In an October Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, Susan Henking, professor emerita of religious studies at HWS and president emerita of Shimer College, reflects on the duty of college and university presidents to take up controversial issues in the public discourse, and the potential pitfalls of doing so.
In “A Former President Reflects on Leadership,” Henking writes that she is inspired by the historical precedent set by college presidents of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who were willing “to speak to public issues of import that were both directly and less directly relevant to their immediate mission and job descriptions…They make me think about what has changed in the role of the college or university president in more recent years.”
Against the backdrop of the executive and administrative duties of the contemporary college presidency, Henking considers “what it might mean to be an inside leader with outside values — a college president who remains responsible both to the institution and its many constituencies and to the broader concept of citizenship and higher education’s claim to shape the public good.”
As college presidents work “to sustain the best of what American higher education has been and can be,” Henking writes, the question “is not what can we do but what must we do?”
“Leadership, perhaps, is the willingness to struggle in public — and to do so strategically so that our uncertainty does not mean we do too little, or act too late, in the face of well-organized hostility. This is our time and our responsibility,” she writes. “From today’s vantage point, I would say: we must do more. All of us.”
Now an executive search consultant at Academic Career and Executive Search, Henking taught in the HWS Religious Studies Department for more than 25 years. During her tenure, she twice chaired that department and co-chaired the interdisciplinary Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies program. Her courses were regularly cross-listed in the Women’s Studies program. From 1998 to 2001, she served as acting provost and interim dean of faculty, leading planning efforts focused on technology and compensation for faculty and staff, and facilitating collaboration between academic and student affairs.
Her scholarly work has long focused on the historical relationship between religion and the social sciences. She has published a large number of scholarly works on religion, psychology, the history of sociology, gender, sexuality, AIDS/HIV, diversity and leadership. She is the co-editor of two books: Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology (New York: Continuum, 1997) and Mourning Religion (University of Virginia Press, 2008). As founding series editor of the Oxford University Press AAR Teaching Religious Studies Series, she helped to ensure that the teacher/scholar model was and is recognized by the American Academy of Religion.
Henking received her M.A. and Ph.D. in religion and psychological studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and also holds a B.A., magna cum laude with distinction from the Departments of Religion and Sociology of Duke University. Prior to HWS, Henking taught at Colgate University, Western Illinois University and the University of Chicago. At HWS, she served as an adviser to the Board of Trustees Futures Thinking and Strategic Planning Initiative within the Office of the President, and was a recipient of the Faculty Distinguished Teaching Award.