Chapter 6: Successfully Navigating the Mask Paradox: The Power of Institutional Authenticity

by Susan Thomas, Ph.D.

Posted on January 10, 2022

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As higher education emerges from the pandemic, there is much discussion about what must be done to successfully move forward. Given the challenging and continuously changing landscape in which we find ourselves, hypotheses abound about what should be done. But they are just that—hypotheses—and we can all point to hypotheses that end up not being supported by the evidence.

As higher education emerges from the pandemic, there is much discussion about what must be done to successfully move forward. Given the challenging and continuously changing landscape in which we find ourselves, hypotheses abound about what should be done. But they are just that—hypotheses—and we can all point to hypotheses that end up not being supported by the evidence. So, how does a higher education leadership team sort through the myriad of unsolicited email “opportunities” from consultants, professional organizations, and advocacy groups; daily advice, trends, and “best practices” articles in higher education publications; and perspectives from faculty, staff, students, alumni, legislators, community members, and a plethora of other constituency groups to determine the most effective path forward for their particular institution?

The answer to effectively sorting through all of the options and perspectives may lie in institutional authenticity. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, authenticity is being “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.”1 In practical terms, authentic institutions proactively align who they are with what they do. They use their identity as a foundation for their decision-making processes and as such, are less likely to fall prey to doing something exactly like another institution because it worked for them; doing something just because it has been labeled as a “best practice;” and/or trying many things at a time to see if any of them will work.

So how does an institution of higher education become authentic? While the seemingly obvious answer is that an institution follows its mission, following a mission is not necessarily adequate to establish authenticity. Nor is the ability to distinguish your mission from others or superficially or retroactively tie decisions and activities to the mission. Institutional authenticity emerges from ascertaining your institutional identity (which should emanate from your mission) and operationalizing your identity so that it directly impacts strategic and operational decisions.

Part of being authentic is minimizing masks. Masks can be used for a variety of reasons, including protection, concealment, or disguise. For many institutions of higher education, the biggest masks are found in trying to be all things to all people. In times of intense pressure (such as the current time!), it may be enormously tempting to don these masks. However, it is important to remember that while there may be times when masks are absolutely necessary for protection, by design, they are barriers. As we have all learned while wrangling with how and when to lift COVID-19 mask mandates, it can be very difficult to ascertain when a mask has stopped providing essential protection and has started becoming a barrier to achieving desired goals. But while it is a challenging decision wrought with anxiety and numerous ramifications, successfully navigating the COVID-19 mask paradox is essential. The same is true for successfully navigating the institutional mask paradox. While it takes significant institutional reflection, commitment, and a willingness to take on calculated risks to be an authentic institution, it also provides the opportunity to harness the true power and vitality of your institution.

The Benefits of Being Authentic
From self-expression, to relationships, to leadership, to organization culture, to branding and marketing, authenticity appears to be a major buzzword these days. Because of this, many have referred to this time as the Age of Authenticity. However, while the increased focus on authenticity may be recent, the Age of Authenticity is not a new concept; its roots date to the 1960s with the beginning of widespread expressive individualism.2 Being authentic is not a trend.

There is an abundance of information on the importance of being an authentic self and how to create authentic organizations that engage, empower, and support their members so they can be more authentic in their work, but there appears to be very little discussion about organizations as authentic entities who align who they are with what they do (a notable exception is an authentic organization blog). The information that does exist posits that authenticity enhances trust and permits an organization to achieve optimal distinctiveness.

The information that does exist posits that authenticity enhances trust and permits an organization to achieve optimal distinctiveness.  

Trust. Authenticity heightens stakeholders’ trust as “organizations that act authentically create a more accurate and more abundant expression of their unique values, capabilities, and purpose.”3 This trust is valuable for both achieving the goals of the institution and developing connections with external entities. The intra-institutional trust that arises from authenticity permits purposeful and focused decision making across all areas of the institution.

Returning to the opening example of sorting through the myriad of perspectives about what your institution should do to be on the most effective path forward, authenticity provides a guide. As presidents, we answer to a very large number of constituencies who feel very strongly about their perspectives and, many times, want very different outcomes. While it is highly unlikely that all constituencies will agree with a particular decision or outcome, authenticity can provide not only a basis, but also an explanation, for how options are evaluated and where scarce resources are placed.

The purposeful and focused decision making derived from authenticity also helps to minimize mission drift. Without intentionality, responses to complex and dynamic environments can be inconsistent and divergent, with the potential to weaken stakeholder commitment and negatively impact reputation. Authenticity, based upon institutional identity, can provide essential intentionality as an institution adapts to the demands of the environment.4 A dynamic institutional identity grounded in an institution’s mission can result in a contemporary re-operationalization of the mission rather than mission drift.

In addition to solidifying external support for an institution, the trust that is enhanced with external entities through authenticity can have a direct impact on recruitment. For example, research has shown that because of the trust it engenders, authenticity is a critical element in how Gen-Z evaluates products and services.5 Given this connection, admissions professionals advise institutions to be authentic and that the “attempt to be everything to everyone can be the greatest threat to this authenticity…schools are best served by staying true to their mission and the values of their community.”6

In addition to solidifying external support for an institution, the trust that is enhanced with external entities through authenticity can have a direct impact on recruitment.  

Optimal Distinctiveness. Being authentic provides the opportunity for optimal distinctiveness7 in which your institution is seen as legitimately similar to peer institutions but unique in what it offers. A clear identity allows you to emphasize how you are meaningfully different and why your institution should be chosen over another.8 As the competition for students and the public’s questioning of the value of higher education grow ever stronger, the ability to achieve optimal distinctiveness is essential in promoting the value of your approach to higher education.

