Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

III. Fieldwork in the Academy

University Leadership as Philosophical Fieldwork

During the course of 18 years as chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, a public university of 9,300 students in Detroit, I led the university community toward a shared conception of its mission and purpose. This work involved creating a widely shared appreciation for the practical values of community engagement and multicultural inclusion among campus stakeholders, and the value of working to develop strong and productive partnerships with community partners. Philosophy is relevant to this process because of its commitment to probing assumptions, being open to varying points of view, and attempting to arrive at a shared understanding of practical moral and political values. At the same time, philosophy by itself is insufficient to ensure success in community leadership and inclusive change-making; other skills at collaboration and the building of partnerships are essential for success.


Philosophy is often thought to be ethereal, timeless, and impractical. According to the popular depiction, it has little to do with planning, coordinating, and acting in the world. It cultivates wisdom for the ages, not practical insight for the moment. It is difficult to think of a professional philosopher who has served as a state governor, the general of an army, or the leader of a major social movement. And yet the problems and skills that are the bread and butter of philosophy are often very practical indeed. What goals should we strive for? What is the nature of the human good? What principles should be established in the name of justice? How can we best communicate with people who do not antecedently agree with us? How should we trade off various good things in the course of ordinary life, given that life does not usually permit the achievement of all our goals? Philosophers are trained to think clearly and dispassionately about important issues, and to pay attention to the nuances of the goods we pursue.

I have been the chancellor of a midsized public university in metropolitan Detroit for the past 18 years. Philosophy has helped me to succeed in that role in a number of specific ways. The impact philosophy has had for me is not theoretical or doctrinal, not the principles of utilitarianism, Kantianism, or Aristo-telianism, but rather collateral to the skills of interpersonal communication across disagreement and differences of values and perspectives that immersion in philosophical discourse can help to promote. As a philosopher I have learned to think carefully about values and ethical principles. I have learned to respect others for the insights they bring from their own perspectives and life experiences. And I have gained some skill in helping to build consensus and commitment around a value scheme and a plan which supports those values that turn out to be broadly embraced.

The philosophical currents that have been most influential for me as an academic leader are those that derive from a rich understanding of the moral situation of the person and the demands of justice. Particularly important have been the values of human equality, opportunity, and dignity that can contribute to the framing of more concrete plans for institutional change. If I needed to identify a pair of contemporary thinkers whose ideas have served as an inspiration in my work as chancellor, it would be Amartya Sen (an economist with powerful philosophical instincts) and Martha Nussbaum. Historically, I find greater resonance with Aristotle rather than Plato, and with Rousseau rather than Kant. My book on the ethics of economic development (Little 2003) owed much to the conceptions of human wellbeing and the conditions of social cooperation that are best expressed by Sen and Nussbaum.

The enterprise of “field philosophy,” the topic of this volume, is a particularly appealing one, and I look at the part of my career devoted to university leadership as an exercise in field philosophy. Field philosophy proceeds from the point of view that both philosophy and the world of practical problems can be enhanced by a serious, prolonged engagement between the two spheres. More exactly, it is likely that the sharp distinction between academic philosophy and practical policy deliberations will turn out to be illusory. When a philosopher considers the familiar “trolley” problem as a challenge in moral philosophy, he or she is led to some of the same issues and deliberations that robotics engineers are now confronting in the design of autonomous vehicles. Both philosopher and engineer find that they have overlapping concerns, and each can contribute to a good practical solution.

The issues that university leaders, faculty, staff, and students must confront are almost always infused with problems that philosophers have spent great efforts attempting to understand—the nature of fairness, the challenge of balancing competing goals and priorities, and the debilitating reality of discrimination and hatred in a democracy. The responsibilities of university leaders and the complexities of a modem university are a very good test case for field philosophy: Can philosophers bring something particularly valuable to the challenge of leading a university in a complex social environment? My own view is that they can.

This chapter will highlight several aspects of my work as chancellor that have benefitted from my background in philosophy: helping a university community probe its values and vision for the work it chooses to do together; helping a university community give expression to the values of inclusion and mutual respect; and helping to build collaborative relationships with other organizations and leaders in our urban region, in the hope of contributing to social progress as a full and trusted partner.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics