Most colleges and universities in the United States struggle to nurture talent and aren’t necessarily prepared to support the careers of women leaders, especially those from underrepresented minority groups. In higher education, senior administrators and boards of trustees tend to be predominantly white men who don’t necessarily understand how to support racial and gender equity.
Although I did encounter many men who were supportive of my career, over the years, as a minority woman leader in higher education, I’ve had to develop a strong sense of my own abilities and not allow myself to be defined by the judgment of those whose opinions I don’t respect. I have also mentored many minority and women faculty members, and I’m well acquainted with the challenges they continue to confront. In addition, I’ve frequently given advice at annual meetings and in other forums about how to recruit and advance minority and women faculty.
Today, as I reflect on my experiences with structural racism and internalized oppression during my time in higher education, I want to highlight for senior college leaders, trustees and others the importance of practicing what I call radical empathy. It’s a term I’ve coined for not only walking in someone else’s shoes but also taking actions that will, in fact, help that person and also improve society. In this essay, I’ll share a few of those experiences and explore what I mean by that concept.
A Look Back
My career as an academic leader took off when I became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003. That was a period when I felt that I had full support from my department chair, dean and provost. For example, not long after I arrived on campus, I found myself working with my department chair to recruit and retain African American faculty and mentoring those faculty members who were just getting started.
I also joined a group of faculty members who were exploring the possibility of starting a transatlantic studies center, which would eventually evolve into the Center for European Studies. My provost at the time, Sheldon Ekland Olson, who became a longtime mentor, supported the creation of the center and provided the funding to get it started, along with my dean, Richard Lariviere. They both encouraged me to become the center’s founding director.
Early in my time at the university, Richard also invited me to his home for a dinner. The other attendees were Larry Temple, who had served as the White House counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Yale Patt, a renowned engineering professor at the university and innovator in computer architecture and microprocessor design. I felt incredibly lucky that Richard gave me that opportunity to get to know such highly regarded people. When I asked what led him to include me in the dinner that evening, he told me that the goal -- in addition to the fun that can be had in such settings -- was to help people like me to build a network at the university. He said he sought to bring together a mixture of young scholars of clear promise, a senior member of the faculty who would bring their own perspective and a prominent member of the community of university supporters and advocates.
That dinner opened up a whole new world for me, and it worked exactly the way that Richard hoped it would. I am friends with Yale Patt to this day. And I soon found myself connecting with an entire network of people at the University of Texas and in Austin who provided examples of leadership.
Richard and Sheldon are good examples of inclusive leaders who use their positions to support those who might be otherwise overlooked. As my prominence on campus and in the community grew, it led to many new opportunities.
In 2006, the campus had a new president and was searching for a new provost. I had been promoted with tenure the previous year, and I was feeling good about my research and potential for my next promotion. I was surprised one Friday when I got a call asking me to meet with the interim provost in his office. I was in casual clothes, getting ready to head to the airport to pick up my in-laws, and I was worried that he was going to tell me some bad news about the funding for my center. I got to his office, and he immediately asked me if I would consider becoming the new vice provost for undergraduate curriculum. I always tell people that I still look to see if there is a dent in the floor where my jaw hit it.
I did take the job, and the first few months were like drinking from a fire hose. I had to manage the undergraduate curriculum of one of the biggest campuses in the country, and I also took over as head of the international office. As a new administrator, I knew it was vital to meet with my colleagues around the campus to ensure that they knew who I was before I had to start enacting policy changes. I did a listening tour around campus and met with all the deans, as well as made sure that I spent time at the faculty club and interacted with people throughout the institution.
I confronted many challenges, including personnel issues and the need to raise the university’s profile on the international stage. I also learned a great deal in the position and started a variety of programs, including two new majors in international studies that are still in place today. Because I had taken the time to develop relationships, I came to be known as a connector -- someone who could work across the typical silos that one finds on a college campus. I was able to bring together faculty members from a wide variety of fields to get involved in our internationalization efforts, in particular.
I stayed in that position until 2009, when I decided that it would be difficult to get promoted to full professor while being in such a demanding job. Moreover, I knew that anticipated changes in the administration meant that I was less likely to be supported in my job. Most important, with two young boys, I felt it was vital to take time to be there for them. So I stepped down and went back to the faculty and my research.
I also began to play a role in the community during this time, eventually joining five nonprofit boards in Austin. I became a fixture in the local community, regularly invited to public events and appearing on the cover of Austin Woman magazine. I was even called out in our local newspaper in an article titled, “Terri Givens a role model for the ages.” In that interview, I stated, “I consider myself a role model … And I take that very seriously. But it’s also important to give back. I come from a working-class background. It’s incumbent on those of us who have had help along the way to help out as well.” That statement reflects my ongoing philosophy that I have to pay forward the support I have received throughout the years.
The Importance of Radical Empathy
Despite my success, some people at the university did not appreciate my rapid rise, and when the administration changed, the support for women and minorities on campus declined as well. When I became vice provost in 2006, nine African American women held leadership positions on the campus. By the time I left in 2015, only one remained. It became clear to me that, without a commitment from leadership and the kind of support I had received in my early years, it could be difficult to play a leadership role. I spoke with several of my mentors, and they encouraged me to look elsewhere for opportunities.
After completing my next book project, I was promoted to full professor in 2014, and the next year, I went on to take the position of provost at Menlo College, a small four-year institution in the San Francisco Bay area. That allowed my husband and me to be closer to family and our alma mater, Stanford University. I was also excited about the opportunity to work at a small institution (750 students) that focused more on teaching and had a diverse student body, including a strong contingent of international students.
I left that position at Menlo College in the summer of 2018, and since then I have been working directly on ways to improve leadership in higher education. In May 2019, I launched my own company, the Center for Higher Education Leadership (now known as Brighter Higher Ed), an online portal for professional development for faculty leaders. My book Immigration in the 21st Century, a textbook for undergraduate students, has been published, and I have other projects coming along that focus on the roots of racism in America.
In fact, I’ve just written a new book, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides, in which I explore how the structures that lead to segregation, inequality and injustice impact all of us. I believe the persistence of white supremacy has to do with the fact that many people of color lack empathy for themselves, and while many allies have empathy, they do not take that next step to radical empathy that would lead to the actions needed to create real change.
Practicing radical empathy can provide that change in people’s lives, but I would emphasize the word practicing. Having empathy is different from actually practicing it. The latter requires taking six key steps.
- Being willing to be vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means looking honestly at the ways that structural racism impacts each of us and how that manifests itself in our daily actions.
- Becoming grounded in who you are. By focusing on the truth of who you are, it is easier to become open to the ways that societal forces impact other people.
- Opening yourself to the experiences of others. In order to have empathy, we need to be willing to consider that others have experiences that are different than our own, and that we must be intentional in trying to understand our differences. It means avoiding making assumptions about people -- and being willing to listen and to learn.
- Practicing empathy. We have to be intentional and work at trying to see things from someone else’s perspective.
- Taking action. What can you specifically do to bridge divides? Start by looking at your own actions, whom you connect with, how you show kindness.
- Creating change and building trust. It can start with small steps, but it is important for leaders to show that they are willing to get out of their comfort zone to create change. Take a hard look at the ways that you can change campus culture to be more open to those who are underrepresented.
As I work with leaders across the country, my goal is to use a variety of resources to teach and help leaders practice radical empathy. Diversity and inclusiveness are the future of higher education, and we need leaders who are willing to learn and use these tools to support the students, faculty and staff in their institutions.