Forms of Trust in Academic Life


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I am concerned about the future of higher education in American society. I am especially concerned about the future of a relatively autonomous community of scholars, teachers and public servants whose work is aided by its administrators, who are primarily responsible for keeping the "real world" at bay so that we can do our work. Reflecting on the recent events at this and other universities, I came to think about the idea of "trust". A couple of months ago I spoke to another department in Arts and Sciences about the current state of things, and suggested that in the current crisis it would help if we would trust our administrators, to which the response was a forty-person equivalent of "Yeah, right." As I reflected on that episode, I wondered why, in general, faculty and administrators do not trust each other. I think I understand why not. Furthermore, I think I have an idea how the situation could be improved--how we could come to trust each other more. (I will say more about why trust is, in general, a good thing.) I also have some fairly gloomy predictions about the likelihood of these improvements coming about.

Communication and all other forms of cooperative action are possible only when we share certain taken-for-granted presuppositions which are tacit, pre-theoretical and pre-reflective. A shared language is the source of many of these presuppositions, but as Wittgenstein and many continental philosophers recognize, we must also share a "life world" or "a form of life." This means that we must share a sense of what people are up to, what ordinary life is like and how it is lived. We cannot communicate with someone unless we assume that we share a life world, or form of life.

In order to work and live productively with one another, we must believe one another. Communication and cooperative action require trust between people, and this is as true of life within academic institutions as it is within families or neighborhoods. I want to contrast two models of trust, one "liberal" and one "communitarian". In academic life, we invoke the liberal model of trust, in which the basis of trust among members of a community is adequate representation of conflicting interests in decision-making. This liberal model of trust strongly encourages distrust in institutional settings. The alternative communitarian model of trust locates the basis of trust in shared values, goals, principles and ideals. This model is, I believe, better suited to the sorts of values, missions and projects typical of an academic setting than the liberal model. However, there are deeply ingrained institutional barriers to achieving communal trust. Institutions such as this are organized hierarchically, so that decisions and values are imposed from the top down. In order to achieve a communitarian institution, power would have to be redistributed horizontally. This redistribution will not come about of its own, and the culture produced by the current hierarchical structure mitigates against it. It would require those currently in leadership positions to voluntarily give up their control of the decision-making process. This is, in my view, extremely unlikely.

But first, what is trust, and why is it a desirable feature of human community? In speech, trust is the disposition to accept what someone says as true, as reliable, as informative and intended to be accurate. In action, trust is the disposition to believe in the good judgment, character and motives of the actor. Trust is essential to all aspects of scholarship and knowledge-making. All of us are epistemically dependent on others' experiments, conceptual analyses, translations, reports and memories. I can learn from someone else only if I am willing to accept what she says as true without myself having access to all or even most of the reasons that ground the truth of what she says. I accept what she says, and her saying it becomes my reason for believing in the truth of what she says. This is called "the principle of testimony:"

If A has good reasons to believe that B has good reasons to believe p, then A has good reasons to believe p1.

To trust is, therefore, to put myself in a vulnerable position: in effect, I give you the authority to tell me what to believe, at least temporarily. I believe you because I trust you. When I have reason to believe that you know something, then I can take myself to know it, too. In other words

If A knows that B knows p, then A knows p.

This is an enormously powerful idea, and one that gets to the core of the academic enterprise. Consider the very processes by which we create knowledge in our various disciplines. We attend conferences, talk to our fellow scholars, read each other's papers and books. We could not learn or advance our disciplines at all unless we trusted what others have learned, written, translated and thought through. We accept not only their results, but also their concepts and their vocabularies. We take from others the tools with which we define our problems and offer our solutions. Scholars must trust one another to be honest, to be neither fraudulent nor plagiarizers, to have relevant and adequate evidence to support the inferences they draw.

