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A Future Focused on Critical Hope. Leading Change in Higher Ed

A future focused on critical hope, leading change in higher education.

What immediately comes to mind when I say “change” in higher education?

I recently posted this on Twitter, and I wasn’t surprised by the GIF responses. 

Numerous posts depicted the slow (if not glacial) pace of change within the industry.

Others made it quite clear that the word and request to change was a no-go, already being so overwhelmed.

One tweet depicted running away from it. 

I can’t pick a favorite, but I was especially struck by a GIF of the Suez Canal obstruction from 2021, where a 200,000-ton container ship blocked the canal for six days.
How would you describe the current pace, pulse, and emotion of change at your institution or organization? What GIF would best describe it?

No matter the industry, change is hard and filled with an array of human emotions. 

Communication Competencies Amidst Change

There is no denying it, no matter the GIF you use, higher education is in store for change. And the ability for leaders to communicate through change will continue to be a significant source for the kind of GIFs we see staff, faculty, students, and stakeholders use to describe it. 

There is academic research on digital media like GIFs, emojis, and memes. These tools help us communicate, reflect, and express emotions. While not yet published, I have researched digital emotional intelligence, a skill set required of leaders (and all humans) to navigate each digital platform’s culture and messaging tools to make meaning.

Over the COVID-19 pandemic, communicating amidst profound change has been a testament or test to higher ed leaders. Some pivoted with purpose, while others flailed. 

Effective leaders should provide consistent, transparent, and authentic communication, activating intentional tools that best connect with specific audiences. 

One demonstration of this is campus leaders turning to video or Instagram to reach current students. These leaders were able to change quickly, even when physical distance was required. The communication competencies of campus leaders are just one example of change. But first, we need to talk about our feelings.

Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I’m being asked to talk about the future of higher education a lot more – whether on stage or during interviews. The appeal and interest are too fitting for someone who has “futuristic” in her top five strengths. While I love a good tarot card or astrology reading, I’m not in the prediction business for higher ed. Sure there are signs and significant gaps, but are we ready to talk about the future when we struggle to navigate the changes afoot right now?

That’s right; I’m using my master’s degree in counseling – we need to talk about our feelings. 

In the first couple of years of the pandemic, authors and academics uncovered some raw realities we were facing, including “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” and the emotion of languishing as the “Blah You’re Feeling,” coined by Adam Grant. These are words so telling; I wouldn’t be surprised if just reading them evoked – well, a feeling.

So what do emotions and talking about our feelings have to do with change and the future of higher education? 

To innovate, evolve, and transform, we need healing. We need healing so very badly. My heart hurts just writing about it.

But the good news is that emotions and feelings are a normal part of the change process. 

The Emotional Waves of Change

While I prepared for a keynote on the future of higher ed, I came across a model that helped make sense of change: The Kübler-Ross Change Curve®.

This tool has been used to help teams and individuals make sense of how we respond to change or even loss. That’s right; change is comparable to grief – another model this foundation has created. And it’s grounded in human emotions.

Kubler-Ross Change Curve

Notice how “time” and “morale and confidence” impact the other. Based on this model, think back to March or April 2020 and the cycles of change that campuses (and our personal lives) went through. 

It wasn’t just waves of change, it was a hurricane.

There is a lot of perfectionism throughout the academy, and we were trained to push down or overproduce to deny the emotions being validated in the Change Curve. At its worst, mission-based gaslighting has occurred at campuses that push their people further; “do whatever it takes, it’s for the students.”

Add to the numerous issues in higher education that existed far before COVID, the humans of higher education now are being described as disillusioneddisconnecteddisengaged, and the latest, demoralized. These descriptions are being used to explain the state of faculty, staff, and students – i.e., EVERYONE.

Critical Hope: The Bridge to the Future of Higher Ed

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about critical hope. In 2020, I penned Our Resilience Reservoirs are Drying Up. Yet, no matter my audience or client, I keep coming back to it. 

In the Harvard Business Review, Duncan-Andrade explains how critical hope is a realistic assessment of your environment/realities, but importantly, it also includes a lens of equity and justice as we work toward a more resilient future.

