This is the first chapter of what promises to be eleven in an in-development project, tentatively entitled Leading Generously. For more on why I’m posting this, and the kinds of input I’m hoping for, see Leading Generously. And tune in next Tuesday for more!
Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Leadership is admittedly an odd subject for a professor of literature and digital media to write about. This certainly wasn’t on the list of projects I imagined lay in my future as my career began, but then neither did I imagine any of the strange turns that career has taken: from writing conventional journal articles to exploring blogging as a scholarly form; from studying digital media to thinking about the ways networked communication might transform academic life; from being a relatively unknown professor at an isolated small liberal arts college to being the first director of scholarly communication for the largest scholarly society in the humanities. Nor did I foresee the changes that would overtake institutions of higher education — or indeed the world — in that time: deeper and deeper cuts in public funding for colleges and universities; astronomical expansion in student and family educational debt; a growing disbelief in education as a social good, beyond the individual, market-oriented credential it can provide.
Nor could I possibly have imagined that we would have found ourselves, in summer 2020, watching the leaders of colleges and universities struggle to decide whether to reopen their campuses in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
We are facing a massive crisis in leadership in higher education today — not to mention in the world beyond — and we must find new ways of understanding leadership, and of cultivating and empowering leaders, if we want the project of knowledge creation and dissemination, of research and education, to survive.
Leading Generously picks up where Generous Thinking leaves off. It’s intended to serve as a handbook, or a workshop guide, for folks who want to transform their institutions. Who want to align their actual ways of working in the day-to-day with their missions, visions, and values. Who want, in other words, to do the hands-on work of helping to build more generous institutions. As I hope was the case with Generous Thinking, while expressly focused on the context of North American colleges and universities, Leading Generously may be useful for thinking about transformation within a broader range of kinds of institutions and organizations: educational and cultural, public and private, commercial and not-for-profit. The one requirement for those institutions is that they understand themselves to be mission-driven, and that they be led by people willing to take the time, and to make the effort, to reimagine and refashion their ways of working.
As I’ll discuss further in the next chapter, however, the leaders this book seeks to support are not necessarily the people we conventionally think of as leaders — those at the top of an institutional hierarchy, those with the authority to steer the ship. Rather, at the center of Leading Generously is the conviction that everyone in an institution has the potential to be a leader, to create transformative change that can model ways of being that others might follow.
This conviction places a lot of emphasis on individuals, in ways that may seem a bit at odds with some of today’s most important ideas about the ways that power operates. Those critical ideas — including arguments about race and racism; about sex, gender, and misogyny; about class and power — understand the issues they explore to be systemic rather than individual. That is to say, they argue that real change requires social transformation. It requires building institutions, creating governments, enacting laws, transforming economies in ways that work toward equity rather than supporting privilege.
I subscribe wholly to those arguments, and I have that same end goal: building institutions that are structurally capable of supporting and facilitating the work of creating better communities and a better world. But the institutions we have today aren’t going to transform themselves.
So the question I am left with is one of where we locate agency: who has the power to make significant change in the world. If we understand power as residing in the structures and systems that govern our lives, there is little agency left to the individual.
And it’s unquestionably true that the problems we face are enormous, and one individual can’t do much to change the world.
But groups of individuals can.
And building those groups starts with individuals who decide to do more, to put what individual agency they do have to work in solidarity with others.
Over the course of the last several years, both while Generous Thinking was in press and after it was published, I had the opportunity to speak on a number of college and university campuses where faculty, staff, students, and administrators have been thinking about how to create and support a greater sense of connection between their campus communities and their public-facing mission. The folks who invited me — ranging from the officers of campus AAUP chapters to university presidents and their advisors — felt a connection with the arguments being made in Generous Thinking not least because they recognized that their institutions require not just better strategic plans but deep culture change. That culture change demands, among other things, a serious rethinking of how we work, why we work the ways we do, how we assess and reward that work, and how we recognize as work things that tend to get dismissed as service but that play a crucial role in building and sustaining collaborative communities.
Making a better, more sustainable institution, in other words, requires us to move away from quantified metrics for meritorious production — in fact to step off the Fordist production line that forever asks us to do more — and instead to think in a humane fashion about ways that we can do better. Better often in fact requires slowing down, talking with our colleagues and our communities, and most importantly, listening to what others have to say. Better requires engagement, connection, sharing, in ways that more nearly always encourages us to rush past. Turning from more to better goes against some of the ingrained ways of working we’ve adopted, but that turn can help us access the pleasures — indeed, the joys — of our work that life on the production line has required us to push aside.
But after one of the talks I gave, an attendee asked me a question that’s lingered in the back of my head ever since: generosity is all well and good, she said, and something that it’s relatively easy to embrace when we’re flush, but how do we practice generosity in hard times? Can we afford to be generous when we’re facing significant budget cuts, for instance, or is it inevitable that we fall back into analytics-driven competition with every unit — much less every worker — out to protect their own resources and their own privileges?
I don’t remember exactly how I answered then. I suspect that it was some combination of “you’re completely right; that’s the real question” and “the difficulties involved in being generous in hard times are precisely why we need to practice generosity in a determined way in good times.” And I may have said some things about the importance of transparency in priority-setting and decision-making, and of involving the collective in that process.
