Leadership in Higher Education (HE) is not just about making decisions, but rather creating a vision that inspires and motivates others. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Clint-Michael Reneau, Vice President for Student Affairs at Northern Illinois University, who has used positive leadership to help build a culture of collaboration, inclusivity, and intellectual curiosity at his institution.
Clint-Michael met with Charles Sin, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss the challenges of free speech on campus, fostering cultural competence to create an inclusive atmosphere, and how to use effective leadership to inspire students to excel.
I’m Vice President for Student Affairs at Northern Illinois University. Over 50% of undergraduate students are first-generation college students, and over 46% of our population identify as students of color. NIU is proudly recognized as a back-to-back recipient of the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award along with receiving the “Great Colleges to Work For” in Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Award. Northern Illinois University is also the only two-time recipient of the NCAA’s Diversity and Inclusion Award in addition to earning Campus Pride’s “Best of the Best List.” It’s a great day to be a Huskie!
I think my story is similar to many people who come into HE. I was a first-generation student and also a person with a disability. I was trying to figure out my identity as a gay man attending college in Texas. So I understand what it’s like to balance multiple identities. And I struggled with college — I didn’t think I would make it to graduation. I even had a faculty member tell me he didn’t believe in invisible disabilities and that accommodations should never be made for students. He went on to tell me that college wasn’t for people like me. This was one of my lowest points in college and I struggled with anxiety and depression while also struggling with my disability and trying to come to terms with my sexuality and the intersections of masculinity at that time in Texas. My mental health struggled, and I felt alone.
It wasn’t until I was connected to the Assistant Dean of Students that I felt validated: she taught me what it meant to be seen. She helped me to get support for my disability and find a community. She was a powerful example of how a leader works to center the needs of those pressed into the margins. That example is what guides my career and allows me to create a culture of care in the work we do. My career in student affairs began as a residential advisor, an orientation leader, and a peer educator. I got my foot in the door by working with student organizations like Men Against Violence. I got my Masters in Counselling, which emphasized the importance of centering the needs of students and giving them the space to grow, and I earned a Ph.D. in Adult Education which continues to help me scaffold student success strategies daily
The topic of free expression raises complex questions for universities. It’s a balancing act, but it’s also true that inclusion and free speech reinforce each other — they’ve historically worked together to combat inequality and drive social change. We need to help students appreciate the diversity of thought: our goal is to expose students to different perspectives, have civil debates, and learn to respectfully disagree. It will help them lead and to thrive in the world of work. But we also need to respect the historical experience of marginalized communities, understanding that different views exist in the context of diversity.
We need to help students appreciate the diversity of thought: our goal is to expose students to different perspectives, have civil debates, and learn to respectfully disagree. It will help them lead and to thrive in the world of work.
We can’t shut down speech we disagree with, but we can ensure we give space for a full range of ideas and experiences. So NIU is running a program called CODE — Conversations On Diversity and Equity. We want students to think critically about issues but also themselves: asking questions about identities, building communities, and engaging with systems of oppression. These conversations are never easy, and sometimes we need to unlearn things. But it’s imperative to listen with intent and have those open conversations to better understand ourselves and others.
Our country is changing rapidly: we’re witnessing a demographic shift, and that’s been reflected in our student body. Students who were once in the minority now make up the majority. That means institutions need to look in the mirror and ask some hard questions. We need to get to grips with two fundamental issues: how to decenter dominance on campus, and how to encourage those with dominant identities to challenge power and privilege dynamics associated with those identities, while embracing inclusivity. We’re trying to promote diverse perspectives. For example, last fall, we took a group of students to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to learn about the history of Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was a symbol of economic hope and success, due to the entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by Greenwood residents who thrived together in the face of racism and segregation in the early 1900s. Our NIU students learned about the enormous amount of lives lost and estimated $200 million of Black-owned property wealth destroyed during the Tulsa Race Massacre. It’s a period often ignored in schools, especially the atrocities committed against the Black community. We’re also hosting a program called Conversations That Matter, which brings together students from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives.
If we want to help the community heal, we must ensure everyone is included. We need to teach students to reach across differences, have courageous conversations, and be responsive to each other. The art of listening is key to creating spaces to discuss the dynamics of power and privilege. NIU has been selected as a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation campus; we’re working with staff and student leaders to confront the historical and contemporary effects of racism and other forms of discrimination. We are developing a dynamic conference to encourage restorative dialogue and discuss what a just and inclusive institution should look like.
If you’re providing leadership that isn’t healing, then it’s not leadership. We need to reach people’s hearts and minds: but you need to know who you are before you step up to lead. Brené Brown has talked about how who we are determines how we lead. So you need to choose between perpetuating patterns of behavior and being the author of your own life. If you give people choice, then you create the potential for change. We all have our unresolved issues, so you need to work on yourself — identifying problems, understanding triggers, and learning to be responsive rather than reactive. We have to help students understand that this work is head and heart work. It requires both the head and the heart–at all times. This work requires deep listening and empathy.
Understand that you are the most important work you will ever do. You, and your ability to do the hard, necessary, and rewarding self-work is what is needed. It’s not about your position or your salary: you need to have an awareness of yourself. You need to understand who you are before you can step up and lead others. If you want to build a better world and challenge power and privilege, it needs to start with you. You can only lead a group of people as far as your own self-work has taken you. It always starts with the self.