It has also been described in the text Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices by Zembylasas as “an act of ethical and political responsibility that has the potential to recover a lost sense of connectedness, relationality, and solidarity with others.” 

Finally, critical hope calls attention to inequities. And it’s pretty hard not to acknowledge injustices in a field like higher education. But unfortunately, a leader doing so could be described as expressing toxic positivity.

Professor at Bishop’s University, Jessica Riddell (2020), explains that critical hope is the antidote for toxic positivity because critical hope centers on the most vulnerable and marginalized. Toxic positivity is displayed in sayings like, “everything is fine” or “it’s time to get back to normal,” and it leaves no room for dialogue or (gasp) disagreement. You may know a leader or two who has taken this path and are familiar with the harm. 

In Cultivating Critical Hope: The Too Often Forgotten Dimension of Critical Leadership Development, Bishundat, Phillip, and Gore define the enemies of hope as fear, apathy, isolation, and despair. These words sound familiar in the articles that describe staff, faculty, and students as disconnected, disengaged and disillusioned. 

Has higher ed reached the point of despair?

Communicating Critical Hope

If this is true, what changes? What action-orientated response are you willing to pursue?  

Perhaps you start reflecting on the allies of hope, including love, anger, community, and struggle. For example, how do you currently communicate love

Critical hope leaders acknowledge what indeed is and hold space (and access) for candid conversations. Is this the easy path for a president, chancellor, provost, VP, or dean? Probably not, at least not at the moment. But your people deserve it. 

We don’t need more selfies or self-promotional posts surrounded by pom-poms and confetti. Well, maybe some, but if your feed or communications are only filled with these things, how is that helping your people to overcome the enemies of hope – fear, apathy, isolation, or despair?

How do your campus email communications, team meetings, discord server, or campus website convene critical hope? 

Are you an enemy of hope or an ally of hope? 

When trying to envision the possibility of a better future, especially of the future of higher education, we can be so quick to point to change. But just talking about change is the ice breaker to the honest conversations that need to be had, buried deep under the surface. 

Do not be like the 200,000-ton Suez canal container ship blocking hope from your community. You might well up the water; you might bury it deep. But you’ll likely just keep turning and churning, thinking you can just “hard work” and “normalize” yourself out of this. 

In the forthcoming book by Kari Grain, Critical Hope: How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change, there are seven principles. One of them jumped out at me right away, related to change, emotions and hope. Yet, in some strange and fitting way, it gives peace to my attempts to even write to you today:

“Critical hope is messy, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions.” 

With a million GIFs at our disposal, we’re all attempting to make sense of this messy, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions world we find ourselves in. So I invite you into the messiness with me and uncomfortable conversations with your campus communities.

Change, Critical Hope, & Communications Homework

If you’re ready to engage in critical hope here is your homework. Especially if you are a campus leader or work in communications and marketing. Do just one of these, and let me know how it goes. 

1. Where are you in the Change Curve? 

Sit with your discomforts, fears, and, yes, even anger. Journal about what words change and what the future evokes in you. Where do some of these emotions come from? Review the Kubler-Ross model. Where might you fall right now? How does that compare to the rest of your campus, colleagues, teams, etc.?

2. Complete a Communications Audit. 

Review your communications from the spring semester – especially campus-wide or those directed to large communities. For example, Instagram, Twitter, or newsletters. What pieces could you hear in your authentic voice, even personality? Do you see any ingredients for critical hope? Did specific messages resonate with your community? Did they reply, share, respond? 

3. Try an Empathy experiment. 

Find communication you already sent out or are currently working on. Read that message, and embody a few different people across campus trying to make meaning of it. For example, a first-year staff member, adjunct faculty, or transfer student. How does that message sit differently? Did that communication evoke an ally or enemy of hope? 

4. Be an Ally in Critical Hope. 

Pick one enemy of hope (fear, apathy, isolation, despair) and write about it. First free write, with no edits or plans to share publicly. Next, pick the same or another enemy that you know your community is experiencing. Finally, brainstorm where you could incorporate communications or intentions to be an ally of critical hope – whether in a Tweet, upcoming retreat, in-person remarks, or team meeting. 

“Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”

-Maya Angelou

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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