Our Universities: Trust is a Two-Way Street

Organizations that rely on the public trust must build trust from within to earn the reputation of trustworthiness.  Treatment of people creates an aura of trust or distrust.  It’s not arbitrary.  Human groups give and receive trust:  It is a two-way street built brick by brick, one decent act after another.

“The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.”

Henry L. Stimson

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Chaffee College, a California community college, recently dismissed adjunct faculty member and at-will employee Stefan Veldhuis a few hours before his scheduled class meeting, according to a post in Inside HigherEd by Colleen Flaherty last week.  Veldhuis claims he was a whistleblower in reporting inappropriate sexual activity and subsequently charged with inappropriate sexual activity himself. Retaliation?  Who knows?

As campuses lean ever increasingly towards part-time and adjunct faculty, giving and receiving trust to/from them is paramount.  Trust and decency are important for all and no contract provision for/by anyone provides it.

Employees at institutions of public trust may be terminated for cause. Universities should be public trust enterprises but trust evaporates in high temperature political monkey business along with diminished rewards for excellence, lackluster focus on teaching and scholarship, higher costs for less valuable experiences, and lower performance expectations. A dismissal might build trust by “doing the right thing” as opposed to expedient, trust rotting actions driven by fear, politics or cronyism.  Low and small-minded administrative behavior creates apprehension and suspicion. Not trust.

It’s difficult to know about the Chaffee case. The dismissal of a faculty member a few hours before class is strong medicine that voids a contract in existence since the beginning of the semester between a faculty member and students. The contract between a university and faculty member is a detail of employment law.  As important in a teaching/learning environment is the moral contract between teacher and students.

In all likelihood, this faculty member presented a syllabus that laid out expectations for the semester:  attendance and grading policies, tests, papers, expectations and means of assessment; a contract of sorts.  For the institution to annul that honorable agreement, an egregious violation of deep principle, a matter of law, or malfeasance should have occurred and been revealed plainly to the faculty member, even when employed at-will.  At Chaffee, this may or may not be the case.

Here is what I do know.

Stolen trust demeans faculty, staff, students and the institution while reeking of capricious, arbitrary, and/or prejudicial decision-making.  Institutions have an obligation to treat employees with decency and respect. Employees who engage in the high contact, emotionally laden setting of teaching, have an obligation to everyone, including the university, which demands decency.

It’s a two-way street. Meghan M. Biro, in a June 4, 2012, post in Forbes, says Model the behaviors you seek… accept your responsibility as a leader and act with engagement, commitment and responsibility. Do this every day.”  Faculty members who violate given trust by engaging in inappropriate relationships of any kind with students, under any circumstances, represent fundamental abuses of power and shouldn’t be tolerated. Likewise, legal improprieties also should be grounds for immediate termination.  Teaching absent trust is wasted and wanting.

If, on the other hand, someone like Professor Veldhuis reports in good faith what he honestly believes is an impropriety, he should be held harmless. INC. ran a story by Geoffrey James earlier this month with this admonition,  Employees realize there’s stuff you can’t share, like what you’re paying other people.  However, employees always find out when you do something underhanded…”  Untrusting leaders lead poorly, if at all.

Too many universities have become domiciles for dime store despots who demonstrate little understanding of the vitality trust and decency play as the bedrock of teaching and learning.

A university blind to the necessity of transparency is flawed. A faculty member not cognizant of his or her responsibility to build trust misses the first calling of teaching.

Trust is a two-way street to decency.

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