*This post has a word used on a handful of occasions in context in direct reference to an attached article that may not be appropriate for your work computer, depending on your employer and technology expectations. Read at work using your own discretion.
*This is a deep-dive long form essay blog post in two sections.
*Last, but hardly least, this post would not be possible without so many people who inspire me, but most especially I thank those who helped with the creative process for their contributions and the candid dialogue about a profession we each care for deeply.
- For fans of Hot Takes and 3 paragraph posts, this is for you: Many professionals desire a needed candid dialogue in student affairs (and extended areas of student services) and we need it to speak to at least the following:
- Good to great mentorship and advocacy (or ethical sponsorship) is not always equitable, or even accessible to all professionals
- Power and privilege is a burden student affairs will never unload if it never acknowledges home-grown campus specific corrosive professional politics that counter the values and competencies of the field
- Professional sustainability in student affairs ceases to exist when reliant upon group-think, selling celebrity status, and perceived success, while hard working professionals, especially those marginalized persons and identities, suffer for lacking these conventions or working to do the opposite of such things, including daring to be frank, speaking truth to power, or being open and sincere as to why
1. Beyond Boston and buzz words
- Candid – adj. frank; outspoken; open and sincere
- “Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its most essential ingredients, those four things would surely be among them…that’s how much candor matters at Pixar; It overrides hierarchy.” Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, with journalist Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
I know people have the capacity of being candid with one another beyond Boston. I’ve heard it. I’ve done it. I’ve also recently read about it in Creativity Inc. (see the corresponding quotes in this piece from chapter 5: “Honesty and Candor”). I’ve experienced the exact opposite more often. As a Bostonian, I realize that candid dialogue is NOT for everyone, but I and many professionals who have dedicated ourselves to student affairs work (or other higher education non-FT faculty professional staff) desire and deserve a level of candid dialogue, at least equitable to the silence and insincerity used surrounding many significant, but taboo, topics. Candid dialogue may immediately be discredited as mere “complaining” from its detractors rather than seen as an observance of authentic loyalty (it’s telling who those people are). Often, candor is displaced to work cubicles, cafeterias on campus, or conference chatter (unfortunately, sometimes it devolves into complaining, gossip, or the cruelty of retribution vs candor, rather than candid dialogue of empathy).
Candid, to me, is the freedom to say what’s sincerely on your mind at the risk of your shared truth or worldview being considered outspoken or in direct dissent with another’s truth or worldview, with everyone able to still walk away from that dialogue and willing to return despite likely discomfort. Student affairs, from my experience, seems to impulsively react against candor when directed at challenging systems, structures, and supervision that may hold responsibility for oppression, sending mixed messages, thriving on unwritten rules, or playing fast and loose with ethical accommodations for those favored. When there’s anger directed at such candor from professional leaders, educating for inclusion or racial justice and decolonization may land more as buzz words catered to ease complaints rather than affirm needed action in the face of subtle or not subtle systemic injustice. It was stated with candor to me this way by a fellow professional: “student affairs professionals say they want to get their hands dirty, but only in a clean way.”
- “Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.” Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Ellen Pompeo, star of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, provided a candid interview recently to The Hollywood Reporter about her profession that could help student affairs https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/ellen-pompeo-tvs-20-million-woman-reveals-her-behind-scenes-fight-what-i-deserve-1074978. She referred to her interview as “the personal struggles and advice from Shonda Rhimes that led to a milestone: highest-paid actress on a primetime drama.” Pompeo grew up 20 minutes from me outside of Boston and it’s highly likely that we frequented the same beaches, bowling alleys, or ice skating rinks growing up as teenagers. Beyond our proximity in birthplace and closeness of age our worlds appear mighty different now.
Pompeo has a great professional mentor (and sponsor) in Shonda Rhimes; I have never had access to a great professional mentor (or an ethical sponsor). Pompeo has a 12th grade education; I’m fortunate to be a first-generation college and master’s level graduate. She’s an incredibly well known and wealthy television star; I’m neither a wealthy TV star or well-known as a currently unemployed professional in a field of thousands (challenge the #SmallFieldSyndrome). Lastly, Pompeo presents as a confident, outspoken woman working in a profession still not always woman friendly with career politics, despite working in Hollywood; I present as a confident, outspoken, white, cisgender man (he/him/his) existing in an overly friendly country receptive to my identities, if not always how I choose to challenge them or use them to help others not harm them.
