From Cap and Gown yesterday, this question:

Can someone in universities please start thinking about cultures of trust and what creates them??

The urgency of the double question mark won’t seem out of place to anyone working in universities at the moment. Across the academic-professional staff divide, or in the ways that academics and students talk about each other, or in the tense and often bitter exchanges between management and unions, there’s a tone that’s ungenerous at best, and openly suspicious at worst. Rumours are hothoused, and the conditions for developing civility or kindness deteriorate further.

To this we can now add the growing culture of mistrust between educators and educational technology vendors.  Is online learning the cunning plan to enable us to teach more students without more staff or buildings? Are we falling into the tarpit of big publishing’s and private equity’s business interests by doing this? Why are our administrators seemingly so sanguine about increasing staff-student ratios? Is our internationalisation strategy some kind of sunk money proposition?  Etc.

These all seem straightforwardly to be signs of a sector in a state of shivering distress, and if you look at the external and budgetary pressures, the threat levels make sense. In terms of undergraduate enrolments, for example, we work in a market that’s not anywhere near as rational as we would like, selling the future value of qualifications for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. But we’re selling to people whose decision-making behaviour is often both impulsive and social, often amounting to a last-minute “between the stirrup and the ground” conversion experience.

Our capacity to predict fluctuations in student demand is very limited indeed, because they’re also guessing about their futures, but they’re reading very different tealeaves.  We don’t respond to their creative planning with any kind of design agility, however, but with routines of accountability and risk management, the result of which is that it can take up to two years to haul a major curriculum review through committee, and another couple to make the content, delivery and approach actually work, by which time the review cycle has come round again and everyone goes back to the drawing board.

Miserably, the concession we make to flexibility is by casualising academic labour, so that we can manage fluctuations in demand with last minute hiring practices that pass on to the most precariously employed our own lack of ability to make plans in this churning market. The harm this is doing to the education profession is rightly the stuff of despair (see for example the excellent short documentary Degrees of Shame, being promoted by the feisty New Faculty Majority as part of Campus Equity Week this week.)

Three factors make all this even worse.  First, in an era of contracting budgets there’s an acute lack of resourcing for teacher development, experimentation or change management, particularly in relation to emerging technologies. Secondly, the rise and rise of student evaluation as a proxy for professional peer review means that we’re constantly beta testing in front of hostile judges. It’s not so much MasterChef as Dancing with the Stars, blindfold and on stilts.  In fact, it’s Wipeout, and about as much fun.

Thirdly, we’re being asked to do all this while increasing our research output and improving our research citation rates, not because of the benefit to our research fields that might come from doing so, but because research productivity is a key performance indicator in benchmarking universities against one another.  The best we can say about this is that it’s a form of public accountability, but the marketisation of research really does introduce the spectre of market failure in relation to research that’s hard to commercialise, whose impact is diffuse—most community-facing localised research would fall into this category, for example.  But, handily for some, the focus on publication as the only valued avenue for impact has created the vast swirling enterprise of paywalled academic publishing as a means of sustaining the production of countable research outputs, whose public impact is by this move effectively smothered.

Very few academics genuinely feel good about any of this, unless they’re really in this for reasons of professional vanity.

This is where the quality of our collegiality comes in to play.  To operate in the spin cycle of innovation, accountability and do-more-with-less, we need to be able to trust that those closest to us appreciate that we’re doing our best. A generous, reflective and supportive culture is the safety net under the trapeze of our best work; it doesn’t mean that we’re shielded from negative feedback, but that we are supported to take the time to think about it and we’re not constantly catastrophising it.

This means taking time to think about why things didn’t turn out as planned the first time around, or why the ratings are a little down, or why the publication outputs from a promising area seem to have slowed, or why students are not showing up, and the ones that do are on Facebook, or why adjuncts care about their career futures, or why graduate students are starting to worry that they might not have any.

