Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Jeffrey B. Leak

Today I continue an interview series that will run through the remainder of this year. The interviews will take place once a month and feature discussions with African Americans in formal leadership positions in academia, including department chairs, deans, associate deans, organization directors, and more. My goal is to provide our readers with information on the various challenges and opportunities that come with such positions and an understanding of the type of training necessary to become a successful academic leader. The first interview was with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University.

Today’s interview is with Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak, Professor of English and Africana Studies at UNC Charlotte. He has served as Director of the Center for the Study of the New South in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and most recently as President of the Faculty.


Jeffrey B. Leak

Cameron: I’d like to begin with your position as Director of the Center for the Study of the New South. What are some of the major duties and responsibilities that come with directing an organization such as this one?

Leak: My major responsibility was developing systematic programming around issues related to the New South in ways that would engage our faculty and students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in particular and members of the University and Charlotte community in general. This involved continuing or creating relationships with colleagues and programs/departments on campus as well as institutions in the community. We partnered with, for example, the Chancellor’s Office, Athletics Department, Program in American Studies, Levine Museum of the New South and the Urban League in creating programs that impacted multiple communities. My point here is that I started with resources that might have not been utilized before in our campus community. In doing so, I was able to highlight various forms of faculty expertise beyond just our academic community.

Cameron: What positions/experiences have you had prior to becoming director that best prepared you for the position?

Leak: A few years after earning tenure in 2004, I served as Faculty Associate in Academic Affairs. This opportunity enabled me to see the university in “big picture” terms. As I interacted with the leadership teams in both Academic Affairs and the Chancellor’s Office, I established connections with colleagues on the administration side that enabled me to move into the director’s position with a number of relationships already established. I did not know, in fact I had no inkling at the time, that I would serve as director, but what I’ve learned about leadership is that often the skill set you develop in one setting is transferable to another. But if there are certain aspects of leadership that you don’t have—such as a working knowledge of budgets—find a way to fill that gap.

Cameron: You have also recently been President of the Faculty at UNC Charlotte. What were your major responsibilities in this role?

Leak: Yes, I served as president during the 2015-2016 academic year. The primary responsibility involves setting the agenda for the monthly executive and faculty council meetings. In consultation with the provost and chancellor, the president shapes the priorities for the year, from, in my case, working through the approval process for major changes to the general education curriculum, to working with the chancellor’s office in preparation for the system president’s first visit to our campus, to the faculty response to House Bill 2. In other words, as president I played a major part in developing the faculty council agenda for the year, but I also served as the first point of contact when our senior leadership needed the faculty perspective on any number of issues that emerged during the year.

Cameron: What have been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of academic leadership for you?

Leak: The most challenging aspect of academic leadership to this point for me, is negotiating the balance—that is, with all the positions I’ve held, I’ve still remained connected to the classroom and my research agenda. At some point in the near future, I’ll need to decide if I’m going to pursue a full-time administrative role, which means I’ll have to curtail my research and leave the classroom. The most rewarding aspect of leadership is creating and building upon opportunities that will strengthen your unit, college, division and university. To be engaged in the processes that will shape the future of your college or university is humbling. I enjoy my life as scholar, teacher, and university citizen but I also appreciate understanding the larger context that impacts the overall experience for students, staff and faculty. Faculty should consider leadership opportunities so that we can at least be at the table when our future is being debated.

The other challenge involves the work/life connection. The higher up you move into administration, the more accessible and prepared you have to be. If you are interested in having a family, or simply having a fulfilling life outside of the academy, you have to determine your priorities on both sides of the equation. The traditional family model—with the faculty husband and stay-at-home wife and mother—might not be in the dust bin, but it’s not the reality for most of us. Even for administrators who don’t have kids or whose kids are older, many of them have the challenge of dealing with aging parents. These are the kinds of social issues that we’ll have to deal with in the future.

Cameron: For graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration, what advice would you give? What skills are most beneficial in a successful academic leader?

Leak: Remember that in terms of leadership there is no single path. Some leadership paths are more common than others. If you are early in your career, develop your research and teaching profiles and focus on tenure. After crossing that hurdle, if you are interested in leadership opportunities, don’t assume someone is going to identify you in that light. Don’t hesitate to apply for a position in the college or elsewhere in the university. Even if you don’t get it, you could receive helpful feedback. More importantly, it lets people know you are interested in advancing your development in that way.

Finally, look at the people in certain leadership positions and check out both their academic and administrative profiles. Ask him or her if you could have a discussion over coffee about their journey. If someone is a chair, what positions did he hold leading up to that? If the person is a dean, was she a department chair? After finding out this information, think about your path. Can you see yourself as a full-time administrator? Or do you see yourself moving in between the faculty and administration, as many department chairs do? Finally, where’s your passion? If you’re a biologist or literary scholar, how will you transition from being immersed in the lab or archives to leading an interdisciplinary center, honors program, or understanding the metrics of retention, enrollment management or fundraising? In other words, what kind of things can you work on related to the college or university that might not be directly related to what inspired you to become a faculty member in the first place?

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.