Leadership, Prayers and Poetry

Bobby Fong offers a different kind of career advice for campus administrators, focused on their hearts and minds.

July 26, 2013

This year, a half-dozen friends of mine ascended to new positions as academic deans, provosts, directors, vice presidents and presidents.  As they begin their duties, what I wish for them goes beyond success in meeting the daily demands of their jobs.  I hope that they will make room to attend to their souls and those of the institutions they steward.   

While overseeing the Allied efforts in Europe during World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower fretted, “Commanders are habitually diffident where they are called upon to deal with subjects that touch the human soul — aspirations, ideals, inner beliefs, affection, hatreds.”  Eisenhower held that leadership must encompass the moral ends of an enterprise.  In education, no less than in war, enunciating those ends necessitates first a personal equilibrium, a clarity that begins with one’s own sense of being called to good work. 

In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Cardinal Wolsey twits Thomas More for desiring to govern England by prayers. More does, but for him prayers are not simply an appeal for transcendent attention: they are regulators of the conscience, the governor of the self.  Caroline Simon has written, “Prayer is asking for the grace to strive with whatever wholeness you have toward whatever truth you can attend to.” Prayer in this sense is at once both an acknowledgment of human frailty and the responsibility to act with integrity in pursuing the truth as one best discerns it.

Administrative decisions are always contingent. We never have all the facts; we choose among competing interests; and insofar as we affect the welfare of others, we enable or destroy hopes and dreams.  In assessing the academic progress of a student, in determining whether a colleague ought receive tenure, in deciding on personnel reductions in the face of a stagnant economy, we impose our sense of rightness on the lives of others.  Rarely are decisions wholly dictated by external circumstance: rational process takes us only so far.  The parameters include our vision and values, our constancy and courage. 

We rest in the faith that experience and discernment qualify our decisions and justify the trust others have placed in our integrity.  But such confidence must be tempered by the humility of knowing that a given decision may be wrong.  To the extent that we invoke faith, discernment, integrity and humility, we resort to the language of the soul, that inner equilibrium we must take pains to maintain.

Parker Palmer memorably noted, “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.  As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject and our way of being together.”  So too for administrators.  I was encouraged to enter academic administration by the late Frank Wong, who counseled, “A professor controls the climate of teaching and learning in his own classroom; an administrator affects the climate of teaching and learning across a campus.” 

It has proven so, but only by constantly attending to the end as well as the means of education.  That end is to graduate a student able not only to make a living but to make a life of purpose.  Eisenhower wanted his commanders to be concerned with why their soldiers fought.  We need to enunciate why we educate. 

Our students need to be equipped for living in a world where moral decisions, in all their contingency and uncertainty, must be made. And in living, and in choosing, character counts. It is the rudder that determines whether knowledge, skills, vocational expertise, and networks of influence will be used for good or ill.  How one earns a living should be an extension of values that illumine one’s life, and there should be continuity between personal values and societal engagement. Our graduates should be people who honor and follow through on their word, who play by the rules but also know and respect the processes, political and social, by which they can change rules they deem unfair. They should have the integrity to say “No” to practices that mislead and injure others, to have the moral compassion and empathy to address the misfortunes of others as if they were their own. But what we desire for our students, we must model in our own lives.

In order to enunciate these aspirations for our students, and the resulting vision for what our colleges and universities should be about, we must be poets. Christian Wiman captures a dimension of what I mean when he writes, “Bonhoeffer was a theologian, not an artist (though he did have a gift for the kind of encompassing compression and lucid paradox that are hallmarks of poetry) ... .”  We must wield words well. For words embody our engagement with life.  In particular, writing is not only a means of expressing what we know; the process of composition is arduous because it is a means of discovering what we think.  Notes Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill.  It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.” 

As administrators, we must remind and rally those we lead to the greater sense of why we labor together. If prayer is our private discernment, let poetry be our public declaration. As occasion warrants, take pains to capture what Jefferson described as his intent in composing the Declaration of Independence : “...to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms as plain and firm as to command their assent... .”  Shelley described poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” 

In turn, let administrators be poets. Our institutions need to have not only a clear sense of what we do but also why it matters. What we write and say should both inform the mind and inflame the heart.

The early American college was founded within Christian traditions for which words like soul, prayer, grace, and faith had specific religious meanings. And there are those of us who remain comfortable with the traditional construals of these terms. But these words have metaphoric power that transcends their religious boundaries.  As educational leaders, we must enunciate an ideal of soul-making rooted in values that can be shared across cultural, religious, and political boundaries. Such values include the solidarity of humankind, the efficacy of reason, the need for self-sacrifice; personal virtues such as integrity, diligence, and self-control; and social virtues such as justice, tolerance, and benevolence. Such virtues and their resulting behaviors need not be grounded in a particular dogma, but they are markers of goodness to which people of various faiths, or no faith, can subscribe.

My friends, practical advice for administrative success is ubiquitous, readily offered by others.  In these summer months, amid the relative quiet prior to the tumult of the forthcoming academic year, look inward to discern the wisdom you have to confront the challenges you face. Give space to the promptings of your own soul that you may flourish in governing by prayers and poetry.


Bobby Fong is professor of English and president of Ursinus College.


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