A paradox, if not a hypocrisy, of higher education is how our role as a thought leader and change agent for society is often pursued and fulfilled while social justice deficiencies persist within our own institutions. There has fortunately been extensive research and discourse about the decolonization of higher education as well as best practices for diversity, equity, and inclusion; however, this research is often centered on the student experience and faculty and staff accountability for that experience. This then allows academic leaders to take a position of “these are things we should be doing” where the “we” is the institution as a whole, and not “we” as institutional leaders. This lack of critical introspection is essentially a lack of accountability, which ultimately leads to a lack of sustainable institutional change.
While it is true that academic leaders are accountable to a variety of stakeholders, many with differing positions on various issues, it does not necessarily follow that we must remain neutral on those issues. Furthermore, it is not sufficient to defer to those “in the trenches” (students, staff, and faculty) of the fight for social justice as not only can we provide more clear direction and support for them, we can and should get in the trenches with them.
These notions of accountability and action are present in allyship. Allyship has been discussed in the context of those who are privileged by inequalities, specifically around racial, gender, and sexual identities (Gibson, 2014; Bishop, 2002; Spencer, 2008; among others). I am not suggesting, though nor am I denying, that there are any inequalities between roles within higher education; rather, I am associating the privilege and power that is afforded to white, cis, male, heterosexual statuses with the privilege and power granted academic leadership titles. While in both cases the power provides the privilege to be silent, I suggest that in both cases the power provides the responsibility for active allyship. In this paper I will provide an aspirational definition of allyship for academic leaders, and will suggest how this approach will help leaders navigate past and current challenges to leading impactful change at their institutions.
Allyship and Leadership
Allyship is a process whereby a member of an in-group, or someone who is privileged or benefits from inequalities, works to advance general social justice and inclusivity efforts and specific interests of marginalized groups (Reason et al, 2005). Including allyship in social justice models is important as it can alleviate the burden of oppressed groups to resolve their own oppression. More specifically, those who benefit from inequalities are responsible for working alongside those who are disadvantaged to end the inequalities.
There is dialogue about whether the term allyship is sufficiently accurate and possibly problematic. In some cases, despite the best of intentions, those who consider themselves allies have perpetuated the very inequalities they are attempting to address (McKenzie 2014; Hughey, 2012; Bonilla-Silva 2006). There is also the potential for a delegitimizing and patronizing outcome, resulting in the ally receiving praise known as the “pedestal effect” (Macomber, 2015), or the heroicisation of leadership (Liu and Baker, 2016), either of which ultimately results in the inequalities persisting.
This criticism of allyship is particularly targeting what is known as “performative” or “optical” allyship. Performative allyship occurs when someone from a non-marginalized group professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group, but in a way that is not helpful (Spanierman and Smith, 2017). Performative allyship allows the ally to claim a commitment without taking any personal responsibility for impact or outcomes. The potential for performative allyship is high for academic leaders given the attention to optics and public relations by leaders, and as such for the purposes of this paper I will refer to active allyship as the goal for academic leadership. This term incorporates the base definition for allyship while reiterating that allyship is ongoing work alongside those with oppressed identities as opposed to an identity of someone who helps subordinate groups.
If we acknowledge the ethical responsibility and the pragmatic value in active allyship from academic leaders, the question then is why it is not more universally or commonly deployed. The challenges to active allyship for academic leaders include a preference for neutrality, a desire to placate the dominant group(s), and well-intentioned deference to specific groups or individuals.
The Shield of Neutrality
In response to a question about why he was not speaking out on a political campaign with underlying issues of injustice, professional athlete Michael Jordan famously said “Republicans buy shoes, too” (Smith, 1996). This approach to managing diverse stakeholders through neutrality is shared by many in academic leadership. We have students, faculty, staff, parents, donors, etc. who all feel differently about particular issues and rather than risk upsetting one or more groups, we argue that effective leadership is neutral or non-committal on certain issues. We even go so far as to laud neutral leadership as a sign of objectivity and integrity, but ultimately such a position frees us from the responsibility to lead on the issue, leaving the faculty, staff, and students most impacted by the issue without formal institutional support. The preference for neutrality is an obstacle to active allyship as active allyship inherently calls for us to not be neutral on issues of inequality.
