Great Principles Begin Now


“You are either an activist or an inactivist.” – Ric O’Barry, “The Cove”

Ric O’Barry has been arrested dozens of times by the Japanese government. He has never hurt or threatened anyone. But Ric O’Barry has been guilty of one thing: being a ceaseless activist for the bottlenose dolphin and opposing their slaughter. As documented in the film “The Cove,” O’Barry believes his calling transcends the conveniences of his everyday life.

In an environment like higher education, the temptations of careerism can supersede any other objective. Day in, day out, the compromises of office politicking can seem pragmatic and defensible. And in many instances, that’s true. Yet over time, those compromises can erode individual principles as well as depreciate the workplace as a whole.

Last year, I was rallying my peers for a cause that I thought was indeed noble. And one particular colleague – well-respected and a longtime friend – cautioned me against “burning bridges.” I’m familiar with that thinking and it was well-intentioned advice. But it didn’t sit well with me. I responded, “I happen to believe that it matters where those bridges lead.” And I meant it; preserving bridges for their own sake is indefensible if those bridges lead to inequity, injustice, and compromise one’s personal integrity.

Everyone has professional aspirations that would give them pause about getting involved in a struggle that they deem worthwhile. Maybe they are working toward tenure, or they have chair aspirations, or they want to be promoted in their office, or are up for a salary review. These are the incentives and consequences dangled before everyone in the workplace. Personal obligations to family, friends, and the financial burdens of student loans, credit cards and mortgages also muddy the waters of principled conviction. Too often, these are the restrictive compulsions towards coercion and the sacrifices of personal ethics.

“Don’t rock the boat,” one is advised. “Go along to get along” is the mantra. My favorite cautionary phrase against activism is “pick your battles.” This phrase is invoked at the point when one is being advised not to take up a cause. Yet “pick your battles” also implies another meaning: when one chooses to step into a conflictual situation, they must be willing to stay the course and commit to upholding their values.

A paycheck is welcome, a raise is appealing, and falling into good graces with those in power is seductive. Yet if that’s all one is driven by, inner principles are merely those of whatever existing power structure is dictating. So who is calling the shots in your life? Is it you? Or is it any number of other competing interests, compelling your conformity?

At some point, it’s time to look in the mirror. What are your values? What are your principles? And do you carry them intact as you step into the classroom, attend a meeting, or email your committee… or do you set those principles aside in favor of smoothing things over with entrenched interests? As the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Crossing bridges is easy. Burning them takes more work. And harder still are building new ones. But if all we do is cross those existing bridges, built by those who came before us, we will only ever arrive at the same places we have already been. Will 2016 be the year that you decide to take a stand for your principles? If not now, then when? If not you, then who?