Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Primer: Institutional Viability and the Moral Decay of Institutions

The following primer is an attempt to identify some key systemic issues that, in my experience as an administrator, can cause the demise or failure of institutions of higher learning. In a cultural and political milieu in which external forces (e.g., federal funding trends and pressures from accrediting bodies) sometimes appear to threaten the stability of financially strapped institutions of higher learning, the focus in attempting to keep such institutions (e.g., HBCUs) viable is often on external threats.

In my view, we need equally to keep in mind the internal, inbred cultural factors in some institutions that can collude to cause their demise. If many universities are undergoing unparalleled transitions today, with unparalleled challenges to their survival, survival may depend on being critically aware of trends within their own cultures that have to be addressed, at the same time that they deal with trends external to the institution. The following primer seeks to identify some intra-collegial cultural trends that may contribute to the fraying of the cultures of academic institutions.

They have demonstrably poor leadership at the top levels (e.g., at the level of a Board of Trustees).

▪Key BOT members may be ethically compromised; they may implicitly benefit (at the expense of the institution) from serving on the BOT.

▪Other BOT members do not have the courage to challenge the ethical compromises these members bring to the BOT, or decisions they make based on these compromises.

▪The BOT involves itself at a micromanagement level when it should empower and trust its own management team.

▪The BOT micromanages on the basis of misinformation provided by employees within the organization who are pursuing agendas destructive to the institution. These employees can even include presidents.

▪The BOT is uninvolved, on the other hand, when it needs to be involved—e.g., it does not provide leadership in fundraising or keeping salaries within the institution competitive with those of peer institutions.

▪Serving on the BOT does not require a BOT member to engage in either initial or ongoing training about BOT responsibilities and the mission of the institution.

▪BOT members are not well-informed about the key values of the institution and its mission, or about the challenges faced by institutions of the sort on whose BOT they are serving. Their information about personnel in the institution is often partial and false, and is based on misinformation provided by employees, including presidents, in some cases.

▪BOT members are not chosen on the basis of their fidelity to the institution’s mission or their ability to further that mission, but on the basis of ties to key constituencies within the institution.

A culture of lying, dominated by people of the lie, has become normative in the institution.

▪People within the institution who demonstrably have its best interest at heart are attacked by people of the lie whose untruths can easily be disproven, but who are allowed to continue their campaign of lies and distortions with impunity.

▪When several people of the lie are allowed to gain key positions or power within the institution, they create a critical mass that affects its whole culture, such that it begins to be difficult for its leaders and governing bodies to sift fact from fiction: distortion of the truth becomes systemic and woven into the fabric of the institution.

▪Often, those targeted by people of the lie are the strongest bearers of truth and witness in the institution; by their very presence, they represent a threat to the people of the lie, and must be expelled.

▪If the leaders of the institution are not proactive about immediately disempowering people of the lie, the institution begins to hemorrhage talent as outstanding people leave.

▪When people of the lie have begun to dominate the culture of an institution, much of the energy of its most talented people is siphoned off trying to deal with chimerical battles, rather than with moving the institution forward.

▪People of the lie create chaos, confusion, contention, and a situation of stasis in which they can exercise power, without regard for the mission of the institution.

▪As people of the lie begin to dominate an institution and sway its entire culture, destruction of truth-tellers can become a kind of blood sport; traps are laid for those who have the potential to speak out and challenge the people of the lie, and much energy is spent trying to entrap these colleagues.

▪People of the lie can provide an illusory sense of forward movement for the institution by adroitly demonizing those with the most potential to lead the institution, then having them expelled on the basis of lies, and claiming that by doing so, they have assisted the institution in dealing with its systemic problems.

▪Instead, such behavior only masks the systemic problems and provides unhelpful and misplaced solutions that do not address the real issues that need to be addressed, if the institution is to move forward.

▪When people of the lie dominate an institution’s culture, rumors and character assassination become routine, and consume much energy that is essential for moving the institution forward and serving its mission. If these are unchallenged, people who are seriously devoted to the institution and its mission often simply leave, to avoid working in a situation that is morally toxic.

Behavior that contradicts the institution’s mission becomes acceptable and widespread, while those who challenge this behavior are silenced, harassed, and/or driven away.

▪A culture of the lowest common denominator is created, in which giving less rather than more becomes normative.

▪In such a culture, those who try to fulfill the institution’s mission and pursue their job duties are often harassed and targeted precisely because they do their work—and by so doing, they implicitly expose those who are failing to do so.

▪In institutions that allow persistent failure to meet the mark, those intent on not working to capacity can become very noisy about all that they do—as a smokescreen to divert attention from the fact that they are, essentially, not fulfilling their job responsibilities.

▪They can also expend much energy making it appear that others are not doing their task, creating a cultural behavior by which others routinely are blamed for their own failures to fulfill their duties.

▪They can sometimes create situations in which things are contrived to go wrong, so that they can step in and appear to be savior figures.

▪To divert attention from the failure of many within the institution to fulfill their duties, key players can use ideological wedge issues to divide the community—e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, class issues, or religious issues—thus thwarting the systemic analysis that the institution needs in order to identify where breakdowns in service and work are occurring.

▪When pressures for change are intense, and when immediate constructive change is necessary for survival, entrenched elites within an institution may abet those who divert attention from the challenge at hand. This diversion serves the interest of the entrenched elites by preserving their control and by neutralizing the potential of talented members of other constituencies within the institution to help it change in order to survive.

When an institution’s top leadership is weak, when people of the lie have come to dominate its culture, and when behavior that blatantly contradicts the mission of the institution is allowed to become endemic and go unchecked, a process of decay sets in that quickly causes the institution to lose its competitive edge and attracts damaging attention in the public sector.

▪Just as people can decay morally, institutions can also do so.

▪Just as in the individual’s moral life, institutional moral decay occurs when the institution proclaims values or ethical norms that it fails to observe in its own institutional life and behavior.

▪Institutions that allow people of the lie to set the tone for their culture, and that permit ongoing, endemic failure of employees to serve the institution’s mission, begin to decay from within.

▪In such a setting, the most unhealthy or ill-intentioned members of the community are likely to rise to the top—those least competent to move the institution forward—and the most healthy or well-intentioned members of the community are often disempowered and/or expelled from the community.

▪As this happens, an institution’s moral decay begins to become noticeable in the various publics it serves.

▪There may be individuals within the institution who actually mount campaigns designed to draw negative attention to the institution, because they are pursuing agendas against individuals within the institution and cannot see the damage they are doing to the institution itself.

▪As the process of institutional moral decay accelerates, the institution can lose financial support and/or can be censured by bodies to which it must answer in order to receive credentials to pursue its mission; institutions decaying from within also routinely attract negative media attention, and stop drawing the constituency they are charged to serve.

▪If this process is allowed to run its course unabated, the institution often ends up closing its doors.

No comments: