Drowning in “leaders,” starving for leadership

The Spartan Skeptic

Not too long ago, I overheard a tour guide tell a prospective student “Case Western Reserve University has many leadership opportunities.”

The prospie replied, “What do you mean by that?,” causing the tour guide’s manufactured smile to be briefly replaced with a look of confused irritation.

But maybe that young prospie was on to something. What is leadership? Bill Gates once said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Kevin Kruse of Forbes claims “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”

What does leadership mean to you?

While you consider that, let’s examine the path taken to get CWRU’s new gender-inclusive housing options, which aim to allow students who don’t conform to society’s standard gender identities have a greater degree of safety in their on-campus living situations. The Residence Hall Association (RHA) began the effort in August 2014, according to their president, Victoria Robinson. RHA representatives met with university staff who would have a say on the issue, researched policies held by other schools, and devised a plan that would work for CWRU. They took the plan to Housing and Residence Life, who took it to Student Affairs.

But Student Affairs wasn’t willing to implement a policy without some sort of proof that Gender-Inclusive Housing would be important to the student body. So RHA was referred to the Director of Assessment for the Student Affairs Operations and Planning Department (try saying that 10 times fast), where its student survey went through several rounds of edits before Robinson was finally told that the department only ever permitted one student survey active at a time, so it would be months before their survey ever saw a student.

Enter now senior, m.c. Perrin. Perrin had heard about early talks to implement a gender-inclusive housing policy, and had been hoping to use it. When they found that the housing application for 2015 lacked a gender-inclusive option, Perrin said they were really angry, but also really scared. So Perrin decided to take matters into their own hands, and with a handful of friends, sat down and talked to whomever would listen. When they found out that Student Affairs wanted data to demonstrate community support, they made a Google form to garner support, which reached over 100 signatures in the first weekend alone, and over 150 soon thereafter. After some time and many executive meetings later, the inclusive policy was rushed into production.

Perrin’s role granted no title or official position to put on a resume, but they very arguably exhibited Kruse’s aforementioned use of social influence to accomplish a goal.

The probably underpaid tour guide I passed on the quad this summer wasn’t wrong: CWRU does have many leadership opportunities. We’ve got large leadership-focused organizations like the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), RHA, University Programming Board, Class Officers Collective (COC), the Inter-Fraternal Congress, and the Panhellenic Council. Let’s not even delve into the over 170 student organizations and clubs each with their own at least four member executive boards, the Center for Civic Engagement and and Learning, or the office of Student Activities and Leadership or the many others.

The stated objectives of these leadership-focused groups tend to boil down to one or both of two goals: advocating the perspective of students to the administration and organizing events. And while they often do a pretty good job at this, there is still room for improvement.

The tale of gender-inclusive housing is just one of many involving students void of official position stepping up to do the job of our leadership organisations. For instance, another good example is Case Quidditch Club’s Harry Potter-themed dance Yule Ball, which after a mere two years of existence has already eclipsed the dances hosted by the COC.

This is all well and good, but relying on a few passionate, heavily invested individuals isn’t a sustainable model. By the time Perrin was done with their advocacy efforts, they were exhausted, and the coordinator of the next Yule Ball, Tasha Smith, is already taking pains to try to avoid the exhaustion she saw in previous events.

Too often, our literally hundreds of leadership positions are not enough. So what can we do about that?

For starters, we could merge several of those first seven organizations into a much more manageable number. This would not only reduce unneeded redundancy and bureaucracy in student life and streamline the process for concerned students to advance their ideas, but it also would make elections much more competitive, helping insure more leaders held their job for the right reasons. The number of positions which are “elected” unopposed is frightening—be it the 2014-2015 USG presidency or virtually every position in COC.

And while there’s plenty more our official student leaders can do, the burden should not rest squarely on them. We need more students willing to make time in their busy schedules to go to bat for progress when they see an opportunity, and we need students stepping up to provide them with support even more.

I’m going to ask once again: What does leadership mean to you? Does it necessitate a formal title? Can someone with a sanctioned position neglect to exhibit the properties of leadership? Can someone without a position display them?

If you want to be a leader on campus, that’s good for you.

Whether you find it easier to pursue leadership through official venues or through unofficial endeavors, know that your leadership, however you choose to define that, is not granted by a title or a claim. It’s granted by the process you take.

Barry Goldberg is a senior biomedical engineering major with a minor in history and a strong passion for activism and politics. You can tell it’s him because his hat says his name.