Over the last two months, our community has begun to wrestle with the deep and serious problems that plague MSU and many similar institutions. The survivors’ impact statements, Nassar’s sentencing, the university president’s resignation and the votes of no confidence from students and faculty alike have thrown us into a badly needed period of change at Michigan State University. As Sherman Garnett, the Dean of James Madison College, wrote to his faculty, “Our first thoughts should be with those survivors and of their courage. They are individually and collectively the human and moral polestar, and hearing their words is the only way to find our way back to who we are and should be.”
Many of us among the deans and the faculty at MSU have been deeply impressed with the ways in which students have stepped into the breach to demonstrate thoughtful and effective leadership. From climbing onto the boardroom table to demand students’ voices be heard, to being the first organized group to call for a vote of no confidence, to gathering en masse at the Rock to assert “We Deserve Better,” our students have forced us to confront the need for change.
Today’s students seem extraordinarily capable of leadership, and we see that all across the country. For example, two years ago students at the University of Missouri organized to force the resignation of the president and chancellor over their inability to address fundamental issues of fairness and equity. Today, high school students are showing thoughtful and effective leadership on issues around school safety and gun violence, and they are doing so against a tremendously well-organized status quo.
How does an academic administrator successfully lead in an environment like this?
In grappling with this question, I have been trying hard to remember how it felt to be young and frustrated with my leaders. As a teenager in the 1980’s, popular music both framed and helped me articulate my experiences. It also gave me hope that I was not alone in my feelings of frustration at not being taken seriously by people older than me. David Bowie’s “Changes” was particularly influential, especially these lyrics:
And these children that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds;
are immune to your consultations,
they are quite aware of what they are going through.
The song was released when I was only two, but it was introduced to Generation X when the lyrics were used to open one of my generation’s most iconic films, The Breakfast Club. The central assertion of both the movie and the lyrics from Bowie’s song was that we did not need the advice of our elders; after all, those were the very people who had created the problems. Our leaders were largely incapable of resolving vexing problems, but they nonetheless insisted on giving us advice. So, we were happy to hear Bowie tell us that we were immune to their consultations. We were not, however, immune to their authority, and they had no intention of empowering us to act without their advice and consent.
“Changes” is a timeless anthem of youth. So, I was not at all surprised last week to see a meme appear on my Facebook feed with a stylized drawing of David Bowie and the iconic words from the song under it. Today, I see teenagers and young adults with many of the same ambitions that I had, but with many more talents and resources than I ever imagined.
My generation has crossed a divide, and we must now accept that today’s students can choose to ignore our consultations. Rolling Stone’s review of “Changes” predicted my generation’s situation, describing it as “a young man’s attempt to reckon how he’ll react when it’s his time to be on the maligned side of the generation schism.” It is especially fitting that “Changes” was the last song that Bowie ever performed live on stage.
Today’s students have demonstrated an ability to think critically, organize, communicate openly and forcefully express the moral basis of the policies they advocate. In our highly partisan environment, where leaders find themselves hamstrung and frequently incapable of productive collaboration, young people are demonstrating their abilities to rethink old problems with vigor and without some of the tired old boundaries that have long prevented progress. In fact, they appear to be moving ahead without us in many ways. The last few months have convinced me that to successfully address the problems at hand, we must join them and follow their lead.
Dean, Lyman Briggs College