A critical moment for universities to take a lead

What is the role of universities in driving positive change in the world? How should they be preparing students to face the challenges ahead? These are key questions that will be addressed in our second series on Transformative Leadership, published in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, which launches this week and promises to be the most ambitious series published by University World News to date.

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 second series will explore transformative leadership in the context of how the world has changed in the past two years. Multilateralism and the rules-based world order are under attack. Populism is growing. Global warming and global waste are imperilling the planet and its species faster than we knew before. The rise of the #MeToo movement has come hand in hand with increasing awareness of the imbalance in gender power relations and widespread abuse.

The digital revolution and rising artificial intelligence capability are creating both great uncertainty and great opportunity for the future world of work. The flow of refugees and asylum seekers, triggered by poverty, conflict and disasters, continues to create political dilemmas. And the ageing population in many countries is presenting increasing challenges.

In these testing times academic expertise and science itself has come under attack in the political backlash, fomented by populism and the rise of social media, against globalisation, internationalism and the global liberal elite.

It seems there has never been a more critical moment for universities to demonstrate value to the public at large, not only of the knowledge they produce, but the value their research and teaching has for tackling the great challenges facing the world today – poverty, social injustice, conflicts and disasters, to name a few – and for preparing young people for the ever-changing world ahead.

Exemplifying, teaching and promoting transformative leadership is one way that universities can extend their mission to meet their responsibility to wider society. But there are many different perspectives on what transformative leadership means.

In our first series, Chris Roche, director of the Institute for Human Society and Social Change at La Trobe University, Australia, and senior research partner of the Developmental Leadership Program, said that the word ‘transformation’ is commonly taken to mean change that is ‘unprecedented’ or simply large in its scope, but to mean anything, transformation needs to be “more precisely described as change that specifically addresses the structural distribution of power”.

He equated transformative leadership with developmental leadership and argued that the universities’ role in transformative leadership is to help drive the collective action that is necessary to address the kind of complex problems that beset our modern world.

They collect evidence that can translate into practical action that promotes change more effectively.

One specific way is via action research, a process that “supports the learning and reflection of those engaged in social change processes; it helps to document, contextualise and explain how best to support transformative leadership and collective action”, Roche said.

The Irish President, Michael D Higgins, who is also a lecturer in political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway and in the United States, spoke of the “grave danger that debates about the role of the university today are taking place in a narrow political and ideological space” with a tendency to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as preparation for specific roles in the labour market, rather than as a means of advancing social justice and mobility or humanity itself.

Enabling citizens

He saw the role of universities in this time of fractured dialogue, declining international solidarity and a growing crisis of unaccountable globalisation, as the vital one of “enabling citizens to develop the intellectual tools to address the great challenges of our time, which include questions of development and global poverty, of climate change and sustainability, and of conflict and displacement”.

Roche said that while whole universities can be a crucible for forging future leaders and leadership networks, higher education also has a key role in the development process by creating “a citizenry capable of holding government to account”.

Earlier this year, taking stock of our first series, Carolyn Muriel Shields, professor of educational leadership at the College of Education at Wayne State University, US, said there remains continuing confusion about what transformative leadership really means.

She outlined two distinct leadership theories: “Transformational leadership, focused primarily on organisational efficiency, effectiveness and the development of followers, and transformative leadership, which … 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.”

She argued for leadership that transforms an entire social system and quoted the work of James MacGregor Burns who in Transforming Leadership (2003) describes leadership as a response to “human wants expressed in public values”.

“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,” Shields argued. “Forty years after Burns first described this critical leadership role, it is time for universities to take it seriously!”

In some ways this is a tall order for universities because students typically study particular subject disciplines and leadership lies outside most of them.

But there are alternative university models which put teaching leadership at their core, as exemplified by Ashesi University, Ghana, whose mission is to educate ethical, entrepreneurial leaders, and the African Leadership University, operating so far in both Mauritius and Rwanda but which aims to build 25 campuses and produce three million young African leaders over the next 50 years.

Another approach is exemplified by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which enrols more than 5,000 undergraduate and nearly 1,000 graduate scholars, mostly from African countries, in partner universities and teaches them transformative leadership – which it defines as engaging others in an ethical manner to generate positive and lasting change.

In weekly classes, additional to the studies in their chosen discipline, scholars learn about the mindsets and skills of transformative leadership – courage, empathy, vision, integrity, resilience, humility, inclusiveness and curiosity; and adaptability, self-awareness, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, ethical action and professional skills.

A condition of their scholarship is to apply their skills to bring positive change to their own community, which strongly encourages them to apply what they have learned.

Inspire and mobilise

“I think leadership is an individual experience but also a collective one,” says Shona Bezanson, associate director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. “It’s a universal notion in different ways but there is much to be learned in terms of how it is expressed and manifested in different situations and I think it is essential to continue to inspire and mobilise people around causes that are good and important.”

Publishing this series is one way in which University World News realises its own strong commitment to global development. We believe that higher education exists not only to develop knowledge but also to prepare young people for life in the wider world, and to contribute to tackling the challenges faced by society locally and globally.

In addition to social equity, gender empowerment, innovation, internationalisation, and ethical leadership, which we covered last time, the series will look at universities’ role in the development of human capital, including how they can produce graduates with the skills, mindsets and leadership capabilities to be ready for the world of work in the digital age; and universities’ role as drivers of regional change on local challenges, including economic growth, social transformation, disaster prevention and peace-building.

As Bezanson says: “It is easy in these times to throw our hands up in despair at what is going on. That is why there is value in advancing a global conversation, creating space and inspiration for different forms of leadership that bring out the best in humanity, and in particular amplifying and elevating the voices and perspectives of the Global South as University World News does.”

Brendan O’Malley is managing editor of University World News.