This Election Was Different

And given that, Judith S. White asks, can our work as senior leaders in higher education be the same?

November 30, 2016
 
iStock/akinbostanci

On Friday, Nov. 11, three days after the election, HERS Institute participants -- women leaders in higher education from across the country -- gathered for our fall session on the Wellesley College campus. Many of us had hoped to be there celebrating the election of the first female president of the United States. Instead we were grappling with the fact that the new president was the male candidate who used bias against women -- and almost everyone else -- as a campaign tool.

We had all witnessed and participated in many elections; however, none of us remembered a transition that had prompted this level of anxiety among our colleagues and students. There has been sadness, disappointment and anger -- all expected after a political defeat. But it has gone further; we have not just experienced loss but have been at a loss. Given the potential denigrations of so many of our values -- diversity, inclusion and intellectual excellence, to name only a few -- how should we think about our work as leaders in higher education in the future? Can our work be the same? Yes and no. Here are some steps to consider:

Staying the course and changing our ways on each campus. Regardless of the election results, our responsibility as higher education leaders has not changed. We must keep envisioning a world in which higher education is part of creating a fairer and better place for all of us. We may expect stronger opposition to many of the ideas and activities we have been working for, but that cannot change our goals. Right now, we need to stay focused on our work and the people who depend on us. We have to be ready to rally against bias on our campuses and in favor of programs that support a diverse population and inclusive environment. Those goals are even more important after this election. Our colleagues, our students and the wider community need to see that we are not backing away from those commitments.

At the same time, in order to address the depth of concern on our campuses, we need to take a more comprehensive approach to what we are doing. Each effort to improve diversity, inclusion and academic excellence has potential connections with other programs. We must develop shared institutional perspectives and strive for institutional impact. I realize that “reconceptualizing programs” may not sound like a rallying cry. But these efforts could be an important way to support the students, faculty members, administrators and community members who have been targeted for harassment since the election.

For many, dealing with bias and fear of attack is not new. On most campuses, advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement or of immigration reform or of parity for transgendered persons have long been telling us similar stories. They -- and others involved in related campaigns addressing long-term disparities in treatment because of race, class, religion, sexuality and gender -- have been living with this angry pushback for too long. They need our immediate visible support. But the advocates of those movements have also been asking for comprehensive structural solutions. Leaders from every part of the campus must forge connections that support our shared work and then move forward with changing our institutions.

Working locally while connecting to larger national efforts. Taking on the work of institutional change is never easy. Doing it in the face of uncertainty and probable hostility is a big order. That’s why the next shift for most of us must be to extend our alliances beyond our campuses to be part of national organizations and activities. National groups can provide us inspiration, resources and support. They also give us the opportunity to work with others who bring different institutional perspectives to the process of crafting strategies and developing a common language for complicated work. Two models come to mind -- one recent and developing, the other a longstanding organization.

The recent letter from college and university presidents to President-elect Trump is a bold effort to force the incoming chief executive to take responsibility for a direct repudiation of the intimidation and assaults being perpetrated in his name and in the spirit of the campaign rallies. Whatever the response, the willingness of this group to put their names on a petition aligning the higher education community with public support for those targeted for such actions sends a strong message. It shifts the news discussions from a list of episodes to the potential erosion of protections for safety and public expression. The action of the college presidents can give you opportunities for broader conversations on your own campus.

A second model is the Association of American Colleges & Universities -- for me a key source for deep thinking and guidance for institutional change. If you have ever heard or used the phrase “inclusive excellence,” you have already benefited from their work. If you are interested in how other presidents are responding to bias on campuses, you can check out their Resources for Campus Leaders Crafting Message in Response to Issues of Racial and Social Justice. If you are interested in finding intellectual and practical partners for institutional change, I recommend their annual conference and their network for academic renewal.

The work of many other organizations can also expand your horizons and buoy your spirits. At HERS, we also work frequently with programs of the American Council on Education, as well as NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and ACPA: College Student Educators International -- both of which focus on student affairs and campus climate. At first, checking them out may feel like an addition to your to-do list. But the effort will pay off for you and your campus.

Taking time to cultivate patience and persistence. Patience and persistence, as well as demands and demonstrations, have shaped the communities having the greatest impact in moving this country toward a “more perfect union.” Setbacks have marked every era of struggle -- the resistance to slavery and the civil rights violations of racial minorities, the different waves of women’s rights and gay rights advocates, the battles for economic justice in so many fields of work. For multiple generations of activism, resurgence again and again has come from persisting when obstacles seemed insurmountable.

Most of us feel great pressure to provide immediate statements and quick action. But how often do we question whether we are providing lasting action? How often do we ask how long we can keep leading such efforts? The shift I am recommending is far from passivity or inaction. Rather, this election compels us to relinquish the standard of “doing the most good in the least amount of time.” Our role is to help do the most good for the greatest amount of time.

That will require patience with ourselves and those around us. I remember vividly the conversation with my chancellor in my first advocate position. I can recall the anger I felt when he pronounced that “time will bring change.” Time alone does not bring change, but change takes time -- and repeated efforts.

So, in many ways, I am advocating that same attitude for leaders: the cultivation of patience is really about being able to press for immediate action while we also preparing for the long term. I learned eventually that the question was not “How hard do I push?” but “How long will I be here to push?” Even better, with whom can I work so others will be ready to push the next time? There will be a next time, and we are in it for the long haul.

The election is over. Now, to lead, we must work with connections -- on our campuses and across the nation. We must build alliances among many constituencies that have been separated -- even polarized -- by the long political season we have just experienced, and we must work with patience and perspective. “Stronger together” is not a just political slogan. It is our only shot at building the society we want in the future for all women and men.

Bio

Judith S. White became president and executive director of HERS in 2005. For more information on HERS, visit www.HERSnet.org.

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