Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Assuring Integrity in Academic Leaders

Thinking these days about integrity. And about its connection to leadership. The backdrop of my reflections is the current federal election cycle, in which it is often difficult to judge precisely where truth lies, and whether leaders possess sterling integrity.

And integrity and truth are connected—intrinsically so. They are connected because the root meaning of the word “integrity” is “wholeness.” No person or organization can be whole when there is a split between what the person or organization says, and what the person or organization does. Dishonesty cleaves a person to the core of her or his being.

The integrity of rock-solid honesty is essential on the part of leaders, because the institutions a leader heads founder when the leader lacks integrity, and the virtue of truth-telling. When the leader of an organization (especially a values-drive one—one that at least claims to be driven by values) is routinely dishonest and is permitted to trade in lies, the culture of the institution she or he leads becomes similarly split. It can be so cloven at its very core by the disconnect between what is professed and what is practiced, that it begins actively to promote those who lack integrity, producing a culture dominated by what Scott Peck calls “the people of the lie.” As a companion piece I intend to post today on this blog notes, when people of the lie begin to control and institution, that institution’s fate is sealed.

I’m afraid we live in such a culture now in the U.S. And I am not sure we can climb out of the pit into which we have dug ourselves, by our willingness to hear lies for so long now, and not challenge them. The endemic nature of the assault on basic truth in our culture is so deep that determining the integrity of a prospective leader is now exceedingly difficult. Even the very sources that purport to seek unvarnished truth in our political process, and to purvey it to the rest of us—the media—are seldom characterized by a strong regard for integrity. Or dominated by people whose integrity is self-evident—people willing to pay the price to tell uncomfortable truth that we don’t want to hear.

As an educator, I can say (sadly) of my own profession that it, too, often fails today in its responsibility to serve the public by fostering the values necessary for civil society to work effectively, by producing leaders with a strong sense of integrity, and by offering students leaders of integrity as role models. This is a motif emerging in analysis of the ongoing problems at the University of Central Arkansas, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog.

Those problems increasingly center on the president and board of trustees of UCA. That is, people’s awareness of where the problems at UCA lie is now focused squarely on the top leaders of the university.

And on the issue of integrity. As journalist and political commentator John Brummett notes in a piece about UCA published today for the Arkansas News Bureau, though the numbers look good at UCA (a rise in US News & World Report rankings, more students, increased revenue), serious questions about the integrity of president Lu Hardin now threaten to undermine his effectiveness and credibility, and thus of the institution itself (http://arkansasnews.com/archive/2008/08/26/JohnBrummett/347650.html).

Brummett sees Hardin’s damning sin not as lying to the media, creating his own little fiefdom at UCA, or violating state FIA laws. In Brummett’s view, the action that most radically calls into question Hardin’s integrity (and, implicitly, the board of trustees’, if they fail to act decisively) is his having created a memo arguing for secrecy in a board-approved pay raise, and then having typed the names of three vice-presidents at the bottom of the memo.

Brummett’s analysis focuses squarely on Hardin’s egregious lapse of integrity, then, and what it is going to do to the university he leads, if the board of trustees does not act. In Brummett’s view, the outcome that will serve UCA’s best interests and place it back on track as an effective (which is to say, values-oriented) institution of higher learning is the board’s insistence that Hardin step down.

These are issues I’ve long thought about in my own work in higher education—and written about. At one of the institutions at which I have served as academic vice-president, I wrote a guide to effective academic leadership. The list of attributes begins with integrity.

I began my analysis of academic leadership with integrity because, in my view, it is the foundational virtue for effective leadership. Without integrity, everything a leader does is vitiated from the outset. If a leader lacks integrity—in particular, if a leader deliberately deceives those she or he leads—everything the leader does will be undermined by the lack of conformity between what is professed and what is acted out. As my document “Leadership in Academic Life” notes,

Integrity is about making our example conform to the message we preach. It is about harmony between the words we say and the actions we take. Leaders of high integrity stand by their words. They do not make promises they are unable to keep. They do not make statements that fail to conform to the truth. In cases in which not every piece of information is able to be disclosed, leaders exercise critical judgment about when to speak and when not to speak: leaders do not disclose information that violates the confidentiality of others, or that might potentially damage the College. At the same time, when they do choose to speak, they back up their words with appropriate action that illustrates conformity of behavior to words.

I address these issues, as well, in a document I had the privilege of writing collaboratively several years ago with the current president of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, Trudie Kibbe Reed, when she hired me to co-author a document to be used in creating a master’s program in leadership for BCU. In that document, entitled “Transformative Leadership: A Conceptual Framework and Application,” Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and I note that values must be front and center for leaders, because many recent studies demonstrate that a lapse of values on the part of an institution’s leader impairs the effectiveness of the entire institution. Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and I state:

Recent developments in many organizations demonstrate that the inability of an organization and its leaders to meet ethical challenges forthrightly undermines the organization’s effectiveness. Lack of ethical sensitivity and practice results in lost income and courts legal penalties that deplete an organization’s resources.

