Monday, October 16, 2017

Paul Samuelson: The Model 20th Century Economist

Paul A. Samuelson, the first American Nobel laureate in economics and the foremost academic economist of the 20th century, died at the end of 2009 at 94.  Samuelson was credited with changing the academic discipline of economics, according to The New York Times,  ”from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”  Essentially, he redefined twentieth century economics. Mathematics had already been employed by social scientists, but Dr. Samuelson brought the discipline into the mainstream of economic thinking. His early work, for example, presented a unified mathematical structure for predicting how businesses and households alike would respond to changes in economic forces, how changes in wage rates would affect employment, and how tax rate changes would affect tax collections.  He developed the rudimentary mathematics of business cycles with a model, called the multiplier-accelerator, that captured the inherent tendency of market economies to fluctuate.  Mathematical formuli that Wall Street analysts use to trade options and other complicated securities (derivatives) have come from his work (FYI: derivatives too complicated for outsiders such as the government to understand/regulate were at the center of the financial crisis in 2008).

While The New York Times article covers his career in a positive light, I believe the picture is more complicated—and telling of twentieth-century American society.  At the surface, the tale seems to center on a dichotomy—the Keynesian liberal against his conservative monetarist friend, Milton Friedman.  Perhaps the principal issue between them was whether market equilibrium could rest at full employment (i.e., without government help).  Samuelson’s own work on the inherent volitility of markets would suggest that the market mechanism does not necessarily reach an equilibrium, even at less than full employment.  As we saw in September of 2008, a market can collapse from within.  I am reminded of Alan Greenspan’s testimony before Congress shortly thereafter, when he admitted a fundamental flaw in his free market paradigm assumptions.  Clearly, more thought is needed into the nature of a market and how its basic contours can be altered; government regulation alone is not sufficient.

Unfortunately, such “big picture” theorizing was on the wan in twentieth-century economic thought, which focused on narrow problems using technical tools such as mathematical formulas.  To be sure, Samuelson’s technical work gives us reassurance that the market contains a fluctuating element.  However, the reform of an economic system at a basic level is not simply the sum of a bunch of smaller solved problems.   I submit that while mathematics is useful for problem-solving, more is needed to understand our economic system and alter the basic contours of the market mechanism.

  Fundamentally, none of the social sciences is really a science.  To presume the certainty of natural science onto any of them is inherently limited and potentially risky.  To be sure, value can be gained from applying quantitative tools to look at limited problems, but the inherent indeterminacy of human macro systems makes the scientific approach ultimately futile from the macro standpoint of the social “sciences.”  Their phenomena, in other words, are not of the sort that can be measured andpredicted like the speed of a comet in space or a chemical reaction in the isolated environment of a lab.  Economic, social and political systems just aren’t like that.   Explanation, rather than prediction, is primary where human indeterminacy is so salient.

Another way of relativising the “mathematical problem-solving” orientation of 20th century economics is to look at different levels of thinking.  In the wake of the problem-solving orientation, business schools regularly tout “critical thinking,” which is really just problem-solving.  You wouldn’t know it, but higher forms of thinking do exist—namely, synthetic and analytical reasoning.   To treat problem-solving as the litmus test for a discipline is to reduce that discipline from what it could be, academically speaking; it is to short-change it by forcing it into the low-ceilinged box of practicality.  It is to put blinders on. Samuelson’s mathematical axis inadvertantly made the discipline of economics more oriented to solve particular problems than it had been in the past.  Consider by contrast the work of Smith, Marx, Hayak, and Veblen—not a plus or minus sign among them, yet their work addresses economic at the level of systems.  Moreover, their thought transcends mathmatic problem-solving.

I am not dismissing the value of solving specific problems, and Dr. Samuelson deserves credit for providing the tools for it; rather, I am suggesting that the legacy of the twentieth century in general and economic “science” in particular might be a reductionism to a technical orientation to solve particular problems.  That is to say, empiricism as hegemonic.  Problem-solving as the principal activity (and reasoning).  Such an orientation is rather narrow, and therefore not apt to survive on top indefinitely.  The “big picture” questions raised by the financial crisis of 2008 include matters like “too big to fail” and the viability of the market-mechanism itself that go beyond solving particular problems.  So I would not be surprised if a return to the theoretical economy (and political economy, for mathematics in the latter has been part of the wedge that has artificially disected the two) were not too far off.   The twentieth-century is leaving us.  I for one have few regrets over its passing; I think it will go down in history as decadent (meaning decaying from within..the 1970’s being its epitome).  What Samuelson did for economics is more a function of his era than anything else.   Such value is limited.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The University of Arizona: A Dysfunctional Police State

