I have been thinking to blog for quite some time. The question in my mind has been to what purpose should I be blogging. Let me start today by exploring my leadership philosophy. I have been a scholar of leadership, have closely observed executive-level leadership, and have practiced leadership – all in diverse and pluralist contexts. During my earthly sojourn, I have developed a multidimensional philosophy of leadership. Here I will elaborate on one of the dimensions – let’s call it philosophy of ambileadership. The prefix ambi- means ‘around’ and ‘both’, and expresses a quest for inclusiveness and expansiveness (Chen, 2014). My philosophy of ambileadership is about both acting as well as activating, sustaining as well as transforming, leading as well as enabling leading. Here I will share a particular articulation of this philosophical component, inspired by Reinecke and Ansari (2015)’s case study of Fairtrade I read over the weekend. I apply that articulation to share my thoughts on the need for ambileadership in one of the grand challenges of today’s public higher education – student success and graduation.

Ambileadership at Fairtrade – A case studyJuliane Reinecke and Shaz Ansari (2015)[1] advance the concept of “ambitemporality” to explain the reconstitution of Fairtrade’s development model. Fairtrade International is an organization connecting low-income community development in the emerging markets with markets in the industrial markets. It operates at the crossroads of two worlds – producer development world in the emerging markets, and market for ethically certified products in the industrial markets. Fairtrade’s ethical label is a promise of fairer trading and developmental support. They offer training to the producers and facilitate market access. 

Its biggest challenge: whether the limited resource producers must be held to specific objective standards of compliance for the purchases to be certified as fair trade? And, if the producers are held to specific objective standards, what it means for their agency – i.e. their freedom to make own choices about how to achieve their own development.
The Big paradox: Using objective standards to enforce particular development outcomes vs. Empowering those at-risk to become developed. The former is based on the assumptions of those already “in the market” about what it means to be a member of the market. The latter is based on the realities of those “not in the market” about what barriers exclude them from the market. Many barriers are cultural and psychological – such as the lack of confidence. Others are infrastructural and structural – such as the lack of resources or market channels that allow them to learn, to innovate, and even to be creative.

Now here is the ground reality: If the purpose of product certification is to certify outcomes as evidence of development, then such certification system will discourage most limited resource producers to even try to be compliant and be part of the global market system. In this scenario, the world would achieve neither inclusive development nor expansive market growth.

Let’s consider some solutions Faitrade tried.

One initial solution to this dilemma was to certify those unable to achieve full compliance to standards as “partially compliant”. Reality check – this approach did not really offer any credibility to the consumers in the market. They struggled with whether to make partial payments for those products? Or, whether to penalize the traders in the industrial markets for not offering additional support to those producers? This led the traders to operate with the purpose of managing risks of partial non-compliance, rather than to develop producers in the emerging markets.

Another solution was to establish a training program, with time-bound program of how to achieve compliance with the development outcomes. Reality check – different producers face different realities and very few are able to persist and succeed in achieving specific outcomes in time-bound manner. If the guiding philosophy is inclusive market access, then this solution was problematic.

A third solution was to establish local support centers, who offer focused support to address most significant barriers. Reality check – different producers respond differently to the support offered; some become dependent on such support being offered on an ongoing basis and regress when the support ceases. Some do not even have the same support needs, and their development – ability to learn, be innovative, and be creative – may actually be hindered if the support is inappropriate.

Fairtrade thus needed to learn to recognize that development’s temporality is different from the market temporality. Development may occur through varying pathways, and over varying timeframes. It is not appropriate for the players in the market to determine the timeframe for compliance to the producers in the emerging markets. What is most important is first for the producers to join the process of this development, and for them to have the temporal flexibility for their individual development scenarios. It is also important to recognize the different “starting positions” of producers as well as the different paces and pathways of progress. Then, why not give the producers a choice of the components that they would like to achieve compliance with over a certain timeframe. And, why not give the producers a voice in the timeframe of observations through which to capture the moving picture of the impact made on their lives through fair trade certification. Further, why not give the producers a control over the desired outcomes of development – those with short temporal depth such as constructing additional schools and hospitals in limited resource producer communities, or those with long temporal depth such as capacity or confidence building by addressing cultural and psychological barriers and infrastructural and structural barriers through training of nurses, teachers, and local leaders.

The market temporality mindset could not envisage giving the producers any choice, voice, or control. It felt that each producer group has different problems at different times, and it would be very challenging to align “different time themes within one single organization.” Without common standards of compliance, uniform timeframes, and objective outcomes, industrial market consumers would experience a credibility gap. It had trouble recognizing that imposing market temporality on the producer groups was creating a development gap, excluding those who were not in a position to comply with the fast paced and definitive standards of the market. And, that this development gap in turn was escalating the credibility gap faced by the industrial market consumers about trade with the emerging markets, despite the presence of fair trade certification. Mindsets in the two worlds – industrial and emerging – were “entrained” to the respective audiences and ground realities. However, with recognition of these interdependencies, there was an “interpretive shift” – Fairtrade recognized it had to embrace need for a ‘socially effective way of certification.”

