J.S. Murray, in researching and writing about moral courage in nursing and healthcare, explained moral courage as the ability to stand up for and practice that which one considers ethical, moral behavior when faced with a dilemma, even if it means going against countervailing pressure to do otherwise. Those with moral courage resolve to “do the right thing” even if it puts them at personal risk of losing employment, becoming isolated from or shunned by peers, and further negative consequences. One should stand up for what is right even if it means standing alone. (See “Moral Courage in Healthcare: Acting Ethically Even in the Presence of Risk” OJIN, September 2010).
It is disheartening to see so many US independent schools, of varying sizes and histories, grappling with existential crises as we enter 2023. These crises were not necessarily born during the Covid era; although some were, in many cases, their roots can be found 20 years ago, in the lead-up to the Great Recession. The signs were there: a need to ‘blend and extend’ loans past their original amortization schedules (e.g., blending in other debt and extending a 10-year schedule to 30 years); write-offs of pledge payments that were never honored; reductions in enrollment; increased discounting of seats; fewer donors with the capacity to make large gifts (which masked underlying business model problems). The list goes on.
Fast-forward to the 2022-23 school year, and we hear from executive directors of associations that 10% to 20% of their member schools are experiencing some level of financial crisis, from early-stage to late-stage. Too many board members don’t know how to read financial statements or critique current reports generated by the business manager; what’s more, even when the business manager states the most acute challenges in need of solutions, well-meaning board conversation suddenly turns to fundraising, foundation grants, and other ‘solutions’ that mask the problem rather than expose it and address it. The no-solution, kick-the-can-down-the-road cycle continues…and worsens, forcing ever closer the ultimate day of reckoning. There will be one, and it may well be explosive.
Contributing to the gross deficit of moral courage when it comes to doing the right thing, consider the role that cognitive biases play in distracting board members from making courageous decisions:
- Confirmation bias: overvaluing observations that fit with our beliefs
- Subjective validation: considering information to be correct if it has personal meaning or significance
- Ostrich effect: avoiding information perceived as potentially unpleasant
- Semmelweis reflex: rejecting fresh ideas that contradict pre-existing beliefs, despite adequate evidence
- Neglect of probability: disregarding probability when making a decision under uncertainty
- Positivity effect: preferring positive information, as well as avoidance of negative information
Even when clear, unambiguous data are presented to board members in most of the schools in these situations, such biases are activated and tend to result in the delusion that being morally courageous just isn’t called for. However, in the world outside of independent schools, business start up, and business fail. Why should independent schools be guaranteed a different future? What makes them immune to failure forever?
Being morally courageous is a choice that draws on the depths of the human soul. It is admittedly easier to engage the Ostrich effect and ensconce one’s self more deeply into one’s work as a board member–reading reports, punching the time clock for showing up at committee meetings, etc.–than to raise one’s voice and say, “Are we asking the right questions here?”