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    Analysis and advice on questions and issues of individual ethics and institutional integrity, from Jane Robbins.

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Is Loyalty a Good Thing?
October 31, 2012 - 3:00am

There was a terrible story in the news this week about the murder of a young girl, allegedly by two teenage brothers, who have since been arrested.  It was their mother who realized their involvement, and turned them in. A number of years ago, it was the brother of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber and a former professor at UC Berkeley) who provided the information that led to Kaczynski’s arrest.

The story this week reminded me of President Graham Spanier’s statement at the time of his resignation from Penn State University (PSU), and its somewhat chilling (to me, as I read it) invocation of “loyalty” to the institution: “The acts of no one person should define this university. Penn State is defined by the traditions, loyalty and integrity of hundreds and thousands of students, alumni, and employees.” 

I don’t necessarily think that Spanier actually wrote that statement himself, and it’s ambiguous as to which “one person” it refers, but it nevertheless made me wonder: Did loyalty and tradition as defining PSU get PSU in trouble? Is loyalty actually what the university stands for or most values? Does that suggest that the family members in the above cases were disloyal? Or were they driven by something else—some idea -- larger than their own familial equivalent of employees, students, and alums?

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Until I came into academia, I had never heard much discussion of loyalty. In business, the talk is more about commitment and accountability to goals like quality, performance, or merit rather than about loyalty to an institution or to an individual. I had always thought of loyalty as a political construct—something despots and totalitarian regimes seek to extract as a means of control, something that breeds blind obedience and a culture of fear. So in the theory of groupthink, one of its symptoms is pressure to be loyal to the group—to not speak up, not disagree—because to be “disloyal” is to be punished or ostracized.  You could be made to feel wrong—indeed, you could be fired or blackballed or worse—for daring to object. Loyalty in groupthink is creepily tied to obedience and perpetuating a positive view of the group, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Groupthink loyalist behavior has some similarity to the familial, relationship-focused “ethics of care” perspective in risking too-internal a context for judging. Stepping outside that family of relations to report a crime as did our introductory cases puts a moral principle ahead of any internal or relational interest, however large and complex, however (even protractedly) painful.  

I cannot be sure what Spanier meant, and I don’t mean to single out PSU because this was not the first time I’d heard loyalty exalted in higher education. But it strikes me that loyalty is a strange value for universities. As a form of unthinking faith, it is the enemy of integrity -- or truth -- in that it can, as Max Bazerman might say, motivate blindness.  (Another oddity in the Spanier statement was the juxtaposition of the words “loyalty” and “integrity,” as they often are opposing forces.) Loyalty can provide perverse incentives—rewards in the form, say, of retention or promotion or, most of all, survival. Deal-making can be used to avoid breakdown of the status quo, or to forestall exposure. Since those who are able (donors, top students, top faculty, funders, etc.) may exit under conditions where loyalty is privileged above other values, loyalty can actually lead to mediocrity and loss.

I sometimes wonder whether reliance on loyalty grows with insecurity or uncertainty of how to act, a kind of lack of clarity or even amnesia about what’s valued. Since in the end ethics is about our actions, a lack of clarity about what matters may put institutions at risk. There is something terribly wrong when standing up for the right thing is doubted or second-guessed, or seen as “disloyal.” I feel as if more clarity and communication on what those larger ideas universities stand for, and more effort to ensure their shared and visible embrace across institutional leadership, might lead to a stronger and more active—and more confident--defense of those values when they are put at risk. Loyalty seems a poor thing to celebrate.

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