With such a candid interview about her profession and the importance of claiming a place as a woman of value in her industry, it reminds me that throughout my career far too many quality people with candid things to say can’t say them. Even leaders in student affairs/higher education, who appear to possess power and privilege (or status), haven’t been or still can’t be candid because they may worry about people walking away from conversations of dissent, or they still fear their own job security for many reasons, including cultivating a reputation as being candid in dialogue about significant concerns, including staffing the profession itself. In twenty years I’ve heard lots of candid dialogue in private, but not nearly enough in the open. That open dialogue is usually discouraged to many professional educators and done so with no sense of equity.
Aside from learning that Pompeo and I were brought up as Irish Catholics and that we’re both comfortable using the “F” word as ordinary not extraordinary (if only to watch the professionalism police gather to surround one tree in a burning forest), I learned we both desire, appreciate, and initiate candid dialogue that’s so desperately needed in the professions we chose. This dialogue goes well beyond using correct vocabulary alone to convey student affairs is saying the correct things, when I and others want to candidly and legitimately dialogue about whether we’re always doing the better things.
- “…societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions…strong and confident people can intimidate their colleagues, subconsciously signaling that they aren’t interested in negative feedback or criticism that challenges their thinking.” Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
In 2002, while Pompeo caught Hollywood’s eye in a movie called “Moonlight Mile,” that’s the year I began working at my previous full-time employer. She got her big break starring with Hoffman and Sarandon and I got mine at an up-and-coming university. “I knew I was fucked,” Pompeo recalled thinking at the time of Grey’s (2005) because she thought she was supposed to be a movie star rather than be “stuck on a medical show for five years.” She recounts telling her agent “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? I’m an actress.” I’ve spoken to many professionals in student affairs who over the years ponder what it would be like if they had agents like a Jerry Maguire. What would that conversation be like between them when expected to do those things in careers or jobs that harm students and staff, or insult or diminish one’s education and intelligence? When a job goes so far as to dehumanize an employee, that conversation with an agent could go like this: “Jerry, are you out of your fuckin’ mind? I’m an educator.”
By 2005, I was greatly enjoying my professional opportunity and unconcerned about positions or projections, only practice. Within a few years and in a new role that I loved I identified that stuck feeling Pompeo invoked when confronted with continued resistance to candid dialogue about things that I not only believed in practice, but the profession said mattered in principle. It was right in the middle of this obstacle that I had a freakish health scare like something from Grey’s Anatomy. That event redirected my pressing questions to mortality and created a cloud cover over my usually sound life judgment. Thus, I began my very own time of personal and professional struggle. I remained confident while doing my job. Though, I did lack a Jerry Maguire or a Shonda Rhimes. I wasn’t confident in my access to equitable support in my discernment to help me anticipate how my creative strength of candid dialogue would ultimately contribute to my moment of knowing I too was fucked.
- “Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.” Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
I did not have a sports agent, a great mentor, or ethical sponsor accessible or available to me and suddenly my exemplary work product was not receiving equitable treatment. I did not share the same desire to be part of cliques and my career priorities were less directed on specific roles and five-year goals, so, less opportunities I needed came my way. The biggest challenge was how my practice of using candid dialogue to create credible connections, achieve innovations in my work, and raise legitimate concerns to support the profession was still consistently sidelined and silenced. Those absent these challenges were more readily accepted thanks to political perception, true or false, that they were “not going to rock the boat,” “would play the game,” and “they’d not be too candid.” My prior cloud cover blurred my anticipation of these challenges, but it didn’t blind me to my priority to remain true to my calling of doing for those who can do nothing for you, which I still saw as the noble career spoken of by Dr. King.
My calling and my candor co-existed, and they were in direct conflict with the messages I received: spend more time climbing and competing with colleagues; care more about others’ perceptions of your work than the reality and reputation of your work (the first I could not control, the second I could); and don’t risk saying the wrong things (based on whom?). The messages I received were to hide my best self and my strength as a practitioner of candid dialogue. It saddens me now to reflect on how I carried fear and shame alongside being part of the profound joys and successes as a student affairs professional. The unfortunate truth I discovered of this unwritten rule of student affairs was that my success and how I achieved it seemed to matter far less to my career than doing for those who could provide power in the form of protection, prosperity, and unethical sponsorship, all at the cost of candid dialogue.