But the problem is that in the context of budgetary contraction in which change is constantly presented as threat, appreciative practices are increasingly being troped as failures of tough, principled leadership. Who has recently heard someone in higher education talk about the virtues of their leadership in terms of the need to be prepared to be unpopular, and to make hard decisions in the current climate?  Who hasn’t?

The funny thing, though, is that in a culture of trust characterised by autonomous decision-making aligned to institutional vision, there is such clear potential for gains in efficiency, creativity and productivity. Improving the levels of trust across an organisation is one way to address the immense inefficiencies of micromanagement. It’s also a way to make the workplace healthier and happier.

So, a practical set of questions: what kinds of everyday gestures would genuinely increase the level of trust in universities?

18 Responses

  • I trust people who I know. If I know them, they’ve communicated with me before they made particular decisions that will affect my life. That goes for both edtech companies and university administrators. Even if the final decision isn’t all I’d like to see, I’d like to feel as if I’ve been consulted and taken seriously before it’s made. I’ve actually told my university president that he should humor faculty this way because at the very least this would prove morale. I’ve also been working with the nice people at Milestone Documents because they actually listen to my suggestions and I get to help shape the product. I make no pretenses at ever being right when I offer any one my opinion, but at least I can explain my rationale so that they can decide for themselves.

  • I think it is not just a question of what gestures would increase trust in and of universities but more complicatedly what gestures of trust would produce measureable outcomes that could be mapped against a risk and planning framework. To rely on the organicism of trust to produce improvements in efficiency, creativity and productivity is one thing but how do you account for it? And is the accounting that is presently designed to validate public trust, and keep universities on a short leash. If you account for trust is it really trust?

  • @Rustichello, the issue I think you’re raising is how we could demonstrate the casual equation that more trust = more productivity. I agree, this is where we ought to talk about the limits of countability as the only way we have available of knowing things. One of the things I’ve learned from working with narrative practitioners, for example, is that business cultures are doing far better than universities in using narrative to build the kind of trust that Jonathan is talking about — in making us known to one another.

    Having participated in a business narrative workshop in a university setting, I have to say it made a difference — just hearing the everyday stories of people who work in the same place as I do, but whose names I knew only from emails that had previously had the effect of slightly irritating me, really changed the way I’ve reacted since. But this is a bit out of step with the current strategies that are being used to get the hamsters running faster on their wheels.

  • Great post, thankyou. I reckon we could go a long way towards improving trust between staff and students by getting rid of the term “students” and instead adopting a term like “emerging academics” –

  • This is such an interesting proposal, and I think it would take a while but have good long term results. I’m a fan of “new researchers” as a way of thinking about students, following the student-as-researcher model of engagement. The term “student” does very little to differentiate the higher education experience from high school. Welcome to the deckchairs, James Neill.

    • Thanks for the welcome and ideas. Any more equitable academic role descriptions would help. Maybe ‘colleagues’ who are part of ‘communities’. I also use ‘participants’. The idea that using more collegial nomenclature might help in building trust relates to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language enables thought and experience. I try to avoid the use of the term ‘students’ in my academic practice and I find that it helps me to stop, think, and consider more carefully the lives of people who are participating in our courses.

      • I’m truly thrilled to meet a fellow traveller who has reservations about the word “student”. I use it in this blog, but always with a kind of shudder. But the usage that really makes me feel out of sorts is when academics talk about “my students”. I don’t know why, but I find this use of the possessive especially infantilising.

