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.