‘Having a Place at the Table Is Not Enough’

Tracy Poon Tambascia EdD ’07, newly elected president of the USC Academic Senate and USC Rossier professor of clinical education, on the importance of leaders amplifying alternative perspectives.

Interview by Kianoosh Hashemzadeh

(Illustration/Heather Monahan)

This fall, Tracy Poon Tambascia EdD ’07, USC Rossier professor of clinical education, takes the helm as president of the USC Academic Senate, the first woman of color to hold the position. Tambascia joins a growing list of USC Rossier faculty members who serve in leadership roles at USC, including Alan G. Green, faculty athletics representative; Julie Posselt, associate dean, USC Graduate School; Ginger Clark, associate vice provost for academic and faculty affairs and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching; and Julie Slayton, director of the Office for the protection of Research Subjects. Here, Tambascia discusses the role of the president, her goals for her term and why she has no heroes.

What is the importance of the Academic Senate, and what is your role as president?
The Academic Senate occupies a unique role within higher education. It’s essentially a way in which the faculty can engage in shared governance and work closely with the administration, offering them guidance, perspective and feedback as they make decisions on things related to policy, strategic planning, budgeting or the way in which an administration is run. There’s a central Senate, an executive board and a vast network of faculty volunteers who serve on committees, which is where a lot of the work gets done.

As president, I work closely on a weekly basis with an executive board. We make sure committees are staffed and have charges, and that we’re communicating. But then there are things that pop up. Is there an issue that has surfaced that’s affecting our faculty? Do we need to be anticipating a problem on the horizon? We work closely with the Provost’s Office and regularly communicate with President Carol Folt. It’s important that I listen, that I’m hearing from people and that they reach out to me so I’m able to coalesce that into priorities for the Senate.

What are some of the committees you’ve served on?
I’ve co-chaired several committees, one of which is in support of our Research, Teaching, Practitioner and Clinical-Track Faculty Affairs, and some have focused on teaching and academic programs at the Committee on Teaching and Academic Programs. I’ve also co-chaired task forces looking at things like course information, and I co-chaired the provost’s council on diversity, equity and inclusion. Through this work I’ve met a lot of amazing people with diverse interests. That’s also really important as there are nearly 5,000 faculty. We simply can’t know them all, but we try to reach as many of them as possible.

Why is it important to have diversity in these leadership roles?
Even though many of us at USC work on equity and inclusion, the reality is that representation
in race and gender, language abilities, religion and other identities really matters. Having people at the table from those various perspectives to challenge, to question, to uplift ideas, to emphasize and to advocate—all of that matters. Having said that, that’s not enough. Having a place at the table is not enough. It’s also important for individuals within the community to listen and to amplify positions that are not their own. It’s important that I’m at the table advocating for identities different from mine, and only in that way can we, collectively, ensure inclusion and explore the vast range of ideas and issues out there. Otherwise, it’s an echo chamber. I think that my election—which was the first by the faculty assembly with the faculty-at-large—reflects a changing and diverse faculty.

What issues would you like to focus on during your term?
One is this concept of building capacity for faculty leadership to strengthen our shared governance. That idea is centered on the fact that faculty are experts within our disciplines, but we don’t necessarily know a lot about how universities function and we may not understand how policies are formed, how fundraising happens or what happens in athletics. One of the things I’d like to do is support the development of structured programs to allow faculty who want to be involved, to gain access and meet with individuals who form policies, manage budgets and forecast fundraising goals [so they can] have a better sense of how the university works. That way we can be better leaders, and shared-governance conversations can happen at a higher level.

Related to that, we have a rising generation of junior faculty who are assuming leadership positions, but there’s little known about how these faculty are different from those who are retiring. But we know they are—there is more education debt, the higher ed job market and job security looks different. Through one of the committees, we intend to pilot a study that asks junior faculty: What are your hopes, aspirations and concerns? What would motivate you to become a department chair or to co-chair a committee? What would support their ability to serve in these roles so that we can prepare them as they develop in their career?

It’s important that I’m at the table advocating for identities different from mine, and only in that way can we, collectively, ensure inclusion and explore the vast range of ideas and issues out there.

In an ideal world, how would you define the role of faculty in the governance of higher education?
Faculty would have access to the necessary information to actually engage meaningfully in shared governance. It doesn’t mean management. Faculty are not managers. We have excellent leaders for that. But in order to make decisions and to actually be able to consider important decisions about the future, there has to be some ability to gain access to information. And faculty positions will be considered and heard—not always conceded to, but definitely heard and considered. I don’t think that we have a perfect shared governance system, but I do think we have an administration that cares deeply about the welfare of all parts of our community, including faculty. Ideally, faculty will have time to participate, and service is rewarded and recognized, so that it’s important to all faculty to give some of their time in some way.

