By Rich Boyer, ModernThink Managing Partner


Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, there is widespread consensus that the civility and quality of our dialogue has deteriorated in recent years. Whether it be the sheer intensity of the rhetoric, the unwillingness to find common ground, the lack of empathy (and even basic respect), or the various permutations of such dynamics, they all contribute to an environment where the quality of our communication, and indeed, community, is regularly challenged.

Higher education is not immune to such challenges. In fact, these issues are likely exacerbated by the extensive coverage of rising tuitions, decreasing state support, and fundamental questions about the value of a college education. With factors both internal (fiscal and academic) and external (governmental and ideological) creating divisions at universities, it’s more important than ever to foster a culture in which we can agree to disagree; where we can challenge each other’s ideas in the spirit of inquiry versus attack; where the quality of our dialogue leads us to greater insight, stronger relationships, and better outcomes for us as individuals and the students we serve. A uniting set of institutional values, shared both across individual colleges, as well as within distinct campus communities, can provide a platform where people and ideals can disagree productively, without leaving a wake of tension.

Organizational leadership plays a critical role in organizational culture. Many institutions today are fortunate to have leaders at the helm who are intentional about their stewardship of culture, clear about their leadership philosophy and personal values, and inspiring in their words and actions.

But, relying on an enlightened leader is not a strategy conducive to long-term success that spans administrations. Having an articulated set of institutional values can provide not just consistency over time, but consistency in the expected behaviors of how administrators, faculty and staff engage with each other. Clarifying mission and vision is common practice in most any strategic planning process. And not surprisingly, all of the regional accrediting bodies have criteria and standards specifically focused on mission and vision. Less common, however, are standards requiring a set of institutional values.

While it may not be a required standard of accreditors, the benefit of a commonly-held set of institutional values is not lost on this year’s Honor Roll institutions. Thirty-seven of the forty-two Honor Roll colleges in this year’s Great Colleges to Work For program have an articulated set of institutional values, several of which are echoed across the Honor Roll list.

As one might expect, a value related to learning was most frequently cited. Fifty-nine percent of these Honor Roll institutions claim a value related to “Learning,” “Education,” or “Academics.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the second-most commonly cited value was related to diversity. References to “Diversity,” “Inclusivity,”  “Equity,” and/or “Inclusive Excellence,” appeared in 51% of Honor Roll institutions’ values.

“Excellence” itself was a value at 41% of the Honor Roll, followed by “Integrity” showing up at 35%. In this day and age, when faculty and staff across the nation are asked to do more with less in resource-challenged environments, it’s no surprise that “Innovation/Creativity” was the fifth most cited common value, espoused at 32% of the Honor Roll.

Values of “Service” and “Respect” round out the top seven most commonly shared values with both included in 24% the Honor Roll’s values. Tangentially related to the value of “Respect” is the value of “Collaboration” and/or “Teamwork,” asserted in 16% of the listed values.

Institutional values are perhaps most valuable when they are regularly acknowledged and modeled within individual campus communities. Unique, defining values often provide a foundation for the special campus cultures that characterize Honor Roll institutions. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) encourages faculty and staff to “Exude Passion.” The expectation is specifically defined: “We are passionate about our mission, learner success and our employees and it shows in all that we do.” SNHU also urges employees to “Exhibit Grit,” proclaiming, “We are tenacious, persevering, never cut corners and always maintain a laser focus.”

Lord Fairfax Community College asserts a value of “Positive Spirit” noting, “We value creativity, enthusiasm, and a ‘can-do’ attitude.” That positive outlook is also evident in Miami Dade College’s commitment to workplace quality, as it claims “An exceptional work environment that engages an exemplary and diverse workforce.”

The University of West Florida (UWF) defines the foundational nature of its values to a cohesive campus community: “Our institutional values shared by students, faculty and staff make UWF a great place to learn and to work.” “Entrepreneurship” stands out from its list of six core values, “Encouraging a culture that identifies opportunities to initiate change.” This unique value in particular speaks to the importance of continuously challenging the status quo, and the responsibility of the entire campus community to participate in doing so.

For values to be effective, to actually shape the day-to-day behavior of faculty and staff, they need to be more than words on posters or checklist exercises associated with an accredition process. Values need to be accessible, authentic and integrated into every facet of an institution so that faculty and staff can list them by heart. They are the touchstone that should govern every decision, process, and goal determined in the cabinet, as well as individual departments. When values are “lived” on campus in this way, they are more powerfully binding than any political, financial, or ideological argument is divisive.

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