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7 Characteristics of an Activist and Unapologetic Leader: Aint No Code-switching or Dispositional Passing Involved

As a university administrator and leader, I often think deeply about my responsibilities and commitments to and in the academy. My actions, disposition, and proclivities have never waivered since graduate school. For decades, I have never waited for graduation, conferral of a degree, tenure, or any other formality to speak up and out about injustice, to become unapologetic, or to become an activist in research, teaching, or service. These past few months, I have been thinking more about what it means to be  an unapologetic leader/administrator and how I can and should continue to move in these “academic streets .” As an administrator/leader, specifically during these last few years, I think deeply about how anyone can serve in a leadership role without framing their role in higher education around activism, social justice, and critical consciousness.

I argue that academic processes and machinations in the academy are antiquated and are not framed for anything or anyone to “act” or serve in a revolutionary capacity. This includes how we lead and how we serve. Because leading for change is so critical, I often revisit how leaders serve and lend support to the academic unit and how we shape the experiences and lives of newly minted assistant professors, students, institutions of higher education, and young people in their communities. 

I am particularly concerned about young professionals who reside in academic spaces since we all know that these are the very people who will serve as the next generation of leaders and support systems for the human conditions. Truthfully, it sickens me to hear some of the stories about how new professionals, committed to the good fortune and success of the culture, have to move so "carefully" in these academic streets. In this piece, I viDr. Robin HughesDr. Robin Hughessit the complexities, messiness, and sickness of the tenure process and how unapologetic, critically conscious activist leaders can move in these academic streets.

For years, we have all been privy to discussions, tweets, articles, op-eds, etc., that advise pre-tenure and tenured professors to "watch" what they say throughout their tenure clock. In general, the message is that you betta' be careful until you have earned tenure. The advice suggests that tenure track faculty actually "codeswitch" to navigate the tenure process successfully. . The implication is that this academic codeswitching sends a pledge of allegiance, a promise of collegiality, and an air of submission to those who might be voting on a case. The pre-tenured are expected to invest in the form of “dispositional passing” where faculty members move in and out of academic spaces by engaging in codeswitching.

Tenured faculty advise new professionals to edit their communication style. This sends a message to play well in the sandbox, no matter how much dirt is kicked. Codeswitching also evokes a strange change in voice inflections—to fit in or "pass" (used to be referred to as talking "proper" back in the day—which is also problematic). Ultimately, the subtext is to NOT place any pressure on or change the level of comfortability on anyone in the academic setting who might hold some perceived power. Do not offend or disrupt long-established organizations or the academic "normal and norms," which are frequently oppressive. There are many who walk this supposedly thin line and ‘pass and switch” in order to fit in until awarded tenure. They often claim after tenure is granted, I will speak up. In fact, they do suddenly become semi-fearless after 6 to 7 years— or at least until they quiet down before going up for full.

To be clear, I describe "code-switching" in academic settings as audience-dependent. More, code-switching can become quite complex and cumbersome. In fact, it is a kind of forced dispositional passing, where faculty resort to dispositional switching depending on who might be seated at the proverbial "table ." 

Passing or switching occurs in organizations and places beyond academic settings. For instance, I have also witnessed my twenty-somethings, the very ones who grew up in my house, talk about being careful and sparing others' feelings when broaching particular topics related to race and racism. They, too, talk(ed) about "code-switching" to fit in. Teaching my children to transgress took some time to intentionally move them into the disruptive, resistant, and unapologetic dispositions. The three still move in and out of the freedom of discourse and disposition, sometimes with trepidation, care, and sometimes relentlessly. I have constantly reminded them, be prepared for the consequences when you do “roll up.”

