Historically, university leadership (Presidents and Provosts) have come from STEM and business fields. We know that these backgrounds are important, but we also know that we have to have that humanistic aspect—otherwise, we find ourselves dealing with complex questions without having the full context of what it means for our longevity as a species. As a social scientist, I bring that love of humanity to my work in higher education.
Importance of Humanities and Fine Arts Faculty in University Leadership Roles
It’s essential to have a humanistic approach in higher education. As a Co-Principal Investigator on the Mellon Foundation’s Breaking the Mold grant, I’m working with colleagues at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland to change the future of higher education leadership.
It was exciting—Mellon approached our university Presidents back in 2020 about how we could solve this challenge. We went big; we thought expansively about leadership development and, as faculty ourselves, what would have helped our upward trajectory to Dean, Vice Provost, Associate Vice President, and Provost.
I’m really proud of the program that we developed and Mellon funded—it’s like a dream come true for me and my colleagues. Our program focuses on faculty in the humanities and the adjacent social sciences, mostly women and people of color. We’re in our second cohort, with 15 faculty members across our campus who receive individualized leadership guidance, $10,000 for professional development, and the opportunity to apply for their campus allotment of an additional $50,000 for research or more substantive professional development.
Some of them have gone to the HERS Leadership Institute, the management development program at Harvard. Some of them are now getting course release time to finish a manuscript because they want to move to full and that will help them. These funds and opportunities are a game-changer for faculty, who may not have gotten the attention or face time with campus leaders. We’re investing in them.
Faculty Career Roadmaps
A traditional career roadmap for faculty exists, and faculty should proceed along their established timelines from Associate Professor to Chair to Full Professor, equitably being recognized for their contributions to teaching, service, and research. And it’s always straightforward, right? I laugh as I type this because, in my experience, a roadmap doesn’t exist, and leadership development is uneven. And, when you add in race, gender, discipline—it gets infinitely more complex. We have had very honest conversations about how the traditional way is not the only way. How can we amplify the outliers and the value of diverse perspectives and backgrounds? These are all conversations that we should have across higher ed, and they’re just different nuances.
My own background in my position at Morgan is not traditional. My path to tenure included serving as the Director of The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. In that dual capacity, I not only ran an archival repository and museum—I also curated four exhibitions a year, oversaw 40–50 public programs, and had teaching responsibilities. In addition, I had service responsibilities. While it wasn’t traditional, it did give me the administrative background to succeed in my current administrative appointment.
As part of the Mellon grant, we’ve had these important conversations about pathways to academic leadership. There isn’t one right way, especially for faculty like me coming from the humanities or cross-disciplinary fields.
Not All Service Is Equal
A key lesson we try to import into this faculty development cohort is about service. We need to have honest discussions about service, and teach faculty how to be discerning about high-value, high-stakes services versus low-value, low-stakes services. Often, women and people of color are given the latter. Leaders must call it out when they see this happening. At the College of Charleston, I was a co-founder of the Black Women Resource Center, and part of its mission was to advocate for my peers to the President and others about these ongoing issues. Faculty may not be able to speak up, so it’s incumbent on us faculty leaders to do so.
There’s not enough credit given to some of the service work that faculty might do in preparation for leadership roles. This is a challenge in higher education—we don’t always acknowledge all of that work or credit it the way we should. In addition, many faculty may not know the steps they need to take to become a Dean or Associate Vice Provost. Some who have put in great service work—cultivating grad students, organizing co-curricular activities, and that sort of thing—and are primed for leadership, but may not have been tapped on the shoulder and asked if they’ve thought about trying to get into these roles. Presidents can often be more focused on STEM and R1 ascendency, which isn’t a bad thing, but that means humanities and social sciences can get lost in the shuffle.
This project has made us really think differently about how people move up to leadership. It is imperative for us as leaders—as mentors—to make sure that our faculty are getting the development they need. Not only to make our institutions better and to be the best faculty that they can be for our students, but we should be in the business of helping our faculty grow. It’s important to do that—we should all be lifting as we climb in these positions.
Dr. Patricia Williams Dockery currently serves as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morgan State University. She is a writer, playwright, scholar-activist, and international commentator who is consulted for her expertise on diversity, equity, and inclusion; social justice; and Black women’s intersectional experiences. She has developed educational public programs for grades K—12 and general audiences at the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the College of Charleston Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Dr. Dockery is a Fulbright Scholar and earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois Chicago. A transdisciplinary educator and artist, her play, Septima!, about the life and work of civil rights organizing mastermind and revolutionary educator Septima Poinsette Clark, debuted at Charleston’s PURE Theatre. She and her husband share a beautiful blended family of seven children and a loving boxer-hound mix named Sadie Mae.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.