Universities in Turmoil: The wages of the sin of CYA!

27 Feb

ImageI went into college administration as a virgin as far as deception and manipulation go and came out a jaded harpy. I had an outsiders viewpoint, partially fueled by ignorance, partly by my damned totally glass three-quarter filled personality. I thought if you did your job as an administrator, held meetings, started initiatives, set goals and met them, did what was good for the institution you would be fine, loved and rewarded. 

What I found in my southern Research 1 institution was Sodom and Gomorra without the fun of the sex. People were paranoid, devious, secretive and insecure. The primary goal of everyone seemed to be to get as much money and as much admiration as possible without making anyone mad or making any enemies. My first boss was a champion at this, glad handing everyone and everything, doing nothing and taking credit for the work of others, including me. 

Anyone who is over the age of 10 will tell you that accomplishing anything of worth will require making enemies. You do not do it on purpose, at least I never have, but people project their own insecurities on you and presume that you are out to get them, or make them look bad, or take something away from them. As a side note this has been fine tuned to an art form by the right wingers. “Those people are going to kill/hurt/impoverish/diminish/disarm you.”  

Cursed with my own personal version of confidence ( some would call it something else) I never understood this paranoid fear of being less than. I know exactly who and what I am, always have since I can remember. Even if I am wrong what possible difference can that make? I am the only one who has to live with me. If I am happy with me what does it matter who else is not, or why? That does not mean I do not believe in self-reflection and improvement, I do it on a daily basis, but comparing yourself to other people is a fool’s errand and trying to mold yourself to fit someone else’s idea of who or what you should be must be exhausting. But I digress.

The recent plague of incidents that have happened on our college campuses, sex scandals, racial incidents, etc., all  spring from the same cause, the propensity of Universities to run their institutions based on the Cover-Your-Ass Plan. To begin with there is a dearth of brave leadership. The habit of not pissing anyone off is exaggerated in the President or Chancellor’s office. I made a presentation last October at a large southern university, not my own campus,  and had a chance to have several chats with its Chancellor. He, like a lot of people, felt free to unburden himself to me ( I have no idea why people want to confess all to me, I am generally not that interested, but there it is) and told me that he was misunderstood. He wanted, he told me, to be a champion for social justice, but his hands were tied by the evil people in the state capital legislature. He asked me to understand  and appreciate that he had been able to come up with millions of dollars for his campus by staying in the good graces of the legislature. He used the language “making a deal with the devil.” 

I am sure that I am unaware of the rigors of being the head of a multi-million dollar venture and having the academic and economic lives of so many in my hands, but I do have to wonder if this seemingly nice, ernest man is typical of our college and university leadership. If he is,  we are doomed. Staying out of trouble should never be the goal of a leader, doing the right thing even when it is unpopular should be. in the current scheme of things this may not be possible. If you will not bend over and let me have my way with you then there is someone else eyeing your position without your scruples waiting in the wings to please. 

No, we would need a revolution to restore ethics and integrity to leadership and that is not in the best interest of those determined to do things that are wrong. These people are often in powerful positions like the legislature and crossing them leads to trouble, that thing we are all cautioned to avoid. 

But, my question is this, when does it become counterproductive to try to avoid trouble by covering things up, ignoring injustices and offenses, turning a blind eye to things you know are wrong? Being an outsider from the halls of power and privilege I cannot say. Perhaps the powerful like Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel and only get caught occasionally and our leaders are playing the odds. On my own former campus more things were covered up than poop in a ten cat litter box. At least one of them, the under reporting of sexual assault and intimidation of victims has recently hit the news waves and popped most certainly out of from under the rug, but trust me there are a lot more things, some nearly as egregious that have been swept under the rug in the interest of keeping their image clean. By the way, one of the reasons the scandal about sexual assault has come out is due to the brave actions of one of our deans who quit her job and joined in a federal suit. See what happens when you take a stand? She is being widely praised, her nasty bosses who told her to lie and cover up are probably going to be unemployed too, the difference being they may well find themselves unemployable. I know some institution  will be eager to snap her up. 

So, in the world of higher education evidently it is widely viewed to be  preferable to pretend to be virtuous than to actually be virtuous. If you can convince people that you do not have a problem with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, elitism or any other sin by covering up incidents and suppressing information and punishing those who do tell then you can proudly wave your banner at football games and basketball games and commencements and brandish your halo. 

Tain’t so folks. If you hide a mess it grows and maybe not today  and maybe not tomorrow, but eventually it will come out. It is preferable to stand up and say, ” I messed up, I will fix it to the best of my ability and put policies and procedures in place that will keep it from happening again,” Nobody expects perfection from any person or institution, but it would be nice to be able to expect honesty, transparency and integrity.

One of the primary villains in this scenario is the legal office on college campuses whose primary goal is to keep the university from being sued, even when they richly deserve to be. Right and wrong mean nothing to the folks in legal, not getting the institution embroiled in litigation, particularly when they know they are guilty, is their primary goal and they do not have any problem using threats and intimidation to accomplish it. 

So, my institutional leaders I have some suggestions:

1) Do what is right even if it costs you. Easy for me to say I know but nevertheless the right thing to do will serve your reputation if not your pocketbook, who knows you might start a trend. When i left my last campus I thought i was going to take an economic hit, but I could not continue to do what they were doing and call myself ethical. I actually, at least for the moment, make more money now  than I did there. I also know that the legacy I left there is widely respected and I am not sure one can put a price on that. 

2) Listen to legal with an informed ear. They  they may be leading you down a bad path to cover their own behinds. Their lens is not as broad as yours and they cannot be trusted to see the big picture.

3) Open up your information streams. While I do not suggest leading by committee he people closest to you are charged with making everything okay, so when they report to you they report that everything is okay. The people who know it is not okay and are willing to say so are probably not those you talk to on a regular basis. 

4) Lead, don’t follow. Hopefully you were chosen because you had something to offer. Don’t allow fear to incapacitate you. If you fail make it due to flawed actions, not to failure to act due to timidity. Michael Jordan is credited with a recent quote about how often he failed, Steven King had hundreds of manuscripts rejected before publication, as did JK Rowling. Failure is part of life, but being unethical, compromising when you should not and being scared of pissing people off should not be. 

5) Judge people on what they do, not what they say they do. I know there are only so many hours in the day, but you have to know what is actually happening on your campus ( see #3)

6) Insist on transparency. When I went to my former college and filled out my contact information on the system people called me warning me that I should not put my home address and cell phone number on the public directory.  I asked them why on earth I would not. I was a middle aged, plump granny, surely nobody was going to stalk me. The level of secrecy,need to duck and cover,  covert action and duplicity under the guise of privacy on that campus is scary. And people are scared. Scared of getting in trouble for telling what they know and scared of getting fired. Fear may be a great motivator, but it encourages resentment and disconnection from the common good, and it will come back and get you eventually. 

Our wonderful universities are going to find themselves in increasingly indefensible positions if they do not change what they want in a leader from person who goes along with anything to get money for his/her institution to person with integrity will not prostitute himself/herself to get pseudo success. Until that day we have to take whatever our college leaders say with more than one grain of salt. 

Look behind the curtain and see whose hand is making their mouths move. 

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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Uncategorized


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