Fairtrade revised its standards to give producers partial choice and voice over the components and the timeframe – it did so by using a mutlstakeholder process to refocus its standards more on processes that lead to development rather than perfect results. In the revised framework, producers are scored on a 1-5 scale on different standard components, and progress is evaluated in average levels of compliance (3 out of 5) across the entire set of components. More importantly, producers now have full control over the desired development outcomes – they make their own development plan, themselves deciding what they want to achieve and when.

Here is where the Reinecke & Ansari’s (2015) concept of ambitemporality comes to play. The new Fairtrade framework strives to accommodate both the emergent nature of development as well as the formality of certification. It has become sensitive to its pluralistic environment – that includes both the market world of the industrial nations as well as the development world of the emerging nations. It recognizes the ‘temporal commons” – the common super-world where the individual worlds with their distinct temporal orientations exist. These individual worlds have their own temporal assumptions. Temporal reflexivity emerges through dialog and contestation, and mutual appreciation of interdependencies between seemingly conflicting goals. This then helps citizens transcend their narrow worldviews and develop learning, innovate and create.

From the case study of Fairtrade, we can infer that Ambileadership is about a particular type of boundary work – temporal brokerage. That is, fostering ambitemporality in the organization and its larger system, when there seem to be intractable pressures for entrainment to conflicting expectations of internal and external audiences. And to align seemingly conflicting expectations for performing in the present and developing for the future. And to align immediate pressures for meeting the objective outcomes and deeper concerns for cultural intangibles such as stakeholder motivation. Above all to recognize and help members recognize that different market and development outcomes have varying temporalities, and prioritizing, supporting, and rewarding progress both in terms of growth (market logic) as well as development (human logic).

Ambileadership for Student Success – A Lived ExperiencePresently, one of the grand challenges facing public higher education is the issue of student success. National Clearinghouse 2017 report using data for the Fall 2010 cohort shows only 60% of the students joining 4-year public universities in the US are able to graduate in six years, and by that time, 25% already drop out from the pursuit of the degree[2]. This begs three major questions that have been widely debated: (1) are public universities and public funds (for students studying in privates and for profits) trying to serve too many students, including those non-deserving i.e. not prepared to succeed in the four-year college? (2) are students not being provided appropriate support they need to develop into effective and engaged learners? (3) are faculty not adapting their curriculum, course content, and pedagogy to the development scenarios of average students, and if they should be expected to adapt to even those of individual students?

Advocates underline the need for greater levels of college education – evidence clearly shows college education is associated with physically, psychologically, socio-culturally, politically, and economically healthier citizens as well as communities (see, for instance, College Board’s Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society[3]). Labor market projections show that the emerging world of technology requires more, not less, of college educated workforce (see, Skills 2030, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2017[4]). Over time, college going rates in the US have risen rapidly, receding only recently after the meltdown in the for-profit higher education sector (Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017[5]). Yet increasing college going rates have meant more students who are first generation (first in their family to pursue college education), who are from limited resource families and communities (low socio-economic status), who operate with alternative and highly unique and diverse life experiences, and who have limited psychological and social capital for the rigors of the college education. In essence, more students in development category.

Funding, student support, and academic systems of public universities in the US are guided more by the market logic. First, students are largely expected to fund their own college education, using either loans or grants for which they qualify. The expectation is that the students will be able to repay the loans in a defined time period from higher incomes earned after graduation. And, they will be able to create sufficient multiplier effects in the community’s wealth, to justify the community’s cost of grants. Second, student support is disproportionately targeted at those in the development category, with a market-based logic that the resources dedicated to supporting these students are more than justified by both the costs of low success of these students as well as the benefits of they actually succeeding.

Third, despite criticism for their reluctance to change, academic systems are gradually recognizing the needs of students in the development category, and are experimenting with alternative curriculum, content, and pedagogy – those that de-emphasize individual learning and large, complex assignments, and focus more on peer-based learning, open materials, and phased projects. While being fully committed to standards of excellence and rigor, faculty are embracing the developmental principles of multi-level learning goals, with varying temporalities established based on the varying needs of the student groups at different phases of their college education, and assessment of these learning goals at varying temporal periods. There is also a time-tested peer review process, that includes not only internal but also independent, external reviewers, from comparable and/or aspirant peer institutions.

Thus, the locus of student success problem appears to be neither in the fact that disproportionately more students in development category are joining colleges, nor in the faculty priority on academic rigor and excellence while seeking to innovate and create curriculum, courses, and pedagogies for a more diverse group of today’s students. We can and should certainly improve in strengthening the pathways that prepare students before joining the college, and in adopting more inclusive methods in the academy.

