A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to an amazing group of new deans at Michigan State University about the role of the dean in higher education during a period of intense transformation. In reflecting on how best to frame my remarks, I found myself returning to the concept of revolution and to the unorthodox idea of the revolutionary dean.
Perhaps you will say it’s an oxymoron: revolutionary dean. We are not in the habit of thinking about the role of the dean as revolutionary, but almost two years into a pandemic, perhaps it is time to think differently.
As I reflect on my dual roles as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters and Dean of the MSU Honors College, a theme in my reading has emerged I’d like to consider here briefly. I begins with Audre Lorde, who writes in her essay, Learning from the ’60s:
“Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.”Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 141.1
It is perhaps not surprising that this insight emerges from a reflection on the 1960’s, a turbulent period of transformative change. We find ourselves today in a different, but no less transformative period of social and cultural change. The pandemic has disrupted calcified habits and outgrown ways of being together, opening us to new possibilities that require us again to reckon with the legacies of oppression that continue to distort our relationships with one another.
In this passage, Lorde invites us to consider how we might cultivate revolutionary habits: everyday interventions that “address each other’s difference with respect.” As a dean attempting to navigate this intense period of uncertainty, it is all too easy to reach for established, though outgrown, responses in an effort to secure some anchor in the tempest. Lorde asks us to take a different tact. She encourages vigilance and self-awareness. To change “established, outgrown responses” requires self-reflection.
In her own reflection on the events of the 1960’s, Grace Lee Boggs was led to distinguish between rebellion, which is thoughtless and violent, and revolution, which is thoughtful and spiritual. In her autobiography, she writes:
“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more human human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change, 153.2
For Boggs, transformative institutional change requires personal transformation. Boggs lends further determination here to what Lorde points to as revolutionary habits, for our efforts to change outgrown responses begin with intentional efforts to be true to ourselves. These insights reinforce a lesson I have learned in my ongoing work with my colleagues in the HuMetricsHSS initiative – transformative change begins with an honest assessment of the values that give our work meaning; and it is rooted in our daily commitment to enact these values in every interaction we have, in every activity we undertake.
In Uses of the Blues, James Baldwin touches on the importance of doing the work of self-reflection, of knowing who you are and what you value.
“People who in some sense know who they are can’t change the world always, but they can do something to make it a little more, to make life a little more human. Human in the best sense. Human in terms of joy, freedom which is always private, respect, respect for one another, even such things as manners.”James Baldwin, Uses of the Blues, 81.3
I can hardly think of a better job description for a dean: in each decision, each interaction, at every opportunity, do something to make the university a little more human; be revolutionary in this sense; and as Lorde and Boggs emphasize – “revolution is not a one time event,” we are presented with opportunities to be “more human human beings” every single day.
- Lorde, Audre, and Cheryl Clarke. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Reprint edition. Berkeley, Calif: Crossing Press, 2007.
- Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Reprint edition. Minneapolis ; London: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
- Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Edited by Randall Kenan. New York, NY: Vintage, 2011.