PostNormal Times: Future-Proofing Your Future
PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.
In episode 10 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko speaks with Michelle Bligh, interim executive vice president and provost of Claremont Graduate University and professor of organizational behavior in the Division of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences. She and Andrew discuss how to future-proof your future, the beauty of imperfect systems, and the opportunities that arise when a world collapses.
ANDREW: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high, and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost, and director of Transdisciplinary Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.
I’d like to welcome to our show today a very special guest, the provost of Claremont Graduate University, Professor Michelle Bligh. I’m very excited to have Michelle here because this is the first time that we’ve had a non-administrative conversation with each other in the past four years. It’s been a minute.
MICHELLE: Has it been that long?
ANDREW: It’s been a minute, but I’d like to welcome you to the show today. I want to give people a chance to get to know you and the ways in which you embody these principles of boundary-crossing and transdisciplinarity, plus how they act out in your everyday life as somebody who as a scholar … knows how groups work, how leaders work, how leaders don’t operate in a vacuum, and how to step up to be a leader who sees how the world is not a vacuum. In higher ed, it’s really not a vacuum.
MICHELLE: Definitely not.
ANDREW: So, welcome to the show.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much for having me.
ANDREW: I wanted to start off by going into the background: You’re a Claremontian and even though you’re originally not from here, you did your undergrad here. Is that right?
MICHELLE: I did, yes.
ANDREW: Okay, so where did you do your undergrad?
MICHELLE: So, I started out at Pomona College, and I entered Pomona College, thinking that I was going to be pre-med and—
ANDREW: Guilty! I know that one.
MICHELLE: That lasted about a semester or two, and then I really started to—as in the good liberal arts tradition—I started to explore different classes and different topics. All of a sudden, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to end up. I wanted to take advantage of liberal arts education to explore lots of different pathways.
ANDREW: Okay, and so then what got you hooked, if not medicine?
MICHELLE: What got me hooked was actually an anthropology class I took from a professor at the time, James McKenna. He was a fascinating anthropologist, and he did some very interesting work on sudden infant death syndrome and how that was not just a medical phenomenon but a socio-cultural one, too. That’s when I started to get really excited about how I could still be interested in things like science and medicine but could do them from so many different angles and perspectives. That’s when I got hooked.
ANDREW: Oh, that’s fascinating. Okay, I’m pausing for a second because one of my profound life-changing moments was related to sudden infant death syndrome, also in undergrad. I was asked to do an independent study thing in a physiology course, it was a write-up of some literature. I ended up getting hooked on these theories of the neurobiology of sudden infant death syndrome. By getting involved with that, I read some papers by a couple of researchers at UCLA, which is how I actually began the process of becoming a graduate student in a PhD program. I worked in the same space as those researchers at UCLA.
So, it was not really about the cultural components of it. As you said, you can take something from very different angles. … Later in sleep neurobiology, they started to weave more of the anthropological components into it, like how people don’t all sleep the same way. Family units don’t all sleep the same way. The timing isn’t the same in every culture. That started to come in later in what we were doing.
MICHELLE: Cool. I had no idea.
ANDREW: … Okay, so you became an anthropologist. Anthropology—just to add another interesting point here—is one of the big areas that the field of transdisciplinarity takes a lot of tools from because anthropologists understood a long time ago that when you’re working with people you have to have the appropriate tools because people that aren’t just numbers. I love numbers. I love statistics. We’ll get to that in a second. But you understand that when you’re working with people, you can’t ignore complexity when they’re actually in your face. It’s, like, very there. So, anthropology did a really good job of adapting a lot of tools for such complexity. So, you learn some of these things. We’ve talked about it before, about understanding this difference between an emic and etic perspective, which is something I’m not too familiar with, although I know it by different names. You decided to do the very scientific version of this and go into organizational behavior. You did your PhD in psychology, specifically in organizational behavior.
MICHELLE: I actually did my PhD in management, so I went further.
ANDREW: What happened?
MICHELLE: What happened was a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. So, during my sophomore year at Pomona as an anthropology major, I decided to spend a semester abroad and East Africa and the Kenya studies program seemed ideal. I wanted to be outside my comfort zone. I wanted to explore a culture that was radically different from anything I’d had growing up in Spokane, Washington, or even in Claremont, California. So, I traveled to Kenya and had an amazing experience there. In the last month of that, we had an independent study project. My independent study project was designed to be living with a family studying cross-cultural variances in child-rearing practices.
I went to my family. It was a 24-hour bus ride from Nairobi. I was out in the middle of nowhere. I was with the family for only three days, and I got very, very sick. It turns out I contracted typhoid fever. The long story short of that is that I ended up at the hospital in a small village in the northwest of Kenya, without a family or project. What was very salient at that time was that there was a refugee camp right outside of this little village. After I recovered from typhoid, I went knocking on the door, and I said, “I’m here, is there anything I can do to help?” And they said, “Yes.”
