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Leading for Equity and Justice

Chinyere Oparah offers strategies to help women of color transform higher ed as senior administrators without sacrificing their careers and health.


The recent witch hunt to purge Harvard University’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, through a “well-laid trap” during congressional testimony and a follow-up campaign to discredit her academic bona fides sent a clear message to leaders who dare to stand for equity and justice: “We are coming for leaders like you.” The public spectacle that continues to unfold wields a disciplinary power to deter too many of those who have the audacity to attempt to wrest higher education institutions from the control of an overprivileged elite and deliver on the transformative potential of liberal education. For Black women in particular, Harvard’s response conveyed a devastating follow-up: “And when we do, do not think that your institution will protect you.”


And so former president Gay joins the growing list of brilliant, visionary Black, Indigenous and other people of color and women leaders stepping down from positions of president, provost or dean. Those leaders are asking fundamental, perhaps even existential, questions about their positions in academe: How much are we willing to sacrifice to transform higher education? Is it worth putting our health, our careers and our very survival on the line?


Citing decisions to prioritize family and health or innocuous “differences” with their boards or senior leadership, many of these leaders step away from administration altogether—some retiring, others reappearing rejuvenated and joyful after a period of recovery to build lives of meaning, service and balance in less contested spaces. Their gain—freedom from stress, hostility and backlash—is an immense loss to the communities they served and to our sector as a whole, as surviving campus politics and playing it safe becomes a prerequisite for professional survival.


As an executive coach and founder of an organization dedicated to supporting equity-oriented leaders, I am in conversation with numerous women of color leaders who are grappling to make meaning out of the current moment and to decide what it means for them. Some are making plans to exit administrative roles and return to faculty positions where they can enjoy greater freedom from scrutiny. Others are building their own practice as consultants so that they can leave their roles and do the work they are passionate about without the attachment to an institution they believe they can’t depend on. Still others plan to remain in senior leadership positions, hoping that it will be different for them, that they will fly under the radar or survive periodic attacks.


Indeed, Black women and women of color leaders often appear to be almost bulletproof. We deflect racist and sexist microaggressions, diplomatically refuse efforts to police our language and politics, and respond to angry and entitled stakeholders with patience, grace and generosity. This almost superhuman ability to withstand and deflect the unremarkable daily grind of everyday racism, bullying and disrespect—while navigating grueling workloads and relentless demands—is, of course, just another manifestation of the myth of the strong BIPOC woman.


It is a myth that masks a dangerous reality, as the tragic suicide of Antoinette Candia-Bailey, vice president at Lincoln University in Missouri, earlier this month made starkly clear. Under our equanimous surfaces, the toxic stress and constant vigilance take an immense toll. To our closest sister friends, we talk about doctors’ warnings, insomnia, high blood pressure, mysterious stress-related symptoms and neglected loved ones.


Sustaining Courageous Leadership


So is it possible for courageous leadership to flourish in the current climate of fear and backlash? Can those who choose to stay at the front lines and keep doing the work of equity and transformation survive intact? And can we do it without sacrificing our bodies, our relationships with family and loved ones, and our mental and emotional health? If you are a leader who is committed to working for equity and justice, here are some strategies to help you to survive in the role, or, should you choose to leave, to do so with your health, relationships and passion intact.


Anticipate the end of the honeymoon. The few months after your position is announced are the honeymoon phase, when you and the community you are joining are likely to be elated, thrilled and optimistic about your appointment. For leaders with a strong equity lens, that period may be short-lived as you initiate a change agenda that involves decisions that will inevitably be unpopular with some campus stakeholders. Board members who were excited to gain kudos for hiring someone who will diversify their senior leadership can now begin to have cold feet as they see what that actually entails. So it’s vital to plan for that end of the honeymoon when you enter any new role and especially a new institution.