But I do know that as I stood there saying whatever I said, I was thinking “wow, this is hard, I don’t know.” I don’t know how we find the wherewithal to remain generous when times are bad, except by having practiced generosity enough to have developed some individual and institutional muscle memory, and by recommitting ourselves to our basic values again and again. And I especially don’t know how we remain generous at a moment when our institutions are approaching us — we who work for them, as well as we who rely on them — invoking the notion of a shared sacrifice required to keep the institution running. I don’t know because I do want the institution to survive, and I want to maintain the community that it enables, but I also know that the sacrifices that are called for are never genuinely equitably distributed.
And I also know that however much I may want to keep the institution running, the institution is not thinking the same about me. Our institutions will not, cannot, love us back. However much we sacrifice for them, they will never sacrifice for us. As with so many of my thoughts, this understanding was clarified for me by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who posted a Twitter thread describing the advice she gives to Black scholars who ask her how to survive in the academy. One tweet in particular stuck with me:
That is a pretty impolitic stance but I stand by it. I don’t think these institutions can support us or love us. And I honor the many many people who work to make them more humane. But you, alone, can not do that. And you cannot do it, ever, by killing yourself.
This is especially true for members of minoritized groups working within the academy; it’s especially true for faculty without tenure; it’s especially true for staff; it’s especially true for scholars working in contingent positions; it’s especially true for everyone whose positions in the hierarchies of prestige and comfort leave them vulnerable, especially at moments when “we’re all in it together” is invoked not in the context of resource-sharing but of sacrifice.
Sacrifice tends to roll downhill, and to accelerate in the process. This is how we wind up with furloughs and layoffs among contract faculty and staff at the same time as we find ourselves with a new Associate Vice-President for Shared Sacrifice.
The only way to prevent such sacrifice from rolling downhill is to build structures to channel it otherwise. And this is the deepest goal of Generous Thinking, and by extension of Leading Generously. I’m far less focused on getting individual readers to think more generously — though that’s the place I have to begin — than I am on what is required for us collectively to build a more generous environment in which we can do our work together. And I’m far less interested in building individual leaders who can rise through the administrative ranks than I am in building cohorts of leaders who can work together to transform those ranks. And so, my core question: What kinds of leadership are required for us remake the university into an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care for all of its members, in good times and bad?
There’s a catch in that question, of course: the university is not going to remake itself. It has to be remade. And the “us” that I’m pointing to as doing the remaking is meant to indicate those members of the university community who are to varying extents empowered and motivated to take that work on. But it’s unquestionably true that the empowerment and motivation of that “us” vary enormously, structurally, from position to position, from institution to institution.
I spoke in 2019 at a large midwestern public institution that had hands-down the most demoralized faculty I’d ever encountered. The reasons for that state were painfully clear: they have an activist politician-turned-president who is bent on transforming the institution into a fully corporate enterprise and on undermining everything that ties the institution to the liberal arts, to critical thinking, to public service, to community. As a result, core departments have faced decade-long hiring freezes and are housed in buildings that are literally toxic. The faculty members I talked to during my visit despaired of their ability to do anything with such a force at the top of their institution, much less with the board that hired him.
There’s reason to despair in such circumstances, without question. But for whatever combination of reasons — privilege, thickheadedness, temperamental indisposition, sheer luck in the position in which I find myself — I’m not able to sit back and say, oh well then. Leading Generously is in large part about finding the things that we can do, the basis for and the places of trying. Some of those places are internal: finding ways to engage in a deeper, more attentive manner with the work that others are doing, and drawing out what’s best in that work to build upon rather than focusing on what’s absent from it or what it doesn’t take on. Some of those places are external, but personal: finding ways to develop working relationships with our colleagues, with our students, and with our communities that invite them into the work we’re doing, that share it with them, and that make that work into a form of collective action. And some of these places are external, but structural: finding ways to make it possible for others to engage in this kind of generous leadership as well.
So Leading Generously is in many ways intended to be a practical handbook for putting the ideas of Generous Thinking into action. It’s also a means of putting my optimism and my ability to maintain some form of hope to work for others: while I recognize the enormity of the transformation that higher education needs today — large enough to require a revolution — I persist in believing that local changes can begin to make a difference, and that we are capable of making those local changes. But there are some key changes in outlook that have taken root for me in the years since I wrote Generous Thinking, changes that cannot help but manifest in this text.
In the preface to that book I noted that I’d struggled as I was writing, especially over the course of 2016 and 2017, to keep the book from becoming fundamentally angry. Writing today, in 2020, I am convinced that this struggle was utterly misplaced. Having been raised a good middle-class Catholic white girl in the deep South, I was taught that my anger was unacceptable, and that it needed either to be transformed into something more productive or to be deeply internalized. I don’t think I realized until recently the degree to which that message still haunts me: given the state of the world today, and especially the United States, operating with the anger meter reading anything less than “full-on fury” feels impossible. This is true of our political scene, which degenerates by the day; it’s true of our cities and our streets, where the thin veneer of law and order has at last cracked wide-open enough to force those of us privileged enough to ignore it until now to reckon with the brutality that has always underwritten policing; and it’s true of our institutions of higher education, which throughout summer
2000 gave every impression of placing institutional survival above the lives of those who work and learn on their campuses.
Given this widespread dereliction of duty in those who are meant to lead our nations and our cities and our institutions, nothing other than rage will do. I am trying to temper that rage into productive outcomes in this book, keeping in mind my hopes of guiding us all to a better place, but I feel obligated to note that such beating of emotional swords into ploughshares isn’t easy. I ask for your understanding and, I hope, your equally angry commitment to repairing the enormous damage that’s been done — slowly over a period of decades, and then with increasing speed over the last four years — to our institutions, which should always have been a model of generous thinking in action.