Friday, January 28, 2011

faculty ethical responsibility, bureaucracy, and curriculum
a local example

Today I reminded myself that I need to get more done on the paper on faculty ethical and social responsibilities in heavily bureaucratized institutions. It occurred to me that a recent academic senate discussion on our campus gave me a pretty interesting example of one of my key claims in the paper: At a certain point, bureaucratic division of labor responsibilities makes it so difficult for faculty to know the full implications of what they do, that it becomes impossible for them to take responsibility for what they do. (I borrow this idea from ethicist Michael Davis.)

The example concerns an ongoing issue on campus. Before I get into this, I want to preface by saying I am interested in this as an example, and I don’t mean to make any judgments of the people involved or the specific proposal they’re making (in fact, I like all the people involved that I've met, and the proposal looks kinda cool to me). I’m not at all trying to make sport of the frustration they might be feeling about the senate discussion. On the contrary, I think it’s totally understandable. All I’m wanting to do is think through the ethical issues, as related to the paper I’m going to be presenting at the AAUP conference this summer.

The faculty and administration in the College of Natural Sciences proposed a pre-medical professions certificate program for post-baccalaureates. The program would provide science education to satisfy prerequisites for qualification to apply to various advanced medical education programs – medical school, dental school, etc. The program would be conducted through university extended education (UEE), taught by faculty identified by academic departments in CNS, and the courses would correspond with regular-session courses taught by those departments. The departments and college would share any surplus revenue with UEE.

This program, on the surface, more or less appears to meet the specifications of the relevant CSU Chancellor’s Office Executive Order governing extended education, as a “special session” that is permitted outside the normal state-supported curriculum. Even though the courses correspond exactly with regular curriculum courses, the “special session” designation seems justified by the circumstances of the students (returning post-baccalaureates).

In academic senate discussion of the proposed program, three areas of concern came up. One was the implication of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the college and UEE, which, it was said, could set a precedent for similar MOUs on campus that would be disadvantageous for faculty and for departments. Second was that faculty paid on the UEE salary schedule would be substantially underpaid compared to their regular salaries (the lack of qualification of UEE work for retirement or healthcare benefits was not discussed). Finally, it was suggested that although the program appeared to meet the letter of the Executive Order’s requirements for a special session, the students in the program would qualify for post-bacc admission into the regular curriculum – there still is a post-bacc program, after all – and so the justification that these classes could not be offered without a special program was not based on program or curriulum needs, but in fact the lack of funding to the state support regular curriculum. (The lack of funding from the state is not sufficient under the EO to justify a special session.)

These are complicated issues, and moreover, from the standpoint of the faculty and administration of the CNS, abstract, distant, and relatively nebulous. If the faculty in CNS agree to teach under these terms, it was suggested, then it is their choice to do so – and, by implication, other colleges and faculty would be free to strike their own bargains with UEE. As to the salaries question, an additional stipend was arranged to bring the faculty salaries for teaching in the program closer to parity with the regular faculty salary (again, the issue of benefits was not discussed). As for whether the special session was warranted by the post-bacc status of the students, two replies were made. First was that it is very difficult for post-bacc students to get into the regular session classes because they have the lowest priority registration status. Second was that the Executive Order stipulates that a career retraining program would qualify as a special session.

The objections raised must strike the CNS faculty who support this program as a lot of meddling over something not relevant to their attempt to serve more students and be entrepreneurial. It is certainly easy to understand why faculty supporters of the program would tend to regard it as nobody else’s business. Furthermore, I see nothing amiss in their interest in starting the program, and no reason to think they have anything but the best intentions. Yet the issues raised are worth consideration, because what one college does in the university does have an effect on the others, and because faculty have a common situation and standing with respect to the university. But as I said, these are difficult issues even to see.

There are broader and still more abstract and general issues that I believe are driving these concerns. One is the integrity of faculty work and of the collective bargaining agreement, as well as of the union that bargains that agreement as the exclusive agent for the faculty. Another, still more abstract, is concerns about the privatization of public higher education. Shifting programs to UEE under the rationale that the regular program can’t accommodate their needs begs the question: Why doesn’t the regular program meet this need for educating the public? Any serious reply to that question should at least consider the long-term funding trends of public higher education as driving factors in the need for the program in the first place.

That said, doesn’t it seem too great a burden for the CNS and its faculty to bear to have to answer these questions? There is an ethical aspect and a cognitive one here. Cognitively, I mean to suggest the following. It is extremely difficult for those of us who care very much to do so, to work out in any detail how the defunding of public higher education has affected access to and quality of public higher education. Asking CNS and its faculty to understand and take responsibility for how their program fits into that overall picture is asking something nearly impossible. I submit that they couldn’t reasonably do it if they wanted to.

