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Spring 2014 Leader Letter: Chair's Corner

Wed, Feb 19, 2014

I don’t usually include a title here, but if there was one it would be something like “Leadership in a Period of Change.” I have in mind two foci for discussing this topic. The first is as concerns St. Thomas, the college and the Department of Leadership, Policy and Administration. The second focus of my comments is the field of leadership studies and research.

First, there are big changes occurring in our institutional neck of the woods. Starting at the top, we have a new president, Dr. Julie Sullivan, whose last stop (as provost) was at the University of San Diego. She is a dynamic leader who just commissioned a strategic planning process that will culminate next October with a report to the Board of Trustees. That would be interesting enough, but the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling also has a new dean. He is Dr. Mark Salisbury, who arrived from the University of New Mexico with a background that spans computer science, curriculum and design, and organizational consulting. As you might guess, the confluence of these two new top administrators is generating some new contours in our thinking. We are also busily engaged in searches for two new faculty members, something that we have needed to do for some time. Finally, I will be stepping down as department chair after this year. Our next chair hasn’t been decided, but there will be plenty to think about and accomplish for my successor. Which, I might add, is as it should be [ :) ].

As concerns the field of leadership, everyone connected to LPA’s programs over the years has probably detected a strong dosage of American philosophy in our DNA. This has not always been made loudly explicit, but this intellectual tradition – as it has migrated into such disciplinary arenas as education and social science – has served us well. Pragmatism, which is the more conventional name for the movement, was key to the thinking of John Dewey. It was also the groundwork for the Chicago School of Sociology, which pioneered the tradition of urban qualitative research on U.S. ethnic communities, urban life and urban institutions. This tradition still remains the foundation on which our research courses are built. On a personal note, as a sociologist teaching mostly within our doctoral program, I reoriented most of my research and presentations upon arrival in the department toward the American Educational Research Association (AERA). When I first embarked on this path, the AERA featured a vibrant John Dewey Society. It was also generally quite friendly toward educational research based on qualitative methodologies.

Now, in the early stages of the 21st century, leaders and organizations are faced with an increasingly confusing mixture of theories and emerging organizational structures to be negotiated. Based on how embarrassingly common major gaffes within the contemporary organizational leadership arena are (think, for example, of the Challenger disaster or recent rollout fiasco of the federal insurance website), it can seem as if leadership programs’ body of theory and research are highly suspect. One response to this situation is to attempt to ratchet up disciplinary guidelines, using more quantification, formal theories, and quasi-experimental research design to predict behaviors and outcomes. This, in fact, is my reading of the recent history of AERA as concerns educational research beginning with the G.W. Bush administration. If it doesn’t lend itself to highly quantitative research that focuses on individual student learning of prefabricated content packets virtually devoid of context, it has a tough time getting into contemporary educational research.

In my opinion, leadership studies is now at a crossroads and facing a question similar to that faced earlier by most of the social sciences and education. To paraphrase Hamlet (badly), the issue is whether it should “get all rigorous” or not. I think not, and am heartened by the recent work of social scientists like the urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg and political scientist/anthropologist James C. Scott along these lines. Flyvbjerg wrote a book titled Making Social Science Matter (2002), in which he eloquently discussed how the social sciences, in the interest of looking and sounding like the bench sciences, have systematically attempted to orient their research toward isolating a study on a few well-defined hypotheses and considering other data trends that might emerge as extraneous.

Unfortunately, he says, this effort has been misguided. Social science is properly about the inherent messiness of humans’ actions, which are highly bound by specific context and “local” organizational rules of thumb (both shared among others and specific to the individual actor) rather than the laws of physics. If he is right, universalistic attempts at theoretical rules are bound to be frustrated except as first guesses at what might actually be happening in a particular place or organization. Scott agrees on this point, but moves his scale of consideration to the level of governments in Seeing like a State (1998). His book relies heavily on his long career of researching Southeast Asian migrating populations; most of which face systematic hardship because they resist census-taking and are difficult to tax [in a more Western context, think the plains Indians or contemporary gypsies]; thus, states often exhibit a mania for the construction of models that (erroneously) appear to systematize people’s behaviors for control and taxation purposes.

Not surprisingly, both of these authors and the growing body of like-minded scholars they have influenced advocate for mixed-method case studies conducted according to grounded theory-like premises. This, of course, is basically the Chicago School approach that LPA uses in our research courses; which is both convenient for us and – at least to me – underscores the continuing power of that original Pragmatism DNA I noted earlier. Should the future of leadership studies aim to emulate physics? I stand with Flyvbjerg and Scot; further, I believe John Dewey would be a hearty supporter of the articulate countermovement against it.

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