There is a phrase that says, “trust is like a piece of paper, once it’s crumpled, it can’t be perfect.” We have heard a lot of discussion about trust, most recently associated with the current election. However, trust is a part of our daily lives. Everyone trusts something or someone. I happen to disagree with the phrase above because the phrase implies that the trusting relationship was perfect from the beginning. To have perfection, the individuals in the relationship must also be perfect and to have trust, it must be earned.
Trust is important to any relationship whether it is with a stranger in passing or more long term with a significant other. But we forget something very important when we feel that trust has been broken and that is we are trusting fallible human beings. We forget that no one is perfect. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. Yes, trust is earned, but trust is also a choice. Do we value the relationship enough to try and understand the shortcomings or do we write the relationship off vowing to never trust again?
It is easier for us to write off the relationship because we were wronged. We were hurt. We placed ourselves in a vulnerable position and feel taken for granted. However, if we all reacted this way, we would be living individual lives all alone, but that is not the case. We live and interact together in communities in a connected world. To make progress, we need to rely on the talents and strengths of others. This is also true for higher education.
Whether we identify it or not, higher education is facing a trust issue. Institutions are responsible for earning students, accreditors, employers, patients, and graduate schools’ trust that the programs and services delivered will produce the intended outcomes. Students are investing time, energy, and financial resources and questioning the value of their investment. The trust issue is not just a one-way street. Institutions must trust students to do their part as well. As much as students rely on institutions to deliver relevant, quality education; institutions rely on students to apply themselves and commit to achieving their academic goals. But for the relationship to work, someone must take the first step and that is why it is higher education who has the trust issue.
In today’s precarious environment, institutions need to be proactive in monitoring student achievement and program effectiveness. Institutions must live their mission. This is not to say that institutions must be perfect. That is impossible. But when an institution is faced with lower than anticipated graduation rates, it is important to address the issue head on. We may tend to think that these results communicate failure, but really, they communicate transparency and demonstrate willingness to improve for the benefit of its students. Trust is not earned or maintained through perfection. Trust is earned and maintained by demonstrating commitment and caring. Earning trust takes work.
Everyone makes mistakes. We build trust by owning up to the mistake and trying to make it right. We all know education is important to the future of society and its citizens. As institutions, we need to work at earning a trusting relationship with students. We need to let them know that we care about their needs, the challenges they face, and the dreams they want to realize. We need to take the road less traveled by most and focus on putting students first.
“Trust is built when someone is vulnerable
and not taken advantage of.”
~ Bob Vanourek
What does your institution do to earn trust among the students you serve?