When it was time to depart on my own terms for my next full time professional experience a part of me held to the same narratives thrown out for years “there will be opportunities here,” or that “there are so many jobs opportunities elsewhere if willing to relocate and transfer functional areas.” I was once an English major. I should have been far more discerning about the idea of unreliable narrators who tossed out those clichés like school swag, especially at TPE, but I still wanted to trust the essence because I, like Pompeo, ultimately LOVED THE PROFESSION I CHOSE, and I knew my value to it.
Instead, The Placement Exchange (TPE) was the ultimate sunny day to that previous cloud cover as it drove home for me through observation and participation how perpetuated narratives and practices keep the profession stuck for so many. My value was my willingness to identify and engage on practices that keep the profession stuck: ethical and equitable mentorship and sponsorship, corrosive politics preventing progress, and the favor shown to those who are shamed into sameness rather than celebrated for difference, especially when candor is someone’s desire and strength. I’m not the first, middle, or last to identify this desire and need for candid dialogue. Because I belong among those who have been professionally harmed and marginalized by having the candor to say so, I will not sacrifice my WHY. Student affairs should not sacrifice its capacity for functionality for its WHY either by banishing candid dialogue (or radical candor?) to only behind the scenes.
- “Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
- “…candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work.” Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
2. Moving from student affairs silence to “good notes”
In the interview I’ve referenced with Ellen Pompeo, she describes how in 2017 she signed a new deal that will make her the highest earning actress in dramatic television, as well as the inclusion of numerous benefits to her personal and professional life. Immediately, she credits her boss and mentor (and sponsor) Shonda Rhimes, a talented force of nature, who reportedly just signed a huge deal with Netflix. As any great mentor would, Rhimes empowered Pompeo to overcome her doubts about her worth and “demand the best possible deal.”
- “As a woman, what I know is you can’t approach anything from a point of view of ‘I don’t deserve’ or ‘I’m not going to ask for because I don’t want other people to get upset…And I know for a fact that when men go into these negotiations, they go in hard and ask for the world.” Shonda Rhimes
- “Decide what you think you’re worth and then ask for what you think you’re worth. Nobody’s just going to give it to you.” Shonda Rhimes
Pompeo possessed leverage for herself in a deal with multibillion-dollar Disney being the star of a show with 12 million viewers, 300 episodes, and the number 2 drama on ABC. Student affairs professionals don’t have the luxury of leverage with numbers like those, or the ensuing payday that will be afforded Pompeo. That does not mean any student affairs professional should be intimidated by not having this kind of leverage as a sign of no leverage, or that anyone should undervalue their own worth, not prioritize their compensation package, or to expect less, especially as a woman, simply because it’s all about the students. Whether or not this nature of candid dialogue is foreign to professionals, my hope in writing this post is truly that candor can make a dramatic comeback as an act of professional loyalty and empathy, especially if this is or was a strength, or you’d like it to become one. I hope it can also make at least an equitable appearance on the stage of student affairs going forward regarding those things that matter to professionals as a talent to be celebrated not as a practice to be retaliated against because someone lacks power and privilege, or the right kind of either.
- Speaking of candor, here are two examples from last year’s ACPA, although presentations not dialogues, that demonstrate the capacity of the profession to do it. My question is why is such candor reserved for conference events when it can be integrated into daily working and learning back among campus and organization Braintrusts as Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation calls such spaces for candor?
I have both the desire for candid dialogue and the confidence of candor. I now know this is among my greatest creative strengths and to some it will forever be perceived as weakness. Ellen Pompeo demonstrates her confidence in candid dialogue in her interview and is hopefully empowering others to do the same in her industry out of a love for profession, but also a love for possessing a confidence in one’s career. Pompeo, who grew up in a neighborhood not too far, inspired me to use what privilege I may exercise through my confidence of candor not to destroy, but in hopes of building better dialogue and inspire or empower others who won’t or can’t write what I’m choosing to write. This comes at a cost, I realize. I’ve paid it and still do in my experience as this resistance to candid dialogue has not departed or given me a hall pass. I just hold on to hope and the known courage of others braver than myself that there are lots of professionals like Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, that know constructive criticism from candid dialogue are “good notes” and that as he and journalist Amy Wallace write in Creativity Inc. that “Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love” are essential ingredients to Pixar’s Braintrust and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be essential in student affairs.
