Paternalism As Oppression

When I read what Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald emailed his team recently, all I could think of was my father:

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind.”

It’s not that my father was particularly paternalistic–he was not–but that Fitzgerald is illustrating one of his four styles of leadership, but not one we should be proud to promote.The four are:

Totalitarian: I will stop hurting you if you do this for me.

Petty-Autocrat: I will hurt you if you don’t do this for me.

Paternalist: I have done so much for you that you owe it to me to do this for me.

Mutual-Means: I will do this for you if you do that for me.

America is supposed to be the land of mutual-means but contemporary attitudes are more aligned with Paternalism (Pat Fitzgerald) and Petty-Autocracy (Chris Christie).

Our institutions of higher education have become a combination of all of the styles of leadership except the one historical most associated with them, mutual-means, the very style that allowed our universities to become the very best in the world. The “shared governance” at the heart of AAUP beliefs is, of course, the clearest evocation of this style of leadership in higher education and it was, for generations, the basis for the style of governance found there. The very concept of tenure, in fact, came into being to prevent totalitarian and petty-autocratic leadership from arising. You cannot hurt and cannot threaten those so protected–at least, not as easily.

The paternalist is much, much harder to counter, for the style is, of course, deeply rooted in most of our individual family experiences. Mutual-means doesn’t work so well with a four-year-old or even a fourteen-year-old (certainly not all the time) and, unless we are ourselves emotionally out of whack, we shy away from treating our children in totalitarian and petty-autocratic fashions.

The problem with mutual-means is that it takes work, especially in learning to understand the needs of the “other.” A union is a means of empowering that “other,” of making mutual-means necessary by making real negotiation a part of decision-making processes. Northwestern, clearly, does not want to see its student-athletes achieve any sort of parity that would require negotiation so is fighting as hard as it can against the potential football-player union.

That, as we all know, is not what college should be about.


One thought on “Paternalism As Oppression

  1. Your point at the end really struck me. What we emphasize as essential attributes in our students–critical thinking and engagement (in all sorts of ways, from classroom participation to service learning to extracurricular activities)–is also at the core of shared governance. It is what makes our institutions function at their best. And so all of these other leadership styles and models that are being imposed on our institutions do represent an assault both the profession and on our institutions because they undermine the basis of our success–the model that is the basis for our students’ success.

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