¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 Between 2018 and 2020 — before COVID-19 shut everything down — I had the opportunity to visit a number of college and university campuses where faculty, staff, students, and administrators had been thinking about how to create and support a greater sense of connection between their campus communities and their public-facing missions. The folks who invited me — ranging from the officers of campus AAUP chapters to university presidents and their advisors — seemed to feel a connection with the arguments that I made about the future of the university in Generous Thinking, perhaps recognizing that their institutions required not just better strategic plans but deep culture change. That culture change demands, among other things, a serious rethinking of how we work, why we work the ways we do, how we assess and reward that work, and how we recognize as work things that tend to get dismissed as service but that play a crucial role in building and sustaining collaborative communities. But for whatever good Generous Thinking did (and I like to think it did a good bit), there were nevertheless a few key gaps that lingered in my thinking about how we should go about making that change.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 For one thing, the turn that I made between Planned Obsolescence and Generous Thinking — from an argument about the ways that scholars might best communicate with one another to an argument about the ways that scholars might best communicate with the rest of the world — runs the risk of turning too much of our attention away from conditions on campus. Building bridges between the academy and the communities that we serve is an important goal, but it can’t be an exclusive goal. In fact, as Matt Brim notes in Poor Queer Studies, “we could ask whether breaking down the borders of the academy/community divide has substituted for and deferred intra-academic interrogations of class structure among the queer professoriate.”1 And not just within the queer professoriate, by any stretch. There are, after all, many campuses that have turned with gusto toward community engagement as a means of embracing their public missions. I’m delighted by those programs. But that work alone cannot transform a campus culture. We must turn a hard look on our internal engagements as well, and particularly on the hierarchies that divide us: between rich institutions and poor institutions, as Brim explores, but also between research faculty and teaching faculty, between faculty and staff. Between the secure and the precarious, in every respect. Thinking about that kind of transformation demands something more than just generosity.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 7 Related to that gap, moreover, is the fact that Generous Thinking focused pretty tightly on the why and the what of the changes I argued we need in our campus cultures, and it spent a whole lot less time on how. For instance: it was clear to me then, and is even more clear now, that creating better, more sustainable institutions requires us to move away from quantified metrics for meritorious production — in fact to step off the Fordist production line that forever asks us to do more — and instead to think in a humane fashion about ways that we can do better. Better often in fact requires slowing down, talking with our colleagues and our communities, and most importantly, listening to what others have to say. Better requires engagement, connection, sharing, time, in ways that more nearly always encourages us to rush past. Turning from more to better can help us access the pleasures — indeed, the joys — of our work that life on the production line has required us to push aside. But given the ways that we’ve all been steeped in more, it’s not at all clear how we might begin to slow down, to make a set of changes that go against the ingrained ways of working that have come to seem natural to us.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 These gaps in my thinking about how to begin the project of transforming campus culture and where to focus that effort had already persuaded me that I had some follow-up work to do, that I needed to write something that would dig a bit deeper into the process of and the conditions for building something new. And then after a talk I gave at Virginia Tech in October 2019, an attendee asked me an utterly prescient question that’s been stuck in the back of my head ever since: generosity is all well and good, she said, and something that it’s relatively easy to embrace when we’re flush, but how do we practice generosity in hard times? Can we afford to be generous when we’re facing significant budget cuts, for instance, or is it inevitable that we fall back into analytics-driven competition with every unit — much less every worker — out to protect their own resources and their own privileges?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I don’t remember exactly how I answered then. I suspect that it was some combination of “you’re completely right; that’s the real question” and “the difficulties involved in being generous in hard times are precisely why we need to practice generosity in a determined way in good times.” And I may have said some things about the importance of transparency in priority-setting and decision-making, and of involving the collective in that process.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 But I do know that as I stood there saying whatever I said, I was thinking “wow, this is hard, I don’t know.” I don’t know how we find the wherewithal to remain generous when times are bad, except by having practiced generosity enough to have developed some individual and institutional muscle memory, and by recommitting ourselves to our basic values again and again. And I especially don’t know how we remain generous at a moment when our institutions are approaching us — we who work for them, as well as we who rely on them — invoking the notion of a shared sacrifice required to keep the institution running. I don’t know because I do want the institution to survive, and I want to maintain the community that it enables, but I also know that the sacrifices that are called for are never genuinely equitably distributed.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 And I also know that however much I may want to keep the institution running, the institution is not thinking the same about me. Our institutions will not, cannot, love us back. However much we sacrifice for them, they will never sacrifice for us. As with so many of my thoughts, this understanding was clarified for me by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who posted a Twitter thread describing the advice she gives to Black scholars who ask her how to survive in the academy. One tweet in particular stuck with me:
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 That is a pretty impolitic stance but I stand by it. I don’t think these institutions can support us or love us. And I honor the many many people who work to make them more humane. But you, alone, can not do that. And you cannot do it, ever, by killing yourself.2
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 This is especially true for members of minoritized groups working within the academy; it’s especially true for faculty without tenure; it’s especially true for staff; it’s especially true for scholars working in contingent positions. It’s especially true for everyone whose positions in the hierarchies of prestige and comfort leave them vulnerable, especially at moments when “we’re all in it together” is invoked not in the context of resource-sharing but of sacrifice.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Sacrifice tends to roll downhill, and to accelerate in the process. This is how we wind up with furloughs and layoffs among contract faculty and staff at the same time we find ourselves with a new Associate Vice-President for Shared Sacrifice.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 5 The only way to prevent such sacrifice from rolling downhill is to build structures to channel it otherwise. And this is the deepest goal of Leading Generously. I’m far less focused on getting individual readers to think more generously than I am on what is required for us collectively to build a more generous environment in which we can do our work together. And I’m far less interested in building individual leaders who can rise through the administrative ranks than I am in building cohorts of leaders who can work together to transform the structures that support and constrain those ranks. And so, my core question: What new kinds of leadership are required for us remake the university into an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care for all of its members, in good times and bad?
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 There’s a catch in that question, of course: the university is not going to remake itself. It has to be remade. And the “us” that I’m pointing to as doing the remaking is meant to indicate those members of the university community who are to varying extents empowered and motivated to take that work on. But it’s unquestionably true that the empowerment and motivation of that “us” vary enormously, structurally, from position to position, from institution to institution.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Just four days after that 2019 talk at Virginia Tech, I spoke at a large public institution in the midwest that had hands-down the most demoralized faculty I’ve ever encountered. The reasons for that state were painfully clear: they have an activist politician-turned-president who has been bent on transforming the institution into a fully corporate enterprise and on undermining everything that ties the institution to the liberal arts, to critical thinking, to public service, to community. As a result, core academic departments have faced decade-long hiring freezes and are housed in buildings that are literally toxic. The faculty members I talked to during my visit despaired of their ability to do anything with such a force at the top of their institution, much less with the board that hired him.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 There’s reason for despair in such circumstances, without question. But for whatever combination of reasons — privilege, thickheadedness, temperamental indisposition, sheer luck in the position in which I find myself — I’m not able to sit back and say, oh well then. Leading Generously is in large part about finding the things that we can do, the basis for and the places of trying. Some of those places are internal: finding ways to engage in a deeper, more attentive manner with the work that others are doing, and drawing out what’s best in that work to build upon rather than focusing on what’s absent from it or what it doesn’t take on. Some of those places are external, but personal: finding ways to develop working relationships with our colleagues, with our students, and with our communities that invite them into the work we’re doing, that share it with them, and that make that work into a form of collective action. And some of these places are external, but structural: finding ways to make it possible for others to engage in this kind of generous leadership as well.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In that sense, Leading Generously is intended to be a handbook for putting some of the ideas of Generous Thinking into action. It’s also a means of putting my optimism and my ability to maintain some form of hope to work for others: while I recognize the enormity of the transformation that higher education needs today — large enough to require a revolution — I persist in believing that local changes can begin to make a difference, and that we are capable of making those local changes. But there are some key shifts in outlook that have taken root for me in the years since I wrote Generous Thinking, changes that cannot help but manifest in this text.