Thursday, May 11, 2017

The University of California: University Governance Gets an “F” on Trust

As part of the government’s 2017 audit of the University of California’s president’s office, California’s auditor, Elaine Howle, sent surveys to administrators at the university’s 10 campuses. The president’s staff directed administrators at the Santa Cruz, San Diego, and Irvine campuses to remove criticism of the office and give higher performance ratings in key areas. The interference was blatant, as it included even a systemwide conference call. As a result, Howle disregarded all of the results as tainted. The audit also uncovered $175 million in undisclosed reserves being held by the president’s office. Janet Napolitano, the U.C. president and former head of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, had betrayed the trust vested in her. The ineptitude likely ran higher, and lower. That is to say, the university’s governance itself was culpable.

For an office with a $686 million budget (the entire university’s budget being $31.5 billion in 2017) and nearly 1,700 employees to betray the trust of the university’s board of regents, the Government of California, and the general public is, as Assemblyman Phil Ting said, “outrageous and unbelievable.”[1] Ting compared the interference to a student who is failing “and magically the professor changes the grade and passes the student.”[2] In fact, the duplicity went beyond Napolitano’s office, for Howle had directed the administrators at the campuses to keep the surveys confidential and yet one UCSF administrator felt entitled to inform Napolitano’s staffers, who in turn began directing administrators on how to respond to the surveys. George Blumenthal, chancellor of the Santa Cruz campus, sent an email to his staff noting that the president’s office was not happy with a long paragraph, so he added, “I suggest you remove the paragraph and submit it.”[3] That a spokeswoman for the president noted that the chancellors had “not been shy in offering opposing views” to that of the president can thus be taken as yet another attempt to mislead.[4]

The irony is that California’s tax-payers had been funding “profligate” salaries of university administrators even as funding cuts mandated by the legislature had hit other areas of the university.[5] For their part, faculty members were not surprised—faculty leaders noted that cynicism had crept in for years as the university governance had increasingly sidelined their voices.[6] Considering both the healthy slush fund and the efforts to manipulate the audit’s survey, as well as the sordid reputation of the university’s administration among the ranks of faculty, the conclusion may be that the university’s board of regents had failed to provide adequate oversight. In other words, the weak link may actually run higher than into the president’s office.

[1] Nanette Asimov, “3 UC Campuses Change Responses in State Auditor’s Survey,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mike McPhate, “California Today: A Cloud Over the University of California,” The New York Times, May 11, 2017.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Student Teaching-Assistants Hunger-Strike at Yale: Facing an Implacable Wall

During the Spring term of 2017, some graduate students at Yale began a hunger strike to pressure the administration to negotiate with their union. At the time, about 70 percent of the instructors at American colleges and universities were part-time—including adjunct instructors and graduate students working as teaching assistants. They were poorly paid and lacked “access to affordable health care, job security or a voice in their working conditions.”[1] I contend that we should not gloss over the real differences between adjunct instructors and teaching assistants, the latter contains an employment element that warrants representation by a union.

Graduate students who work as teaching assistants hunger-strike in front of Yale's administration building (to the right). Directly behind the protesters is the Commons dining hall (which I remember for the Belgium waffles...the gym being fortunately close by).  (Source: NYT)

To be sure, the position of a graduate student leading discussion sections of a professor’s course is quite different than that of an adjunct instructor teaching a class or two per term at a university. A graduate student only works as a teaching assistant for a few years, and upon graduation one can look forward to beginning a career; even if as a professor, that vocation is not merely an extension of being a teaching assistant. The unique academic properties of the teaching-assistant role are borne out by the fact that only students qualify. The compensation is a stipend, typically viewed as a form of student financial aid, and the teaching role is designed to teach the student how to teach—and even provide the student with additional knowledge.

