Teaching Principles of Trust in Higher Education


Trust has always been a somewhat nebulous concept; is it won, found, earned, or given? Is it up to one person to prove they can be trusted or is it up to us to willingly place our trust in someone based on our best knowledge of their character and competence? 

While trust can feel complex and hard to quantify, the value of trust in communities and workplaces is extremely high. Stephen M.R. Covey wrote:

“Think about it this way: When trust is low, in a company or in a relationship, it places a hidden "tax" on every transaction: every communication, every interaction, every strategy, every decision is taxed, bringing speed down and sending costs up. My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done.”

In the arena of higher education, trust has the ability to make a huge impact for everyone from administration down to individual students. When colleges and universities invest in teaching their students the value of trust, remove barriers to trust, and model an inclusive culture, they are truly doing their part to prepare students for successful careers. 


Why We Talk and Teach About Trust

Studies and retrospectives can teach us a lot about what the value of trust really is. Trust is what helps organizations successfully navigate difficult situations — we’ve all had plenty of practice in the last few years. Companies and higher education organizations both rely on the trust that their employees, faculty, and students have in their intentions and capabilities. Investing in building trust during the good times essentially gives organizations the trust capital they need to weather the rough patches.  

Harvard Business Publishing author Dr. Alicia Burns EdD points out that schools and teachers can start cultivating trust with their students before classes even begin, and that there is long-term value in this:

“...there are many similarities between what we ask of our students and what a manager might ask of their employees—attend regularly, engage with the material, ask for clarity when you don’t understand something, try your best, and perform well.” 

When higher education builds these habits in students early they are more likely to keep those habits during their careers, bringing a valuable soft skill that employers are actively looking for in new hires.


Breaking Silos and Building Trust

As with many other socioeconomic factors, there is a quantifiable gap in trust levels among college students. The Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research published a study that had several important findings specific to “College Trust” which included how students felt about trust in their professors and faculty:

Students of color (with the exception of Asian students) had substantially lower trust in their colleges
Students with one or more disabilities also reported lower levels of trust in their colleges

Researchers noted that students of color trusted their academic advisors and faculty members the most, giving educators a unique opportunity to bridge the trust gap and cultivate trust with these students. They also observed that trust correlates strongly with students’ sense of belonging on campus, which means that proactive efforts to build campus culture and inclusivity will also positively impact trust levels among students.


Modeling Trust in Higher Education

EdSurge.com interviewed a group of college presidents to ask them how to build lasting trust – even in times of crisis. Their recommendations can help higher education institutions lead by example, showing their students how trust looks on both sides of a relationship. Their recommendations included:

  • Build up your “trust capital” before the crisis. By setting examples of transparency, communication, community, and collaboration higher ed can show that they are trustworthy.
  • Know your values. You should be able to clearly state your values and you should always stick to them. This tells students that you will always behave the same way, in good times or bad, and teaches them to be just as resilient in maintaining their integrity.
  • Always be truthful. Trusting environments are critical for radical candor — the act of always being constructively and respectfully truthful. Live up to your values and be honest about shortcomings.
  • Remove barriers to communication. Leaders and teachers should work to actively engage with their faculty, staff, and students. Empathetically meet them where they are, remove barriers as you are able, and provide all the information you can.

Trust is one of FranklinCovey’s most popular course topics, for good reason. Whether you’re ready for Leading at the Speed of Trust or you want to focus on trust as part of your work with students through LeaderU, we are dedicated to helping colleges and universities develop the kind of trust that builds incredible leaders. Contact us to learn more. 


How to Create a Powerful Student Leadership Program
On-Demand Panel Webcast


See Previous
Leading Colleges and Universities in a New World
Leading Colleges and Universities in a New World

This guide explores four leadership areas that require a new approach to ensure institutions thrive in the ...

Next Article
Proactively Managing Mental Wellness of College Students
Proactively Managing Mental Wellness of College Students

Mental health has escalated from issue to crisis over the last few years — and that’s especially true for c...


Questions? Let's Chat.

First Name
Last Name
College or University
Thank you!
Error - something went wrong!