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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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"Institutional Awe" Makes for Bad Leadership

When you privilege the institution over the people it's supposed to serve, you get what's happening at schools across the country (like UNC Chapel Hill) right now.

August 19, 2020
 
 

What is there to say about what has happened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?

One week of classes and now a pivot to all online instruction because they have already been overwhelmed by COVID-19 infections.

The student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, called it a “clusterfuck.” Lots of others are saying they told them so, because they did.

The administration has suggested that students disobeying “community standards” has led to this outcome, but these events at UNC, which seem likely to be repeated at many schools across the country, are 100 percent failures of leadership.

Leadership has likely failed because of a mix of factors, some of which are unique to localities, and others of which are broadly shared. For example, states like North Carolina and Georgia, have oversight boards larded with political hacks that treat their public institutions as playthings, starving them of the resources necessary to operate and threatening them with worse to come. The pressure from above to open is significant.

But I’ve been thinking about something else that I think is at play, something I call “institutional awe.”

I derive “institutional awe” from the idea of “vocational awe,” a term coined by Fobazi Ettarh, defined as “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh believes that vocational awe makes librarians vulnerable to exploitation and accepting of low salaries as the self-sacrifice is justified by the importance of the institution.

I believe something similar is at work with many non-tenure-track instructors who are able to sustain themselves at least partially on the knowledge that their work “matters” and without them hurling themselves into the breach of austerity, students would terribly harmed.

At least I recognize this attitude in myself.

Institutional awe is perhaps a corollary where rather than individuals putting so much stock in the unique role of the profession to support the institution, the administrators in charge see the institution itself as needing protection and perpetuation at all costs.

It is not difficult to believe in the specialness of a university. Colleges and universities are amazing places. Quite a few that are still around predate the existence of the United States. The physical grounds of many of our large state universities are a marvel. While urban commuter schools may not have the same architectural grandeur as a sprawling land-grant university complex, to walk into a campus building in the midst of a busy city is to feel the energy of thousands of people pursuing something meaningful simultaneously. It is hard to be inside an institution and not feel its deep importance, and also to begin to believe that it is the institution itself that matters above all.

I’m certain that UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz sincerely believed that the mitigation measures the university had undertaken were sufficient to keep students safe. Or at least he sincerely wanted to believe he was not rolling the dice.

But it is important to note that Chancellor Guskiewicz made this choice despite pleas from university faculty, staff and students to either delay the start of in-person instruction or to move the entire fall semester online in the interests of safety. The local health authorities recommended against it. His university was sued in a class action by campus workers. Student groups hosted die-ins. It is impossible not to see the university community as undeniably, and possibly permanently, fractured.

And for what? A week of classes and now unnecessary disruption.

The perceived necessity of opening to face-to-face operations, even with lower density of people on campus and in dorms, speaks to a dysfunctional world where rather than an institution serving the people, it is the other way around.

The only way to arrive at this state of affairs is to believe that the institution itself is more important than the people it serves. If some number of faculty or staff or students must sicken and develop a chronic disability or even die to preserve the institution, then that is what must be done. It is good that UNC has made the necessary call to try to keep people safe, though there have been many already infected, and of course they are now sending possibly infectious individuals back into their home communities.

What did The Daily Tar Heel call it?

I do not mean to impugn Kevin Guskiewicz specifically. He has spent the vast majority of his career at UNC. He must love the place. I am certain he was motivated by what he feels is best for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and when you have a state governing board above you that is calling for plans for up to a 50 percent budget cut, the threat must appear truly existential.

And in truth, when you look at the things like the ever increasing amount of student debt, or the exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty, you can see that the sacrifice of individual well-being for the continued operation of the institution predates the pandemic.

If an institution is actively harming those it is meant to serve, perhaps the institution is already dead and we need to replace it with something that is consistent with the values the institution claims to live by.

Something sustainable and resilient that operates from mission on up, rather than operations on down, where the institution serves the people, rather than the other way around.

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Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education is available for preorder from Belt Publishing.

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