How can higher education bring socially-just change?

In 2007, Nelson Mandela stated that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and in some ways, this concept was reflected in the series of articles published over a year straddling 2016 to 2017 in University World News in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, on the University World News Transformative Leadership hub.

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.

The partnership was the most ambitious in University World News’ 10-year history. Here, authors from all over the world examined the role of universities as potential change agents within rapidly shifting societal contexts. These articles ranged widely from inspiring stories of individuals engaging in ambitious mentoring and community development initiatives to a stirring address from Michael Higgins, president of Ireland.

Not surprisingly, the collection of articles covered a potpourri of topics and approaches emphasising the challenges of the digital age, the need for curricular revision, the necessity of ethical approaches in higher education, and an appeal for gender equality both in education and in society in general. For some, transformative leadership was the basis for an important emphasis on anti-corruption and ethics, while for others, the emphasis was on radical social change.

Many articles reported the impact of The MasterCard Foundation’s innovative scholarship programme in developing young entrepreneurial leadership in Africa. Here we were challenged by the potential of a radically improved future when young people with dreams, a sense of mission, and a vision of the possible put their education into practice for the good of their communities.

Taken together, although these articles inspire hope that change can occur, something seems to be missing. In some ways, the series suffers from the same ailment as leadership studies more generally – a lack of theoretical grounding and definition.

In some cases, authors still call for definitions both of leadership in general and of transformative leadership; others continue to use transformational and transformative leadership as synonymous, perhaps leading to a diffusion of the possible impact of each concept.

Thus, as we move forward, we must certainly recognise that good leadership in general requires integrity and certainly an absence of corruption, but it behooves us to ask whether that emphasis is sufficient to fulfil the mandate of the university in the 21st century.

As we reprise this critically important dialogue, it may be helpful to return to the origins of the concept and to clarify the potential role of transformative leadership.

In 1978, James MacGregor Burns wrote about two dominant approaches to leadership, which he called transactional and transforming. Transactional leadership is familiar to most of us and involves a mutually beneficial agreement or transaction.

In the intervening years, transforming leadership has given rise to two distinct leadership theories: transformational leadership focused primarily on organisational efficiency, effectiveness and the development of followers, and transformative leadership which, as I have previously written, “begins with questions of justice and democracy; it critiques inequitable practices and offers the promise not only of greater individual achievement but of a better life lived in common with others” (2011).

A close reading of Burns’ work suggests that he would come down on the side of transformative leadership in that he argued in 1978 for a revolution – "a complete and pervasive transformation of an entire social system” (p. 202). Further, in his 2003 work, Transforming Leadership, Burns described leadership as a "response to human wants expressed in public values" whose greatest task "must be to respond to the billions of the world's people in the direst want" (p. 2).

Moreover, Burns distinguished between change and transformation in that the former is more technical and superficial (and more easily reversible) as in “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic”, while the latter represents something deep and more permanent.

Transformation is therefore more than helping an organisation operate efficiently; it involves disrupting current patterns of beliefs, practices and policies in ways that change the very structures of organisations and-or society itself. Forty years after Burns first described this critical leadership role, it is time for universities to take it seriously!

To accomplish societal transformation requires, as Anello, Khadem and Hernandez (2014) emphasise, “critically examining the fundamental assumptions underlying our worldview or mental models, resulting in life-changing insights.”

Many other scholars concur that an explicit and concerted focus on mindsets and underlying assumptions rather than just on training or experience is what differentiates successful leaders from unsuccessful ones. The inseparable combination of belief and action is also what helps to differentiate transformative leadership from other leadership theories.

These insights present ways of thinking about transformative leadership that offer the potential for rallying scholars, entrepreneurs and activists to think carefully and critically about the kind of society in which we want to live and which we want for our children and grandchildren.

In an age of neo-liberalism and big business, a time of social media, tweets and technological advances, when individualism and personal advancement too often take precedence over the collective good, where are the spaces for civil debate? In a time of rising nationalism and populism, we must ask, before focusing on our specific academic disciplines or programmes, “What should the role of the university be at this time in history?”

In its very conception, the history of the university often has an elitist base. Founded by ‘royal charter’ to serve the needs of a government, universities were often as much instruments of the state as independent knowledge producers; and today, because many universities are still state-run and state-funded, to some extent their role is still inherently intertwined with the political.

Although the rise of humanism historically broadened the conception of knowledge and the role of the universities, still too often, politically-correct ideologies and epistemological tensions fuel disciplinary debates about knowledge and knowledge construction, with little evidence of concerns about equity, social justice or human rights.

Further, since their inception as an academic discipline, leadership studies have come under attack as lacking in rigour, having no empirical scientific base, and hence, of not being truly scientific. If one approaches leadership from a rational, technical, descriptive or positivist paradigm, this may well be true.

Towards social justice

But there are other ways of thinking about leadership. It is fundamentally contextual. Leadership cannot exist without followers. It must take into consideration the fundamental challenges of a specific institution and location.

Is the dominant issue one of access for impoverished scholars? Is the major challenge one of gender equity? How do we address the gap between African American and ‘Latinx’* graduation and completion rates and those of Caucasian students in America? How can we implement new ideas that conflict with existing societal norms, political ideologies and long-held prejudices?

To adequately address questions such as these, leaders in higher education need a robust and comprehensive theoretical starting point – one that accepts as its foundation some axiological assumptions related to social justice, human rights and cultural norms.

Transformative leadership is such a theory. Its fundamental assumptions relate to equity of access and outcomes, to inclusive practices, and equitable consequences. It offers those who are concerned about the role and future of higher education a rationale and a new paradigm for making inclusive and equitable decisions about the creation of new programmes and the revision of existing ones. It emphasises the promotion of a global future instead of advancing one economy or one national interest at the expense of others.

It is time to end the rankings and the competition to be ‘best in the world’ and to focus on how we can help to create ‘the best world’ in which we can live together in mutual benefit. The need for robust debate has never been greater.

* Latinx is the gender-neutral word for people of Latin American descent, increasingly being used by scholars to avoid the male/female binary choice inherent in Spanish.

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

Below we list the top ten most read stories from our Transformative Leadership series.