The next thing I knew, I was working with four to five NGOs. We were working on all kinds of aspects of organizations, like how you manage resources in a refugee camp. That’s when I said, “I really want to study management. I want to study organizations because I can see that through the power of organizations is how we can have tremendous impact on people, both for good and for bad.” Some aspects of the camp were not functioning smoothly, for a lot of reasons that I later learned were structural, leadership issues, were political—all the sorts of things that we study in organizational behavior. So, that was the very convoluted path that I took that ended up with me in a PhD management program.
ANDREW: … So, you spent your time studying management, but you specifically were studying a particular thing under that umbrella of management, right?
MICHELLE: It was so exciting because when I came back from East Africa and decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I found the Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies. This was in 1995. So, at the time, I didn’t even know programs like that existed. I was so excited to start that master’s program and then go into the PhD because what allowed me … I took courses in communications (they had a great communications department), social psychology, management, and a lot of research.
I really got a chance to, again, get a taste of all different kinds of departments. In those days, a Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies at SUNY Buffalo meant I was the conduit between professors from different departments that didn’t even talk to one another. That’s when I realized there’s a lot of opportunity to really bridge disciplinary divides in ways that could lead to all kinds of exciting new projects.
ANDREW: It’s amazing when you realize silos are the structures upon which the academy is built. So, you can’t literally de-silo something, but you always have the power to bridge it. There are a few extra steps that you can learn along the way. There had even been some—a decent amount of—funding from some organizations to produce more of those bridge builders, especially in these complex areas like cancer research. But in the U.S., in anything related to sustainability, just like in healthcare, everybody does their own thing and stays in their own lane, and most big problems have the bottleneck of not having the translator, the bridge builder, or the conduit.
Unfortunately, at the same time, there was a trend, especially in the 1990s, of having interdisciplinary programs that didn’t survive. In the end, they were spilling into an economy that said, “So what are you going to do with that?” There wasn’t the corresponding language to say, “I’m the translator on the conduit.” We weren’t at a place, socially, where people were recognizing that—I always use COVID as an example here because it’s so clear—while you might have developed a drug, you didn’t solve the problem of the disease. There are so many other things that you have to take care of. Even if you have ten other solutions, unless you have the person who is the thread themselves, or a team of people who are the threads themselves, nothing connects. That isn’t something that I think we could’ve even had the same kind of conversation about five years ago. Now, it’s so much clearer the importance of that.
So, you were ahead of the curve. You started off with anthropology, so you understood complexity, or at least to a certain extent. You have lived through some very real experiences by being in Kenya and seeing things on the ground. A lot of people go through college and it’s a class-based experience and the biggest thing that ever happened to them was very localized to their particular dorm room or their roommate or the one professor they had. But you had his very global experience and then on top of that, you decided to go to the center of the universe in Buffalo. In Buffalo, you got to see this additional interdisciplinary wonderland. So how did you go from Buffalo back to Claremont?
MICHELLE: Well, again, it wasn’t a direct path. I was really fortunate while I was in Buffalo, to be able to put together a committee of a communications professor, a social psych professor, and a leadership management professor, and so had a great experience. When I finished, I decided to go back out into the world and apply that knowledge and do some consulting and really help organizations be more effective. That was my plan.
I was in the process of implementing that plan. I had applications to all kinds of consulting firms all over the country. That was in September of 2001. And then 9/11 happened, literally three weeks before my defense was scheduled for my dissertation. So, at the time I was in California and wasn’t even sure I would be able to fly back to Buffalo to defend.
It was a really tumultuous time. At that moment, I started to think maybe all was not going to go as I planned. Maybe I need to look at some other pathways. I loved Claremont. I had loved my experience at Pomona College and a friend told me there was an opportunity for a postdoc opening at Claremont McKenna College, at the Kravis Leadership Institute. When I heard that, it just felt like all the pieces were aligned because I loved leadership, I loved the Claremont Colleges, and I thought a postdoc would be a great way for me to sort of ride out the tide of chaos and uncertainty in the wake of 9/11. I thought, “This is exactly right, I can follow my research ideas, I can delve into some more problems and issues that I want to explore and then maybe I’ll go back to consulting—or maybe not.”
ANDREW: That’s super interesting. I was just in a conversation the other day with a few colleagues about the moment 9/11 happened. We all knew where we were, it’s one of those very imprinted points of our lives. I think we’re going to have more of those. We are having more of those right now. So clearly, there’s stuff that’s profound that’s going on. What I’m curious about is not just how that imprinted you situationally, but also cognitively, emotionally, and intellectually.
Did that change how you thought about the work you were doing, about the vocational path that you were taking—that this was maybe something that had a different meaning to you in this new world that we were in? Or was this logistical and pragmatic, like, “Okay, I’m in California now, I have a position that gives me some time?” Was the change that you experienced while the world was shifting something that was even on your mind? And as you reflect on it now, was it something that would have happened anyway, given who you are and the way that you go about things?
