Dean's Notes: Finding the Right Words

This blog originally appeared in the Lansing State Journal as an op-ed.

In the wake of the Nassar scandal, understandably attention on campus is focused on sexual violence, sexual harassment and gender equity. 

As we contend with these challenges, we cannot ignore the fact that we are part of a national reckoning sparked by the #MeToo movement, which has jolted organizations to take a careful look at gender relations in the workplace.

As we grapple with workplace climate, only a few have the appropriate training or insights to lead organizational change in this area.

I have come to realize how poorly equipped I am to convey my thoughts in words. I say one thing and it sounds clichéd. I say something else and wonder if I have said something insensitive.

Amidst my uncertainty, I hear some students, staff and faculty, speak precisely, gracefully and effectively about these topics. They seem to use a vocabulary that is not on the tip of my tongue. By listening to them I have gained a better appreciation of key phrases and concepts that come up in conversations.

Survivor or victim. Much like the rest of us, those who have experienced sexual violence want to be remembered for their resilience, courage and success. Who wants to be characterized or defined by an experience that was not of her making? Calling women victims legitimizes the strength and success of the perpetrator. Calling them survivors empowers women and delegitimizes the perpetrator. On occasion, for intended effect or legal reasons, it may be necessary to use victim. But survivor is the preferred descriptor.

Resilience and moving on. There is a “time to tear and a time to mend; time to be silent and time to speak.” Each of us responds differently to a crisis, especially a traumatic one that moves us to question the foundation of human decency. While some members of the community are ready to move on to the healing phase, others are not quite ready. To accommodate both groups, it is necessary to find the right words that encourage dialogue and concurrently foster resilience. Members of the community want to be heard and being heard is the beginning of healing. At the same time, they want to see tangible scaffolding, a translation of words into actions, for a better future that dispels fear and inspires confidence.

One monster vs. systemic failure. Yes, it was one monster’s actions that affected scores of women. But focusing on the monster absolves us of collective failure. It stings to be accused of being complicit in this crime. Yet principled leadership requires scrutiny of systemic biases and failures. Confidence can be restored only through actions that demonstrate a thorough review and repair of a compromised system. MSU is not the only campus in need of a system update. Far from it. By learning from our mistakes and channeling outrage into action, we can demonstrate a transformation in workplace culture that other universities and organizations would want to emulate.

Culture of violence against women. To some who have dedicated their lives to MSU, the characterization of an organization as “violent” to women is perceived as an attack on individual identity. Faculty, staff and students who are far removed from the scandal bring up the burden of the guilt by association, which they perceive as unfair. It is true that only a few are guilty of violence against women through acts of commission. However, many, including myself, should examine our acts of omission. Have we inadvertently contributed to this culture through our passivity?

Power. From listening to my colleagues, I have learned that power fuels many abuses and leaders have to learn to relinquish power. Individuals in supervisory roles are expected to be transparent and accountable. They are expected to hold themselves to the highest standards and practice what they preach. They are expected to share and distribute power, to cultivate leadership in all ranks, and to entrust leaders to make decisions. Above all, those with power in an organization are expected to listen.

During these challenging times in the workplace, leaders are under pressure to communicate effectively using the right words that may not be readily accessible. Finding the right words begins with active listening. And active listening is the first step toward being an active voice for positive change. 
By Prabu David  

I thank Rachel Croson, Chris Long, Stephanie Steinhart, Bill Dutton, Nicole Szymczak and others from whom I have learned from listening and whose ideas I have used without attribution in this piece.