of this conviction on our culture today have been corrosive. We have experienced over the last four decades a dramatic increase in inequality, both economic and social, as those who already have benefit from an environment in which rewards accrue to the individuals who are already most equipped to pursue them. We have also seen a radical decline in our cultural sense of shared obligations to or even basic care and respect for others. Broadly speaking, we’ve lost our collective grip on the notions that our individual actions affect others, that we should act with those others in mind, that we share common concerns, and that we are collectively responsible for ensuring that we provide a viable future for all of us. Without those understandings, without a recognition that the global crises we face today require responsible social engagement and collective action, poverty will continue to increase, structural racism will continue to grow, and the very prospect of a livable planet is thrown into serious question.

(A little aside: at this point in the presentation, I somehow triggered Siri on my watch, and she piped up and said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” I burst out laughing, told the audience what had happened in case they hadn’t heard, and let them know how appropriate a moment for that interjection it was.)

So. I want to pause here and acknowledge that this all no doubt sounds alarmist, that I’ve managed to get in a very few minutes from a highly encouraging report on the economic impact of public research universities to the question of whether the future will be a livable one, and that there are several links along the way that I haven’t yet fully explored — not to mention all kinds of alternative paths that we have available to consider. So let’s backtrack a bit. If, as I am arguing here, our overdetermined focus on the economic good that universities provide has the potential to undermine the other kinds of goods that our institutions serve, what are those goods, how are they undermined, what do we lose if we lose them, and how might we begin to ensure that they remain a crucial part of the public vision of what the university is for?

In order to explore the university’s purpose in serving the public good, and the ways that the neoliberal understanding of the university’s function have weakened it almost beyond recognition, we might begin by thinking through the distinctions drawn in economics among the four primary types of goods, and the ways they are defined, first, through their “excludability” — or whether non-paying customers can be prevented from using them — and second, through their “rivalrousness” — or whether their use uses them up. Public goods are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, meaning that no one can be excluded from their use and no one’s use uses them up for others. Private goods are typically both excludable and rivalrous, and are typically market-based as a result. Goods that are non-excludable but rivalrous are thought of as common-pool resources, which were assumed for a long time to be subject to the “tragedy of the commons” until the work of Elinor Ostrom demonstrated the potential for shared governance in ensuring their sustainability (a set of ideas that I unfortunately don’t have time to dig into today, but that have deep implications for our understanding of how we can create a sense of shared responsibility for shared resources like the public university). Finally, club goods are those that are excludable but non-rivalrous — goods that are not diminished through use, but that people can be prevented from using unless they pay for them.

The question, then, is what kind of goods higher education and the knowledge that it provides and creates are and should be. Knowledge is certainly nonrivalrous; if I have it, and I share it with you, I do not have less of it as a result. The question lies in excludability: where once knowledge and the higher education that fosters it might have been seen as striving to be nonexcludable, making itself available to anyone desiring it, it has since the 1960s increasingly become excludable, restricted to those who can pay. Access to knowledge is today a club good, in other words, rather than the public good that was once imagined to best serve our society: supported by all for the benefit of all.

Those ideals regarding public education were always flawed, even at their most promising moments: our system of land-grant universities was founded on the appropriation of land from indigenous nations, and the GI Bill supported rather than undermined racial inequities. But their underlying ideals were based in an understanding that the university’s purpose is the broad education of the public. And that broad education has always been understood to have benefits beyond the directly economic. The Morrill Act of 1862, which established the system of land-grant colleges and universities, designated funds to the states for

the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

7 U.S. Code §304

Liberal and practical. Pursuits and professions. There are clearly economic goals embedded in this sense of what it is to improve the lot of the industrial classes, but there is also clearly expressed here a desire to create a world that is not just more prosperous but better in a much deeper sense.

The wide array of research done on our campuses in pursuit of that better has a range of important social impacts that may not be directly economic. This includes basic research in the bench sciences, as well as a panoply of projects in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. These projects help further our shared understanding of how the world works, how it should work, and how it could work. They examine the material world and our interactions with it, as well as the world of ideas and institutions and cultures, enabling us to know more about who we are, about the forces that structure our lives, and about the potential for creating something new. When we focus too narrowly on economic impact, research into gene regulation in fruit flies, or ethics in food distribution and consumption, or migration patterns in the African diaspora, or the history of patronage in early eighteenth-century music, all run the risk of being seen as extraneous, and therefore unworthy of funding, when in fact they extend our understandings of who we are and how we relate to one another in crucial ways. Even more, these projects are not ends in themselves, but the basis for future work in their fields, and that ability to develop and share knowledge in service to a larger project of collective understanding is at the heart of the academic mission.

The challenge, of course, is that our communities off-campus often aren’t privy to the reasons why we work on the projects we’ve selected, or what the importance of those projects might be, and so it winds up appearing that researchers on campus are engaged in the contemporary equivalent of investigations into the numbers of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, wrapping ourselves up in issues that don’t matter — or worse, that aren’t real — rather than those that will have a direct, material impact on the world. On campus, we know that what we do matters enormously, but we too often fail to communicate that significance in ways that connect with the publics around us. And this divide points to a significant structural problem with the ways that scholarly work on campus gets done: ensuring the visibility and the viability of our fields requires us to communicate our work in public-facing ways — and yet what we’re individually rewarded for, both on campus and within our broader fields, is overwhelmingly our inward-facing communication: the articles and books we write with other experts as our imagined audience. Which raises a key question: how can we begin to shift our reward structures on campus such that faculty are encouraged to communicate not just with one another but with the broader world?

