Americans: We Are Strengthened by Our Diverse Perspectives

images

Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, President, Florida Memorial University

Most Americans have been involved in, or heard, conversations about diversity. The topics swirling around the concepts of diversity are broad and deep. Diversity, demographically speaking, describes a range of variables employed to describe human beings—and if you attempt to list the distinct characteristics, you will probably omit a few descriptors.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we focus on the differences when reporting statistically on academic achievement, family earning, health, and so forth. Admittedly, we need to be informed about how our policies, tax dollars, and governmental interventions affect the majority of Americans and citizens with specific characteristics. Sometimes, however, segmenting our population into diverse groups can be utilized too peremptorily to imply hierarchical ranking. However, measuring some outcomes related to specific human variables can be helpful in promoting the attainment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all—as proclaimed as self-evident in our Declaration of Independence.

Like many other Americans, my concept of diversity has also been expanding as I interact with persons who share different characteristics. I recall when I served in academic affairs at a regional institution that enrolled, made accommodations for, and graduated students with characteristics often referred to as physical disabilities, my personal definition of diversity expanded. What I learned from those students has changed my perspective on diversity and broadened my understanding of courage—for life.

At Florida Memorial University, I have, once again, thought about the concept of diversity. Even though Florida Memorial University is known as a Historically Black College or University, there is a great deal of diversity among students, faculty, and staff that enriches us all. The opportunity to work academically with such a diverse range of faculty encompassing  every descriptor possible is invigorating. Faculty bring perspectives and life experiences from 33 countries including America.  When an idea is introduced at a faculty meeting, for example, we are able to discuss it from experiences that faculty have had from vantage points outside of America, from different disciplines, from family worlds that encompass unique mixtures of world cultures from times chronically different, and from their experiences in a very diverse region of South Florida.

Similarly, in meetings with students it is easy to appreciate the mix of the numerous cultures. Students bring perspectives from many countries including Brazil, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Paraguay, Senegal, Chile, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jamaica, Colombia, and Nigeria.  In many respects, the diverse characteristics of students and faculty at Florida Memorial University under girds everything we do. Now, as we highlight the accomplishments of the faculty, identify our centers of excellence, and enhance our responsiveness to South Florida, we will move forth with a broader understanding of human experiences. This broader understanding will be an asset as we employ our diverse characteristics to prepare our students for a competitive, and very diverse global community.

Advertisements

Leadership Essential-Defining Success for Others


images-3.jpgAs we approach 2016 with hope, resolutions, and anticipation, it might also be helpful to ruminate on some of the evolving concepts of leadership and the lenses they furnish for current and emerging leaders in our society. Often perspectives on leadership held by policy makers coalesce into societal policies, legislation and laws.  Leadership philosophies and styles tend to encompass a variety of perspectives, values, and notions of good lives.

In November 2015, I was honored to give the keynote address at the graduation ceremony of The University of North Carolina Bridges leadership program for women. More than 20 years ago, the UNC Bridges intensive, four-week, leadership program was designed to inform, promote, and support women in leadership roles in higher education.  I particularly enjoyed returning to the (William and Ida) Friday Center in Chapel Hill to interact with women seeking higher education leadership roles because, I had been nurtured, mentored, informed, and furnished leadership opportunities for 14 years in the UNC system.

Moreover, discussing leadership theories continues to fuel my hope that we will eventually develop leaders who will transform our society, so that the majority of Americans will experience a more perfect union. Further, the eroding public confidence in higher education, its value, and its leaders appears to be a microcosm of eroding confidence in political institutions, corporations, and many leaders in America. Probably since I was an English Literature and Language major (decades ago) the words of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel which depict dueling social ills prior to the French Revolution seem to resonate with me as I contemplate 2016:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were going direct the other way. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

In short, what better time than 2016 to reflect on leadership and co-existing extremes?

The theme of the graduating Bridges class was transformational leadership. Thus, speakers were asked to share experiences, knowledge, and wisdom regarding the concept of transformational leadership.  In a nutshell, the theory of transformational leadership affirms that leaders are more successful when they facilitate the development of leadership qualities in others, when they inspire team leadership to solve problems, and when leaders are introspective about the personal values, assumptions, and paradigms from whence they lead.

In the conversations following the keynote address, the Bridges graduates and I also discussed leadership roles through the lenses of other leadership theories.  In addition to transformational leadership, we agreed that there are a host of leadership theories that attempt to inform, elucidate, and guide those seeking leadership positions in a range of societal institutions.  Some leadership theories that were viewed as illuminating various aspects of leadership include:

Authentic leadership– leaders are usually positive people who lead from honest and ethical foundations and maintain honest relationships with employees or followers.

Servant leadership–leaders desire to serve, the servant’s heart is a fundamental component for this type of leadership. The servant leader puts the needs of others before his/hers and shares power–the pyramid is flipped.

Collaborative leadership–leaders employ teams to lead a hierarchy structure that is less of a pyramid.  Current modes of communication support a more flat organizational structure in which team members learn from each other and work together to solve problems.