  • Thank you for a brilliant post. I don’t know the answer. Universities – which claim to be places that investigate the myriad aspects of what it is to be human, and teach them too – increasingly feel like dehumanised and dehumanising places in which those who provide knowledge are components in a machine. Yet this is a machine that is premised upon the deeply human sense of vocation, and the elements of sacrifice and commitment it entails, of its components. Women, as ever, who as those who still take the burden of mothering, and caring, and maintaining the domestic sphere, are at the sharp end. I would like to see the institution recognise this and – perish the thought foster it. I would like to see the real messyness of life put back into the institution. Am I dreaming? There are lots of radical ways would *like* to see this done (like rotational annual office holding), but there are also small things which would mean a lot and I believe make a big difference:
    – A common room for every department, hopefully with some *free* forms of food or drink. Tea and coffee and a packet of Arnott’s assorted does not cost much, but the act of sharing food together is a very basic form of human community.
    – Weekly rituals, possibly linked to the above – like tea on wednesday afternoons for half an hour – that everyone shares, and that allow for unstructured and unplanned meetings. The departmental seminar, and yes, every the annoying departmental compulsory meeting does this too.
    – A small grant (as little as a few hundred dollars) that given to everyone as a matter of entitlement to spend how they choose – on books, travel, conferences etc. Yes paperwork can be submitted, but the key is you don;t need to apply for the money, it’s there.

    • This connects closely to a Swedish concept which I’m not well placed to explain, but I’ll try to get someone to do a better job than me next week. Alert readers will know I’ve just come back from being very impressed with the culture of collegiality in Umea University in Sweden, and there’s a workplace phenomenon, fika, that might be part of it, I’m not sure.

      • Katarina

        I’m not sure I’m the right person to explain the Swedish “fika” culture either, but I will give it a try (with some help from Wikipedia). Fika is a social institution in Sweden; it means having a break, most often a coffeebreak, with one’s colleagues, friends, date, or family. The word “fika” can serve as both a verb and a noun. You can fika at work by taking a “coffee break” including coffee and something to eat such as a sandwich, cookie, cake and even candy. Fika can also be just a cup of coffee. This practice of taking a break is central to Swedish life, and is formalized in every workplace (two fika per day are included in your contract, most often coffee is paid by the company or institution). Although the word may in itself imply “taking a break from work,” the fika is often a time to discuss work matters in a less formal way and way to socialize with new or (known) colleagues. I guess we don’t see the value of our fika tradition until we have guests that are unfamiliar with it!

  • I wouldn’t recommend holding your breaths for institutions to make space available, but I don’t despair either. When I think of trust building gestures, I think about what I can do. Here’s a list of tried and true:
    – Be quick to say please, thank you and I’m sorry. In my experience all three have an amazing power.
    – Listen to colleagues and when you speak again, act as if you heard them. Include their views respectfully even if you don’t agree (perhaps, especially if you don’t agree). It isn’t necessary to control the conversation or every aspect of a meeting.
    – Praise small achievements – getting together for lunch with friends once in a while is a great thing; sending off a grant application, finishing a new subject outline/syllabus, completing a whole draft of a new article, all deserve a pat on the back and a ‘well done’. Give unalloyed praise, the groan about the next task can wait.
    – Learn and remember something important in the ‘away from work’ life of those you see often: the three year old who wanders at night, the sick old parent, the risk taking teenager, the beloved garden. The small act of remembering and asking about the roses, child, parent is a big act of recognition of the whole person.
    – If you chair a committee, make time for members to get to know a little about each other beyond the committee room. It doesn’t have to be every meeting. Apply the four above regularly.

    Individuals may not change the institutions but we can maintain our humanity and refuse some of the grosser aspects of institutionalisation.

  • I sometimes remind myself to expect irrationality from colleagues. That way, rationality (and trust-building) actions come as a pleasant surprise. I picked up this tip from Hugh Mackay:

  • Tocqueville (Deomocracy in America) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) would say that trust is best built through the fostering of civic associations (like a bowling league) where people with different political dispositions can mix and reconcile their differences. So one practical suggestion would be to build more of these associations into university life so that admins and faculty have more chances to meet.

    More topically, on my campus we have a reading group that is currently reading the recently published book by Benjamin Ginsberg titled The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University. The book has it’s flaws. But if admins want to get a better sense of how they are perceived by faculty and why they aren’t always trusted it’s a nice topical place to start. Ironically, the only people in the reading group are faculty (except I guess for me)…which goes back to the need for more campus civic associations that mix faculty and admins together.

