Why the HR Mindset Can’t Condemn Genocide

Why the HR Mindset Can’t Condemn Genocide

If you start with the oppressor-oppressed worldview and then add the proceduralism of the HR mindset, you end up with the modern organizational leader, exemplified by the elite university president. They don’t have the moral authority to lead or educate the “children without chests.” The best they can do is establish a new policy, such as “Calling for the killing of Jews violates the university’s code of conduct,” and then wait for HR to resolve the situation. Christians can offer a better way. We can be salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16) by committing to two related tasks—exemplifying moral leadership and making men and women “with chests,” that is, helping them develop the emotional heart needed to act morally and be fully human.

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying or harassment?”

That was the question presented to the presidents of three elite universities—Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania—in a recent congressional hearing. Each of the three women took turns answering the question but their responses were the same: it would depend on the circumstances and conduct. None of them was willing to directly say students calling for genocide of Jewish people would violate their school’s code of conduct.

Most congressional hearings pass without much notice, but the backlash to this event was swift and angry. School alumni, politicians, and business leaders have called for the immediate resignation or expulsion of these university presidents. “Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world?” asked Bill Ackman, a Harvard grad and billionaire hedge fund manager. “Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context.”

Rule by HR

How we should interpret speech often does depend on the context surrounding the speech. That principle applies not only to the speech of students on campuses but also to the speech of university presidents testifying before Congress.

What was their context? In a word, proceduralism. Proceduralism “justifies rules, decisions, or institutions by reference to a valid process, as opposed to their being morally correct according to a substantive account of justice or goodness.” As economics professor Tyler Cowen says, “Their entire testimony is ruled by their lawyers, by their fear that their universities might be sued, and their need to placate internal interest groups.” And as Katherine Boyle noted, “This is Rule by HR Department and it gets dark very fast.”

“Rule by HR Department” is an apt phrase to describe a type of proceduralism where an organization—a business, college, or even religious denomination—is excessively governed by its human resources (HR) policies and procedures to the point that these policies overshadow other considerations. While HR departments play a crucial role, an overemphasis on HR-style processes can lead an organization to forget the purpose is to serve people.

This was a problem for these university presidents, who seemed to have misunderstood why they were being called to testify. They thought their role was to justify their school’s “valid process.” They were being called before an HR proxy (the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) and proceeded to give the type of response one gives to HR in such situations: a defense of one’s actions based on compliance with written policies.

In that sense, from an HR mindset, their answers were likely to be legally and technically correct. What they overlooked, of course, were the people—their Jewish students who feel threatened and their students who are promoting genocide.

HR Mindset vs. Moral Leadership

In her clarification video, University of Pennsylvania president M. Elizabeth Magill talked about the mass genocide of Jews and said, “In my view, [a call for genocide] would be intimidation and harassment.” Yet instead of calling out the students who were making pro-genocide statements, she shifted back into HR mode. She said that because of signs of hate across college campuses and throughout the world, the university must “initiate a serious and careful look at [their] policies.”

While a policy change may be necessary, her response leaves the most pressing questions unaddressed: Why are there so many antisemites on your campus in the first place? Did they come as hateful freshmen, or were they radicalized at college? And how are students spending years at your school and yet still comfortable calling for genocide on campus?

It’s understandable why these university presidents were caught off guard. They were appointed to their positions to be administrators, to ensure the college complies with the rules, both the written policies of the school and the unwritten expectations of their students. Yet what they were being asked to do, perhaps for the first time in their careers, was to be moral leaders.

Moral leadership can be defined as the ability of a leader to attract others by virtuous character and lead them toward a specific objective based on commonly shared moral principles. For almost a century, such moral leadership hasn’t been a requirement in most organizations, whether in business, government, or academia. Indeed, aside from a few exceptions—such as pastor or football coach—it’s rarely the expected form for a leadership role. The most organizations expect today is for their leaders to adhere to the same basic standard of ethics as the people they lead.

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