MICHELLE: Looking back on it, I think it did fundamentally shift my trajectory. … As I think back to that exact moment when I saw the television and the impact, the sense of certainty and psychological safety that I had constructed for myself completely dissipated. I remember very vividly driving that day or the day after and seeing a jet overhead and wondering, “What does this mean? Are we in military action here?” These were times when people were talking about duct-taping their windows. It was a very, very crazy time—talk about uncertainty and complexity. I think for me, it fundamentally shifted my sense of “This is who I am, and this is, of course, what I’m going to do, too.” Maybe there were some other possibilities, in the same way that I had explored possibilities at Pomona. I thought, “Well, maybe there are other possibilities that I should be exploring.”
ANDREW: Okay, so we had an episode that we recorded early in the podcast’s first season, where our guest was David Maggs, and we talked about worlds collapsing. He was talking about it in terms of a moratorium on cod fishing in Newfoundland, which sounds not as interesting as it was, as it played out. But he described it as a world collapsing. Later when he was a professional musician, suddenly there was no space for an aspiring classical pianist to be given airtime. So, he had another world collapsing. 9/11 was a world collapsing. It was an ontological shift. …
I see two very distinct poles that you can take on when a world collapses: One where you can really cling to the things that you miss from the days before. That’s why we don’t say there’s a new normal. Or, you can say what you said, like, “What are my options, now? What does this look like, now? There’s a world reconstruction?” Is that your personality? Is that something that you learned along the way? Does it run in your family? Are you somebody who strategizes in a way where you see the things in front of you, and you just kind of naturally go to them?
MICHELLE: That’s a good question. I’m the kind of person who if something shocks me and shocks my worldview, I take that as an opportunity to say, “Okay, well, what can I learn from this? What different directions might I go in, now, given this new reality? … I can’t pretend that things are the way they were on 9/10. This is my new reality. What are the opportunities that this pathway could afford me—let’s explore those.” I’ve always just sort of said, “Okay, maybe it is my personality, I’m going to walk down this pathway for a little while.” I always tell my students, “You can walk down, you can always turn around and walk back, you can always switch directions, but you don’t know what’s down that path until you’ve taken at least a few exploratory steps and checked out the new terrain.”
ANDREW: I think also with world-collapsing, even that terminology is so strong: It feels like physically you’ve lost everything. But it’s a cognitive and emotional construct. When a world collapses, it turns out, you still get up the next day most of the time. Almost all world collapses are like when you become a teenager: Your world collapses, but you still have to get up the next day. When you get dumped, your world collapses but you still go on. The interesting thing that we’re trying to do in transdisciplinarity is to not make it so scary when a world collapses. Guess what? You have to accept that the world is changing so quickly. It’s going to feel like this. This cognitive emotional construct of a collapse is happening, and you can handle it again because you can see the opportunities and you can move forward.
So, I’m not sure if your education had created that side of you, or if you had selected the education because you had that side of you to begin with. I mean, this is not necessarily causal. But it’s something I’m seeing over and over again, and I think that there is a set of traits that people have who understand that this philosophical problem of “My world collapsed” isn’t something that means collapsed, too.
That is the point of a transdisciplinary education: To get more tools… for future-proofing your future. Things will feel like they collapse. But you’re not collapsing. You’ve got all the power in the world to do things still. But you have got to understand how to make those choices. So, I’d imagine you’re telling me the story about Kenya, that you had it in you at least at that point already—because you were knocking on doors right after you got out of the hospital bed—to be like “I still have work to do.” You were doing this before you were exposed to an interdisciplinary studies program. So then, you have an interesting career here. You’re at Claremont McKenna, you’re at Kravitz as a postdoc, and then what happens?
MICHELLE: I had only been there a month or two and Ron Riggio, who was the director, said, “Michelle, there’s an opportunity at Claremont Graduate University, they’re hiring, I think you should apply.” And I said, “But Ron, I just got here. I haven’t even had a chance to walk down this pathway very far yet.” And he said, “Well, just go for the job talk and see.” And I gave a job talk here, just literally up the stairs from where we are now. I knew when I came to CGU, I loved the place. I love the students. I loved the faculty; I loved the focus of the university.
And I kept—it was very funny—trying to talk myself out of it. My postdoc was actually very well-paid. I had no teaching assignments. I could focus 100% on research. It was like one of those situations in life where if you put up the pluses and the minuses, most of the decision factors were minuses. All my cognition was saying, “You should stay in the postdoc, you should do your two years in the postdoc and then look for another opportunity.”
And I threw all my pluses and minuses out the window. I said, “I want to I want to go to CGU. I want to be an assistant professor, where I’m suddenly teaching eight classes that I’ve never prepped for before.” I literally showed up and I was outside of my office, and I didn’t have the keys yet. Another student came up and said, “Do you know where Professor Bligh is? Have you met her yet?” And I was like, “Well, actually, that’s me.” I had doctoral students lining up out the door and I had literally just been a doctoral student three months prior to that. So, it was a really radical shift. And again … it was one of those opportunities where I just said, “I have to go for it.”
ANDREW: If you were to think about how you had to transform your life during certain periods, was there a larger transformation of you in graduate school than during your time in Claremont? Or do you think your early time in Claremont was more transformative than graduate school?
MICHELLE: I would say my early time in Claremont was more transformative, bar none.
