Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Academic leadership: What does it mean to me?

For the last several years of my academic life, I have been drawn to leadership roles. But what does leadership mean in academia? What do we expect from our academic leaders? What roles do academic leaders play and what are the benchmarks through which we judge them? Is the only option in being a leader to sell your backbone to the dominant players of society?

When I consider my own journey in leadership, I wonder: What is the type of leader I want to be? How does my leadership role work within the context of my role as an academic interested in issues of social justice and social change? How does the desire to be a leader fit within the broader realm of my academic identity as  a scholar studying social injustices and seeking to work toward spaces of solidarity with those at the margins in order to address these injustices through scholarship?

Do I get co-opted into a system that carries out the interests of the top 1% by chosing to participate in a leadership role in university structures that are increasingly becoming corporatized? What are the opportunities through which I can connect my leadership in projects of social justice with possibilities of leadership within academia?

These questions have increasingly occurred to me over the past one month, particularly as I have been watching the responses of campus leadership to the Occupy Wall Street movement on college campuses. These questions also occur to me when I think of examples such as that of Lawrence Summers leading Harvard? The Lawrence Summers of the world constitute one kind of academic administrators. To limit the possibilities for leadership to the kinds of Professor Summers severely limits the possibilities that can be imagined through academic leadership.

In thinking about my personal philosophy of academic leadership, I am drawn to one of my favorite quotes from my favorite Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore who envisioned spaces "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high." In academe, leadership is an opportunity for creating such open spaces where knowledge is co-constructed by communities and academics working together to break down the walls of impermeability in society. In this vision of leadership, the boundaries for creation of knowledge are not rendered impermeable by arguments of expertise made by a narrow set of parochial academics, but rather are opened up to anyone who is interested in participating in constructions of knowledge claims and in debating these claims. In this vision of academe, leadership offers a space to engage the terrains of knowledge which can hopefully work toward fostering a just world without barriers to who gets to participate in the processes of knowledge creation. To foster this vision of leadership however, university leaders are challenged to move away from the rhetoric of market intelligence, branding, competitive advantage, and unique selling propositions to visions of hope, sustenance, and equitable opportunities for access that foster transformational possibilities. Universities can play vital roles in leading societies and cultures toward questions of ethics, values, and practice. To lead universities into these leadership roles, leaders of universities themselves need to engage seriously with questions of values and  transformative possibilities.

Although I do understand that universities ought to engage with questions of economic sustainability in current climates of budget cuts, I am not convinced that the logic of the market is the only logic through which universities can find the answers to such questions of sustenance. Or for that matter, whether we should let the logic of the market dictate universities and their missions? We need to first recognize that the logic of the market is perhaps one narrow model for thinking about universities and their roles, a model when applied without regulations is constraints that is likely to produce negative effects. Rather, in revisiting the fundamental missions of universities as spaces for creating opportunities for broader access to the production of knowledge, we perhaps ought to be sensitized to the pitfalls of being constrained by the neoliberal logic of the market, and work toward exploring alternative rationalities of organizing academic organizations.

Leadership then becomes a space for the enactment of positive power, in envisioning alternative logics and rationalities, in fostering spaces of positive transformations in societies by recognizing local capacities and by respecting these local capacities for decision-making, juxtaposed amidst the acknowldgment of the constraining role of the economic structures in contemporary neoliberal organizing of education. Such leadership is perhaps not easily stipulated in a recipe of leadership success or pathways to presidency; but this need to rearticulate alternative organizing possibilities perhaps is the very essence of the challenge of contemporary academic leadership.

Academic leadership to me is most fundamentally about having an opportunity to touch lives, and to foster spaces of nurturing for listening to many different ways of looking at the world and engaging it. When I think of the leaders who have shaped my own life, I think of those people who have nurtured my growth by articulating specific visions and by teaching me through their visions. These leaders however have also been people who have in this process of recruiting me to their visions taught me to trust my own visions and brought out the best in me in my desire to have an impact through my academic work. In such leaders, I have seen the openness to ask difficult questions, to entertain difficult challenges, and to create opportunities for engaging with these difficult challenges and questions. From these leaders, I have learned to trust my own journey in seeking to explore alternative forms of academic organizing that create opportunities for building solidarity with global agendas of social justice.

It is with this hope for academic leadership as being truly transformative that I wrap up these initial reflections on the meanings of leadership in academe.

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