Aftab Omer, Ph.D. is a sociologist, psychologist, futurist and the president of Meridian University. Raised in Pakistan, India, Hawaii, and Turkey, he was educated at the universities of M.I.T, Harvard and Brandeis. His publications have addressed the topics of transformative learning, cultural leadership, generative entrepreneurship and the power of imagination. His work includes assisting organizations in tapping the creative potentials of conflict, diversity, and complexity. He is a Fellow of the International Futures Forum and the World Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Meridian University, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers Masters and Doctoral degree programs in Psychology, Education and Business. The curriculum for all three programs is situated within an integral framework, interweaving both informational and transformative learning.
Eric: It is my pleasure to be here with Aftab Omer at Meridian University in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aftab, I’d like to talk about yourself, Meridian University and Meridian’s Integral MBA program; and perhaps we can explore the state of transformative education and higher education as well. So thanks for having me here!
Aftab: I’m happy to be in conversation with you, Eric.
Eric: I’d like to start on a personal note. Can you tell me about you as a person, perhaps a little about who you are and what’s brought you on the path of being an educator in this realm?
Aftab: I was an undergraduate at MIT and Harvard during a very intense period; this is the 70’s in Boston. The teacher who influenced me the most was Noam Chomsky, so the idea of bringing education and social justice together has been with me ever since. That’s where I first go when looking for influences. I grew up in Pakistan, India, Turkey and Hawaii.
Eric: That’s a nice mix.
Aftab: Growing up multiculturally has been very formative in terms what has interested me regarding education and culture, and how culture shapes and misshapes education and vice versa. So culture as in the collective interior and educational systems from the standpoint of the collective exterior; that relationship, and how limiting our educational systems are, has remained an abiding interest. There was a sense in the 70s that some kind of cultural breakthrough was happening. What has ultimately happened is of course more complex. I explored these themes in my doctoral dissertation entitled Experience and Otherness: On the Undermining of Learning in Educational Organizations. Ever since, I have continued this inquiry into how learning is undermined in educational organizations and educational systems, and how we can transform education. The exterior collective by its very nature is very, very resistant.
Eric: It’s rigid.
Aftab: In quadrant talk, we could say that it is the most challenging quadrant. Livelihoods are anchored there. Numerous ideological narratives are at work preserving those systemic and collective investments.
Eric: Sort of the exoskeleton that’s both protecting that collective interior and squashing it at the same time as it’s just trying to grow.
Aftab: Good way to put it. The We-Space work that is blooming now around collective interior is exciting. We’ve had a 22-year focus at Meridian on the collective interior. By adding new programs in education and business, we are looking at the collective exterior in new ways.
Eric: How did you come to your work here at Meridian?
Aftab: I have taught at several higher education institutions. Right before Meridian I was at Sonoma State University in the psychology department. I also would wander over to the sociology department and sometimes teach there as well. Sonoma State’s psychology department was a very exciting place. In fact, Meridian got cooked up there.
The Sonoma State psychology department was the first psychology department, literally, in the country that broke free of the dominant orientations which were behavioral and cognitive at the time. So we had faculty members in the psychology department at Sonoma State who were interested in depth psychology, somatic psychology, humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology, and arts-based psychology. Then there were variations on humanistic, including faculty oriented to gestalt and phenomenological psychology; we had a couple of people who had graduated from Duquesne.
Then there were about three of us who actually had been following Ken Wilber’s work from the early 80s. So while the phrase integral psychology wasn’t being used, what was happening at Sonoma State was a nascent integral psychology, still trying to emerge. Meridian is, in effect, one of the offshoots of that process. We weren’t in silos at Sonoma State; sometimes that happens in psychology departments where you have several orientations to the dicipline.
There was a transformative ethos or transformative imperative you could say that motivated people to actually engage each other even though faculty members did identify primarily with a particular orientation – like depth or transpersonal. The faculty actually went and sat in on each other’s classes. So this is the zeitgeist out of which the idea of a new graduate program emerged and eventually became Meridian.
Eric: So then Meridian for the last 20 some years has been largely in integral psychology realm. It seems like the integral MBA — could you speak more about that? It seems like a good leverage point for addressing the lower right areas that you were talking about earlier.
Aftab: So we began just as a psychology program. We called the school Institute of Imaginal Studies. When we said Institute of Imaginal Studies instead of Institute of Imaginal Psychology, we knew even in those founding years that we wanted to do more than psychology but we were going to begin with psychology. Remember, the phrase integral psychology wasn’t there. At that time Ken was publishing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and people viewed Ken as a transpersonal psychologist, perhaps an especially integrative transpersonal psychologist.
The distinction between integrative and integral wasn’t there either, although it was being intuited by people in various ways. There were five of us at Sonoma State who were cooking up this new program. What we were saying to each other was that we wanted to do more of what was already happening at Sonoma State and do it with doctoral students because then the dissertations would help a meta-orientation to emerge.
