Adopting ‘Institutional Humility’

By Tereigh Ewert-Bauer

As a U-15 institution, we have a remarkable opportunity before us: we can be leaders in many ways.  I would like to suggest that one of these ways might be by adopting and communicating ‘institutional humility.’  The recent draft of “Vision 2025: From Spirit to Action,” provides us with an excellent opportunity to convey this humility.

How do I conceptualize ‘institutional humility’?  We acknowledge that our teaching, research, and scholarship can be strengthened by opening ourselves to the different ways of knowing, pedagogies, worldviews, histories, dialogues, and being in relationship to one another.  Rather than responding to difference as ‘meeting the needs’ of any cultural group (and by culture, I am not only referring to ‘ethnicity,’ but a plethora of communities). Well-intentioned phrases such as “working with Aboriginal communities to identify their unique post-secondary needs” or  “integrating the needs of Aboriginal people into the goals of our institution,” serve only to perpetuate a deficit-philosophy in regard to Aboriginal peoples.  The consequences of this perpetuation are to promote a ‘savior’ or ‘benevolence’ role on the part of the institution, and to communicate to Indigenous students, staff, and faculty that they are not here to contribute, but are only a wanting group requiring remedial assistance. A rephrasing might generate a rethinking, such as: ‘work with Aboriginal communities to achieve within the university a unity of spirit and deeper respect for diversity, cultures and traditions, and an inclusiveness and reflection thereof.’  This way of thinking is equally applicable to other cultures and communities.

We can come to understand that we can all learn from, better ourselves, and benefit from, what each individual and cultural group brings to the university.  In many ways, western/European ways of thinking and doing have built the reputation in which we currently take pride. Imagine how momentous it would be if we raised our collective voices, knowledge, and actions, taking the dominant culture from the forefront of our institutional identity, and moving it alongside those outside of the dominant culture.

To adopt ‘institutional humility’ means to change the way we carry out our daily activities as students, scholars, teachers, and staff.  Rather than ‘helping’ people ‘fit in’ to the institution, by creating or limiting “special programs for Aboriginal learners or employees,” based on their “challenges,” we ought to make way for all our voices and activities—and become better for it.  To communicate humility means to ensure that our institutional, and individual language reflects not a ‘hand-up’ philosophy, but rather a collaborative philosophy. We raise a collective voice, not employing ‘us’ and ‘them’ language.  When the institution promotes ways of thinking and doing as separate from the ways of thinking and doing by non-dominant groups, and single out certain peoples as requiring “our” assistance, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is reinforced.

Language is powerful.  It conveys to others our beliefs, but it also shapes how we see and live in our world.  If our language conveys that some are inferior to others, that will shape how we think and what we do.  But language can also convey humility, which makes us more open people in all that we do, and changes the way we act, the way we treat one another, the rigour of our scholarship, and the richness and depth of the education we provide. Humility will build bridges, bring us the forward-looking goals of working on the “world’s most vexing problems,” to establishing “partnerships,” “improving our learning and discovery standards,” “becom[ing] a world-leading authority on globally significant issues,” and achieving “equity in learning and discovery opportunities.”  When we look to 2025, we want to demonstrate our commitment to being willing to revision our identity.

(All quotations derived from the draft document, “Vision 2025: From Spirit to Action.)

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