Whether in the non-profit or for-profit sector, organizations are by their very nature mission-driven and mission-oriented . . . . Accrediting bodies for institutions of higher learning are increasingly emphasizing an institution’s conformity to its mission statement, as accreditation or re-accreditation is considered.

Along with the increasing emphasis on the centrality of a mission to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations has come an understandable emphasis on the need to develop institutional leaders who have strong values and the ability to understand and implement the mission of their organization. Unfortunately, the ability of institutions of higher learning to adapt to the challenge of producing values-oriented leaders of strong character has not always kept apace with the demand for such leaders. Some educational analysts have suggested that perhaps both undergraduate general education core curricula and the professional-training components of undergraduate programs have been too narrowly devoted to preparing graduates to meet the demands of a specific job. Too little attention is paid to character development and inculcation of leadership skills—though these should be strongly embedded across the curriculum in institutions of higher learning.

I am delighted that this document is now used as an introductory text in the master’s program for leadership at Bethune-Cookman University.

In another (unpublished) text I wrote at an institution at which I previously did administrative work in the field of academic affairs, I put the point this way:

A respect for basic human dignity—particularly in a faith-based institution—demands that people be told the truth. It is demeaning in the extreme to communicate untruths to others. Such behavior objectifies a human being, turning that person into an object rather than a human subject with human dignity and rights.

The preceding statement was a reflection on something I myself experienced in the institution in question. I made the statement in a letter I chose for various reasons not to send. As the letter itself notes, in the polity of this church-owned university, administrators work at the good pleasure of the president, so there is no appeals process for administrators who find themselves subject to discriminatory treatment—though, when administrators also have faculty appointments, as I myself did, and are not given written evaluations (as I was not) or recourse to an academic grievance process, the university is violating key academic freedom stipulations of accrediting bodies.

In my case, the situation to which I was struggling to respond was this: an outside consultant had been brought in to work with my division. Prior to the interview, I was told by an administrator who is second in the chain of command at the university that the consultant would meet only with me, my associate, and the person heading our accreditation preparation committee.

When I met with the consultant, I discovered that he had been told to meet with the entire academic team reporting to me, to do an "evaluation" of my work (one I was never allowed to see). Though that "evaluation" was about an hour in length, and the consultant had never met me and showed abysmal ignorance of my career (and of the accrediting standards he was supposedly expert in), the "evaluation" was used to remove me from my position and eventually to terminate me.

Here is how my unsent letter described the effect of having been lied to on me and my work:

Because the disparity between what I was told prior to the interview process and what actually occurred in it is so stark, and because the process itself violated my human dignity by subjecting me to a performance evaluation without informing me in advance of any shortcomings in my performance or allowing me to prepare a defense against allegations based on false information, I find myself challenged to know how to represent this faith-based university in any public setting.

I am strongly committed to the values of this [name of owning church omitted] Church university. In my view, how I have been treated in recent weeks violates those values in a very egregious way. As a result, I am deeply divided inside myself about appearing as a public representative of an institution that violates the core values of the church communion and university community it represents. I do not know how to participate now in public ceremonies until it has been made clear to me why I have been demeaned, and why core principles of honesty, integrity, and respect for fundamental human rights have been contravened in my case.

To add insult to injury, when I reported to the two top administrators of this university something the consultant told me in the interview, they accused me of distorting the truth, and informed me that they had called the consultant and verified that he did not tell me what I reported what he had said. When I refused to back down and insisted (in writing) that we both be given a lie-detector test to determine who was telling the truth, they informed me they had called the consultant again, who now admitted having said what I maintained, but who qualified the statement as saying something to the “effect of” what I was repeating. Again, a written request for a lie detector test did not result in any action on the part of the two top administrators of the university.

Discovering that someone who heads a church-based university will lie to you is devastating. Perhaps I am naïve. But I care about the truth. Caring about truth is, ostensibly at least, what brings anyone to the field of teaching. As a theologian, if I am not dedicated to truth-seeking, then what possibly motivates me in my vocation?

And because I care, I keep repeating my bottom lines. Bottom line: institutions of higher learning absolutely cannot produce students with a keen sense of values unless they are led by presidents and boards of trustees who model the values the institution seeks to impart to students. And second bottom line: under the social contract governing the role of higher education in American culture at large, a core responsibility of higher education is to produce citizens and professionals with solid values and the ability to make sound ethical judgments.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are (openly) gay, it is an uphill battle, in conflict situations in which the leader of a church or a church-based institution denies the validity of what we report, when the report is inconvenient. Churches and their constituents still all too often automatically give the benefit of the doubt to anyone other than the employee who is (openly) gay. They all too often automatically assume that gay people are malicious, bent on undermining Christian institutions, and unable to be truthful.

They are also all too often willing to use their financial and public-relations clout, as well as ugly, immoral tricks, to "neutralize" a gay person who raises questions about their integrity as leaders. Churches and the institutions they sponsor have incredible power to do damage control to disguise the lack of integrity of their leaders, and to vilify those who come up against these leaders, particularly when the employee who is proving to be a thorn in the side for corrupt leaders is (openly) gay.

But, if we believe in truth, we keep on telling it, in season, out of season, until enough people who both cares and can do something to make a difference listen.

Don't we?

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