The Fragility and Victimization of Privileged Groups
Connected to the desire to not upset any stakeholders is the simultaneous desire to appease all stakeholders. Many leaders are assessed by how much they are liked, or perhaps how little they are disliked, as much as they are evaluated on quantifiable metrics. As such, leaders feel compelled to be all things to all people, which is incompatible with active allyship. As Garcia and Natividad (2018) discuss with decolonizing leadership, it is important to acknowledge the role of the oppressor in addressing oppression. Too often academic leaders pursue efforts of social justice with additional, or simultaneous, efforts to placate white, cis, male, heterosexual members of the campus community. In trying to make sure that members of these groups are not offended, do not feel guilty, and do not resist, the leaders dilute or subvert the change initiatives. This protection of privileged groups is an obstacle to an academic leader’s own allyship, and it prevents the leader from doing a key part of active allyship – and that is expanding allyship across the institution. The end result is a leader who is not accountable, in part, due to her/his inability to lead others to understand their own accountability. When we give equal attention to the personal insecurities of privileged voices we lessen the attention given to the structural inequalities articulated by minoritized voices, which aligns our allyship in the wrong direction.
Deferring Responsibility to Others
What often happens with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion at academic institutions is that leaders will identify specific roles (e.g. Chief Diversity Officer), task-forces, human resources, and/or committees to lead efforts and initiatives. While all of those are important positions that do important work, it is a bit of an abdication of responsibility for social justice by academic leadership. It is an example of delegating work, which is certainly part of leadership, but it also delegates responsibility and accountability for change away from the leader.
When it comes to passive allyship, academic leaders have directed attention to faculty governance and processes for implementing change. A provost can point to a lack of faculty consensus around implementing measures of inclusivity for faculty evaluations, a dean can point to academic freedom for why s/he has not employed an equity audit of syllabi or program learning outcomes, etc. This approach ends up failing students who obviously cannot influence faculty governance processes, and fails faculty from minoritized groups. To the latter, how can faculty of color or women change racist and sexist structures through faculty governance processes that are racist and patriarchal? When Garcia and Natividad (2018) discuss decolonizing leadership, they are not specifically addressing faculty leadership and until we see the decolonization of faculty governance, including engagement by faculty leaders in similar critical introspection around active allyship, it is imperative that administrative leadership leads through active allyship while still respecting the autonomy of faculty processes.
The motivation of this delegating of allyship could be the aforementioned desire for neutrality (i.e., let someone else ruffle feathers) and/or it could be a genuine effort to have an inclusive approach to addressing issues of inequality by engaging more members of the community. Even then, the absence of traditional academic leadership (department chairs, deans, provosts, etc.) in allyship prevents sustainable systemic change at the institution. Both in policy and organizational culture, having academic leaders actively working in solidarity with members of the institution with minoritized identities will put ideas into practice. Deferring that work to others sends a symbolic message to the community and as the signatories for actionable policy, it risks that the work of others is superficial and fruitless.
Another challenge with deferring responsibility to others is the potential for tokenism. Often academic leaders will turn to faculty/staff/students of color to lead conversations about race and racism, and while oppressed voices should be uplifted and centered, the point of allyship is what those with power can do to eliminate inequalities, and that comes from standing with these colleagues and not leaving them to stand alone. This again is an abdication of responsibility, not to mention produces the myriad of problems that come with tokenism such as hidden and exploitive labor for people of color, trauma from isolating identities, and placing those individuals in combative situations (Flores Niemann, 2016). Part of allyship is risking one’s power and privilege, and relying on those with oppressed identities to lead efforts of change allows leaders to avoid that sacrifice. If we are not willing to risk our title by leveraging it through active allyship, we are not worthy of it or it is not worth having.
This paper itself is a call to action for academic leaders, and I offer three recommendations to inform action and achieve accountability: define and operationalize active allyship in your leadership portfolio, engage in comprehensive listening and radical empathy, and pursue visible and vocal advocacy in communication and written policy.
