ACE 2018: Institution leaders should uphold the 'truth' in their narratives
- Universities have an "obligation to truth-telling" and if they can't perform that function, "what good are they anyway," asked Prairie View A&M University president Ruth Simmons at the American Council on Education annual conference plenary session Monday, as she discussed her efforts as the former president of Brown University to study and share information on the institution's past of handling slavery. Simmons said it is important "to understand the consequences of evil acts, and avoid them in the future."
- Georgetown University president John DeGioia echoed these sentiments during the session, recalling that as Georgetown created working groups around racial justice and its past that includes a former Jesuit having sold slaves, there were people in the community who perhaps didn't want to "confront the history." But, he said, the work of universities is to "engage authentically" and authenticity "is grounded in integrity."
- As other institutions confront parts of their pasts, Simmons said leaders have "to be honest and tell the truth whenever we are in a position where people need to know," because they must "uphold the virtue of the sector," and "offer hope to young people about how good they can be." DeGioia added that institutions should be true to their founding values, because when engaging with a controversial issue, "as long as we are able to accept the implications of where the truth leads us, the work that we can do" is able to "draw out the very best of the community."
As institutions are grounded in research, learning and sharing of knowledge, Simmons said that while leaders shouldn't make a "public relations issue" out of a controversial past, it's important to share a narrative that is truthful, robust and less contaminated. Rather than burying facts, she said, which can "surface at a moment that can be very inconvenient for [leaders]," it's better to be honest in sharing the past narrative while engaging with the public.
DeGioia added that particularly now, "there's a moral urgency" to stop creating narratives that cover up the past, "because disparities that we wrestle with today, which we can't ignore," are a result of those former actions. Simmons agreed that the industry appears to be confronting a challenge with openness and transparency.
When it comes to making a decision as a president to bring issues like slavery to a public discussion, Simmons said she had "known the consequences" of the past, and she had a "particular responsibility as president of Brown" and as the "first African-American president of an Ivy League" institution to engage with that information, rather than "lacking the courage to do what was right."
In her advice to leaders attending the conference, she said the most important thing is to "learn who you are," and hold your ground on the authenticity of one's character. Likewise, DeGioia said that creating initiatives around recalling the past required that he connect with his staff and the campus community in a much deeper way, so that they could enable him to become a better leader and stay true to the resolve of confronting important issues.
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