Of course, one of the most important ways that we communicate with the broader world is through our students. Unfortunately, our students have increasingly been raised in a culture that tells them that the purpose of a college degree is developing the skill set that will lead directly to a lucrative career — and given how much they and their families are paying, and indeed going into debt, for that degree, it’s understandable that they gravitate (or are pushed) toward practical, pre-professional majors. Preparing students to enter the workforce is not a bad thing, and I’m not arguing at all that we should wave that aside. But the goal of the university should be producing graduates who are not just successful economic actors, but who are well-rounded humans, who are able to think creatively about the complex conditions in which we live today, and who are willing to contribute not just materially but socially, ethically, even morally to the improvement of the world around them, not just for themselves but for others.

This is generous thinking: finding ways to use our collective knowledge for the public good, demonstrating our deep connections to — indeed, our responsibility for — the world around us. The university’s educational mission — one we need to claim ferociously, loudly, publicly — is cultivating that generous thinking, preparing our students not just for the professions that might lead to wealth production but for the “several pursuits” in life. We are educating the “leaders of tomorrow” not just in the conventionally understood political and business realms, but in the kinds of engagement that will help their communities grow from the grassroots up. And that mission demands that we focus on what is required to make a better world, both on campus and off. It requires that we think about our institutions’ often unspoken structural biases, including that toward “economic impact”; it requires us to focus not just on making it possible for more kinds of people to achieve conventionally coded success, but on examining what constitutes success, how it is measured, and why. And that requires a values-first approach to higher education, and an ongoing examination of the ways that those values are instantiated in institutional structures and processes.

So: what if we understood the well-being of communities to lie not just in the individual economic prosperity that can result but in terms of individuals’ ability to work together — to engage in collective action — toward a wide range of common goals? What areas of the university might we find value in if the kinds of leadership we educate for were focused less on individual professional success and more on connection and collaboration?

We’d probably want to start by ensuring that every student on campus receives a deep education in ethics, in creative thinking, and in individual and collaborative expression. These are, as it turns out, the skills and qualities that many employers are looking for today, and that too many of our pre-professional graduates don’t have the opportunity to develop, as they’ve been led to understand the liberal pursuits — the study of literature, of art, of philosophy, of history — as extraneous to their goal of beginning a remunerative career.

We’d also want to think about the kinds of studies and stories that we would use to highlight the contribution of universities to a more richly understood social good. Those studies and stories may not have the dramatic numbers that we can point to as evidence of the university’s economic impact, but they can play a key role in surfacing the significance of a broad range of work on campus for the publics whom we serve. Producing those stories will require deep faculty involvement, and will thus ask the university to think about how such public-facing work can be understood to “count” in the structures of faculty evaluation and reward. And that public-facing, community engaged work must count, precisely because it can help us communicate the impact of everything that the university does — not just its economic impact, and not just the benefits that it provides for individuals, but our deeper social and cultural impact, and the benefits we provide for communities and for society as a whole.

LG: Call for Respondents

Friends, in support of the revision process for Leading Generously, as well as my broader research into the conditions for creating transformative change within institutions of higher education, I am inviting participation from scholars, librarians, administrators, and academic staff members at all levels who are willing to discuss their experiences with me. Your responses will help me broaden the range of examples and perspectives I discuss in the forthcoming book.

Participants will be interviewed via Zoom, with questions provided in advance, and interviews will be recorded for my research purposes only. Respondents will have the opportunity to determine whether they want their comments to be attributed or to be anonymized, and I will share the resulting manuscript with them once the study is complete.

If you are willing to participate in such an interview — or if you know of an academic leader with whom you think I should speak, someone who has worked toward transformative change in an institutional context — please contact me at kfitz at kfitz.info.

LG11: Onward

I hope that your holidays were restorative and that your 2021 is beginning as well as it can. In addition to spending this morning getting myself rebooted for the upcoming semester, I’m posting the final section of the draft of Leading Generously. I spent a fair bit of time over the break thinking about the path forward, including a number of keywords I want to add and a number of people whose input I want to seek. If you have thoughts to share, please let me know, either here or via email at kfitz @ kfitz.info. I’ll look forward to posting further updates here as they emerge.


* * *

What’s next.

Ordinarily, this is where I would present a conclusion that might serve to put together the pieces of what you’ve read to this point. In the case of this guide, however, concluding is hard: there isn’t one overarching argument to be reiterated, and there isn’t a definite outcome to be highlighted. It’s all but impossible to conclude, in fact, when the work is just beginning.

So what’s called for here, at the end of this book, is less a conclusion than a benediction of sorts: a blessing for your path ahead. Because this is where I hand the project over to you and your collaborators. You know your on-the-ground situation far better than I ever could. You know where the opportunities for change lie, and where the resistance sits, and you know the colleagues you can work with to develop the best collection of ideas for moving forward.

What remains is just a few last words of advice for the road, things to bear in mind as you plan the work in front of you.

1. Be patient — but not too patient.

Change is slow. Building coalitions is time-consuming work. Listening to those around you, really trying to understand where they are and what they need, and developing the trust necessary to working together — all of this requires deep patience, and a willingness to take the time to put together something lasting.

On the other hand, as you no doubt know all too well, stalling is a time-honored practice of those resistant to change. Delays, slow-walking, and more and more meetings, all can serve as a means of frustrating those who are seeking to transform an institution, who are suffering under its status quo.

Finding the balance between patience and insistence can be a challenge. The goal is to maintain momentum, and to ensure that you don’t wear yourself and your colleagues out over the long haul. There will be progress, and there will be setbacks, and keeping focused throughout requires the right combination of hard work and stopping to breathe.