This is as important in the humanities as it is in the sciences. It has been argued, persuasively, I think, that despite a universal adherence to the principle of replicability as the basis for scientific verification, the economics of science primarily rewards new results2. Scientists don't often get funded for confirming or replicating what someone else has done. Likewise, social scientists are rewarded for coming up with ground-breaking, novel hypotheses and experiments, not for reinventing the psychosocial wheel 3. But humanists also rely on each other's work; interpretations, readings, glosses and renderings are creative knowledge-building tools. The image of the lone scholar trudging through the forest of facts, collecting likely specimens as he goes, is a myth. No scholar is autonomous. Knowledge-making is a collective and communal activity.

Trust has seldom been addressed by epistemologists because it is conceived primarily as an ethical relationship. In epistemology, the issue is knowledge, and the assumption is that one knows only truths that one has good reasons for. The role of trust in epistemology, as articulated and developed by John Hardwig, shows that we cannot know unless we are able to trust. This means that we are truly dependent on one another. When I believe that you are telling me the truth, I trust that you have good reasons for what you say. If you do not, then my "knowledge" is merely mistaken opinion, not knowledge at all. Since I cannot know everything about you, nor everything that you know, I have no alternative but to rely on my judgment of your character.

There are many tests of trust in the classroom, and there are institutional checks and balances between student and faculty rights and responsibilities. The syllabus can be seen as a contract between the instructor and his students that lays out the expectations and the format of the course. It tells students what they must do, when, and how it will be judged. Students are understandably angry when we do not do what our syllabus says we will do. I have heard of courses in which there was no syllabus, so that in order to find out the assigned reading or the test schedule, you have to go to class, because it is not written down. It seems to me that this is unfair to students. They have lives, often complicated and busy lives, and we must trust them to do what we ask, in return for giving them a bit of autonomy and flexibility for the occasional missed class.

When a student turns in a paper, she trusts us to read it charitably. It often represents, if not her best effort, at least what she thinks you wanted her to do. To get a paper back with a low grade and few or no comments is demoralizing. It makes the student feel that all the effort has been hers. How is she to cope with a "C" unless she is told how it could have been improved? Students trust us to treat them fairly and professionally, to be concerned about their learning and their performance. They trust us to give fair assignments, to take into account their inexperience and lack of training, and to give them timely and useful feedback on their performance so that they can learn from their failures as well as their successes. Most important, they trust us to take them seriously, to regard them as people, not as annoying distractions from our otherwise fulfilling lives.

The institutional mechanisms that sustain academic life are much improved by the existence of trusting relations between faculty, and between faculty and administration. Trust between colleagues is based on shared, common goals, and, in my case, on very long-term relationships. I trust the members of my department to pull their share of the weight, to show up for scheduled committee meetings, to have looked at the agenda before the meeting, and to have reviewed any documents pertinent to our agenda. I trust them to respect each other sufficiently so that we can conduct business in the mutual understanding that we are all doing the best we can, and that our disagreements are honest differences of perspective, and not the visible signs of our fellows' dementia.

I am extremely fortunate to be a member of a department in which these expectations are routinely met. I really like the other members of the philosophy department. Even when we disagree, I know that every member of the department has the best interests of the department as top priority. I have been amazed by the creativeness, perseverance and loyalty that every one of them has demonstrated over the past 22 years. In some departments, this is not the case. There are departments whose members are factionalized into small power groups who oppose each other at every opportunity. There are departments with senior members so selfish and unconcerned for the welfare of the unit as a whole that they would rather overwork the junior faculty, and then vote against their tenure, than increase their own teaching loads. In such departments, the role of the Head is crucial. A department torn by internal conflict must have a strong head who the junior faculty trust will stand up to the prima donnas to protect their interests, their specialties and their research time.

When faculty and administrators are concerned, none of the bases of trust that exist within a departmental unit are in place. There is no long term relationship to build on most of the time. There is a much greater turnover in administration than in faculty. We can outlast them, and they will eventually return to us, as we well know. Worse, when faculty take on administrative duties, they change. They answer to different authorities, and are given different goals, priorities and agendas than they had as faculty. Most of them do not teach at all, or rarely; have no research programs; are not supervising dissertations or working closely with undergraduate students.

