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The challenges facing Black leaders

Terri Givens' book Radical Empathy offers next steps for Harvard and other institutions.

- January 12, 2024

In the wake of Claudine Gay’s recent resignation as Harvard University president, Good Authority editor Nadia Brown interviewed Terri Givens, now a political science professor at McGill University. Givens has over 30 years of experience in higher education, and has served in university administration at both a large state university and a private liberal arts college that specializes in business. 

Terri Givens: A great deal of evidence indicates there is indeed a campaign to undermine public trust in higher education. PEN America has developed the “Champions of Higher Education” program to address this. However, I would say that this specific attack on Harvard and Claudine Gay was also a personal vendetta by major donor Bill Ackman, who wanted more control over the university. A New York Times article reported, “Mr. Ackman, by his own admission and according to others around him, resents that officials at his alma mater, to which he’s donated tens of millions of dollars, and its president, Claudine Gay, have not heeded his advice on a variety of topics.” 

Donors and boards of trustees/regents, or in the case of Harvard, the corporation, are usually from the business world. Many come into their board roles with expectations of having influence over faculty hiring, curriculum and in particular, university leadership. In recent years we have seen high-profile public institutions hiring former politicians and business leaders as presidents. I experienced this at Menlo College. Although the president had a PhD, he had never been a college administrator. I spent a great deal of my first year as a provost educating him on the role of a president and how a college functions. The influence of billionaire donors and politicians has been seen around the country, not only at private institutions, but also public institutions. 

As a vice provost at University of Texas in Austin, I saw that major donors had influence on the direction of research projects. One example was the Energy Institute, which was pitched to a set of donors from oil companies around 2007, when the original purpose of the meeting had been to generate funding for an international institute at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. It wasn’t surprising to me that the institute was later embroiled in scandal, due to a report on fracking that didn’t indicate the author’s ties to the energy industry.

Right-wing politicians are pursuing a variety of policies to undermine not only higher education, but K-12 as well. Instituting voucher programs, budget cuts, and book bans and bringing in leaders who are more amenable to the whims of donors is happening everywhere. State-level funding for public institutions has been on the decline for many years, so most universities have had to increase support from private donors. The desire of major donors to have influence over the use of those funds isn’t necessarily problematic, but it can get in the way of academic freedom and the ability of institutions to meet the needs of students. 

You came to Menlo College to serve as the provost of the institution, the first African American and woman to hold this position, after serving as vice provost at the University of Texas. How has being a Black woman shaped your experiences in these positions? Are there unique challenges and/or opportunities that Black women university administrators face? May these differ from those facing colleagues with different race/gender identities?

As I note in my book Radical Empathy, the first problem Black leaders have to deal with is the lack of numbers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 6% of faculty are Black, while Blacks are 13% of the overall population. The first issue that I have always had to deal with is people being surprised by my presence in one of these roles. Even as a professor, I have always tried to dress in suits and dresses to try to convey my authority, because I teach European politics, and a Black woman is not what students expect when they come to class. So the first challenge is getting people to believe you are who you say you are, because you don’t fit the idea that people have in their head of what a professor or leader looks like.

Black leaders have to have more credentials, work twice as hard to get half the credit, and are expected to mentor and support Black students and others. We are expected to represent Black faculty and staff, and are often asked to be on committees, not only in our institutions, but in our disciplines and communities. I’ve been a volunteer for the American Political Science Association for about 20 years, and have served on many nonprofit boards. These types of activities may be needed, but they also create time demands that can be difficult to manage. I refer to this as emotional labor in my book, “a term that describes the daily work that people of color do as representatives of our race or gender. We are often expected to manage the expectations and issues that others may have with us, including being the spokesperson for all Black people when we are in White spaces.” We also understand that representation is important, and so it is difficult to say no when asked to take on committee work and other extracurricular responsibilities.

Another issue is that we come to these positions with unique perspectives and often see the need for change in routines or policies. There is always resistance to change, and I have found that it is important to manage change processes with transparency, and with support from leadership above me. When a Black woman enters a leadership position, she is under immediate suspicion that she is going to focus on particular issues (e.g., DEI) regardless of the position she is in. We are more often questioned about the projects or activities we want to pursue, and don’t always get the institutional support that others take for granted. For example, I have always found it difficult to get the university’s professional fundraisers to work on the projects that I see as a priority.

