Westmont Magazine Literature and Leadership
by Provost Mark L. Sargent
Based on his talks at the Lead Where You Stand Annual Leadership Conference in June
Before I became a provost, I taught literature, and I suppose you never fully abandon your rst loves. Back in the early 1990s, when I originally joined administrative circles, almost everyone was quoting Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I will admit, though, that I still preferred the six novels of Jane Austen, not just for their literary merits but also for their practical wisdom. A few years later Jim Collins delineated some principles for moving one’s organization from “good to great.” I still recall his seven maxims yet I have always wanted to add an eighth—read Tolstoy, as well as Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Shusaku Endo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Emily Dickinson, Dante Alighieri, and many of the world’s nest writers.
Each time I have spoken at the Lead Where You Stand conference, I have found some kindred spirits who seek me out, hungry to talk about the books that have inspired or changed them. Like me, they tend to think of literature as oxygen. Many of our life’s epiphanies have come from encounters with a character in a novel or a passage in a poem. Admittedly, there are others who seem more eager for a second cup of coffee than a run through the classics, but I have still loved sharing with them how literature has reoriented the ways I think about leading. I will try to do so now. With a nod to Covey and Collins, I will even t this into seven themes.
A Shared Journey
The first theme is about friendship— even love. You can inspire and empower others by reading the books that move them. Literature allows us to explore, by proxy, others’ spiritual landscapes and discoveries. Talking about ction, theatre, or poetry with coworkers builds vulnerability and trust. I can think of many deeply affecting novels and poems that colleagues have given me— works that have carried them through personal trials, the deaths of spouses, and anguished crossroads. Reading those books has brought me nearer to their hearts and minds.
Many of our life’s epiphanies have come from encounters with a character in a novel or a passage in a poem.
For my primary example, I’ll move even closer to home. A child of the Depression, my mother was born in Nebraska. She lost her father at nine and her mother during college. After World War II she became estranged from her G.I. brother, who carried home more than his share of PTS from the Paci c theatre. Finding a new life in California, my mother resisted talking about her own youth during my childhood. What opened the conversation was her discovery, in midlife, of the novels of Willa Cather. Cather captures both the beauty and bleakness of the Nebraska plains—the solidarity and isolation of prairie dwellers, the intuition that these vast elds could be a common home even if everyone seemed to come from elsewhere. One of Cather’s novels, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, follows a Nebraska youth through the moral chaos of the Great War, and that tale no doubt made Mom think of her brother. In Cather’s fiction, my mother found a language for her own musings about the past and a sense that the struggle, love and longing in the characters could be redemptive. It certainly opened emotional corridors where the two of us could venture more freely. Some of the books on my shelves that I value most came from a family member or coworker who invited me to take a literary journey with them.
Second, literature can help move us beyond the polarization and polemics that impede our search for the common good. No one needs reminding about the bitterness or ethical sophistry of so much of the current public discourse. In the best literature, ideas take on a human face with all our contradictions and complexities. Conversation about a novel or a play has always seemed to me one of the most meaningful ways of moving beyond rigid ideologies. Recently, I read a fascinating story by a high school teacher who assigned John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to a class with migrant children. The instructor noted how the students, mostly from Mexico, were surprised by the poverty, struggle, and displacement of white Midwesterners. They saw that in the heartland of American populism people had their own tales of dislocation. But the novel helped create opportunities for the migrant readers to share with one another their own tales of passage and perseverance. These students had been surprised that the journey in the novel led to the dissipation of the Joad family. Steinbeck, with his socialist leanings, implies that loyalty to one’s nuclear family can be transformed into bonding with one’s social class. Yet, for these students, the trials of immigration had actually strengthened their family ties, as the multi-generational families refused to let a border divide them. The encounter with Steinbeck’s book enabled them to see their own poor families as havens of moral courage and to value the acuity of a multicultural life, even as they engaged new questions about social structures. For teacher and students, the tales of migration af rmed that immigration was a human crucible long before it was a policy dispute or a partisan refrain.
My third point may be the hardest medicine but the most essential. Literature renews us because it unsettles us. It should stir our consciences and impel us toward higher levels of responsibility and self-reflection, even challenging us to re-examine our own stewardship of power and prerogative.
One of the literary thunderbolts for me as a college student was “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s nal novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Set during the harshest days of the Inquisition in Spain, the chapter is a fable that imagines Christ’s return, his arrest, imprisonment and confrontation with the Inquisitor. In the dark recesses of a Seville dungeon, the Inquisitor tells Christ that the church no longer needs him. Christianity is simply too hard for Christians, the Inquisitor insists, and so the church has replaced the revolutionary creeds of the gospel with a blend of “miracle, mystery and authority” that parishioners nd far more palatable.