If the abstractness and complexity of the situation, and the bureaucratic division of labor reaches a point that they cannot be expected to see, foresee, or comprehend the broader implications of their program proposal in relation to these issues, how can they possibly take responsibility for them.

A further question is whether the CNS faculty and administration are ethically blameworthy for this failure to comprehend or take responsibility. (I’m assuming here that the concerns are legitimate. I think they are. I'm also assuming that they're not responsible for the defunding of public higher education or for bureaucratizaion. I think I'm on safe ground there.) I have two intuitions about this. One is, to the extent that I’m right, and it really is unrealistic or impossible for them to know the implications or effects of what they’re doing, then no, it’s not an ethical failure. But, second, to the extent that they may choose to ignore or brush aside the issues, then yes. But this could mean nothing more than that they are ethically accountable for admitting that they are very nearly precluded from taking that responsibility.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

first day blues

Typical pre-semester anxieties last night woke me at 4 AM, from a bizarre dream in which the Chancellor of the CSU had imposed a policy on remediation involving providing milk to students. (This is a highly expurgated account of the dream. I don't want to go into more detail. Please don't ask. Imagine the weirdest possible ramifications of this. Now make it weirder, and ultimately cruel. There you go.)

I met my first class this morning. I forgot my "JOKE" sign. Note to self: remember that tomorrow morning. Bioethics requires its use.

Now I'm Pandora-ing through my office hour, and starting The Federalist Papers. Check this out:

Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.

That's Hamilton in 1787.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

brief report of ongoing madnesses

Classes start in two days, and my schedule for the semester is not finalized. Consequently, I have opted not to put my syllabi together for the classes that might still be canceled. So there could be a little confusion as the semester starts.

Lauren is in surgery even as I write this. It's nothing major, it's outpatient, but still, it's surgery. Thanks, I'll tell her you said so.

I've drafted a paper, have another one to get done in a week, and have the revision of the AAUP paper to get started on.

Now for a political note. You may have heard various neocons pitching a return to the gold standard as a way to ... um ... to do something or other. Partly, they think that if the US returned to the gold standard, the federal government would not be able to run deficits because the federal reserve bank would have to stop printing money. From what I know about economics, I believe the basic flaw in their plan is that it simply isn't conservative enough.

After all, money doesn't grow on trees, not even paper money, which isn't even paper in the first place! (And let's not get started on the tree-hugging envirofascist movement!) For money to have real worth, it has to be based on a real, tangible thing. Fiat money isn't based on anything at all, except a social and political convention and the exchange value of goods, services, and labor. Labor obviously isn't tangible, and services aren't physical objects either, so that leaves goods, and we all know that a currency based on the exchange value of goods wouldn't be viable because we wouldn't ever know how much any goods would be worth. Right? Right?

A gold standard would give us a straightforward way to know the real value of everything, as compared to a certain quantity of pure gold. A laptop computer is probably worth its weight in gold, say, but my year's labor is worth, I dunno, say an ingot. I don't know how much an ingot weighs, but I figure, something like that. I'd carry my ingot to the Safeway and exchange it for groceries, get some return weight of gold back, and thus our economy would continue to flow freely, and we could all rest in the comfort of knowing that we really knew what things were worth.

That's the theory, anyway. But as I said, it's not conservative enough. If you really want a solid standard for money, you have to go back further in history, before the gold socialists took over. What we really need is a return to the beads and carved bones standard. You're welcome.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

lots of things my family doesn't really know about me

We went back to Ohio for a visit. Chrissie Hynde notwithstanding, at least some parts of my city were not gone, though on balance, a lot of it was.

For the first time in probably about 10 years, my sister, my brother and I were all in the same place. There might be a long story behind that, but I'm not really sure. My family is like that.

I was about to write a quick gloss on the general situation, but that's not what I wanted to write about, so to heck with it. I'll just say that I have a brother 11 years older than me, and a sister 5 years older than me, and that, despite their calendar ages, I still insist on being 28.

What I wanted to write about is how weird it is to suddenly connect with all of them in this mediated way.

I'm connected to a few family members on Facebook, and posts to this antique blog eventually find their way to Facebook, so everything I write here or on Facebook is open to their inspection. My sister-in-law even mentioned, while we were in Ohio, that she has looked at a couple things I've posted, and a few of them she isn't too sure about.

So, all the stuff I post about erotic experience, about the weird food I cook and eat, about politics in higher ed, about union activism, about the whole world I occupy on a daily basis that has very very little to do with anything they knew or understood about me as a kid in Ohio... All of that is what they might read on any given day.

