The promise of transformative leadership

The closing months of 2015 bore witness to considerable unrest on numerous American campuses. Immediate demands for redress came from increasing discontent about deep-seated insensitivities and inequities resulting from the historic and entrenched institutional racism and discrimination that pervades higher education institutions.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Globally, although education is often touted as the path out of poverty and a means of social mobility, disparities abound.

Evidence demonstrates that increasing higher education participation rates (in OECD countries this stands at 32%; yet in others it is still below 5%) are not accompanied by rising rates of social mobility. And averages, as usual, mask considerable imbalances.

In the United States, 73% of bachelor degrees are earned by Caucasian students, 10% by Blacks, 9% by Hispanics and 7% by Asians and Pacific Islanders, with concomitant disparities in drop-out rates, subsequent earnings and career opportunities.

Some immediate responses in 2015 were the renaming of buildings that recalled the legacy of segregation and slavery, the replacement of offensive mascots and the resignations of many high level officials.

Nevertheless, although changing the names of buildings or replacing one leader with another may quell some of the immediate unrest, it will not suffice to address the problems inherent in higher education – an institution that from its outset has been exclusive, exclusionary and elitist.

Transformative leadership in higher education

Technical reforms will not result in equity. Neoliberal approaches will never rectify discrimination and racism. Leadership with a focus on inclusion, equity and social justice is essential to address the increasingly persuasive demands of university students for an equitable higher education learning environment.

Transformative leadership is a radical and critical approach to leadership that comprises a new and different lens through which unbiased decisions may be made, programmes developed or cancelled, funds allocated and policies developed and instituted.

Such transformation may include increasing the percentage of minoritised faculty on campus, reducing the debt load of minoritised students, improving graduation rates, making the climate inclusive and respectful and changing opportunities to eliminate disparity – the list is endless.

Transformative leadership begins by acknowledging the urgent mandate for deep and equitable transformation, not simply superficial change. Once this need has been identified, all scholars of transformative leadership – including those who have successfully adopted the premises in New Zealand, Bolivia and Scandinavia – emphasise the need for deconstructing knowledge frameworks that perpetuate inequity and reconstructing them in more equitable ways.

Some talk about this in terms of the need for new and more accurate and adequate mental models. Regardless of the terminology, transformative leadership requires rejection of racism, classism, homophobia and other '-isms' and '-obias' that perpetuate inequity. It requires that we reject deficit thinking, blaming minority students for their underachievement, and other common excuses for differential outcomes.

Transformative leadership demands that we address comments such as one made by a senior officer of a major university who asked, “What income is the cut-off for Pell grants?” He then answered his question with his own response: “About US$32,000 – university is not for them. They don’t understand the norms or delayed gratification. No wonder they don’t succeed!”

Such sentiments have no place in an equitable organisation. It may be true that first-generation students need additional support and information in order to have access to all aspects of higher education, but this is the role of an organisation that strives to be more inclusive and equitable – and not simply the role of individuals or their families.

Transformative leaders also accept the responsibility of higher education institutions to promote the public good of democratic society and to improve opportunities for civic participation. Higher education is not simply the responsibility of the individual, nor is its impact simply for the private good of the graduate who will, most likely, reap the benefits of increased lifetime earnings and concomitant better health and welfare.

Dr Ruth Simmons, on her appointment as first African-American president of an Ivy League university, told CBS television journalist Morley Safer that “education is not there to provide you with a job. It is there to nourish your soul!” Transformative leaders understand that we neglect this aspect of higher education at our peril.


A related aspect of institutional life is the inequitable distribution of power. Often unrecognised and even less frequently discussed, it is important to acknowledge that power and privilege operate in silent and insidious ways to perpetuate an inequitable and discriminatory status quo.

Redistribution of both material and cultural resources will be necessary if higher education is to eliminate disparities based on race and class.

Overcoming stereotypes and negative mindsets is the starting point for building a framework for more equitable and deeply democratic education. Transforming institutional policies and practices is a necessity. But in education, we must also transform curricula and programmes to ensure appropriate emphases on our global citizenship and responsibility, on our interconnectedness and interdependence.

Too often syllabi reflect only North American or Eurocentric scholarship. Too often students from other countries or cultures are expected to adapt to our norms, to learn from us, without consideration of the mutual benefits of learning from one another.

Transformative leaders understand that a comprehensive look at higher education’s beliefs and values, pedagogies, policies and practices is essential.

Finally, transformative leadership requires moral courage. There will be push-back; there will be some – particularly those with power – who feel threatened by the redistribution of power and privilege, by the democratisation of resources and pedagogies and by the creation of more inclusive and equitable institutions. Nevertheless, transformation must occur.

The need is urgent. Until we transform our education systems – from kindergarten through high school to higher education – to be more equitable, inclusive and socially just, we will fail to realise the promise inherent in educational attainment and civil unrest will continue to challenge the well-being of our democratic society.

Carolyn Muriel Shields is professor of educational leadership at the College of Education at Wayne State University, USA.