Power in organizations is manifested in many ways. One of the most important ways is through its organizational rhetoric and structure. In this post I want to explore the ramifications for organizational narrative as a power structure within Cedarville University, specifically how Cedarville determines who can teach the Bible on the basis of gender (maleness), fundamentalism (conservativeness), and obedience to the institution rather than on the ability to teach. I will first examine the paramilitary organizational structure Cedarville adopted several years ago, and how it directly affected organizational communication through hierarchy and control. Next, I want to explore how the Christian narrative is used as an organizational mode of rationality, maintained by administrators through a variety of methods of ambiguity and silencing dissent.
When I first arrived at Cedarville, it was a relatively normal destination for Christian students from a broad set of backgrounds and perspectives. I remember taking my first class at Cedarville with a professor who had us read Karl Barth, who is a heterodox Christian writer, and quite controversial in the Baptist community. For us as students, at least, Cedarville seemed like an open minded place, which welcomed a variety of perspectives and debates. By my sophomore year, Cedarville began to change. A functional ideological coup occurred in 2013, lead by the former disgraced trustee of Cedarville Paige Patterson, who has recently come under fire to a variety of gender based violence in his teachings and counseling. President Brown was replaced with President White, dozens of professors were removed, and a new order was established. Importantly, during this transition the Academic Vice President left for ambiguous reasons, and Cedarville hired General Reno, 3 star general in the US Air Force, retired. General Reno did not have a PhD, so Cedarville made up an honorary one for him to legitimate his power over the faculty at the University.
Along with the faculty and staff revisions also came a new organizational narrative and structure. Mumby (1987) suggested that the legitimacy of power doesn't rest upon an objective criteria, but is rather constructed through particular modes of rationality. He also suggested that power functions politically by using ambiguity, because with power comes a certain presumption of your correctness until proven otherwise. General Reno reorganized the University into a paramilitary structure. Everyone at the University reported directly to their superior, and no one else. The organizational communication was filtered through layers of carefully groomed faculty before ever reaching decision makers. The faculty at Cedarville were alarmed by this, especially when they began to receive retaliation for simple acts like directly emailing General Reno, alas an action that I regrettably did as a student. The Chair of my department emailed me to inform me, "Please let me communicate with the administration on your behalf.
General Reno believes in the chain of command. So you communicate with me and I communicate with him." This is in distinct contradiction with Dr. Browns former policy, which encouraged students to reach out to him and his vice presidents.
In 2016, Cedarville was sanctioned by their accrediting institution, and told they need to properly organize their departments and schools, because they had failed to do their due diligence in restructuring the university to only answer ultimately to General Reno. Rather than communicate the need to restructure again, and ask for guidance in the process, Reno chose instead to do the entire restructure himself without outside guidance. To illustrate the damage he sought to do, he proposed to cancel the Communication Department entirely because he said it wasn't different from English. This ignores a hundred years of distinctions between Communication and English. In public forums regarding this issue with the faculty, he was so abusive to faculty members that a vote of no confidence was discussed at one point. General Reno showed a lack of leadership capabilities during this time, that made it clear he wasn't a legitimate leader.
General Reno, in his dealing with the faculty, students, and organizational leadership showed a lack of legitimacy on many grounds, so how did Cedarville legitimate his power and this new structure? It was done primarily through narrative. First, General Reno was elevated as a member of the military. Cedarville abides by many of the civic religious practices that many Christian Schools abide by, including the pledge of allegiance and honoring military service. General Reno presents himself as an expert on leadership, due to his position as a military commander, despite having no expertise in working at a university, or the academic credentials. His failures are illustrated not only in his alienation of the faculty through his paramilitary communicative style, but also through the accreditation board sanctions. However, by relying on the narrative of military service General Reno legitimated his credentials to the institution. Cedarville also gave him an honorary PhD, although Cedarville doesn't offer PhD's in his field. This is also an example of the organization acting to legitimate General Reno's Power. But more importantly, General Reno was a "Good Christian Man." And this is the true standard for Cedarville. A good Christian man exemplifies the values of conservative fundamentalism, in line with a set of narrowly defined ideological parameters found all over Cedarville's rhetoric.
Expertness wasn't the true credential by which General Reno was measured, but rather he was measured by how closely he conformed to the fundamentalist ideology of Cedarville. Cedarville has strict standards for hiring, including rules that directly affect professor's lives like banning drinking completely for faculty and staff. Dr. White was also less than qualified for the job as president at Cedarville, but he had the right world view. This concept of worldview is important to Cedarville, because it is the narrative by which they tie together conservative values with Christian values, and place themselves into that narrative. When I was at Cedarville, Christian was rhetorically synonymous with Conservative. Clair (1996) suggests that power operates at a structural level to mediate socialization. The way we speak about things is often informed by political biases that operate within the larger organizational context. At Cedarville this is particularly the case, because students need permission to live off campus and are required to attend chapel services every day. This has a specific impact on women, who are less likely to get permission to get off campus due to the institution's view of gender, and many freshman don't have cars so they end up isolated within Cedarville. Cedarville is a monologic voice of conservative rationality, and it is this conservative Christian mindset that drives their decision making in regard to organization and legitimating power.
Cedarville discriminates directly based on religious affiliation and personal identity in the case of LGBT people. There is bountiful evidence to this fact documented in the school resistance news paper, The V, and in my own personal experience. The ambiguity Cedarville generates through Non-disclosure agreements in faculty discrimination and removal always favors the institution in the eyes of the students and the remaining faculty. Regardless of my personal qualms, the point is that the organization uses non-disclosure agreements and communal shunning of someone who isn't their view of "the good Christian" to discipline those who remain into a set of rules and standards that govern every aspect of their organizational and personal lives.
There are many ways to improve this situation. The first would be to listen to the faculty of the university. The monologic paramilitary structure is not acceptable in an academic institution, and it raised flags and complaints that went unheeded until the institution had already lost a great deal of credibility in the academic community. Cedarville also needs to begin to hire people based on their qualifications, and embrace diversity and inclusion. The practices of using your organizational narrative to exclude ideological diversity is unhealthy for an academic community, and the antithesis of organizational dialogue. Cedarville, finally, should begin moving toward a more discursive and open environment on campus. Many of their rules are understandable, but the manner in which dialogue in disciplined on campus into a Christian only perspective has a negative impact on how people understand and engage with the world both inside and outside of Cedarville.
Mumby (1987). The political function of narrative in organizations.
Clair (1996). The political nature of the colloquialism “a real job”: Implications for organizational socialization.