Challenging the gap between the haves and have nots

The series of pipe bombs sent on Wednesday to prominent critics of President Donald Trump in the United States – including former president Barack Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton – was a shocking symptom of the polarisation of political life in the world’s most powerful country.

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.

So too was the later response of the president to the attacks – Trump blamed the media for stoking tension, said he had no plans to call those who were targeted, nor would he tone down his campaign rhetoric, even after the main suspect was found to be a fanatical Trump supporter and registered Republican.

“Tone down no. Could tone up,” Trump said.

When University World News launched its second Transformative Leadership series last week, it explained that it would seek to place the need for transformative leadership in the context that has evolved over the past two years, the Trump era being just one aspect.

The polarisation of politics is not limited to the United States. It is part of an increasing trend spreading across may parts of the world, with the rise of populist leaders and populist causes, with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil set to be the latest political leader to benefit.

This week we asked Carolyn Shields, described as one of the foremost thinkers on transformative leadership, about why transformative leadership should be embraced by students, universities and in the wider world, and why it is particularly needed now.

“I think the polarisation and blame we are seeing here is everywhere – not just in the US, but Brazil, just look at Brexit in the UK, the elections in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary and so on. I think because transformative leadership also has an emphasis on interconnectedness and global awareness, it is designed for today’s issues.”

But beyond the political divide there is a deeper problem fuelling it, which transformative leadership tries to address.

“Transformative leadership is a critical leadership theory that looks at the people who are most marginalised, neglected or oppressed, so it is needed more now than ever because in almost every aspect of our lives the gap between the haves and have nots is widening,” Shields says.

Shields, a professor in educational leadership studies at the College of Education, Wayne State University in Michigan, US, is author of numerous books and papers on transformative leadership, including Transformative Leadership in Education: Equitable and socially just change in an uncertain and complex world (Routledge, 2017).

She says in today’s context it is important to define nationalism, which is “undergirded by racism, and a sense of protecting the status quo of those already in power: we need to challenge that”.

She points to the tragic reality of boats full of refugees who can’t find a place to land because of resistance from the local population fearing the likely strain on resources as a symptom of this divide. The ability of people to move from one country to another, from chaotic war-torn areas to find somewhere safe, is being hindered and the race issue is critically important to that.

“It is behind the election results recently in Germany, the rise of the Swedish national party. Certainly Trump’s declaration two days ago that he is a nationalist and finger-pointing at refugees coming from Guatemala and Honduras; I see it as being everywhere as a kind of protectionism of the status quo on the part of those who already have power.”

She argues that for universities that are trying to internationalise, this emphasis on protectionism is running counter to what they are trying to do.

“There is an erosion of multilateralism. When you look at the big data, all the partnerships universities are trying to establish, and certainly the emphasis on international programmes receiving international students, are all becoming more difficult as countries impose visa restrictions and make it more difficult for international students to attend or complete.”

Mandela the ultimate transformative leader

So how is transformative leadership part of the answer and are there any examples of it out there?

“I don’t know if I see any examples politically, not large-scale ones. It takes a sense of moral imperative and civic responsibility that has been lost to some extent. I see it in school systems in various places but nothing on a national level.”

She agrees that in terms of individuals a classic example is Nelson Mandela, who fought and helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa but had the magnanimity to seek to bring all sides together once social justice was achieved.

“In some ways I would say John McCain is an example, as someone who was willing to buck the system and risk the wrath of leaders to do what he saw as the right thing. There are other examples, McDonald’s eliminating plastic straws, the Swedish government incorporating the rights of children and refugees into policy, I think those are transformative actions.

“But it doesn’t have to be someone powerful. The are stories from the CNN heroes programme of people nominated from all over the world who are doing wonderful things for peace, for orphans, for enslaved women, military vets who are amputees, these are all really good examples of transformative individuals. They are inspiring because they have done what they do out of moral purpose and conviction with very few resources.”

But is transformative leadership something that can be taught on the curriculum? Shields says there are universities that partner with the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which takes students mostly from Africa and supports them mostly in African, US or Latin American universities and provides weekly transformative leadership classes, where the students are committed to contributing to their community or country.

“But I don’t think the universities as a whole necessarily focus in that way.”

It requires more than the traditional course materials, however, and she herself, when she is teaching it, uses articles that are calls to action, which help create a sense of solidarity even in the classroom, “so they can take a stand against injustice in the workplace or university, even”.

Helping achieve change involves changing mindsets, not just among the students but sometimes among teachers too.

“I spoke to a graduate class in California, where most students were Caucasian and one girl from India recounted a time when one professor said she must have had first-hand experience of being in a call centre and she was tremendously insulted. We talked more about what she would have liked her classmates to have done. She said if only just one had said to the professor, ‘Sir, that is an inappropriate comment’, she would have felt supported. We need to recognise microaggressions and speak up against them.”

University policies are also important, she says, for creating an environment in which transformative leadership can be fostered.

She mentions that she is trying to fight for a gender-neutral bathroom in her own department and the other day she found a Muslim woman praying on the floor in front of a garbage can, so she is trying to get the dean to create a space for reflection or prayer.

“All these things universities must do if they are transformative. If you can’t create safe, respectful places in universities you can’t expect students to go out and create them in the world.

“Universities need to change themselves if they are going to facilitate change in students.”

Universities’ mission contradictions

One challenge, she says, is that universities are more focused on the whole neoliberal approach to entrepreneurialism, securing patents and fiscal resources, than on achieving equity and development in a socially just way.

“There are individuals doing research that makes a difference and trying to find cures for illness and social ills, but I don’t think universities are focused very often on their mission, or their mission is in contradiction to their emphases.”

There are some notable exceptions – and there are some programmes such as Detroit Promise, which funds African American kids from poverty who are successful in high school to go to university.

There are also universities which espouse sustainability that come closer to being transformative because they offer incentives and have leaders at senior level focusing on issues of sustainability, she says.

The universities that have officers focusing on equity and diversity are another example.

The latter is about access and inclusion, both in teaching and research. Some people think universities are just there to produce knowledge, so why worry about diversity and equity, Shields says.

“Universities are essential to creating knowledge. But if they are public universities, they are publicly funded, so the knowledge they create needs to strengthen democracy. Universities have to strengthen the society that is funding them, in which they are located, so the knowledge they produce has to be aligned with it and not counter-productive to it.”

She cites as an example medical research which research universities have engaged in for many years, yet it is only recently that data have been disaggregated for race and gender and are now showing that women and men’s needs are different, that African men face particular challenges, as do those from First Nations.

“If we don’t pay attention to the various groups that make up society, what good is the knowledge we are trying to create?” she asks.

Universities often claim to value diversity, but a key issue for transformative leadership in universities is whether any money is being put behind it.

She says even in diversity hiring in the US, her experience has been that, in many disciplines, if you want a good candidate from an underrepresented group, because they are so much in demand in industry and academia, you need to pay more and that creates problems among peers and fiscal problems among those wanting to hire them. That is where universities need to support diversity with some funding.

“We have in my own university a strategic plan for values, strategic goals and strategic principles, but there is no funding behind it. Those universities that espouse the values we think of as equity, diversity, social justice and sustainability through transformative leadership need to put both action and funding behind them.

“It is not enough to say it is important if there is nothing that demonstrates it as a priority and that is where universities tend to fall down.”