Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.



Q: After months of acrimony in Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are joining together to try to reform the financial system. In your experience, is compromise and collegiality the road to success, or to neither-here-nor-there mediocrity? When has being single-minded and uncompromising helped you, and when has it hurt you?

When it comes to making laws for more than 300 million U.S. citizens, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi insists that the legislative process include a lot of L.O.V.E. -- as in "Let Other Versions Exist" -- meaning the wildly different versions of bills introduced each day by the 435 members of the House of Representatives that Pelosi must govern with a firm gavel and deft practice of the art of compromise.

Pelosi's ability to secure passage of health care reform from many versions of the bill is a great example of the necessity of compromise in even the most hard-fought political battles.

Pelosi's political pragmatism drew hostile fire -- some from the right, to be expected, but most aggressively from her former allies on the left in the pro-choice movement. They viewed the compromises on abortion funding that were necessary to enact the health care legislation as a betrayal of women's rights. Some were so angry that they threatened to mount a campaign against the Democrats who voted in favor of health care. Shades of Robespierre! Intractable factions and intransigent splinter groups often kill their own revolutions while the real opposition easily takes power.

Compromise solutions, while often imperfect, are more likely to result in real social change than revolutions that produce bitter, dangerous backlash. For this reason, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolent civil disobedience, rather than violent confrontations, in the pursuit of civil rights. He knew that violence would not solve the problem of racism. His methodology was a compromise that other black leaders sometimes found difficult to accept. While Dr. King, himself, was a victim of precisely the kind of murderous violence that can arise from intractable opposition rooted in hatred, his ideology of peaceful social change to achieve true racial justice and equality had a substantial impact on American life, law and policy.

Unfortunately, political compromise is an endangered species. Effective advocacy has devolved into uncompromising rigidity on issues that require more astute cooperation among people with many different points of view. Rather than finding a way to enact the best laws for the greatest good, too many legislators today feel beholden to special interests no matter how destructive their opposition to good solutions might be.

We need look no further than the fact that the citizens of the nation's capital remain disenfranchised in Congress because proposals to give them a vote in Congress have been repeatedly subverted by legislators aligned with the gun lobby. How did we reach this stage in American life, where the fundamental American right to voting representation in the legislature is held hostage by a one-issue special interest group?

Wise compromise and cross-aisle collaboration made this nation's birth possible. I shudder to think where we might be today if Glenn Beck or Christopher Hitchens had been at the Continental Congress instead of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Without the necessary compromises of the Revolutionary era, we might be hailing David Cameron as our new prime minister today. Tea and crumpets at the Tea Party, anyone?

America's great strength has been its generous embrace of many different beliefs, perspectives, cultures, lifestyles and ideologies. Compromise makes it possible for our pluralistic society to thrive.

Twenty-one years as a college president has taught me some important lessons about strength and compromise. Early on, because Trinity needed to engage the process of institutional change with some alacrity, and because I was uncertain of my own skills, I was more likely to insist on a specific course of action to achieve results. Those early days produced a lot of tension and resistance to changes I proposed.

As I matured as a leader, I realized that there were many different ways to achieve good results, and so I became more confident in the utility of compromise to create an even stronger solution. We reached better results more quickly once I learned how to engage more ideas from others, which is what compromise is all about.

I'm still not sure that I quite have the L.O.V.E. that Nancy Pelosi shares with her fellow members of Congress. Some versions just should not see the light of day. But I appreciate now, more than ever, the fact that we cannot have permanent success in most endeavors without the kind of compromise that includes a great many viewpoints.

When people feel they are heard, included and honored, they are more likely to claim the result as their own, thus ensuring greater chances for success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  May 13, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Meeting in the middle Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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