I am a student of higher education. By that I mean that I attempt to understand some of the processes in place in higher education in order to better understand how works. I seek this information so that I can use it to prepare future higher education administrators.
I am writing to ask you your thoughts about a dilemma posed to me by my students:
My students realize that higher education in the United States is on the brink of change and they desire to be the leaders of tomorrow. They have read the drafts, and now the final version of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education report. They want to guide higher education through reform and they have just asked me who their role models should be.
“Well,” I say in the non-articulate tone I usually use when one of their questions catches me off guard, “one of your role models recently passed away. Kermit Hall, former President of the State University of New York at Albany, tragically drowned this past weekend.” Upon hearing this news, one of my students let out a cry of pain. “Oh no”, she exclaimed. “I didn’t know that. I knew Kermit when I was a student at Utah State.”
“And you called him Kermit,” I thought to reply, completely missing the point that she was now in tears. However, my academic ego had reared its ugly head because I had never had the nerve to call him by his first name in the entire time that I knew him. He was always Dr. Hall to me, even though he repeatedly asked me to call him by his first name. Yet, in her one statement, she had affirmed that the students of Utah State had addressed him by his first name. My ego melted.
Fortunately, my senses abruptly returned and I was able to walk near her in an effort to comfort her. “Yes”, I choked out the reply. “I am sorry to be the one to tell you this and to have done so in such an insensitive manner. I had no idea you would have known him.” “Oh yes,” she replied, as her head slumped down upon her stack of books. “Yes, everyone knew him.” Her head lifted from her stack of books in a pose of admiration. “He made a point to get to know as many students as he could. We felt he really cared about us -- not just about our academic success, but about our personal development as well."
My heart pumped even more loudly as I grasped for air to say the following, “That -- students of postsecondary educational leadership -- is a characteristic of an enduring pervasive leader.”
There was a pause for what seemed like an hour and then one student bravely spoke out, “OK, so …well, so … who else?”
My head was reeling. I was back at North Carolina State University; I was back recalling how in the first week of my time there, a very new Provost Hall had reprimanded a dean in my first meeting with the deans to tell that dean that he had just improperly addressed a junior female colleague when he dismissed her research findings with demeaning comments. I was back at NC State, reading numerous e-mails where Provost Hall would address junior research associates as “colleagues”. I was back recalling how he went late to a trustee meeting, so he could wish our long -time department secretary, “good luck” in person and to thank her for her “above and beyond” work ethic before she left to follow her husband to a new job. I was recalling his words of wisdom as he challenged budgeting processes to be transparent. I was recalling memos and meetings where he continually challenged folks to think outside of the box, and I was recalling all the projects where he shared inspirational quotes that I still use today.
A brave student’s voice gently called me back to the classroom again, “Marilee, are you OK? Marilee? Are you OK?” “Uh, yeah ... sure”, I said assuredly, shaking off my emotions. “Yeah, thanks, I’m OK.”
“Well, Brian”, I said with waning confidence, trying to compose myself for the second time in what turned out to be only 15 minutes into class. “Maybe we should first explore the question, ‘what qualities or characteristics need to exist within a leader in order for her or him to guide us through this next challenging phase of higher education?’”
The students began to excitedly sing out characteristics that sounded like those only to be found in heroes. This continued on for several more minutes, until the room quieted. “Dang,” I thought. “This is the point where I am supposed to use inquiry guided learning to get them to dig deeper, but how do I bracket my own cynicism about the politics I believe I have witnessed in higher education; the politics that I believe have led some of my role models to fall from their pillars.” With a deep breath, I attempted to re-direct my cynicism and respond with a scholarly remark. “OK, what citations do you have for these characteristics?” At that moment, the looks on the students’ faces told me all I needed to know. “Yeah, you are right, sorry gang. Let’s try this again.”
I repositioned myself in the center of the room, re-buttoned my suit jacket, cleared my throat, and began anew. “You gave me a list of characteristics that you have read in multiple resources on leadership. Fine, you have convinced me that you read the literature, or at the very least read some article in Business Week. You read the commission report, you see what it is calling for; given that perspective, given what you have read in scholarly journals, what qualities need to be present in the leaders of today, not tomorrow, but today?”
“Yes”, I thought as I observed the wheels turning in their head, their eyes bright with reflection, “yes, now, the discussion will begin."
The silence was shattered fairly quickly, as students began to sing out with statements such as those that follow. We need....
- Someone who will challenge the status quo while respecting the place from where we came.
- Someone who can understand that students of today learn differently then students in their time learned.
- Someone who understand that the majority of students today want to apply their learning for tomorrow’s solutions, not be asked if they can pass tests that were designed for yesterday’s problems.
- Someone whose eyes are open to the need to create opportunities for access to higher education for our ever increasing under-represented populations.
- Someone who is willing to do what it takes to bridge the K-12 gap so that students can successfully complete a degree.
- Someone who understands that the growing population of special needs students means that these special needs need to be tended to in order for these students to learn.
- Someone who knows hot to take advantage of technology, not fear it.
- Someone who will stop making decisions primarily based on how his or her institution is ranked.
- Someone who can’t be bought by anyone who gives the university money.
- Someone who genuinely cares about the students.
- Someone who isn’t using his or her current institution for the next career stepping stone.
- Someone who will recognize research’s role in classroom innovation.
- Someone who is willing to risk their job to do what is socially just, rather than to do what is politically acceptable.
- Someone who can improve quality and equity at their institution while respecting the uniqueness of its culture.
- Someone who can respond to public concerns while allowing creative thinking to occur.
- Someone who is not afraid to ask the tough questions, raise the challenging issues, and ensure that social responsibility is returned to higher education.
- Someone who won’t let misinformed policy makers or mis-informed higher education leaders create a system of “haves” and “have-nots."
As comments faded and silence once again returned to the classroom, I paused before speaking. I surveyed their faces. They were bright with hope, bright with energy, bright with the opportunity to face not only the challenges of today, but the challenges of tomorrow. I smiled but before I could speak, another brave soul spoke out. “Marilee, we know what you are going to say?”
“You do?”, I replied, pretending to know what I was going to say. “Yes,” she said. “You are going to remind us of Jim Wallis’ quote from his Stanford baccalaureate address in 2004 when he said: 'We are the ones we have been waiting for.'"
“Aw, yes, good quote indeed.”
I smiled at their courage, but again, before I could speak, another student questioned, “OK, that is all good and fine, and yes, I want to be that type of leader or I wouldn’t be here missing the football game tonight, but what does it look like to be that type of leader? I mean, where are our role models for this kind of leadership?”
The students’ laughter at his comment of missing the football game gave me just enough time to ponder how I could continue them on this learning journey.
“Ah, yes, the question that started this line of conversation." I paused before continuing. “Yes, I have a list of leaders I admire. Most of them have taught me many, many lessons; some of those lessons, I unfortunately learned the hard way.” The students giggled as I proceeded.
“Here is your assignment class.” The students groaned in an all too expected and knowing manner. “Using scholarly literature and opinion articles, continue to develop this list of characteristics; a list of qualities that are needed in higher education administrators if we are to keep our system moving forward and keep it from becoming a system separated by the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.' While you work on this, I will put out a query to my colleagues asking them to tell me who your role models can be. In the mean time, remember…”
“We know, we know,” one student proudly interrupted, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
So colleagues, who are the role models for these students? Who fits their list or your list of the social justice higher education hero of today? If you have the time, please advise. Our leaders of tomorrow want to know.