As a teaching assistant at Yale, I jumped at the opportunity to teach the History of Modern China and the History of European Integration (e.g., the EC and the E.U.) precisely because I could learn more than what was offered in the courses I was taking. I was by no means a student—not to mention an expert!—of China or the European Union. The Yale administration held that its graduate students could aptly lead discussion sections on material outside of our main area of study because we learn so well. So it is strange that the administration during the Spring term of 2017 hired union-busting lawyers to argue “that for many of the courses [the TAs] teach, these graduate students ‘have no subject matter expertise’ and therefore don’t qualify as professors.”[2] No TA would claim to be a professor! More to the point, Yale’s position, through its lawyers, concerning the lack of subject-matter expertise is misleading, giving the learning aspect of being a teaching assistant—learning not merely how to teach but also about the content of the course. Yale’s administration can be astonishingly stubborn—and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hunger strike weren’t at least in part a reaction to the passive aggressiveness itself. I suspect that its root lies in power and felt superiority; union representation could hardly make a dent economically in such a rich university.

In August, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that graduate students engaged in teaching at private colleges and universities are indeed employees and therefore have the right to collective bargaining. The decision reversed a ruling in 2004, which had held that TAs “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship to their university.”[3] The ruling in 2016 found that the broader relationship does not mean that the teaching role—performed on a paid basis—is not work. In short, the students are also employees. A student who works in a dorm cafeteria—such as me at my first university—is an employee in that job even though being a student is the broader status at the university. To be sure, working as a teaching assistant involves learning—both how to teach and subject-content—but the tight relationship between the work-tasks and pay render the position a job, and thus entitled to be represented by a union.

[1] Jennifer Klein, “Why Yale Graduate Students Are on a Hunger Strike,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Noam Scheiber, “Grad Students Win Right to Unionize in an Ivy League Case,” The New York Times, August 23, 2016.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

When a University Loses Its Way: Business as Usual

A university is clearly functioning sub-optimally when its departments operate with scant regard to any obligation to contribute to the good of the whole (organization). A university’s administration makes matters worse by viewing the university through the lenses of a business firm—seeking to remake what is innately academic in the guise of private enterprise. Fundamentally, when an organization’s management loses sight of the distinct basis of the organization, it is bound to founder from the confounded identity. I had the privilege of attending Yale, whose administration values and protects uniquely academic norms and mores. Unfortunately, university administrations far away from lux et veritas can lose sight of even the distinct academic basis of a university, preferring instead to remake it into something else—a business or, even worse, a conglomerate without a functioning headquarters. In this essay, I discuss one example of such a university, far, far away from the heart and soul of academia, yet where managers take advantage nonetheless of its good name.

The nursing school offered free yoga once a week as part of the school’s holistic approach to health. Although donations were accepted, the yoga was free—and thus of particular appeal to students. The university’s physical athletics recreation facility was state of the art, having a look more of a private fitness center like LA Fitness than a university gym and pool. The price of “membership” was steep, and “group fitiness” classes, which included yoga, was an additional charge. The department’s managerial mentality was that of a business, rather than as part of a university; students were customers who just happen to go to classes. Even being part of something large eluded that department’s management. So, while I was visiting that university, when I suggested to one of the managers that the recreation center would be a good place to publicize the free yoga at the nursing school, she replied in the negative—that it would be a conflict of interest. “We have our own yoga instructors,” she insisted. I did not inform her that conflicts of interest was one of my areas in applied ethics, or that selfishness does not constitute a conflict of interest. An x-ray of her stance would reveal no sign of service to students—let alone being part of a university. Lest business practitioners recognize the pathogen as garden-variety departmental preference over organizational interests, the sui generis nature of a university is also involved.

Students are not customers. In the learning process, for example, students are the work-in-progress. So the easy business categories of customer and even product fall short. The student-faculty relationship is something else; so too is the relationship of the student and the university. For one thing, students are more dependent on their respective colleges and universities than customers are on businesses. Besides the long time element (e.g., undergraduate degrees typically take three to four years), the related financial dynamic (i.e., little disposable income) is unique. Hence traditionally universities provide subsidized services for students. Thus for one department to refuse to publicize free yoga to students suggests that the department’s management is ill-placed in a university. The very notion of “membership” in a department of a university is a red flag regarding the underlying mentality of presumptuous and ill-suitedness.

