A photo taken during one of my walks this week — exercise has always been an important way for me to deal with stress.

Week 4: Frustration During the Holiday Season

Events in the world and higher ed are on my mind

Terri E. Givens - terrigivens.com
Published in
4 min readDec 14, 2023

--

Overall my workouts have been going well this past week, I’m glad that I’m still able to do most of the moves without pain, and I’m grateful to my chiropractor who has helped my arthritic knees along with my back. I’m getting stronger and I’m hopeful that I will continue to stay relatively pain free, at least in my back. The knees are another story, and I’m going to have to work through some of that pain. However, most of my frustrations this week aren’t with my physical issues, but more with what is going on in the world and the impact it has had on higher ed. I have to admit that there are times over the last couple of weeks when I have felt like doing a few good primal screams.

I’m not going to go into detail on what has been a disappointing and dizzying week in higher ed news. I will only say that I’m glad that the leadership at Harvard is supporting President Claudine Gay. Although I don’t know her personally, I have followed her career as a fellow political scientist and was thrilled but worried when she became President of Harvard just a few months ago.

As a Black woman who has held leadership positions in higher ed, I’m well aware of the target that is on your back the minute you take on a new leadership position. I have never felt so undermined in any position as I was when working in a provost’s office. The slings and arrows not only came from faculty, but even more often from colleagues who were supposed to be working with me — and keeping the welfare of our students in mind. Unfortunately I have learned that many in leadership positions are more concerned about maintaining their positions than they are about supporting their institutions (and I can reassure folks that I have not run into these issues in my current post).

I feel like I have been holding my breath over the last few months, waiting for something to happen ever since Claudine Gay was inaugurated at Harvard in late September. I didn’t have to wait long…an opportunist in the House of Representatives chose 3 university presidents, all women, and all relatively new to their posts, to bring in as witnesses on something that has affected colleges across the nation. After a badly managed hearing, where the presidents’ poor responses about genocide and antisemitism led to outrage, one was forced to resign. I was glad to see the faculty at Harvard rally around President Gay and the cause of academic freedom.

This situation upset me because I had lived through it before. When the Governor of Texas went after our President at UT Austin, I was prepared to speak up for him at our Faculty Senate meeting, in front of the media that had gathered as part of the spectacle. Halfway through the presentations, and before I had a chance to make mine, someone rushed in to stop the proceedings, saying that a compromise had been reached and our president had agreed to stay one more year. I was glad he was able to stay on, but I have always felt that the stress of that time took a toll on his health.

I won’t go into all the other ways that I have experienced the stress and strain of academic leadership (I discuss some of them in my book, Radical Empathy), but I decided long ago that I didn’t want to be a university president. Unfortunately, the events of this week aren’t going to make it any more attractive. That is likely part of the agenda of those who decided to bring the three presidents before Congress. Weakening higher education seems to be part of the ongoing playbook of many on the right. However, it is times like these that we all need to step up and call for our institutions to do the right thing as educators. I feel that if we focus on our mission, and focus on the need to avoid doing harm, we can find our way through these treacherous waters. I also recommend the work of my friend, Jonathan Friedman, at PEN America who has been a staunch supporter of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

These frustrations aren’t likely to abate anytime soon. It will take a lot of extra self-care to manage a hectic holiday season, end-of-semester grading, ongoing culture wars in which I feel I have a personal stake, and real wars where lives are being lost. It’s easy to feel helpless at times like these, but there’s much that one can do, for yourself, and if you want to help those impacted by war. I’ll be keeping all of this in mind as I throw weights around at the gym — sometimes working it out is the best way to deal with frustration, with the added benefit of staying on track with my rehab.

As far as what is going on in the US — start paying attention to what is happening in your community. Reach out to your elected officials and let them know your thoughts. When you are talking to friends and family members, use radical empathy. Breathe. (Yes, I’m reminding myself to do all of this, too!)

Tower beach at the University of British Columbia

--

--

Terri E. Givens - terrigivens.com
3Streams

Professor of Political Science, McGill University. Higher Ed Leadership, Immigration & European politics. Author of Radical Empathy & The Roots of Racism