Part II: Reimagining Leadership Education in Student Affairs Through a Critical Lens | Teig & Dilworth

written by: Trisha Teig & DaShawn Dilworth


Leadership education in student affairs must address inherent oppressive practices that exclude certain groups based on historical legacy, knowledge, capital, and practice. We have come to a point in the leadership educator community of practice to move beyond the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom – Part II of this thought paper explores: How do we purposefully redirect our actions to reflect a growing and inclusive leadership educator community in student affairs?

In the first article in this series, we asked leadership educators to reflect on the current status of leadership education within higher education and student affairs while also considering the historical legacy of oppression in the leadership space. At first glance, these considerations and reflections can create feelings of hopelessness and cynicism. While it can be easy to become disillusioned from the weight of attempting to change the oppressive practices and ideologies woven into the daily conceptions of leadership, we are asking our audience to do something much harder: to have hope for the change we want to see in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. To clarify, we do not mean for our fellow leadership educators to engage in a form of “blind hope” or simply hoping for change to happen. Rather, we are asking for individuals to engage in the practice of critical hope (Dugan, 2017).

Leadership education has changed since its inception into higher education and student affairs and continues to transform with the continued growth of practice, ideation, and research that pushes the boundaries of what we understand leadership education practice to be. Critical hope is necessary in this process as both a means to critique the status quo, such as the concept of the “Cool Kids Table” (CKT),  and as a labor of love for leadership education and a hope that it can grow to be a more inclusive, liberatory space than it is currently. Critical hope asks us not only to critique and restructure but to also dream more boldly as we build towards ideas about the future.

Hope is also not a stagnant or singular place of being it is a constant cycle of engagement, disengagement, and re-engagement. When describing her experience learning and growing within social movements, Alicia Garza (2020) reflected that our connections to social movements are like “waves that ebb and flow” (p. 20).  She describes the waves through  the lens of our environment and how our context determines our connection to them, but ultimately, we “recommit to them over and over again even when they break our hearts, because they are essential to our survival” (Garza, 2020, p. 20).

How we practice, teach, and research leadership should mirror Garza’s (2020) process of riding the waves. We must account for a new world beyond the status quo. While we may be dissatisfied with or cynical about the potential for change within leadership education, ultimately, we are responsible for changing its direction in creating the future we need. In this paper, we put forth alternatives to the “Cool Kids Table” (CKT) to address the barriers we previously outlined (Teig & Dilworth, 2021) for a direct opportunity to broaden the access and impact of leadership education. Our list is not meant to be exhaustive or finite but to provide an opportunity to think more critically about the structures within leadership education that continue to create barriers rather than bridges. Ultimately, we seek to take action to transform into a deeply inclusive leadership education field.

Addressing Exclusion by Knowledge

Leadership knowledge is seen as a key element to leadership education; crucial scholarship and practices of leadership education both coincide with and guide how we practice and teach leadership  (Komives et al., 2011). In addressing the barriers created by the sequestering of leadership knowledge, we must create and enact structures that both expand access to and allow for cross-pollination of knowledge. The CKT concept operates through the consolidation of knowledge to a select few. Additionally, the CKT concept relies on the assumption that these ideas are/will be available to everyone with an unspoken penalty levied against those who do not have access to this knowledge.

One way to make knowledge more open is through expanding access to research related to leadership education outside of “typical” academic journals and periodicals such as the Journal of Leadership Education, the Journal of Leadership Studies, or New Directions for Student Leadership. It is not to say these journals are not essential sites of information regarding leadership education and should not be frequented. However, we must think more intentionally about how to share our knowledge outside of the traditional research circles. Scholars of leadership education most often place our research in tried and true academic spaces rather than focusing on sharing out to the widest audience possible. When it comes to academic journals, it is also necessary to question how requirements for submissions are structures to uphold “typical” narratives (in representation, methods, and theoretical faming) regarding leadership education. Do these narratives promote conformity towards a singular ideology of how leadership education scholarship should be produced?

Cross-pollination, or the collection and collaboration of interdisciplinary ideas across disciplines and communities, is another idea that must be taken more seriously within leadership education. Collaborative and communal practices expand not only access to leadership knowledge but also quality and reliability of that knowledge. Because knowledge and practice are inherently interwoven, there have to be extensive considerations of how practice impacts knowledge. This is especially true when working with different student populations while being open to new concepts we learn from students.

