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Higher Education – Who Belongs Here? Inclusive leadership and belonging in a post-pandemic world

16 Jul 2020 | Cindy Vallance Cindy Vallance, Advance HE Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, sets the scene ahead of the Advance HE’s Global Perspectives webinar: Higher Education – ‘Who Belongs Here?’ on 22 July.

Before we can address the concept of who belongs in HE, we must first determine the meaning of belonging as it applies here. Belonging, in its simplest form means “an affinity for a place or situation.” It can also mean “the feeling of being accepted and approved by a group or by society as a whole.” How does the concept of belonging relate to inclusive leadership?

Leading within a large complex organisation to create a climate of belonging for both students and staff in a turbulent global environment requires sensitivity to the local, national and international context within higher education and is not for the faint hearted. Successful leadership today requires the courage to consider cause and effect, to make decisions, to set priorities and to take actions that demonstrate this commitment. This has never been more the case than now as we work through the experience of a global pandemic and so many associated events, including a worldwide outcry against social injustice and inequality as well as the very real likelihood of a global economic recession.

Is a social recession also inevitable? How can university leaders chart the way to a more   positive social future instead? What part does belonging play in realising a positive social future? These are questions we are grappling with as we make our way forward in continuing uncertain times.

In his highly acclaimed 2020 book, Together, (1) Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States during the Obama Administration, recounts his conversations with Dr. John Paul Lederach, an international peace builder and conflict resolution expert who has given great consideration to the mechanisms that pull people together and tear them apart. He posits that “the challenge…is how are we as a global family going to attend to the basic fundamentals of creating the right of belonging?” For Lederach, the first step to promote a sense of belonging means meeting and serving people. He mentions the importance of physically going to “where they live;” to their homes or neighbourhoods; and which builds collective empathy to see the world as they see it. He explains that this vantage point is especially important when meeting people who are different from you, with whom you want to build connection in spite of fear or distrust.

How does this work in a university environment? Given the many competing priorities, university leaders face, how can they go to ‘where they (students/staff) live?’ This is a topic of great interest here in the UK as well as internationally. For instance, a top strategic priority for UK student mental health charity Student Minds is to empower the role and agency of students, including the aim to “increase belonging and to campaign for change locally and nationally.”

Advance HE is actively exploring the challenges and opportunities for increasing inclusive approaches that enhance belonging for staff and students. For example, recent activities include a blog authored by Jess Moody and an accompanying webinar that has considered the equality considerations of staff safety when reopening campuses; Doug Parkin has led a significant programme of consultative events and publications considering how to stay connected at a time when we face socially distanced campuses and education; and Jonathan Neves has highlighted a focus on student engagement to create the best possible student experience from our Advance HE 2020 Surveys and Insights conference.

Additionally, Advance HE 2020 Teaching and Learning keynote conference speaker and guest writer Buge Apampa, recently considered how universities can create environments conducive to ‘meaningful learning’ for all students. How can those who lead use their power and influence to “lift others as they climb” as Buge suggested in her keynote? When we do not feel adequately represented, when we feel invisible, when we feel isolated, when we feel ‘other,’ challenging emotions constrict the mind, diminish wellbeing and have a negative impact on meaningful learning. On the other hand, approaches that contribute to a sense of inclusion and belonging include practicing intellectual and emotional curiosity, listening to understand, and the conscious use of compassionate and empathetic language.

By becoming more open through our own self-directed learning, developing knowledge, skills and behaviours related to the enhancement of our intellectual, physical, emotional, social and psychological resources, we can broaden and build on meaningful learning and enhance a sense of belonging with others. Through service to others, to going ‘to them’ and by practicing the social justice work articulated by keynote speaker, Paul Miller (2) at the Teaching and Learning conference, we also help ourselves. After all, belonging need not and should not be a zero sum game.

Continuing conversations

Join us at the upcoming Advance HE Global Perspectives webinar Higher Education (Members only) – Who Belongs Here on 22 July which will probe these topics and more.

Three senior leaders have been invited to present their unique perspectives on their institution’s approach to fostering a sense of belonging and inclusivity for staff and students and how their own professional journey has provided them with insights on the importance and value of belonging. We will then consider through a question and answer session how the experiences of our speakers and their reflections on belonging provide opportunities for us all to develop more reflexive and inclusive leadership practices. Our panel of expert speakers includes:

  1. Murthy, Vivek. H. Together, Wellcome Collection, 2020.
  2. Miller, Paul, Nola P. Hill-Berry, Kadia Hylton-Fraser and Shernette Powell, “Social Justice Work as Activism: The Work of Education Professionals in England and Jamaica.” International Studies in Educational Administration, Volume 47, No. 1, 2019, p. 3-19.
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