So be patient with yourself most of all. Recognize that you might be learning how to navigate new systems and new relationships, and that learning can be exhausting. Taking some time to recharge in order to return to work at full strength is not a delay; it’s a necessity.

2. Be prepared — but stay nimble.

The terrain you’re navigating has some features that are well-known. There are undoubtedly processes for getting revised policies and structures approved that you should be familiar with, such as how you get a proposal on a committee’s agenda and where it goes from there. There are also personalities involved, people who are likely to respond to proposals in ways that are more or less predictable. Preparing for both the processes and the personalities is crucial.

However, you don’t want to prepare so thoroughly that you can’t cope with sudden changes or take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. The business world has come to think of this in terms of agility: the ability to change course, to pivot, to innovate. And there’s something important that I think we can learn from that notion of agility, if with a bit of caution: changing course on a dime, innovating for innovation’s sake, can be more destructive than constructive.

If you think about adaptation to circumstances less in terms that sound like blowing with the wind, and more in terms that focus on accurately reading the terrain in front of you, you might begin to develop a kind of nimbleness that will allow you to use your preparation even under changing circumstances. I’m totally not a rock climber, so I may blow the metaphor here, but my understanding of climbing is that it’s a constant process of reading the path in order not just to find the next handhold but the next three after that.

Nimbleness and preparation go hand-in-hand: having a clear plan will allow you to keep an eye on the changing terrain.

3. Play the long game.

It’s easy to let short-term setbacks discourage you. It’s also easy to let short-term wins make you comfortable. In order to avoid getting too caught up in immediate gains and losses, it’s important to keep your eyes on the long term. How are the actions you’re taking today not just helping everyone through the current crisis, but helping create a foundation for a better institution ten years from now?

Playing the long game — recognizing that some changes you make today won’t pay off immediately, and that some immediate improvements will have long-term costs — requires thinking strategically rather than tactically. Tactics are the expedient on-the-ground moves you can make right now in fighting for a goal. Tactics can be crucial, especially for creating change that begins outside conventional power structures, that grows from the grassroots. But tactics in the absence of a strategy to guide them and build upon them can wither.

Strategic thinking requires a focus on long-term goals. Your strategy should describe the path to those goals; your tactics can then become steps leading you along that path.

4. Work in the environment you want to create.

This one comes down to a kind of institutional “Be the Change”: if you want to build an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care, you need to ensure that you’re living up to that duty of care in the ways you go about that transformation. That is to say: everything you do in the process of creating values-based policies and processes must itself be values-based. Building a more just world requires ensuring that justice is centered in your actions.

It sounds obvious. And yet’s it’s awfully easy for movements for change that are operating within at times hostile environments to get sucked into the ethos of those environments — to allow their desire for transparency and openness to be infected by the secrecy and suspicion surrounding them, for instance.

Check in with yourself and your colleages frequently. Remind yourselves why you’re doing what you’re doing. And explore ways that you can build a local environment that works the way you’d like the institution as a whole to work.

5. Take care of yourself, as you take care of others.

It’s all too easy for people committed to creating a better world to wear themselves out in the process. Transformational change is exhausting work, not least because of the obstacle course you’re having to run over and over. Your commitment can keep you going up to a point, but after that burn-out can set in, making even the smallest actions feel like running in knee-deep mud.

Taking time off — time to allow yourself to recuperate, time to re-center and re-ground — feels self-indulgent. It is not, however, a waste of time. In fact, attempting to power through when you’re exhausted is counter-productive: you worsen your own exhaustion, not least because everything is three times harder than it ought to be.

Finding means of self-care that can help you maintain a sustainable commitment to the change you want to create is a necessity. That might mean protecting your time away from work by shutting off your email and unplugging from the other ceaseless flows of networked demands. It might mean taking a few days off to focus on things that you find restorative. It might mean saying no to requests that don’t help you further your own goals.

The key here is to take care of yourself in the way that you would try to take care of the others around you.

6. Find other guides and sources of support.

This guide and its keywords have in some ways been more conceptual than practical. I haven’t told you how to run your meetings, or given you drafts for revised policies. Rather, my approach to thinking about leadership relies heavily on your own ideas as prompted by the issues and examples I discuss. What I suggest or describe won’t work everywhere, though. You know your own situation far better than I ever could.

I’m compiling a list of recommendations for further reading, which I’ll include at the end of the text; if you have things you’d like to suggest, please leave them in the comments!

LG10: Solidarity

I’m taking a bit of a break from my official job-related duties this week, which is allowing me to think a bit about the path forward for Leading Generously. As this process has unfolded, I’ve come across several keywords that I want to add to the project. I’ve also confirmed my sense that I need to conduct some interviews with folks whose experience of institutional challenge and change run deeper or in different directions than my own. I’ll post more about that process as it takes shape.

In the meantime, here’s the tenth section of the draft. Wishing all of you a peaceful and joyous new year.


* * *

“Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity.”
—Pope Francis

Right off the bat, I want to acknowledge that “solidarity” is a challenging term — in at least a couple of different ways. I’ve chosen it purposefully here, however, and I’ll explore why in what’s ahead. I hope you’ll allow yourself to sit with any concerns that the term may create for you as you read.

In the introduction, I noted that crises such as those being faced throughout higher education in 2020 often produce invocations of the idea of “shared sacrifice.” At times this idea is invoked with a kind of generosity in mind: if we all take a small pay cut, we can help some of our colleagues avoid furloughs or layoffs. But the term “shared sacrifice” is often heard differently than you might expect. Not only does sacrifice inevitably roll downhill, affecting most heavily those who are least well-positioned, but the idea begins to suggest that we are in fact the sacrifice, offered at the altar of the institution and its financial reports.