It’s interesting to note that Black presidents have much better representation in higher education, with the most recent report from the American Council on Education indicating that Blacks make up over 13.6% of presidents. This type of representation may also be part of the reason for the backlash against what is being called “wokeness” – but it goes against the arguments of many on the right that hires like Claudine Gay are “DEI hires.” An article from February 2022 in Inside Higher Ed considers this rise in Black presidents as part of the “racial reckoning” that occurred after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Unfortunately that increase in diversity has not yet reached governing boards, particularly in red states. As a study published in Washington Monthly has shown, it is rare for governing boards, which are still predominantly male, to match the diversity of their student bodies. This can be discouraging for potential presidential candidates from diverse backgrounds.

What is the role of an entity like the Harvard Corporation and why does it seem so secretive?

Most people, even faculty, don’t understand the role of governing boards. These are the appointed volunteer leaders who tend to have some connection to the institution, whether as alumni or major donors, or in some cases, have connections in local, state, or federal politics. They rarely have any experience in higher education, and tend to see mostly the financial side of the institution. The general role of a governing board is to oversee the fiscal and business operations of a university. They are expected to keep the president and his administration accountable, and review the president on a regular basis. 

The Harvard Corporation is one of the oldest governing boards in the country, and it seems to function in a similar way as other governing boards. I recognize a few of the names, and they are, of course, leaders in their fields, but they will nevertheless be second-guessed about their recent decision. Overall, it’s not that boards are necessarily secretive, but Harvard is a private institution, and their deliberations aren’t public. This is true in many cases and, when dealing with a personnel issue, by law those records are usually private, even at a public institution. 

It behooves faculty in particular to get a better understanding of the role of governing board at their university or college. Some have faculty and student representatives, particularly at public universities. If faculty want to have a say in how their institution is managed, they need to understand and play a role in governance at all levels. Shared governance can’t work if faculty aren’t involved. My friend David Rosowsky writes about shared governance; his work is worth a read.

Your most recent scholarship advances the argument that radical empathy is a way to call out racism and ameliorate white supremacy from institutions and systemic structures. In short, what can universities – such as Harvard – do now to combat injustice?  How do your experiences, personal biography, and expertise lead you to these recommendations?

Harvard needs to start a process of reconciliation and commit to change. Many people have been hurt by what has happened, and they will need to make a very visible commitment to working with the entire campus, not to move past this situation, but to spend time understanding what happened and why. They will need to reaffirm their commitment to supporting Black faculty, staff, and students. I discuss the six steps to radical empathy, and in particular the need to take action, below.

My experience as a professor, vice provost, and provost has made it clear that a Black leader can’t succeed without the support of the upper administration and the governing board. I was often excluded from meetings with governing boards, and I’m sure that there were things said and done during those meetings that were disparaging to me. I was shocked when talking to a board member who made it clear that they didn’t understand my job; they thought what I did was similar to the job of the dean of students. This was a relatively new board member, but the fact that they didn’t understand the role of a provost (i.e, overseeing the deans, faculty, and curriculum) was stunning to me given their role in governance of the institution. After I left that position, I started the Center for Higher Education Leadership because it was clear to me that most faculty don’t understand how the administration works and why it is so important for faculty to take on these positions. That endeavor was undermined by the pandemic, but I still believe it is important for faculty to get training and support as they take on leadership positions.

Radical empathy is important for leaders for a variety of reasons. I developed the book because I realized that sometimes I got in my own way because of biases that I had developed growing up. The six steps to radical empathy start with vulnerability. That doesn’t necessarily mean being vulnerable with others; it starts with being vulnerable with yourself. Here are the six steps, which I have revised slightly for my forthcoming book, which will focus on the last two steps:

1. Willingness to be vulnerable

2. Developing an understanding of who you are – what is your story?

3. Being open to the experiences of others

4. Practicing empathy – a never-ending practice, but empathy is not absolution

5. Taking action – determining what kind of action is meaningful for you

6. Creating change and building trust

Without going into too much detail (there is, after all, a book), I believe that an approach of inclusive leadership will be important at Harvard going forward. Include faculty, staff, and student representatives in decision-making processes and in a more transparent manner. That means a willingness to examine recent events and to take the recommendations of the campus for ways to create change. The radical component of radical empathy comes in the last two steps: taking action so that you can create change and build trust. It will be important to have accountability that goes beyond statements written by lawyers. This type of approach might have even helped the three college presidents in their testimony in front of Congress