Finding a Place in Higher Education

Throughout my academic and professional career in the world of higher education, I occupied a rare range of roles and responsibilities: I served as an associate provost for diversity and inclusion, as a tenured-track faculty member, and as a female director of athletics. In those many roles, I recall distinct moments when I heard a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, message to stay in my place, or, at times, to pretend I wasn’t even present in the room.

I often compare these near out-of-body experiences to a chilling scene in Lee Daniels’s movie The Butler, when Annabeth tells Cecil Gaines, who is played by Forest Whitaker: “When you’re serving, I don’t even want to hear you breathe. The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”

It’s a simple, yet sinister message that I have both absorbed and railed against. Today, I recognize how those moments changed, challenged, and taught me the true meaning of courageous leadership and the importance of passing along what I’ve learned to others.

I’ve learned that knowing one’s place and staying in one’s place are two different things. Knowing your place is about understanding the social, political, and individual contributions you bring to your position of power. Staying in your place is an act of oppression. Whether self-imposed or externally enforced, the “stay in your place” mentality is designed to ensure current power structures remain intact.

As a leadership consultant, I believe we’ve spent too much time focusing on leadership attributes, theories, skills development, and power dynamics. In the process, we've managed to make highly functioning, emotionally astute, and sometimes introverted individuals feel like they shouldn’t have a place at the leadership table. Too often, we’ve been taught that leadership and leading are reserved for a select few—a perspective that is both disingenuous and shortsighted.

I also believe that many of us choose to stay in our place, or not speak up, due to fear—fear of losing a job, not making tenure, being viewed as an outcast, or misrepresenting the entire university community. These fears are pervasive weapons that consistently stifle educational leaders from becoming public thought leaders. To be clear, fears of reduced job security, promotion opportunities, or longevity are not new social concerns or specific to educators. However, in a society that espouses the ideology of meritocracy and the importance of intellectual rigor and democracy, one must wonder why the most educated among us remain cautious about contributing years of their research, evidence, and educated views on matters that impact the larger society to audiences outside of scholarly outlets.

Our democracy depends on public intellectuals, researchers, and scholars to analyze, critique, and contribute to the vast national dialogues that impact the critical issues of today and help shape our collective futures. Despite both the seen and unseen consequences of speaking up, silence is equally dangerous, especially from those with the intellectual capacity to contribute in meaningful ways. As a leader, I have come to see the cost of this silence as too high, and its impact as both devastating and long lasting.

Finally, I learned that stepping into your rightful place takes passion and, yes, rage. In my book, Navigating CouRage: A Black Woman’s Journey in Academia and Athletics, I contend that only in times of indignation, or when we are outraged about an injustice or action, do we reduce our reliance on the cost-benefit analysis of our own safety and decide to act. Courage, I believe, is rooted in community. It requires both personal and collective sacrifice, a deep love for humanity, and the understanding that we are all interconnected. It requires each of us, individually and collectively, to be better and demand better in the face of fear. Be courageous.

Robin Martin is president/founder of Leading Beyond the Post, Inc. For more information about Martin, visit the Leading Beyond the Post website. Follow her on Instagram at dr.robin_martin.