Our Universities: A Trinity of Loyalty

Healthy loyalty is so rare it’s nearly unrecognizable. In many organizations primary loyalty is to the lower right-hand corner of a spreadsheet: a.k.a. the “bottom line,” and little else. In others, blind loyalty to a leader is expected.  In yet others, a lack of attention to the process of building loyalty is endemic.  In tragically mislead organizations all three shortcomings coexist.  This is heartbreaking when many people in and out of an organization depend on it for sustenance.

“Every society [and organization or enterprise — my addition] rests in the last resort on the recognition of common principles and common ideals, and if it makes no moral or spiritual appeal to the loyalty of its members, it must inevitably fall to pieces.”

Christopher Dawson


Three kinds of loyalty spark organizational excellence and effectiveness.

Loyalty to Purpose:  Loyalty to a concept, mission, or purpose is a clarifying state of mind. Earlier this month, the Dean of the Public Health School at the University of Saskatchewan, Robert Buckingham, was fired because he criticized a plan championed by University President Ilene Busch-Vishniac.  The provost to whom the dean reports said the dean was entitled to his opinions but not to express contravening opinions publicly as he was a part of the leadership team.

Evidently, former Dean Buckingham needed to be supportive of a plan with which he disagreed. I will not argue the propriety of his view or the institution’s. In a similar situation decades ago I resigned a position rather than work to hide enduring differences of perspective regarding purpose. In the Buckingham case the teachers union, the Prime Minister, and nearly everybody else in Canada weighed in and the firing was reversed.  Pressures did lead to the provost’s resignation.  Professor Buckingham was restored to faculty status but is no longer dean. The president’s firing followed. These decisions are political, not academic.   Purpose was lost in a matrix of face-saving and chest-puffing actions.  Too bad: ideas should be held in higher regard at universities.

If loyalty was to purpose, President Busch-Vishniac would have floated that plan to the “community” and sought serious, formative input. This is both good leadership and sound planning.  The dean’s dissatisfaction would have been a purposeful part of the process.  Maybe it was: If so, the president blew it. Lawrie McFarlane, a retired educator, editorialized in The StarPhoenix that the president’s decision was correct and the political intervention to solve the internal leadership difficulties will backfire suggesting,   “… hell will freeze over before you see anything resembling firm management on a campus in Canada. And that is a recipe for chaos”.

I am not sure who’s right but loyalty to purpose appears absent or confused in a limping labyrinth of lost loyalties.

Loyalty to People: Loyalty to a person can be challenging especially if that person is driven by the whims and wishes of expediency, self-preservation, self-protection, reelection, changing circumstances, or embraces fear to engender it. In universities, the number of elected officials who choose to be considered for university presidencies grows. The most recent example is Dave Heineman, governor of Nebraska, who announced that he will be an applicant for the presidency of the University of Nebraska. Who else would apply?  Polls show a 77% gubernatorial approval rating!

Everyone’s loyalties — Governor Heineman’s, the students, faculty, board, and the university’s extended constituencies — should be performance tested to determine how someone serves the university, and who is served by it.  When politics engage academic processes, academics often go begging, and loyalty to the people served – students — is trumped by loyalty to those who purportedly serve. Service to self seems supreme.

Loyalty to Process: Lost loyalty to purpose, or misplaced loyalty to people, overpowers failing organizations.  K@W, an organ of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania reported a marked increase of “infidelity” in the workplace in 2012.  The millennial generation, aged 15 to 30, expect processes to provide freedom and liberty as the ultimate demonstration of loyalty.  When such loyalty is not present from the organization towards the individual, the flow of loyalty from individual to organization languishes and organizations falter. Misguided processes to ensure the appearance of unity kill healthy organizations in universities, manufacturing, banking, health care and government.  Think Veterans’ Administration.

The Loyalty Research Center defines loyalty as “employees being committed to the success of the organization and believing that working for this organization is their best option…”  Clear processes stimulate productive loyalty.  Organizations lacking lines of loyalty have to work overtime to create it up and down the organizational chart. As loyalty is sowed it is reaped.

Our universities, and other organizations, may scratch-out sustenance with a single type of loyalty but will thrive only when all three forms are present as triplets.

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