For some reason, the following article wasn’t printed in the Gleaner this Sunday.
It’s a worldwide assumption: universities are safe havens for free thought and self-expression. The recent chasing and beating of a supposedly gay student at UTECH undoubtedly violated this ethos.
Unfortunately, Richard Florida, through his extensive research on the most creative cities in the world, shows a clear correlation between the presence of college campuses (with their tolerant, free thinking) and economic progress. This gives the recent event at UTECH national importance, and provides its leaders with a unique opportunity to not only demonstrate a real-life transformation for corporate Jamaica, but also to restore itself as a model of free thought.
Firing a few guards and expelling a few students will help little, if at all. In 2011, in a similar incident, a thief was caught and assaulted by a mob of UTECH students. In 2003, a robber was stoned to death in a cesspool by another UTECH mob. Small actions do not solve big problems, and it’s obvious that the responses in 2003 and 2011 were pitifully inadequate.
Based on this short history, this sorry episode is likely to be repeated if the administration, once again, fails to do enough to change the campus’ culture. Defensive arguments that “we did enough” only demonstrate an unwillingness to do what’s necessary, and what’s right.
In every corporate transformation that I have witnessed, the leadership team has hit a turning point that has caused a monumental internal shift. But it only happened after the easy options were exhausted. In this particular case, it might start when a critical mass of UTECH managers, faculty and students realize that nothing will be different after the “guilty” guards and students have departed.
The intractable nature of the university’s culture indicates that leaders need to take the next step and give up blaming and finger-pointing as tools for change. This particular act of violence was complex, and an inquiry may only end up showing that no-one at UTECH, or even in Jamaican society, is entirely innocent, whether they were part of the chase or not. Such a conclusion renders the act of punishment useless.
If no one can be blamed and punishment is ineffective, should we immediately resign ourselves to a repeat of this tragedy? Should UTECH simply invest in a faster-acting public relations machinery to deal with the next expected act of mob violence?
My research and experience show that true corporate transformations don’t involve giving up. Instead, leaders take an extraordinary step — they demonstrate a public willingness to discover their personal contribution to problems and issues.
At UTECH, this would mean more than making showy cries of “Maxima Mea Culpa.” Genuinely transformative leaders would search their motives and actions for insight into how their missteps, ignorance and foot-dragging made it easier for this particular act of mob violence to occur. Obviously, this isn’t an activity for the faint of heart.
Most of us resist this kind of rigorous self-examination. Instead, too many of us play “the blame game,” a pursuit that blinds us to real solutions. The handful of brave souls who persevere in this inquiry typically come up with a raft of changes to make, and start to show others how they, too, can take responsibility and empower themselves. Fixing tough problems like mob violence and homosexual hatred become possible.
That’s where a corporate transformation always starts: when at least one person freely decides to constitute him or herself as the cause or source of an undesired result. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said, “If you want to change the world, become the first change.”
Transformation requires an act of radical responsibility, and it’s available to all professionals, in every company. It needn’t start at the top, but when it does, executives can set a transformative example for others that gives them the courage to try it for themselves, on their most difficult problems. The kind of power that comes from this act is contagious, attractive, but elusive.
Early in his career, Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor for a comfortable, middle-class church in Montgomery. His career was set, and he didn’t need to take responsibility for the end of local segregation in his new hometown. But as he later said, “An individual has not started living until he/she can rise above the narrow confines of his/her individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” UTECH’s leaders have the opportunity to lift us all to a different place, starting with their transformation and a new degree of responsibility.
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