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I’m a little late in getting this posted, but I delivered the paper below at MLA 2023 as part of a session entitled “How the Liberal Arts Works,” organized by Julia Mickenberg. It draws on the work I’ve been doing toward (what I sincerely hope will be) the final revision of Leading Generously. To that end, feedback is most welcome!

Leading Generously: The Liberal Arts and Tools for Transformation

At this hour of the world, at this particular convention, beginning a paper with an invocation of crisis is hardly unusual. In fact, it veers dangerously into the territory of the cliché, so expected as to say absolutely nothing. And yet, given recent events at my own institution – as well, I imagine, as events at all of our institutions, not to mention events surrounding those of us here without the privilege of institutional affiliation – to speak of the state of things without reference to crises feels all but impossible.

Many of the kinds of crises we talk about at the MLA have been with us for quite some time, and particularly those we experience in our corner of campus, where the humanities in particular and the liberal arts more broadly seem to have been forgotten. The enduring nature of these crises has been described by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon in Permanent Crisis, which traces the long history of the rhetoric of crisis in the humanities back to the establishment of the German university system, which of course gave shape to much of the structure of research universities in the contemporary United States. Reitter and Wellmon argue, in fact, that the existence of the humanities in the modern era is dependent upon that sense of crisis:

For nearly a century and a half, claims about a ‘crisis of the humanities’ have constituted a genre with remarkably consistent features: anxiety about modern agents of decay, the loss of authority and legitimacy, and invocations of ‘the human’ in the face of forces that dehumanize and alienate humans from themselves, one another, and the world. These claims typically lead to the same, rather paradoxical conclusion: modernity destroys the humanities, but only the humanities can redeem modernity, a circular story of salvation in which overcoming the crisis of modernity is the mission of the humanities. Without a sense of crisis, the humanities would have neither purpose nor direction. (132)

And perhaps it is true that we rely on our sense of crisis, our sense of marginalization within our institutions and of swimming against the larger cultural tides, to give us purpose. Much of the work that we do, after all, is structured by critique, and without our distance from the cultural and institutional center we can neither obtain the perspective nor sustain the motivation necessary to studying the ways that our world structures and is structured by its representations.

On the other hand. There are some particularities to the situation of the humanities today – the threats that our colleges, our departments, our fields, and our researchers and instructors face – that are not simply rhetorical, and it’s worth paying some careful attention to the specifics of these crises, which include:

The labor crisis. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve watched as more and more good positions – with job security, adequate salaries, full benefits, and above all academic freedom – have been sucked into the gig economy. This ongoing adjunctification is happening across all fields on our campuses but is especially acute in humanities fields, and particularly in those fields, like writing studies, that are meant to prepare students for anything that they go on to study. The effects of this labor crisis are manifold: as fewer and fewer faculty in humanities departments have the benefits of tenure, and thus the voice in campus governance required to have a real impact on the institution’s directions, our fields continue to weaken, allowing our departments to appear decreasingly vibrant, drawing in diminishing numbers of students, and thus making the case for our apparent obsolescence.

This of course works hand-in-hand with the economic crisis that our institutions are mired in. As public funding provides a smaller and smaller portion of university budgets, the costs of higher education have shifted radically from the state to individual students and their families. As those costs escalate, the pressure on students to think of higher education as a market exchange grows. If they’re going to sink tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars into the purchase of a four-year degree, it’s not the least bit surprising that students would also face increasing pressure (whether internal, or from their families or communities or the media) to select a degree program that seems to promise an obvious career outcome. And thus majors that are named after jobs or industries grow, and those that aren’t – like the vast majority of our programs – shrink, providing further evidence that new investments in humanities departments are a luxury that our institutions, like our students, cannot afford.

And in the midst of all that, there is of course the political crisis, which has been brewing for decades but has taken a particularly acute turn in the last few years. The attacks that we’ve seen on critical race theory, the moves to ban books from libraries, the attempts to eradicate tenure, the growing interference in the curriculum – all provide evidence of a growing backlash against the critical functions that the humanities bring to bear.

In all of this, Reitter and Wellmon’s sense that “modernity destroys the humanities, but only the humanities can redeem modernity” may well be “a circular story” of the “salvation” project that rests at the heart of the humanities’ mission, but neither the threat nor the work we have ahead are rhetorical. They are instead very material, and they demand material responses.