The Authenticity Paradox
While there are certainly desirable benefits of institutional authenticity, it is important to note that just as there is a mask paradox, there is also an authenticity paradox. The paradox emerges from rigidly adhering to an immutable identity.9 Refusing to change because you are staying true to who you are can negate the positive benefits of being authentic. To reap the benefits of authenticity, an institutional identity must be a dynamic reflection and realization of the mission.

Institutional Authenticity in Action
Truman State University has embraced institutional authenticity for decades. Founded in 1867, Truman’s guiding principles have remained constant: a strong focus on student learning, a commitment to excellence across the institution, and an ethos of accountability and service to our students and the citizens of Missouri. However, in 1985, these guiding principles became realized in a very different way. By state statute, Truman’s mission moved from an open enrollment, regional, multipurpose university to Missouri’s only statewide public liberal arts and sciences institution. By the end of 1986, the University had adopted a mission statement that remains to this day:

The mission of Truman State University is to offer an exemplary undergraduate education to well-prepared students, grounded in the liberal arts and science, in the context of a public institution of higher education. To that end, the University offers affordable undergraduate studies in the traditional arts and sciences as well as selected pre-professional, professional, and master’s level programs that grow naturally out of the philosophy, values, content, and desired outcomes of a liberal arts education.

With this change in mission, Truman began our journey as an authentic institution. While we have had the same mission since 1986, our identity has continued to evolve to meet the challenges of the times.

At the beginning of the mission change, the focus for Northeast Missouri State University (our name did not change to Truman State University until 1996) was on operationalizing what it meant to be a public liberal arts and sciences university as the bill to change our mission stated only that the university “... is hereby designated and shall hereafter be operated as a statewide institution of liberal arts and sciences.”10 The initial identity adopted by the University resulted in a restructuring with the elimination of more than 100 degree programs and the creation of a strong focus on core liberal arts and sciences programs, affordability, and continuous improvement.

With the restructuring essentially completed, Truman’s identity evolved throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s to include an emphasis on academic rigor and intellectual challenge in support of our status as a state-defined highly selective institution serving almost exclusively full-time, traditional-aged, residential students. It also included “a distinctive, conscious, and pervasive public liberal arts and sciences culture, which not only integrates the contributions of the curricular and co-curricular domains but also incorporates various other liberal arts qualities and dimensions.”11

Aligning our actions to this identity resulted in a number of very positive benefits for the University, not the least of which was state mission enhancement funding and a large number of national recognitions, including obtaining the No. 1 ranking in U.S. News & World Report for our category (as of this writing, we have achieved this ranking for 24 consecutive years and counting!). Perhaps it was inevitable that the success of our institutional authenticity has also led to us experiencing the authenticity paradox.

Until recently, Truman’s authenticity remained entrenched in the identity developed in the late 1990s to early 2000s, even though the educational landscape had been changing significantly. For many, there was no reason to examine our identity, as we had been experiencing significant success with it and we were very committed to it. Even when evidence began to emerge that an identity examination would be advisable (e.g., declining enrollments), many still believed that doubling down on the existing identity was the answer.

Although there were major and unrelenting challenges associated with the pandemic, an upside of these challenges is that they clearly revealed the need for us to evolve our identity once again to ensure we can overcome current and future obstacles. We are currently deep into that determination and, given our history, we are confident that the authentic expression of our evolved identity will ensure we meet our strategic goals and thrive into the future.

While not a quick fix, and certainly not without intentional and deep institutional self-reflection, institutional authenticity provides a way for any higher education institution to be imaginative, entrepreneurial, and impactful in genuine ways that meaningfully and successfully move the institution forward.

2 Charles Tayor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007), https://doi:10.2307/j.ctvxrpz54.

3 C. V. Harquail, “Why Should Organizations be Authentic? The Competing Logics of Trust & Uniqueness,” Authentic Organizations. June 1, 2011, http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2011/06/01/why-should-organizations-be-authentic-the-competing-logics-of-trust-uniqueness/#sthash.uKV7LeG5.DYVwE3k6.dpbs.

4 Matthew G. Grimes, Trenton Alma Williams, and Eric Yanfei Zhao, “Anchors Aweigh: The Sources, Variety, and Challenges of Mission Drift,” Academy of Management Review, 44, No. 4, 819–845, https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2017.0254.

5 Paul Talbot, “Best Practices for Marketing to Gen-Z,” Forbes. March 23,2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultalbot/2021/03/23/best-practices-for-marketing-to-gen-z/?sh=22e1dca84319

6 Brennan Barnard, “Authentic College Admission,” Forbes. July 14, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brennanbarnard/2020/07/14/authentic-college-admission/?sh=7052415f3200

7 C. V. Harquail, “Beyond Positioning: Establishing Authentic Optimal Distinctiveness,” Authentic Organizations. February 23, 2011, http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2011/02/23/beyond-positioning-establishing-authentic-optimal-distinctiveness/#sthash.5DJtGjKW.dpbs.

8 C. V. Harquail, “Is Authenticity the Key to Being “Meaningfully Different”?,” Authentic Organizations. May 20, 2010, http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2010/05/20/is-authenticity-the-key-to-being-meaningfully-different/#sthash.X7bHhvTI.SnHa7IFQ.dpbs.

9 Herminia Ibarra, “The Authenticity Paradox,” Harvard Business Review. January–February 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox.

10 Missouri HB 196 (1985).

11 Truman State University, “Affirming the Promise: An Agenda for Excellence in the 21st Century. University Master Plan 1997-2007.”