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The limits of loyalty

This weekend, over dinner with friends, six of us lamented the plight of universities we’ve attended, defended, and loved. You might have been having a similar conversation, about soaring costs, declining civillity, pernicious scandals, and more. But serving a university, as employee or alum, has always been an honor. So even in private, we pull our punches. We dare not seem disloyal.

The dread of disloyalty dogs us so relentlessly it must be instinctive—a circuit on our motherboards for encoding social order. Otherwise, how do we explain the persistence of Cubs fans? Why else would half-starved serfs, armed with axes and pitchforks, toil for a gluttonous vassal? I’ve spent a career serving public universities, writing about research. Mostly, I’ve been loyal to that cause. You may decide otherwise, once you’ve read this.

Marching orders

In the mid 1990s, I sat in a darkened room with a jittery platoon of PR types, taking our marching orders from a new chancellor, Michael Hooker. His political consultant had been sampling public opinion across the state. Poll data lit up the screen. For questions related to trust and respect, UNC-Chapel Hill ranked at the top, above business, government, politicians, and the press. The data left no room for doubt: UNC was loved.

This was cheery news, but Chancellor Hooker warned us to keep the poll secret. Leaks would be punished, he said. Then he recited a list of themes his pollster had tested, and told us which to pump and which to quash. For example, he ordered us all to stop writing about research because several legislators had complained that our professors were wasting time in the lab when they should have been teaching. Scientists would keep doing their research, of course (supplying a third of our revenue), but we weren’t allowed to talk about it.

Soon after that meeting, Chancellor Hooker also announced that he was killing all university periodicals, including the research magazine I edited. Print was dead, he declared. Technology was the future.

A writer’s gut check

Before that time, I had never disobeyed a boss. The very idea repelled me. But when Michael Hooker issued his edicts, I began my insurgence. I’d arrived on campus just a few months earlier, hired away from N.C. State to edit UNC’s research magazine. Now the chancellor was trashing my job. And as I saw it, I could be loyal to him or the research mission I’d come there to serve. I chose the latter. I recruited some allies, on campus and off, and we quietly launched a campaign. The magazine survived. For the next fifteen years we wrote about research. No messaging, no marketing, no spin—just stories as true as we could make them.

Was I disloyal, back then? Maybe so. And maybe I’m doubly disloyal now, outing the man’s secrets when he’s no longer here to defend them. But blind loyalty marches us down a blind alley. And the hard choice of where to invest one’s loyalty is a writer’s solemn duty, a daily gut check.

What would Omar do?

For that gut check, let’s consult our exemplar, Omar Ibn Said. Would Omar defer to authority and stop writing his way to the truth? No, not even in jail.

Or, for an exemplar even closer to home: What would Bill Friday do?

In the mid 1960s, when William Friday was president of the UNC system, the state legislature passed a law to prevent communists and other outside agitators from speaking on campus. Friday publicly opposed the speaker-ban law and implored his bosses—legislators and trustees—to reverse it. No dice.

So Friday defied them. He worked covertly with student leaders, coaching them on how to set up grounds for a lawsuit by trapping the legislature into testing the ban. The trap worked. In 1968, judges in a federal district court ruled the speaker ban unconstitutional. The insurgents won. As did freedom of speech.

Wrong turn

Today, North Carolina legislators are once again launching torpedoes at the state’s flagship university, which they regard as a vessel for incubating godless liberals. So far, the public isn’t rushing to the rescue. Why not? How did our flagship manage to squander, in a mere twenty years, so much trust and allegiance?

The fictions of our culture have trained us to track down a villain. Michael Hooker was no villain. He was a product of his time—an early prototype of today’s corporate-style executive, the charismatic pitchman. He touted technology as a value, not a means to an end, so people called him visionary. He adopted a top-down, business-like model for management, with messaging and marketing. Visionary. He put us in the vanguard, among the elite universities taking the same wrong turn.

And it was a wrong turn. The runaway cost of building a brand with prime-time sports teams, high-tech classrooms, and posh digs is pricing higher education out of reach. It’s a bubble on its way to bursting. As the political scientist David Schultz puts it, “The corporate university is being undone by the very forces that created it.” (AAUP, Sept.-Oct. 2015)

A culture of spin

Once we pitched our tent in the marketplace, our claim to the high ground was gone. There’s nothing like hypocrisy to goad a good reporter, and there’s no better story than Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen. So each time a protest turns nasty, or some new scandal hits the news, the media go looking for villains to skewer. And the people who trusted and loved us before we went corporate don’t seem to care. We are just another business peddling products. We are just another brand.

So what can a writer do, against such powerful forces? Let’s resist, like Omar, in a thoughtful and literate way, the dominion of the marketplace. Let’s be loyal to our mission, not the politicians, pitchmen, and marketing fashions de jour. Let’s puncture the culture of spin. Kick it to the curb. Let’s spend the next twenty years reclaiming the trust of our readers and restoring the university’s good name. For that kind of loyalty, we won’t need axes and pitchforks. We could use an insurgence of words.

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