We chose the word imaginal to characterize the meta-orientation we hoped to coalesce. One of the ways you can differentiate orientations in psychology is by their mode of imagining. The mode of imagining is related to the orientation’s primary concern. Somatic psychology imagines its primary concern as the body. Transpersonal psychology imagines its primary concern as consciousness.
So we made imagination as the way in but there was some complexity in that the term imaginal was being used at the edges of the post-Jungian conversation. We were using the term imaginal differently, although those of us who were coming from depth psychology were following the post-Jungian conversation. The word imaginal actually has roots in the work of Henry Corbin, a philosopher from France, from the Sorbonne, who spent considerable time in Tehran studying with Sufis there.
Eric: The interior is important.
Aftab: Jung’s work around interiority and understanding the role of collective interiority — all the talk about archetypes is of course related to collective interiority. What are the universals? What are the ancient patterns that shape collective experience? We get the term collective unconscious from Jung. While we weren’t a Jungian program, Jung’s work can make a significant contribution to coalescing a meta-orientation to psychology.
Eric: Was this the metaphor of the biological sciences of the imaginal cell and the butterfly? Was that present for you at the time as well?
Aftab: That was not on our radar because it wasn’t in the literature yet. It came later. Sometimes people thought we got the term from there. It completely aligned with how we were using the term because our whole meta-orientation agenda was to coalesce an integral transformative psychology in contrast to what one could, at best, call an improvement psychology or an adjustment psychology or an adaptive psychology. I don’t mean that in the Heifetz sense of adaptive.
Eric: I see. I’m curious, as someone in this work who is aware of the importance of language, I feel sometimes we are on the cusp of forming a new language that becomes the sort of subtle interior girder which will allow us to be able to collectively synergize, to envision these new external realities that we want to have happened.
Aftab: Say more about language. It sounds like there’s more you have in mind.
Eric: Just the generative nature of language, even the fact — this term imaginal — what you were doing was so synchronous and synergistic with what was going on at the time in other areas — this imaginal cell that’s disseminating and changing and really creating and evolving the code of what is inside of you and what’s possible by reorganizing it and then transmitting it back out to the whole. Such a fundamental part of that is the language that we use.
So I’m just, I guess at the moment, exploring the responsibility that we have in this field to be aware of our language, and also to be aware that the next thing is this emergent bit that hasn’t been spoken yet in a language.
Aftab: I’m very interested in the direction you are going in. There’s a lot more we can say about the role of language. I’m glad that we’re gathering these ideas through conversation because something very different happens than with writing in the usual way. If the nature of thought is dialogical, then there’s something in the relationship between thought, language and action which promises generative impact.
Eric: That’s the exciting thing for me. Embodied in the idea of the integral MBA being the vehicle to integrate this understanding with praxis, the idea of the business as a vehicle for transformative learning for all the stakeholders. Perhaps you could speak to that?
Aftab: I will respond to your question by, first, talking a bit about how transformative learning is situated at Meridian. Let’s take psychotherapy and coaching — we consider those to be as special cases of transformative learning. Another way to say it would be that psychotherapy and coaching are domains where transformative learning can be practiced.
So as the school has expanded, we asked ourselves “Well, what other domains are of most significance or of most interest in terms of transformative learning and generative impact?” We identified the next two domains as education and business, education partially because that’s the domain we’re in as an institution. Since so much of our institutional life has been concerned with self-reflection and action inquiry in terms of our own institutional praxis, the next program we launched was education, and after that came the Integral MBA.
Business, it has been suggested, is now the most powerful institution, the most powerful domain at this time, more powerful than government, more powerful than civil society. There are umpteen multinationals that have annual revenue that is higher than that of many countries in the world. I’m forgetting the number but it’s a staggering number. So multinationals, in a way, are like nation states in terms of the degree of resources they have, and, therefore, the kind of influence they have generally on life on earth, but also on governments.
Eric: They are really supranational, so they get to operate in some ways outside of those bounds.
Aftab: Yes. So we looked at business education. It’s a good time to look at business education because higher education itself is going through such turmoil and such a shakedown. Employers in various domains, from healthcare to civil society, are now recognizing that the web of competencies that one would expect from graduates of higher education programs is missing, and that employers have to essentially do training programs in the workplace.
All of that has brought about change in business education. The first wave of business education, the conventional, typical MBAs are becoming an anachronism. About 15 years ago, using the term sustainability was a revolutionary act, and it wasn’t being televised because it was only happening in small, new programs. Now it’s almost become mainstream, an MBA program that doesn’t put sustainability into the curriculum, would be like an MBA program that doesn’t put ethics into their curriculum.
Eric: At least there’s a course.