The difference between a department Head and a Dean or Vice-Chancellor is vast. The Head is first among equals; effective Heads act from consensus. Deans and Vice-Chancellors often cannot build consensus, for the simple reason that their constituency is too large and diverse. Therefore, the basis of trust between colleagues is very different than the basis of trust between faculty and administration. I trust my colleagues because I know them, have worked closely with them over many years, and know that their interests and mine are, with respect to the department, the same. I do not know the administration, have not worked closely with them, and am often convinced that their interests and mine are miles apart.

The Liberal Model of trust sees trust as stemming from adequate representation of competing interests. This traditional model further supposes that we act primarily as individuals, that "one's knowledge is one's own and we are all equal."4 In fact, we know that this is false. "[W]e are not all equal and we do not treat the opinions of all persons equally; if we did we would not survive."5 Any institution differentiates between those who speak for the institution, and those do are not. The "elites" are those who articulate the narratives that form the identity and meaning of the institution. Trust within an institution is fostered by a sense that our individual interests are adequately represented among those who construct these narratives. Thus the crucial feature of an institution racked by distrust is that its non-elite members judge that their access to the central narrative-constructing elites is blocked.

This model of trust fits the relations between citizens and the government; many of those in higher education feel that it fits the relationships between faculty and administration as well. Unlike our representatives in government, we do not elect our administrators; nevertheless, they are our representatives to other areas of the university, the legislature and the various boards and commissions that oversee our operations. So on the traditional view, trust is eroded when faculty suspect that their interests are not being adequately represented by administrators. Since faculty nearly always do suspect this, they do not trust administrators. Witness the uproar that ensued when faculty here got wind of the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Planning and Budgeting. Some of the faculty were far less interested in what the committee was proposing, than in how the faculty on the committee had been chosen to serve on the committee. One e-mail agitator suggested that unless those faculty were elected by an at-large process, nothing the committee recommended should be trusted. This complaint is a perfect example of the traditional model of trust: only if my interests, as I define them, are represented, will I trust the outcome.

This traditional model of trust has been criticized on the ground that traditional trust breeds distrust, because it encourages and reinforces the fear among faculty, staff and students that their interests are not adequately represented in the decision-making process. This inversion effect comes about when something goes wrong, as in the recent financial problems at this university. When something goes wrong it is easy to blame our representatives--the administration--and far more acceptable than blaming ourselves. Administrators, in turn, blame the state government or THEC. At a university of this size, the administrators who have the greatest power are generally institutionally distant, which of course increases distrust. The faculty and staff presume themselves to be both competent and responsible, and they do not hesitate to draw the obvious conclusion that the administration is incompetent and irresponsible. In the absence of trust, motives are misunderstood, words are given a hostile spin, and sincere promises are dismissed as manipulative. Distrust thereby breeds greater distrust.

Who does distrust hurt and who does it help? The cynical view, which I find appealing, has it that it hurts faculty and staff, but it furthers the purposes of those who set institutional agendas, because if there is widespread distrust within the institution, it gives more freedom and autonomy to those who fashion the narratives that mold institutional identity and purpose, have access to communication resources, and thus control the dominant narratives that define institutional priorities. Those in power gain power by being distrusted, and it is inevitable, on the traditional model of trust, that they will be. On the traditional model of trust, universities of this size and complexity are structured so as to maximize distrust between faculty and administrators, to the perpetual advantage of administration.

There is another basis for trust other than the conviction that one's own individual interests are being adequately represented. Whereas the traditional model emphasizes constituencies with conflicting interests, a communal model of trust bases it on a sense of shared common interests, on a shared narrative, values, goals and commitments. If I can be sure that those who make institutional decisions have the same goals and commitments I do, then I need not be directly represented at the bargaining table, for those who sit there are working for my interests while working for their own. On the communal model, trust springs naturally from shared purposes.

