Campus Leadership: When to Listen and When to Lead?

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June 1, 2007
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David A. Harris

Imagine you are a Jewish student leader at a prestigious university. You’ve learned that the Palestine Solidarity Movement will hold a national conference aimed at divesting campus resources from Israel — on your campus. You and other students feel strongly that the right thing to do is to continue with the proactive, pro-Israel campus advocacy and education events that you’ve already planned. But community leaders from off-campus — including some heavy hitters — are weighing in, suggesting that the right way to go is a different, more responsive approach. Do you follow your instinct? Or do you abide by the advice of community leaders who have worked much longer than you in this arena?

Or let’s say you’re a student leader planning to bring an Islamic speaker who is supportive of Israel to your campus, and the speech is backed by an array of communal leaders. But Muslim students with whom you’ve engaged in a meaningful interfaith dialogue tell you that this speaker, citing equal rights for women, has offended them by her comments on women wearing the hijaab . How do you proceed? Do you cancel the speech out of respect for your dialogue partners, but risk upsetting community leaders? Or do you jeopardize the productive interfaith dialogue?

Jewish and pro-Israel student leaders on campus wrestle with these and other ethical questions surrounding leadership regularly. Overwhelmingly, undergraduate student leaders turn to positive, proactive measures to affect change and engage others, particularly around Israel. They strive to bring Israel to their campuses through different lenses — by learning about Israel’s environmental movement, or by enjoying Israeli arts and culture. And we work to train student leaders to embrace ethical leadership on campus by fostering civil dialogue and leading by example.

Yet many adults in the communities around them — parents, community stakeholders, and others — would prefer to see students “push back” and be more reactive. But students know what works on campus: proactive campus planning meets strategic objectives, while reactive programming often just wins more media attention for the other side.

Watching student leaders grapple with complex dynamics on campus continues to inspire me. It also inspires a host of ethical questions: How should we react as Jewish leaders? Do we push back defensively and automatically, or do we pause to consider the array of feelings voiced, engage in meaningful self-reflection, and then evaluate our position? Do we remain true to our strategic goals, or are we influenced by the currents of opinion, responding first to the loudest voices around us? Do our own actions model the behaviors we are trying to instill in others? And, most importantly, does our leadership style reflect core Jewish values?

While students would be wise to listen to those offering sage advice backed by plenty of experience, they must — and do — also trust their own instincts. The best and brightest students seem to have an uncanny sense of comfort within their own skin, and it shows in the decisions they make. The leadership behaviors they model on campus showcase — with apparent ease — an innate hybrid of the values of Judaism and the values of academia.

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David A. Harris is Executive Director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a coalition of 31 national organizations committed to promoting Israel education and advocacy on campus. The ICC is a partnership of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

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