Last week, a scandal sprouted on Canada’s east coast after it was discovered that part of Frosh Week activities at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax included the chanting of a song promoting the sexual assault of underage girls. The news broke shortly after a video of the chant was posted online. Condemnation was broad and swift. Some were angry at the students, lamenting the sad state of “youth today” and the perpetuation of the notion that it is OK to glorify rape. Others were angry at university administrators.
As it happens, I taught for about a decade in SMU’s Philosophy Department; I still have friends who teach there. I know some of the administrators involved in this case, and have more than a little affection for the place, generally.
But my interest in this case has to do with the ethics of leadership, and I think the events described above provide for a good case-study of such. That’s not to say that it is an example of either excellent or terrible leadership. But rather, that it’s a case that illustrates the challenges of leadership, and an opportunity to reflect on the ethical demands that fall on leaders in particular, as a result of the special role they play.
Two key leaders were tasked with handling the SMU situation. One was Jared Perry, president of the Saint Mary’s University Student Association. Perry has now resigned. Reflecting on his error, Perry said, “It’s definitely the biggest mistake I’ve made throughout my university career and throughout my life.” The other leader is SMU president Colin Dodds. For his part, Dodds has condemned the chant and the chanters, and has launched an internal investigation and a task force.
A leader facing a crisis like this needs to balance multiple objectives.
On one hand, a leader needs to safeguard his or her organization’s integrity and reputation. Of course, just how to do that can be a vexing question. Is it by effecting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, or by a more balanced approach? Do you focus on enforcement or education?
A leader also needs to deal appropriately with the individuals involved. In this case, that means offering not just critique (or more neutrally, “feedback”) to the students involved, but also offering compassion and advice in the wake of what everyone agrees is a regrettable set of circumstances. In particular, a situation like this involves a “lead the leaders” dynamic. It is an opportunity for university leaders to teach something specifically about leadership to the student leaders involved. It is also, naturally, yet another opportunity for university leaders to learn something about leadership themselves; unfortunately, that lesson must take the form of learning-by-painfully-doing.
Finally, a leader needs to be responsive to reasonable social expectations. In this case, those expectations are complex. On one hand, society wants institutions entrusted with educating the young to provide a suitably safe setting, and arguably one that fosters the right kinds of enculturation. On the other hand, society wants—or should want—universities to be places where freedom of speech is maximized and where problems are addressed through intellectual discourse. Indeed, my friend Mark Mercer (in SMU’s philosophy department) has argued that what the university ought to demonstrate, in such a situation, is its commitment to intellectual inquiry and to the idea that when someone uses words we disagree with, we should respond not with punishment but with open discussion and criticism.
Balancing those competing objectives is a complex leadership challenge and there’s no algorithm to help get it right. But one useful way to frame the leadership challenge here is to consider the sense in which, in deciding how to tackle such a challenge, a leader is not just deciding what to do. He or she is also deciding what kind of leader to be, and what kind of institution he or she will lead. Each such choice, after all, makes an incremental difference in who you are. It is at moments like this that leaders build institutions, just as surely as if they were laying the bricks themselves.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.