Imagine asking an organization's security employee to enforce a policy only to hear him refuse because such a policy is beneath him. Then on another occasion you find such employees in the locality enforcing local speed-limits. To be sure, speeding tickets are a lucrative business, but that usually goes for a city's police department. Imagine next crossing a grassy quad on a university campus as two campus security employees slowly pass on bikes--watching. Entering the student union, there is yet another. Then returning with a coffee back across the rectangular grassy area--which had been roped off all summer for "turf restoration"--you see a security employee passing on a motorcycle--again watching people. Then as you return to the campus library, you notice a "police" jeep slowly creeping along opposite from the quad. On another occasion, I witnessed a "police" motorcycle pull up from a bike-only path to stop just outside the science library's main entrance to watch students going by. It was creepy. The next morning, two such motorcycles were "on guard" at an intersection leading into the Student Union and two such jeeps slowly passed by as I biked past. Once on campus, I asked an administrator whether there had been an incident on campus, and she replied, "No, they're just making sure people go where they're suppposed to be going." The enablement itself of the obvious excessiveness was itself creepy. The administration there is worse than oblivious. 
The overriding sense that some of the students and faculty doubtlessly have that they are being perpetually watched far beyond the rationale of protection is something to which I can attest. One student told me she intended to transfer because she thought the security employees were watching her because of the color of her skin. Another student--honors no less--avoided the main library because of all the "police" presence; he has dark skin and typically has a pair of earphones on, and for this doubtlessly he has been particularly subject to being watched, even when he has been in a study room. 
I can attest that the administrative offices, including those of the VP for business affairs, the provost, and even the president, are accustomed to looking the other way, which in itself can be regarded as passive aggressive. In flagging that university as highly dysfunctional, and thus to be avoided especially by scholars, I draw on my time as a visiting scholar at that university, where I was met with active and passive aggression and, more generally, regarded as less than a nobody by nonacademic staff having an overblown sense of entitlement undergirded with a lack of accountability. The University of Arizona can thus be regarded as "the poster child" for dysfunctional organizational culture. I submit that aggressiveness is nothing short of anathema to an academic atmosphere. That non-academic employees at a university would have so little respect for academia while the "academic" administration betrays its calling, whether out of cowardness, incompetence, or a sheer disvaluing of academic standards is squalid enough to justify whistle-blowing on behalf of academia. 
I had the unpaid visiting-scholar status that provided access to research facilities (e.g., library databases and computers), so I was surprised to find that just a day after the last official day of my term the university cut off all of my computer accounts; I couldn't even check my university email to take care of any transitional matters. "That's petty," a professor at a European university wrote of the practice, so I checked with the human resources department. Even a full professor leaving the university to teach elsewhere is cut off on the last "contract day" without warning. I had thought the practice was just another way in which visiting scholars are marginalized there. In general, truncating a transition (e.g., cloud storage, library books, etc) is rather short sighted, and thus evinces the dysfuncational, priggish mentality. 
The "campus colleague" designation is on the faculty level, yet such a colleague would never really know it, for even the non-academic library staff regularly referred to visiting scholars as "the general public" when I was at the university. The most startling (and revealing) instance illustrative of this point came the morning after I  had been assaulted in one of Tucson's many ghetto areas. I asked a library supervisor in the science library if I could use a phone to call my physician's office as my injuries were worse than I had supposed from the attack on the previous night. "I'm on the faculty here and I was assaulted last night and the attacker broke my phone, so I would like to use a phone here to call my physician to make an appointment today," I said. Astonishingly, the supervisor replied, "There are no phones in this library; there is a pay phone for the general public in the main library." In her mind, the faculty of the university were part of the general public. Simply astonishing--the organizational culture was that distorted. I related this incident to one of the other supervisors a week later. That supervisor admitted that her colleague could indeed have used her discretion to let me use an office phone. When I mentioned another visiting faculty member who also regularly used that library, even that supervisor who presumably would have used her discretion positively for a faculty member was so oblivious to her own anti-(visiting)faculty bias that she referred to the other visiting faculty (who unlike me taught at the university) as a "nobody." Again, stunning. The organizational culture of non-academic employee quite obviously included little respect for scholars. The utter lack of respect resonates with how other non-academic employees at the university had treated me, and even with how the university handled my, and presumably other scholars', departure from the university. 
As yet another example that is indicative, I found the secretaries in the honors college to be uncooperative when I tried to find out whether something bad had happened to a student whose transition to the university had been so rough that I had helped him with some home-cooked dinners and a few nights in my living room during the semester break in December; the university had refused to put him in a dorm because the financial aid office employees were dragging their feet, so he was homeless. Six months later, I had not seen him on campus so I was concerned, given the high rate of bike and pedestrian fatalities in Tucson. The secretaries paid no regard to the fact that at the very least I had been vetted by the university as visiting faculty member; to them, I was clearly an outsider, definitely outside the loop. 
Incidentally, a faculty of Art had given the student the code to enter her building and office at night so he could sleep in her office in December, but a young library-staff person who had overheard the student and I speaking once about his plight made it her mission to get the code invalidated so the student would have to sleep outside! So he was sleeping outside by Christmas Eve. I would later not think terribly highly of myself for not having invited him to stay over at my place, or even spend the week. Perhaps unwittingly I had absorbed some of the heartlessness of the staff at the university. 
