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Why Higher Ed Leaders Should Go Beyond Their ‘Knitting’ at This Crucial Time

Dr Marcus Bright Headshot 213591 637e62cb81db6

I was recently attending a conference where higher education leaders and officials from across the country gathered. In one of the sessions, a speaker addressed the challenges and critiques faced by colleges and universities today. These criticisms ranged from accusations of political indoctrination and concerns about affordability and value to questions about graduates' readiness for the workforce and persistent gaps in access and success.

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus BrightThe presenter emphasized the importance of better storytelling and cautioned against allowing others to define the narrative solely based on graduates' earning outcomes. He pointed out that the inability of higher education to effectively measure learning has unfortunately led to the reliance on graduates’ income as a proxy for success. However, he urged institutions to recognize their own flaws and imperfections, to embrace humility, and to actively work on improvement.

In order to gain broader public support, the speaker emphasized the need for institutions to marshal evidence of progress and showcase tangible results. He predicted that by doing this, colleges and universities can gradually change the tide of public perception. This process involves an honest assessment of shortcomings, a dedication to learning from past mistakes, and a clear plan for enhancing institutional effectiveness.

One notable recommendation from the speaker was to "stick to your knitting." This phrase encouraged institutional leaders to focus on their areas of expertise rather than attempting to go into areas where they may not have adequate knowledge or experience. The line of thinking was that by concentrating on familiar areas of activity; institutions can build on their strengths, bolster their infrastructure, and further excel in their core mission of providing quality education.

I thought about this guidance in the context of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday was just celebrated across the country. While King certainly prepared himself to excel in his chosen “knitting" of being a pastor by graduating from Morehouse College at 19 years old, Crozier Theological Seminary at 22, and completing his Ph.D. from Boston University at 26, and going on to secure the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, I'm glad that he didn't choose to just "stick to his knitting" when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955.

King's training and experience became invaluable as he was called upon to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association. Despite being relatively new in town and still establishing himself as a minister, his ability to effectively communicate, organize, and inspire others played a crucial role in mobilizing the community.

The people of Montgomery, including Alabama State College Professor Jo Ann Robinson and numerous students, didn't simply stick to their knitting either. They printed tens of thousands of leaflets informing the community of the plan to boycott the system. A boycott that lasted for 381 days. The community seized the moment and took bold action. Their courageous decision to walk with dignity rather than ride in shame demonstrated their commitment to equality and justice.

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