As a young man, I tended to see the Inquisitor as an emblem of abusive power and systems. As I’ve grown older, I can see more of myself in the mirror. How quickly do we domesticate the challenges of the gospel? How often do we dismiss the highest moral critiques or aspirations of others, even our co-workers, as impractical or too idealistic and therefore easier to disregard? What emerges from the parable is not a clear litany of leadership principles, but a powerful warning about how we often trade moral courage and complexity for managerial control and ef ciency. If we’re not self-reflective about how we balance order and freedom, what we de ne as integrity for others is little more than conformity.
You can inspire and empower others by reading the books that move them. Literature allows us to explore, by proxy, others’ spiritual landscapes and discoveries.
Fourth, literature can draw our minds to the silent spaces of history. Our narratives about the past—about our nations, churches, communities, and ideals—will inevitably, and sometimes intentionally, neglect experiences of many people and communities. Documents and artifacts, the core materials of historical research, tend to be more commonly produced and preserved by those in positions of power, leaving the lives of so many in the shadows. The current national conversation about racial justice is, in many ways, a call to rethink our narratives about our predecessors and our “progress,” a reminder that the Black lives that matter are those in history as well as those in our present society. In a podcast seen by many students in our First-Year Seminar, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns of the “danger of a single story.” It is not that the stories we have heard are necessarily “wrong,” she claims, it is that they are “incomplete.” Some of our most powerful works of literature are efforts to recover, through a blend of research and imagination, the experiences of peoples whose stories have not been—or that are still not being—heard, published, or valued. A leader who relies on a single story is likely to perpetuate the many silences.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the national protests and marches, several people have told me that they have chosen to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. With its magical realism and multiple voices, the novel evokes the ideas, anxieties, and aspirations of Black citizens in the era right after the Civil War. In many respects, the novel reworks features of the nineteenth-century slave narratives. Those narratives, including the most famous one by Frederick Douglass, were powerful testaments of human suffering and perseverance. But they were also crafted to appeal to abolitionist readers, who often saw the process of liberating the slaves as the essential thread to the story. Yet Morrison inverts the tale, starting in post-Civil War freedom to show how the horrors of the past continued to exercise a psychological hold on the slaves even after emancipation. In one of her boldest passages, Morrison merges the individual consciousness of some of the “liberated” characters with the imagined voices of the millions of slaves who died on the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas. Redemption comes not simply through assimilation into the abolitionists’ “free society” but through “re-memory,” the ex-slaves’ imaginative engagement with their past and their heritage.
If literature can help us reclaim the past, it can also help us cross borders. Many of the best books open windows on other cultures. As travelers, we’re all accustomed to reading about places we’ll visit; it’s quite another thing for a leader to listen to those who live there.
I met my wife, Arlyne, shortly after she’d spent two years living and teaching in Japan, and she recommended Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro as a re ection of the nation’s ethos. A richly textured meditation on honor, change, and loneliness within Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century, Kokoro resonated anew within the nation in the despondent aftermath of World War II. What I found unusual and even opaque about the narrative was actually an indication of the distance I had to go before understanding another culture.
Several years later, Arlyne and I were living in the Netherlands, where my students observed that their political inclinations, unlike mine, had been shaped by their families’ memory of Nazi control. Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault—set in the last days of occupied Holland and the years following— helped me understand the reverberations of fascism and socialism in modern Europe and opened a discourse with my students about civil liberties and political alliances. More recently, Chandra Mallampalli from our History Department gave me Amitav Ghosh’s study The Great Derangement. Ghosh describes the powerful and prophetic work by novelists in India and Southeast Asia envisioning the consequences of climate change, a theme explored less bravely by novelists in the West. The literature that comes from beyond our borders continually awakens us to new dimensions of global citizenship.
Sixth, reading the best literature always renews our own language, especially for those of us who can become immersed in administrative clutter and cliché. Great prose and poetry are compelling in their own right, and when you linger with those words they can enrich our own. Many of the most memorable lines inspire better prose but also wiser judgment.
We all have phrases or passages that stay with us. As a provost, I have frequently recalled the last sentence of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. At the end of her novel about rural lives in provincial England, Eliot asserts that the “growing good of the world” relies on those who are “incalculably diffusive.” Today, when so much of our work is de ned by metrics and marketing, we are wise to remember those “hidden lives” who help others ourish, often in diffuse and incalculable ways. I know that many times in my career, I’ve overlooked some of these unsel sh and immeasurable contributions. Occasionally when I haven’t, I can thank George Eliot for it.