Several presuppositions of the communal model warrant our attention. First, it presupposes that individual and institutional interests can coincide. This is the anti-labor union assumption. Labor unions are based on the idea that workers' and management's interests will always be opposed. What workers want--job security, benefits, high wages--are directly opposed to what management wants--flexibility in hiring and firing and low production costs.

Many have questioned whether the union management model of continuing negotiations sharpened by constant threats of strikes is an appropriate model for faculty/administration relations. Such questions are of urgent importance in our current situation, for if faculty adopt a union stance toward administration they will thereby be locked into an adversarial and contentious model for institutional relations. This is counterproductive for two reasons. First, faculty are not likely to stage a general walkout, and administration knows this. It would hurt us more than it would help us to strike. It would disrupt our professional activities, our teaching, research and the progress of our students. There is nothing to prevent administration from hiring scabs; the job market, as we all know, is such that there would be no shortage of eager volunteers. Second, faculty cannot function as a union in the current climate because there is no culture of cross-disciplinary mutual action. We do not stand to each other as machinists, pilots and flight attendants do in the airlines. Those groups play different roles in achieving common goals. We are locked into a system in which colleges, departments and even programs within departments compete for scarce resources. For the economics department to walk out in sympathy with the Women's Studies program is inconceivable in the current climate. In the current financial and structural context, our interests are best served by looking out after our own projects. It would take a massive cultural change to make us see cooperative action as a legitimate motivating force.

The upshot is that the traditional model of trust, in which trust springs from representation of competing interests, draws us inevitably into a worker\management model of institutional power struggles. But the worker\management model is antithetical to the way the university actually operates. So the traditional model of trust is ill-suited to meet our unique institutional needs.

The communal model of trust, in which trust is based on shared values, goals and purposes, is better suited to higher education. And it has the advantage of being at least rhetorically familiar to most of us. We in higher education--both faculty and administration--tend to think of our jobs as serving a large and important social function. Most of us are not in this business simply to further our careers. We are in the business of education, of improving the human condition and furthering the quest for knowledge--even wisdom. We would rally together to prevent governmental attempts to dismantle our universities or to impose limits on the books we could read and teach, the hypotheses we can publish and advocate, or the received truths we are allowed to question and deconstruct. We share a common sense of mission, even though we would quickly find many points of disagreement, as can members of any other group of common purpose, from a neighborhood beautification committee to a softball team.

Between our current institutional culture and one in which the communal model of trust is a strong working principle stands a lack of dialogue. Sheer size makes ongoing dialogue very difficult. But we no longer need to sit down in the same room to talk to one another. The Internet has bridged the problems of space and time, in creating a public forum for the interplay of ideas. VoxProf, instituted by AAUP, is a large step in the right direction. The next step would be to include the entire faculty and administrative community.

The only way for us to believe that we have shared purposes and goals is to talk to one another and share our visions. And this conversation must itself model trust; when you tell me what you earnestly believe, I must be willing to believe that you are saying what you mean, that you are using words in the same senses that I would, and that you believe yourself to be speaking sincerely and truthfully. In philosophy of language this is called "the principle of charity". Arguably, charity in this sense is required for any meaningful communication to occur. Unlike trust, it can be easily withdrawn, but it is a place to start.

Trust in an institution requires effort and a willingness to take risks. It means letting go of our traditional interest-based notion of trust sufficiently to assume an institutional perspective. I am not optimistic that all of this will come about, but I sincerely hope that it will. If it doesn't, we're in for a very rough decade ahead.

End Notes

1This principle figures centrally in the work of John Hardwig in several articles concerning the role of trust in epistemology. See especially "The Role of Trust in Knowledge," Journal of Philosophy, vol 88, no 12, December 1991, pp.693-708. Several subsequent articles in the Journal of Philosophy and elsewhere have developed these ideas further.

2J. Hardwig, op.cit.

3There are notable conterexamples, of course. A browse through any social science journal will reveal that people still publish articles whose intellectual content is at the level of common sense.

4Earle and Cretkovich, 149.



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