Saturday, June 16, 2012

Being an Effective Change Agent in Academic Cultures

A colleague who is a member of an international network to which I belong wrote to  members recently.  He directs an interdisciplinary research center, focusing on sustainability,  which is a affiliated with a more “traditional” European university, dominated by mainstream academic disciplines.   He has been frustrated by the lack of interest in his work and even more, by the discouraging feedback his passionately committed students have received from faculty colleagues.  He wrote to network members seeking guidance on how to be an effective change agent in an academic culture.  Here was my response.
Dear [Colleague]
Its tough and tedious but doable if you are up for it. 
The best discipline to provide guidance is anthropology.  View those you are trying to convert as denizens of  alien cultures within which you must win approval.  
Make yourself credible on your adversaries terms.  When I was promoting quantitative analysis, I sought out influential  traditionally oriented stakeholders and first discussed my research on 12th century  European governance institutions - in medieval French and Latin.  Discussion of my more quantitative research only came much, much later.
Read how the Dalai Lama deals with Chinese government officials who torture and kill Tibetans and use that as a model.  His context is respect and altruistic compassion.
Once you have established yourself as a congenial, respectful traditionalist, get yourself appointed to key academic committees where, in time,  you can function as a change agent.
After a year, or two, or three become chair of one of these committees.
Then you will be in a position, gradually and in a low key way, to effect the changes that will help to protect. empower and win respect for your students.
Be prepared for the fact that if you leave the institution, your work may be undone, irrespective of how great the results you produced have been.
You may decide this is not worth it, but this is what it takes, in my experience.

Good luck.

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