What follows was crafted for an MSU Honors College panel discussion entitled “Sharper Focus/Wider Lens” on March 8, 2021 focusing on culture change in higher education and at Michigan State University. A video of the event is available here.
Engage with me in an exercise of speculative imagination. Imagine a place that welcomes you as you are, that invites you to be yourself, to be your whole self. It is a place of trust and support, a place that asks you to dream, and supports you to make your dreams reality.
Imagine that this place is a university, a place of higher education, a place where risks are taken, where disciplinary boundaries creatively encounter one another to deepen our understanding of the world and our place in it.
At the beginning of her book, The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara has the healer, Minnie Ransom, tell Velma Henry, “… wholeness is no trifling matter.” 1
Imagine this is a place of wholeness for students, for staff, and for faculty.
Because our time here this evening is brief, let us imagine for a moment what this might feel like for faculty.
In their 2020 article in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education entitled: “Epistemic Exclusion: Scholar(ly) Devaluation That Marginalizes Faculty of Color,” Isis Settles, Martinique Jones, NiCole Buchanan, and Kristie Dotson write:
“Faculty advancement and psychological well-being are closely intertwined, such that faculty who are most well (I.e., have high levels of social support/mentoring, enhanced sense of belonging within their department, and satisfactory work-life balance) are the most successful in the academy.”2
Their findings suggest a tight connection between experiences of belonging and high academic performance. Current practices of epistemic exclusion undermine efforts to create institutional structures of support and inclusion.
In a 2017 MSU Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant report prepared by NiCole T. Buchanan, Kristie Dotson, Michael O’Rourke, Marisa A. Rinkus, Isis H. Settles, and Stephanie E. Vasko, epistemic exclusion (EE) is said to concern “the exclusion of certain types of scholarship as knowledge and the exclusion of certain people from the category of knowers.”
The report continues:
In academia, EE arises when assessments aimed at producing better scholarship exclude certain types of research, where such devaluation can attach to the research conducted, the researcher, or both the research and the researcher. EE can operate formally through metrics used to evaluate scholarship and informally when the scholarship of certain social groups is not comprehended, appreciated, or recognized.
One of their top recommendations was to:
Modify the T&P process: A university-wide effort to reshape the T&P process should be holistic and should emphasize faculty development; the process should begin with the offer letter and be reflected by consistent annual review processes that align well with the T&P process; among other specific elements, the value of service should be reconsidered, especially in light of the inequitable service burden that some faculty are expected to bear.
This is precisely the approach we have taken in the College of Arts & Letters as we have adopted and implemented a framework for promotion and tenure, indeed, for an academic life well-lived, which we call: Cultivating Pathways of Intellectual Leadership.
As a new faculty member, we ask you to imagine the course of your future career, to consider what contribution you will have made by the time you retire. This activity of speculative imagination invites faculty to lift themselves from the everyday busyness of their work and to look out toward the horizon so they might begin to chart a meaningful course for their academic life.
You are asked to consider the values that animate your work and how you plan to enact those values in your practices of scholarship and pedagogy – each year we ask you to outline stepping stone achievements toward milestone goals that indicate that you are moving along your articulated pathway. Each year your colleagues ask you how you are proceeding and what you need to be successful.
This process requires a shift in thinking from a means-oriented focus on teaching, research, and service — which too often asks faculty to pull apart the threads that hold the fabric of their work together — to an ends-oriented focus on sharing knowledge, expanding opportunity, and mentorship/stewardship. These ends can be pursued in a variety of ways, including through the traditional activities of teaching, research, and service. This framework allows faculty to tell a more textured and holistic story about their work; it is designed to support them along their way.
In a sense, the Pathways of Intellectual Leadership model is a framework that translates the virtues of a liberal arts education into administrative practice and habit. It is not difficult, then, to imagine how this might extend to faculty of different appointment types or to staff as they chart their pathways to meaningful careers. Nor is it difficult to notice how it might apply to students as we invite them to bring their whole selves to an active engagement with their education, identifying the values about which they care most deeply, and working intentionally with faculty mentors and advisors to chart a meaningful pathway through the rich curriculum offered at the university.
In her February 2021 presentation to the MSU Board of Trustees, Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, inaugural Chairperson of the new Department of African American and African Studies, set out a vision that would make an education in Black Studies at MSU “irresistible.” In this, she told me later, she was channeling language of Toni Cade Bambara, who said: “As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.” 3
To make an education at MSU “irresistible” is a high standard indeed; and it is one we need to embrace: to make an education at MSU so compelling, so enriching, so beautiful that it simply cannot be resisted.
To begin down this road, we need to imagine and create an irresistible university culture: one that supports, embraces, and sustains wholeness in each person so they are able to translate their dreams into reality.
- Bambara, Toni Cade. The Salt Eaters. New York: First Vintage Contemporaries, Random House, 1992. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/8085/the-salt-eaters-by-toni-cade-bambara/, 10.
- Settles, Isis H., this link will open in a new window Link to external site, Martinque K. Jones, NiCole T. Buchanan, this link will open in a new window Link to external site, and Kristie Dotson. “Epistemic Exclusion: Scholar(ly) Devaluation That Marginalizes Faculty of Color.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, March 2, 2020, 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000174.
- Bambara, Toni Cade, and Thabiti Lewis. Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012, 35-47.