Mentorship and Sponsorship
What other frank talk takeaways from the Pompeo interview did I see as relevant to student affairs? I start with at least three. Great mentorship (or ethical sponsorship) should be accessible and equitable to all working talent no matter the organizational chart guiding you on any given day. Whether that can come from “status” leadership specifically or not is more a question of time, ability, and what the mentee is seeking. Pompeo’s article addressed Rhimes’ mentorship more than her sponsorship, but clearly she had both, which was used to foster some equity. Mentorship and sponsorship in student affairs often jump over equity and maintain elitism, which is why I have consistently referred to at least the latter as ethical sponsorship in this post. If a mentor talks with you and a sponsor talks about you as the saying goes, let’s all seek to candidly acknowledge not all of either can or want to speak to or about everyone, either equitably or ethically.
In the instance of Grey’s Anatomy, Pompeo is the star. She was mentored and sponsored by Rhimes who was the boss. A question for a Rhimes interview would be how capable she was to mentor or sponsor others beyond Pompeo, because this is the question for student affairs. Most universities or colleges are not named after any one person. Therefore, mentorship or sponsorship are not obviously going to go to one person, nor should they as that would make them inaccessible and inequitable to a whole lot of people seeking either or both. Mentorship or sponsorship in student affairs should not be gifted to the leader’s favorite, the person most likely to succeed in the functional area, or for doing for those who are perceived can only do something for you.
In just one department, of say 200 employees, with one executive, one director, and maybe three associates, the mentorship or sponsorship will not exist for all those wanting and needing it. Student affairs has a supply and demand problem when the same professionals with status thanks to power and privilege continue to talk with or talk about who may best suit their narrative rather than empowering the professional narratives of the many. A legitimate question in a candid dialogue would be how are mentors or sponsors generous with their time and referrals to all talent in student affairs? The reality now is that good to great mentorship and advocacy (or ethical sponsorship) is not always equitable, or even accessible for all professionals.
- “In Shonda finding her power and becoming more comfortable with her power, she has empowered me. And that took her a while to get to, too. It was part of her evolution. It’s also why our relationship is so special. I was always loyal to her, and she responds well to loyalty. So, she got to a place where she was so empowered that she was generous with her power.” Ellen Pompeo
Corrosive Professional Politics
Ellen Pompeo shared actors typically hate discussing their paychecks. Student affairs leaders do as well. She chose to talk salary in the hopes of “setting an example for others as women in Hollywood seize a new moment of empowerment and opportunity.” No professional in student affairs will expect a 20 million dollar deal like Pompeo’s, but what is politically clear is the continued silence and salary shaming of women and any professional is a mechanism of control not empowerment. I’m going to go out on the limb and speculate that if a professional is choosing to work in student affairs they do so because they may love the work, but that they also expect to be paid the value of their worth. This may be seen as a political issue, but it surely shouldn’t be a corrosive one. An #SApro can love their job and prioritize their salary equally. That professional doesn’t have to feel bad for the latter. Another point about salary is, whether it’s a graduate student seeking a first job or a career professional seeking their fifth, that money and benefits likely matter a great deal no matter the passion for doing the job and to penalize someone for prioritizing getting paid well is simply out of touch. Negotiating for an equitable compensation package as a new hire, or as a current employee seeking a raise, in some circles is even seen as politically fatal to one’s career.
The practice of charging a candidate for interviewing with a college or university, even when turning the job down, also ends up in the corrosive politics column from fights within the college regarding funding sources to punishing candidates for not choosing them. Candidates run the risk of political retribution for not being that into you after a campus visit and the cost of interviewing may result in the same folks accepting fewer interviews. This is incredibly problematic when the reasons they may not choose you are due to not being permitted the candor to say aloud things like “the search committee chair demonstrated sexist tendencies.” The stress and silence that surround these political opportunities for candid dialogue are UNBEARABLE for those who have experienced the consequences (as is the very fear of #CareerSuicide, another hugely problematic term for another day).
If corrosive Hollywood politics is now forced to be more candid about salary and pay equity (See Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain) does the politics of student affairs/higher education really need to be forced into leading? It’s even political about providing an honest salary range for a job in downtown Chicago, so professionals don’t waste time preparing for an application knowing they could NEVER afford to interview there, or even live there. Let’s not forget, many professionals will spend money and use resources for a partner to make the campus visit too, since decisions are not always made by one person in the relationship, and surely there is no time for the partner to visit the area after the offer to decide. We also know it’s political and privileged when scaring individuals with narratives to “behave” at a conference or placement, without any implication employers are responsible to the same, or held to a higher standard. Some professionals feel good about recent signs of being BOLD regarding issues of power and privilege we face in 2018 (even recommending books like Kim Scott’s Radical Candor), but there is still far greater uncertainty when folks know that power and privilege is a burden student affairs will never unload if it never acknowledges home-grown campus specific problems with corrosive professional politics that counter the values and competencies of the field.
