Managing Your Reputation in a Time of Cultural Shift

Michael Bugeja endorses 10 tenets that may help you enhance your standing and effect positive change in your institution.

August 7, 2018
 
 
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So many academic apologies have been uttered in 2018 that I’ve lost track of them, searching the word “apology” in Inside Higher Ed and marveling at dozens of results. Some recent ones:

Randy Dunn, Southern Illinois University's outgoing system president, issued this apology following a budget-related controversy during which he urged administrators in an email to help him “shut up the bitchers from Carbondale”: “I want to take an opportunity to address what was a mistake on my part in referring to individuals in the Carbondale area who have questioned, as it is their right to do, this process regarding campus budget reallocations with a less than complementary [sic] term. I was wrong to characterize them in that way. Many are friends and colleagues and to them, I apologize for how I characterized those who reflexively refused to discuss the issue or engage in a dialogue about it.”

W. Kent Fuchs, University of Florida president, issued this apology over the way some black students were hustled off the stage at graduation when they did a short dance upon receiving diplomas: "During one of this weekend’s commencement ceremonies, we were inappropriately aggressive in rushing students across the stage. I personally apologize, and am reaching out to the students involved. The practice has been halted for all future ceremonies, and we will work to make sure all graduating students know we are proud of their achievements and celebrate with them their graduation."

Vincent Price, president of Duke University, issued this apology noting comments by a senior administrator (the vice president of student affairs) about the N-word in a rap song played at a coffee shop, resulting in firings of two baristas: "I will simply say that I am deeply sorry that we are not where we want to be as a university. I am, in particular, sorry that the words of one of my senior administrators recently resulted in two individuals working for one of our on-campus vendors losing their jobs; and while I am pleased that the vendor has taken steps to reverse this action, I apologize for the precipitous and unfair treatment these employees experienced."

Of the three regrets, Price’s ranks as the sincerest, containing most of the elements of ethical apologies, according to a comprehensive study of media corrections by Iowa State Professor Emerita Jane Peterson and me:

  • Identify the error (what it was, when/where it occurred).
  • Correct the record.
  • Do so as soon as possible.
  • Do so prominently.
  • Provide an explanation to the audience or clientele.
  • Disclose how the error could have been avoided and/or how it will be prevented in the future.
  • Issue an apology to those damaged by the false disclosure.

Price’s official apology included a campuswide invitation on how to move forward, promising to create new policies and procedures before the fall 2018 semester. “We have somehow lost the sense of compassion and human tolerance that should define our community,” he noted. “This is reflected in the ways we interact with each other, the ways we hold ourselves and others accountable for our conduct, and in our words and deeds as scholars, students and employees.”

Not bad as far as apologies go these days.

The last several months also included high-profile apologies for offensive speech by people outside academe, such as Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, replete with tribal uproars, signaling a cultural shift that many in media had not fully anticipated in our current environment.

Surviving Tribal Warfare

Today’s shift to the polarized left and right might appear like the culture wars of yore. But the current tribal warfare is worse. In the 1980s and ’90s, technology was in relative infancy, and people still read and relied on news. Now news that contradicts beliefs is called fake.

Higher education remains in the crosshairs. Each alleged or real transgression is accompanied by whataboutisms, vicious online and physical threats, student and employee walkouts, and classroom and conference protests -- not to mention faculty members being fired for everything from coarse language to tweets.

I don’t recommend silence in the wake of ethical wrongdoing, proactive advocacy or political persuasion. But we in the academy should express ideas and ideals with the long-term currency of trust, truth and integrity upon which reputations are built.

That observation is at the center of Gloria Origgi’s 2017 book, Reputation and Why It Matters, summarized in a recent article titled “Say Goodbye to the Information Age: It’s All About Reputation Now.” The subtitle says it all: “In a world of fake news, the only antidote is our ability to judge the reputation of the people supplying us with information.”

Origgi notes that we are “experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge,” moving to the age of reputation “in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today.”

Professors embody that collective intelligence.

In a recent editorial in the Des Moines Register, concerning my frustration with apologies, I wrote, “Trick question: How many characters does it take to kill truth? There are two answers: 280 Twitter keystrokes or 1.3 billion Twitter users.”

According to an article in Slate, “There was a time when some intelligent observers of social media believed that Twitter was a ‘truth machine’ -- a system whose capacity for rapidly debunking falsehoods outweighed its propensity for spreading them. Whatever may have remained of that comforting sentiment can probably now be safely laid to rest.”

The present environment often ignores rational arguments in a time when apologies seem insincere and verifiable truth is ignored across political spectra. As the Slate article observed, citing an MIT Media Lab study, falsehoods travel faster and farther than expressions that later are proved to be true. Bots do not promote most of these untruths. People do.

While that MIT study has merit, I stand with Origgi in maintaining that consistent truth telling in appropriate venues builds a reliable reputation upon which disclosures will be believed, enhancing the influence of the professoriate and expanding our constituencies.

