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Leading the Modern College or University: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

American Council on Education: "Validating Our Strengths: Exercising Leadership through Participation and Achievement"
A Summit for Women of Color Administrators and Faculty
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

Tuesday, November 2, 2004


As I was researching my topic for this evening, “Leading the Modern College or University: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change,” I discovered that on this very day — November 5, 1872 — Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for trying to vote in the presidential election [General Ulysses S. Grant was running against New York newspaperman Horace Greeley]. Exactly three years later — also on November 5 — she was arrested for attempting to do the same thing.

This piece of history is important to call forth in this week of all weeks, and in this gathering of all gatherings — a gathering of women — women of color. And given that Ms. Anthony was an agent of social change, it seemed appropriate for tonight.

A driving force behind women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony, did not live to see women obtain the right to vote. But, with this evening’s focus on social change, and the touch of history associated with this day, there is something very moving about seeing a group of distinguished, talented, accomplished women of color gathered together to share strategies and tactics for breaking barriers and furthering the visions of their institutions by what is, indeed, real social change.

For, by its very existence, higher education is engaged in social change. Education is change. Educating successive generations embeds change in a living society, a function which imbues academe with its traditional role as leader. And, your individual and collective roles are poised to deliver social change on college and university campuses, to generations of students, and thereby affect the history of our nation and our world.

Colleges and universities must engage in social change in at least five ways:

1. Providing access

2. Outreach and intervention

3. Social change within the university

4. Acceptance and appreciation of alternative pathways to university career success and leadership

5. Strategic and national engagement on key social issues of the day.

But, before I get too deeply into the subject of engaging higher education in leadership and change, I would like to paint a picture of the way in which the environment is shifting.

There is a growing recognition that, as a society, we operate in a global community — where corporations must think and act globally to be competitive. Many multi-national companies have developed policies to assure the hiring of people whose gender, race, and intellectual diversity reflect the communities they serve.

These policies are driven by the fundamental precept that there is value in diversity — that bringing divergent points-of-view to the table helps to broaden the perspectives of corporate leadership, thus creating a clear-eyed view of the world and the competitive marketplace. Simply put, corporations are embracing diversity because it is essential to maintaining their market share, their competitive edge, and possibly even their long-term survival.

Consider what the corporate sector said in its support of the University of Michigan admissions policies in two United States Supreme Court decisions — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. In an amicus brief filed with the court, 65 leading American corporations argued the importance of a diverse workforce — coming out of a diverse educational environment-for their “continued success in the global marketplace.”

These 65 leading American corporations — Alcoa, American Express, Boeing, Coca Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Deloitte & Touche, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee, Shell Oil, 3M, and Xerox, to name a few — with collective annual revenues of well over one trillion dollars, conduct business around the world. 3M, for instance, is a $16.7 billion diversified manufacturing and technology company with operations in more than 60 countries and customers in nearly 200. Boeing makes 70 percent of its commercial airplane sales to international customers. Procter & Gamble sold a branded product to more than 2.5 billion people in 2002, for more than $40 billion in sales.

Today’s global marketplace, the corporations argued, “and the increasing diversity of the American population, demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding” which is gained from a diverse educational environment. They continue that “because of the increasingly global reach of American businesses, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

Similarly, a nation’s economic health requires it to acknowledge the value of diversity in today’s global economy. If one accepts the premise that innovation is key to global competitiveness, economic strength, and security, it is becoming increasingly important to mine the talent and intellectual prowess that exists among people of all colors, religions, and creeds.

Innovation is rooted in the U.S. capacity for discovery and invention, in our ability to translate new knowledge into processes and products, and in realization of innovation through the marketplace — to improve and enhance the quality of life.

For more than 75 years, the United States has been the unquestioned world leader in innovation, because of a thriving system of sustaining elements. These elements include a top-flight higher education system, a strong science infrastructure; ready access to venture capital; a tradition of entrepreneurial investment; government agencies and policies supporting inquiry and discovery and encouraging entrepreneurship; a history of public-private collaboration; a diverse culture of risk takers; and an ethos tailored for innovation, where new ideas are welcomed, and varying viewpoints are sought.

Yet, despite the dependence of innovation on the variety of input, many members of our own innovation workforce (especially scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists) come from a long-standing and traditional pool. Furthermore, many of them are reaching retirement, at a time when fewer American young students studying science and engineering, and fewer international students coming to the U.S. to study and to work. This latter fact is due, in some measure, to the visa tightening policies instituted after September 11, 2001, but more fundamental may be new opportunities for the best and the brightest to study and to work in their home countries.