At any rate, as disrespectful and even heartless as the nonacademic staff generally were during my stay, the active and passive aggression of the security employees was beyond the pale, yet the administration repeatedly looked the other way to protect those employees even when they had behaved very badly. Crucially, a real police force is accountable to a government, whereas an organization's employees are accountable, at least in theory, only to an executive. So for a university's security employees to play local police officers is itself not only a category mistake, but dangerous given the organizational bias that executives can have. 
On the few occasions on which I had contact with campus security employees (e.g., on their refusal to enforce the campus anti-smoking policy--even as they found the time to go a half-mile off campus to ticket speeding cars), they too were not only quite rude, but also aggressive toward me in spite (and perhaps because of) my visiting-faculty status. Speaking with a former security employee just days after my "appointment" ended, I was astonished to hear that that university's security department--which fashioned itself as a local police department (hence enforcing banal campus policied was "below it")--had a thirst to dominate and even be aggressive even against students. 
The security employees' perpetual watch on the campus was thus unnerving to many students and perhaps even faculty and staff, but the "higher" administrators looked the other way, which in itself evinces passive aggression. Once when I was in the provost's office-area on another matter and I mentioned that the presence even that morning was over the top (three separate occurrences of security--on bikes, a motorcycle, and a jeep--on patrol within a ten-minute period on the main grassy area), the academic-affairs provost's assistant defiantly replied, "I feel good when there are police everywhere." She displayed no sense of there being any downside, even when I told her that students had told me they feel uncomfortable on campus as a result of the perpetual presence. Not only was she not sympathetic toward me; she was hostile! Was I running up against an authoritarian/totalitarian "red-state" mentality that had identified one of the enemy?
I instantly realized no chance of any self-correction existed within that university's administration, as I had already complained to the VP of business affairs, who technically oversees the university "police" (aka security) department. In this essay, I detail the case of that university's police state, which, like Nietzsche's new bird of prey, consists of weak people who nevertheless thirst to dominate even and especially the strong. The sheer excessiveness in the nearly perpetual presence is itself a red flag, given the implicit aggressiveness and the obliviousness of the "supervisors."
"Police day" at the University of Arizona, for instance, was overdone even for a university beholden to its own security department. Although that department only had one of the tents in the campus-safety display, the disproportionate display of "police" power evinced in the line of vehicles in the photo below reveals the underlying attitude, even if its sheer brazenness comes at the expense of an academic atmosphere that is generally expected on university campuses. 
Tellingly, yet another security jeep was yet to come when I took the picture; the driver would park the vehicle notably blazoned with "Police" on its sides on the grass (contrary to university policy), curiously placed strategically diagonal to two walkways as if to say, "I'm in your face; deal with it." That's the attitude that the security employees have foisted on a campus that could otherwise enjoy the serenity of an academic atmosphere. No matter that some students and even scholars had transferred out of the resulting discomfort while on the campus. A showing off of the hardware was actually a beating of the proverbial chests by alpha males far removed from higher education yet somehow in its very midst. The passive aggression and even cases of outright aggression of the university's security employees can be said to come from resentment, for the employees are obviously uneducated, and even, given the urge for dominance, from an "attack" orientation directed even and especially to scholars as we have an alternative basis of power to that of the threat of a gun. Of course, the esteem of scholarly expertise--higher learning--can be betrayed by university administrators beholden to their own security employees who are nonetheless under the fantasy of being a local police department with the democratic legitimacy of working for a government. 
The night before the morning of the "Police Day," I biked home from that very spot on campus. On my way, I saw three campus security cars in a campus parking lot with their lights flashing, then about half a mile from there two police cars, again with lights flashing--the police talking to a driver, then on a residential street not far from there I stopped because a policeman was scouring me from a distance with his spotlight--apparently riding a bike at 9:30 pm is somehow suspicious in a residential area. I stopped immediately to wait for him to leave the area ahead, but this only aroused his "curiosity" so he turned around and made a beeline for me. The primitives are not exactly subtle. I just watched him pass--holding my phone with camera ready. Then about a half mile from there I looked into the headlights of a parked police car parked in a small parking area at a minor intersection--presumably the guy was poised to spring on a speeding car. I had had enough. Just before I turned right, I instinctively gave him a Nazi salute. Tucson is a police state, so the instinct was right, but I was stupid to use my free speech in this way. Day in and day out, seeing police seemingly at every turn--even on a university campus!--I had had enough of the police state. In fact, I had taken residential streets to avoid the omnipresence. But alas, they are everywhere in Tucson--except in the foothills, where the rich people live. Otherwise, Tucson is a hole, a junk city. By the time I reached my apartment, I was overwhelmed by the overkill, so I knocked on my neighbor's door to chat with her; she was not at all surprised to hear my report.
The sad thing is: the locals who seek to dominate--the weak, that is, who erroneously count themselves as strong--don't even realize how uncomfortable they are making daily life for the locals, as well as students and faculty at the local university. How in the world could showing an overwhelming presence at a broader safety fest somehow make all this better than worse? "I'm in your face; deal with it."
Take a look at the picture and ask yourself--how comfortable will the student be who was stopped--he told me--by two campus security cars with lights flashing for riding on a campus sidewalk ALONE late one night, or the student who got the attention of THREE squad-cars for starting up on his bike as the light was turning from red to green, again ON A UNIVERSITY CAMPUS.  I have asked students: do you think the security employees are so clueless, or are they intentionally pushing themselves, not caring in the least that they are making people uncomfortable on campus?  Invariably, the students are confident of the latter. I think both are true.
A case in point. I was taking a picture of the student Chinese New Year display on the campus quad. My action caught the attention of two security employees, who judging from their facial expressions did not approve. Perhaps they didn't want to be photographed? Then they should have been moving, on patrol, rather than perpetually watching, and rather blatantly. No shame. No concern for the disconcerting impact they have on others.