Evaluated on Allyship
Allyship is a constant and consistent process, one that requires intentional and deliberate solicitation and reflection of feedback, and a commitment to continuous growth and improvement (Becker, 2017). This process moves the goal from a claimed identity to an active effort. If inclusivity and anti-injustice are core values for the unit and institution, and we recognize allyship is a daily endeavor, it is appropriate to place metrics that track progress towards fulfilling that value and assess performance in that daily work.
One way of making academic leaders accountable for allyship as active work is to define measures of allyship that are included in the job description for the leadership position and that are measured as part of an evaluation and review process for leaders. For example, an institution can place “communicate anti-racist identity of unit” into a job description and then the leader is expected to comment on efforts for this measure in her or his annual evaluation and it will be included in any institutional (supervisor or 360-degree) evaluations of the leader. Typically job descriptions for academic leadership includes things such as budget management, program development, and accreditation among others, and reviews and evaluations of the individual assess performance in these areas. Adding demonstrable efforts of allyship to job descriptions and assessment criteria would provide “accountability teeth” that move the leader from claimed ally identity to measurable active allyship work.
Allyship cannot be viewed as an end unto itself. The creation of operational definitions for allyship in leadership portfolios can be informed by, and ultimately inform, allyship and social justice efforts across one’s unit and broader institution. The effort places leadership into the same accountability in assessment as academic programs, faculty, and staff have for diversity, equity, and inclusion. In distinguishing allyship from ally by focusing on work over identity, the amount and effectiveness of work can and should be evaluated.
In describing effective leaders and effective leadership, many point to the trait of being a good listener. Being a sounding board, or even being an active listener, is indeed a necessary part of allyship, but it is not sufficient. Wilkerson (2020) defines radical empathy as educating oneself on issues of inequality and marginalization, and listening with a “humble heart” (p. 386) to understand another’s experience from her/his perspective.
The first step in radical empathy is critical self-reflection, reflection of one’s own statuses and experiences, and reflection of one’s position in the organizational hierarchy of the institution. As discussed, allies can inadvertently perpetuate and reproduce inequalities (Bonilla-Silva 2006), and as such ally behavior needs to be first shaped by education and introspection. My personal journey with this approach has involved me investigating my dean identity as much as my personal identities. Just as I need to be aware that I am not just me, but am my white, heterosexual, cis, male statuses, I am aware that I am not just me, but that I am my administrative title, and people experience and navigate that title as much as they do my individual traits and characteristics. Altogether, I am a white heterosexual cis-male dean, and how that influences both the manifestation and reception of my allyship is different than it is for a leader with a different combination of identities.
For academic leaders, radical empathy is not just listening to faculty, staff, and students of color and from other minoritized communities, but hearing them. It means validating feelings and responses without resorting to defensiveness and dismissiveness that delegitimizes their experiences and consequently gaslights them. It means responding with action at the micro and macro levels–the former involves addressing the individuals involved and the latter involves addressing the infrastructure elements that facilitated the experience. This balancing of listening and doing, or both listening more and speaking more, is a tensioned balance that comes with allyship (Carlson et al, 2019), and academic leaders need to be intentional in determining when and how to do each.
Academic leaders should pursue and accept roles as confidants and actively seek sponsorship of efforts from faculty, staff, and students from minoritized groups. These individuals are often the “only” of their status in the room, and often experience feelings of being othered and feelings of imposter syndrome (Melaku et al, 2020). Active allyship involves seeking out talented faculty, staff, and students from oppressed racial and cultural backgrounds and championing them and their efforts. Academic leaders should spend time getting to know these colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses and mentoring and developing them as leaders – expanding both their opportunities and networks.
The use of “radical” provides an inherent challenge as it suggests that listening and empathy as commonly understood fail to advance efforts of social justice. Ideally the kind of listening and empathy needed in allyship would be a normal expectation for all leadership. However, as Melaku et al (2020) highlight, and as discussed throughout this paper, there is a risk to social capital in active and radical efforts. Academic leaders need to accept this risk as the power in academic leadership titles combined with intentional and active listening and radical empathy can create sustainable change.
