Any day I’m expecting—we are expecting, in the division of Student Affairs and Services—to receive some big news. For the past several months, we have been anxiously awaiting details related to the imminent “realignment”, “restructuring”, “reorganization”. We’ve been informed that it’s coming. We just don’t know what it means.
This change is different than any other I’ve experienced as a Student Affairs professional: this time, it is not in direct response to imposed budget cuts. We’ve been assured that jobs aren’t “on the chopping block”. Nevertheless, our jobs—our work—will surely look and feel very differently. And all the uncertainty is…well, unsettling.
Unsettling can be a good, productive thing. It can motivate—catalyzing new ways of thinking and seeing. It can inspire innovation and creativity. It can bring people together to organize and activate in shared purpose.
Unsettling can also be a scary, oppressive thing. It can threaten—resulting in a shutting down of ideas and visions. It can create defensiveness and self-centeredness. It can pit people against one another in competing interests.
There are many factors that help determine how the unsettling plays out—some internal, some external, and some in combination of the two. And the unsettling takes place on multiple systemic levels, the individual, organizational, collective. From this insider-position, I’ve gained some interesting insights into organizational change and leadership as I’ve both critically observed my own place of practice and experienced this unsettling firsthand. For now, what I feel most compelled to share is how I’m making sense of this, personally.
The eternal optimist, I’m holding out for the former: an unsettling that bears positive change. Here’s what I’m hoping for:
I want to work with my colleagues in new and meaningful ways. I seek collaborative partnerships that go beyond putting our names together on a promotional flyer. I am looking for more meaningful work relationships—both within my own unit and across others. It has been easy (and comfortable) to exist in our silos, our bubbles. I’m ready for this unsettling because I want to delve deeper in my work; to do this, I realize I need to challenge assumptions underlying my everyday work that go easily undisturbed when working in a silo.
For example, I’m ready to ask honestly, what does it mean to this campus to have a Women’s Center? And how might the WC both center gender in our work and address intersectionality at the same time? I want to explore the whys and hows of offering feminist leadership development programming in addition to other forms of leadership development programming and how these various, related programs can support and enhance each other. I want to consider with others diverse ways of developing and evaluating outcome measures. Because sexual violence is not only a Women’s Center issue, I want to engage in real conversations with others units about strategies to prevent it. I want to be in conversation with other Student Affairs colleagues about ways of facilitating transformative experiential and applied learning—current institutional “buzz words” that are at the heart of Student Affairs’ work.
I need to feel part of something larger, an interdependent team that ultimately has a greater impact on our institution and those we serve. I want to feel inspired.
What I describe is a dynamic, learning organization, a community of practice. And while I speak of my personal hopes and dreams, there’s been much research on how and why these types of organizations are most effective and productive. Interestingly, two years ago I wrote in my dissertation,
“As Chomsky (2000) argues:
‘Of all groups, university and college educators should be…making clear that at the heart of any form of inclusive democracy is the assumption that learning should be used to expand the public good, create a culture of questioning, and promote democratic social change. Individual and social agency becomes meaningful as part of the willingness to imagine otherwise, in order to help us find our way to a more human future (p 34).’
It is up to us, then, as individuals working in higher education to “imagine otherwise” and create organizational cultures that foster the behaviors to which Chomsky refers, if we hope to continue to transform our institutions. We must evolve as learning organizations, create participatory practices that sustain ongoing development. Therefore we must commit to ongoing critical consciousness building—the hard work of questioning underlying assumptions that ground our organizational ideologies and practices (Allen & Cherrey, 2000)…Key ingredients include trust, mindfulness and deliberation, structural processes and organizational practices, commitment to taking action, and investment by organizational leaders (Gardner & Nunam, 2007; Plottu & Plottu, 2009; Preskill and Torres, 1999; Tsang, 2004). (Howton 2011, p. 126 ).”
Now, two years later, these words still ring true for me, particularly now as I consider potentialities that might come with our changing workplace. Don’t get me wrong—some of what I speak of has been happening among and between trusted colleagues and units. I’m hoping that with new and different institutional supports and structures, these individual practices can begin to really shift institutional culture and in turn, foster sustained commitments to such practices.
And while I am certainly feeling unsettled, I choose to be hopeful. Let’s do this.