ANDREW: I found this to be the case, too. Graduate school was, in a lot of ways, a very important time in my life. I got to experience so many things. I grew up so much in so many ways. But … I suddenly had to, like, do backflips when I became an assistant professor in my first job. Everything was like, “Oh my gosh, how do you do this? Okay, I’m learning.” After a couple of years, I finally wasn’t feeling like my teeth were all going to fall out by being consistently punched in the face with new challenges. But those first couple of years, especially, are a wild ride and just a massive brain expansion. So, what were some of the big things you learned in those first couple of years?
MICHELLE: I learned I love to teach. I love to teach because I learn so much from the students. So, it really is a bidirectional relationship. That is one of the most rewarding things I taught at SUNY Buffalo. But it was one class of 55 students. I didn’t get a chance to really get to know them. In my classes at CGU, I did get to know the students. I learned that I also love to mentor because mentoring is the same kind of two-way street where you’re learning from them, they’re learning from you, and you’re finding these kinds of overlapping areas of passion or interest where it doesn’t even feel like work when you find those collaborations because you just get so energized by them.
So, it was very stressful. I did feel like I was doing multiple backflips. I was often really flying the plane as I was building it because I had not gotten a whole lot of formal training on how to mentor graduate students. I only had one mentor and then very early on, and just in my second year here at CGU, my mentor suddenly passed away from a heart attack at 54 years old. That hit me hard on a couple of levels. He had been my peer, my academic mentor, friend, and guide. We had projects together; he had been such a big part of my academic identity. Also, the fact that I realized that I was on a very similar track of being overworked, overstressed, and not necessarily having the best work-life balance that I needed. So, that was another sort of event in life where I had to transform myself again and say, “This is really hard, and I’m going to have to change my academic identity and I’m going to have to change the way I approach my work.”
ANDREW: Okay, so there’s a lot in what you just said. But before I forget, I have to pin this down: You refer to mentorship as a collaboration. Can you elaborate on that?
MICHELLE: I’ve studied leadership for a long time. I believe that mentorship is sort of a subsection of leadership. It’s a unique relationship where you define parameters around “I am going to mentor you; you have asked me to mentor you.” So, there’s this mentor/mentee role definition. If it’s really going to work, both parties—as in probably any relationship in life—must get something out of that relationship. To the extent that you are really looking at your mentee as a collaborative partner—and this is one of the things I love about CGU, that we have such great students, and they really are, they’re scholars—when you find those areas where there’s overlap and you collaborate, they bring an experience, a set of perspectives and assumptions different from yours. If you find ways that those can complement one another in a true collaboration, that’s when the magic happens, in my experience.
ANDREW: I think that that collaborative mindset sees any kind of interpersonal relationship as its own collaboration. Mentorship is one of them. Teaching is also a collaboration if you extend that a little bit with more people. That’s one of the things that we try to explain in a transdisciplinary philosophy. Sometimes you have to say as an administrator, “I’m not going to do that for you, I will collaborate with you to get that done. Let’s set up the parameters of what this relationship is going to look like.” Because it not only demands that you both align your goals, but also that you find common ground. But it also opens you up to learning from the other side. I don’t think there’s any bigger gift than being paid to learn like we can in higher ed. Yeah, there are headaches and there’s a reason we don’t have any work-life balance, and that there are always these missiles coming at us from all directions. But at the end of the day, I get up, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to be paid to learn again today.” I’d rather be paid to learn this way than my K-12 experience, like, I don’t want to be that student who’s got to sit with that structured form. I’m at a point in my life where I want to learn from people who also want to learn. That to me is so exciting, and it’s so great to be in that space.
MICHELLE: And it’s great to be in that space here because we do attract students who come from so many different backgrounds and disciplines. I very quickly got involved in projects that were not 100% in my wheelhouse. I was learning about ethics and leadership. I was learning about gender and leadership. I was learning about stereotyping and bias from our social psych students. I had taken seminars in that, but I’d never done research on stereotyping and attributions. So, I got to learn so much from them because in part we didn’t mandate the sort of traditional academic mentorship model of “I am the expert, and you must come to study with me to learn about my topic.”
ANDREW: Yeah, that’s old.
MICHELLE: Yes. And once you blow that up, the possibilities are so much more exciting because then you can attract students who have some overlapping interests, but who don’t necessarily want to be exactly experts in what you know.
ANDREW: Sometimes people will really want to go from where their comfort zone is to comfort zone adjacent. So, I’m a neuroscientist and physiologist. … But when you go from neuroscience to historian, when you have to bridge that distance, that’s the space you’re going to grow into when you do that kind of collaboration. I think the same is true for so many things in life. If you are collaborating with another organizational psychologist who doesn’t study leadership but might study—
MICHELLE: Motivation? Stress? Work/life balance? We study all of those.