That means negotiating a contract that sets the stage for not only a long-term mutually appreciative relationship but also perhaps a less-than-optimal outcome. In the current climate, an equity-oriented leader signing a contract for a president, provost or dean position would be wise to require a clause that the institution must pay out the full contract if they are removed or asked to step down for any reason other than gross misconduct. That will ensure that the institution is motivated to work through any differences with you and will face significant financial consequences should they choose not to stand by you in a crisis.


Know that they are coming for you. If you are uprooting inequity, resisting top-down leadership models, redirecting resources to underserved students or speaking out about racism and injustice, know that they are coming for you. That doesn’t mean you should adopt an attitude of paranoia and distrust in your interactions with your faculty, staff or board members. But you should be aware that while some of the people involved in any higher education institution are eager for change, and a large middle are willing to be convinced as long as you treat them respectfully and take their concerns seriously, a minority are determined to block any change that threatens their power, status or way of doing things. Of this last group, a much smaller minority may be determined to get you out of your role by any means necessary—whether through unfounded allegations and complaints, both signed and anonymous; demands for investigations; efforts to turn board members against you; and more.

The benefit of anticipating these pressures and attacks is that you can avoid being blindsided and develop a game plan for the most common strategies that you may face. You can act now to have a conversation with your board or president about how they will prevent right-wing attackers from weaponizing complaints and investigation systems against you. And you can ensure that you have the legal advice you need in place so that you are not scrambling to find it when a crisis occurs. Of course, if they don’t come for you, you’ve lost nothing by being prepared. You may even have prevented it through your savvy preparation.


Know your derailers. What are your leadership strengths and the skills that will help you succeed in a role? If you have interviewed recently for a leadership position, you have probably spent some time considering this question and are quite confident in what you are able to achieve as a leader. You are probably less familiar with your derailers—those behaviors and traits that show up when you are tired, stressed, rushed or just not being mindful.


Yet most days in a senior leadership role are rushed, stressful and exhausting, so it is vital to have clarity about how you show up under these conditions. They can also be the traits that turn a difficult situation into a disaster that ends a job or derails a career. A leadership assessment with a trusted mentor or professional coach can help you to identify your derailers and develop strategies to mitigate them when you are under stress.


Build your sister circle and your power base. Whom do you turn to when things get hard at work? Your circle of confidants who bring unconditional love, laughter and understanding to any situation? You likely have a sister (or sibling) circle that sustains your spirit and brings you joy.


But do you pay as much attention to building your power base as you do to maintaining your sister circle? A power base provides supporters who will enable you to implement your change agenda. It also provides allies who will keep you informed about potential obstacles and naysayers and speak on your behalf when you are not in the room. Building a diverse power base that includes supporters among faculty, staff, administrators, board members and external stakeholders will give you the strength and confidence to lead from a place of courage and authenticity.


Insist on wellness and joy. Do you know when you are giving too much to your job? What are the signs? If you are sleep-deprived, emotionally depleted, rarely at home and irritable with loved ones when you are, and if you have a backlog of health-care and personal items that you never seem to get to, then it may be time for you to prioritize wellness and joy. If you practice healthy work-life boundaries; refuse to sacrifice your health, parenting or coupleship for your job; and have a daily self-care practice that nurtures and heals your mind, body and spirit, you will be able to work sustainably for the long term. Even if you do decide to step away from the position, you will have no regrets or resentment about what you gave to it while you were in it.


Now, more than ever, our society needs bold, justice-seeking leaders capable of defending the value of a liberal education, disrupting inequitable educational outcomes and building diverse, equitable and humanizing campus communities. Those of you who courageously choose to answer the call to lead in these polarized and perilous times do so with some risk. You may be attacked, undermined and scrutinized. You may not be able to rely on the wholehearted support of the institutions you serve so tirelessly. But you can depend on the solidarity and support of a community that champions educational equity. And you can take steps to protect your career, your livelihood and your well-being.


Julia "Chinyere" Oparah has served as provost at two institutions of higher education. She is an executive coach, strategist and founder of the Center for Liberated Leadership.


Reprinted from Inside Higher Ed, Career Advice, January 18, 2024.


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Photo Credit: AlonzoDesign/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

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