The notion that our sacrifice is shared — that it is part of a collective determination to sustain the community we together form — depends on a deep understanding of what it means to be a community, and an equally deep faith on the part of those being asked to sacrifice on its behalf that the community will in turn sustain them. It requires believing that those above are as committed to the notion of community as those below. And that belief is very hard to come by, for very good reasons.

In fact, the concept of “community” is too often used to suppress dissent, to persuade those with concerns and grievances to put them aside in favor of a a conflict-free norm. That norm, unsurprisingly, usually favors the interests of those in charge, who benefit from maintaining the status quo. Moreover, where the community is encouraged to take action, it’s often to fill gaps or meet needs for which institutions and governments refuse their responsibility. This is how we end up with school bake sales rather than proper education budgets.

In much of my prior writing on the future of higher education, I’ve leaned fairly heavily on the concept of community, whether in reference to the connections we build within our institutions or to the connections we create between our institutions and the publics that we serve. However, my growing recognition of the problems with what Miranda Joseph has referred to as the “romance” of community has led me to seek a more active term. What I want from community — what I think many of us want — is a sense of belonging and a sense of shared commitment. I want to know that my community has my back, and I want those in my community to know that I have their backs as well.

And it’s that shared commitment that leads me to the notion of solidarity. Solidarity implies, to my way of thinking, not the descriptive blandishment that community risks falling into, but active relationship-building and mutual support. Solidarity requires action.

It’s crucial, however, to be very clear about solidarity with whom, and for whom. As Mikki Kendall has argued, too often White feminist calls to solidarity are issued in order to ask Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color to put their own particular concerns aside in support of some ostensibly more generalized sisterhood. To say that such calls miss the point is an understatement. There can be no solidarity when the privileged insist that the marginalized support them. Rather, solidarity requires us all to recognize that fighting for the most challenged among us is all of our responsibility. And it’s this form of solidarity that can create a genuine community, that can transform community into action: placing the interests of others in front of our own.

What does this mean in the context of the organizations and institutions I’m focused on in this book? First, it means returning to the claim I made early in this project, that people are the most important component of our institutions, and revising it slightly: all of the people that make up our institutions are its most important component, from the least powerful to the most. All of those people must be considered crucial to the institution’s operation.

Second, we need to take a hard look at the ways that categories of employment are used to divide us, to pit our interests against one another. In institutions of higher education, discussions of these divisions often focus on the tensions between the tenured faculty and the not-yet-tenured, or those between the tenure-track faculty and the fixed-term, or the full-time and the part-time. But we need to pay attention to the divisions and hierarchies within the staff as well, and between the faculty and the staff. And then there are the divisions between faculty and staff on the one hand and student employees on the other. All of us know that there are enormous differences in the benefits and privileges that these different categories of employment provide, and yet every position held by every employee is equally necessary to the functioning of the institution.

So how can we ensure that every employee, in every category of employment, is able to function as a full member of the institution? We must begin by shaping a notion of shared governance in which each member of the institution is a fully enfranchised participant in the processes that most matter to them. This means that all of the members of a department, regardless of position type, should have the right to participate in most department, college, and university processes. This suggestion will no doubt trigger a lot of resistance; in a lot of departments, opening up the vote to non-tenure-track faculty, to post-docs, to staff will leave the tenure-track faculty outnumbered. That points directly to the problem: a small, and in fact diminishing, number of highly secure employees who have the ability not just to determine their own working conditions but to profoundly affect the working conditions for the rest — and who too often use that ability not to lift others up but instead to shore up what they see (not incorrectly) as eroding protections for their own roles.

I’ll say it bluntly: defending the privileges of tenure worsens things for everyone else, and winds up undermining the best of what tenure is supposed to be.

This is not to argue for doing away with tenure — not at all. Rather, it’s an argument for looking closely at what we expect tenure to do and extending its most important benefits to all categories of campus employment. Those benefits include, after a reasonable period of probation and evaluation, job security, intellectual freedom, and governance rights. Each of those benefits comes with restrictions — there are ways to lose your job, even with tenure, and there are limits to academic freedom — but each is crucial to an institution of higher education’s capacity to advance knowledge and serve its publics. And each should be considered crucial throughout the institution, and not just for an elite subset.

We need all members of the campus community to be able to reach their fullest potential in order for the institution to operate. Faculty members with active research agendas cannot achieve their goals without the work of teaching faculty who bear the weight of larger course loads, post-docs and graduate assistants who work in labs and support research efforts, staff who ensure that the budgets and buildings function as needed. Faculty members who teach cannot do so without the work of their colleagues at every level, from the dean’s office to housekeeping and dining services. And all of us — and the “us” I’m talking to at this point is my most privileged colleagues, who like me have succeeded within a competitive system that promises to elevate us above the rest — all of us need to recognize that the concerns of every group on campus are concerns that we should all share. We are deeply interdependent, and creating a genuine collective out of a campus requires us to be ready to step forward on one another’s behalf, to ensure that all of our needs are met.

Solidarity, in other words.

Does solidarity mean establishing a union? Not necessarily, though unionizing does provide some key benefits for structuring the relationships between labor and management. Management often agrees: George Justice reports in How to Be a Dean that many deans prefer unionized campuses. The process of collective bargaining can be challenging, and the resulting contracts can be complex, but they are contracts, with legal standing, that define the terms of a productive working relationship.

