Dr. Julia Storberg-Walker is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education & Human Development.
When I read Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights’ most recent message to faculty about the Board’s upcoming review of the University’s shared governance model, my first thought was, “what a missed opportunity.” So many other responses could have helped move our community forward, set the stage for repair and reconciliation and catalyzed a new potential for transformation.
Unfortunately, we did not receive that type of message.
I teach and research leadership here at GW and am currently reading about leaders who inspire and expand possibilities for the wellbeing of all. One important book comes to mind that I hope Ms. Speights might read some day. In the book “Leading With Dignity,” Harvard professor Donna Hicks describes the difference between dignity and respect. Respect is earned, and dignity – or dignity consciousness – is a “deep connection to our inherent value and worth and to the vulnerability that we all share to having our dignity violated…Dignity is the source of priceless power – it enables us to develop mutually beneficial connections to others and to create positive change in our relationships.”
A message to GW’s faculty, coming from a space of dignity consciousness, would have been much different from the message we received from Ms. Speights yesterday.
From this different space, this different intention, the message would have aimed to inspire us to collectively unite around our shared interest in moving forward together. For example:
Instead of “The goal is to encourage productive discourse and collaboration through a structured and disciplined process for faculty engagement. Therefore the Board, in consultation with stakeholders, will conduct a comprehensive assessment that will begin with a clear-eyed review of the Faculty Code to determine the appropriate avenues for input from the faculty at large,” a leader in dignity consciousness might have written:
“We understand these times have been challenging for all, and The Board is committed to rebuilding the relationships between faculty, staff and administration. While we might not always agree as to the cause of these relational issues, we recognize, as Board members, it is our responsibility to initiate new ways of communicating, relating and working together as one vital, diverse and respectful community. To that end, we will be reaching out to the Faculty Senate, and other faculty representatives as needed, to develop a form of shared governance that will generate positive social, academic and fiscal outcomes.”
Instead of “Successful shared governance relies on constructive engagement – something I believe has been lacking over the past year. I am troubled by the actions of a faction of self-appointed faculty spokespersons whose contributions to this process more closely resemble a campaign to foment discord rather than civil dialogue,” a statement from dignity consciousness might have been:
“We believe in constructive engagement and co-creating spaces for learning, trust-building and supporting the wellbeing of all members of GW’s community. This includes spaces for those who disagree, those who have been elected by their faculty peers to represent diverse faculty perspectives and those who might have different worldviews or perspectives on GW’s mission and vision. It is our responsibility, as Board members, to hold ourselves accountable to the full community we have been given the responsibility to lead. And, when we don’t meet our intended goals of honest, timely and transparent communication – which we might not because we are fallible humans – we are open to the feedback and the learning that our stumble might offer us. Likewise, we anticipate faculty and staff might, on occasion, not be their best selves in terms of decision making or languaging their dissenting opinions. In these instances, we intend to model responsible leadership and leverage the situation, as much as possible, for an opportunity to learn from, with and about each other more deeply.”
Instead of “This Board supports and will promote a meaningful voice for faculty through thoughtful input and consultation, now and in the future. But the process must allow for differences in opinion within a functional shared governance structure that operates through the Faculty Senate as the faculty’s formal representational body,” the message might have been:
“We have heard, clearly, the call for a new form of shared governance here at GW. We might not know right now what that looks like, but we are committed to learning with all members of the GW community to explore, imagine and then implement changes that allow for meaningful faculty voice in decision making, agenda setting and mission and vision development. We recognize and value the multiple mechanisms for faculty feedback and participation – the Faculty Senate, the Faculty Assembly and the Faculty Association. These different mechanisms represent the diversity within our community, and while we anticipate disagreements, we are committed to creating clear, consistent and trustworthy communications with each group.”
And finally, instead of “With change comes the opportunity to determine the right path ahead for shared governance and to define the values that will inform our decisions,” the message might have been:
“Our future is in our hands. We look forward to co-creating a path forward; the path may not be straight, we may often disagree on direction, and we might not know the right answer every time we need to make a decision. But we are committed to equity, wellbeing, inclusion, service and fiscal health. We will work with you to develop principles for governance, and our aspiration is to be a space where all feel a sense of belonging, value and wellbeing. Please join us in co-creating this new future.”
Think of what a difference a message from a space of dignity consciousness would have made to our community. A message from that space offers hope for a better tomorrow, an invitation to and commitment for all to participate, a commitment to learning and an understanding of and acceptance of human differences and limitations.
Maybe it’s not too late for a do-over? I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for a better tomorrow.