Why Are Colleges So Cowardly?

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Jennifer Freyd sued the University of Oregon in 2017, alleging that she had been paid less than her male colleagues in the psychology department. Last week the two parties announced an agreement under which Oregon will pay the now-retired psychology professor $350,000 in damages, thereby avoiding a jury trial. In addition, the university will donate $100,000 to the Center for Institutional Courage, an organization Freyd founded last year that’s dedicated to “rigorous scientific research, wide-reaching education, and data-driven action.”

As Freyd sees it, institutions tend to be frightened by internal criticism and resistant to change.

That sounds impressive enough, but what exactly — you might ask — is institutional courage? Freyd gets that question a lot. In fact, when she was naming the center, a colleague suggested ditching “courage” in favor of “integrity,” but that didn’t fully capture her idea. As Freyd sees it, institutions, whether they’re colleges or law firms or film studios, tend to be frightened by internal criticism and resistant to change. They’re often cowardly, in other words. “Somehow these systems, without individuals necessarily realizing it, develop these ways to preserve the status quo,” she says. “And I know this has something to do with power because, when you’re trying to change the system, you’re asking for some shift in power.”

In order to understand her idea of institutional courage, you have to understand the flip side: institutional betrayal. Freyd started studying betrayal trauma in the 1990s and defines it as “abuse by someone on whom the victim is dependent.” That can be either a personal betrayal, like a parent abusing a child, or an institutional betrayal, like a college failing to protect an employee who’s been sexually harassed. Part of Freyd’s notion is that people form attachments to institutions and so, when those institutions let them down, it creates a kind of secondary trauma. In her research, Freyd has found, for instance, that students who have been sexually assaulted experienced greater distress when they felt that colleges dealt with their cases dismissively.

I first wrote about Freyd back in 2014. She was then involved in a dispute over the funding for a survey of 1,000 Oregon undergraduates that sought to determine how many of them had been sexually harassed or assaulted while at the university. According to Freyd, the university’s offer to pay for the survey vanished once it became clear that the results would indicate there was a serious problem on campus. “I thought we had a deal and I would do this big study,” she said at the time. Meanwhile, an administrator accused her of having “a priori assumptions about outcomes,” perhaps because she had criticized the handling of rape accusations made against three Oregon basketball players.

What happened at Oregon could be seen as an instance of institutional betrayal. Rather than attempting to come to grips with the scope of the problem, it seemed as if administrators were more interested in playing down concerns and raising questions about Freyd’s motivations. “I really thought they’d be like, ‘Yeah, let’s fix it,’” she says now. “I can be very Pollyanna.”

What causes institutions to respond defensively, or even aggressively, to those drawing attention to unpleasant realities is what Freyd wants to better understand. She also wants to continue to explore the effects on those who feel ignored or dismissed. “When institutions behave with cowardice, or even something more nefarious than that, the experience for the person betrayed can be very much like when you’re betrayed by a close other,” she says. “You have to look at it on multiple levels, on a systemic level but also on an individual level so you can make sense of it all.”

With her research center, she hopes to move beyond identifying harm to offering a game-plan for how institutions should respond. Freyd spelled out steps for moving toward institutional courage in a 2018 article. On the face of it, her suggestions seem fairly obvious, like complying with laws and responding sensitively to victims. She also wants institutions to be transparent and engage in self-study. One of the points she emphasizes repeatedly is the need to, as she puts it, “cherish the whistleblower.” Too often, she says, the person who has raised a concern is viewed as a threat.

Freyd regularly hears from whistleblowers who have become pariahs on their campuses. She’s dealt with some of that herself at Oregon. After she found evidence of gender inequity when it comes to salaries in her department, she hoped — and even expected — that it would be remedied without much of a fight. “What if they had just said, ‘Oh, that’s a problem, and maybe we can’t fix it all in this moment, but we can start the process’?” she asks. “Why didn’t they do that? It would have saved probably a million dollars, but also so much stress and unhappiness.” Instead the response at many institutions is to “shoot the messenger and go bananas.”

She’d like institutions to start by thanking whistleblowers because, she says, “they’re often the most loyal people.” She also suggests creating incentives, including financial ones, for employees to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. As she wrote in her 2013 book, Blind to Betrayal (Wiley): “The duty of an institution is much like that of a good friend or another supportive person: listen well.”

Freyd’s own, well-known story of childhood trauma has long been intertwined with her research, though it’s a topic she doesn’t often delve into publicly. In January, a lengthy and remarkable story appeared in New York magazine digging into her allegations of sexual abuse against her father, memories that had resurfaced when she was an adult (her father has denied the allegations). Her parents founded the now-defunct False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and the validity of recovered memories became a cultural and academic debate, one that played out in numerous articles and documentaries.

But Freyd has always wanted to focus on her ideas rather than her family travails, and her recent research steers clear of the recovered-memory controversy. She first floated an idea for a center on institutional courage at Oregon several years ago, but it didn’t get much traction. For a while she considered pitching it to other universities, but in the end she decided that studying how large institutions behave while working for a large institution presented unavoidable challenges. “I knew it was going to be tricky to be tied with an institution when you don’t have any control over what that institution might do that could create conflicts of interest,” she says. “What if you’re at Stanford or Harvard or Berkeley and they do something atrocious, which these schools have been known to do. Then how do we handle it?”

And so she decided to strike out on her own and start an independent nonprofit. While the center’s still getting off the ground, there is some research in the pipeline that Freyd is excited about. “We’ve got some very promising findings that institutional courage is associated with good outcomes not just for the employee, but also for the employer,” she says. “People are very eager to forgive and to love their institutions, and I don’t think it actually takes all that much courage to turn things around.”