Aftab: At least there’s a course. Exactly right, because as you’re implying that the challenge is in how one infuses all the courses with the mindset and practices that have to do with sustainability. So the idea and imperative of sustainability has been a way into systems and structures. We’ve been able to see what forms of resistance are active and the role of greenwashing.
Eric: For sure.
Aftab: So because the sustainability agenda at its core is so transformative, of course, there will be resistance, particularly where the invested interests are systemic, as are the ideologies that protect those interests. At Meridian we’ve been referring to what’s been happenings in the last 15 years as the second wave in business education. However, in developing the Integral MBA we asked ourselves “How does interiority and individuality, both in its interior and exterior dimensions, become part of an MBA curriculum?”
This leads to a focus on leadership competencies in both interior and exterior senses, and also collective leadership in its interior and exterior sense. So we bagan to refer to this approach as the third wave of business education building on the second wave which pioneered the emphasis on sustainability.
The last 22 years of building distinct transformative learning practices at Meridian has been very helpful in terms of truly having an integral business education where the individual and the collective and the interior and exterior are integrated seamlessly. We don’t think about curriculum development in terms of “these courses are in this quadrant, and these other courses teach only in this other quadrant.” The challenge of integral curriculum design is ensuring that all quadrants are presenced in every course.
Additionally, we identified three major themes for the MBA curriculum and asked ourselves “How can these three themes be present in every course? Those three themes were first, regenerating the commons, second, transformative innovation, and third, generative entrepreneurship.
Eric: Yes! There is such a ripe opportunity, just from a business perspective, of markets to be developed, an entire civilization, really, for us to collectively be working on, to emerge out of our cooperation and visioning. So there’s a lot of money in business to be made in doing this work of simply rethinking the outcome together.
Aftab: Organizational consultants usually struggle in terms of finding sufficient clients. However, integrally oriented organization consultants have, relatively speaking, done quite well.
Business is quite responsive, unlike government. I would say that after business, civil society as a domain is most responsive. “Oh, this works. Let’s do it.”
Eric: I’m interested in where everybody in the field was kind of speaking about this because I noticed, for example, you have Olen Gunnlaugson on your faculty this semester who contributed to the ILR Canada edition in January. Just the whole Otto Scharmer We-Space field that he’s working, I think that’s very exciting.
I would think probably, and I’m curious if you have thoughts this, that there are practitioners and academics in various disciplines who are transdisciplinary or integrally sensitive, though not necessarily academically aware of the language, but they’ve got practices that are integrally informed and haven’t been connected yet.
Aftab: What’s happening is that business education is moving out of conventional higher education. MBAs are often an important part of the revenue for higher education institutions because tuition is higher for MBAs. Entrepreneurly oriented folks are recognizing that they can get their business education outside of traditional higher education through various entrepreneurship academies. They don’t get a degree, but they might get a certificate. What they’re most after is the competencies that will help them launch their startup.
However, there is a challenge here which is that after the startup phase comes the scaling phase. In order to scale, the startup needs plenty of good management. So that’s where the rub is right now. Lots of entrepreneurship education available now but educating for senior management, that’s a taller order.
At Meridian, even though we put so much emphasis on entrepreneurship, we recognize that management is as important if the startup is going to scale. From this perspective, the distinction between management and leadership in how it’s been previously asserted is quite problematic. Essentially management has been defined more so operationally, leadership, more strategically and interpersonally. Our approach at Meridian is that management is a special case of leadership. It’s a domain of leadership, not distinct from leadership in principle.
Eric: It’s the ligaments, or connective tissue that bridges the strategic and operational.
Aftab: Yes. Precisely.
Eric: Exciting! Yes. I do feel it’s an exciting time to be in this field. You talked about the history of transformative education, integral thought and its effect woven onto society and in business. Unfortunately, at the time when it’s incredibly necessary but also fortunately at the time when it’s starting to — the voices are being heard, the practice has been there, and there’s research in all these different fields that says, “Hey, paying attention to the whole, it makes a difference.”
So to now be coming into this field as you said, where the recognition has almost hit the mainstream that integrally aware managers/leaders are needed. This is important. This is a thing that can’t be ignored.
Aftab: Once meaning and purpose become significant in the workplace as they are becoming, then the need for competencies that are interior-oriented is experienced at a whole other level. I’m hearing the phrase “soft skills” less and less because there’s more and more recognition that the so-called “soft skills” are actually the deep interior competencies that can prevent a whole range of leadership failure.
Eric: I could go on forever, but it seems our time is almost up. It’s been an absolute pleasure. I think we’ve definitely covered some good ground. I’d like to say thank you for the work you’re doing. I look forward to hearing more about it. Is there anything you’d like to add at the end that’s bubbling up?
Aftab: Eric, thanks for this conversation. One of the things you and I have in common is the way integral and transformative learning come together. Could it be that integralists are becoming better facilitators of transformative learning? Is this one of the next leaps for integral?