Reflections on Gender Equity in Higher Education: Equity and Leadership

This is the second post in a series contributed by Susan Albertine, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

In the months since I last wrote for #SAFeminist, we’ve seen racial, ethnic, and sex-gender violence continue to flare across the country, on campuses, and in communities. For some of us, this unrest seems new, a different turn of events. Others of us–I among them–hear and feel the past echoing in the present. Many of us recognize a high-publicity phase of conditions that have simmered, boiled, and exploded all along. Perspective matters here.

Regardless of one’s experience, regardless of the ways one recognizes origins and continuity, social unrest now is impossible to miss. Reading an opinion piece by Danielle Allen, a political philosopher at Princeton, I found myself stunned by empathy when Allen describes—in a single sentence—a moment of continuity in her life. She says, “I, too, was called ‘n-‘ on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993.” That sentence haunts me. It is an experience I, as a white woman, have never known. But for a moment I felt a pulse of familiarity. It was not the full actuality, which is beyond my grasp. Still I felt breath and heartbeat for a moment. Thinking about equitable leadership for this #SAFeminist blog post, with that sentence ringing in my ears, I realize what I need to say.

Life invites one to pay attention. It wasn’t the first such moment of empathy for me. A few months earlier I reviewed an academic program at a private university. Escorted to lunch by a post-doctoral instructor, an African-American woman, I had a similar experience. We were trading life glimpses. I said that I hadn’t seen anything like the racial conflict on campus since the spring of 1969 at Cornell. She said, “For me, it’s always been and never stopped.” I’m guessing she’s somewhere between 25 and 30 years old.

If feminism has power to move the personal to the political, we need that empowerment now. We need to hear each other and feel each other’s experience as deeply as we can—breaths and heartbeats of the moments we can share—few though they may be. If you’ve been doing that all along, great. And you may have been. But pause and reflect. Think about the last time you experienced empathy, a slippage in identity that helped you cross lines of difference between yourself and somebody else. What was it? When was it? Where was it? Who was it?  What if every single day we opened ourselves to empathy. You can’t force it, and it doesn’t work if your own enlightenment violates somebody else’s space. But a receptive attitude and a degree of self-aware humility will help to open up such exchanges. The insights resonate. So I wonder: Would it change our leadership if more of us made a search for empathy a part of our practice each day?

There’s a bigger picture, too—a shared vision of an equitable and pluralistic democracy. Either we claim it or we lose it. Equitable feminist leadership in a fraught time needs to start inside one’s own heart, your own heart, and grow and be nurtured toward the inevitable arrival of crisis. That’s our current moment. Leadership for a time like this needs to start where you are, as a leader, in this very instant. It needs to empower you to imagine the perspectives of others. And more than that, it needs to embolden you to talk about bias and discrimination, about diversity, equity, and equality, with persons who are different from you.

At the Association of American Colleges & Universities, where I work, we have seen an uptick in calls for guidance and growing numbers of visits to our pages on diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence. I am glad the resources are available. But I worry that people are exhibiting a very human tendency: waiting until a crisis emerges to address matters that needed ongoing attention. If you wait till a crisis to think about equity and leadership, you are waiting way too long. When crisis comes, a leader needs reserves of strength and experience, not remediation.

You can start by asking someone with whom you share trust and whose perspectives and experiences are different from yours, to join you in a conversation about equity and leadership. It occurs to me that campus leaders, including feminists, tend to think they’ve done this work in the past—and once it’s done, it’s done–ever to be assumed. That’s a problem. Like democracy itself, equity-minded leadership needs constant tending and renewal. No “one-and-done” effort will work.

Equitable leadership invites different voices to encounter each other in open and regular exchange. Perspective-seeking and empathic, intentional, intersectional effort are terms of respect and practice that many feminists know. Campus leadership that seeks equity encourages people to both think and feel about the very different perspectives among members of their community.

Equitable leadership requires coalition building as the foundation of the community. Can we honestly say we are making bridges, intelligently reaching out, engaging mindfully in difficult dialogues? If not, maybe it’s time for some renewal within yourself. You can begin a virtuous cycle of empathy right where you are. As you find yourself moved by the experience, you will be stronger in your practice when you reach out as a leader to others.

Albertine200_0Susan Albertine, Senior Scholar, Association of American Colleges & Universities, is a career-long educator and advocate for educational reform. She became a school teacher through the alternative school movement and has taught every level from preschool through graduate school. A professor of American literature and women’s studies, she taught at both liberal arts colleges and public institutions. In 2002 she became Professor of English and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey, where she served until joining the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2008 as senior director of the LEAP States Initiative. Dr. Albertine was vice president, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success (AAC&U), 2010-2016. She has published on women’s work in print culture during the growth phase of industrialization in the U.S. and on the resource that 19th-century literature can be for an integrative study of public and global health.  She writes frequently about reform of higher education, emphasizing the value and values of liberal education.



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