While reflecting on transformational leadership, and various other leadership styles, it occurred to me that the first place for an aspiring or current leader to engage in deeper rumination or for meaningful New Year’s resolutions is one’s personal values and definition of success.   In other words, the journey towards a high level leadership position, through it, and after it, begins with a person defining–What does success mean to me?

In higher education, for example, success to a leader could mean 1) advancing knowledge in a discipline, 2) improving the teaching and learning environments, 3) employing big data to truly solve intractable problems, 4) forecasting future opportunities, and/or 5) simply helping others to discover the joy and benefits of a lifetime of learning.  A personal definition of success is not only helpful, but it could lead towards a more fulfilling career, life/work balance, altruistic behavior, and healthy lifestyle.  

Even a cursory view of higher education leadership, political leadership, and corporate leadership would reveal that long term success in a leadership role is more difficult in a world defined, measured, and sometimes quartered by social media that can topple leaders through informed/ill-informed public reactions.  Thus, it is essential for leaders to reflect on a personal definition of success that will help ease some of the unavoidable bumps and turbulence in leadership roles.  It is also important to note that the meaning of success will probably change and evolve over time in a leader’s tenure and lifetime.  

So where does this leave us with our New Year’s resolutions? Hopefully, when making our lists, we will also be cognizant that every individual effort adds to the collective well-being.  When we reflect on what success means to us and our families, we will also be aware that our concepts of good lives will be played out in microcosms that will be expanded in the macrocosms called America and the global village.

 

 

The Promise: Expanding Access to Community Colleges for the Public Good

IMG_0147(1)

President Obama’s 2015, nearly New Year’s proposal, America’s College Promise, would offer free community college education to approximately 9 million students nationally. The Promise hinges on postsecondary academic performance and continuous progression towards degree completion. From the current national dialogue, it seems that the America’s College Promise proposal is an opportunity to examine the benefits versus costs of a community college education for most Americans. That is good.

No doubt, debates and perspectives on free community college programs will range from alarms to accolades depending on one’s frame of reference– potential student, politician, policy analyst, and so forth. As we know, President Obama announced the America College Promise at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee–where Governor Haslam announced Tennessee’s Promise last year that will be implemented with the 2015 entering community college class.

In the Tennessee Promise, the state agrees to pay the last dollar of community college tuition for two years for students who maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and satisfactory progress towards completion. What is possibly a very significant component of the Tennessee Promise proposal is that there will be mentors assigned to students, and students will be required to participate in community service. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the City of Chicago has apparently also released a similar plan, the Chicago Star Scholarship, that promises free, last-dollar community college tuition for students who maintain a B average and qualify for college-level reading and math classes.

Why all the interest in assisting students to attend community colleges? Apparently the proposal for free community college goes back at least to 1947 and a commission’s report on higher education to President Harry Truman. Possibly, it is an idea whose time has come–or is past due. At any rate, the projected income of students who complete two years of college is estimated to be nearly a half a million dollars more, on average, in lifetime earnings than those without postsecondary education. Further, for supporters of these proposals, there is a projected benefit to society that out weighs costs. It will be good for America to have more educated citizens who are more appropriately prepared for current and future jobs in the workforce–a stronger economic attraction for businesses.

Yet, one theme that seems consistent in the various dialogues about free community college tuition is that such a benefit is not about to happen nationally for some time. No doubt, in the fall of 2015, and thereafter, the results of the Tennessee Promise and the Chicago Star Scholarships will be reviewed to determine if these promises are kept and do deliver the projected public good.

What, exactly, is so special about expanding access and affordability to community colleges? Like some of my higher education colleagues, I have been fortunate to earn tenure as an English instructor and serve as a dean, for a combined eight years, in two Chicago community colleges. It was at the community college that my love for teaching, and interacting with students, was born. Later, I earned the rank of full professor at a regional, best in the South, institution where I taught upper division courses–while also serving as an administrator.

Years later, as I recall the role community colleges played in educational opportunities, career readiness, and even in career exploration in my family, it occurred to me that we were actually a community college family. My husband earned one associate degree in art and started two others while working a full-time job. He used these years to explore career options, before completing a bachelor’s degree and, ultimately, a master’s degree in mass communication at major regional universities. He later worked as a graphic designer and taught communications in one community college and at three universities.

My late Mom earned her registered nursing degree from a community college; a degree that helped her buy, and pay for, our family’s house and support three children through college and many of life’s vicissitudes. Needless to say, pursuing higher education and delayed gratification became a cornerstone of our family world. Later in life, when Mom was in her early 60’s, she completed her B.S. degree at a university–just because it was a goal she was determined to attain. Mom stated she always enjoyed learning, and even though it took her about 6 years, she completed her baccalaureate degree while working as a nurse– after she had already worked as a registered nurse for several decades.