- “I should also say this: I don’t believe the only solution is more women in power, because power corrupts. It’s not necessarily a man or a woman thing. But there should be more of us women in power, and not just on Shonda Rhimes’ sets. Look, I only have a 12th-grade education and I wasn’t a great student, but I’ve gotten an education here at Shondaland. And now my 8-year-old daughter gets to come here and see fierce females in charge. She loves to sit in the director’s chair with the headphones on yelling “Action” and “Cut.” She’s growing up in an environment where she’s completely comfortable with power. I don’t know any other environment in Hollywood where I could provide that for her. Now I hope that changes … and soon.” Ellen Pompeo
Ellen Pompeo says of actors, “Here’s the thing: You have a choice. You can hold actors down and try to control them, but it kills their spirit and they resent being there.” I can say the same of the student affairs professional or other staff working with a college population. The sounds of silence in this caring profession can be deafening to those who are suffering in spirit or safety. Will the profession create an environment where people are comfortable with power existing in an equitable manner, or will it remain the appearance of elitism, dominant narratives, or an advocacy of the few, who benefit from group-think and celebrity status? I ask this specifically in relation to a recent candid exchange that I was fortunate to see on Twitter about how the narratives of power harm professionals like the #SApro advised to “suck it up,” “tough it out,” or “suffer through a job that harms their well-being/sanity for 1 to 2 years before moving on.”
There are professionals, new and seasoned, that are fed the only means of professional sustainability is to do what harms you to please others’ perceptions of those who don’t know you, or think they know you because they’ve seen your name, met you once at a conference, or “heard” something from one other person. Where is the candid dialogue and corresponding condemnation about environments and individuals responsible that allow for the continued convincing of a 24-year-old transgender student affairs professional and person of color, for one example, to stick with a job through the first year so as not to be seen as a “job hopper?” In this example the individual’s supervisor is also bullying the person, which is harmful and damaging the performance and physical and mental health of the employee, but the same supervisor is perceived in the profession as known and successful. Does any critical thinking professional believe advising that 24-year-old to suffer in silence is a wise piece of career advice because it holds to convention? Does anyone really think that in every environment that 24-year-old is believed by everyone, or can even risk being believed by anyone? How are those same successfully perceived professionals advising graduate students or undergraduate students suffering in the same manner? At what cost comes retention these days?
What will a professional hold against the person in the future more as a candidate? Will it be the fact they were only in a job for one year? Will it be the fact that the individual openly and sincerely explains that it was not the healthiest environment, something both possessing candor and not specifically “bad mouthing” a former employer (which is a whole other candid dialogue as to professional complicity in allowing injustice to go unidentified, and often at the expense of ourselves)? When incidents like this persist without plans to responsibly eradicate them, this demonstrates like thunder that professional sustainability in student affairs ceases to exist when reliant upon group-think, selling celebrity status, or perceived success, while hard working professionals, especially those marginalized persons and identities, suffer for lacking these conventions or working to do the opposite of such things, including daring to be frank, outspoken, or open and sincere as to why.
I’ve had nearly twenty years of exposure to the student affairs and higher education work environment and to those who sacrifice so much for the love of the profession. I know words and actions have a human cost and whether power or privilege permit us to see it or not it rests with us. My invitation in writing this is for more professionals to find empowerment with capacity to seek candid dialogue. I invite more to provide “good notes” regarding silence or the overdone vocabulary of “professionalism,” politeness, and positivity, which may deter or completely end the creativity or innovation discovered in being outspoken, frank, and demonstrating candid dialogue. I have both the desire for candid dialogue and the confidence of candor. If you’ve read this far you know there is distinction between complaining and candor. If you’re still here, you likely consider equitable capacity for candor a refreshing concept. If you needed these words to both comfort and challenge, you may know in your heart that you are not alone in needing either. Find those people. Find me. Find a candid dialogue near you, or craft ones far and wide that we all need and deserve. #Lifes2Short4BS