Change and Trust in Higher Education

In recent years the need for change in higher education has become a recurrent refrain. Institutions need to change, faculty need to change, curricula need to change – and recognition of this is widely shared within and outside of the academy. The world and our students are changing at a rapid pace. Higher education, to be effective and accountable, has to deal with massive shifts efficiently and effectively. It is no easy task. Not only are many who work within higher education temperamentally disinclined to change, the underlying structures and lineaments of the academy work against broad change, particularly at the institutional level.

Higher education is about knowledge: its creation and its dissemination. That, across all institutions of higher education, is our primary focus. One of academia’s most sensible operating principles – shared governance – rests on the realization that greater knowledge and expertise should be accompanied by greater influence in decision-making. It is a messy and complicated way to operate. However, it is also the best guarantee of expertise assuming primacy of place. And since the valorization of knowledge is at the very core of our essence, it rings true.

A well-staffed institution of higher education, therefore, can be thought of as a collection of efforts. Further, an effective institution of higher education is a collection of experts functioning as coordinated team and able to make institutional changes. But how can these disconnected experts work collaboratively while affirming their intellectual independence? How can this organization with these priorities change?

A dear colleague highlighted the importance of trust to institutional change at a recent meeting. Without trust, she noted, the free exchange of information and possibility of collaborative decision-making is impossible. Her comments led me to reconsider trust as both a condition and a consequence. Trust is a key component in the life-cycle of a healthy college. As I thought of different colleges and universities, I also began to appreciate the different kinds of trust that can develop or wither in particular academic environments.

The scholarship on trust is robust and expanding. Trust matters to anthropologists, sociologists, economists and psychologists. Organizational theorists pay close attention to trust, as do many business faculty. Trust in an academic environment is distinguished by predictability, safety and competence. It is reliable but relatively easy to lose. As for those of us who find ourselves seeking help in a leadership position, trust, we are informed, is a necessary part of achieving institutional success. We must have trust in order to effect change.

In my experience, interpersonal trust is the baseline path to establishing trust in higher education. It works in very small groups over longer periods of time. Interpersonal trust can be nourished within smaller departments, for example, or among faculty and staff who are able to cooperate in a joint activity over time. Interpersonal trust is reinforced through the slow pace by which personnel enter and leave institutions. Academia is one of the few sectors in the US economy in which longevity at job is not unusual. In addition, certain kinds of institutions, intentionally or by circumstance, tend to attract and retain employees with similar values. For very good reasons, we tend to assume like traits in our colleagues and this bolsters interpersonal relationships.

As institutions grow in size and complexity, interpersonal trust proves more difficult to maintain. Trust has to adapt to new conditions and often emerges in two different kinds of environments. Borrowing from Max Weber, they may be described in shorthand as the charismatic environment and the bureaucratic environment. The categorization is somewhat archetypal, but they should be identifiable to anyone who has spent significant time on a college campus.

In the charismatic environment, charismatic trust develops because of an unusually effective leader. Often an individual well-known to key members of the academic community, the charismatic leader has the ability to extend interpersonal trust to a much larger group. Charismatic leadership can be very effective in a crisis. It also may be more difficult without a visible reason or threat to effect change. Without that threat or catalyst, charismatic leaders often work at and cultivate their leadership to remain as leaders.

In the more bureaucratic environment, bureaucratic trust is placed in and nurtured by process. Trust is established when the process rules. Everyone has witnessed this phenomenon, whether explicitly labeled a bureaucratic environment or not. Elaborate voting and decision-making rules can be evidence of trust in process, as, too, are the principled objections of academic stakeholders when there is a perceived violation of process. When it comes to day to day decisions, the process-driven bureaucratic environment can foster institutional trust. On the other hand, process in an emergency can be unhelpful. Too much reliance on process can retard and limit change.

To move beyond these models and see institutions change at a more rapid and meaningful pace, effective change in higher education needs what I would call strategic trust. The product of shared values and vision, strategic trust does not rely on charismatic leadership or slavishly following process. An institution of higher education that enjoys strategic trusts knows itself and where it wants to go. It does not need a particular leader and it does not matter if the committee has five members or fifteen. In this environment, stakeholders trust is in something different: a shared vision of the future. Difficult to develop and maintain, strategic trust offers the best way to affirm shared governance in see institutional change.

I offer these untested models and environments of trust as concepts to possibly help understand the relationship between trust and institutional change. As for their effectiveness, I am looking forward to discussing them with that selfsame colleague.


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