While some of this work is currently happening in leadership education, it is still important to note where it is not. It is incredibly easy for new ideas and ways of conceptualizing leadership to be dismissed because they do not connect to conventional understanding in leadership education. If knowledge and ways of knowing are truly dynamic, then we invite you to consider these questions surrounding knowledge as a form of capital:

  • Leadership education practices and leadership theories are evolving. How do we as a community increase access to new knowledge across all functional areas where we engage with leadership development?
  • In what ways are curriculum and practical experiences in graduate preparation programs evolving to engage the topic of leadership education within the roles of future practitioners?
  • In the space of practitioners, how is leadership knowledge being challenged and expanded to create more extensive programming for new knowledge building among students and professionals?
  • As scholars, how are we utilizing critical frameworks to create more impactful leadership theories which are asset-based and focused on student populations often ignored by the “popular” leadership models (Dugan, 2017; Dugan & Henderson, 2021)?

Addressing Exclusion by Capital

Exclusion by capital may be one of the most difficult factors to deconstruct and reconstruct in the leadership education landscape in student affairs. Because we integrate our new professionals through a process of socialization into a community of practice (Priest & Seemiller, 2018; Seemiller & Priest, 2015, 2017), the rights of passage which make this journey significant may also be the elements perpetuating exclusion. As we attempt to unravel the complexities of social capital in our field, three key factors arise to consider. First, we must consider mentorship and sponsorship from a purposeful and inclusive, critical lens. Next, we must examine our practices of connection and hiring within the field. Finally, we must explore how programs who are doing exemplary work in critical, culturally relevant leadership education can expand their capital beyond their institutional scope to extend the circle of connections.

While we know mentorship and sponsorship are crucial to success for new professionals, particularly for women of color, white women, and LBGTQ+ community members (Friday, 2014; Scott, 2022), the practice of mentorship/sponsorship should be envisaged and executed critically. We want to highlight important conversations occurring in spaces for people of color and queer folx to enhance and emphasize their efforts and journey. This is being done beautifully in small spaces of student affairs, but we contend this has not intentionally transitioned to be a common practice within leadership education. We can learn from and apply mentorship/sponsorship practices as intentional access points to disrupt exclusionary practices.

Connections and relationship building are deeply ingrained in student affairs. We must adopt critical hiring and retention practices informed by diversity, equity, and inclusion scholars (Newsome et al., 2022). These efforts should carefully insert safeguards to disrupt implicit biases and broaden the scope and scale of our searches and retention strategies. We must redefine our expectations of who has been prepared for or served as a “leadership educator” and who can therefore be hired to assume these roles. We must be aware of the environment perpetuated in our leadership educator spaces, including considering the impact of whiteness and anti-Blackness on the culture of the office or department on minoritized leadership education professionals (Belisle & Dixon 2022; Bondi, 2012; Stewart, 2019).

Finally, we encourage practitioners to notice, consider, and explore possibilities when highlighting “best practice” leadership education programs in higher education/student affairs. Yes, we can and should be learning from these programs. Yes, they are crucial factors in expanding knowledge within the field. And yes, exemplar programs facilitate a continuation of the CKT conundrum. Programs that are held up as strong examples can hold significant capital or influence in the field. As a result, these programs can inadvertently (or intentionally) overshadow, minimize, or lead to the disregarding of individuals and programs not associated with these paragons of the field.

As we grapple with troubling the practice of exclusion by social capital, we invite you to consider the following questions:

  • We recognize the power of mentorship and sponsorship relationships – but how does this practice perpetuate systemic exclusion (Frazier & Bazner, 2022)? How can we call to question intrinsic bias within them and intentionally make practices more inclusive?
  • How can the work of connecting others dissuade new people, perspectives, ideas from coming in?
  • Where does hiring “fit” translate to someone who has similar ideas/experiences/identities to the existing team or leader? How does this correlate to how we hire within leadership education? How do we expand resources to ensure appropriate focus and support considering diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring (Fradella, 2018; Reece et al., 2019)?
  • What schools are known because of their faculty who then connect others in the field? Where is this practice positive and where is it negative? Can this be better managed?

Addressing Exclusion by Practice

Leadership education training should not be limited to short conferences, intensives, or institutes such as Leadership Educators Academy (LEA) or Leadership Educators Institute (LEI). While these opportunities are impactful, they are not comprehensive and cannot meet the need of all student affairs professionals expected to do leadership education work. Learning to become a leadership educator can take place through investment in professional development across multitude of development opportunities (including LEA and LEI). Creating opportunities to both learn about and challenge contemporary leadership education ideas helps professionals affirm their work while also introducing new ideas about how this work can be done.