  • Welcome, Luke. I think you’ve highlighted a complicated part of the problem: that unless different internal communities within higher education are actively encouraged to spend more time learning about one another’s working lives, the result will be as you describe: separate groups meeting to talk about the problem. This is happening across almost all of the cultural divides at the moment, but I do think that in itself this a sign that people want things to change–we all want to work in good places.

  • The conformist

    How can trust be fostered in academic work? The basic task is to get academics to trust those making the rules, and then everyone will trust academics, because they will know that the rules are being followed. Uppity, self-interested, wayward academics need to be firmly put in their place for the welfare of all.

    Every academic should be assigned a minder who will monitor compliance with centrally decided norms.

    Some academics have illusions of creativity and seek to pioneer unorthodox ways of making contributions, for example using social media or just old fashioned radio and tv. This has to be stopped, because publication in the top scholarly journals is the priority for the government and hence the uni. The minders will nip in the bud any divergence from traditional scholarly publishing.

    Some academics get carried away with their research and want to spend every waking moment working at it, so they neglect their time at the uni. So the minder will interrupt the academic in the heat of intellectual passion and insist on travelling to the uni, to ensure presence according to the policy.

    Lots of academics spend much too much time at their teaching and research and even on administration. These rate-busters need to be brought into line and told to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule. It might reduce productivity, but it’s more important to keep to the rules and make sure everyone works the same way.

    Once all academics are sitting in their offices during the day, producing their subject outlines according to templates, writing papers only for refereed journals and keeping to a steady pace, everyone will trust them much more. Everyone can rest assured that innovation is kept to safe limits and productivity is less skewed and more predictable. Sure, overall output might go into decline, but it will be more equally distributed at a lower level, and everyone will feel valued because they are contributing the way they are expected to. Reliability will go up and so will trust. So, academics, trust your minders!

    • I see that Jonathan Swift has entered academics :}

      • Ah, but I think the satirical response is the symptom of a system that’s making it harder for people to speak out without being dismissed or labelled as difficult. So it’s the consequence of the untrust at higher levels. Your comment sent me off in search of a distant memory of something attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal, explaining why it was hard not to write satire in the “monstrous city”, reading it again I think essentially it connects to rage, particularly at corruption.

        The question is why, though, mistrust is causing such despair in some university systems at present. I really do think that the astonishing fact of the Swedish capacity to value (and pragmatically support) time with colleagues might be making a difference there. But just as it’s easy to take for granted what’s in your own system, it’s possibly also easy to over-value what other people have.

  • Although it took me a long time to find this post, it probably makes more sense to me now, a few months later. At my own workplace recently, mistrust of management has reached levels I’ve not seen in my professional life (admittedly short!).

    In terms of the discussion so far, particularly the term ‘student’: I was reminded of the shift within some circles – activists in the ‘cognitive capitalism’ space – to use the term ‘co-researchers’ in place of distinctions between scholars/workers. In relation to my own research, which has looked a little at precarious labour in universities, I think this is a nice way to capture the bewilderment that is experienced fairly evenly among academics and (particularly postgrad) students as audit culture takes hold.

    In interviews with senior academics, I’ve heard the lament that there used to be more time for things like tea breaks (fika!) – purely catch-up time that was social and not dominated by shop talk. One professor explained the changing culture succinctly, that today such interactions “would be considered profligate, or something”. I think there are more papers yet to come out of these interviews!

    Across workplaces I studied, in corporate settings, or in other public sector organisations, a small way that people developed trust in the workplace was to use chat clients and social media. A mark of intimacy was if you allowed others to see when you were online – if you acknowledged you were present at your screen using availability windows and ‘green lights’. I’m sure this will continue to be an important means to build counter-alliances and counter-discourse in the face of workplaces heavily mediated by email protocol… just as blogs have been, and continue to be in your case!


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