Leveraging Titles and Roles
To elaborate and reiterate this notion of risk, it is imperative that academic leaders use their authoritative power by risking, and if needed sacrificing, it. Academic leaders can do this by “putting their name” on things. When communication comes from someone in a leadership position, it is not just coming from that individual – but also from their office and from their unit. If you want to lead from the front on issues of inequality through communications and initiatives, you have to put your name on it and put your office and title behind it.
Beyond utilizing our own names, academic leaders have to name things. We cannot be afraid to identify things as racist, sexist, homophobic or heteronormative, exploitive, and/or oppressive. Harper (2012) found that educational researchers and leaders rarely name inequality or oppression as problems at institutions. This colorblind ideology (Bonilla-Silva, 2006) perpetuates and reproduces inequalities and as such, it is imperative that leaders name and define the contexts of the oppressed and oppressors.
In thinking about leveraging (and risking) one’s title, Clemens’ (2017) discussion of allyship, specifically considering alternative terms such as “accomplice” and “co-conspirator” for allyship, is helpful. These terms both reiterate the active work in solidarity involved in allyship and carry a weight of implied risk-taking. This spirit of rule-breaking (Carlson et al, 2019), when used in conjunction with formal leadership titles/terms, is what is meant by active allyship.
I have spent much of this paper arguing that the responsibility for, and the value of, active allyship in academic leadership is straight-forward and necessary. As with most things however, there are layered contexts that make active allyship more nuanced and thus needing further discussion. The first issue is the recognition of the importance of representation in leadership, and the second is acknowledging the impact of intersecting identities.
To truly address equity and inclusion in higher education, and to fully pursue the decolonization of higher education, there needs to be more leadership opportunities provided to individuals with minoritized/oppressed identities. This representation will not only influence the culture and work that happens in higher education, but it will provide measurable and intangible benefits for faculty, staff, and students. In short, who is placed in leadership positions is a first step, and what allyship they pursue in those positions is the next step.
In focusing specifically on the power and privilege afforded to those with administrative titles, we should expand the discussion to consider how that power and privilege intersects with other identities. For some, including myself as a white heterosexual cis-male, there are other privileged identities that influence the ability to pursue active allyship in leadership roles. One could argue that the entire section on risk-taking and disruption is an easier or safer idea for someone like me, who has additional protections resulting from my other privileged identities. I recall an administrative colleague who is a woman of color telling me, after I called out some biased behaviors of faculty, “I could never say that.” I think this stacking of privilege makes active allyship even more necessary. For academic leaders with other privileged statuses, it is even more imperative that they engage in active allyship due to the opportunity they have to leverage all of those statuses in advocacy and solidarity work.
On the other side of intersecting privileged identities are academic leaders who have intersecting minoritized/oppressed identities. Many people are members of two or more marginalized groups and as other scholars (Collins and Bilge, 2016) have shown, it is important to acknowledge intersectional identities. For example, it can be suggested that perhaps this call to be accountable for allyship, to risk sacrificing one’s position of power in allyship efforts, is an unfair request. For a woman, person of color, and/or someone with a minoritized sexual or gender identity, just getting a leadership opportunity requires extensive work, both in excellence of performance and in emotional labor. For that person to then face stereotype threat due to allyship work, to be labeled as disruptive even though disruption is needed, and to risk a position that so few with similar identities and statuses achieve, one could argue that academic leaders should only be accountable for allyship if they have other identities that privilege them due to other social inequalities.
While I do not ignore the reality of intersecting oppressed identities, nor would I suggest how those with such identities should navigate their careers or the world, I do return to the organizing variable of this paper, and that is the power and privilege that comes from administrative authority. Academic leaders are privileged with the opportunity for silence, neutrality, and deference, but should use the power of their position for active allyship.
In conclusion, as institutions continue work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, academic leadership needs to accept accountability for their own active allyship. If we are unwilling to put the weight of our titles behind efforts of social justice, we are derelict in our duties and an obstacle to sustainable institutional change.
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