Of course, the existence of that union and the contract it negotiates isn’t enough to provide genuine solidarity. That requires organizing above and beyond the union itself. And it may require cross-union connections. In my own institution, during the current budget crisis, the administration has negotiated furloughs and salary changes with each union independently. Given that each has a separate contract, those distinct negotiations are inevitable. But ensuring that the many unions on campus are in agreement with one another, and willing to defend one another, requires a kind of collectivity that operates at a different level from the union.

Most importantly, there came a moment in this process when the continuing faculty, both tenure-track and clinical, realized that everyone on campus was represented in these bargaining processes except us. The faculty have resisted unionizing, in ways similar to many other campuses around the country, insisting that we aren’t labor, we are professional, and even mistaking the authority that we have on campus for management. In these negotiations, however, it became clear that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, if you’re not at the table, you’re the meal. The faculty were not engaged in a negotiation of the salary and benefit cuts that we would take; we were informed of them. And worse: I have heard through the grapevine that our inability to refuse those cuts was treated as if it were acceptance, and used as a bargaining chip with the unions. The faculty, they were told, have agreed to take this cut; you have to give us something comparable.

In other words: our refusal to organize, to understand ourselves as part of the collective of workers on campus, not only hurts our own ability to affect our working conditions, but also undermines those abilities of those have organized and are trying to work together. If we are to transform our campuses, if we are to create better working conditions for everyone on campus, we must all be in it together. We have to ensure that the secure, the empowered, the privileged are fighting on behalf of everyone else, rather than interfering with their ability to fight for themselves.

So where I’d like to end this call to solidarity is with a strong “one faculty, one union” argument. We are all workers in the same enterprise, if with different responsibilities, and ensuring that we are all mutually supporting requires us to refuse being divided into categories and appointment types. Shifting to this kind of collectivist thinking is no easy matter, however, and especially not for those of us who have long been trained to believe that we operate within a functioning meritocracy (and that that’s a good thing), that our achievements are individual and that our rewards should be individual too, and that we’re best off when we can negotiate special deals — a course release here, an augmented budget there — by and for ourselves. But building habits of collectivity will not only help us create a more equitable, caring community within our institutions, but will press us to focus the institution’s efforts on its broader social responsibilities.

Developing a strong sense of solidarity is no simple matter, especially not in institutions and cultures that thrive on competitive individualism. But leading the way toward a more just and equitable world requires that we start thinking about one another’s needs and perspectives with the same urgency that we consider our own. As the authors of Secrets of a Successful Organizer note, “Solutions are collective, not individual.” Working toward those collective solutions, especially under challenging circumstances, requires a solid foundation in the ability to think generously.

LG9: Stories

Week 9 of Leading Generously; just a couple more to go. I hope you’ll send me any stories you’re willing to share.


* * *

Narrative goes deeper than numbers.

The last few chapters have collectively argued for transforming the metrics-reliant, form-based, discipline-oriented processes of assessment being used by the majority of our organizations and institutions into formative, individuated, supportive modes of exploring our values, our goals, and our plans for achieving them. Designing these new ways of reviewing our work, however, requires us to rethink the nature of the evidence that we bring to bear in the process.

As we noted in considering the role that key performance indicators, or KPIs, currently play in our processes of assessment, most of the evidence that we use in processes of evaluation today is numerical. This is true of our evaluations of both people and programs: we ask how many articles a scholar published, how many citations an article received, how many students a program served. Numerical evidence is extremely useful is processes of evaluation, not least because numbers are relatively stable entities, and some are bigger than others. This allows for an easy means of capturing trends and — most importantly for the ways we think of assessment today — creating points of comparison.

But numbers can’t tell the whole story. A countable difference between one number over here and another number over there may direct our attention to an aspect of our work, or our colleagues’ work, that we need to understand or investigate. But the numbers don’t explain what’s happening. Numbers can highlight or inform, but they can’t tell you whether they matter, or why.

Take, as an example, citation indexes. Knowing that your article has been cited more than 100 times is an interesting data point, but no more than that, unless we know why and how it’s been cited, by whom and to what end. After all, citations of articles whose premises are being refuted are counted in exactly the same way as citations of articles that are foundational for new work in the field.

Exploring whether a particular numerical difference is something we should pay attention to and why it matters requires digging into the story behind the numbers. Where numbers can direct our interest in ways that might lead to speculation, narrative can explain, compel, open up. Narrative can lead us to understand the significance of what’s happening, and can help us communicate the importance of the ways we work. Narrative can bring both its writers and its readers into a deep consideration not just of what is happening, but of why it is happening, and of what it means for us as individuals and for our organizations as collectives.

We already use narratives in crucial ways across academic work, even in the most empirical, quantitatively-focused fields. Articles reporting on research in the bench sciences, for instance, are narratives of that work, exploring the presuppositions and questions that led to the research, the process of conducting it, the outcomes and the questions that remain. Numbers are a key component of the evidence presented through those stories, but without the actual story of the research, the numbers themselves make little to no sense.

For this same reason, most personnel review processes in higher education institutions and other mission-oriented organizations do not simply rely on the employee’s resume or c.v., or on any similarly abbreviated listing of or metrics regarding their work product, but also include a narrative exploration of the goals behind the work, the ways that it proceeded, the challenges the staff member faced, and the future directions that they are likely to take. The story ideally presses beyond a dry recounting of accomplishments to reveal a thought process at work. And by centering the review process on that story, by foregrounding where the colleague under review is headed and why, the moment of review can turn into an ongoing conversation about goals and how they might be supported.

And the same is true of the assessment of that work by those responsible for evaluating it. Whether the assessment takes place in the course of a project (in the form of peer review of a grant proposal or of a publication) or in the course of a career (in promotion and tenure processes), reviewers are charged not solely with rating the work but with relating something of the story of the work’s potential or existing impact on the field, in order to help improve the project or colleagues’ changes of achieving those goals.

