Do you remember when your mom used to tell you, “stay out of the cookie jar, it’ll ruin your dinner”? However, the mere mention of cookies, or the idea that we couldn’t have something within our reach, would start the scheming process. We increase the television volume in hopes of creating sufficient background noise to cover the part of the floor that always creaks as we walk across. We slowly creep along the kitchen floor, opening the bottom cabinet to use the shelves as a makeshift ladder boosting us up onto the counter. We slide the forbidden cookie jar closer and lift the lid. We quickly jam our hand inside the jar grabbing exactly two cookies because taking any more would raise suspicions, but as we all know, one cookie is never enough. We gently replace the cookie jar lid. Slowly slide the jar back into position. Expertly place one foot after the other on the cabinet shelves until we reach stable ground. We close the cabinet door and tip toe back into the living room. We place one cookie in the Tonka dump truck for safe-keeping and cram the other in our mouth. We finish watching Cookie Monster on Sesame Street wondering how we were lucky enough to find a mentor who we could look up to and share life’s greatest pleasures, cookies.
It’s a game of luck. We evaluate risk over reward. We keep our fingers-crossed hoping that no one counts the remaining cookies or that no one sees us sneaking around corners. We know the consequences. However, in taking the cookies, we are accepting these consequences in anticipation that our momentary satisfaction outweighs any inevitable punishment. We rely on luck, but as with all good things, luck eventually runs out and we are left with the reality of our choices. It’s hard to hide the cookie crumbs scattered across our shirt or the melted chocolate smear across the remote control. Sure, we’re apologetic, but we tend to be sorry about being caught over the fact that we took the cookies in the first place. Immediately, our minds start replaying the great cookie caper to analyze what we did wrong and how we can avoid the same mistake in the future. The last thing we tend to think about is whether we should have done the right thing, the first time, and avoided the whole mess. It’s likely that we failed to learn the most important lesson, doing right the first time.
We think this is only a lesson for kids. The problem with this thinking is that kids eventually grow up into adults and the lessons learned later can have far greater consequences. We have seen the results of the failure to learn this valuable lesson through companies and individuals like Enron, BP, Bernie Madoff, Wall Street, and yes, even within higher education. Each of these companies, individuals, and sectors of society learned the importance of doing right the hard way, by getting caught. For each one of these examples, we read the stories and try to understand how this type of behavior was allowed to continue or be accepted within day-to-day practices. The answer is they relied more on luck than building public trust.
Every institution begins with a narrowly defined purpose. Under proper leadership, the institution grows. Somewhere along the way, a decision is made based on a measure of risk versus reward. They evaluate bending the rules to justify benefitting everyone. The problem with this approach is that “you can’t please everyone.” That is why mission statements are so important. Early on, they provide purpose and direction. They guide growth and development and keep us from scheming for the momentary pleasure of getting what is just out of reach.
Too often, institutions are caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. In response to challenges, we tend to place blame on federal restrictions, changing student populations, or increased regulatory scrutiny, but the real problem is that somewhere along the way, they forgot to just do the right thing. In an effort to get around a problem, we take questionable short cuts, ignore cautionary tales, and establish unsustainable pathways. We’re often shocked when we are held accountable or when our institution’s name is published in the news. In the end, students are the ones who pay the price for our unwillingness to take the road less traveled and do what’s right the first time.
Students who enroll in our institutions are people, not numbers. They have families, careers, and responsibilities. They invest their precious resources in our institutions because they trust that we will do the right thing. They expect to receive a quality education by qualified faculty from an institution that offers the necessary academic support which allows them to achieve their goals. They need understanding, encouragement, and the opportunity to reach their full potential. When we do the right thing, for the right reasons, the right way, we build trust. Trust works both ways. Students invest in institutions, but in return institutions also need to invest in students. To earn this trust, institutions must behave in a way that earns the respect of the community and the public they serve.
Many students have graduated, earned degrees, and changed their lives; however, there are many more students who are trying to realize these same dreams. They are struggling to attend classes, drowning in debt, and attempting to navigate the challenges of life. Institutions have a responsibility to find the right solutions to these problems that offer pathways to success instead of following the latest trends that maximize on short-term results at the expense of students. Institutions need to rely less on luck and focus more on building a foundation of trust that demonstrates an example of what can happen when one institution does the right thing for each student every day. Higher education can change the world by accepting responsibility and investing in students entrusted to our care.
“We can change the world for the better, one person at a time.” ~ Bob Chapman