In my experiences as a young English composition instructor in a community college, I enjoyed interacting with the diverse students who saw a need for a college education in their lives. The Chicago community college that first introduced me to a career in higher education also introduced me to a range of international students, some who had already earned advanced degrees in their countries. Yet, when they immigrated to the United States, they needed to become more fluent in the English language and knowledgeable about American cultures. Interactions with these students broadened my global perspectives.

It would be hard to work in a community college, without admiring, or at least acknowledging, the thousands of students who seek degrees to gain specialized knowledge for a career, to change careers, or to increase their earning potential, all while juggling full or part-time jobs, families, and more complex lives than the more traditional undergraduates who are able to immerse themselves in the college lifestyle 24/7. Admittedly, there are also thousands of students who resemble traditional college students, but these students, for a variety of reasons chose a community college to save money, live at home, take a slower transition into the workforce or university environment, or other reasons too diverse to classify.

Perhaps the American community college is intricately linked to our lives as Americans similar to secondary education. Because we are a very diverse nation in which scientific and technological advances arrive in regular waves, an examination of the appeal and depth of community colleges seems appropriate to add to our national dialogue. Community colleges offer a range of citizens, or those seeking citizenship, an opportunity to 1) participate in a longer transition from secondary education to higher education; 2) engage in just in time learning for a new career, new job, or for knowledge; 3) schedule an educational experience around other life priorities such as families, full-time jobs, and other responsibilities; and 4) save money before transferring to a four-year college or university for higher degrees.

It is hard to drive past a community college without noticing its presence. Most community colleges resemble busy places (like shopping malls or good restaurants), and likewise, it is often hard to find a parking space because thousands of students are coming and going. If there is city or regional transportation, it also usually stops conveniently at the college. If you stand inside of a community college, some students will look like they just graduated from high school with their book bags, cell phones, and economy cars. These students might not have attained adequate academic preparation in secondary school, may not have confidence in their cognitive abilities, do not really know their interests, or are not really sure about the college experience–but they are there moving forward, expecting some clarification from the array of academic classes, certificate programs, and transfer options.

Other students know exactly why they are taking classes–they have a career or job plan that needs specialized knowledge, a credential, or certification such as a waste water operator certificate, emergency medical technician specifics, information technology game development skills, a paralegal certificate, and hundreds more. Many community colleges offer these programs in flexible terms, evenings, weekends, and many combinations of the aforementioned.

Possibly, community colleges are an essential component of our American lives similar to K-12 educational experiences. As we continue the dialogue on the benefits and costs of a free community college, hopefully, these examinations and discussions will include the breadth and depth of these institutions in family worlds.

Learning for a Lifetime of Choices

Refined from President’s blog

mrrhv-kj_7670sm

A little while ago, I had lunch with a childhood friend, Marlene.  We have been friends since we were both thirteen years old, and that has been decades ago. Our lifelong friendship began on the Southside of Chicago where we discovered personal commonalities, as we explored the public libraries together and devised many less intellectual adventurers.  On a Wednesday in November 2013,  we met in Union Station in Washington, D. C., and it was indeed a reunion of epic proportions.  Between the two of us there were four children–all with college degrees.    It was our prayer, and our spouses’ too, that we had prepared these talented young adults to lead responsible, worthwhile, and altruistic lives.

When we looked into each other’s faces, we bore witness to a half century of American societal forces that had shaped the lives, and choices of two women who grew-up with limited resources, but who dreamed of nearly endless possibilities.  My friend earned a MBA from a big ten university, and I earned a PhD from a top-ranked national university.  Besides the fact that both of us have done well, by American standards, we also gained so much more from our college experiences than the academic content and subsequent jobs.  The value of our higher education included exposure to options, consideration of diverse perspectives,  and development of skill sets beyond our imaginations.

As we seek to grapple with the finances surrounding colleges and universities, the debate about the value of colleges and universities has reached a louder pitch with proponents on all sides.   As states struggle with competing priorities for revenue, and the economic recovery continues, there is more concern about the value of a college education in relationship to the cost of attendance.  While nearly half of my college experience included the private and well-regarded University of Chicago, it still does seem possible for students to choose from a range of institutions which correlate, as closely as possible, with their family and financial support systems.

Now I know that from a lifelong learner and educator, much of what I think about the value of a college education could be discounted–since I liked learning so much–it did not occur to me to leave the college/university  structured community of learners.  However,  as my friend and I shared stories in Union Station, it also occurred to me how fortunate we have both been to have spent so much time learning from the perspectives of others,  and how our expanded worldviews had influenced the activities we engaged in with our children and probably the choices and lives of our children and their future grandchildren. It seems that an expanded worldview is in itself a legacy–possibly just as precious as an inheritance of a land estate.

Engaging in various structured classroom or hybrid learning experiences also seems to help build a sense of confidence in the learners.  Without a doubt this confidence can be gained from other experiences rather than a college experience, but the efficiency and sequencing of these experiences in a college environment might take years to acquire without the talented and caring professors serving as learning guides.

Thus, one value of colleges and universities, is that we offer options to assist learners enjoy a lifetime of choices and to leave a legacy of options.