None of this is to say that narratives are in and of themselves more trustworthy than numbers. Stories can mislead, they can deflect, they can delude. I’m certain that many of us know someone with a highly compelling story to tell but no evidence of that story’s reality or of their follow-through. So the evidence presented in the telling of the story matters. However, that evidence needs to be part of the narrative, leading to its end goals. Too often, we wind up privileging numerical assessments of a candidate or a career — x number of grant dollars raised, y number of dissertations overseen, an h-index of z — rather than understanding those figures as steps along the way toward a more significant end. Focusing instead on the candidate or career’s progress toward their own goals presents enriched potential not only for the colleague being assessed but also for those doing the assessing: assessment can in this way become a form of support, in which we help one another think through our purpose and shape the paths that lie before us.

Even more, telling the story of our work creates the potential for drawing larger audiences into that work and its significance. This is something more than just an elevator pitch, and it’s something more than just public relations: it’s the ability to help others get interested in what you’re doing and to understand why what you’re doing matters. And that’s a skill that can support more successful grant applications, more successful project proposals, and a host of other situations in which you need to lead others to understand and be compelled by your goals.

This mode of storytelling is important enough that numerous colleges and universities have invested in hiring communicators to bring the work of the institution to public attention. These communicators are not just marketers, and they don’t merely have access to the networks and technical tools necessary to get the word out about academic work. Rather, they have the narrative skillset necessary to draw others into that story.

All of us, however, can work on developing that skillset — and all of us should. Not just because our ability to tell the story of our work can help us obtain the support necessary to doing the work, but because telling that story keeps us focused on our larger goals, on the work’s impact, on the ways that the questions we pursue can help to change the world. Telling ourselves that story is just as important as telling it to funders, or to assessment committees, or to the outside world. Numbers may persuade, but they persuade best in the context of a narrative that explains their significance and creates a sense of connection to the work at hand. And it’s through those narratives — the ones we tell those around us, and the ones those around us tell us — that we have the opportunity to help one another reach our individual and collective goals.

LG8: Support

Part 8 of Leading Generously, already! Thanks to all of you who have liked and retweeted and commented. There are just a few more chapters ahead, and I’m starting to get a sense of my path forward, but I’m really looking forward any thoughts you may have to share, on this or any chapter.


* * *

Lift them up, rather than marking them down.

Across this guide thus far, as we’ve considered what it is to be a generous leader, especially in difficult times, we’ve encountered several core concepts: we’ve explored the importance of focusing on the people who make up our institutions, rather than on its functional but inhuman structures and processes; we’ve looked at the importance of cultivating trusting relationships with those people; and we’ve recognized the basis for those trusting relationships in a set of shared values that must be continually re-articulated and to which all must be held accountable. Those three ideas are at the heart of creating an environment in which an organization can function as a community.

That community, however, too often gets submerged in the policies that govern it. These policies are not in and of themselves a bad thing; they’re the mechanisms through which organizations attempt to hold themselves accountable. But they often approach that accountability through regulation, and in particular through establishing means of treating every member of the community exactly the same way.

The impulse that leads to such policies often emerges from a good place: from the desire to create equity, to ensure that the organization operates with a basic sense of fairness. But the problem, of course, is that people are different. They start out in different places, they face different obstacles and have different goals, and simply applying the same uniform policies in the same uniform ways does not result in equivalent outcomes.

Again, this is not to suggest that an institution shouldn’t have such policies, but rather to press its leaders to think about those policies, and the processes through which they’re enacted, in a way that puts people first and that derives from your deepest values. And one key aspect of generous leadership, as we’ve seen, is ensuring that every member of the institution has every possibility for success.

One important means of ensuring that possibility lies in developing processes of evaluation that cultivate success rather than serving as a form of discipline. Processes like these might be described as formative, looking forward to and supporting the work ahead, rather than summative, looking back on and measuring the work that’s been done. As we noted in the chapter on values, this involves shifting the process’s focus from institutionally-derived KPIs to individually-developed goals and pathways.

The team in the dean’s office in the College of Arts & Letters at MSU has been working on such formative review processes within the college. I previously mentioned that these processes ask us to think differently about means and ends, really focusing on our larger goals without overly restricting the kinds of steps that individual staff and faculty can take to get there. This review structure is backed by a goal-setting process called Charting a Path to Intellectual Leadership. CPIL, as we call it (academia does love an acronym), begins by asking us to think about our “horizon goals,” the things we’d most like to be said about us upon retirement, the legacy we’d like to leave behind for those who follow. Horizon goals differ significantly from person to person, but they often focus on the impact of your work on a broader community:

  • I want to be known for having established a new field of study.
  • I want to be known for having transformed the way our field approaches a key problem.
  • I want to be known for having created opportunities for graduate students whose work has changed our thinking in crucial ways.

Reaching those horizon goals requires charting a path that can help lead you there. Along that path there are milestones, which the CPIL team describes as those large markers of success that you can’t fully control. For instance:

  • I want to be elected to the executive council of my scholarly organization (so that I can help create the policies that will change the ways we work).
  • I want to publish a book that reaches a broad public audience (so that I can help more general readers understand why the work we do in my field matters).
  • I want to create a new lab (so that I can build a team of researchers collaborating on the development of new methods).

Among those milestones, of course, are some conventional markers, such as receiving tenure or being promoted, but the key thing to note is that these achievements are not the goal in and of themselves: they lead toward or provide assistance in the pursuit of the goal.