Besides low-cost student health insurance, (traditionally) low-cost gym access, and subsidized campus bus service, universities typically provide the students living in dorms with university cafeterias. They are not for profit, being part of the universities. To “outsource” to for-profit restaurants leasing space on a campus would mean that students pay not only the cost of the food and labor, but also profit, even though students are typically financially ill-equipped to finance profit in order to eat on campus.

At the same university, students living in the dorms did not have even the option of eating in a dorm cafeteria. Instead, their meal-plan dollars could purchase food in a food court, which consisted of mostly fast-food restaurants in the Student Union. The underlying mentality was the same as that in the recreation services department; namely, the university is a business and the students are customers. Only in this fantasy does it makes sense that students should cover restaurant profit-margins in addition to the businesses’ costs. Even so, providing the restaurants with a guaranteed customer base via the meal plans departs from free-market Capitalism. I’ll illustrate this with a case from my own experience with the assistant manager of the Panda Express in the Student Union food-court, while I was visiting the university.

As I was deciding what to order, he was too hasty--pushy even. I asked for a sample, and as I was going to ask for another (this being permissible), he demanded that I order my food immediately. As I was going to order, he interrupted me by ordering three students standing behind me in line to move up to the counter next to me. Ordinarily, in a normal business context, an employee would say, “May I help who’s next?” The man’s order thus had the ring of presumed power or dominance over young adults—the guaranteed customer base. Then the manager misled me in to having to choose from a false dichotomy of noodles or rice—the veggie options being more costly to the business. Adding insult to injury, he scooped rice even though he had asked if I wanted noodles and I said yes. When I repeated that I wanted noodles, he angrily tossed out the rice as if I had changed my mind. Clearly, the restaurant’s management had developed a sordid sense of entitlement, which I submit is a direct result of superimposing a warped business model on a university-specific context—students living in dorms.

Stopping by the administrative offices of the Student Union, I provided a woman there with a “heads up” concerning the behavior of the restaurant manager. “He’s on a bit of a power-trip with respect to your students,” I said. Stunningly, she disavowed any responsibility to intervene on behalf of the university’s students who regularly eat in the Union—even formally as per the university’s meal-plans that students in the dorms rely on. “The restaurants are not ours,” she said. “But they are on your property—on a university campus,” I reminded her. I had only recently heard a similar disavowal from a manager at Recreation Services with respect to the yoga for students at the Nursing School. Such circumscribed tightness—not to mention the indifference to the students in spite of their vulnerable situs at a university. Herein lies the underlying callous sin of that university, whose pro-business pretentions and departmental hegemonies are mere child’s play in comparison.

On a subtle level, I suspect that the State being heavily Republican furnished the ideological background or undergirding for the university administration’s penchant for modeling the university on the basis of a company. The business model does not fit sector in society. The ideological urge to force a fit at a university disrespects the aspects of university life that are not so readily contorted according to the mold of the business model. The category mistake does not do justice to students as students. In treating them as mere customers, the university’s management betrayed its students. It is no wonder that they unconsciously returned the “favor” by smoking on the non-smoking campus as even the dulled security employees and the myopic library employees refused to enforce the policy even in plain sight while university administrators looked on as if impotent from birth. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

On the Spread of Private Governments in a Democracy: Should Churches and Universities Have Their Own Police Forces?

In mid-April, 2017, Alabama’s Senate approved a bill that would authorize Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police department. At the time, the church hired off-duty police employees to provide security-- “a common practice among nonprofit organizations.”[1] With 4,000 congregants, a K-12 school and thousands of events on its land each year, church officials had difficulty finding enough off-duty cops who were available. More important than being able to make up for any shortages, the proposed law “would empower a religious group to do a job usually performed by the government.”[2] That the group is religious in nature whereas police power is governmental (i.e., “church and state”) is less important than that the “job” had come to be viewed societally, as per the quote from The New York Times, as usually performed by government. In other words, the slippery, subtle slope is itself a red flag.

