MSU Leadership Institute: Defining Responsibility

When Salman Rushdie spoke last month in the SUB Ballroom at MSU, his topics ranged along a vast sociological front. On his mind was the function of fiction within our increasingly literal-minded contemporary experience. He also briefly, yet thoughtfully, advocated the role of oral narration as a method of creating cultural inclusion. He castigated politicians and religious zealots, and accused them of attempting to steal our ability to tell our own story. And reminded us that while it may no longer be true that character creates destiny, surely “in order to defeat the enemy that needs to be defeated, we must not stop being who we are.”

By Bennett Drozic

The theme of this lecture (and its supporting anecdotes) seemed specifically designed by this fine craftsman in recognition of the very collective that brought him to Montana: The MSU Leadership Institute. What better group, after all, to answer Mr. Rushdie’s reiteration of the important, long standing question concerning the relationship of the individual to history – “Does the individual shape society, or does society force the individual into a certain mold?”

In the basement of the SUB, take a right just past the Dean of Students office and with the dreaded Financial Services cave on the horizon do yourself a favor and hang a quick left into Room 145. There you will discover the MSU Leadership Institute, a committee of the Associated Students of Montana State University (ASMSU). Created in 1997 by Jim McCray (then President of ASMSU) to provide leadership development training for MSU students, the Leadership Institute (LI) has since expanded its mandate and resources.

The new objective, pulled straight from their website “is to work on a system-wide basis providing, coordinating, planning and organizing leadership opportunities for students, faculty, staff and community members throughout MSU and Montana.” To that end they have developed a Leadership lecture series, a film series and Leadership topics lunches, most of them free and open to the public.

The office contains a Scholarship Location Center and supports a newly developed DVD and Resource Library. The student staff also creates the Cat Tracker each fall, a day planner filled with MSU events, details and advice for students. The sales of the Cat Tracker last year generated a supplement to their funding of approximately $12,000, which was then directed toward events and programs.

Carmen McSpadden, part-time Director of the LI since 2003, feels that all of their hard work has had an impact saying, “We are developing a huge following… and would like to continue to build upon our positive reputation in offering interesting and important leadership development opportunities and training.”

The positive reputation of which she speaks originates not only from the intensity of dedication involved by paid and volunteer students, but also from the quality of their product. The speaker series alone has introduced such incredible figures to the Bozeman stage as Lech Walesa, political activist and former President of the Republic of Poland; Harry Wu, human rights activist fighting for worldwide recognition and condemnation of Chinese forced labor camps; and most recently, Salman Rushdie, world renowned author and social activist with a particular and personal argument against censorship.

McSpadden offers this incentive to future student participants: “At the MSU Leadership Institute, service and leadership are united, we strive to bring speakers to MSU who are making a significant difference in the world.”
With the guidance of McSpadden, and the insight and direction of an advisory board consisting of MSU alumni and local business people, students organize the events and project operations.

“My role as Director” says McSpadden, “is focused on mentoring the student staff through their projects.” In most cases it is the students that determine the events and speakers. The student’s choices to this moment are varied, yet focused on the LI mission statement.

Beyond the speakers already mentioned, the LI has offered up award-winning films; locally made documentaries; interesting and educational Leadership Lunch topics such as, “From Work to Play: How Professional and Romantic Relationships Relate” and timely social events including organizing the Congressional and Gubernatorial debates this past fall. “We realize that leadership comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and covers a huge array of disciplines,” says McSpadden. And so along with donations to this non-profit, students and members of the community are encouraged to submit topics and ideas to the Leadership Institute for consideration in event planning. This notion of civic egalitarianism is acutely appreciated at the LI and allows McSpadden to justify their presence on campus in this impassioned bit of writing:

We recognize that this generation of students will be the ones that will rally us towards a better future in our community, state and country. We hope to train them in ways that help them improve their leadership abilities, including a departure from social dividers such as race, personality differences, economic disparities and gender politics.

This speaks directly to something Rushdie said in his lecture, about the frontier and the function of art. We must “push on the frontier in order to, just by some little iota, increase the sum of what it’s possible to think, and what it’s possible to feel.” In this way self-determination becomes less a philosophical question and more a realistic goal. If our actions are created with a commitment to reflection and an appreciative understanding of choice, we have faced Rushdie’s challenge and insured at least a broader definition of tolerance. Or in the words of Gena Rasmussen, when asked to reflect on her involvement as a student volunteer in support of the Leadership Institute’s functions, “It makes you feel good about yourself.” How much of what you do in any given day makes you feel good about yourself?


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