Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Are some companies starting to understand the costs of bullying bosses?

In a piece for Bloomberg, Matthew Townsend and Esme E. Deprez dig beneath media reports of sexual harassment and sex discrimination at Nike to find the presence of bullying behaviors:

After Nike Inc. ousted a handful of male executives for behavior issues over the past few months, some media reports tied the departures to the #MeToo movement and its revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Interviews with more than a dozen former Nike employees, including senior executives, however, paint a picture of a workplace contaminated by a different behavior: corporate bullying. The workers say the sneaker giant could be a bruising place for both men and women, and that females did bullying, too.

I was interviewed for the piece and suggested that maybe some companies are starting to get it:

“Some companies are realizing that a bullying boss isn’t the best way to manage a company,” says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who’s authored antibullying legislation. “Maybe we’re starting to see a tipping point.”

Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute “says one reason some companies have long tolerated or even encouraged such behavior is that many American managers believe the workplace is by nature rough around the edges.” This assumption pits worker against worker in a “‘zero-sum, competitive work environment where people feel they need to obliterate their competitors.'”

Workplace bullying and sexual harassment

The emergence of the #MeToo movement has drawn long overdue attention to sexual harassment and assault. I pointed out the ongoing links between sexual harassment and workplace bullying:

When executives feel entitled or untouchable, that often leads to bullying and then to other inappropriate behavior, Yamada says. In many of the workplace environments that resulted in some of the high-profile #MeToo moments, such as that at Weinstein Co., an “undercurrent” of bullying created a belief that mistreatment would go unpunished, he says. “It’s that bullying atmosphere that helps to enable and empower sexual harassment.”

These connections have been made repeatedly during the nascent history of the #MeToo movement. In an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, media professor David Lieberman stated that if we want to end sexual harassment, then we need to end workplace bullying:

But legislators can do more to address the problem. They can make workplace bullying illegal. Too many corporate leaders find it expedient to look the other way when bosses — especially ones they deem indispensable — systematically intimidate and humiliate underlings. Bullies who believe that their whims matter more than other people’s dignity often don’t see why their sexual impulses shouldn’t be just as indulged.

Here in Boston, noted public radio personality Tom Ashbrook was terminated from his job after initial complaints about sexual harassment led to a deeper inquiry about bullying behaviors. In a February post, I wrote:

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station.

. . . In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct.

Absence of legal protections

The Bloomberg article devotes considerable attention to the absence of legal protections for bullied workers, and, correspondingly, the lack of legal incentives for employers to address these behaviors:

One reason few companies have specific antibullying policies is that there aren’t federal or state laws in the U.S. outlawing the behavior, which makes America a laggard when compared with Western Europe, Canada, and Australia.

A lack of legal protections greatly reduces the possibility of liability for employers. It’s difficult to bring a lawsuit based on bullying, and businesses have worked to keep it that way. . . . If there were antibullying laws, companies would be liable and do more to deter the practice, according to Namie. “It’s the only form of abuse that hasn’t been addressed by law,” he says.

Nevertheless, as Townsend and Deprez point out, Nike is among the companies that have an anti-harassment policy covering bullying behaviors. It’s a stark reminder that policies alone are not enough. Without legal protections and organizational commitments to workplaces that embrace worker dignity as a core value and practice, bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work will continue to flourish.

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

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Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

The awful necessity of the “business case” against workplace harassment and abuse

The ongoing and very public torrent of stories and accusations of sexual harassment and abuse directed at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has prompted an endless stream of commentaries about sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, the Economist magazine weighed in on the bottom-line business impacts of unchecked sexual harassment:

The victims often suffer depression, anger and humiliation. Firms where harassment happens are eventually harmed, too. Mr Weinstein’s studio may be sued…. The company could even be destroyed by the scandal. Even if one leaves aside all moral arguments—which one should not—failing to deal with harassment is usually bad for business. Firms that tolerate it will lose female talent to rivals that do not, and the market will punish them. The costs of decency are trivial; the rewards to shareholders are large.

This is yet another version of the so-called “business case” against work abuse, in this instance sexual harassment. For those of us who have been addressing workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors, this rap sounds familiar. We are continually urged to make the business case against psychological abuse at work, including articulating its cost impacts and, whenever possible, assigning estimated monetary figures.

I understand that whenever abusive behaviors are prevalent in the workplace, it makes sense to point out the costs to the organization. However, I do so with an underlying slow burn. It means that it’s not enough to show that bullying, mobbing, and harassment can wreak havoc on an individual’s health, livelihood, and overall well being. It means that all too many CEOs, senior executives, and managers won’t take work abuse seriously until they understand the monetary costs to their organizations. 

I’m a pragmatist. If it takes the “business case” against work abuse to get organizational leaders to care, I say let’s make it. But this sure doesn’t say much about the morals, ethics, and empathy of the executives who look the other way unless it hits them in their wallets and profit-and-loss statements. Human suffering alone is not enough for them; money, not decency, is what motivates them to act.

Infusing good core values into a new organization

With a beta version of the TJ Society’s forthcoming website, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, in July

Readers of recent entries are likely aware that I’ve been hip deep in helping to create a new, non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ Society”). From the most recent draft of our by-laws, here is what the group is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; engaging in continuing professional education and public education activities; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

As I wrote earlier this month, I’m part of an all-volunteer board that is forming this organization, and I’m serving as its first chairperson. It’s a lot of work, but the broader purpose and the fellowship of a truly exceptional group of colleagues make it all worth it.

This also is an opportunity to put into practice many of the values that I have been advocating for via this blog. It means practicing inclusive, servant leadership dedicated to a cause greater than individual ambitions. It means treating others with respect and dignity. It means actually exhibiting transparency rather than simply touting it. It means avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. Above all, it means building a welcoming and difference making community. Fortunately, our board consists of individuals who walk this talk as a natural way of going about things. This is good: An organization devoted to psychologically healthy laws and legal systems should strive to operate in a psychologically healthy manner.

The TJ Society is a global organization, with a board and advisory council comprised of folks from around the world. This creates obvious communications challenges. It can mean maddening pile-ups of e-mails (many inflicted by yours truly) in attempting to work through topics that require group input, and very understandably patiences can grow weary among a group of very busy people. Additionally, available online meeting technologies such as Skype and Google hangout can’t change the scheduling realities of holding a board meeting with participants’ time zone differences ranging from six to fourteen hours! As I said, we’re fortunate to have such wonderful board members who can roll with the digital waves.

In terms of shaping my contributions to this fledgling learned society, I am fortunate to have other organizations and initiatives as role models. Over the years I have learned so much from the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, especially the leadership of co-leaders Evelin Lindner and Linda Hartling. I’ve also been inspired by the inclusive culture of the biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I’m further grateful for the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, which, among many other good things, allows therapeutic jurisprudence scholars and practitioners to gather and learn from each other. I hope that the TJ Society will draw from the best characteristics exhibited by these entities.

It’s too early to say whether the TJ Society will build into its culture the values that make for healthy, inclusive organizations, but I’m betting that it will happen. Embracing and practicing these values at the beginning is an important start. Yup, as we grow we’ll make some mistakes, juggle differences of opinion, and probably deal with conflicts here and there. But if the foundation is strong, we’ll do things in the right way much more often than not.

Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

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