The full essay is at "Private Police Forces."

1. Ian Lovett, “Alabama Church Wants Police Force,” The New York Times, April 17, 2017.
2. Ibid.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Law School Dean Offers Grief Counseling to "Hysterical" Students after Trump Wins: Legal Reasoning Suffers

Michael Schwartz, dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced in November, 2016 that he would resign the following summer. His accomplishments included a lawyer-student mentoring program, live-client learning sessions, and a low-income clinic in the Arkansas Delta.[1] The trigger for his resignation was a school-wide email he had sent to students just days earlier in which he announced that he was making counseling available to any student who was upset by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Besides effectively normalizing over-reactions and failing to recognize normal venting, the dean’s email interjected partisan politics, albeit tacitly, into higher education. Rather than turn the popularized context into a teachable moment for assumption-analysis, the dean modeled what happens when unsupported assumptions run unchecked. In the end, the legal reasoning of students could suffer.
“For those of you who feel upset,” the dean wrote, “we have arranged extra on-campus counseling services today.”[2] Ironically, the dean who was taken up by the politics of the day instructed his law students (who in America are older as they already have one undergraduate college degree), “No matter how you are feeling, the most important thing for you is to focus on your studies.”[3] The dean’s assumption was that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was unique in this regard, for another professor at the school, Robert Steinbuch, noted at the time that he could not recall the dean’s office offering grief counseling after Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. “I knew plenty of people who were disappointed,” Steinbuch observed, “but I didn’t know anybody [who] needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”[4] I suspect that the normalization of the hysteria was aided by the intolerant political-correctness movement (i.e., how dare you accuse me of hysteria!). The dean was unwittingly facilitating the tacit demand for the normalization by normalizing the hysteria himself. Even the venting, which in itself is quite normal, can succumb to the demand that it be treated as something else, as if each of the vented grievances is valid rather than an over-reaction based on overblown assumptions.
The dean could have turned the attention on the election into a teachable moment by conveying to students how valuable critiquing assumptions can be when they are based on heightened emotions. Legal reasoning is presumably better when it is not at the mercy of high-charged emotions. Instead, the dean himself overextended his own assumptions—namely, that minorities would be attacked and not valued simply because Donald Trump won the election. “Our diversity is a strength and a goal that we need to cultivate in every way we can,” he wrote as if that needed all of a sudden to be said.[5] “Everyone deserves a safe, supportive, collegial learning environment,” he insisted.[6] Had reports indicated that the safety of the school would be compromised? “Please reach out to your peers and let them know they are valued.”[7] Did this include Republican peers? Furthermore, if some students were not feeling valued, maybe what they really needed to hear—for their own good—is that their inner feelings of value should not depend on external circumstances. Lastly, presumably without any evidence—a legal term—of any student being mistreated, the dean added, “And, if you witness someone being mistreated because of his or her politics, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, please do not sit silently by.”[8] It is odd that after the campaign season the dean would assume that political mistreatment would be an issue. Even if Donald Trump has personal views on particular religions, races, ethnic groups, and homosexuality, to assume that students would begin mistreating each other is a stretch, to say the least, and that presumes that the dean knew Trump’s personal views. I submit that the dean was simply laying out the laundry list of partisan causes—going well beyond even the issues then at hand. In other words, the dean was representing a partisan position whose Democratic candidate(s) had lost.
Even in ideologically overextending his reach by “warning” his students, the power-seeking dean modelled how unchecked assumptions can result in muddled reasoning. That he presented such “reasoning” as sound and valid meant that the students’ own cognitive lapses were enabled. He did nothing to improve the students’ legal reasoning, but maybe the underlying problem is that he was not oriented to legal education as per the contents of his email. I submit that a dean has an obligation in leading a school to stay on point in the sense of focusing on the dissemination of knowledge, which includes sharpening reasoning abilities. Put another way, good reasoning and a value on higher education should be major factors going into the hiring of deans.