Finally, along the path toward those horizon goals, and leading to those external milestones, are the stepping stones. These are the achievements that lie more fully within our control; they include publishing journal articles in order to get ideas into circulation within a community, or helping to revamp a graduate curriculum in order to provide new kinds of training for future scholars, or any number of other projects that help make those milestones likely.

It’s important to remember, of course, that the stepping stones, and even the milestones, are means to the end, and not the end in themselves. They’re ways of measuring progress toward a goal. But that progress can only be appropriately measured if we actually know the goal, and if we regularly check in to be sure that we’re on the path. And this is what makes the CPIL process formative: it asks each of us to reflect on those goals and why we’re working toward them; it asks us to think about the path we’ve charted and whether it’s leading us in the right direction; it asks us to consider our progress rather than our productivity. And it asks those who evaluate us — whether our supervisors or our assessment committees — to think not just about how much we’ve accomplished but about how we might be supported in setting goals and establishing a path toward them.

Formative processes require very different things of evaluators than do summative processes. They require a willingness to engage with and support the actual individuals involved rather than operating with an abstracted notion of what those individuals should accomplish. There are of course limits to individual staff members’ abilities to operate with their own set of primary goals, particularly in a work environment in which roles are defined and certain basic tasks simply must get done. Even within highly structured environments, however, you can still create the opportunity to work with individual team members to find out how they would like to see their positions develop, what they would like to learn, how they would like to grow. And finding ways to encourage such growth while still making sure that the work gets done can foster an environment in which people have the tools they need in order to innovate, and the engagement they require in order to try.

This is a quite different model of management than we mostly see in workplaces today, and one that requires a real willingness on your part to listen the people you work with, to draw out their interests and concerns, and to think with them about ways to lead them toward their goals rather than yours. To a significant extent, it cultivates people and the relationships among them by replacing management with mentoring.

That having been said, it’s worth stopping to think a bit about how we mentor as well. Mentoring as we practice it — especially in academic spaces — too often winds up looking like a process of self-replication, in which the mentor guides the mentee along the same path they earlier traveled. Learn from my success, we seem to say: do what I would do.

Real mentoring, as my colleague Beronda Montgomery has argued in a wide variety of venues, requires shifting away from this mode of inculcating your mentee in how to achieve your goals, and instead focusing on supporting them as they work toward their own goals. It means helping them as they shape the career they want to have, and not the career we think they should have. And it means operating from a growth mindset, helping to cultivate mentee strengths and improve the environments in which they might thrive, rather than a deficit mindset, correcting or repairing flaws inherent in the mentee.

So rather than leading from a position of judgment, in which we are constantly called upon to assess the work that our colleagues are doing according to our standards, how can we instead lead from support, a forward-looking position that asks us to create the conditions for success in our team as they strive toward their own goals?

Such a shift in attitude toward support has, of course, profound implications for processes of annual review and review for promotion; we’ve explored some of the possibilities in front of us in thinking about how we can create values-based modes of assessment, and we’ll explore some new structures for assessment in the next chapter. But it’s not just a matter of changing the nature of assessment itself; rather, it’s about changing the relationship between those moments of assessment and the ways that we work together more generally. It’s about transforming assessment into an ongoing conversation, one centered around the needs and goals of the folks we’re working with, and how we can ensure that they’re being met. It’s about providing your team with the kinds of support that will enable them to do their best possible work.

You are likely wondering, though, about those members of your team whose goals are out of scope for your unit, or for the work that their role requires. If your business manager really wants to be a web designer, you likely can’t just say “okay, forget the accounts and focus on the website!” The accounts still need to be managed. On the other hand, an unhappy business manager is very likely not a business manager you’ll have for long: they’ll eventually find a more appealing opportunity elsewhere. And if they don’t, their unhappiness could have deep ramifications for the functioning of the team as a whole. So the trick is likely to be working with your business manager to figure out how you might together set some goals and create some opportunities that both augment the work of the team and support their individual growth.

Resolving these conflicts, in other words, between stated roles and individual goals is crucial for the health of an organization. Without question, the organization has its own needs and goals. But supporting individual members of the organization in shaping fulfilling lives and futures is not only key to their personal happiness but to their happiness within the organization. And that, in the end, is key to the organization’s happiness.

But working your way around to a supportive mindset, and escaping the assumption that individual goals have no place within organizational life, and that your role in assessing the work of those who report to you is to judge them according to standards developed by and undoubtedly privileging the needs of the organization — well, that’s a lot. Becoming a truly supportive mentor is likely to require as much work on yourself as it does counseling others. It asks you to think differently about the relationship between the individuals and the organization, and that means convincing yourself that the long-term interests of the people on your team need to outweigh your own. And it requires you to genuinely believe that helping your team members outgrow their roles on your team is a good thing.

That can be challenging, especially when a team works well together. A highly functional team can feel like a well-oiled machine, and the departure of a member of the team threatens to throw everything out of alignment. But here’s the thing: it’s not a machine. It’s people and the relationships among them that make the whole thing work, and when the people aren’t happy, the relationships run the risk of becoming dysfunctional. Supporting the functioning of the team means supporting the work of the people on it, and working with them to develop individual and collective goals that will allow all of you to thrive.

LG7: Trust

This chapter of Leading Generously contains my first real TK TK TK — I’m not happy with how this section wraps up, in part because I’m not convinced the section goes at all far enough. I’m developing a plan for conducting interviews with folks willing to share their thoughts and stories with me; if you’ve got ideas and are open to sharing them (anonymously or in an attributed way) do contact me at kfitz @ kfitz.info.


* * *

Without trust, there can be no community.

