On Trust

Trust is an essential component of markets. Trust enables exchange, facilitates planning and commitment over time, and in many ways is the oxygen of contemporary life. The explosive rise of commerce over the internet has precipitated a bevy or articles on the twenty-first century “trust economy” and I anticipate that the phrase and concept will see more and more play. The idea of trust – whom we trust, what we trust and why – is quite powerful.

Within higher education, the conception of a “trust economy” resonates deeply and is intimately connected to our fundamental mission: the dissemination of knowledge through the education of students. We educate and in return, students and their families exchange money, time and effort. They do so because they trust in higher education and the value of their education. Without trust, educators would be without students. The whole endeavor would die.

What leads to a student’s trust? How does a student come to believe that an education is worth the costs and sacrifices? Or in the terms of marketers, how do you make the value proposition? You cannot touch, taste or even measure the quality of an education. Sure, there are rankings and economists are often generating studies, but will a particular college education be worth the cost for a particular individual student? Will her interest in zoology, nursing or cinema be worth the investments at institutions A, B, or C? We cannot guarantee it, for much of the equation rests on the attitude, ability and commitment of that self-same student over time. And for the time being, we enjoy a monopoly on the support and credentialing of a young adult.

We all know that excellent educational opportunities occur in all manner of settings and that attractive settings are no guarantee of a quality education. We know all too well that the impact of a college education may only be measured for some many years later. However, teachers and educators can recognize the impact of an education and can see, in a range of formats, growth in their students.

For those of us inside the quad to make the value proposition, we must develop, maintain and honor the trust of those outside academia. This is accountability, transparency, humanity and integrity. We face increased calls for accountability and transparency through regulations and requirements. Accrediting agencies, regional and discipline specific, call for scores, reports, outcomes and testing. When possible, we emphasize our humanity through the very social nature of learning and the commitment of those who choose to work in an institution of higher education. But how do we demonstrate integrity? Integrity speaks directly to trust and character.

Stephen L. Carter, author of Integrity, defines it as a) knowing right from wrong; b) doing what is right; and c) stating publicly that you’ve done what is right (b) because you know it to be the right thing to do (a). Straightforward and succinct, his thesis is logically tight. The argument, however, is about individuals, not institutions. For an organization to act with integrity, it may need a code and a clear code directing right actions from wrong, but more importantly, it must be consistent. Carter notes the appeal of consistency, but does not overly value it. Within higher education, consistency is an extraordinarily important component of integrity. Consistency allows for long-term investment and gives an institution direction.

When regional accrediting agencies look for consistency in the service of integrity, they look to adherence to mission. Institutions that act in concert with their mission demonstrate integrity. The standard, in other words, by hewing to mission valorizes consistency.

The challenge, of course, is that an institution’s mission is a slippery thing, unchanging in the catalog and mutable in practice. There are no courts to decide if we are true or not to our missions. In the court of public opinion, are missions are unknown. We know about an institutional focus (University of X is known for its strong commitment to research in the life sciences, for example), but mission is hidden in plain sight.

Hanging a “Trust Us to Follow Our Mission” sign at the college’s gates will not engender trust.

David Potash

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