How Leaders Can Build or Rebuild Trust on Campus

moving into
leadership in male-dominated
fields or schools
need to be intentional about
establishing trust, especially
as the first woman in her

Dr. Paul SheltonDr. Paul Shelton

"Trust me.”

Do those words make you trust the speaker more, or are they a red flag that puts you on guard? It takes more than someone saying “trust me” to build and maintain trust.

Dr. Carole Makela, education professor at Colorado State University, and Dr. Paul Shelton, business faculty member at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins CO, are co-authoring a book about trust and distrust. They spoke at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln in October 2012.

Trust matters to education and scholarship. Faculty need to trust one another to collaborate and share ideas. Students need to trust their instructors to be clear, consistent and fair.

Trust also affects the bottom line, as higher education becomes more and more competitive.

Distrust lowers performance. It increases attrition of faculty and staff, and attrition is very expensive. Yet increased attention to the bottom line is contributing to changes that lower the level of trust in higher education.

Trust levels declining

While trust levels have been declining in higher education and business alike, some of the reasons are different. Corporate culture assumes that managers and supervisors have the loudest voice, while everyone else follows orders. Colleges don’t work that way.

Higher education has a culture that depends heavily on trust, particularly faculty trust of each other and the administration. Recent trends threaten to erode that culture. “Higher education is becoming more transactional,” Shelton told WIHE.

• More adjuncts. One trend is adjuncts becoming a majority of faculty. Only a third of faculty members today are tenured or on the tenure track. Nearly half are part-time adjuncts and the rest are full-time instructors or lecturers. That’s a huge change since 1969, when 78% of the faculty were tenured or on the tenure track.

Adjuncts and lecturers have less institutional connection and buy-in than traditional tenured and tenure-track faculty. Their lack of voice lowers the level of trust.

• Administrative turnover. Another trend is toward administrators staying for shorter terms. The tenure of public university presidents is shrinking fast, partly because of the challenges of adapting to financial constraints, technological change and a changing student body. Rising turnover also affects chief academic officers and other leaders. Developing trust takes time. Increased turnover means repeating the process of developing trust more frequently.

• Erosion of shared governance. “Higher education has a foundation in shared governance. Trust and shared governance depend on each other,” Makela said. Professors expect to have input in administrative decisions. “If there isn’t shared governance, distrust develops because the two groups are going their separate ways.”

Today’s governing boards are adopting corporate models of higher education, treating a university as a business. They make top-down decisions to promote efficiency through increased workloads, outsourcing of jobs, reorientation of the curriculum from reasoning skills to moneymaking credentials and the development of for-profit teaching or research subsidiaries. Deprived of a voice, the faculty grows demoralized and distrustful.

Elements of trust

Makela distributed a two-part survey to assess trust. First, each rated their group’s top leader on four scales:

• Behavior—from predictable to erratic.

• Communication—from clear to careless.

• Treats promises—from seriously to lightly.

• Honesty—from forthright to dishonest.

Second, each participant rated her agreement with five statements about her employer: has high integrity, treats me in a consistent and predictable fashion, has good intentions and motives, treats me fairly and is open and upfront with me.

Each time Makala uses this survey, she finds that the perceptions of behaviors in the first part correlate closely with the level of trust in the second. This suggests factors that help create an atmosphere of trust, such as openness, honesty, transparency, fairness, consistency, communication, empathy and reliability. Also, to earn trust, one needs to appear competent in her position.

Electronic communication technology can be a plus or a minus, depending on how it is used. Sending regular emails makes it easier to keep everyone informed and up-to-date. But this one-way communication can diminish trust if it replaces conversation and mutual sharing of ideas.

“Trust is based on perception as much as reality,” Shelton said. Unpopular decisions are sometimes necessary. How they are received depends largely on whether people affected feel that the decision makers heard their concerns, considered the consequences, thought things through and then provided a reasoned explanation.

Trust and distrust

Shelton described trust and distrust as two separate scales, not opposite poles on one continuum. There are things you can do to help improve trust and others to reduce distrust. Refraining from telling lies doesn’t create trust, but it does reduce distrust compared to lying.

Distrust often arises in relation to decisions about economics and budget. “We all have constricting budgets, so hard decisions have to be made. If we don’t make the process transparent, there will be huge distrust,” he said.

Building trust takes time but distrust can arise in a flash. Once distrust takes hold, subsequent actions are met with more suspicion. Distrust can become part of the culture.

“Peace and trust take years to build and shatter,” they quoted from writer Mahogany SilverRain.

Long-time faculty and staff tell newcomers their stories. Those of conflict and shattered trust are the ones people remember and retell most often. Stories of what happened 20 years ago are passed on by people who have been there only ten years, and they affect how people interpret the actions of someone who just arrived.

“If there’s distrust, it permeates the culture. There’s a sense of walking on eggshells,” Makela said. The feeling is that you’d better not try, you’d better not suggest. “People pull into their shells. There is less willingness to take calculated risks.”

Trust and gender

Fewer than one in four U.S. higher education presidents is a woman. When people ask how long it will be before their top administrator is a woman, they may really be wondering if they can trust a woman in that position, she said.

While some individuals trust women more in general and others are more trusting of men, the gender effect on trust is largely situational. It is shaped by long-term stereotypes, including the stereotype of university presidents as male. The greater a leader’s distance from the stereotype, the harder the leader must work to establish trust.

In early childhood education, many parents meeting a male preschool teacher will question whether they can trust him. When they take the same child to a male pediatrician, his gender may increase their trust.

Take hiring a coach: Now only 42% of women’s college sports teams have a woman as head coach. In the search process, student athletes wonder who they can trust to lead them to victory. Parents ask who they can trust with their daughters. Resting on stereotypes and unconscious bias, these questions may arise when the coach is lesbian.

Few if any search committees discuss whether they see a position as best suited to a woman or a man. Nor will they talk about trust. The discussion is more likely to revolve around “fit.” The perceived best fit is the candidate who most closely matches everyone’s preconceived image.

Women moving into leadership in male-dominated fields or institutions need to be intentional about establishing trust, especially as the first woman in her position.

Building and rebuilding trust

Once distrust permeates a culture, it is carried forward in the telling and retelling of stories. What happened 20 years ago will influence today’s decisions.

To overcome a culture of distrust or rebuilt trust after an incident, they recommend taking small steps to move forward on both the trust and the distrust continuums.

Start by listening. Ask questions to understand. You need to hear the stories and people need to feel heard. If you are an administrator trying to build trust with the faculty, you might create a faculty committee to be a sounding board as you consider potential changes.

Report back. “We heard you; this is what we heard.” An unpopular but necessary decision is most likely to be accepted when there’s a perception of communication, thoughtful reasoning and transparency surrounding it.

It is all a matter of trust.

Dr. Carole Makela:  
Dr. Paul Shelton:  

Cook, Sarah Gibbard (2012, December). How Leaders Can Build or Rebuild Trust on Campus. Women in Higher Education, 21(12), 1-2.

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