[1] Emily Walkenhorst, “UALR Law School Dean to Exit Post,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 19, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

For-Profits Cutting Corners in Higher Education: Distinguishing Vocational and Educational as a Solution

In my hometown, a local college decided to become a university. Not that the institution was expanding; the draw was tuition money from foreign students whose governments required that aid be given only to foreign universities. So overnight, departments became colleges. The underlying mentality, I submit, is that of forsaking what an institution is and so claiming to be something it’s not in order to get more money. In short, the underlying mentality is more, more, more, even if this means being something an institution is not. The change comes off as pretentious and greedy. The mentality is also in the mix when for-profit colleges take advantage of the U.S. student-loan program to the extent that they become financially dependent on the subsidized loans. Furthermore, some for-profits turn non-profit as a way to avoid oversight without losing the financial benefits of being for-profit. The trend points to an increasing decadence in American higher-education. The good news is that between 2011 and 2016, the enrollments at the major non-profit schools dropped by more than half; the “pullback came as the government clamped down on aggressive recruiting practices and stricter policies intended to ensure that schools are preparing students for gainful employment.”[1] Even the assumption that the purpose of a college is to train students for jobs rather than educate to make students knowledgeable. I suspect that the latter mission ironically makes for better hires among graduates.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for new students to decide on a major based on the sort of job they want after they graduate. This orientation willows down education artificially to that which fits with employer needs. While such a concern has a place in the professional schools, it does not fit higher education itself. Part of the problem may be that jobs-oriented majors (and schools) are housed alongside other majors (and schools) in American universities. In the E.U., the cleft is more pronounced institutionally. The American case risks a reductionism of higher education to vocationalism. Ideally, criteria appropriate to each should have their proper place at the American universities such that like fits with like. Whereas the practice of public accounting should have a place in the accounting major of a business school, such vocational concerns should not extend to majors in the humanities, for instance; a student doesn’t major in classics because getting prepared for a job is the motive. The bottom-line may be a lack of faith in higher education itself as a social good, including being of value to students in terms of knowledge as an end in itself.
To the for-profit “universities’” managements, I would point to the consistency between such a university being profit-oriented and the criteria being the preparation of hires in the for-profit workplace. It would make sense were such “universities” limited to the professional schools rather than having majors in the liberal arts and sciences, but the mentality is not one of self-limitation, but, rather, maximization, even if it means trying to have something both ways.
In a clear decision on August 11, 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Education took aim at the sordid mentality in denying a request by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based college, to convert to nonprofit status for financial-aid purposes. Because board chairman Carl Barney was the main financial beneficiary of the college, the college was private rather than non-profit. The college would continue to face the higher regulatory scrutiny that goes with being a for-profit college; such a college “cannot derive more that 90% of its revenue from Title IV federal student-aid funds.”[2]
That a mentality of “wanting it both ways” was at least part of what the government was going after is clear from the Education Secretary’s comments. John King said, “This should send a clear message to anyone who things converting to nonprofit status is a way to avoid oversight while hanging onto the financial benefits: Don’t waste your time.”[3] That the college’s chief executive, Eric Juhlin, characterized the government’s decision as “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful” suggests that the administration did not get the message.[4] It would seem that wanting to keep the proverbial cake and yet eat it too is a sordid mentality that resists self-awareness even though it reduces credibility and thus has real costs. I submit that such a mentality can harm higher education more generally because corners tend to be cut even as the cutters remain in denial.
Fortunately, a federal crackdown on for-profit colleges had been taking place, such that in early September, 2016, ITT Technical Institute “abruptly closes more than 130 campuses, forcing more than 40,000 students . . . to begin looking for another school.”[5] The U.S. Government had banned the college from enrolling new students receiving federal aid. In short, the college had been too oriented to student loans and not enough oriented to training its students such that they could find employment. Put another way, ITT, and Corinthian Colleges, which faced liquidation a few months before, paid scant attention to their respective missions because making more money was the true mission.
Perhaps part of the problem with for-profit colleges has to do with the conflating of vocational and educational missions at non-profit universities that sport both professional schools and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. In the E.U., vocational training is institutionalized apart from the universities. Perhaps restricting for-profit colleges in the U.S. to being vocational-training centers would provide a fit for those institutions. Student loans would not apply as they would not be colleges or universities. By extension, professional schools at the non-profit universities would stress the application (and thus knowledge) of the basic disciplines. This orientation is practiced at Yale’s professional schools, especially its divinity and law schools. Were other universities to follow suit, we could distinguish those professional schools from the for-profit training centers.  Students could go “straight knowledge” in colleges of liberal arts and science, “application of such knowledge to practical pursuits” in university professional-schools, or “training in skills” at vocational training centers.

