Formation of a Collective Sense of Mission and Purpose

Let me turn now to the question of how philosophy played a role in my leadership of a metropolitan university. One of the responsibilities of a university leader is to help establish and carry out a shared sense of mission and purpose for the university community of faculty, staff, and students. Leaders have a responsibility to help set the strategic direction for the university community. This requires working to establish consensus among stakeholders about the mission of the organization. A university depends on intrinsic motivation on the part of faculty and staff; so it is critical that there is a broad sense of engagement and consensus about the values and purposes that the university is committed to. Leadership is not a solo activity, a “philosopher-king” tour-de-force performance designing and implementing a strategy that others are tasked to carry out. Rather, it is more akin to a guided Socratic approach, in which the leader helps a group to formulate its own best thinking about the issue at hand and move toward a shared consensus about how to proceed. Leaders are “midwives” of plans rather than “philosopher-kings” who dictate the future.

These reflections indicate that a key responsibility of a leader is to help to work toward a shared conception of the values and mission of the organization. One of the distinctive characteristics of social life is that a group’s values and commitments are not wholly fixed. Instead, it is possible to arrive at new normative commitments through deliberation and discussion. This is the fundamental insight of the theory of deliberative democracy (Gutmann 2004), and it has been illustrated very amply through the past 18 years of direction-setting we have experienced on our campus. In a very real sense, a community can become better through conversation and debate. A university is a flexible set of values, practices, and people, and the division of efforts and resources needs to follow from a collective sense of purpose and direction throughout the community.

Experience of philosophy as a discipline provides valuable resources for leaders who want to foster engagement and collaboration in the individuals around them. Kantian moral philosophy brings to the fore some genuine moral insights about human dignity, equality, and worth that provide concrete assistance when it comes to attempting to build an effective team of leaders. “Treat others always as ends, not merely as means” is as good a principle of organizational behavior as it is in other aspects of life (Kant 1998). The qualities of honesty, trust, transparency, and respect for the fundamental worth of other human beings that play key roles in Kantian ethics also play a very constructive role in daily life within organizations such as universities.

A central task for a leader is to assist the organization and its stakeholders to arrive at a shared understanding of the mission and goals of the organization. The formulation of the goals and priorities of a university is a fundamentally important task that requires deep reflection and sustained collaborative discussion among the full range of stakeholders—faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community partners. Formulating a conception of guiding priorities and goals for a university is a complex task. It is necessary to consider the relationship between the current strengths and assets of the university and the feasibility of attaining a given priority in a reasonable period of time. It is necessary to consider the trade-offs that would be necessary in adopting priority X over priority Y. More fundamentally, it is necessary to consider whether achieving a given set of priorities will help the university become the kind of educational environment that it most values—and this is a question of identity as much as pragmatic assessment of costs and benefits. Formulating priorities needs to be done in a way that incorporates the value commitments of the participants within the university and elicits their best and highest efforts over an extended period of time. The success of a university in achieving its goals depends upon the establishment of long-standing relationships of trust among faculty, staff, students, and administrators. And this requires many hours of serious and respectful discussion.

Further, there is often residual disagreement about values, direction, and priorities. Any group of people with commitments to the importance of their work will care about the ways in which the decision-making of the institution affects their ability to carry out their personal and professional goals. If faculty and staff are confident that their concerns have been seriously considered through appropriate processes, they are more likely to feel satisfied with the direction chosen even if it is not their own first choice. This is akin to the problem of democratic legitimacy in a state.

These points show that the formulation of guiding priorities for a university needs to be a collaborative form of values clarification, and it has as much to do with aspirations about a community’s identity as it has with pragmatic assessments of costs and benefits. There is an element of Socratic method involved here. Leaders need to help to lead conversations that succeed in probing the value commitments shared by various constituencies, and thereby help to bring about a higher level of understanding across the full community of the importance and feasibility of the goals that the university adopts. To slightly reinterpret Socrates, “the unexamined strategic plan is not worth carrying out.” Thus, academic leaders need to be able to lead productive conversations with groups of stakeholders, to facilitate the discovery' of nuance and interconnection among goals and priorities, and to listen and adapt as they participate in these founding conversations.

A background in philosophy is very helpful to this task. Philosophy is a discipline that gives a great deal of attention to the processes of group deliberation. A philosopher-leader may draw upon his or her experience of philosophical conversation in order to help to facilitate thoughtful, respectful conversations about difficult subjects. For example, my university experienced conflict over the issue of whether a prominent spokesperson for white supremacy should be permitted to reserve space on campus to deliver a speech. The moral principles on both sides were clear. On the one hand, the messages of hate, disparagement, and division that this speaker promised to deliver were fundamentally at odds with the philosophy of inclusion and mutual respect the university embraces. On the other hand, the rights of freedom of expression and thought, and their strong embodiment in the United States Constitution, argued in favor of allowing this speaker the same rights that any other applicant for university space would have, irrespective of content. Through conversations over the complexities of both positions, it is possible that the beliefs and values of members of the community will evolve towards a more nuanced embrace of the values and commitments the university has adopted—in this case, a full embrace of freedom of speech and association, along with a vigorous rejection of the hateful content of the proposed speech.

These are qualities that a life in philosophy can help to cultivate and deepen. Not all philosophers have the dispositions of collaboration and mutual respect that this kind of extended discussion of goals requires; but a deep involvement in philosophical thinking can provide valuable tools of critical thinking, listening, and synthesis that can substantially improve the priority-setting process.

How have these challenges of consensus building played out at my university? The cultivation of a broad consensus surrounding the goals of a metropolitan university has been the work of at least 15 years. In the early years, this took the form of open forums and discussions about the guiding goals and priorities of the university—the statements of identity around which we chose to orient our purposes as a university. In subsequent years, it has taken the form of a greater degree of purposiveness in recruitment, creation of programs, and establishment of partnerships with community-based organizations.

This campus has historically possessed a number of disparate kinds of relationships with its extended community. Some faculty and administrators had developed strong relationships with the environmental community, especially with regard to groundwater issues. Others had developed robust connections to the Arab-American and Muslim communities of southeast Michigan. And others, still, had been involved in organizations that addressed the issues of racial disparities and poverty that exist in our city and region. When it came time to have a direction-setting conversation about what the fundamental aspirations of the university should be, there were a number of views that found expression: to expand emphasis on funded research with the goal of becoming a researchintensive university; to focus on high-quality undergraduate education with a liberal arts foundation; and to embrace the outward-looking values of an engaged metropolitan university.

Thanks to an extended discussion over several years, we broadly came to see that the values and orientation of an engaged metropolitan university suited our past and present well and gave us a strong basis for planning for the future. This broad consensus on campus has permitted us to recruit faculty and staff who affirmatively value the idea of engagement with the broader urban and metropolitan environment, and it has permitted us to deepen and widen our engagements with the issues of environment, race, public health, and intergroup civility that have been part of the makeup of the campus for decades. What has changed is that we are now explicit and confident in this sense of purpose and direction for our campus. Contrast this situation with the all-too-common reality at many universities when they offer banalities such as “we stand for academic excellence,” “we care about the success of our students,” “we are proud of the balance of athletics and academics at our university,” and “at XYZ University we are guided by strong adherence to ethical principles in everything we do.” A philosopher is well equipped to help a university community achieve a confident and authentic set of purposes and values.

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