Mission, Character, and Institutions

A friend said the other day:  “Liberals build institutions, conservatives don’t.” Now, I can’t say I believe this is entirely true, but he made an interesting case. Liberals, he said, know how to build institutions; they establish and protect them; they fight for them; and without shame or regret, they get rid of anyone not dedicated to the mission or the ideology to which they are devoted. As a result, liberals – or “progressives” if you prefer – have been effective at taking over, controlling, or co-opting a large swath of America’s institutions, from major media organizations and universities to corporate boards and the entire entertainment establishment.

You may have noticed in ecclesiastical matters, for example, that when a liberal bishop takes over a diocese or a liberal priest takes over a parish, they rather quickly rid themselves of those who are not “on board” with their ideology and hire those who are. They move in as though their primary job is to “fix the place,” not to further the good qualities already present. They rarely scruple about firing those with otherwise superb qualifications because the chief qualification for them is adherence to the ideology. And furthering the aims of “the movement” is always more important than allowing long-term employees to retain their jobs.

Conservatives, to their credit, are not as likely to act this way. Conservative bishops are often cursed for decades by liberal members of their own chancery offices who do things of which the bishop disapproves. And yet conservative bishops are often loathe to fire such people. “He’s been here a long time,” they say. “He has a family he’s supporting; you can’t just fire him.”  To which one might reply, “Well, bishop, maybe you can’t.  But your liberal colleagues always do.”

It’s hard to fault someone for having scruples about just “cleaning house” for ideological reasons, but it is important to note that the result is a ratchet that moves only in one direction. The other sad result is this:  it takes years and years to build up a quality institution devoted to excellence. But it takes only two or three years for an incompetent, ideological administrator to destroy it.

So granting for the moment the very real challenges that an administrator with scruples would have about simply cleaning house of the functionaries of his or her liberal predecessor, there are also conservative administrators who just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to be “disruptive.” They don’t want to face the backlash for ridding themselves of subordinates who have become popular with the progressives, even when these people have repeatedly shown themselves unworthy of trust.

There are also some conservatives who, because of their conservative dispositions, treat hiring as though it were a pure meritocracy. They say to themselves, “We’ll just go out and find the ‘best people’ apart from mission.” And they hire people who hate the mission of the institution and undermine it constantly.

I have conservative friends and colleagues who would consider it déclassé to ever hire or even recommend a conservative friend they know and trust for a position.  They believe that everyone should just put in their application, and the selection committee will choose the most qualified person. I have had abundant experience on hiring committees, and that presumption has to be the silliest, most naïve view imaginable.

Progressive liberals will vote for progressive liberals every time because they are devoted to building the institution in their image, and ideology trumps all other considerations. Conservatives often tend to be individualists, and so in matters of hiring, this can make them insensate to matters of institution-building. They rarely ask themselves questions such as, “How do we put together an effective team? How would this person develop as part of a larger institutional structure? What would this hire mean for the future of the institution?”

I once heard a very successful CEO say at a conference: “We always hire for character. You can train skills; you can’t train character.” His biggest mistakes, he said, were when he hired people whose character and dedication to the mission of the company were unclear but whose talents and training were hard to resist. Each time, it had been a mistake.  Either they cut corners or took shortcuts that cost the company money or reputation, or they severely undermined the morale of everyone around them.

Hiring for mission is not the same as hiring for ideology. When you hire for ideology, you don’t care about character. People can lie, cheat, steal, abuse – whatever – as long as they are furthering the ideology.  This is why Bill Clinton is still honored at the Democratic National Convention and why Andrew Cuomo is still governor of New York, even though everyone knows they are both serial abusers.

To hire for mission, you have to be clear on your mission (which many groups aren’t). And then you need to hire people who will pursue that mission with character. Character matters as much as or more than any ostensible technical expertise.

Conservatives don’t need to “clean house” of liberals any more than Catholic institutions need to “clean house” of non-Catholics. Many non-Catholics are more devoted to the Catholic liberal arts mission of their university than are the box-check “Catholics.” So too, plenty of liberals are actual liberals, with character, who believe in free thought, free expression, and open, engaged discussion.

But if in hiring, you think you’re dealing with an individual meritocracy, you’re just fooling yourself. Progressive liberals hire progressive liberals. Period. Full stop. I’m not suggesting that conservatives do the same in reverse and simply hire conservatives because of their ideology. But conservative institutions can and should do a better job of hiring for mission. And they need to give more thought to building institutions that embody that mission rather than merely trusting in an illusory individualist meritocracy that doesn’t exist except in their imaginations.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.