• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Comfort With Ambiguity

Yes, and …

June 17, 2020

“The strength of our leaders will be in their ability to be comfortable leading in ambiguity.” -- Walter Bumphus, AACC, "Navigating the New Normal"

Walter Bumphus, the CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, published a piece this week about the leadership challenges colleges are facing during the pandemic. He specifically mentioned comfort with leading in ambiguity as a key skill.

To which I say “yes, and …”

There’s a habit of mind common in academia that sees any lack of clarity as prima facie evidence of hiding something. For people who have fallen into thinking this way, the question “will we have classes on campus this fall?” has one answer that has already been decided; a response along the lines of “it depends” or “we can’t know that yet” is assumed to be disingenuous. Oddly enough, in my observation, people caught in an overwhelming need for certainty in the moment aren’t terribly bothered when the answer changes. The need for certainty outweighs the need for accuracy or consistency. At the extreme, people in the throes of this desperate quest for certainty are content to believe we were always at war with Eastasia, if believing that is necessary to know where to stand in the moment.

That presents a real management challenge. Even if key leaders are able to function with ambiguity, many people aren’t. They’re so consumed with what software types call “FUD” -- fear, uncertainty and doubt -- that anything short of a bright line upsets them.

I’m certainly not the first to notice this. Socrates’ notion of the “noble lie” was an acknowledgment that for many people, certainty matters more than truth. For him, the leader’s job involves knowing difficult truth but upholding noble lies to satisfy the masses’ unquenchable, and ultimately doomed, need for certainty. It may work for a while, but over time, a corrosive cynicism sets in among the masses, laying the groundwork for the rule of one who is candid about being in thrall to his own base desires. (This may sound vaguely familiar to American readers.) In the meantime, those who threaten local certainties come to a bad end, as Socrates himself did.

Socrates’ view was deeply tragic: over time, a sort of moral entropy leads inevitably to decay and the eventual loss of the “noble” part of the noble lie. Given the relatively brief life spans even of those attenuated democracies that have actually existed, as compared to the sweep of human history, one could easily concede his point. The idea that the people, collectively, are capable of handling the truth is of recent vintage, and vulnerable to no end of counterexamples.

The burden on those of us who believe in equality and democracy as aspirational truths, rather than noble lies, lies in not giving up faith in the possibility of improvement even when things seem grim. If we assume, for instance, that most people are complicated mixes of selfishness, provincialism, wisdom and selfless love, then the outcome of struggle moves from “inevitably tragic” to an open question. All of us -- even self-styled philosopher kings -- have feet of clay, and all of us have a spark of something better. The role of leadership -- whether parental, political or institutional -- is to create situations that bring out the wisdom and selfless love in everyone, and that keep the stupid and selfish parts reasonably contained. That entails “comfort with ambiguity,” but also much more than that. It asks for self-control, leadership by example, forbearance, tenacity and a stubborn willingness to see past some unhelpful knee-jerk responses to the trembling wisdom hiding behind them.

If you take that as your starting point, then it follows quickly that you’re opposed to exclusion. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is expendable. We’re at our best, as people, when we live that truth. If we each have bits of wisdom in us, then our best hope is to draw everyone into the circle. Colleges are great for that; the internet is even better for it. What John Dewey called “organized intelligence” may have lacked a vehicle when he wrote about it in the 1920s; in the 2020s, it’s here. It may give space for toxic and awful expression, but it also gives space for sharing of previously unheard truths. Cellphone cameras may give us selfies and cat videos, but they also give us videos of black men murdered by police, shining needed light on brutal exclusion and galvanizing organization against it. That organization opens up the real possibility for a more inclusive world, in which the next George Floyd lives long enough to share his wisdom. That’s progress. If celebrity selfies are the price of progress, it’s well worth paying.

The pandemic has thrown colleges, and society generally, into unfeigned uncertainty. We don’t know when it will be safe to do many of the things we used to do, and there’s no shortage of corrosive cynicism, both spontaneous and fostered. It would be easy to devolve into purely inward-looking defensiveness, or to resort to a petulant denial of reality. Some have. The task for leaders, in whatever role, is to help everyone lean into their wisdom. Some will find it more quickly than others, but it’s there. Call that a noble lie if you want, but I believe it.


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