Commitment by default

The University of Missouri is set to announce soon that an administrator from the University of Connecticut will be named president of the University of Missouri system. The University of Missouri sought to hire a new system president with Tim Wolfe resigned as system president in late 2015. His resignation followed protests by students, faculty and alumni over his handling—or lack of handling—of events that underscore a problem of racial tensions on campus. As a faculty member at the University of Missouri, I hope the hiring of a new system president will commence a healing that is sorely needed within our community. I also hope that if he is indeed capable, the new system president will stick around for a while.

Whenever a president or leader of an organization is forced to resign, I often wonder why it came to that. Was the leader really that bad or incompetent? Why couldn’t the leader and other affected parties work things out? More generally, why is it, following a crisis within an organization, that there is an immediate call for resignation, effort to impeach, or organized effort to see that “heads roll” (figuratively speaking)? Why isn’t there first a concerted effort to work through difficulties and differences? It is as if the default reaction is “get rid of the leader” rather than “let’s see if we can work this out.”

I think there is a lesson here if we think about something analogous in marriage. When things go wrong in a marriage, the default reaction seems to be for the couple to split rather than to overcome and problem-solve. The principle of no fault divorce that is so common in society has now become divorce by default. In contrast, why isn’t commitment the default?

My wife and I have been married for more than 28 years. It has not always been easy. We have said things we should not have said and haven’t said things we should have said. We’ve taken each other for granted, been inconsiderate and otherwise acted like humans unfortunately often do. But one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are committed to each other. For us, commitment is the default, not divorce. I know my wife will not bail on me when things get difficult, and she knows the same about me. When we married, we made a commitment to each other that we accepted as binding. My religion’s theology also tells me that our marriage will be binding forever–that is, in this life and in the next. Now that is a long-term commitment!

Because my wife and I are committed and because each of us knows the other is committed, we have learned to work things out and our marriage is better because of it. I can only imagine what my life would be like for me today if divorce were our default. I suspect I would be trying to figure out how to help my children manage a two household situation.

When commitment is the default, parties in a relationship—whether in marriage or within an organization—have a long-term perspective. They see the potential the partnership can become and thus are willing to work to make that vision happen. This requires a willingness to compromise as well as an ability to see things through another’s eyes. It requires mutual respect. It fosters not only an accurate recognition of our faults and the weaknesses of others but also a realization that people can and do change. Commitment by default does not mean that separation should never happen. Rather, it means giving the relationship and those within it a benefit of the doubt. Divorce or separation is a last resort and only when there is a strong and compelling reason that healing and improvement will not be possible or if a continuation of the relationship will be physically or emotionally harmful.

When divorce rather than commitment is the default, parties in a relationship tend to be short-sighted and selfish. They see things primarily through their own limited understanding and fail to appreciate the perspective, values and interests of others. They see the motes in the eyes of others without recognizing the beams in their own. They want others to change but they don’t want to change themselves. A call for separation does not produce solutions to difficult problems. It just forces them on to the next partners or leaders. Divorce by default does not mean that long-lasting relationships are not possible. Rather, it means parties will work things out only when they have good reason to, but determining what these reasons are is often difficult to assess, especially when emotions are strong and tempers flare.

I believe that commitment by default leads to stronger marriages and families than divorce by default. And strong families are essential for the well-being of society. I also believe that commitment by default will lead to stronger and more effective organizations. When leaders, followers and stakeholders are committed to each other, and when this knowledge is common and accepted by everyone within the organization, they will work to heal, solve and build. They will create solutions to problems rather than evade them.

We have problems at the University of Missouri. Thus, we need a leader who is committed to change and supportive of the university community. But we also need faculty, staff and students who are committed to their new president and slow to call for a resignation when times are difficult. Commitment by default is the best strategy for genuine improvement on our campus and in society at large.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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