ANDREW: You kind of know what’s there because it’s a part of your foundation, even though you don’t have the specificity for it. But then as an organizational psychologist, suddenly you have to talk to a philosopher about the ethics of this. You’re going to grow a lot in that space. They may or may not grow in that space as well. But if you’re able to see it as a collaboration, then it’s such a cool opportunity. We love getting people together in our transdisciplinary courses for this very reason. It’s because we force you to be in a course with … all our doctoral students take at least because we force you to be in a course with y. History student, you’re going to have to sit with the computer science person, or you’re going to have to sit with the statistician. You’re going to have to make a bridge and you’re going to come out of this the other side.
Now, people will handle that in different ways. Not everybody is as excited as I am about those kinds of things. But I very strongly believe it’s one of the biggest strengths of CGU. That we have a devotion to making sure that people have that opportunity speaks to our ability to notice that we’re all here to be better tomorrow because of the interactions we have today. So, if that’s not a soapbox, and if we’re not running for office in the next couple of years, then you’ve heard it here first, folks: This is launching our political platform.
MICHELLE: I will say, I have two classes—I have been teaching for over 20 years now– and there are two classes that stand out to me, head and shoulders above all the rest, in terms of just how much I learned and how much I feel everyone learned. One was the first transdisciplinary class that I taught here on leadership and followership. I had students from music, art, history, philosophy, psychology, and the whole array. It was a wonderful experience. And then the second one, I took a leave of absence and worked at NEOMA Business School in France for a year, and I taught a management MBA course there. I had 24 students from 24 different countries. That was amazing. Just having discussions about leadership models with that kind of global diversity in the classroom was amazing.
ANDREW: I love global diversity. When I taught a course on transdisciplinary basics, you have to go back into the trends in the academy that go back to specialization. Well, the way we specialize in the United States is very particular. It’s like we’re hyper-specialized. We have a specialist of the specialists to do this one thing. If you didn’t hire that specialist for your job, or you didn’t consult that specialist, then what are you thinking, you must be stupid because you didn’t know. In a lot of other places, I’m not sure if it’s a luxury, I’m not sure if it’s a norm, like, they’re just a person, you know? I could be a specialist, too. In fact, I don’t have the luxury of paying that much to a single person who’s got that many certificates and credentials. So, I have to be able to pivot a little bit with what I’m doing.
I think that that’s one of the things that the entire movement of transdisciplinarity speaks to: We’re a little heavy on specialization. Even graduate education is a little heavy on specialization. However, the specialization that comes with graduate education wasn’t that you had all the content knowledge domain of being an organizational psychologist or a neuroscientist. It was that you had the space in your head to take this large content area and then build bridges from that as your foundation. That’s the transdisciplinary approach. That’s what a graduate with a transdisciplinary approach can then do. Like, “I might not want to dig deeper all the time into this one content domain because it’s a content domain. But I can build a bridge to any other domain that links to this.” That’s the superpower of the transdisciplinarian.
MICHELLE: I love that idea of the superpower. I think that’s a very, very apt metaphor. It is super like a superpower.
ANDREW: I’ll admit, I was a nerd as a kid. I like comic books. The entire Marvel revolution was just, like, three decades too late for me, but it’s okay. Because I just knew in my corner, when I was reading comic books, that it served a purpose so that I can now do commentaries on the Infinity Gauntlet or, like, no, that’s not what really happened. People need to hear that I was one of the original experts on the Infinity Wars and all that stuff.
So, I do sometimes rely on that childhood stuff to frame my metaphorical space.
MICHELLE: Sounds like another podcast series. I’m not sure that I should speak any more about them. If I want any credibility at any faculty meeting or any cabinet meeting where we’re discussing things. … “Is that your superpower, Andy? What are you going to do with what superpower?” So, need to be careful with that.
ANDREW: So, all right, I’ve detracted a bit from where we were going, but your temporal progression is super interesting. You mentioned going to Paris. You were in Paris at a business school for a year.
MICHELLE: Two years. I intended to go for only one and, again, I’m seeing a theme: Plans do not work out as quickly as I would like. It took me longer than a year to do what I needed to do. So, I decided to stay for two.
ANDREW: And what did you learn, besides the international global peace when you were in France, that fed into the brain/mind space of Michelle?
MICHELLE: I think I learned a lot about humility. It’s very interesting to be treated as an expert in your field or in your domain for many years and then go to a completely different context and culture where, “Oh, sure, I can be an expert in organizational psychology, but ask me a question in French and I am literally an infant.” It was very, very humbling to recognize that there’s an entire domain of knowledge that I just was very, very at the beginning level of. So that was very, very good.
Not that I ever had a lot of hubris or thought of myself as very egocentric, but there was a sense in France of going back and starting again. I thought I had built up this level of expertise, experience, and knowledge. But starting a leadership center in the U.S. is very different than starting one in France. So, although I thought I had expertise and domain knowledge, in many ways, I was challenged to sort of reframe, and start again and transform and say “Okay, how is what I do here going to look different than it did in the U.S.?”
