What Empire Can Teach You About Campus Politics
Trill or Not Trill?
*some season 2 spoilers ahead
What can an over-the-top, runaway train wreck and quite possibly one of the better prime time soap operas in the modern era teach you about surviving politics in the campus climate? Absolutely…everything. The hit show Empire has become one of the most popular franchises on TV over a very short period of time; it’s season 1 season finale hit over 17 million people (source: TVSeriesFinale.com).
Empire has not shied away from storylines involving the LGBTQ community, incarceration, perception of females in power, and that’s just to name a few. Moving into season 2, the Lyon family has become more complicated, clear(ish) alliances have emerged and the storylines are as out of whack as ever. Then it hit me: there are many similarities between higher ed politics and what occurs on Empire. It’s what you always wanted to learn in graduate school, but then you didn’t…and probably found out the hard way.
DTA? Don’t trust anyone…or at least not so easily.
Coming into an established office campus culture may be one of the most difficult things to do for new or veteran student professionals. Just like students, we want to feel connected with the institution and our new colleagues. The mistake professionals often make is quickly taking part in office politics, without fully knowing or understanding the current climate. New employees may also find themselves choosing to align with colleagues that may or may not have their best interests at heart. You only need to look at the Mimi Whiteman saga that has unfolded on season 2 of Empire as proof of being careful of who you align yourself with and what you say to that person. On Empire’s season 2 premier, Mimi was introduced as a new investor for Empire, and someone who Cookie Lyon was trying to recruit in her pursuit to take over the company from an incarcerated Lucious Lyon. All was looking well until the end of the episode when Mimi revealed she had visited Lucious in jail and chose to side with him, ending the takeover plot. Fast forward to the fall finale, and Ms. Whiteman schemed once again. This time, it was Lucious who was burned, as Mimi stood in front of Empire’s board of directors and declared “Ladies and gentlemen of the board, I propose a vote to remove Lucious Lyon as CEO and chairman of Empire. Let’s convene for an emergency vote tonight at 9 pm. Please all be sure to be there.” With some recorded proof as ammunition, Lucious was voted out, and the Empire slipped through his fingers. A lesson to be learned from this is simple…as an employee of an institution, you must be sure to sit back, observe and never jump to conclusions. Go ahead and make friends, but always be observant of how people interact and be mindful of what you say to whom.
David vs. Goliath, Student Affairs vs. Academic Affairs,
Empire vs. Lyon Dynasty…it’s all relative.
One of the age old rifts in academia is the notion that Student Affairs and Academic Affairs can never; ever work in peace, love and harmony. Even though both sides recognize the need for student success, each division has their own mindset and working theory on how success is obtained. It’s also almost always perceived that Student Affairs is the underdog, or the ‘david’ in the david vs. goliath story. After Cookie’s failed attempt of taking over Empire, she and Hakeem launched a separate record label called Lyon Dynasty. Both labels wanted to launch successful music careers for their artists, but it was clear that Lucious and Cookie had different views on how that was going to happen. Lucious had the well-established, more corporate/business-minded company in Empire (Academic Affairs), while Cookie led the upstart and expressive Lyon Dynasty that ultimately had to do more with less (Student Affairs). As professionals on either side, it you will quickly begin to observe the differences between how people are perceived, depending on which division you are a part of. It is imperative for a successful institution to move past the dividing lines. Students will benefit more from a cohesive academic and extra-curricular experience. Case in point: After the split, Hakeem and Jamal joined forces to create “Ain’t about the Money”, which showcased both talented individuals.
My experiences on the road in Admissions and working in Student Affairs have led me to a conclusion: It’s a good thing I never dated or got involved with any of my colleagues. It’s just not good on many levels. For new professionals, the realization that so many marriages or relationships exists between colleagues, bosses, or other administrators may be mind-blowing. And unfortunately, those relationships can make things all sorts of complicated. Let’s examine this Empire-relationships- at-the-workplace chart designed by yours truly (and I’m sure I forgot some):
Sure…you may find your true love where you work. After all, you spend the majority of your waking hours at work. Your true love may also turn out to be your not so true love. And then it becomes awkward. Choose where your heart and other body parts end up carefully.
Not everyone has the bigger picture in mind
In a perfect world, the university mission and vision would be clear. In a perfect world, all the various factions of the university would work together in harmony to carry out that mission and vision. We are not in a perfect world. As a higher education graduate, I was taught the importance of knowing the mission and values of the university I attended or wanted to work for. Hell, I even had to write a paper about analyzing one. You’ll figure out sooner or later that it almost means nothing in the game of higher ed politics. The final moments of show’s fall finale saw Hakeem turn his back on his family leading to the dismissal of Lucious as chairman and CEO of Empire. Had Hakeem voted in favor of his dad, Lucious would have retained control. Earlier in the episode, Cookie powerfully stated to Hakeem that “Lyon Dynasty is our company, but Empire is our legacy. And anybody that tries to steal that from us is our enemy”. Regardless of the differences that existed between Cookie and Lucious, Cookie understood the importance of the bigger picture…which was Empire’s legacy that had been built from the ground up. Hakeem on the other side only saw the opportunity which was put in front of him regardless of what it would do in the grand scheme of things. As professionals, we too must look beyond our individual wants and needs to ensure that our students are getting the most out of their college experience. But, be warned that not every individual who works at an institution as that thought in mind.
I’ve always said that Higher Education deserves its own sitcom or dramedy series. Campus politics are some of the most frustrating and sometimes entertaining parts of our daily lives as higher educational professionals. Always remember though, it’s what you make out of your experience, and always keep one single though in mind: students first.
P.S. If you are reading this and take my TV show idea for Higher ed, I’m available for a starring role.
Scott Siegel-Ortiz is a well-rounded higher education professional with over 8 years of dedication to the development and success of students. His passion for making an impact knows no boundaries and is constantly striving to reach the next level while encouraging his students to do the same.
Scott also loves long walks down the aisles of Target and likes to post lots of pics of his cats on social media.