Quit, Live with It, or Try to Act

Dean's Welcome Message - Academic Year 2018-19

Greetings to our new and continuing GSEHD students, in your resplendent diversity, who come from all over the US and the world. You will join our spectacular cadre of new and returning faculty and staff, and embark on what we want to ensure is a rewarding, challenging, and fun chapter in your lifelong journey of professional development. Thank you all for what I know will be another year of progress and productivity!

As we launch into our teaching and research, a few thoughts. GW's President Thomas LeBlanc is beginning his second year, and he is already making a mark on the culture and content of our work. We are fortunate to have him as our leader: he brings a rare blend of experiential and formal knowledge of higher education, an ethic of care and compassion, and antennas sharply tuned to the aspirations and needs of our faculty, students, and staff. I’ve had the pleasure of participating in discussions regarding everything from day-to-day transactions across our campus to the complex external environment with its opportunities and obstacles, and I am inspired by the possibilities. With inspiration, of course, comes perspiration: there’s work to be done and we’re ready.

Although our learning community represents richly diverse intellectual traditions, we share in the belief that education is the most powerful determinant of individual and social progress; and – especially in the light of current political realities – that we must double-down on our commitment to access, opportunity, equity, and inclusion. That is the theme for our special events in the coming year – workshops, speakers, community forums, etc. – and already we have a terrific lineup of planned activities. I hope you will continue to keep these issues front and center in all we do.

In the August 20th New Yorker magazine, the journalist and cultural critic, Rebecca Mead, explained her decision to return to her native England after decades of living as an American (and as a proud naturalized citizen). Her essay evoked tears and memories. I was reminded of my father’s predicament in the mid 1950’s. Having survived six years in Hitler’s camps, and having come to America with the greatest hope and love for what this country was all about, he wondered, as Senator Joseph McCarthy fired up his base with vicious lies about communist infestation and related evils, if it was time to pack up and go. McCarthy over-reached, ultimately, and Dad breathed a sigh of relief: lucky for all of us, our institutions and collective sanity prevailed.

Mead reminded me also of another immigrant, Albert Hirschman, one of the great social scientists of the 20th century and author of the seminal Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. In that short book, Hirschman addressed a problem that is tragically recognizable today: “... society learns to live with a certain amount of … dysfunctional or mis-behavior; but lest the misbehavior feed on itself and lead to general decay, society must be able to marshal from within itself forces which will make as many of the faltering actors as possible revert to the behavior required for its proper functioning…”

OK, but how?? In his model, the threat or execution of the “exit” option relies on people who are angered or disappointed with a product or service switching to a competitor; “voice,” on the other hand, is the strategy employed by people who stick it out and fight for the corrections needed to get things back on course.

Mead seems to have opted for exit, at least for now. In contrast, one of her English compatriots, Carrie Gracie, who tenaciously protested the BBC’s gender-pay-gap and succeeded in bringing positive change, preferred the “voice” approach. As she is quoted in an earlier New Yorker article, “Once you know the truth, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to quit, live with it, or try to act?” (I’m thinking of adding that to my signature block…)

Tough questions for tough times. I recommend Hirschman’s book, because it may help you think about our choices today, whether in dealing with the condition of our society writ-large or with the micro-level, day-to-day challenges of life at GW. As for me, I prefer “voice” and “loyalty” over “exit,” and I am so very grateful to live in a country – and work in a university – whose greatness hinges on open communication, free expression, the pursuit of democratic ideals, respect for the richness of our differences, and the aspiration for creative, continuous, and practical improvement. When it comes to our “local” issues in GSEHD and GW, things are actually looking very good, but more progress is needed. I hope we stick together, “think positive,” push for the values we believe in, constructively seek changes for our mutual advantage, and stay loyal to our grand vision of education and human development. I’m optimistic, because of who we are.

Good luck in the year ahead, and may you be blessed with good health and happiness.

--Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University

9/4/2018