Same thing with teaching. There were many aspects of teaching that I realized I had developed that were unique to this context of graduate-only intimate-setting small classes, that when I was then suddenly asked to do more of an undergraduate model of teaching to hundreds of students, they didn’t translate as well as I had assumed they would. So, there was lots of relearning, which was wonderful because I feel like it gave me, again, an opportunity to test some resilience, to stretch, to be challenged in new ways. And then I came to see my years at CGU from a different perspective. …
I literally came back two weeks before the presidential election where all my American colleagues were telling me that Hillary Clinton was the foregone conclusion to be the next president. I was giving a leadership seminar on gender and leadership the morning that Donald Trump was elected. So, I came back to a country where I felt that the foundation that I had thought was pretty firm was not there anymore. I had family members who weren’t talking to one another because of different political beliefs. It felt very, very unsettling. That was also just at a time when I was transitioning back to a place that I thought I knew but didn’t.
ANDREW: It kind of sounds like another world collapse.
MICHELLE: Yeah, it was.
ANDREW: And so, if you’re anything like your patterns have indicated, now that the world was collapsing again, you were like, “Okay, what are my options?” Is that what happened?
MICHELLE: That is exactly what happened. … I pursued a couple of opportunities. I was offered a nice position, starting a leadership center in Australia. I thought, “Maybe this is the time to go down that path.” I went down that path and came close to signing the contract. Then I realized that it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the right time. I was just bouncing from France to Australia. I really needed to explore what I needed to do here. So, instead of taking the position in Australia, I took the position of Dean of the School of Social Sciences here. … I had been resisting administration for quite a long time. I had been associate dean and chair and director in different smaller roles, but I had been resisting that formal full-time leap into administration. I realized that I didn’t think I could teach leadership and the importance of leadership if I didn’t actually enact it. So, I decided that that’s what I needed.
ANDREW: There is an irony there … an irony that some people are very proud to sit squarely in, of saying, “I study leadership, but I am not a leader.” You know, that’s something that’s also on my side. I noticed a lot of it as a neuroscience professor. I was in basic sciences, which meant you teach more of the textbook facts. But when somebody asks you, “What do you do in a stroke?” you’re like, “Right…” So, then I was like “I can’t not know what to do in a stroke.” I have to talk to my neurologist colleagues and be like, “How does this translate to what you do?” and figure that out and then go into clinical classes with them to be like, “Okay, this is why I’m teaching you this because this is what it looks like in a stroke.”
That was something that was really unusual because a lot of times things are so specialized that I’m not supposed to know what to do in the stroke. I’m just supposed to know what comes in this very particular lane that I’m in. And yet what is my usefulness to the world? At that point, I realized it was my building that bridge—other people need to know this in a practical way. They need to know it in an applied way. I think that leadership says a lot about what you did. You stepped up.
When I met you, it was just around the time that you were becoming the Dean of Social Sciences and I had just come to CGU. I knew that you had taught a course in leadership and followership in which I’d always been interested. Then we got to talking and we got to spend some time together learning about peace. And that was one of these very cool experiences where we got to be transported to an institute in South Bend, with the University of Notre Dame, where we were looking to see what we could do as an institution that kind of mixed our different areas of expertise around these questions of peace, what could be offered to students, and how would we set this up. It’s an ongoing conversation but I learned a ton from that experience.
What did you get from that time? If you need a minute to think about it, let me know, because I can speak poetically about a lot of this. In addition to getting to know you and your pathway, which was really cool, it was one of those moments where I shifted in how I thought about things.
MICHELLE: What I gained from that experience was the rekindling of my passion for transdisciplinarity. I hadn’t had the chance when I was in France. Then coming back into administration to really kind of get outside of the social sciences, that conference really opened my mind to the fact that a topic like peace is just like leadership, where you can have people coming from all kinds of backgrounds, whether public service in government, social sciences, philosophy, or social justice. And you have all social structures policy. There are so many ways that you can approach that topic and that’s what got me interested and excited about it because it had that ability to bring together people from all walks of life and have very, very interesting and unique conversations about it with no easy answers. Talk about complexity!
ANDREW: Yes, I very similarly, I think the thing that I came out of there with was that if you don’t want peace to work, then study it as an isolated topic. That is the surest way for it to not work. You really have to study it in the context of everything else, including the structures, understanding justice philosophically, and understanding systems. … Is it a complex space? If you isolate something that is itself complex, then there’s no quicker way toward it not working. It’s just not going to happen.
That got me thinking a lot about what we’re trying to do in transdisciplinary studies and bringing back that complex topic of “Okay if you’re going to take on something difficult as the world is asking us to do right now, let’s not pretend that it’s isolated. Let’s bring in all the voices and let’s have a little bit of epistemic humility to be like, ‘We don’t have to have all the knowledge in this classroom to know that there’s a lot more to be had. But I’m sure I can do something, and I will learn what we can do better as we start to talk about it.’”
So, one of the things that I wanted to ask you—again, it’s making you rewind a little bit—was about situations in your life after Kenya. You are in situations where that anthropology background may or may not have surfaced, where you started to apply it and were like, “I’m in France now. The leadership model here is different, though.”
So, I was wondering if you were ever aware of it surfacing (if it did even surface, which is fair because some people also move from one disciplinary identity to another, and they bury things, and it doesn’t come up)? Sometimes it’s healthier because you’re like, “I need to forget that time in my life for whatever reason.” But did it come up when you were in France again? And does it come up now in your current space?