Ten Tenets

In a forthcoming text, Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms (Routledge/Taylor & Francis), I endorse these summarized practices -- applicable across professions and certainly relevant to higher education today -- upon which reputations may hinge:

  1. Ignore the trolls. They are all around us. Some of them are bots. The human ones often challenge, mock or denigrate our works or contributions precisely because they haven’t any of merit. When we take the bait and respond to their slights, we elevate trolls to our level as they bring us down to theirs. That, my friends, can be disastrous to reputation -- precisely what trolls anticipate. Defy them with silence. Anyone who believes them is not worth your time or attention.
  2. Practice discretion. Be careful what you say and how you say it. This especially applies to microaggressions in the classroom or on social media. Give trigger warnings when warranted, as they are part of our teaching tool kit. I use such warnings in my media ethics class and textbook in as much as we discuss racism, sexism, stereotypes, profanity and other potentially distressing topics. Discretion not only is the better part of valor; it is imperative part of reputation.
  3. Collaborate innovatively. The Information Age asked us to network for career advancement, under the theory that Facebook, LinkedIn and social applications would enhance career goals. Instead, they gave us algorithms and Cambridge Analytica. Golden reputations go global. Collaboration in research and teaching -- especially with colleagues in institutions abroad -- expands our knowledge base via different methodologies and innovative paths to discovery.
  4. Emphasize empathy. Everybody is going through something. One in eight Americans is an alcoholic; one in five has been sexually harassed at work; one in 12 is depressed. And then there are epidemic statistics concerning divorce, cancer, racism and myriad illnesses and social injustices. Those statistics include administrators, colleagues, students, parents and just about everyone we encounter during our academic day. Remembering that in the aftermath of incivility or ungratefulness may help you defuse any number of tense interactions or avoid being baited into escalating situations. The world lacks empathy; recycle it when opportunities arise.
  5. Embrace fairness. Fairness demands a level playing field in the classroom as well as in the institution by adhering to policies and avenues of redress. That means taking student disabilities into account in tests and addressing inequities with appropriate offices. Venting in person or ranting on social media can and will be used against you, so practice restraint and impartiality in advancing your argument in a judicious manner. Fairness also requires us to ponder different viewpoints and correct perceptions in the wake of factual refutations. Apologies should follow. And, yes, they should be sincere.
  6. Actively amend policies. It is easy to criticize departmental or institutional policies. Many seem or are top down, unfair or otherwise exclusionary, especially as budget and salary are concerned. Too often, we gossip or complain interpersonally or digitally, which only deflates morale and sometimes leads to hostile work environments. Consider expanding service to right current wrongs. That means volunteering for departmental committees, joining faculty councils or senates, and working with the administration to amend policies or advocate change. By being part of the process, you may or may not be part of the solution, but your reputation and empowerment may grow as a result.
  7. Diversify and empower. In lectures, research and service, ample opportunities exist to enhance teaching, scholarship and reputation by asking whether content inspires equity and inclusion. You can enhance almost any topic or service by posing fundamental questions about who might be added for more perspective, particularly from under- and misrepresented groups. The news media still copes with stereotypical sourcing in content about race, gender and mental health, among other subjects. You don’t have to. Join the many diversity-based groups or attend presentations that promote inclusion on your campus. You’ll gain perspective, and that alone advances standing among peers.
  8. Promote true collegiality. First, distinguish collegiality from congeniality and civility. Congenial environments that ask everyone to get along often tend to be very ones lacking fairness, diversity and equity. Civility honors the manner in which we express our disagreements, and while important to reputation, that has little to do with genuine collegiality -- the fundamental tenet of which is shared governance. You are collegial when you advocate transparency. You are collegial when you argue for adequate time to consider policy changes, inviting all viewpoints into deliberations. You are collegial when you point out inequities in salary compression. You are especially collegial when adhering to the catalog description of your class, as that is the ultimate icon of shared governance. The professoriate controls the curriculum in a complicated, inclusive process. Do your part to honor that.
  9. Blow whistles properly. Over the course of a career, we may witness racism, sexism, harassment, safety threats and other real or potential dangers and infractions. Although tempted to look the other way, we may have institutional obligations to report improprieties and misdeeds. Thus, it is essential to read faculty, staff and student handbooks in addition to institutional regulations and reporting requirements so that you can communicate serious situations factually to the right university officer in a timely manner. It goes without saying that use of social media or inappropriately distributed emails or texts may undermine your case and turn the discussion on you personally rather than the situation at hand. That can ruin reputations, even when intentions are noble.
  10. Interact interpersonally. Our days are hectic. As such, we communicate digitally out of convenience at all hours. Give yourself a break from screen time during weekends and evenings, and use that opportunity to reconnect face-to-face with colleagues over coffee or family and loved ones over dinner. When we awake each morning, we may encounter a new problem merely by checking our smartphones. As we go through the day, more problems arise. Nevertheless, we schedule tomorrow as if no new problem will occur, when we know by experience that cannot be true. Slate at least one hour per day to deal with tomorrow’s problems and, if none occur, use that time to stroll across campus, engaging everyone with kindness and courtesy. You’ll feel a part of something greater than yourself.

These tenets may not change the current tribal environment unless practiced collectively, and that’s a stretch. But they may enhance your standing in the institution, helping you effect positive change in everyday venues. Your knowledge base will grow from new collaborations and interactions. You will see the value of service in amending policies and improving practices. When mistaken, you’ll give sincere apologies and show others that facts matter. In doing so you will have freed yourself from tiresome social media and develop new friendships in diverse groups. More important, you may inspire students to learn useful life skills from you as role model.

That is what being a professor is all about and what may have attracted you to the profession in the first place -- long ago, when you believed rational thought ruled the day.

Bio

Michael Bugeja, author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press), teaches media ethics and technology and social change at Iowa State University. These views are his own.

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