Is Institutional Loyalty an Unnatural Act?

I have been thinking a lot lately about institutional loyalty for a lecture I need to give this fall. Are college professors individual agents who are loyal first and foremost to careers, ambition, and academic disciplines? If so, where does that leave loyalty to one’s institution?

Last week Historiann wrote a very thought-provoking post on this subject. She feels loyal to the historical profession, her colleagues and friends in academia, and her students, but she does not feel loyal to the university that employs her. She offers some very strong examples from her career as to why it is difficult to be loyal to such institutions. Here is a snippet:

Another reason I’m mistrustful of the rhetoric on “loyalty” is that it’s deployed selectively against some faculty more than others. As many of you have suggested in the comments,
women’s extramural job-seeking is understood (and sometimes retaliated against) as unseemly ambition, whereas white men are not only encouraged to pursue other jobs, some are even patronized or scolded for their complacency if they aren’t on the hustle. Given the hostility that women’s ambition is met with, I think Lance is correct that nonwhite faculty also face similar skepticism and anger for seeking out other employment opportunities. This is the presumption of institutions that still see themselves as bastions of (white and male) privilege: We took a chance on you, an outsider in our club! We employed you! How dare you respond by finding another job?

I had a little taste of this my very first year in a tenure track job in my former department. I won a fellowship from the Newberry Library in Chicago. When I marched down the hall to talk to my department Chair about what I assumed would be great news–someone else was buying me a leave term so that I could research my book!–I was lectured that “it was good that [I’d] be gone only one semester, because [I] need[ed] to establish [my]self here.” When I replied that I thought that winning a nationally competitive grantwas a good way to establish myself at that institution, he replied, “I mean with your teaching.” From that point on, the department that employed me pretended that I must be a bad teacher, because they couldn’t suggest that I wasn’t a good enough scholar. That’s the price I paid for taking that grant, a price that eventually got so high that I resigned. The Chair of the department (a different person from the Chair described above) then spread rumors that she knew someone in my new department and that that person had told her that they didn’t really want me. (Which is why they offered me the job? Wev. I was outta there.)

In short, I have never seen an institution operate as though it were loyal to me. Why should I owe it loyalty?

Historiann is not the only one writing about this issue. Over at Brainstorm, Stan Katz has weighed in on the question of institutional loyalty. Here is a taste:

In my academic experience it is pretty frequently the the case that one is asked who could be counted on to assist in some activity that will not produce any self-evident benefit for the volunteer. The question “whom could we ask” has become much more frequently asked over the half-century of my career. I suppose the obvious reason for this is that careerism of a narrow and nasty sort has become the norm among professionals in every area, from law to higher education. While the reward structure in academia has not really changed all that much in the past generation, a narrower understanding of the importance of research has come to dominate our reward and promotion structure. And as the definition of professional success has narrowed, unapologetic self-interest has limited the plausible range of professional desirable options for faculty activity. That is to say that, if you aspire to write a book or article every year, you don’t have time for much else.

This is, I suppose, simply to note what so many commentators have observed, that university faculty are more and more single-mindedly committed to their own professional welfare to the exclusion of just about everything else—including the welfare of the institutions that employ them. I am old enough to realize that there probably never was a golden age in which professors were good institutional citizens first and individual professionals second, but I do remember times in which, at least, community loyalty was not considered an unnatural act. Them days are, I realize, gone forever—and for a great many, very complicated reasons.

Nevertheless, the anomic condition of the contemporary academy bothers me, and I am sure it worries some of you. If so, you are “the usual suspects.” You are the people who agree to join the committees whose tasks seem tangential to the mainstream of professional activity within our universities. You are especially the volunteers for community-based activities. You are the people who serve local, regional, and national activities that are not professionally oriented. You are the people who make time for the members of our institutional communities who are in distress and need help, even if that help is only a shoulder to cry on. You are the people who speak truth to power. You are those who put being civil above being right….

I can’t imagine that Katz would disagree with Historiann’s horror stories about the institutions where she has worked and I am guessing that Historiann is willing to concede that the “anomic condition” of academia can at times be harmful to the education mission of a college or university. Great posts!

In the end, I find myself more attracted to Katz’s angle on this issue. If I learned anything in graduate school it is that ambition and self-interest are at the heart of academia. I have developed some good friendships in the academy and am loyal to my discipline, but I think I would be very lonely in my profession if I could not practice my trade at a place that had a mission that was worthy of my loyalty. I know the job market is tough and you need to take the jobs that are out there, but I would probably leave the academy before I took a job at a place that was not worthy of my loyalty. I know that within the culture of academia this idea sounds outrageous, but who says we all must conform to the cultural academia?

2 thoughts on “Is Institutional Loyalty an Unnatural Act?

  1. Thanks for bringing up the topic John. I wonder if your support for institutional loyalty is influenced by the fact that you're an evangelical Christian? Christians are told that their jobs are something more than a means to maximize personal benefit; they are instructed to view their vocations as ministries, opportunities to serve Christ by serving others.

    Ephesians 6:5-8 enjoins Christians to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.”

    I suspect that taking this concept to heart would transform employee-employer relationships.


  2. Nice post, John, and thanks for the link. Katz makes some good points and an interesting long duree perspective on the question of service and loyalty. I don't disagree with him–but my sense of both the institutional and professional rewards system is that it's irrational to be loyal to anything but our careers (or however we define our self-interest.)

    If institutions start treating me and the people I know better, then we might be willing to return that with some loyalty of our own. But, given the way things are, I'm not holding my breath. Accusing us of “disloyalty” sounds dangerously close to calling us “uppity” or “aggressive” or “ambitious,” as though those adjectives are bad things.


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