[1] Mellisa Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2016.

[2] Melissa Korn, “U.S.: For-Profit College Can’t Become Nonprofit,” The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College.”

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Koko the Gorilla Meets Mr. Rogers

Koko, a western lowland gorilla held in captivity, learned over 1,000 signs from American Sign Language, and achieved a "sophisticated understanding" of spoken English by the age of 44.[1] Research has uncovered, moreover, that "gorillas may be capable of complex vocal behavior that defies previous beliefs about their communicative abilities."[2] In other words, the species is able to have a spoken language. Even though humans branched off from chimpanzees rather than gorillas 7 million years ago (our own species, homo sapiens, began 1.8 million years ago), the findings are hardly surprising; after all, whales and dolphins communicate by making distinct sounds. Even so, the prospect of being able to carry on a "conversation" with a member of another species is astounding. Gorillas like Koko might one day be able to tell us what it is like to be a gorilla. Ironically, we might learn more about our own species in the process. 

Koko teaching Mr. Rogers, star of the children's learning show, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,"  the sign for love.

Koko can make the sign for love, but do her keepers know she means the same thing as we do? Do gorillas feel love as we do? It is possible that a gorilla using human sign language is merely manipulating symbols according to rules. If so, it could not be said that Koko understands love. Even if she intends to communicate love by its sign, she might have in mind the love that gorillas have, rather than what we experience as love. Watching her favorite film, she turned away when the parents were saying goodbye to their boy as he boarded a train. Koko signed that it was sad because the mother loves her son. It is possible that Koko was referring to the biological attachment that a mother gorilla has for her baby, rather than what we mean by love. Koko might have meant merely that the mother will miss her boy, rather that the mother feels a selfless love for her son. Of course, what we mean by love may turn out to be more biological and less godly than we conveniently suppose. 

Koko, a fan of the television show, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," expressing affection for the star. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, seems weary of his fan, at least in his body language.

Moreover, the research being conducted on Koko and other gorillas in captivity may bring us one step closer to the realization that we are just one species among many others, rather than unique, as in being made in God's image. This is not to say that God does not exist, whether or not it coheres to the Western conceptions. Perhaps gorillas have a spiritual nature too; they may even have an idea roughly equivalent to ours for God (maybe Koko's god is similar to that of the Exodus). If not, theology may be a function of brain complexity. If gorillas could communicate to us a species-specific spirituality or idea of the divine, then we could put our own in perspective and thus see it in a refreshing light. Perhaps we might find that our religions are human, all too human.[3]

In short, learning more about how gorillas communicate, and teaching those like Koko more human language can potentially increase our knowledge of what it is like to be another species. Even though Koko has a sophisticated knowledge of English and the use of a thousand signs, language would have to be capable of transmitting what it is like to be a gorilla or human. 

1. Carolyn Gregoire, "Apes May Be Much Closer to Human Speech Than We Realized," The Huffington Post, August 15, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3. "Human, All Too Human" is the title of one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, but I have in mind David Hume's theory of religion. See his "The Natural History of Religion" for his account of how the human brain "translates" religion into distinctly human terms. See also the last chapter of my book, "God's Gold."