Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Part 4: Courage and Leadership in the Future of Higher Ed


In my last post I talked about the importance of helping students in higher education build skills like critical thinking, creativity, and empathy. As technology continues to develop in leaps and bounds, I believe that the human skills like these will best prepare our students to go into the world and not only get jobs, but be prepared to be difference makers, creators, and problem solvers.

In order to do this, I go back to Brene Brown’s and bell hooks’ work on vulnerability. We, as teachers and administrators, have to be willing to be vulnerable ourselves in order to facilitate it in our classrooms and on our campuses. I was recently talking with a college student about vulnerability, and I said, “It takes courage.” She said, “Yeah. It feels like nausea.” Exactly! And that can be what gets in the way for those of us who are leading in higher education. If we believe that we have to be perfect, have all of the answers, be better than everyone else, never admit that we were wrong or look to others for guidance, then we will find it impossible to be vulnerable. But until we are willing to do be vulnerable, we can never lead our students or our institutions into the beautiful future that awaits.

Leaders in higher education must be willing to look at our institutions and be honest about what is working, what is not, and what has the potential to help our students build the necessary skills to be world ready. If we train our students to be experts in one field, but not good, creative problem solvers, then we have let them down. We have lost the opportunity to help our students grow to be people who can make a difference in the world around them, who can help solve big social problems and find new solutions to our biggest social issues.

What does courage look like for leaders in higher education today? It means being willing to re-evaluate the real purpose of higher education, which today is the training of creative problem solvers who can work just as well with people as they do along side and with technology. It means thinking about how we can help our students develop cognitive and creative flexibility, so that they graduate with knowledge and skills, but also with the ability to think critically, to be comfortable with ambiguity, and the willingness to explore new and different ways of doing things.

Courage in leadership for the future of higher education also means being willing and able to look outside of yourself to find thought leaders and experts who can help you solve problems. The age of the my way or the highway, dictatorial leader is past. In a world where boundaries of time and place have been broken down and technological changes are happening all the time, leaders need to be flexible, creative thinkers who know how to gather the very best ideas, weigh them, and make informed decisions. Top down leadership that doesn’t use the vast resources of expertise and creativity within a college or university is an incredible waste of talent, and doesn’t benefit the institution.

It takes courage for leaders in higher education to think about shaking things up, to think about hanging our hats on creativity and connection rather than on technology. While we can and should use technology well, it won’t be what moves us into the next great age of higher education. A lot of the questions that we’ve been asking in higher education hang on that “fallacy of obviousness” of looking for our future in technology. We’ve spent so much time asking how technology can shape higher education that we’ve sometimes forgotten to ask how human traits like connection, creativity, and courage can shape it. Courageous leaders can ask: How do uniquely human strengths work with the developments in technology, and the global connections that arise from them, to foster the next great leap in higher education? Might innovation mean nurturing contemplative and creative skills along with technology skills? How do we give our students opportunities to build skills in collaboration and cultural competency and agility? How do we help students learn to lean into failure in their quest for discovery? How can leaders in higher education make the most of the expertise and love of learning that exists on their campus? We must constantly be challenging ourselves, asking if we are asking the questions that will lead us into the brightest unmade future or adjacent possible. If the way seems impossible, it may be because we need to ask new questions. What questions about the future of higher education are you asking right now?

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