Soul for institutions
30 October 2012, by Prof Andrew Vann
Professor Andrew Vann is Vice-Chancellor and President of Charles Sturt University.
I believe one of my most critical tasks as Vice-Chancellor for Charles Sturt University (CSU) is to help it retain its soul. This might seem like a pretty odd goal. Shouldn’t Vice-Chancellors be worried about money, preferences, industrial relations, international rankings or ratings on the MyUniversity website? I am of course concerned about the first three, and somewhat interested in the last two. And what on earth do I mean by soul?
Soul is a loaded term because of its link to religion and mysticism. One philosophical concept of soul would be whatever is left when everything scientifically observable has been accounted for. Universities are supposed to be rational places, preferably scientifically rational for maximum credibility, so there is an understandable aversion to concepts that might appear mystical, fluffy or new age. With a background in artificial intelligence, I am quite comfortable with the idea of soul as what is called an ‘emergent property’ at the system level without needing to invoke any more mystical notion. But, as a University that has a significant number of theologians, I think CSU would not wish to prohibit a more spiritual idea of the soul either.
I have a fairly simple definition of soul for institutions, which is that when you interact with them you feel that they see you, recognise you and respond to you as a person. Based on discussions with staff, students, alumni and my own experience CSU seems to have this very strongly.
So accepting that this idea has some validity, what relevance does it have to the future of CSU and why do I want to push it? CSU is growing geographically and in scale and this could stretch the sense of integrity and soul. This is a worry for me because key attractions of a regionally based university are community and a sense of value in the academic mission.
Some people see management as being anathema to collegiality, but I believe in management in the service of collegiality. Just as with a human being, the basic systems must be functioning for consciousness and soul to emerge. Therefore, we do need effective professional management that pays attention to money, IR, student preference and research management. We also need academic management. We need to have freedom of inquiry and speech and time for research and scholarship so we can develop considered views. We need to have appropriate academic standards and confidence in learning, teaching and assessment.
That’s enough to keep the vital signs healthy and not switch off the life support. What does it take sustain soul at an institutional level? I’m tempted to, no I think I should, say that whilst I have some firm ideas I don’t completely know but one part of the answer is leadership. A few years’ back, I bought Susan Scott’s ‘Fierce Conversations’ book and one of the things that has stuck in my mind is the phrase ‘the fish rots from the head’. So in taking on the mantle of leadership I think one of my prime roles is to promote a good culture. One of the key aspects of a modern organisation of any kind, and particularly a university, must be a willingness to learn, adapt and improve performance. So I want to bring to my practice of leadership a willingness to engage in conversation with the organisation and to jointly discover how we nourish and promote that sense of community and belonging.
In inhabiting the new role, I have (obviously) considered how to act and what signals to send. I have embraced leadership without assuming I have all the answers – although I certainly see my job as to help frame the questions. In practical terms this has meant being more open than I would previously have been. I have shared my personal values with my senior staff. I have experimented with blogs, social media and posted things before I was ‘ready’. I tried to engage authentically in this space (if that can be an appropriate term for Twitter – no doubt someone will pull out a fatuous tweet of mine and beat me with it). I have tried to push the boundaries of debate by raising issues such as soul and the character of the university. I recognise there is some risk in this but I feel it is important not to play too safe. Community members have indicated they have enjoyed the opportunity to be part of the conversation, although some are nervous and uncomfortable with talking about soul. For me important work inspires those emotions and we need to be able to recognise and work through them to progress.
The best thing for me is that as I have opened myself up I have had conversations with staff and have been exposed to ideas and readings that I simply would otherwise not have found (including excellent readings from David Whyte and Peter Cammock on the issue of soul in leadership). I am wiser for it and have been inspired by the depth of thinking and insight within the university community.
Clearly rhetoric is only one kind of signal. It is one thing to talk about soul and another to live it, to attend to the details such that a sense of humanity and connection amongst the community is nurtured. In line with my observations from our staff opinion survey we are already doing fairly well on some aspects but need to do better on others. It will take determination, time and attention to keep the body healthy and maintain the sense of a soul. But ultimately, in a world filled with cheap, easy to access generic competition, having a sense of soul, having a character and being a community that people feel they can bring their whole self to may be one of the few distinctive things worth having.