So part of my goal today is to demonstrate that we have at hand some of the means of responding to the crises faced by our fields and our institutions, and that we can demonstrate through the ways that we do our work a better path for the future of the university at large. I argued in Generous Thinking for the ways that stronger connections between our institutions and the many publics that we serve might help facilitate a renewed sense of higher education as a public good, and I discussed a range of forms of public scholarship, including community-engaged research and open publishing processes, that might help us build those connections.

But for individual scholars to engage in more open, connected forms of work requires deep institutional change, in order to ensure that work is valued and supported. And we need not only to transform the ways that we value and reward public work, but we also need to create the policies that can help us account for and support public work, and we need to adopt the processes and platforms that can bring public work to life. And all of this will require us to get active on campus, and to begin developing a new model for academic leadership via collective action.

We need that new model for academic leadership not least because the crises in which we are mired demonstrate that the model under which we currently labor is irreparably broken. I want to be clear in what I’m saying here: there are some very good people doing the best work they possibly can in many of our campus leadership roles. It’s not the people that need replacing, or at least not all of the people, and in fact the exercise of replacing them with new leaders with new visions has become a form of institutional deck-chair-rearranging. The problem lies not with the people, but with the structures within and through which they work. That’s the model of academic leadership we need to contend with, a model with its boards and its presidents and its innumerable vice-presidents that comes to us directly from the hierarchical structures of corporate governance. Those structures are ill-suited to the operation of non-profit entities in general, as can be seen in the extensive recent literature on reimagining non-profit leadership. And those structure are doing grave damage to the purposes of higher education.

This is why our mission statements die a little every time that someone says that the university should be run more like a business: because all of our institutions already are being run like businesses, and long have been. Of course, what that someone means when they say that the university should be run more like a business is that we should be keeping a closer eye on the bottom line, we should be relentless in our pursuit of innovation, we should be eliminating the product lines that aren’t producing sufficient revenue, we should be keeping our front-line labor in check, and so on. All of which we’ve been subjected to for decades now, and all of which has contributed to the sorry state we’re in.

Even worse, however, the unspoken parts of “like a business,” the individualist, competitive models for success that are foundational to corporate structures, are actively preventing our institutions from flourishing. This is true not just at the micro-level, where each individual student and employee is required to compete for resources, but also at the macro-level, where our institutions are required to square off in the marketplace rather than develop any kinds of cross-institutional collaborations that could lift the entire sector rather than creating the rankings-driven lists of winners and losers that surround us today.

So here’s the core of my argument: universities are not meant to be profit centers, and shouldn’t be run that way. They are rather shared infrastructures dedicated to a form of mutual aid, in which those who have – in this case, knowledge – support those who need, with the goal of producing a more just and equitable society.

Dean Spade defines mutual aid as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. Those systems, in fact, have often created the crisis, or are making things worse.” And as Peter Kropotkin argued at the turn of the 20th century, mutual aid, mutual protection, and mutually beneficial cooperation have been as important to the development of both animal and human societies as the Darwinian mode of competition for survival. In fact, though history focuses on the role of conflict in societies – it makes for a more thrilling narrative than does cooperation – Kropotkin indicates the significance of mutual aid for our subjects of study:

the practice of mutual aid and its successive developments have created the very conditions of society life in which man was enabled to develop his arts, knowledge, and intelligence; and that the periods when institutions based on the mutual-aid tendency took their greatest development were also the periods of the greatest progress in arts, industry, and science. (296)

The development, then, not just of the softer, more aesthetic subjects that we in the humanities study, but of the broader forms of knowledge studied across our campuses required mutual aid. And they still require mutual aid in order to continue developing. And that need should press us to consider that the ideal model for the university is not the corporation but the cooperative, in which every member has a stake in the successful outcome of the whole, and is as a result committed to full participation in its processes.

In collective models such as that of the co-op, leadership is of necessity coalition-based rather than hierarchical. It is both built from relationships and built in order to sustain relationships. And this is a model that I would like to see us espouse for the future of academic leadership.

