The situation at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research

One way to think about the situation …

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

We learned from The Daily Free Press (The Independent Student Newspaper at Boston University), that the Center for Antiracist Research (CAR), directed by Ibram X. Kendi, has been accused of mismanagement of funds and poor leadership among other serious allegations.

I’m not surprised. I’ve met Dr. Kendi and have great admiration for him, he’s an amazing scholar, writer, an all around brilliant thinker, a deliberate communicator. He’s another very good guy — he’s one of those shining people in the universe. That said, I can imagine many of the allegations are true or partially true. So this post isn’t exactly about Dr. Kendi or the center at BU – I’ll just use what I understand about the center’s problems as an example.

The qualities that make Kendi a great person do not automatically make a good center director. In fact, some of the skills that allow him to be good at research, teaching, writing, etc. might impede the day-to-day functions of a large research center. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed similar issues in my two decades in higher ed. Faculty are not trained in leadership (particularly in inclusive or collaborative leadership – in fact, I’d go so far as to say most doctoral programs actively discourage collaboration in favor of competition), financial management, university regulations, project management, delegation … There are many who gain these skills with practice and trust in their staff colleagues, but many are not equipped to go from Professor to center Director overnight without growing pains. Most of the time, they receive little to no support to do so. Maybe that’s okay for centers outside the public eye, they can make mistakes, pivot, and change without too much attention. For the high profile cases, the stakes are higher.

Broadly, I’d argue that R1 universities don’t care about supporting these endeavors – or rather, they care about grants & gifts coming in more than the outputs of research … or anything else for that matter. Universities are bastions of white supremacy culture; the ideal of “continuous growth” being the single largest problem. Amass more students, more money, more faculty, more donors … collegiality, people culture, education, and (yes) research are all put on a back-burner to focus on MORE.

While I don’t know the details of the situation at CAR beyond the article, I have no difficulty imagining the pressures put upon such a public facing endeavor. Support and staff are vital in the work of any center – from the simple strategic planning like how do we navigate the massive bureaucracy of the university, to how to estimate how much certain projects will cost and how to get the work done with the current staffing? Even then, the hierarchy of the university structure is designed so that the University comes before all else. Follow our rules, amass as much as you can, don’t screw up – go! Too often, the rules of the university actively make it difficult to run a center and the university will not have your back if you fail. Particularly true if you not a mediocre white man.

My controversial take is that it isn’t easy to value research & education at a university, let alone follow antiracist culture values – harder these days (thank you GOP). I’ve seen folks go from “we’re going to be community-oriented” to a focus on visits with foundations almost overnight. It’s the money. It’s impossible to do anything without money, sure. For all that universities have … money is scarce for actual research and education. (Imagine if we didn’t pay university presidents, coaches, administration folks millions of dollars each? Related, but a different conversation.) So, researchers write grants and solicit gifts and major foundation support for the mission of the project or center. But folks, we know money doesn’t come free. What does the donor get out of giving the money?

So what happens? You write a ton of proposals not knowing which will get funded. Do you hire the folks necessary to do the project before you get the money? No. Do you pretend that money is actually coming in? No. You only plan for what you have. When a high profile faculty person “founds” a center, there’s often the opportunity for a ton of money. How to manage expectations (given the limitations of the university structure) while building what is essentially a university within a university? Too often the structure of a new center isn’t supported by the school or university. You’ve got to hire staff, but how do you know exactly what you need, how do you follow the staffing regulations and rules of the university, who writes the job descriptions, who looks at the resumes – does a computer do weeding out or do you get to see all the applications? We know for sure that most HR departments don’t have capacity (and perhaps even mission) to be of much help. What if the business office isn’t supporting your center? You need a financial person. Okay … do that too. I’m simplifying the problem for sure, but generalities can be useful here.

While the article is about the problems of CAR – it points to one failure of universities across the board. They don’t value the actual mission of the institution, rather they value MORE. Could universities change this? Obvio.

New centers deserve a team of staff at the university to support the rapid change necessary to build a center. Even one person per university to support new centers would be a start. Not someone from the foundation side. Too often the new director is given support which focuses on MORE rather than now and how. New center directors are given support to write and solicit funds without much support to build a team, and figure out the day to day needs as the center work grows beyond the director’s personal capacity. New tools are necessary – research centers have become integral to the university system over the last 40 years. Frankly, given the research subject of CAR … do we expect the university to actively support work that is designed to ask for change? The clear answer is that it doesn’t, it just wants MORE and the rest can fall by the wayside.

This is one very public example – I’ve seen it at small liberal arts colleges, public university, private universities. For all that the propaganda about the “left leaning” university … university governance remains entrenched with colonial ideals which are too often in direct conflict with the mission of education. If universities like BU truly wanted to support centers like CAR – they would build systemic support for the founding or transition phases of center growth. The fact that they don’t build support … means that they don’t value the actual work over the income generation.

Back to where I started … my friend isn’t running a center, but is taking on a new role within one of the largest cities in the country. He’s trying to use lessons he’s learned before to do something new – but without the support to do it well. Similar to faculty who are tasked with starting a center, he is tasked with learning a whole new system. Anyone who has had a career transition understands that skills do transfer, but they transfer better when there are systems in place to allow for growth and change. My friend is making mistakes. In a culture in which mistakes are looked at as failure, I’m worried my friend will just entrench himself in the system rather than seek support from new mentors and “tools.” While I know he has much to answer, I also understand that he still imagines that he can do the job with the same tools he’s always used. New tools are necessary, but the system is designed to keep him using the same tools. I’m not sure this is a personal failure as much as a culture failure. Likely, a bit of both. Yet, expecting the individual to single-handedly buck the system is unrealistic.

Dear University Presidents, Provosts and Admins (and Mayor Bass) – don’t just throw folks into the maelstrom, provide them with tools to weather the storm.

  • Do you have a mentorship programs for folks filling new roles?
  • What about dedicated staff who can help assess the needs of each new center or cohort?
  • What technological tools do you offer to help define processes? Wouldn’t it be helpful to build out a generalized workflow template for assessing needs?
  • How about a manual specifically designed to help navigate the gears of bureaucracy that they’ve never had to encounter in other roles?
  • What staff can you add to various departments so that each person entering a new phase of their career doesn’t have to rebuild the wheel – particularly as they are starting out?
  • What resources can be redirected to support?

Without recognizing the transition and providing support, you are setting everyone up for failure and giving more ammunition to the status quo. In thinking about an important research center like CAR, it’s sad to have to point out that systemic change in universities could have prevented some of these issues. There is a real need to get back to basics, or rather, a need for a brand new focus on basics given the historic colonial values of universities and local governance. Prioritize the missions of research and education at universities over than the constant churn to get MORE.

Critical thought about university culture and support given to new center directors is vital and shouldn’t be lost in the individual stories of setbacks such as those at CAR.

Related Reading:

Moynihan, Don. New College is a warning about the price of populist incompetence. Can We Still Govern? Aug 17, 2023

Moynihan, Don. How the higher education outrage sausage is made. Can We Still Govern? Mar 7, 2023