An Outside-In Leader

Susan Henking wonders if it's possible to be a college president and speak truth to power.

May 13, 2015
University of Iowa

Is it possible to be a college president and speak one’s mind? Can I believe in critical pedagogy that leads people to question authority and change the world? Am I allowed to think about higher education beyond its business model? Must I be a proponent of neoliberalism? Could I speak truth to power still, or do I only serve power as president?

These questions ran through my mind as I thought about walking outside into the streets on the night of the initial grand jury decision not to indict anyone regarding Michael Brown’s death.

They are the questions that are always there, in one form or another, when I encounter donors, alumni, students and others who find my lifestyle as out lesbian or intellectual ruminations and commitments repugnant.

These form a nagging undercurrent when I think through the tense relation of budgetary management and educational mission. While biblically based thinkers are concerned about whether Christians can serve both God and Mammon (with only occasional clarity across history, that the former trumps -- or ought to trump -- the latter), as a secular president of a great books liberal arts college, my questions are as existentially difficult. Can we, as leaders, serve multiple masters? Must we?

On the one hand, business and financial plans, market pressures, and related matters call for our attention and even devotion. One’s mission fails if one’s books do not balance. On the other hand, educational ideals are what brought many of us to the positions we hold. One’s mission fails if dollars are all that matters.

On the face of it, colleges, indeed all of higher education, favor critical thinking and responsible citizenship. We argue not only for individual lives transformed but a world made more just and equitable. While access and affordability, diversity and open discourse, can be buzzwords, they also speak to our commitment to ensuring that all are fully part of what we used to call the American Dream. Does the tension between our multiple masters (sometimes called constituents or even stakeholders) require us to abandon our bully pulpit or trivialize our commitments into sound bites?

I hope not.

In a recent discussion with my partner (who is a faculty member) and a president from a dramatically more well-known institution, I argued that higher education leadership programs for senior administrators train managers rather than leaders who wrestle with the ethical dilemmas that face us. I wondered aloud about the place of formation and discernment in the making of president and chancellors.

Not one of the many leadership development programs I have participated in looked seriously at sexual assault and rape on campus (other than as areas requiring risk management and media control), for example. Nor did we explore much in the way of how to stand one’s ground in the face of proffered money from organizations that support war or pursue other businesses that might trouble us in our “private” lives.

We looked at budgets, but less directly at what values budgets might express. We learned an enormous amount about management. And yet, we looked only indirectly at the consequences of being symbols of the institutions we would lead or the quandaries and grayness of the worlds in which we navigate. All too often we turned away from examination of the risk of demagoguery or slippery slopes that come with power.

Some time ago, in a different context, I heard women leaders describe their aspirations to be inside leaders with outside values. Those who used the phrase -- and I have come to adopt it -- meant that they aspired to hold positions of leadership (jobs, careers and titles) while retaining the values and social change orientation more associated with civil rights or social change work than with budgetary management.

Both are critically important. Losing leadership because managerial matters are so important, though, is dangerous. Why?

While, as presidents, we symbolize the institutions we lead, and we navigate all of this, we also teach: what it means to be a leader, to be a person who leads and to remain both person and symbol. Struggling is part of that lesson that we hide too often, as we hide our commitments if we run from the magic that called us to these positions at the outset -- the magic of real change and real, educated hope.


Susan Henking is the president of Shimer College, in Chicago.


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