As part of learning about and challenging leadership education, we can and should foster the development of graduate students as leadership educators across all graduate preparation programs (Kroll & Guvendiren, 2021; Teig, 2018). Student affairs professionals are consistently asked to perform leadership education. Entry-level housing professionals are expected to facilitate leadership development for resident assistants to prepare to support their residents (Manz, 2016). Orientation professionals develop extensive leadership training for orientation leaders to welcome new students to campus (Barnes, 2015). Campus programming boards and student governments require training (Aymoldanovna et al., 2015; Brill et al., 2009; Wooten et al., 2012) on leadership actions to support the needs of the entire student population (Hastings & Kane, 2018).  Student organizations such as Black Student Alliance, Latinx Student Organization, and PRIDE need support navigating leadership and campus environment (Dunkl et al., 2014; Renn & Ozaki, 2010).

Given the breadth of this work across functional areas, it is important for student affairs faculty to train incoming professionals as leadership educators. By becoming not only familiar with historical models of leadership theory but also challenging problematic theories of leadership we can continuously shift the needle of leadership education competency. This provides new student affairs professionals with knowledge and skills and prepares them to support the leadership learning needs of their future student leaders in a multitude of capacities.

Teaching leadership in this way must be expanded in order to combat current exclusionary practices. Expanding graduate leadership education courses, in turn, makes the teaching and crafting of leadership education within student affairs foundational to how all future graduate students are educated.

  • If we believe the ideology “leadership is a continual process with no finite arrival”, how are we training employees and students to reimagine the contemporary practices in leadership education?
  • How are graduate programs in higher education/student affairs prioritizing systematized leadership educator training as a significant practice in preparing new professionals?

Facing Our Fears

In article one, we proposed the perpetuation of the CKT was influenced by fears inherent in these systems of exclusion. The fears included fear of retribution, discomfort, rejection, and abandoning tradition. We self-impose boundaries framed in fear and then these boundaries limit how we understand and see ourselves as leadership educators. In Harro’s (2000) Cycle of Socialization, she framed fear as a core factor perpetuating oppression. To understand and address fear, Harro (2000) envisioned liberation through self-love, balance, joy, and support as crucial elements in disrupting cycles of inequity.


Figure Description: Four circles overlap to create a Venn diagram showing how foundations of a historical legacy of exclusion and specific exclusions of capital, knowledge, and practice interact to support and perpetuate fears. The overlap of the top circle, exclusion by knowledge, with the left circle, exclusion by capital, creates the space for fear of retribution. The overlap of the top circle with the right circle,  exclusion by practice, produces the space for fear of discomfort. The bottom circle, historical legacy, overlaps with the left circle, exclusion by capital, to produce the space, fear of rejection. The bottom circle overlaps with the right circle, exclusion by practice, to create the space, fear of abandoning tradition. In the middle of the Venn diagram, where all four circles overlap, sits the “cool kids’ table”.

Troubling Tradition as Opportunity for Innovation: At the intersection of historical legacy and exclusion by practice is a fear of abandoning tradition. We encourage our community to consider, how often does “tradition” no longer serve the communities we support in leadership growth? How can we learn from alternative perspectives of understanding leadership to broaden our pedagogy and practice (Liu, 2020)? When are we blindly following tradition without reflecting on the impetus of its narrative?

Re-writing Rejection:  When considering historical legacy and exclusion by capital, we face fears of rejection. These include fear of rejection from the prevailing leadership education spaces if you are not a perfect fit or do not have access to the known cool kids who can support your leadership educator development. Addressing this fear is incumbent upon all current leadership educators who help facilitate the socialization into the leadership education realm. Can we re-write how we extend our networks and welcome others (particularly others from minoritized identities) into our spaces through mentorship, sponsorship, and purposeful intervention?

A Rebuttal to Retribution: In the overlap of exclusions by capital and knowledge, we can see a fear of retribution if efforts for change are not accepted by those who hold power. Many of us would envisage retribution as an overt act of dominance to enforce control. We contend the more invasive and concerning factor of this fear is represented in a more nuanced, insidious nature. If we fear the possibility of not progressing in our careers by not using the correct language, texts, or ideas, and we internalize this trepidation even if it has no grounding, we fall prey to an invisible fear of retribution. A call to disrupt this harmful pattern can include affirming young professionals and scholars in emphasizing new ideas and critical lenses to leadership learning (Dugan & Henderson, 2021).