Transforming an organizational culture requires a deep level of trust among those working for change. They need to believe in one another’s goodwill and commitment, and they need know that the collective will have their backs in tricky moments. In a trusting community, people are able to experiment, to suggest new paths, to take risks. Without trust, they close down. They stagnate.

I’ve worked in deeply mistrustful environments in which, for instance, no one had confidence in the ways that management would receive new ideas — and so no one had new ideas. Open communication was minimal, but the backchannels were filled with discontent. And morale was terrible; everyone kept their heads down and did what they had to do, but almost no one was happy about it.

I’ve also worked in environments in which everyone felt they had the room to think differently, to disagree, to propose radical changes to ways of working. Everyone knew those ideas would be soundly critiqued and that the suggestions might finally be rejected, but they felt confident that their colleagues all shared a common mission and a set of common values with them, and that airing their disagreements would push them in a positive direction. These environments were collegial in the deepest sense: rarely in full agreement, not always “nice,” but bound by a shared trust in one another’s motives and commitments.

So this is the point at which you might be thinking, “great! How do I build that kind of trust within my team?” And this is also the point at which this book, as a manual containing anything like actionable advice, might begin to fall apart for you. Because I don’t know of any easy answers here. Building trust of the kind that lays the groundwork for a functional, flexible, agile organization can’t be done overnight. There’s no simple formula that can get you from that first environment I described to the second one.

But there are a few seeds that I can give you, seeds that have to be cultivated consistently over time in order for trust to take root. The first is in some ways the most obvious: trust is a two-way street, and you have to trust your team if they’re going to trust you in return. And one of the key ways in which you can exercise your trust in them, and build their trust in you, by working toward transparency in your processes and communications.

Transparency, in case it need to be said, doesn’t mean giving everyone control of or even access to decision-making. It means, rather, making the walls around those processes see-through. That is to say, it means giving the members of your community insight into the ways you go about making decisions. It means offering them the opportunity to share their input. It means explaining the factors that constrain decision-making. And it requires follow-through, explaining decisions where they contradict the advice or input that’s been given.

Each stage of a transparent decision-making process requires trust on all sides. We might think back to the example I mentioned in talking about vulnerability: the dean of my college has created an extensive task force, composed of faculty and staff leaders, to make recommendations to him on budget cutting in the midst of the current fiscal crisis. This task force, divided into subcommittees, has been charged with looking into a wide range of possibilities, including restructuring programs and departments, refocusing academic programs, and more besides. The goal is to find potential savings while maintaining all of the values and principles that our college holds and while continuing to work toward our most aspirational goals. The decisions about the college’s future will finally be the dean’s to make, but the people working on the task force are being asked to think deeply about very difficult questions and are being assured that their work will be taken seriously.

Opening up a question as serious as this one to community discussion requires a lot of trust. The dean has to trust that the members of the task force will understand the complexities of the question, will consider the constraints involved, will adhere to a set of communally derived values and principles in thinking through their ideas, and will finally provide constructive suggestions. The task force, for its part, has to trust that they’re being given all of the information they need to consider, that they have the freedom to investigate some perhaps unexpected possibilities, that the final report they make to the dean will be thoroughly considered, and that the dean will hold to the same set of values and principles in making his final decisions. And in the end, the dean will have to trust the people he works with by communicating his decisions in a way that reveals the reasoning behind them, and the rest of us will need to trust in the dean’s reasoning, even in the entirely likely event that we disagree with some parts of it.

The root of the trust required for transparency, and the root of the trust that transparency builds, is open, forthright communication, based in an adherence to shared values and principles and backed by a willingness to acknowledge and account for errors. Trust, at its best, is an action rather than a state; it doesn’t so much exist as it circulates, enabling better communication and growing as a result of that communication. Trust is a virtuous cycle, expanding as it is nourished.

Being such a virtuous cycle, however, makes trust far easier to break than it is to build. This happens all too frequently in organizations that claim kinds of openness that they do not follow through on, organizations that point to and then ignore the recommendations of systems of shared governance. If you open up a process in order to make it transparent, for instance, and you invite investment in that process on the part of a team, but then ultimately disregard the team’s input without a full and forthright explanation of the choice being made, you not only throw away the trust that could have been built in this process of team investment and communication but you also undermine the trust required to get a team to invest in such a process in the future.

And then there are the breaches of trust that are more serious, breaches that stem from violations of the shared values and principles on which your community is based or from failures of accountability in response to such violations. Too many institutions have experienced such breaches — often, as at my own institution, stemming from horrifying cases of sexual assault and harrassment that have been ignored or covered up in order to protect the institution. These cases not only give the lie to the administration’s claims to working within the values that our community espouses, but also demonstrate the deepest failure to understand that the institution is nothing without the people that it comprises. The institution cannot be protected if the people that make it up are not cared for first and foremost. And when it emerges that the administration thinks of the institution before its people, by allowing egregious violations of community norms to continue without holding the perpetrators accountable, trust is broken in an all but irreparable way.

In such cases, the path forward likely requires a full and painful accounting of the failures that allowed the violations to go unaddressed. This path might draw heavily on principles of restorative justice, or practices of truth and reconciliation. But until the wrong has been fully addressed, and until the circumstances and the structures that allowed the wrong to occur are transformed, the community cannot trust that it will not happen again. And without that trust, the community cannot survive.

Leadership requires trust at every level, and so the first job of the leader of an institution or a team in crisis has to be rebuilding that trust.

[There’s much more that needs to be said — more specific examples of how trust can be rebuilt, more cautionary tales about the reasons why trust is imperative — that I’m hoping will lead me to a stronger conclusion to this chapter.]

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.


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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.


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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.