Dr. Karen A. Stout's summer 2021 reading list

By Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream


This is my 21st annual summer reading list. I started sharing the list as part of my convocation remarks while serving at Montgomery County Community College. I am amazed at the number of colleagues who look forward to scanning the list and I thank you for encouraging me to continue to share my list. This summer was unusual. I found it hard to read fiction with the seriousness of the issues facing us as leaders. Yet, I know it is fiction that helps us relax and renew especially in those rare moments of disconnectedness.

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. McGhee makes a case that racism is actually driving inequality for everyone and she labels this time in history as the “Inequality Era” with this defining feature — the hollowing out of the goods we share including, among many public goods, public higher education. She describes the “solidarity dividends” waiting to be unlocked by those “who recognize the profound impact social hierarchies have had and continue to have on our national well-being, and who create new visions for how we can recognize our American diversity as the asset that it is.” Community colleges have a role in unlocking these dividends.

The Perfect Run by MacKenzie L. Havey. In examining and articulating the anatomy of a perfect run, Havey hits on some essential leadership concepts including the importance of grit and persistence, reaching a flow state, and finding perfection in imperfection including learning to let go by not becoming overly attached to an outcome.

Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli. A must-read for NPR fans (written in celebration of NPR’s 50th anniversary) and for those interested in the stories of four women (and their deep friendships) who broke through the male chauvinism of 1970s newsrooms to change, according to Napoli, “journalism, the public’s perception of women, and, while they were at it, women’s perceptions of themselves.”

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. There are so many relevant takeaways from this book for leaders challenging the status quo that is preserving results around inequitable student outcomes at our colleges. It is so good that I may form a reading group to probe the book’s themes with my ATD team. Some memorable takeaways: Abandon best practices and look for better practices; keep a rethinking scorecard of times when you have slowed down to challenge assumptions to make better decisions; and build a challenge network of “disagreeable” people who are givers (not takers) and challenge your work because they care.

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley. Through storytelling, Ripley takes us through how high conflict develops (the understory, the power of binary thinking, and fire starters) and then outlines ways to move out of conflict (buying time, making space, reverse engineering, and complicating the narrative). I am particularly interested in the “fourth way,” which requires us to lean into conflict. I think this fourth way is important for leaders in our colleges to understand to navigate the challenges we are facing today as a sector.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters by Priya Parker. The pandemic has us all rethinking how and why we gather. Parker’s book is written before COVID but her insights are highly relevant for purposefully designing any gathering. I dived in because of ATD’s event portfolio, including DREAM, and how we rely on network and peer learning gatherings to catalyze the transformation of work on our network college campuses. She highlights the circular logic that anchors the planning of many gatherings and pushes us to understand that the art of gathering begins with a bold and sharp purpose that is interestingly disputable, forcing planners to move from the what to the why. What do we want to be different because we gathered?

Codebreaker by Walter Isaacson. I could not put this book down. It read like a fiction mystery thriller going deep into the story of Jennifer Doudna (and her collaborators and competitors) who invented the gene editing technology known as CRISPR. I love Isaacson’s books and this is among his best because of the drama in the stories and because of the case he makes about the consequences of what he calls the third great revolution of modern times, a life sciences revolution that brings with it fascinating ethical questions given the possibilities of genre editing. Most surprising to me was the takeaway that science is a team sport that is highly competitive.

The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal by Adam Harris. I picked up Harris’s book the day it was published, reading it in advance of listening to an interview with Atlantic writer R. Vann Newkirk II, hosted by New America. Harris makes a case that “American colleges and universities have never given Black people an equal chance to succeed” and while the “public institutions that enroll high numbers of Black students have been hamstrung by limited state funding; the ones that have few Black students have been showered with it.” His case making is deep, includes compelling student stories, and is well researched and grounded in an under-told history of HBCUs. This is an essential read for college leaders, policy makers, and students of education history.

Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere by Tsedal Neeley. The way we work is changing and Neeley offers a strong framework for thinking about how to strengthen our work as teams in a primarily remote environment. I found the first chapter on launching or relaunching teams in a remote environment filled with tips that are universal and that connect with some of the work ATD is doing with building the capacity in senior teams for common purpose and collaboration around implementation of the institution’s student success agenda including four elements of teamwork that each member must agree on: (1) Shared goals that make plain and clear the aims that the team is pursuing; (2) shared understanding about each member’s roles, functions, and constraints; (3) shared understanding of available resources ranging from budgets to information; and (4) shared norms that map out how teammates will collaborate effectively.

Communicate with Mastery: Speak with Conviction and Write for Impact by J. D. Schramm. I am lucky to know J. D. and to team teach with him as part of the Aspen Rising Presidents program. Anchored by the AIM framework (audience, intent, and message), the strength of Schramm’s book for leaders is in part two where he speaks to customizing messages to goals, setting, or identity, and scaling leadership through a communication coaching process. The book is filled with useful tools that leaders of all levels can use and carry with them no matter their title or seniority in their role.

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