Letter to the Editor: the challenges of authority and leadership

DePaul has grown rapidly and, in the process, has embraced a great deal of turnover, especially in the realm of its technology and tech-related instructional services.

With each change comes new platforms and software alongside the challenges to use them effectively by the many members of our faculty. But as every political scientist and every management professor knows, what accompanies all of this is the natural impulse to make rules that presume homogeneity in a changing environment.

If one examines the big picture, DePaul has always been at arms-length with a solution to these challenges: the Vincentian ethic. The commitment to recognizing difference, uniqueness and context. As a faculty member of 45  years at DePaul, it is with pride that we accept this as one of the critical missions and a requisite commitment. We are regularly offered opportunities to re-embrace DePaul’s Vincentian mission. It is a reasonable expectation that this focus should be shared by all of those with authority in the University.

I have been teaching in person for the last four quarters because I believe it is the best way to provide our students with the complete academic experience and the way to maximize each student’s potential for growth and discovery. It is not necessary that you agree with me. I often find myself struggling with the rapid and accelerating introduction of new technologies at the University. It seems that every new crew of IT people bring new and useful new ways of managing our tasks. But I find it dizzying. As an “old dog,” new tricks come only with substantial effort.

I am sure other faculty members share my experience. The University’s tendency is to regularly add a new “form” for me to complete online. This is deeply frustrating when enough care is not  invested in the creation of the form. I struggle to guess what this form or that question is requiring of me. Beyond that, it is not always possible to explain on the form what my problem is. I miss the day when I could use the telephone – yes, the telephone – and talk to a live person who may have the answers.

Permit me to share my odyssey over the past ten days. In the next three months, I have a number of off-campus public lectures for a host of different groups: A Fulbright / US State Department project in Ukraine, a pair of lectures for the Newberry Library, another pair of lectures for the DuPage Valley Social Science Teachers Institute Day and a series for an international trip. Much of this activity stems from our effort to commit to public service by sharing ideas with the broader community.

Those efforts may also serve to raise the visibility and standing of our University in the eyes of the local and/or global communities. For many of us, sharing and spreading ideas is the central thrust of what we do. In my mind, it is often difficult to differentiate what I teach in the classroom and what I teach in other venues. The lectures are often very similar. The point is that differentiating one of my faculty responsibilities from the others is, for me, a blurred line.

COVID has rationalized the removal of a great deal of our face-to-face interaction

with faculty peers and University staff. I concede that I am one of those who often need that sort of help and collaboration. It would perhaps be super useful for all of us, but particularly those with authority in the University, to re-examine what and how we are defining and doing our jobs. In any management role, the challenge is to balance the pressures of budget, staffing and purpose. In that sense, this is a routine challenge for any leadership and claims that these are rare circumstances need careful scrutiny.

Authority in any organization must remain cognizant that one’s authority is far easier to exercise when an effort is made to establish and retain legitimacy– Political Science 101. The issue here is easy to identify and hard to ameliorate. DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban sent a message to our community just a few days ago in which he tried to address the resolutions generated in the recent Council of the Whole. What stood out to me was the wisdom captured early in his message.

“Flexibility is a hallmark of shared governance,” Esteban said. “At its best, it is a collaborative process tailored to bring a broad range of viewpoints and input to the question at hand, not a rigid bureaucracy that hews to form over substance.”

I want to endorse that idea. William Saffire reminds us that “the right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.” Collectively, we need to dedicate ourselves in these rapidly changing times to ensure that we don’t become so consumed by our rules that the “tail ends up wagging the dog.”