You earned your BA and MA in psychology. How did your studies in this field shape your approach to your career in higher education?
I think it undergirds the way that I see human interactions and how decisions are made. I tend to like to read a room. I’m not the loudest person in the room. I’m a watcher and a listener. Sometimes for individuals, that’s unsettling because they expect a leader to be the first to speak, to be the loudest, to have a response for everything, to be the center, and I don’t see myself that way. It’s fine for other people, but I try to understand people’s motivations, what drives them. We have to consider individuals’ contexts and motivations when we communicate and appeal to them. Understanding that context, and what pushes and pulls, what motivates them is, I believe, more likely to lead to a better outcome. It builds stronger relationships and trust, which is essential in all leadership. If you don’t have good communication and trust, it’s going to be very hard to have those difficult conversations or to reach agreement at times.

What are the qualities of a good leader?
I can only honestly speak on good leadership from me. I’m a listener; I observe. I’m a friendly, positive person. I tend to see the glass more than half-full. I think sometimes people mistake that for softness, but I’m not. I know when to be firm. Oftentimes, individuals conform their ideas of what leadership is to this concept of rigidity and loudness, and perhaps masculine traits. I feel that I can be successful deploying my own approach. I can often be effective in communicating the way I normally do, with a smile, but that’s not going to work with all individuals. Sometimes I may have to be a little tougher.

You teach in USC Rossier’s Global EdD program. How do cultural differences in leadership styles impact how you teach international students?
I really love teaching in the Global EdD program because it is so challenging. I am very deliberate and thoughtful in how I introduce topics when I’m teaching, but I’m not perfect. That’s the first thing I will say to anybody who works with diverse populations, domestic or international, is that if you’re aiming for perfection, that’s going to be a terrible standard because faculty and instructors are constantly learning. We’re learning about ourselves, how we present ourselves, our emotions and biases, and also what our students hear, what they’re receptive to. I’m very deliberate, thoughtful and careful about language because I recognize that students from other cultural contexts don’t understand the same jokes and acronyms. When I’m creating or choosing case examples, I think about comprehension. Are students from particular cultures going to understand the nuance of this particular case study? I often end up writing my own case studies, and in doing so, I am again careful about choosing names and gender identities that won’t create dissonance for individuals. If they’re questioning “Well, that would never happen,” then they can’t address the problem at hand.

What are some of the leadership values that you seek to pass on to your students?
I know this sounds trite, because every faculty member will say this, but at the doctoral level, I’m aiming for two things in particular: One is habits of mind, and the other is to remind them of the love of learning. I want them to develop the habit of reading material carefully and asking certain questions of it. What I’m trying to prepare them for is to always ask: What problem are we trying to solve? Students didn’t come back to earn a doctorate because they’re trying to check the boxes. They came back because they’re genuinely intellectually curious. What I want them to do is stop and think about what they’re trying to accomplish with an assignment and think deeply about how that connects with their learning, how it connects with what they’re trying to accomplish. In my written feedback, I bring them back to the purpose of their work: What do you want to communicate? What do you want to do?

“If we place so much stock in just one individual, as opposed to our collective responsibility, then we’re not building capacity.”

Has this past year and a half affected what and how you teach? If it has, what’s changed?
My early work as an administrator in student affairs was involved with diversity and equity, so I’ve long integrated diversity work in my teaching and my professional practice. But what has been important in the last several years—because Black Lives Matter did not surface in May 2020; these are long-standing issues—is the reminder that equity, inclusion and diversity within the curriculum and in the classroom has to be front of mind. If it isn’t, it falls by the wayside. I think of this moment as a time of dual pandemics, because the inequities that are so clear in terms of racial and economic assets were exacerbated by the pandemic, not just in the U.S., but around the world. And it plays out with vaccine distribution and availability. We’re seeing poor countries with really terrible access to vaccines.

The pandemic has taught those working in higher education whether they’re an instructor, administrator or university leader to expect the unexpected. We cannot anticipate “a return to normal” and, in fact, we don’t want to return to normal. We want things to be better. Those are two important takeaways: We have to be flexible and agile, and we have to reflect and identify strengths and carry those forward.

Who are some leaders you look up to?
A few years back, I would have identified some political leaders who I admired. But then they
do something wrong—that happens in politics—and their name is sullied. There are people I admire, but I also believe that people are human and they’re not perfect. We have superhuman expectations of individuals, so we’re often disappointed when they fail, when they act human. I could say Barack Obama. I do really admire him, but he’s not perfect. There are things that he did not handle well. So, I just hedge when I’m asked.

I don’t like to regard my role as being at the center. To me, that’s hero worship. It’s the idea that you’re at the center, and you’re the only one who’s accountable. That’s such a fallacy. No individual can accomplish everything. If we place so much stock in just one individual as opposed to our collective responsibility, then we’re not building capacity. We’re not engaging as many as we can.

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2021 issue as “‘Having a Place at the Table Is Not Enough’.”