Blind Staff Loyalty

The Temple rankings scandal points to flaws in the way higher education leaders treat professional staff, writes Allison H. Keene.

July 16, 2018
 
 
Temple's business school

Adding itself to a long list of offenders, Temple University’s Fox School of Business has become the latest casualty of the rankings war that pits colleges against each other for the privilege of summarizing the value of their degrees with a single number.

And while the world of higher education sighs at yet another leader losing his moral footing, I fear the real story here is the ultimate risk of blind obedience. Organizations and leaders often value loyalty and deference, but such traits are subject to extremes, which was on full display here. Loyalty at what cost? Deference to what end?

It seems plausible that there are two scenarios that played out here, in a case where a staff member filled out the various forms with information known to be false.

Scenario No. 1 -- “The Motivated Co-conspirator”: the employee in question is looking to advance at the college and felt the risks were worth the rewards of getting raises and/or earning favor with the dean in hopes of advancement.

Scenario No. 2 -- “The Fearful Co-conspirator”: the employee in question understands the ramifications of going against the dean’s wishes or goals and acts out of self-sacrifice to keep their own position.

Regardless of the motivation, both point to a culture that promotes the concept of infallible leaders, as is evidenced by the fact that Moshe Porat, the dean, will never truly have to answer for his actions. His future is set as a tenured, albeit momentarily disgraced, faculty member who will probably go on to teach an upper-level graduate seminar for 10 aspiring young minds a year on a six-figure salary. But what message does this send to the employees?

The biggest hurdle Temple’s leaders face in the coming months is the same one they and every other institution have been facing for years: What does it mean to be "professional staff"?

To answer this question, one need only look at the organizational hierarchy of nonprofit higher education institutions, which often pits administration against faculty in a mismatched battle of wills. The silent void representing staff is a true reflection of the biggest hurdle higher education needs to face, and a stark symbol of what could serve as the bridge between two constants if only we set the table for three.

To consider the role of staff, I digress back to 1972, when the garbage pail came to symbolize the inherent issue of organizational dynamics in higher education institutions thanks to the work of Michael Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen. Still a staple in higher education theory classes today, the “garbage pail theory” works off prior organizational development theories that point to inconsistent participation and unclear goals as catalysts for the perpetuation of a culture that values solving the same problem five days a week as opposed to systematic changes to prevent the problem.

So, why is there no third seat? Because many institutional hierarchies give little credence to the role staff can play in making systematic change and prefer to continue down the beaten path.

It is up to Temple and other institutions to hire staff that value transparency and integrity and fill our director and manager roles with people who are not afraid to stand up and defend the values of the institution.

It is up to Temple and other institutions to place higher levels of value on their staff and the roles they can play in promoting (or not) the mission and vision of our institutions using the time and talents that got them the job in the first place.

It is up to Temple and other institutions to provide outlets for staff growth and development so when an employee is forced to weigh the consequences of violating the university’s integrity policy, they are doing so without the potential fear of consequences from disagreeing with senior leadership.

But it is also up to us, as professional staff, to make ourselves and our roles have meaning. This means not waiting for a seat to be created but taking the steps to create one. This means mentoring young staff members on navigating the politics of our chosen institutions and empowering them to seek support in us. This means banding together, as a group, to ensure that misguided approaches to how to run our school and our programs do not go unchecked, even if supported by a dean.

Because at the end of the day, being a co-conspirator, motivated or fearful, should not be an option.

Bio

Allison H. Keene is a doctoral student at Temple University in the College of Education and a program manager at Drexel University.

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