College leaders who confront social issues head on

We like to believe that colleges and universities are guided by a commitment to creating learning environments where all students can thrive in their academic pursuits. In this idealised vision of our contemporary post-secondary landscape, students are unencumbered by a range of everyday social injustices – from situational homelessness and variable access to food to faculty members’ limited competencies with culturally responsive pedagogies.

Higher education leaders unwilling to prioritise enduring social issues in their institutional stewardship risk underpreparing their students for social change. These leaders’ silence ensures that their own institutions remain complicit in social injustices by undermining students’ capacity to thrive.

Those who choose to confront social issues head on embody the key attributes that transformative leaders require in a political moment of rampant political polarisation.

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.

Focusing on examples from Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in the United States, I offer three principles of transformative leadership: a willingness to listen, an investment in others’ development and a proactive disposition.

An ability to listen

Transformative leadership invites us to listen and learn from our communities.

When Michael Sorrell became president of Paul Quinn College (PQC) in 2007, a small historically Black college in Dallas, Texas, the institution was less than two years away from permanently closing. Staring into the abyss of institutional closure encouraged Sorrell to embrace an ethos of bold thinking guided by a commitment to serve his students and surrounding community.

Responding to PQC’s location within an urban food desert, Sorrell turned the institution’s football field into an urban farm. In doing so, PQC offered the opportunity to offer fresh produce for community members and students.

Most recently, Sorrell has sought to turn PQC into the first urban work college where students’ work experiences are part of their curricula and the compensation they receive reduces their tuition by nearly US$10,000.

This year, Sorrell was named President of the Year by Education Dive as a result of his innovative efforts to transform how we think about higher education in the United States.

Investing in talent

Transformative leadership invites us to invest in others’ talent.

In recognition of its increased enrolment of Latinx students, the University of Arizona (UA) received its federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in 2018. The same year, under the guidance of Marla Franco, assistant vice provost of HSI Initiatives, UA has invested in a sustained fellowship that selects up to 10 faculty and staff across the university to identify projects that explore culturally responsive practices and advance the institution’s commitment to serving its Latinx students.

In embracing its designation as an HSI, UA models how institutions’ designation as a Minority-Serving Institution is insufficient evidence of a college’s commitment to advancing social equity. Supporting students must also be enacted, with adequate investment in institutional members’ development.

Leading proactively

Transformative leadership invites us to lead proactively.

Transformative leaders cultivate a path that anticipates future needs. Verna Fowler, president of the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), a Tribal College, supported the founding of the Sustainable Development Institute at CMN, led by Chris Caldwell.

Informed by indigenous knowledge, the institute prepares students to incorporate sustainable forestry practices consistent with Menominee values. Unlike current federal efforts that have diminished the US’s commitment to combating global warming, the sovereign efforts at CMN evidence leadership engaged in advancing community members’ knowledge to tackle enduring problems.

Aspiring leaders

Appreciating transformative leadership through the lessons of Minority-Serving Institutions offers an opportunity to understand how leaders proactively address systemic injustices.

In an effort to amplify the impact of these principles, I work alongside colleagues at the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions to support a cadre of aspiring college presidents who are committed to tackling the most pressing social issues affecting students’ collegiate experiences.

The programme, MSI Aspiring Leaders, matches mid-career professionals with current and retired presidents of Minority-Serving Institutions. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, serves as one of the mentors in the programme.

In the course of their two-year tenure as Aspiring Fellows, participants engage in gatherings where they refine leadership skills with a commitment to advancing greater social equity.

Most importantly, this programme reminds us that advancing transformative leadership is not an endeavour that an individual undertakes; rather, it is a commitment to enhance our leadership alongside a broader community.

Dr Andrés Castro Samayoa is assistant professor of higher education at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and senior research associate at the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, United States. He recently co-edited Contemporary Issues in Higher Education with Marybeth Gasman (Routledge, 2018) and is lead editor of the forthcoming A Primer on Minority Serving Institutions (Routledge, 2019).