Student Leadership: Responsibility or Role-Playing?

Hot on the heels of releasing a strategic plan, the MSU administration is proposing a university-wide “Year of Engaged Leadership,” beginning January 2013. In order to be more than an ad campaign to get involved, this initiative must seek to add value to the term “leadership,” rather than watering it down. This discussion is particularly important in the realm of student leadership.

At their best, student leaders are dynamic individuals following their passions, gaining skills and contributing to some greater good. At their worst, they are single-tracked résumé-builders — participating in activities with the sole aim of holding positions that allow them to write “President” or “Treasurer” next to their names in emails to unsuspecting administrators.

Staff, faculty and administrators respond to students in leadership positions in a puzzling way. First, they congratulate students on their accomplishments and thank them for their work. Next, they unintentionally but invariably assign the adjective “student” to the title “leader.” This addition, though accurate, creates tension between the expected role of students on an academic campus and the expected role of leaders in a community.

That tension simultaneously praises and coddles student leaders. As students, we are praised for our initiative that goes beyond our academic involvement. As leaders, however, we are coddled in our attempts to pursue real success and failure. We accumulate awards and praises from departments and our annual Day of Student Recognition, without feeling the true weight of our titles. More often than not, MSU errs on the side of recognition over real responsibility.

This attitude allows students with high aspirations and mediocre motivations to seek out positions of power without putting in the work needed, setting our standard for student leadership too low. The desire to create an inclusive leadership community, though important, must be balanced with high expectations and clear challenges for student leaders.

In order to investigate when and how students should appropriately assume responsibility, it is helpful to look at particular examples of organizations on our campus that deal with student leadership. Prominent in this long list is the aptly named ASMSU Leadership Institute (LI).

Funded through the student body, overseen by an advisory board and run by a mixture of professional and student staff, the LI has held a variety of roles in the world of MSU leadership. It has brought noteworthy speakers such as Maya Angelou and Nicholas Kristof, facilitated workshops for student leaders on campus and sponsored events aimed to inspire leaders. The LI’s staff have also served as mentors for students on campus seeking to become leaders in their community, through both consultation and the introduction of a leadership certificate program.

There is much in this list of accomplishments that is worthy of praise. The question, however, is to what extent the LI has promoted a culture of real responsibility for students.

In its role of supporting and training student leaders, the LI provides a useful approach for those seeking to learn basic skills such as event planning and promotion, strategic planning and group facilitation. These activities seek to build the capital of student leadership at MSU in an honest and active manner.

Recent conversations — both within the Institute and in external groups — suggest emphasizing these types of activities more in the future. This would include continuing the traditional fall schedule of motivational speakers and events, but restructuring activities during the spring semester to focus on direct mentorship. Through expanding opportunities for training and mentorship for independent student groups, the LI could serve as a broader resource for students.

This shift in priorities would be a breath of fresh air given the LI’s pitfalls in other respects. Often, the Institute promotes a narrow construal of responsibility, most often portrayed as event-planning and assessment. The institute’s hierarchical structure and designation of student “leadership fellows” creates a rhetorical divide between ‘leaders’ and ‘others’ on MSU’s campus, ignoring the diverse ways in which our students embody leadership. These factors combine to contribute to the campus-wide atmosphere that attributes praise to student leaders more than real responsibility.

Students graduating from at MSU are set to enter the state, national and world stages as future politicians, scientists and professors. When students assume titles without responsibility, we presume to be qualified for roles in our society that we haven’t really explored. This is a disservice not only to us, but to the communities that will rely on us in our future positions. As an educational institution, we have an obligation to do better.