Nevertheless, no matter the context, there is a fear, discomfort, and stress intimately and intricately tied to the possibility of a threat of unforeseen retribution. In the case of the pre-tenured faculty, I argue that they are expected to accommodate Tom's incessant foolery throughout the process with little to no pushback. This academic normality can be mentally exhausting, culturally taxing, and perplexing, yet rarely stopped. In other contexts, again, the responses are similar. For instance, on the one hand, my children talked about the probable loss of friendships and positioning with friends and school relationships if and when they spoke up. Yet, on the other hand, when they code-switched, they complained about a loss of freedoms, not being heard, and feeling like they always had to change who they were to make others feel good. again, I remind them when you roll two-faced, it can be tricky deciding how many washcloths you need, and which face to wash first.  

In the academy, the story is pretty similar to my children's experience; there is the perception that if one does not code-switch, there could be dire and grave consequences. Those consequences include an inability to gain perceived upward mobility, loss of tenure, and seats at the table, among other so-called benefits [ such as career advancements for oneself, white investments without considering one’s own cultural capital and never considering benefits to the collective]. While I would like to remain hopeful that the tenure status will focus research, teaching, and service more on the human condition, world challenges, and my hope springs eternal for change, such has rarely been the case. Ultimately, while critically conscious and unapologetic leaders claim to be committed servants to the many needs, challenges, and changes that the world and humanity demand, I have witnessed a culture of social reproduction in the academy. And, what we have reproduced has little to do with how teaching, research, and service are all connected to affect change in the human condition, but a lot to do with one’s own upward mobility and career trajectory. 

Today, as I reflect on and critique my leadership, I have to ask, how do activist and unapologetic leaders move organizations in socially conscious ways? What should I/we be doing to support healthy and equitable organizational systems? How should I/we be leading--especially for those who claim to be scholar/ administrator activists and unapologetic—decades before it became a "thing," "cute," or "sexy." June 2020 sure seemed to start a trend. I find it offensive for so many reasons. As conscious administrators, we all know that the bigger picture affects change worldwide, NOT just a myopic focus on one's tiny discipline and career. We also know that our "fame" comfortably and succinctly resides in the ivory tower vis-a-vis conferences and journals read by a small number of individuals in the academic setting [higher ed fame]. My reality check? Compare the hundreds of millions who read and follow every move that the Kardashians and King James make to the hundreds and sometimes thousands who follow the work of us academics. 

So what does all of this mean? What does or should an activist, unapologetic leader be doing? 

The activist and unapologetic university administrator:

1. Serves as a primary role model and mentor in influencing change, equity, and racial justice through their work on campus and via work with external communities. In doing so, they are fearless and unapologetic—ALL of the time. As a repercussion, they are not always invited back to the party at all.

2. Moves with deliberate, intentional speed and action. They don't claim, "these things take time." Instead, they move quickly and consciously in the here and the now. They push back on the pushback. 

3. Is fearless, disruptive, critically conscious, and walks the talk—All of the time. They have made actual changes on their campuses and act as support systems in the fight against institutionalized and structural racism.   They take a seat at the table or lay the flatware for a new table to be set.

4. Simply does not code-switch. In fact, they view code-switching as a performative and selfish way to maintain and promote their own individualistic academic work-life and well-being. In fact, code-switching perpetuates institutionalized racism and white fragility.  

5. They take what others would regard as "risks" because that is what you are supposed to do (risks need to be deconstructed). 

6, They speak up from the proverbial table all of the time and work towards creating new tables. They view the traditional table as a space where protecting the property rights of structural racism is typically valued and never questioned or deconstructed. 

7. For these leaders, academic growth is spurred by the human condition, love, and care for the culture, humanity, and young people. They are equally concerned for and committed to the potential for growth for a broad-reaching collective of people who have traditionally been marginalized, traumatized, victimized, and exploited. 

The unapologetic goals are neither individualistic nor do they come without complication and complexities. However, they do not come without fearlessness. They do not cower and are not quiet. In other words, they speak up way before tenure, dissertation in hand, full professor, deanship, organizational leadership etc. etc. etc. They do not engage in disposition of situational and academic passing. Simply stated, they work from a framework of critical change and challenge how decisions are made within organizations purposefully built to perpetuate structural and institutionalized Tom Foolery and racism. 

Dr. Robin Hughes is Dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Behavior and professor of Educational Leadership|College Student Personnel at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 

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