Can Michigan State Recover and Chart a New Path for Higher Education?

Eight deans outline three imperatives for creating needed cultural change.

July 11, 2018
 
 

Even as Michigan State University struggles to respond to the worst crisis in our institutional history, there are signs that the powerful voices of more than 300 sexual abuse survivors, victims of former MSU physician Larry Nassar, are shifting the culture of higher education. Amplified by the global impact of the Me Too movement, their courage and testimony compel us in higher education to confront the power dynamics that can make academe a haven for predatory behavior and abuse.

At MSU, we are beginning to make overdue changes in how we respond to allegations of sexual misconduct and the systems by which we provide health care. Over the last few months, we have expanded our commitment to safety beyond the health-care realm by developing an academic organizational structure that ensures transparency and responsiveness, and by engaging and empowering the voices of patients, families, staff members, providers and students. Yet so much remains to be done.

Our university will need to respond to the findings from state, federal and National Collegiate Athletic Association investigations with transparency and a clear commitment to making comprehensive changes to transform our culture. As the institution works its way through legal, legislative, personnel and other processes, we believe that three imperatives of culture change will become a catalyst for transformation across higher education.

First, even as we at MSU implement policy, procedural and structural changes to better detect a predator, we must avoid the temptation to put the Nassar crisis behind us. Rather, we need to keep what happened and the lessons we are learning from it in front of us. The injury inflicted on the vulnerable is a symptom of a deeper cultural problem within society related to power, voice and silence.

Keeping the crisis in front of us requires us to acknowledge that the very institutions created to transform individuals and communities through education can easily be derailed by self-interest, insecurity and competition. Academe is called to cultivate institutional habits of truth telling and truth hearing, critical self-reflection, and accountability. We must consciously and intentionally empower those habits on our campuses to meet that calling.

Second, if we are honest with ourselves in the trauma of the moment, many other unjust and inequitable campus structures and processes must be interrogated and redressed. This involves reconsidering our systems of evaluation and reward -- including institutional rankings, tenure and promotion processes, and metrics of scholarship. They all must be realigned with the core values of the academic mission.

Access, equity and discovery are often identified as core values in higher education. Yet the metrics by which academic institutions are often judged -- including raising funds and elevating rankings -- too easily foster a tolerance for behavior that falls short of what we know to be just. It is time to revisit our lodestone. Institutions of higher education should be judged by their capacity to educate conscientious human beings capable of putting their values into practice in meaningful ways. That requires the creation of learning communities that advance true inclusiveness and are equitable, trusting, transparent and safe. Such communities are inherently difficult to nurture, but they nonetheless must be created.

It is time to acknowledge that we have fallen short of our values, reaffirm them in light of our current situation and align our reward system accordingly. Only then can we fulfill the transformative role that higher education was established to create for the communities we serve. Change must begin with us.

Finally, in an academic culture that draws individuals committed to be catalysts of societal change, there is perhaps all too often a paradoxical acceptance of them as primarily free agents within the university -- neither crucial to the success of the broader institutional mission nor empowered to impact its fate. The culture we need requires each of us who has some power to effect change to put our effort, influence and weight on the side of creating more trust and equity. Such a transformation of the academy is only possible if we commit ourselves to holding one another accountable in our daily interactions to the values that shape our shared educational mission. Leadership in this sense must permeate the entire institution -- from the staff to the governing board, from students to the faculty, and across all levels of administration.

These three imperatives -- to keep the lessons of our current crisis in front of us, to interrogate and redress all unjust structures, and to create a culture of shared, empathetic leadership -- point to a paradigm shift in higher education. Only by creating communities in which everyone has the opportunity to be heard, to feel valued and ultimately to succeed, will we create a new culture of inclusion and empowerment.

Bio

Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., dean, College of Human Medicine

Rachel Croson, dean, College of Social Science

Prabu David, dean, College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Ronald Hendrick, dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Thomas D. Jeitschko, dean, The Graduate School

Mark Largent, associate dean for undergraduate education

Christopher P. Long, dean, College of Arts & Letters

Cheryl Sisk, interim dean, College of Natural Science

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