Ronald Hendrick: Assessing our cultures to create lasting change
Ronald Hendrick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, gave an opening talk during the annual ANR Week luncheon on March 9. Here are comments from his speech.
This is an event where you usually hear me talk about how many students we have, about their successes and our latest extension, research and legislative accomplishments.
Make no mistake, that work is going on – but it seems disingenuous to talk about those things today.
Instead, I want to talk about the power and agency that we have to effect change and how we might do that as individuals and together.
As a white man in a discipline and environment dominated by other white men, my world is full of places and systems made for me.
The good ol’ boy network, golf courses, after-hours meetings – the list goes on and on. And, as a tenured faculty member at a Big Ten university, I enjoy many privileges that others do not.
These are the systems, spaces and accepted norms where I can operate very comfortably and be extremely successful.
There’s a problem though: It’s easy for me; perhaps too easy. As I look around meeting tables, conference rooms and classrooms, I often see stunning similarity and a distinct lack of difference.
Differences in things like race, gender, sexual orientation and class all shape how we experience the world – and for too long, I failed to appreciate the impact I can have as a white male who values those differences in others.
There isn’t one specific event that led me to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion as a leadership priority for me. But I feel a strong sense of responsibility to others to ensure that people aren’t left out or disadvantaged just because they’re different. And to respect their value as human beings, worthy of dignity.
I wish the values of diversity, equity and inclusion were pervasive in higher education, but they are not. If they truly were, as a university, we would have handled the events leading up to our recent crisis and the crisis itself much differently.
Like many of you, I’ve witnessed plenty of things that run counter to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion:
- The female student in my field-based ecology class relegated to recording data, rather than collecting it
- People of color not hired into academic program positions because they might not “relate well” to current or prospective white students
- Female staff members sexually harassed at the hands – literally – of alumni and donors because goodwill or money was more important than their dignity
- The LGBTQ colleagues who chose to stay home from work-related social functions rather than enduring awkward questions or gazes
- The subtler forms of discrimination and exclusivity in education – being told to leave my associate’s degree off my résumé (It might suggest that I wasn’t smart enough to make it on the first time around.)
Chances are that at some point, every one of us has experienced some struggle to fit into a system that wasn’t made to include us.
We understand, most starkly, the sharp generational differences in our companies, departments and teams, but there are hidden differences to which we’ve been oblivious all along.
The truth is we need to understand each other more.
The truth is, we need more diversity, more people included and more equity not only at our university, but also in our industries – to be better at what we do and to understand whom we serve.
The educator in me wants very much to live up to the lofty expectations of the next generation – to pave a pathway for those who haven’t had the same advantages or opportunities I have.
And I wish I could say I’ve always embodied values of diversity, equity and inclusion – and treated others accordingly, but I cannot. Certainly not in my youth, but not always in my professional life either.
At times, I stood by or held back when I could have used my position, privilege and the power associated with it to make a change. In other cases, the counsel, candor and openness of my colleagues has made the difference.
As I’ve moved through faculty ranks and administrative roles, lived longer and met more people, I have come to realize that the only way for me to operate responsibly is to embrace my ability to make a difference for others. I need to use my power, my agency, my privilege to set the stage for others.
The cultures we have created work well for us but they don’t usually include others. At least, this can result in missed opportunities, and at worst – recent events like those on our campus.
We can’t just hope that another Larry Nassar situation won’t happen again.
It is absolutely incumbent upon us to assess our cultures to create lasting change wherever necessary.
I stand here knowing that this work matters.
I’ve seen it transform people.
When voices are heard, seats at the table given, respect and dignity offered, people change.
We rise to challenges we never considered attainable.
We work harder than ever before because we share responsibility.
Our lives become richer for the relationships we develop with people we never knew.
I don't want to undervalue or understate the work that we do here in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, but fostering the success of others and changing cultures and organizations is more important than dollars raised and degrees earned.
By continuing to embrace our ability and responsibility to make a difference for others, we will change our respective worlds.
Ultimately, though, it won’t matter how good we are here at MSU, if you are not willing and able to use your position, privilege and power to make a difference for others as well.
These connections represent our better selves – when we acknowledge them, we are more vulnerable, uncertain, unsure.
More importantly, though, we are more authentic, genuine and real.
At MSU and beyond, this is precisely the time to be all of those things.
Listen to Hendrick's full speech here.