Letter: The marginalized need systemic change in higher ed

Professor Annmarie Caño’s August 12, 2021, article, “How to Be a Healing Leader During These Difficult Times,” conveyed a sensitivity and warmth that I am sure many readers found to be a welcome approach to addressing the global challenges of the past two years.

Her biggest point, I believe, is that academic leaders should really listen and observe the folks they lead to adequately assess, and then address those things that cause people to be “sick,” namely institutional “isms” that continue to marginalize many faculty and staff, including those who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA and women and mothers. Drawing on her background in clinical psychology, she offers several examples of how leaders might adapt a “healing approach” to develop and maintain the vitality of their units, including validating the experiences of those who talk about difficult experiences, conducting wellness checks through virtual office hours, and looking for solutions that address the short-term and potentially long-term challenges posed by the pandemic, like COVID-19 impact statements that can placed in a promotion and tenure file. Professor Caño sounds like a caring leader who has the best interests of not only her faculty, but staff, in mind, too.

I found one underlying point she makes worth discussing, and that is her mention at numerous points in the article that while these strategies might not “change the system,” they lay the groundwork for doing so.

My own administrative and leadership experiences in higher ed – as a resident dean and then faculty director of programs at two, highly selective private institutions and an assistant and associate dean at a flagship state university – suggest that it is often the very system that needs to be held accountable for how people are thriving (or not). There is not space here to define “the system” in detail, but in brief, I take it to mean those structures that support and ultimately shape the work lives of individuals, and which reflect the larger culture and priorities of the institution. Offices ranging from the President’s or Dean’s Office down to human resources are part of the system, and what they choose to do and not do with respect to the health of the organization impacts everyone.

I have been shocked at the ways that some people, including leaders, have been able to misuse and abuse their authority, sometimes with the support of the very structures that are meant to mediate and adjudicate issues for employees, and particularly staff, who rarely have the same power and resources as faculty. I am sure that we can all fill in the blank here, with examples from our own experiences. The marginal or marginalized in these equations are simply those who are less powerful, those whose voices do not really seem to matter, even when they have the space to talk about the serious issues that they face. The pandemic and the social inequities of our present moment have created unique challenges, but truthfully, they join a list of ills many have experienced in higher ed.

In addition to asking how leaders might approach the question of healing individuals, we should ask ourselves an additional set of questions: What is the health of an institutions’ support and “hearing” structures, including its ombudsman and HR offices? How do those structures assess the needs and challenges of their members, and do they act upon that knowledge fairly, impartially and swiftly?

What structures exist to mediate and/or adjudicate serious concerns and are they designed to support all the parties that have come to the table? And perhaps most importantly, how does an institution’s leadership hold these structures accountable (and relatedly, how are leaders held accountable themselves?).

The health of the individual is intimately tied to the health of the institution. I believe leaders should use their power to pursue strategies that make the system better and accountable for everyone.

–Paulette G. Curtis
Visiting Scholar of Anthropology
Tulane University

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