Why We Should Care: Lessons from Lincoln University

Why We Should Care: Lessons from Lincoln University

Karen Gross 19/01/2024
Why We Should Care: Lessons from Lincoln University

It is hard to be an educational administrator; I know from first hand experience.

It is actually not a job; it is a lifestyle.  Senior administrators do not have normal working hours.  They work  (or are on call) 24/7, although I often said I worked 36/7 as a way of stating that the work was never done.  And let’s be blunt: most people do not go into an administrator’s office because everything is going along swimmingly.  People don’t come into your office to comment on how well you are doing your job. They come into your office because they have a problem and they expect that you will be able to solve it. I used to say that my schedule each day was different from what appeared in the calendar because something always came up – whether it involved students or parents or alums or faculty or staff or the community or some combination.  

All of this makes me worry about how administrators are faring these days (from the number of firings, the answer is not so well).  I know the role of administrator is getting increasingly difficult with the passage of time; the post-Pandemic woes of a wide ranging sort are real.  Were I a guessing person, I suspect most educational leaders are struggling with their work.  I am quite sure most are struggling with their work/home balance. I assume many are dealing with their own health or the health of their family.   I presume that social media has made matters worse and there is only so much badgering that one can take with ease.

I know that in student centered institutions, we pay close attention to the wellbeing of our students – their academic health and their mental health.  And this is hard work and not getting any easier. But, as important as students are (and they are), I think we need to ask not only how our students are managing but how our educators (including administrators) are managing.  We need to ensure that those who are caring for and helping students in any number of ways are doing well themselves.  Trauma is transmissible for the record; that’s what secondary trauma is: trauma we get from another.

I have often said, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.”  This means we need to make sure we are regularly filling the cups of those giving to others.   That’s a big undertaking and begs for administrators and colleagues to support one another.  It begs for a culture that allows people to ask for help and for colleagues to suggest that help might be needed.   We need to be aware, as we are with students, whether we see behavior or words or actions that suggest someone is struggling. And, we need to enable them to feel that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  We aren’t judging; we are helping.

Two incidents make me raise this point yet again – and I have raised it sadly in the past. 

Pre-Pandemic, the head of student mental health services at the University of Pennsylvania leap to his death from his apartment on a high floor – during World Suicide Prevention Week.  How the university dealt with his suicide is a topic for another day but I have been plagued by a question since this tragedy: Did no one notice that this individual was struggling? Did no one see his pain and speak up? Did no one reach out?   And if they did, did they follow up and make sure he was safe?  Why was he alone if he was at risk?

For the record, on my own campus, we called police for safety checks several times, not always with success but we did see the risks for sure and acted.

The recent suicide of the VP for Student Affairs at Lincoln University in Missouri (an HBCU) has made me question why no one took action when they saw the anguish and distress of this administrator.  Why did no one (or so it seems in the reporting) step in to help her?  Her death has caused deep distress on her campus and led to the paid leave of the President while an independent investigation is undertaken. 

I don’t have all or even most of the facts; that’s for sure.  But, the situation leaves me with many questions – largely unanswered -- about what occurred.  And it should not go unnoticed that the administrator was a woman of color and the President is a white male. At least we need to ask whether race played any role in the failure to address the VP’s struggles?

The tragedies at UPenn and Lincoln also raise for me the larger question of whether we are doing enough to support our colleagues, particularly those who are new to their positions, who are members of racial or ethnic minorities (and hence in a minority within education) and who may feel too vulnerable to ask for help. 

Yes, we can lament that too many administrators may not feel they have the freedom to ask for help without stigma and professional damage. That’s a big issue to be sure – one that calls for huge cultural change.  We can also ask whether others within institutions reach out sufficiently to provide non-stigmatized help and support and whether administrators work to sustain their colleagues (assuming they view them as colleagues).  I’m asking whether we actually support each other in educational settings or whether, despite proximity, we let those around us struggle without intervention.  We know, don’t we, who might be struggling with fitting in and feeling a part of a team?

With the suicides of senior administrators and the departures of others across the educational pipeline (whether fired or departing), we need to pause and not just bemoan the losses. We need to think hard about how to prevent the losses and how best to support those with whom we work.  

Think about this. There are scandals on far too many campuses and somehow, people say they never saw them.  Athletics is a key place for this.  Really, no one knew what was happening at Penn State or Michigan State? No one?  Well, struggles with mental health may lead some to say they never saw it. They were surprised. They saw no indicators.   Really?  Could that be true?  And if it is true, we are not looking hard enough or in the right places – both in athletics and in terms of mental wellness.

So, here’s a suggestion for all administrators: take care of your fellow administrators with the same intensity with which you take care of your students.  Both groups need your thoughtfulness, your support, your wisdom and your caring.   Is that too much to ask?  I think not.  The consequences of not acting and reaching out can be grave.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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