Moreover, the success of the U.S. model is not lost on other countries, who not only are working to emulate U. S. success, but to surpass it, through their investments in research in science and engineering, and through major investments in the education and employment of their own people.

Now, what we are beginning to see is erosion. Fewer of our own young people are interested in science and mathematics. A partial reason for this is that these fields have not been viewed as being very glamorous. This is astounding because many of the mega-millionaires and billionaires who emerged in the 1990’s are people in science, engineering and technology. There is erosion because, in terms of early education, and performance in science and mathematics, we, as a nation, have not done so well in recent times in comparison with other nations. There is erosion because we have begun to under-invest in science and engineering research. This all is happening as other countries are racing forward in terms of publications in prestigious journals, breakthroughs in certain areas like stem cell research, and production of new scientists and engineers.

Now, our economy is not about to fall apart. What we must do, however, is to project ahead 10, 15, or 20 years. The factors I describe constitute a quiet crisis that could lead to a perfect storm if all of these factors continue to come together. It is a question of looking at trends which, if left unchecked, can lead to a day of reckoning.

So, we must invest in research. But, people do research, and people invent.

If other nations believe that their futures depend upon the education of their people, does this not make clear the imperative of educating all of our children so that we can assure that all talent is fully realized? If we overlook the underrepresented majority (minorities and women), how will all talent be realized?

Does this not make clear that, ultimately, a diverse student population and faculty in our colleges and universities are both desirable and inevitable? Does this not make clear that the intellectual richness of diversity in scholarship and experience is essential to a well-rounded education?

Finally, does it not emphasize the criticality of infusing diversity at the highest levels of the educational structure?

Yet, very few of the chief executive officers of the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities fit this new criteria demanded by our global community.

It is clear that the shifting environment and the need for a fully diverse campus can no longer be a peripheral focus of the university but must reflect an institution’s mission and full commitment. The university must become even more the agent of social change-internally and externally.

A key battleground here is admissions policy and affirmative action as a diversity-creating mechanism. The University of Michigan took a stand to defend its approach to minority admissions — eventually going all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. This put the University of Michigan in the position of agent of social change by being the conduit to some fundamental decisions underpinning the legal basis of intentional diversity in college/university admissions.

The resultant Supreme Court rulings in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger both reinforced and, at the same time, called into question intentional diversity in university admissions. On the one hand, the rulings reaffirmed the constitutional legitimacy of diversity as an essential component of education excellence. Diversity is upheld as not only a matter of equity — as legitimate as that is — but, also, essential to American competitiveness. On the other hand, they questioned the use of explicit preferences.

Those mixed messages have left the academy without guidance for extending the benefits of higher education to everyone. That lack of guidance, leads to, at best, confusion over the future of a variety of targeted programs, and at worst is having a chilling effect on them.

There have been few efforts to give university administrators, legal counsel, and program planners the tools to develop effective, appropriate, and legal minority-recruitment programs in the post-Michigan era. But, there is one effort worth mentioning — a report entitled Standing Our Ground, released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The report, offers material on legally defensible options for protecting diversity, specifically, in science and engineering programs. There are other aids available, but there remains much confusion about what is legal, and what is not.

This year, of all years, there is another landmark United States Supreme Court decision we should consider. I speak, of course, of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision whose 50th anniversary we celebrate. It is worth keeping in mind this baseline, which established the legal, moral, and social imperative for assuring equality and diversity within the American public school system. It formed the basis for taking official action to establish diversity. In many places, it provided the opportunity and brought forward talent that otherwise would not have been discovered and nurtured.

Those of my generation remember Brown well, as it had a dramatic impact on our own lives, and on the unfolding of our educations. The Brown ruling helped to move forward society’s collective perspective on the issues of differences between peoples, and the question of how to assure a just society. There is not a person in this room, nor, indeed a child in America, whose lives have not been impacted by this milestone judicial decision. It is a part of our legacy. It certainly impacted my life.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown, and acknowledging the corporate sector recognition of diversity are marks of real progress. But, the mixed messages of Grutter and Gratz and the unfilled promise of Brown impel us to redouble our efforts with new conviction and new energy, if we are to see the legacy of Brown continue to unfold its benefits.

The legacy and aftermath of the Brown decision together with Grutter and Gratz make clear that the battle for educational access does not and cannot begin at the gate to college, or as I like to say, at the college classroom door. Early outreach and intervention to ensure our young people the greatest opportunity to attend college at all is fundamental. This places expectations and challenges on universities to remain true to their higher education missions while working for change by partnering with middle and high schools, even primary schools, to fill the educational pipeline with talented, well-prepared students.