Today, for instance, I worked on the paper I'm hoping to present at the Back To The Things Themselves conference in New Brunswick this summer. The paper is about erotic experience, and today I wrote about being seduced by peaches.

Tomorrow it's as likely as not I'll be writing here about academic politics again, since I was just at the CFA meeting last weekend, and I also received confirmation today that my schedule for Spring is likely to change, with one week before classes start.

It's strange to think of my family reading any of this. I wonder what they might think of it, or of me, or whether they let it pass without wondering.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

news and sports (that is, conspiracy theory and buying stuff)

What kind of a year will 2011 be? Well, if headlines like Obama exhorts Republicans to put politics aside is any indication, it's going to be a politically annoying year. I don't do partisan politics that much in this space, because the "two-party system" is utterly broken and predictable. But as I mulled over the GOP's early effort to repeal last year's health care reform bill, while the President was still on vacation, in a totally symbolic, legislatively useless, sniveling, pandering paean to their particularly wigged-out extremist wing, I came up with a very strange scenario.

I'm embarrassed to say, it's a cloak-and-dagger scenario, a really goofy, totally unsubstantiated, yet eerily plausible association of the sort that lead people to buy extremely rural real estate and stock their property with large quantities of canned food, canned heat, and weapons. Ready?

Throughout the Obama administration, there has been a conspiracy to destroy him - his historical reputation, his political agenda and power, his public image, everything. We know the Republicans have said they spent the first two years of Obama's administration attempting to obstruct everything on his legislative agenda. We know the Republican sympathizers at Fox News and elsewhere have spread deranged fantasies about him. I don't mean that. When people tell you they hate you, that they believe you're evil, and that they plan to try to destroy you, and then they do, that's not a conspiracy.

A conspiracy isn't a conspiracy unless it's covert, sneaky, pernicious, and above all disavowed by its members.

Now, consider: With large majorities in both Houses of Congress, and a popularly elected President with an ambitious legislative agenda, the Democratic Party refused to pass the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, refused to pass health care reform that provided any public option or meaningfully checked the monopoly power of private insurance companies, and in the end, ran as far away from their President as they could in the mid-term elections that they lost dozens of. Only in the lame-duck session did they get a few things done, including the DADT repeal. Only after all the political advantage they could have pressed had been eliminated by a mid-term election that the GOP machine turned against Obama.

The Democrats scuttled the President, not the Republicans. No, I thought, that's crazy. You haven't had enough coffee yet. But then I remembered how Obama became President, and what he did to outflank Hillary Clinton - the party Apparatchick - in the primary campaign. Obama's election was a great victory for the Democrats, but a defeat for the new-fangled Democratic group that came to power with Bill Clinton in 1992. Hillary was relying heavily on the inner circle of the Dem establishment to carry her to the Presidency, but the establishment couldn't find a way to beat Obama. And not only will they never forgive him for it, but they'll do anything they can to punish him for it.

And there it is. Mirroring the GOP strategy of the coming two years, which will be to posture and posture and posture in order to look good for 2012, the last two years the Democratic Party in Congress has done all it could to make Obama look bad. Do they care about winning or losing the Presidency in 2012? Anyone looking at it in terms of Presidential wins is not seeing the big, long-term picture, or the fundamental nature of the electoral politics business.

But people keep voting for people who say things that are obvious, blatant lies, just because they're lies we like. Voting is like playing the lottery.

So that's the news. And now, sports.

You can't change your car battery any more. At least, not if your car is a 2006 Jetta, and you're not fully decked-out with mechanic gear. That's because the car battery is bolted down, deep inside the engine compartment. I found that out during a long, extremely ridiculous dead-battery saga on New Year's Day. (Any saga involving a dead battery is likely to be ridiculous, I suppose.) The story is too long to recount following a conspiracy theory, but it took about 4 extra steps and several hours to purchase a new battery and have it installed by the same AAA roadside emergency aid mechanic who jump-started the car earlier that morning.

Yesterday I bought a new Swiss Army knife to replace the one I've lost. (It's part of basic equipment for me, along with guitar pick, pony-tail rubber-band, and handkerchief.) The knife came sealed in 18 square inches of plastic packaging - the type that is impossible to open without something like the knife inside the package or without cutting yourself on the sharp edges of the plastic. The last one I bought came in a small cardboard flip-top box that I could open unaided. And yes, I realize it's a so-called "passive theft-prevention device." The last time I bought a knife it was from a locked glass case, and an employee had to open the case and bring me out the one I wanted. In other words, the plastic is really an employment-prevention device.

There's a connection between those stories, isn't there?