“Coalition” and “leadership” may not seem to go together well, I’ll acknowledge; our ideas about what it is to lead have largely come to us from the corporate universe, as filtered through our business schools. A leader in that model is a strong, visionary individual capable of seeing the future and pressing an institution toward it. But if you’ve been paying attention to the higher education press for the last several months, you might already have a sense of why, coming from my own institutional perspective, I am somewhat less than sanguine about the transformative potential embodied in the folks that our campuses designate as “leaders.” In fact, referring to our upper administrations, our boards, and so on as “leadership” is a profound misnomer. They are, more properly, “management,” charged with keeping the institution running in accordance with the status quo.

Leadership, by contrast, is a matter of creating change, and not only can that work be done anywhere within the org chart, it’s in fact most effective when it emerges through a grass-roots process of coalition building rather than via top-down mandate. It’s not for nothing that John Kotter has argued that most organizations today are “over-managed and under-led” (37), and academia is no exception. In fact, we have arguably been organized and disciplined into an inability to cope with – and worse, an inability to create – change.

So how do we re-organize ourselves in ways that will enable us to create the change that our campuses so desperately need? I’ve been working on a project for the last few years focused on exactly that question, a question that I left wide-open at the end of Generous Thinking. For this new project, in addition to more standard forms of research, I’ve conducted interviews with a number of people, mostly mid-level managers within their institutions, whom I consider to be leading the process of transformative change. Nearly all of them point to the need for collaboration, for listening, for mutual support, and so on, in order to create the ground on which transformation can grow. Or, as Chris Bourg said to me, “The leadership skills for the future of higher education are 100% coalition-building and relationships.” And this is true at every level throughout our institutions: our collective success at the department level, the college level, the university level, all depends upon our becoming and acting as a collective, upon our developing and relying on the relationships that can enable us to establish and achieve the shared goals we hold most dear. And that process – determining what our shared goals are and should be, and how we should go about striving toward them – requires a kind of interrelation that is not merely personal but also, and of necessity, political.

When I talk about politics in this context, I do not mean to point to any of the politician-driven shenanigans taking place in Washington, in our state capitols, and on many of our campuses. Rather, I mean to point to Iris Marion Young’s definition of politics in Justice and the Politics of Difference, which she uses to describe

all aspects of institutional organization, public action, social practices and habits, and cultural meanings insofar as they are potentially subject to collective evaluation and decisionmaking (9)

and in particular the ways that she suggests “the concept of justice coincides with the concept of the political” (34), arguing that every effort must be made to enhance collective evaluation and decision-making if we are to create the possibility for just institutions (34). Just institutions require political action, but the ways that “collective evaluation and decisionmaking” have been trammeled on our campuses by the erosion of shared governance into bureaucratic busywork has left most of us feeling less than enthusiastic about the prospects. And, in fact, that kind of depoliticization is a core principle of management: getting things done by minimizing input and eliminating controversy.

So to come back around to the focus of our panel: what does this have to do with how the liberal arts works? What I want to suggest here is that the liberal arts as broadly understood, and the humanities in particular, are the areas on campus that are simultaneously the most dependent on mutual aid in order to flourish and that have the most to gain from its full realization. Our fields and our colleagues have suffered enormously under the competitive corporate regimes to which we’ve been subjected. And if there’s going to be change, it has to begin with us. This is not to say that we need more academic leaders to rise out of our fields, but rather that our fields might begin to model a new structure of cooperation that can serve as a starting point for the radical restructuring of academic hierarchies. We have the greatest opportunities – because of our training, because of our ways of working, because of our understanding of the always-already political, and in some ways because of our outsider status – to create an alternative to the failed model for academic leadership and its basis the individualist principles of the corporate economy. We can work together to develop properly politicized cultures of mutual aid based on collective action within our departments. We can ensure that our departments similarly interact with one another based on principles of mutual support. And we can create a model that the rest of the institution might be persuaded by.

This all sounds super pie-in-the-sky, I recognize, and I’m willing to admit that my inner Pollyanna is having a field day right now, but I have some concrete examples that I can discuss in the Q&A. In the meantime, however, I hope that you’ll consider Dean Spade’s conviction that “crisis conditions require bold tactics” and that the boldest of these is mutual aid. True cooperation and collective action might provide a path out of the crises by which we’re beset, and in fact toward a liberal arts that works toward strengthening higher education as a whole.

Works Cited

Kotter, John P. “What Leaders Really Do.” HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011, pp. 37–55.

Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. William Heineman, 1902.

Reitter, Paul, and Chad Wellmon. Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. The University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Verso Books, 2020.

Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, 2011.

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