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Higher (Ed) Love

higher ed love

I bought a Peloton bike in 2020. In my 20s and early 30s, I actually taught spinning classes – so I knew this purchase was going to work well for me. Don’t worry, this is not a #AD. I do love my bike (find me at JosieAndThe Pelo) and the Peloton community – so much so that I created a digital community for #HigherEdRiders

What I didn’t expect were instructors and classes like Ally Love, who teaches a series called “Sundays with Love.” This past season, each class ended with the same song by Kygo and Whitney Houston called “Higher Love.”

Every time this final song would hit me – not just in the heart rate – but got me all up in my feels. 

Worlds are turning, and we’re just hanging on

Facing our fear, and standing out there alone

A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me

There must be someone who’s feeling for me

Things look so bad everywhere

In this whole world, what is fair

We walk the line and try to see

Falling behind in what could be, oh

Bring higher love (repeat like 12+ times)

Right now we need love. We need to express love. We need to explicitly say love

I’m not proposing we turn everyone into huggers (well at least not until we are done with COVID), but that we sign off each email with “I love you” and that we wouldn’t do anything that would compromise integrity. 

In higher education – we know our students are lonely, are struggling and our faculty are burned out. 

But the L word is many times left out of the leadership equation. 

What are we fearful of? 

In the article, Love gets too little love in the workplaceDr. Laura Kurtz writes about fear: 

“Leading with love is the opposite of leading with fear. It is the distinction between being an advocate and being a critic…It is having the tough conversations and working through the discomfort they bring, not running away from it. When we lead with fear, we hide away our flaws and failures, we avoid asking for help so as to not appear weak, and we prioritize on our own gain and success, even if that means harming others along the way…When we lead with love, we show vulnerability, we invite others in, we ask for and offer help, and strive to learn, grow, and succeed collectively.”

How do we bring love to the leadership table? 

Perhaps we start with how we show, tell and express love outside of our careers. 

I tell my close family I love them, often. We live thousands of miles apart. It’s never lost on me that the last time I see one of them, really could be the last. 

But so far that’s where my love declarations have ended. I got to thinking about my friends, not any acquaintances, like the friends that I tweeted a “warning” to in 2021: 

Dr. Josie Ahlquist tweet: Post-Valentines + Galentines reflection. I don't tell my close friends that I love them. But I do. Be prepared for a new sign off y'all.

Maybe it’s an age thing – the older I get, the more I want those I care about to know COVID has magnified this reality – life is short. In the U.S. alone, we’ve surpassed more than 900,000 deaths, and that doesn’t account for the millions of people immediately impacted by those lives lost, the short- and long-term effects of this disease for those who have survived, as well as the overwhelming mental health impact on each of us. The list goes on and on. 

So, how do we express love as leaders in higher education? 

One example of living out love in higher education is Jennielle Strother, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Concordia University in Texas, who both researches authentic leadership, as well as lives and leads by it. Her advice shared in my book Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World is to “lead with love, in the boardroom, and in your (social media) feed.” 

Let’s see a few examples:

On March 23, 2020, Mamta Accapadi, now Vice Provost of University Life at the University of Pennsylvania, posted a blog on LinkedIn titled “A Love Letter to my Colleagues.”

She wrote especially to Student Affairs staff who were working around the clock. The substance was spot on – but the title and sign-off is what got my attention, “I deeply miss and love you all.” 

Back in March 2020, we all needed to hear that – I would argue we still do.

This is why I’m hearing more and more leaders come out and say it. I LOVE YOU. 

Monica C CutlerAssociate Director of Advancement Communications at UC Denver, shared how her Vice Chancellor Melisa Baldwin says “I love and care for you all” at the end of each bi-weekly team meeting. 

In a private Facebook post, this VC reflected on her use of the “L” word, “People do not hear those words enough and some people never hear those words, which in my mind and heart is tragic. Love really is the answer.”

During my campus days, while producing hundreds of events per year, a phrase I integrated with all the students I worked with was – do what you say you’re going to do. Part of this was about integrity and work ethic, but it was also about honesty and authenticity. You can’t just say love without meaning it. 

The test of leadership and love is actually living out actions every day. Your staff needs to hear you care about them. If the word love isn’t authentic to you – how else are you expressing emotion and showing up for them? This Forbes article titled, Attention is Love might be a good starting point. 

Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College, is an all-heart community college president. He shared in my book Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World, “I truly believe higher education must love students to success.” He went on to explain how he does this online and on campus. In the fall I got the chance to chat with Russell as part of a series of book club live streams that is sure to give you some inspiration on how love needs to show up in your work.

Finally – a simple loving message, as quick as a Twitter reply – comes from Terisa Riley, Chancellor of The University of Arkansas Fort Smith. 

Twitter thread Katie Cochran with Dr. Terisa Riley responding "Y'all I almost cried when I read this."

In this Twitter thread, Teresa offers emotion, empathy, celebration – and yes a declaration of love to one of her students. The magic and meaning is found in the replies, another student posting “😭😭😭😭 i love you dr. riley.”

The work we do in higher education is serious. But that doesn’t mean we have to seriously withhold emotion, soul, and love from how we show up and serve. 

Maybe we need to take some direction from our new fur family office mates that have joined many zoom meetings.

@ReslifePuppy has been showing love and affection online to college students for years. Iggy (later joined by his “roommate” Francis) as described in his Instagram bio, “I am an unabashed lover of college students!” 

But it’s not just students this account is expressing appreciation for, as this latest post advocates for facilities and grounds grew:

“Have you thanked your facilities and grounds crew for keeping campus safe? It looks exhausting! I wouldn’t know, the roommate is in charge of snow removal this week. I’m supervising. And judging his technique. 🥶❄️”

Coming back to my Peloton, Sundays with Love, and the song “Higher Love” that got me thinking about my letter today. I’m not leaving you with a directive. I’m not proposing we sign off each zoom meeting telling each other that we love each other. 

But I do want you to reflect on it.

What are the natural ways you already show love? Maybe it’s through humor or storytelling. Maybe it’s the time you spend going out of your way to surprise someone. Love has no bounds and for higher ed leaders does not need confided definition. 

Who would you write a love letter to today? Who needs an advocate or affirmation?

So many are in need of our love. Our students. Our staff. Our faculty. Alumni, families, our local community, the list goes on. 

And also importantly – ourselves. Please show (and tell) some love for yourself today. You probably need that more than you know. 

Sending LOVE and all the digital hugs,

Josie

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

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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