MICHELLE: Absolutely. … I love to travel, and I love to visit different cultures and I love to experience different customs and walks of life. What I realized in France was that even living in Kenya for six months was a relatively short period of time. Living in France for two years, I got past all of that culture shock and newness and really started to see what aspects of culture have really shaped me and my identity in a way that I think anthropology sort of framed me to focus on.
People will say you never feel more American than you do when you live somewhere else because it makes all those pieces of your cultural identity so much more salient and people are constantly calling you out on that like, “Okay what’s going on in America? What’s the, you know…” You’re suddenly the expert and the representative of your home culture. I think what I realized through that process was that anthropology will always be my love because it’s the study of humanity. That is what I love more than anything else. I love studying human beings and why on earth they do the things that they do and trying to make sense of it and then other times realizing that there is absolutely no sense to be made of it. That’s a lot of fun for me.
ANDREW: … What were the considerations you had going from the dean role to the provost? Because you already had been a very effective dean in this space, to somebody from the outside. You have worked through a lot of different challenges. You’d helped the institution in a lot of different ways. There was a time when you could step up and be a provost. Was it still the same voice that said, “I study leadership, I have to make good on it?” Or had you learned along the way of being a dean and realized your job wasn’t done?
MICHELLE: I think it was both. … In this case, the president came to me and said, “Michelle, I’d really like you to step up to this position. I think right now, you’re the right person and I would like you to take this position.” There’s a sort of a sense of duty or responsibility that I can hardly—after 20 years of telling my students to step into leadership roles and to never shy away from the ability to make the maximum impact and make your world a better place—look myself in the mirror and go, “Oh, you know, sorry, I’m not feeling it today.”
There was definitely a sense of duty and responsibility. There was also a sense that, after being dean for five years, I wouldn’t have said I was ready. But I should, by all objective outside purposes, have been ready. Five years is a long time to be in a dean role. So, although it was a big stretch for me, it wasn’t as big a stretch as I probably convinced myself it was.
ANDREW: I thought about this when you first described it when you said you were interested in organizations in management and had seen things being less efficient and somewhat mismanaged by these NGOs you were working with. Then you formally studied it and informally lived it in a lot of different ways that you went through. You had your cognitive domain knowledge that was very formalized. You had your lived experience and situated knowledge in another space. If you were to see yourself in Kenya again, noticing that the management part wasn’t working, would you still think that the way to improve the system was to study management formally? Or what else would you add to that? Would you even see it as a problem anymore? Or just understand the beauty of an imperfect system?
MICHELLE: That’s a great question. I think your question highlights for me one of my fundamental assumptions that systems are imperfect, but that it’s our role and responsibility to try to continuously improve them. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the status quo. We don’t always have to let systems go into entropy and chaos. …
I would study management. Again, I think it gives you all of the tools. We’ve talked about systems theory and chaos theory. They give you both the understanding, theoretically, that these systems are incredibly complicated and that if it were easy to fix them—if it was easy to fix higher ed as an industry or a college as a system—there are a lot of smart people who would have done that already. So, I would study that. Again, I understand that I’m in an incredibly complicated, uncertain system that’s undergoing rapid disruption. We are woefully unprepared because higher ed has, for the most part, been a bastion of traditionality and a slow, steady status quo defense for a very long time.
And so, I think the study of management organizations helps me accept that and to have the responsibility to say, “That’s not inevitable.” We are a lot of smart people and if we communicate more effectively, structure more efficiently, have better leadership, have better training development, have all the things that we’ve been studying about organizations for centuries, and we apply it, we can do better, and we should do better.
ANDREW: … The crisis in higher ed is something that probably deserves a little bit of elaborating, in that we have a lot of people who are not looking to hire the way that they had previously. Education is often something that has to be defended beyond its face value, like, “Well, what is this getting me?” A lot of it is because the return on investment and the financial burden of education is … tough to explain. How do you quantify that at the end of the day? You’re like, “But I feel like I’ve learned so much.” How do you put a price tag on that? You’re speaking different languages around where these things are. You can see other market forces that have kind of taken hold there, usually political forces that have taken advantage of this questioning of education in a lot of ways.
So, we can see education being challenged and feeling a lot of pressure. We’re feeling it very, very acutely in the administrative spaces because we were educated, we have respect for what we do, and we’re giving our lives back to this. But we also can see it’s not something that we can just have the luxury of it being taken at face value, of having the value it did when we were being educated.
The question I have for you is, are we experiencing another world collapse? Are we looking at this as “What are my options?” Or do you see a system that can be approached by taking out the monkey wrench and doing a little tightening of certain things, fixing the things that need fixing in the system?
MICHELLE: I would say it’s closer to the world collapse. I say that because I remember many years, almost a decade before COVID and some of the technology disruption we started to see in higher ed, I was giving talks about the impending collapse of higher ed and the crisis of higher ed. I felt in those days that I was really trying to wake people up. Then we fast forward to all of the changes that we’ve seen over the last five years. Now I think people have woken up. I no longer have to convince people that there are huge crises. There are disruptions there. We have everything from the cultural questioning of what is the value of a higher education, and how you quantify that, as you said, plus the technological disruption, the competition, and the fact that the future of work is changing so quickly while higher ed has never been known for being able to change that quickly.
