Recalcitrant: The Case for Divergent Thinking

In my role as college president I have the opportunity to serve on a number of boards for a wide and varied set of organizations. I enjoy being able to contribute to the communities in which I live and work. I have an opportunity to lend some of my experience as an educational leader and community partner to these organizations. Many times I find that agencies like the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) have to work across multiple markets and with multiple agencies in a variety of fields. The constant marriage of government, non-profit, education, and public actors makes the AADL a dynamic institution. This marriage is also what makes the successful and impactful execution of its mission so challenging.

Working in higher education I often find myself in the same position. We work under constant scrutiny from our boards, the federal government, and the communities we serve. We are constantly engaged in building and sustaining meaningful relationships with our government, local K-12 districts and schools, industry partners, and other community action organizations. We build these partnerships to create and drive action in our communities. This can mean opportunities for high school kids or larger workforce initiatives for adults. Our colleges many times become the central point of coordination for these initiatives and as such my work has given me so much to offer in terms of organic successes and in terms of learning from a decade of innovation trial and error.

I serve on boards and volunteer my time not just to share what I think I can offer but also so that I can learn from others. I have served on the board of some truly exceptional organizations with truly exceptional leaders. As I reflect back on those experiences, those board experiences that had the most value were those where there was the most diversity of perspective. Those board experiences where I learned the most from others and a great deal about myself, are those boards where people cared deeply about the greater good of the organization but approached that notion from a wide variety of perspectives. In my opinion, the boards that yield the best results are those that are at times confrontational. They are those boards where ideas and thoughts are tested and bent to the breaking point. It is incumbent on the board of any organization to be the place where seemingly well-intentioned ideas can be tested, stressed, and through that process forged into positive action and experiences for the constituents of the organization.

The single biggest threat to effective board stewardship is homogeneity of thinking. When a board of trustees by its construct or election is created with a majority perspective, those processes that encourage innovation, new thinking, and critical analysis will breakdown.

When thinking is aligned by design, I worry for the resulting processes intended vet policy, practice, and strategic planning. Creating the dynamics that stifle diverse thinking puts an organization at risk at the highest level. It limits the quality of contribution the Board of Trustees can make to an organization. At a time of such rapid change and at a time where adaptability has never been more essential, the need for divergent thinking has never been more important.

As we look at the candidates for AADL Trustees this year, four of the candidates are running on a slate ticket for an elected board with only eight seats. I do not know or disparage any of the candidates individually. I struggle to find a statement of platform that should form the foundation of a slate candidacy so I am unclear about the positions and viewpoints that have united the four slate candidates. As stated above, I truly believe divergent perspectives to be the hallmark of a healthy board composition. The election of a slate candidacy that would essentially allow those four individuals to lock out alternative perspectives and diminish the net individual impact of the other trustees and the perspectives they represent. To create majority perspectives structurally is a mistake that will be detrimental to the process of critical dialog and analysis. As we head to the polls this fall, I urge all voters to carefully consider candidates, especially those candidates running for non-partisan positions, individually and for the unique characteristics, ideas, backgrounds, and skills they offer the position.

Dr. Steven Simpson is currently the President of Baker College of Jackson and is seeking a position on the Ann Arbor District Library Board of Trustees in the November 2016 election. Additional information about Dr. Simpson and his candidacy can be found at You can reach Dr. Simpson at, or on Twitter@simpsonaadl.