Trust in Communities and Universities

Over the next ten weeks, I will address the values of the Texas Panhandle that contribute to our university and the quality of life in our communities.

In “The Rights of Man,” Thomas Paine, reflecting on the failings of the French aristocracy, wrote, “…a body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

Little is more important than trust in universities and institutional effectiveness in serving communities and the students who inhabit them. Trust is like “glue,” according to Stephen Covey—it holds relationships together. A university is a matrix of relationships and nothing more or less. Trust is important in any educational setting but particularly in rural locations with high levels of “social trust” (i.e., the belief in others’ honesty, integrity and reliability). The legitimate expectation that the institution’s trust should be appreciated and returned is high. Neglecting that expected reciprocity diminishes institutional worth, real and perceived.

According to a Pew Research Center report, rural inhabitants have a high degree of social trust; 43% exhibit trust in institutions of various kinds. In more dense urban areas, that level of trust diminishes to 23%. There are many strategies for universities to promote social trust, such as embracing transparency, sharing stories of institutional impact, embodying institutional ideals, raising community profile and being in the community. In rural settings where trust in people and organizations tends to be more common, the University’s job is to import that trust to the campus environment as an elixir to a decline in higher education institution trust.

A common concern regarding trust in contemporary society is the fading trust of members of Generation Z. Of all generations, the lowest level of trust in United States colleges and universities is attributed to members of Gen Z. This is particularly troubling as they are the most recent graduates of four-year institutions. We are failing our charges.

Transparency, old fashion honesty and directness without apology are all leadership attributes that can help legitimately promote trust in public universities. Trust evaporates if students believe the university’s interest is based on the need for enrollment and resources to sustain the status quo. Universities live under many microscopes. Various interest groups, including state legislators, the tax-paying public, parents and students have legitimate expectations that enhance or inhibit trust flow.

I believe honest expression to students regarding the value of various degrees, courses of studies, the comparison of the university education and other means of becoming engaged citizens are appreciated by students and their families. Other means such as military service, vocational or trade schools, lead to productive occupations with sound market value and other aspects of life after college or life without college. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, most students trust their college or university leadership. But, that trust should be treated as a precious resource, not to be treated lightly or frittered away.

Location and context impact giving and receiving trust. Rural serving universities have the opportunity to help students import their “social trust” onto the campus as a powerful, positive influence. Reinforcing the principles of trust can become a distinguishing characteristic of a place like West Texas A&M University.

Universities that tend to the needs of students and work to build trust by creating a sense of belonging will reinforce the power of trust. This becomes even more important at rural universities, where the potential of devaluing community trust may be higher if the community perceives the university’s values conflict with student-owned values imported from families, schools and communities. And devaluing rural culture and values is a form of arrogance that further diminishes the public’s trust in higher learning.

This sense of belonging has a real impact on first-year students being willing to return to the institution as sophomores, thereby increasing students’ persistence to continue studying. When people feel like they are part of something larger than themselves, they will put more into it, expect more out of it and generally be more satisfied with their efforts and results.

This leads to the simple proposition that universities that help reinforce or create a trusting environment for students in their learning processes will likely produce stronger, more informed graduates. In rural locations such as the Texas Panhandle, support from families and communities outside the university is valuable. Reinforcing that support when it exists, or helping create it when absent, will increase the likelihood of student and university success.

Thus building durable trust in both directions.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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