It’s been understandably difficult in recent days to think of anything University-associated except in terms of cost/benefit analysis. As a result, discussion of the Leadership Initiative proposed for the University of Alberta has focused on whether it is an investment we can afford at present. The habituation to thinking in terms of scarcity and constraint is a miserly discipline we ought periodically to resist, if only to give our necks and shoulders a break from hunching and our eyes a chance to gaze someplace other than at gutters. If we look ever so briefly at the stars, and conjure up a fairy castle of ample plenitude in which we might dwell in fantasy for even a few moments, we may allow ourselves to ask a different question about the Leadership Initiative, to wit: would it be a nice thing to have at all, even if we might have all of the nice things we could wish?
Considered from that fancy vantage point, the answer is no. A public research university operating to the full and luxurious extent of its promise and potential — that glad and glorious marvel, to be honored especially in times when it cannot be realized — would disdain it. The Leadership Initiative presents to us an intellectually leaden proposition, to “develop leadership.” Its impact on society would be minor but pernicious. It would not be attractive to our most interesting students, and it would perform a disservice to those students it did manage to recruit to its project. Within twenty years, perhaps even a decade, it would inevitably have to be rethought, reorganized, and repurposed, at (sorry to bring it up) great expense and to great waste.
A university is a place that forms both minds and morals. A key lesson of the twentieth century is that the habit of mind that invokes leadership as a self-evident virtue is morally silly and morally vicious. It is a source of both buffoonery and violence, such that it is right to make fun of it and necessary to stand up to it. The history of the twentieth century is a history of doing exactly that. Anti-colonialist, anti-racist, feminist, gender liberation and disability rights movements: these have all shared a genius for mockery and for courage in the face of claims about leadership. Yes, these movements have all had key figures that we honor and admire, but to take away from their collective efforts a cramped and miserly lesson about leadership is to go badly wide of the point. At present, puffery about leadership is a hallmark of out of touch corporate-speak. On the world stage, it features most prominently in the clammy declarations of a waning empire hoping to demonstrate it by bombing poor people.
We are a decade plus into the twenty-first century, and the most interesting social and political theory is converging around themes of interdependency, cooperation, even anarchism. These features characterize the cutting edge of contemporary science as well. Out in the world, these ways of relating and creating are where the real action is. Let’s invite and prepare our students and our fellow citizens to think about and contribute to that. The good news is that University of Alberta professors already do, at no additional cost over current operations. If in a few years we do have some extra lucre on hand, there will be many exciting things we could do with it. A “Leadership Initiative” won’t be one of them; it isn’t now.