I have spoken about student access and pipeline but hiring and retaining faculty of color in all our colleges and universities and ensuring their success are key to a diverse 21st century campus, by giving both students and faculty a sense of community membership, and by broadening the range of what is taught, and how it is taught, while creating the critical mass from which future leaders will emerge. The success of faculty of color requires the development and implementation of policies which make sense for everyone — fair searches, diverse applicant pools, family and life-event friendly policies, mentoring, clear expectations, fair assessments and transparent promotion processes.

Universities, also must be springboards, institutionally, for global engagements and dialogue for our students and faculty-expanding the definition of outreach and learning.

Not everyone, not every woman of color will make her way through a career or ascend to a leadership position in the same way. Other sectors of society are more accepting of multiple pathways to leadership. The academy is a little behind. But here at this summit, you have before you examples of women of color who have taken non-traditional paths, and succeeded against the odds. Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas in Brownsville and Texas Southmost College who ascended to her position by beating personal odds, and by merging a junior college she led with the University of Texas System to create the four-year institution at the US-Mexico border, which she now leads. There are others. My own pathway is not the standard model, although I have been privileged to hold major research and senior leadership positions in industry, academia and government which got me to where I am.

All of the foregoing obliges higher education to revive its voice of societal leadership. This is, after all, the traditional role of higher education, in concert with government, and the private sector — a triumvirate upon which the national capacity for change rests. There are numerous emergent questions which deserve a thoughtful, considered examination. And, the academy — a sanctuary for deliberation, research, exploration, examination — is uniquely equipped to deliver. And, while scholars and academic leaders do not necessarily have greater insight, they do have unique intellectual resources, a tradition of research and inquiry, and a platform from which to speak with some authority.

The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism is a case in point. The Project was founded in 1999 by Professor David Protess to give undergraduate students experience in investigating cases in the Illinois criminal justice system.

Perhaps you remember the news coverage about this story. Prof. Protess guided his students through a review of the evidence gathered about the 1978 murder of Lawrence Lionberg and the rape and murder of his fiancé, Carol Schmal. One woman (who was pardoned later) and four men, who were known as the “Ford Heights Four,” were convicted of the crimes. But the students found language in a police report indicating that four other men probably had been responsible for the rape and murders.

Illinois Governor George Ryan later pronounced, “A system that depends on young journalism students is flawed.” And he gave credit to Prof. Protess for pouring “his heart and soul” into encouraging his students to free innocent men.

As a result of the students’ findings, Gov. Ryan re-examined and ultimately placed a moratorium on the death sentence in that state. Just before he left office in January 2003, Gov. Ryan granted clemency to all Illinois death row inmates.

The Medill Innocence Project successfully changed the very fabric of social justice in Illinois by encouraging its students to ask questions, to be observant, and to use their innate sense of fairness to affect change. As a result, lives that had been wrongfully discarded by society, were saved.

For university leaders, more of us must be willing to change our own institutions, even as we preserve their missions. More of us must be willing to use the pulpit and the access which the university provide to be less self focused, and more agents of change — nationally and gobally. Clearly, not every university will have the resources to have such a powerful impact on society. Certainly there are constraints — financial strictures, outside pressures, corporate research funding, and partnerships, to name a few. But, to relinquish the voice of academe in a just society is to abandon its essential duty to ask the difficult questions, to examine complexities, to take a stand for policies and practices which impact society. This, perhaps more than other measures, assures the continued national leadership, wellbeing, and safety of any nation — of every nation.

Higher education must commit itself to leadership in these matters, making inclusivity a mission, operating in a reasoned way, but willing and unafraid to take bold steps measures. Ultimately, this requires leadership at the top, but it also must be a broad leadership, involving commitment from everyone in a variety of leadership positions. To implement an inclusive social change agenda may well require a transformation in which each segment of the academic community asks itself: have we done everything possible to further this agenda?

I said at the outset, that by its very existence, higher education is engaged in social change, and that education, which is the very essence of change, embeds that change in a living society. This function alone lends academe its traditional leadership role.

I am repeating this thought, because leaders in higher education can lose sight of this role amid the issues and demands of the moment. It is easy to slip back into a comfort zone, passing on the difficult position, not rising to the challenge, or taking the risk.

This year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Brown v the Board of Education is an opportunity to remember that we must continue to acknowledge and to live the values upon which the nation was founded. But, if we are to see the legacy of Brown continue to unfold, it will take strong and consistent leadership.

There are those who say that through behavior every individual is a teacher. Every parent knows this, of course. James Baldwin once observed that "Children have never been good at listening to the elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."

The same may be said of higher education — what academe does, it teaches, it proclaims — which is why leadership for diversity, for inclusivity, for social change is so critical.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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