Engaging Dissonance, Embracing Discomfort, Enabling Support: “Champions of the CKT may be uncomfortable changing the status quo because it has most benefited those who have highest access” (Teig & Dilworth, 2021, p. 4). Student affairs practitioners have long touted the strength of cognitive dissonance as a space for growth (Bresciani, 2008). Taylor and Baker (2019) noted that pushing for discomfort for the sake of dissonance without enabling a supportive learning environment can lead to damaging results. We invite our community to embrace the dissonance of knowing leadership education has not been accessible to all as a catalyst for examining how discomfort can lead to growth. We further encourage conversation to provide a supportive environment to engender this development beyond the fear of discomfort. By acknowledging and considering how privilege has benefited those with access to the CKT, we can own the discomfort in the effort for needed change and support one another to tread an alternative path.

Hoping and Dreaming Forward

Leadership education in student affairs practice has reached an impasse. As scholars, practitioners and life-long learners, we have the challenge as well as the opportunity ahead of us to reshape the entire landscape of leadership education. Yet, transition inevitably produces growing pains. Fear and the interlocking structures of oppression continue to serve as roadblocks to the world of leadership education we imagine to be possible. However, as we mentioned before, the journey to dismantle and create a more inclusive, liberatory leadership education practice requires hope. Again, this is not a myopic version of hope that we will somehow stumble upon the future we want. Rather, it is a critical and steadfast hope that fosters a sense of constant movement towards the future we want to see for leadership education within higher education and student affairs.

With critical hope, the exclusionary lenses and subsequent fears mentioned in our first article and above are navigable barriers to be noticed, discussed, and overcome. We invite student affairs professionals to join in this conversation and consider:

  • Leadership education must purposefully move towards inclusion and justice. This is affirmed by the newest National Leadership Education Research Agenda (Andenoro & Skendall, 2020) as well as competencies of ACPA and NASPA. However, the actual practice of living out this value offers significant challenges we are still collectively navigating.
  • Higher Education/Student Affairs must focus on promoting alternative lenses of teaching and studying leadership. These alternative lenses already exist and are also continuing to be developed, but they must be distributed and adopted in a deep and purposeful manner across the practitioner and academic arenas of the field.
  • We must engage in a deep conversation on mentorship, sponsorship, and hiring fit in consideration of identities. In a deeply relational field, inclusion for some can often be exclusion for others. Where are we addressing this issue in leadership education?
  • Higher Education/Student Affairs must consider how we do the work of leadership education and prioritize leadership educator training in graduate education. We cannot continue the cycle of expecting student affairs professionals to facilitate leadership learning if we do not offer comprehensive training on how to be a leadership educator.

The other component that must go in tandem with a sense of hope is a will to dream. Dreaming is necessary in constructing a reality that is yet to exist because we must push ourselves outside of the boundaries that were constructed before us. We must dream as if we are creating worlds of science fiction, worlds where power and authority are shared equitably along with knowledge being completely accessible. Science fiction is a relevant comparison because oftentimes constructing the worlds we need means imaging and seeing futures for ourselves that can seem impossible, imaginary, or utopian. We are asking fellow leadership educators to not simply imagine what the field of leadership education would look like without the barriers created by fear and oppressive forces. Instead, we seek to imagine beyond the elimination of barriers to the construction of a new and dynamic leadership learning reality.

As a community of practice, leadership educators in student affairs must engage in this space of dreaming and critical hope to move beyond the “Cool Kids’ Table.” Reifying insular, nepotistic, and legacy-driven connections and narrow theoretical framings limits the opportunity for opening to a new, expansive, and welcoming space for the leadership education profession in student affairs. There are great opportunities for scholarship to understand how and where leadership educator preparation is occurring; this needs to be a priority in research moving forward. The communities of leadership education and student affairs must work to make visible and disrupt barriers caused by systemic practices persistent in our professional spaces.

Doing this work will ensure a more accessible, diverse, and inclusive leadership educator field for the future. When we expand beyond the CKT, we eliminate questions of worth and “fit” experienced by educators whose ideas could transform the field. And some may ask, “If we move in this direction, then is everyone is a cool kid?” We contend the dismantling of oppressive systems and practices simultaneously begins to fade the desirability of being/becoming a “cool kid” as the concept is inherently exclusionary. When we move beyond the CKT, we move beyond the ideology of knowledge, capital, and practice as something only meant for a predetermined, select few. When we disrupt this ideology, we create novel processes for newer professionals to facilitate their growth in knowledge, skills, and abilities to join the conversation, dreaming into critical hope and creating a more inclusive and expansive field of leadership education.


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Author Biographies:

Trisha Teig is a Teaching Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Denver. She teaches and researches leadership development, inclusive leadership, and gender and leadership.

DaShawn Dilworth (he/him) is a Student Conduct Coordinator in the Office of Student Conduct at Virginia Tech.