So, we have all of these challenges and it sort of feels like in higher ed administration that we’re in dodgeball and we’re getting hit from sort of every side. So, the short answer to your question is that I think the educational world is collapsing in a very real way. It is time for us to ask, “Okay, so now what are the opportunities here? How do we transform? How do we do a better job of showing the world that?”
I fundamentally believe that education has transformed my life, and I don’t know what the dollar amount you would put into that is, but I know for myself it’s priceless. How do we do a better job of telling those stories? How do we do a better job of capturing the ways that we transform our students’ lives? How do we change in a way that we continue to be relevant in a world where AI and technology are so rapidly going to leave us behind if we don’t?
ANDREW: I had so many thoughts as you as you were talking about that. I agree with you that the collapse is happening, but I want to also state, importantly, that the term collapse feels so catastrophic, and it’s not. Things collapse all the time and it’s not good or bad. It just is because the world’s changed. There are so many disruptions, there are so many other … opportunities to rebuild in the image that you need.
The thing to keep in mind that I think a lot of us let slip is the very basic human reflex desire inclination. We’re learning machines, we always need to learn. We will always learn; we are built for this purpose. So, when you understand that education is to help us learn, then you can get rid of some of the artifacts, you can understand that the silos have been amazing. One of the things that you can do is create a new and improved system where there’s a web between these silos so you can get from one to the other very easily. … We can do things like offer professional doctorates to be like, “Yes, this idea of a doctorate is that you are creating a steward of other people like you—that is why you are doing it.” What if we offered the world a space to incorporate professions themselves? To say, “What does a steward of these bridge-builders between this classic knowledge, and this applied space look like? What would that look like?” And let’s help you make more of these other categories of stewards.
Those are the kinds of things that are so encouraging to see my colleagues talk about. We can hear conversations about what it would look like. Part of it is emergent. We don’t know entirely what’s happening. But that’s also the fun part: The world is collapsing, but it’s not. It’s not really physically collapsing on you. You’re still going to get up tomorrow and we’re still going to be a part of this system. It’s not like everything goes to the wayside, either. When a world collapses—another problem with the metaphor—we think that everything is just swept into the ocean, and it’s gone. That’s not at all true. It just takes on a different shape and it changes to fit the time.
MICHELLE: It’s a chance to use some of those same materials in different ways. When I think about the metaphor of the building collapsing and how we rebuild, I think about the wealth of faculty expertise and knowledge and student excitement and motivation and the structures that we’ve built around new knowledge creation and recognizing how important that is for, literally, the future of humanity. All those things are still here. The excitement and the power for learning. How does AI change the way we learn, what we need to learn, and how we learn, all those questions? It’s the same materials, we just need to reconfigure.
ANDREW: Yes. I used to teach histology. Who doesn’t these days? One of the things I thought was so cool and so interesting, even though it wasn’t my area of expertise, was the processes that your cartilage goes through to become bone. When you think about the material of cartilage, it’s very flexible. It’s flexy-bendy. It’s not that great at being protective. But it’s really good at creating some structure that, as you get older, will become very solid. The process of going from cartilage to bone is called ossification.
World collapse is the reverse of ossification. It’s like we’re becoming cartilage again. We can reestablish ourselves as bones. But we are in a space of flexy-bendy, and it’s a fun space. It’s a space that for those who might not like it can feel chaotic. But for those of us that do, it’s as you said: “What are my opportunities? What are the options?” I think CGU could start to stand for Cartilage Graduate University, as we’re seeing! Because we’re de-ossifying and that’s such an important thing.
Other institutions are de-ossifying. You can see it. Why are we stuck thinking this way? There are so many other ways to bring in. There are so many different disciplinary spaces and so many cross-disciplinary opportunities. There are so many things that an academy can do that we’re not tapping into. … Let’s do it.
MICHELLE: I’m with you.
ANDREW: So, if we need to make a name change, do we submit it to the board right away?
MICHELLE: I don’t know. I’m going to have to check on that.
ANDREW: I would ask you to consider it seriously. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my other meetings with you, to going back to our regularly scheduled programming of being a part of this fun institution.
MICHELLE: It’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of challenges. There are a lot of opportunities. It is an exciting space. I do feel you can look at some of the trends and be pessimistic and “Oh, education doesn’t have the value it once did.” I don’t believe any of that. I think actually education, now, at this moment in history, is more important than it ever has been.
ANDREW: One hundred percent.
MICHELLE: And that’s exciting because that means there are a lot of opportunities to ignite that spark in other people.
ANDREW: Yes, I’m with you one hundred percent. Michelle, it has been a true pleasure chatting with you. Thank you so much for joining us and I look forward to the many other leadership roles you take on.
MICHELLE: Thank you.
ANDREW: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests, and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us, spread the word, and tune in to our next episode.
*This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.