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 4 In the preface to that book I noted that I’d struggled as I was writing, especially over the course of 2016 and 2017, to keep the book from becoming fundamentally angry. While drafting Leading Generously between 2020 and 2022, I became convinced that this struggle was utterly misplaced. Being raised a good white middle-class Catholic girl in the deep South, I was taught that my anger was unacceptable, and that it needed either to be transformed into something more productive or to be deeply internalized. I don’t think I realized until recently the degree to which that message still haunts me, and yet given the state of the world today, and especially that of the United States, operating with the anger meter reading anything less than “full-on fury” feels impossible. This is true of our political scene, which continues to degenerate by the day, even after a change in leadership in the executive branch; it’s true of our cities and our streets, where the thin veneer of law and order has at last cracked wide-open enough to force those of us privileged enough to ignore it until now to reckon with the brutality that has always underwritten policing; and it’s true of our institutions of higher education, too many of which throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have given every impression of placing institutional survival above the lives of those who work and learn on their campuses.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 Given this widespread dereliction of duty in those who are meant to lead our nations and our cities and our institutions, nothing other than rage will do. I am trying to temper that rage into productive outcomes in this book, keeping in mind my hopes that we might work together to build a better place, but I feel obligated to note that such beating of emotional swords into ploughshares isn’t easy. Our institutions have failed us. That much is clear. Equally clear is the extent to which our institutions have been failed, have been undermined from within and without by a culture that does not believe in equity, that wants to ensure that sacrifice continues its downhill roll. As Timothy Snyder notes in On Tyranny, as flawed as they are, our institutions need us: “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.”3 The bit that might be left out here is that there are moments when our institutions need protecting and defending from themselves. That is where I think we are today, and given that infuriating circumstance, I ask for your understanding. I also hope to ask for your equally angry commitment to repairing the enormous damage that’s been done — slowly over a period of decades, and then with increasing speed in recent years — by our institutions, and to our institutions, which should always have been a model of generous thinking in action.
A Note on Method:
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The process of bringing this book into being has been a bit idiosyncratic, neither drawing on the methods of close reading and analysis I was trained in as a scholar of literature, nor adopting in any coherent sense methods from another discipline. If anything, the process has drawn on my long-standing blogging practice, which is to say that the text began with me fulminating in a highly undisciplined way about something that bothered me and posting it online for feedback.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 That feedback, however, led me both to a pile of prior literature that I needed to engage with and, more importantly, to a recognition of the need to talk with actual leaders in higher education in order to find out more about their experiences and perspectives. As a result, I put out a call, both on my blog and through Twitter, for folks willing to talk with me. That call produced some good results, but mostly — obviously — from the circles I was already embedded in. So I reached out directly to a range of other leaders to ask them if they’d be willing to talk with me.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In the end, I conducted a total of 18 one-hour Zoom-based interviews, beginning each with the same request: “Tell me the story of your most important experience of leadership in the service of institutional transformation.” I qualified this request by saying that the story could be one in which the interviewee was leading that transformation, or one in which they learned from someone else who was leading it. And it could be a transformation that worked, or one that didn’t — whatever would be most instructive.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The leaders I talked with generously shared their stories and their ideas (and most importantly their time) with me. Many of them are named throughout this book; a few opted to remain anonymous. Their passion for what higher education ought to be inspired me across the board.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 I want to note, however, that this group of interviewees constitutes nothing like a scientifically determined sample. You’ll note a preponderance of folks working in and around institutional libraries, for instance. This skew in the set is due both to the fact that the library has been a key locus of institutional change in recent years and to the interest that librarians have in questions about leadership.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 You’ll also note that the majority of my respondents are white, as are the institutions where many of them lead. I reached out to seek interviews with a far more diverse range of leaders than this sample suggests, but few of the Black leaders and other leaders of color took me up on the solicitation. In many cases, they were too overtasked — as are minoritized leaders on all of our campuses — to be able to spare the time, especially for a request from someone they may only know at second-hand. I take full responsibility for this shortcoming and recognize the work I still have to do in order to build the trusting network that real institutional transformation requires.
- ¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0
- Brim, Poor Queer Studies, 12–13. ↩
- McMillan Cottom, “That Is a Pretty Impolitic Stance…” ↩
- Snyder, On Tyranny, 12. ↩
Are there private-facing missions? I think I know what you’re getting at here, that there should be alignment between what colleges and universities say they believe and the way their employees and students experience the institution. But maybe that needs to be unpacked a little bit more in this first paragraph?
Spell out in first use.
The use of “that” here threw me off. Perhaps “Such culture change”?
This is spot on.