Universities can nurture leaders of social change

Can universities be crucibles of transformative leadership developing students to be capable of making an impact on society?

A key challenge is that university missions are not set up for developing transformative leaders due to the historical reasons why and how they were set up – in disciplines, to produce knowledge. But according to panellists in University World News’ international webinar on the subject on 8 February there are some very practical ways in which this challenge can be overcome.

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.

These include choosing goals for the university that lead to transformative leadership and addressing those goals. This can include changing the selection of applicants to include looking at their achievements in social change; taking a multidisciplinary approach and building the development of the right skills and values into the curriculum; and setting up programmes in a way that gives substantial time for practical experience and asking partners who provide that experience to measure impact.

Patrick Awuah, co-founder of Ashesi University, Ghana, said: “If we can educate people with deep concern for society, who have courage, who are enlightened and are with ethics, empathy and compassion, we can make a sea change.”

More than 1,100 people from around the world participated in the webinar on transformative leadership on 8 February to debate whether “universities are crucibles of transformative leadership?”

The discussion formed part of the transformative leadership series produced in partnership between The MasterCard Foundation and University World News, and was hosted in partnership with DrEducation, a global higher education research and consulting firm.

Transformative leadership is broadly defined as a process of generating positive and lasting change, and the debate sought to explore questions such as: What would university campuses look like if transformative leadership were to become the core fabric of student life? How can transformative leadership be infused into academic programmes? How do we measure and assess its impact on individuals, universities and societies?

Defining transformative

The webinar kicked off with the speakers introducing themselves and raising key points.

Dr Rahul Choudaha, principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation, who moderated the debate, began by immediately drawing a distinction between 'transactional leadership', where there is mutual goal advancement, 'transformational leadership', where there is organisational change, and 'transformative leadership', which produces a deep and equitable change in social conditions.

He noted that societies recently seem to have become more inward looking and asked participants via an online poll whether “universities are effective in developing future transformative leaders”?

The results showed a dramatic split between the participants, with 47% agreeing with the statement and 31% disagreeing.

International panellists

Choudaha asked the four panellists, including three university leaders and one MasterCard Foundation Scholar, who all are transformative leaders in their own right, to introduce themselves.

Dame Barbara Stocking, is president of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge – an all-women’s college dedicated to producing outstanding, independent-minded women from all backgrounds – since 2013, and was previously chief executive of Oxfam GB for 12 years. "I run organisations that are passionate," she said.

Fred Swaniker is founder of the African Leadership University network and the African Leadership Academy, a full-time co-educational boarding school based in South Africa, and teaches leadership and entrepreneurial skills to outstanding students from across Africa while preparing them for universities around the world. "We seek to ignite the fire," he said.

Patrick Awuah worked at Microsoft for almost a decade, but then returned home to Ghana where he co-founded private, not-for-profit Ashesi University, a small liberal arts college that aims to educate Africa's next generation of leaders. Awuah argued that there is a need for entrepreneurial and enlightened people with ethics, empathy and compassion who expect to be part of change in Africa.

Lucia Lebasha is a Kenyan MasterCard Foundation Scholar and an agriculture student at EARTH University in Costa Rica, who has founded a project to help pastoralists in northern Kenya. "It does not matter who you are or what you have done," she said, "what matters is that you can see a problem and assess what to do to affect change."

At this point, Dr Choudaha called for a second poll asking what participants thought was “the biggest challenge for universities in developing future transformative leaders (beyond funding)”? Around 44% of respondents felt that “it was because it was not an institutional priority”, 25% believed it was “inertia to change”, and 19% contended that it was “a lack of curriculum models”.

Challenges in developing leaders

Awuah argued that Ghana faced two key challenges in developing future transformative leaders: an educational system that focuses on rote learning and a curriculum that produces citizens without practical hands-on experience.

"Engineers should not only be thinking about the constraints of physics, for example, but asking: 'what should we construct, what are the long-term impacts and what is the purpose of what we are building?' There has to be a philosophical angle if students are to be change agents," he said.

Dame Stocking in contrast said that Cambridge does teach its students to be critical thinkers but does not prepare its students for leadership roles. "Many leaving universities in both developed and underdeveloped societies do not understand the problems people face in the real world," she said. "A transformative leader needs to work in partnership with people to make change happen."

Lebasha argued that universities need to replace their emphasis on academic excellence with a focus on practical excellence. "They need to challenge the status quo," she said.

Swaniker explained that universities were originally created to do research and train people who might enter the labour force. He argued that now they must redefine their purpose to produce people who wish to change society. "Rankings relate to research production, alumni earnings and so on, but they do not measure the impact of students on society," he said.

Promising solutions

Dame Stocking gave two examples from Cambridge of initiatives that might be used as transformative leadership models. "We run a programme for international graduates, called Gates Cambridge Scholars, who are selected not just for their high academic ability, but because they have demonstrably done something in the world," she said.

"We also run a study programme in our college that gets people out into the workforce. This is particularly important in our women's college as it is still a man's world, and we want to produce women who are strong and resilient to its challenges. It has been very rewarding to see the women grow."

Awuah explained that when founding Ashesi University everyone had got together at the outset to ask 'What kind of students do we want to produce?' This had generated seven learning goals, which included values such as the importance of ethics and communication skills, and led to faculty having to incorporate and address these goals when constructing their course curriculum.

"We seek to be a university without walls, whether they be between departments or between the university and society," he added.

Swaniker argued that leaders must learn through practice and so in his institutions students are required, where appropriate, to organise transport, give classes and do work experience in the community. "When students apply to us, we look at their courage," he said. "We ask them to provide a specific example of when they have identified a problem in their community and what they did about it."

Regarding the curriculum, Swaniker argued for the need to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries in order to find solutions. "We provide 'opportunities', which might be in agriculture, wildlife conservation or women's empowerment, for example, and we say: 'How are you going to address one of these problems and affect the lives of one million people?' Instead of choosing a major, we want them to decide on a mission for life.”

Opportunities for universities

The third poll asked “What is the biggest opportunity for universities in developing future transformative leaders (beyond funding)?” Participants voted first for “curriculum reform” (42%), followed by “building innovative partnerships” (35%), “developing best practices” (14%), and “sharing success stories” (7%).

Swaniker shared one example of innovative curriculum partnerships at the African Leadership Academy, which involved first-year students addressing a real-world challenge with an NGO every 4-6 weeks. "They work alongside managers in health care or agriculture for example and seek to provide lasting solutions to problems," he said.

"In fact there are several universities that do a good job of linking what they do with the real world," he added. "For example, both [the University of] Waterloo in Canada and Northeastern [University] in the United States have very successful co-op programmes where students spend six months on campus and six months in work, and it is mandatory so they come out with a lot of real world experience."

Awuah argued it is important to start with clear university goals. "We ask managers to rate our students on our seven goals and this helps give us an objective measure. Besides the traditional questions, we also ask, for example: ‘How successful are our students in terms of accessing graduate schools or starting up their own businesses, and how far have they progressed five or ten years after graduation?’"

Dame Stocking said that Murray Edwards College tries to make students responsible for their own learning. "We seek to create an environment that is exciting and where students enjoy working with each other to solve problems," she said.

Transformative experiences

Summing up, Choudaha said the audience polls during the webinar had shown that higher education institutions are not yet recognising the importance of transformative leaders in our changing world and the need to tailor the corresponding curriculum as institutional priorities.

“Institutions are not adapting to a new environment which requires reforming the way students are not only admitted to the institutions but also what they learn and how they learn. Leadership cannot be learned by books alone. Institutions must provide those transformative experiences that stretch and sharpen the leadership potential of students," Choudaha said.