Ellen McGirt | Essays

College administrators have failed a basic leadership test

I caught up recently with Reverend Mark E. Fowler, the CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, who shared how the organization was helping member companies navigate the needs of their employees after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“[M]embers of their workforce are grief-stricken, walking around in constant fear,” he said. “And the numbers of people whose grief about something else has been reactivated by the grief and mourning that they’re experiencing with the events going on in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and the region” have caused individuals to seek both comfort and action.

But he says this is a new moment, with new needs - and that requires a shift in the way we interact with each other as individuals, teams, and organizations.

“It’s humility — cultural humility as opposed to cultural competence,” he says. “But really, in this particular moment, one of the things that we all could use is the practice of humility.”

Fowler’s words were on my mind as I’ve watched what I can only describe as a continued and widespread failure of university administrators to protect the students in their charge.

Pro-Palestinian student encampments began emerging on college campuses across the U.S. this spring. The protestors were all asking for some version of similar things: an end to the Israel-Hamas war, divestment from companies or programs with ties to Israel, and disclosures of investments in companies that profit from the war in Gaza. (The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, has an interesting list.)

The students’ point of inspiration is one that many of their parents or older relatives should be familiar with — the campus-based movement in the 1980s asking universities to divest their holdings or relationships with companies that had interests in apartheid South Africa. It was extraordinarily effective; some 155 universities divested in whole or part.

Despite the unique complexities of the current demands, some universities successfully opened a dialog with their student stakeholders.

Northwestern and Brown were the first to announce successful agreements with protestors; Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California, Riverside quickly followed suit. While none of the schools committed to full immediate divestment, they typically promised more transparency into their endowments, better conditions for Muslim students, and clear limits on disciplinary actions against students.

“We thought the best way to sustainably deescalate the situation was to actually talk with our students,” Northwestern President Michael Schill told WBURs Here & Now. “We have a good sustainable agreement which provides a number of things that the students wanted and that we wanted to do.”

You know, to protect the very students who are using what they’re learning to shape the issues of the troubled world they are inheriting.

Other administrations have taken a different approach.

Hundreds of student protestors have been taken into custody at Columbia University and City College in New York, and hundreds more at UCLA, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and other schools in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Texas, and New Hampshire. In an age of social media, the dystopian images spread quickly, showing walls of militarized (and campus) police holding clubs and deploying flash bangs as they violently arrested students and faculty members who showed support.

History brings the tragedy of this moment into sharp relief.

The sit-in is a familiar and powerful form of student protest that is never without risk. But the rewards have been profound. In addition to the success of the South Africa divestment movement, student activism is largely responsible for hastening the end of segregation on college campuses, demanding diversity among faculty and administration, raising awareness of sexual violence, and widening the scope of academic offerings to include African American, Indigenous, and other ethnic studies.

Many of the faculty members who were harassed or arrested owe their academic careers to the concessions elicited by past student activism.

But the risks are different now. These students, their images, perhaps even their DNA has been delivered into a dangerous and emboldened criminal justice system with a permanent record in a surveillance state that never forgets.

This should never have happened. My former colleague and Bloomberg opinion writer Beth Kowitt put it succinctly: “The impression many are leaving is that pockets of higher education desperately need more crisis-management training — a surprising revelation considering a university president’s top responsibility is supervising a passionate group of young adults with still-developing prefrontal cortices that make them prone to risky behavior.”

As a reminder, reports of antisemitic incidents have soared across the U.S since the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, according to data from the ADL. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported a similar spike in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents during the same time period.

So, yes, more cultural humility is urgently needed.

And there is the future to consider: These very same passionate young adults, who were admitted into some of the most competitive universities in the country, will soon be joining the workforce with a vivid experience of being betrayed by their own institutions, and publicly called out by vocal political forces as either self-indulgent naifs or malicious operatives.

And they will be asking persistent questions — if they’re hired at all — about what makes an inclusive and moral workplace.

“We can make room for these conversations; it’s a power we do have,” Fowler says. There is an enormous foundation of successful inclusion and identity work to draw on that seemed equally insurmountable at the time. “We may need to build infrastructure for it. We may need to build capacity for it. But it’s not so different.”

A version of this essay was originally published in the Equity Observer email newsletter. Catch up on past issues here. Sign up for insightful commentary, breaking news, and community shout-outs delivered twice weekly. Find your people.

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