Can we say the same for the market logic guided system of student support in colleges? Let’s review the evidence. Over the recent years, university budget dedicated to student services has risen rapidly ($1636 per full time equivalent in 2013, rising 28% over a 10 year period for the master’s granting public institutions). Although student services was only 9.4% of the budget of the master’s granting public institutions in 2003, it accounted for more than 36% of the dollar rise in higher education costs over 2003-2013 (Delta Cost Project, 2016[6]). As the cost of supporting a student body that has larger ratio of development category students has increased, the universities have doubled up on their efforts to attract those not in this category. They are discounting their tuition more heavily for such students, and allocating greater share of funds for resortification capital projects, striving to offer a resort style environment where students from better resourced families and communities might feel welcome and therefore more likely to join. These students not only put less pressure on the student support resources, but also are more likely to be from families and communities who could afford the differential nonresident fees and who have greater wealth and therefore more likely to have the capacity to leave large legacy gifts if they have a great residential college experience.

How can we then create a student support system that works – where it makes as much sense for the colleges to have students in development category, as it does for them to have students not in that category? Can ambileadership offer an effective answer to this grand challenge for higher education today?

Clearly, the problem of student support is connected with conflicting expectations of offering education to a more inclusive, but less prepared and less resourced, group of students, versus to the more selective, and better prepared and better resources, group of students. These conflicting expectations play out among different internal and external audiences. There are also conflicting expectations for ensuring that the students perform and graduate in 4 years, vs. letting students pursue the college at their own varying pace based on their own individual development scenarios. There is limited alignment between resources being allocated for increasing student credit load, degree applicable credits, and student success in these credits (the objective outcomes), vs. for capacity building in the universities to more effectively support students in development category using existing resources. Above all, there is little recognition of the different temporalities associated with these objective outcomes vs. capacity building and culture development outcomes. Facing pressures to perform immediately and urgently in a linear temporal way, the universities are inadvertently prioritizing, supporting and rewarding the efforts associated with objective outcomes. The efforts focused on capacity building and culture development are consequently in danger of being sidelined.

Many senior university administrators are acutely aware of this challenge. They play the “dance of ambitemporalitiy” on an ongoing basis – they recognize resources are limited and diminishing to move the needle on overall graduation and timely graduation for an inclusive group of students. Thus, it is imperative for them to double up on capacity building and culture development outcomes, so that the market expectations could be met even as the resources get scarce. The question is whether this need for ambitemporalitiy in student success initiatives is also shared among those who are in the administrative team leadership search committees. In other words, do faculty and staff, who constitute critical and often deciding members of the administrative leadership search committees in the public universities, understand the need for ambitemporality and recognize ambitemporality?

Here is what I can observe based on my lived experience. In contexts where an increasing share of resources is being devoted to student support in search of short term raising of the objective outcomes, the burden is disproportionately felt at the level of faculty and staff. Faculty and staff are experiencing both rising workloads as well as compression in compensation, with contingent faculty and staff at a particular disadvantage in the latter. There is therefore both psychological and social imperative among the faculty and staff in the search committees to select administrative leaders who have and will likely perform well in delivering on the objective outcomes. This pressure is being felt by faculty and staff not only those on the search committees, but also those not. The development focused efforts are under appreciated and less understood. Unfortunately, as a result, the universities are facing continued pressure to sustain and increase student services budget, even as the progress on objective outcomes remains mixed, and even as the faculty and staff workload pressures and dilution of tenure density and rise in student faculty ratios persists.

What is the solution? I urge all stakeholders to learn from the case of Fairtrade international. On surface, there was a strong rationale to persist with the market based logic of full compliance with objective standards. That would have meant increasing costs for helping individual producers achieve those standards, trade offs in terms of numbers of producers who could have been so supported, and exclusion of a large number of particularly vulnerable producer groups from the fairtrade certification system – thus eroding the overall credibility of industrial consumers about trading from the emerging nations. Ambileadership at Fairtrade emerged organically, because the historical roots of Fairtrade were in offering development capacity building support to the ultra limited resource producer groups. The costs of helping producer groups to be compliant with the fairtrade standards fell dramatically, leading to a scalable inclusion and empowered agency with dignity, when the emphasis shifted to recognizing capacity building efforts focused on making progress on self-determined outcomes. Validation of these capacity building efforts was recognized as being fair trade compliant, and this certification in turn offered access to market and fair terms of trade, thereby organically generating resources to sustain and enhance these capacity building efforts without added external support. Faitrade initiative was formerly perceived as foreign and western driven selective label for the highly privileged who were willing and able to afford the costs of exclusivity, but now it is being embraced as a collaborative expansive global movement accessible to all.

I contend that the student support investments should be equitably targeted at and available to all students – whether they are in development category or not. I further contend that by seeking to do so, the universities will be able to develop non-traditional solutions to address the student support needs without added resources. I additionally contend that as the student support budgets are streamlined and extended to all students, the pressures for investing in resort-style facilities to bring students not in development category are likely to ease. I suggest these outcomes would release future resources for the universities to invest in workload balancing, compensation augmentation, tenure appointments, and faculty development support. I submit that both effective capacity building for student services and academic capacity rebuilding are urgently needed to move the needle on college going rates as well as timely college graduation rates on the one hand, and on stopping the flight of non-development category students to other regions and institutions and burden on their families and communities of differential non-resident tuition fees and on the nation of their high debt on graduation.


Categories: Blog / Published On: July 10th, 2017 /