A Different Kind of Institutional Loyalty

Individual indifference to an institution may reflect the institution’s own indifference to itself.

A Different Kind of Institutional Loyalty
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We talk about a decline in institutional loyalty — a drop in individual allegiance to institutions — but we should also consider a different kind of institutional loyalty, namely, an institution’s loyalty to itself. We may be able to explain the former by an appeal to the latter: Perhaps people abandon institutions because the institutions themselves have been disloyal. Individual indifference to an institution may reflect the institution’s own indifference to itself.

An Institution’s Constitution

Can we evaluate an institution’s loyalty to itself? Yes. The loyalty of an institution to itself can be measured in its fidelity to its constitution. Permit me to call the collection of an institution’s governing documents its constitution. In the context of higher education, a university’s charter, mission statement, articles of faith, student covenant, faculty handbook, etc. all play a role in how a university is run — and if something in that mix does not play a role, that in itself is notable.

In what follows, I will use higher education to explore this idea of fidelity to a constitution. I am a professor, after all. But I assume the ideas developed below can be used to think about governments and businesses, churches and clubs.

Fidelity to One’s Constitution

Constitutions vary significantly. First, constitutions can be written or unwritten. We live in an age of obsessive writing, particularly about policies and procedures, so a university remaining silent when it could tell people what to say, think, or do may seem like a downright impossibility. But it’s not. Indeed, many of the subtleties of university life cannot be explained by written rules alone. Junior faculty, for example, show deference in faculty meetings to older, established colleagues, but they do not do so because of a written rule. Conversely, some rules may exist on the books but are hardly ever enforced; indeed, the opposite of the rule may be the standard practice.

Second, constitutions can be thick or thin. They can offer definitive statements on everything one should think and do, or they can offer a sketch of acceptable opinions and activities. Let’s call a large collection of definitive statements a thick constitution and a small collection of statements a thin one.

Libraries are an infinite list of opportunities.
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Finally, constitutions can be strong or weak. A strong constitution plays a vital role in the life of an institution. A weak constitution is mostly window dressing, though it may play a role in certain unusual cases (e.g., lawsuits). Notice that a constitution can be strong even if it invites considerable disagreement; people debate it because it really matters. By contrast, people do not get angry about a weak collection of documents that plays no role in the life of an institution — or, at least, they shouldn’t.

Thin and Weak Constitutions

Let’s focus on two extremes: written, thick, and strong constitutions versus written, thin, and weak ones. I am focusing on written constitutions only, so you don’t have to take my word for it; you can read the statements yourself.

Let’s start with thin and weak constitutions. Thin and weak constitutions do not inspire loyalty, because the institutions themselves have demonstrated a lack of commitment to their own documents. Try to identify the universities characterized by the following statements:

A. “to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge.”
B. “to produce a caliber of teaching and research that regularly leads to advances in fields such as medicine, biology, physics, economics, critical theory, and public policy.”
C. “a commitment to ensuring equity and inclusion in our research and on our campus, embedding ethics across research and education and engaging with partners beyond our walls to learn from and give back to our local and global community.”

A is Harvard, B is the University of Chicago, and C is Stanford, top research universities from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast, respectively. Apart from Stanford, which reads like it was written by a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, the statements affirm that research universities exist to increase human knowledge. Fair enough.

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But do the statements offer something distinctive about their institutions? If I had told you A was Chicago, B was Stanford, and C was Harvard, would you have known in your heart that the claim was false?

I doubt it. After all, “Princeton University advances learning through scholarship, research, and teaching of unsurpassed quality,” and “UCLA’s primary purpose as a public research university is the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society.”

I hope these institutions do all these things well, but why bother with these statements at all, if they say nothing distinctive? Of course a research university does research. Is that why students go there? Is that why students should go there?

Now name the universities represented by these statements:

A. “Whereas through the good hand of God many well devoted persons have been and daily are moved and stirred up to give and bestow sundry gifts legacies lands and revenues for the advancement of all good literature arts and sciences . . .”
B. “At all times two-thirds of the trustees, and also the president of the university and of its said college, shall be members of regular Baptist churches . . . [and] this charter shall not be amended or changed at any time hereafter as to abrogate or modify the qualifications of two-thirds of the trustees and the president above mentioned, but in this particular this charter shall be forever unalterable.”
C. “to qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life; and to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A is Harvard, B is Chicago, and C is Stanford.

These institutions had made their strong constitutions weak by replacing thick commitments with abstract generalities. Universities tend to liberalize because, if they change at all, they move away from the thick and strong constitutions they held at their founding. Newcomers do not defend the old ways; they may repudiate them altogether.

What could be seen as a lack of loyalty by the faculty may be, instead, their reasonable response to a lack of loyalty by the institutions themselves. Moving from Harvard to Stanford means relocating from Cambridge to Palo Alto, but little else. If someone makes such a move, we expect no reference to the institution’s higher ideals, just an announcement of what everyday goods induced the professor to shift institutions (e.g., a new research lab, an endowed professorship, colleagues doing similar work, etc.). Such inducements are fine in themselves, and wonderful for the people involved, but they reflect the lack of strongly held beliefs across these institutions. “I was sick of New England winters” may be as good a reason as any.

Thick and Strong Constitutions

By way of contrast, name the institutions associated with the following three statements. (I promise they’re not Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford, nor my own institution, John Brown University.)

A. “to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.”
B. “‘to furnish all persons who wish, irrespective of nation, color, or sex, a literary, scientific, [and] theological education’ outstanding among American colleges ‘and to combine with this such moral and social instruction as will best develop the minds and improve the hearts of its pupils.’”
C. “. . . to equip students to be firmly grounded in biblical truth, thoroughly educated in the liberal arts, and fully engaged in their church, their community, and the world for the glory of God and for service to humanity.”

A is Gordon College, B is Hillsdale College, and C is Providence Christian College, again representing the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast. (For the record, John Brown University — my own institution — “provides Christ-centered education that prepares people to honor God and serve others by developing their intellectual, spiritual and professional lives.”)

What’s the difference? In a word, specificity. Harvard wants to advance new ideas, which is — let’s be frank — fairly generic. (Even bad ideas, so long as they are new?) But Providence Christian College offers students biblical truth. Stanford wants to embed ethics across research and education, whatever that means. (But whose ethics? And does ethical thinking play a determinative role in research and education, or a merely ceremonial one?) Meanwhile, Hillsdale offers moral and social instruction to develop minds and improve hearts.

Moving from Gordon to Hillsdale means moving from one kind of institution to a different one. Even if they were in the same town, the shift would be meaningful, because they are different by design. In the context of thick and strong constitutions, characterizing a faculty move apart from these higher commitments does not make sense. “I craved Michigan winters” would not be as good a reason as any other.

If institutions want loyalty, they must be loyal, too.

Concluding Remarks

To summarize, if institutions want loyalty, they must be loyal, too. Without loyalty, someone walking away from an institution can rightly say the institution is not the thing he once loved — that the institution continues in name but not in essence. Though we explore higher education here, the problem is not unique to universities. Governments and corporations have collections of documents defining who they are, but they can find themselves carried away from their constitutions, too.

If an institution shifts from a thick and strong written constitution to a thin and weak one, it better have an enduring allure that captivates people’s hearts. Continuity matters, even if the continuity is largely romantic or ceremonial. Perhaps higher education focuses on the buildings and grounds, the rankings and reputations because, at the end of the day, these things unite universities more than anything else. Institutions must focus on the ephemeral when they have nothing else to offer.