In the summer of 2018, a group of MSU Deans came together to write an essay that was published in Inside Higher Education under the title: “Can Michigan State Recover and Chart a New Path for Higher Education?” In the essay, we wrote:
Academe is called to cultivate institutional habits of truth telling and truth hearing, critical self-reflection, and accountability. We must consciously and intentionally empower those habits on our campuses to meet that calling.
It is one thing to call for the change we need, quite another to create institutional habits capable of putting the needed change into practice.
In her essay, “Care ethics and ‘caring’ organizations,” Nel Noddings doubts the capacity of organizations to care for members of their communities in the way required by an ethics of care. Care ethics is relational, reciprocal, and attentive to individuals in ways large organizations like universities cannot be. She summarizes her point this way:
The brief answer to the question whether large organizations can care is that, in their policies and public statements, they can express their concern; they can care-about. To translate that form of caring into genuine caring-for, they must provide the conditions under which on-site workers can engage in caring-for.[note]Noddings, Nel. “Care Ethics and ‘caring’ Organizations.” In Care Ethics and Political Theory, edited by Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington, First edition., 72–84. Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 78.[/note]
Her position is based on a distinction between caring-about and caring-for. We can care-about many things and a multitude of people, but caring-for requires the capacity to respond to the needs of an individual in the complex context in which the person is encountered. This requires a level of attentiveness that is very difficult for organizations to achieve.
In her essay, “Care and Justice, Still,” Virginia Held outlines the contours of the attention an ethics of care requires when she writes:
From the perspective of care, in contrast [to the perspective of justice], one attends with sensitivity to particular others in actual historical circumstances, one seeks a satisfactory relation between oneself and these others, one cultivates trust, one responds to needs, aiming at and bringing about as best one can the well-being of the others along with that of oneself.[note]Held, Virginia. “Care and Justice, Still.” In Care Ethics and Political Theory, edited by Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington, First edition., 19–36. Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 21.[/note]
These passages from Noddings and Held suggest that organizations must create the conditions under which members of their communities can care-for one another.
More recently, we have established the College of Arts & Letters Culture of Care Task Force (CCTF) to further advance our efforts to create the conditions under which we can more effectively care-for one another. The group includes students, faculty, and staff members and their charge is to investigate and make recommendations about:
- alternative ways of intervening in harmful behaviors;
- methods of building trust and care within units and across ranks, roles, and responsibilities.
It was heartening to have more than 40 members of our community volunteer to serve on the CCTF.
Recognizing that building the trust required to prevent harmful behavior and create a culture of care will take intentional practice over a period of years, the CCTF has been asked to initiate a process and set an agenda for the months and years to come by engaging units and leaders across the College to gather information and identify practices that will facilitate the work ahead.
Still, if Noddings is right that organizations can only practice an ethics of care if they are able to create the conditions under which individuals care-for one another, then the work of this CCTF is only one aspect of the difficult work ahead. The CCTF will help us create the conditions under which an ethics of care might be practiced.
The critical task remains for each of us to make an intentional commitment to listen, to reflect on our actions and the impact they have on others, and to infuse our encounters with one another with generosity, humility, and gratitude. The consistent, intentional practice of caring-for one another in our daily interactions is the only way a culture of care will take root and grow.