Cognition and Empathy
Finally, with much of the spotlight these days on STEM elds, those of us in the humanities appreciate getting a little help from our friends in the sciences. I’ll conclude my themes, then, with a shout out to the laboratories exploring the links between brain science and literature. At Michigan State University, neuroscientists examined the genres of reading that most signi cantly affected blood ow in the areas of the brain related to executive functioning. They looked at various written forms—journalism, business writing, popular non ction, etc.—and determined that literary ction did the most to stimulate the blood. As the scholars reflected on their data, they hypothesized that executive function was enhanced by the “immense cognitive complexity” necessary to catch the nuances of the language and verbal interaction between characters. Similarly, in an oft-cited study at the New School for Social Research, scholars linked the reading of literary ction—as compared to other forms of writing—to enhanced social perception, emotional intelligence, and nonverbal discernment. Maybe that’s literature’s greatest promise: it’s a catalyst for empathy.
As travelers, we’re all accustomed to reading about places we’ll visit; it’s quite another thing for a leader to listen to those who live there.
In the future you may well nd yourself in a bookstore or on a website checking titles about how to manage or in uence people. Or you could pick up a copy of Persuasion. Yes, that’s a Jane Austen novel, her last book, published posthumously, a story about the possibilities for love and renewal after a season of economic loss and instability, a tale about misjudgment, self-discovery and grace. Or perhaps you might be looking for new titles about building bridges or breaking down barriers. Then how about Fences? August Wilson’s play, a Pulitzer and Tony winner, portrays the emotional, racial, and social walls in the life of a middle-aged truck driver who had been a star athlete in the segregated leagues before baseball broke its color line. It explores the long road and extraordinary cost of forgiveness. Both books are stories of moral reappraisal that any manager, CEO, or provost might nd pro table—that is, in the most humane and disruptive of ways.
Mark L. Sargent, who has worked in higher education for more than 40 years, is concluding his service as Westmont’s provost and dean of faculty at the end of the fall 2020 semester. He came to Westmont in 2012 after 16 years as provost of Gordon College in Massachusetts. He will keep an af liation with the college as a Senior Fellow, continue assisting Schol- arship and Christianity in Oxford, serve with the Lilly Network of Religious Colleges, and teach and consult internationally.
“Mark has made signi cant contributions to Westmont during his tenure, helping to hire highly quali ed professors, expanding our global education programs to include Northern Europe, East Asia and Uganda, helping launch the Westmont Downtown program, developing two new majors—data analytics and engineering—and adding or expanding minors in computer science, environmental studies, ethnic studies, lm studies, global studies, and writing,” says President Beebe.
Under Mark’s leadership, the college has received maximum accredita- tion from accrediting bodies. As a recognized leader in higher education, he has served on numerous accreditation committees and national boards.
Mark is known for his sense of humor and love for literature, which he pulls into everything he does. His literary allusions inform all his commu- nications. No one ever forgets that he’s an English professor.
“Mark has the perfect blend of characteristics for a provost: a heart of a servant, a mind of a scholar and the soul of an entrepreneur,” says Eileen McMahon McQuade, associate dean of the faculty. “The deep care and compassion he had for his faculty, staff and students was evident in all his actions and decisions. He loudly and proudly celebrated the good works of others (with a good dose of humor mixed in!) while quietly and humbly making impressive achievements of his own. His strong and faithful leader- ship through the challenging times of res, debris ows and now a pandem- ic will long be remembered and admired by those serving with him.”
“When I came here nine years ago, “ Mark says, “there was a great deal of compelling scholarly and creative work in motion, and it has been a delight to see so much energy emerge out of the endeavors of the younger colleagues who have recently come aboard. Like the outlaw in the old westerns, I will be jumping off a moving train.”
Previously, Mark served as the chief academic of cer at Spring Arbor University in Michigan for three years. He worked at Biola University in Southern California for 12 years as professor of English and associate dean.
An alumnus of UC Santa Barbara, Mark earned a master’s degree and doctorate at Claremont Graduate Uni- versity, specializing in 19th-century American literature. He also received a Fulbright scholarship to teach American literature and history at the University of Utrecht in the Nether- lands. The Council of Independent Colleges named him the National Chief Academic Of cer of the Year in 2008.
Mark’s wife, Arlyne, their son Daniel and their daughter, Andrea, all graduated from Westmont, and their son Bradford, a graduate of Houghton College in New York, worked at Westmont in Sports Information.