Bastions of Entitlement

My reflection on October 6, I’m Mad, too, Eddie,” (IMTE) criticized the notion of entitlement – not the common political understanding that refers to programs that look after people in old age, like Social Security, or assist with health care through affordable health insurance, such as Medicare – but rather benefits given to someone in public or private employment based on privilege, rank, prerogative, or some other “due,” such as whom you know, not what you have earned or achieved.

The nature and purpose of the university require that anything the university provides to anyone should be earned, never given. Merit and accomplishment must rule, not time in grade, friends, or personal relationships.

People at every level of university life have accepted or created expectations beyond what any institution is capable of delivering. A recent Master’s thesis at Eastern Michigan University investigates self-entitlement among students. High grades for minimal work are frequently expected and often demanded in the face of second-rate performance. Males reportedly have higher expectations for low-work rewards than females. As students progress in study, their sense of entitlement for lackluster effort diminishes. Students should come to the university with a clear understanding of expectations, but honest assessments of ability and attainment are withheld by loving parents, fearful teachers and administrators, and a culture that deifies dime-a-dozen-deeds.      Earnest honesty is entitlement’s elixir.

Sadly, in the last 45 years American students rate themselves 10 to 20% higher than their peers from 1965 in areas such as achievement, intellectual self-confidence, leadership ability, social self-confidence and writing ability. They bought the bluster. Conversely, cooperation, an appreciation for others, and spirituality saw little change or decreased over the same period of time according to a BBC report on the American Freshman Survey. Even to the uninitiated it seems like mushrooming narcissism. Parents, teachers, guidance counselors and university personnel must muscle-up and be honest. Average is average, not a curse as commonly held. Not everyone is a genius. The most comforting words I ever heard on the occasion of the birth of our first son:  “Everything is normal.”

Student athletes may feel entitled through the culture of celebrity that exists everywhere in our nation. The Boston University hockey team is an unfortunate example. The team was encumbered by a multitude of sexual assault allegations and it was purported that they lived in environment of “sexual entitlement.”  Boston University president Robert A. Brown confirmed this in his report on the Report of the Men’s Ice Hockey Task Force two years ago.

Old fashioned values help inoculate the inflated sense of entitlement of too many young people and those who lead, nurture, and mentor them. Honest values foundational to the Christian faith:  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, are the basis of a measured life as articulated by St. Paul is his Epistle to the Galatians, four of which are described in a Huffington Post piece that proposes a shift from an “entitled to empowered culture.” St. Paul and The Huffington Post in the same sentence: What is the world coming to?

Leadership can espouse the needed values: Unapologetically.  Leadership at home, at places of worship, at schools and universities, but too frequently leadership falls into the entrapment of entitlement.  Mike Myatt, the author of Leadership Matters… The CEO Survival Manual says exactly that.  Leaders of every stripe feel they deserve whatever they can get.  The sense of entitlement is especially strong in universities says Mark J. Drozdowski in Inside Higher Ed.  Universities should smother it not spawn it.

Trickle down entitlement contaminates many aspects of institutional life. Why even a scintilla of surprise when followers, a.k.a. students, are infected by the culture in the Petri dish.  The idiom, “Do as I say, not as I do,” never works on university campuses, in commerce, or in civic leaders, anywhere.   Whatever leadership “wants” a campus to be is of no consequence according to the Markula Center for Applied Ethics. Instead, the campus, like any human organization, emulates and eventually becomes what leadership is. A more hurtful realization for too many organizations is impossible to imagine. For example a state with a corrupt governor, or university with a corrupt president, becomes what that governor or president is, was, or will be.

Followers become what leaders are and if we don’t like what we see the mirror identifies the culprit.  Entitlement is present in students who expect too much for too little, but homes, houses of worship, schools, universities and businesses shoulder part of the blame.  Like him or not, Marshal McLuhan had it right, “We become what we behold,” reflecting on the impact of media on our lives.

Likewise, students anticipate entitlement when they behold it all around them.

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