The two facial expressions of the security employees make clear that the underlying attitude is at the very least suspect, for I was merely taking a picture on the campus.

Another case in point. One morning biking on campus--a Saturday morning no less--I looked at a security employee who was hiding at one end of the underpass between the business and music schools. Because I sustained a look at him, he got on his bike and started to follow me. Concerned, I turned around to leave campus, walking my bike. As I did so, I chatted with a college-aged guy, Jim. We were both "creeped out" by the employee's suspicion. Just off campus, as we were talking, we became very concerned when the employee stopped about 15 feet from us and watched us as we talked. Both James and I were stunned at the employee's mentality. We walked away and the employee stayed put, still watching us. I took a picture only at that point so not to give the employee any further irrational sense of being provoked (there was absolutely no provocation on our part, which made the employee's conduct particularly worrisome).

I have circled in black the security employee, who was continuing to watch Jim and I as we PEACEABLY walked away chatting.

Jim remarked to me that he could not see how students put up with this. I agreed with him. At that point, we saw that the security employee had called one of his coworkers to the "scene." James and I remarked that the employee’s mentality was utterly beyond anything normal or rational. I told Jim that I am just a visiting scholar, but that I have truncated my research because I no longer feel comfortable on campus due to the security employees--their blatant aggressiveness. I have complained to the VP of Bus Affairs, but to no avail. I honestly think the guy who oversees the university’s security department is either oblivious or he actually wants the sordid mentality to continue.
Just three weeks earlier, on a morning during finals week, a security jeep drove down the bike path near the admin building and onto the grass, stationing itself right in front of the front-windows of the science library. So much for de-stressing during finals week. A librarian subsequently agreed with me that the security employees are oblivious to the need to be discreet in their presence around academic study. I'm convinced that the security employees have no respect for our endeavor, and in fact they may even be hostile to faculty because we represent an alternative basis of power organizationally that they don't have. In short, a huge power-trip is in play. 
On my birthday, no less, two campus security employees stopped me on my bike because I was holding a red rather than a clear light. I was riding a bike from the university's bike-share program. As soon as the employees were aware that I was on the faculty (albeit visiting), one of the employees aggressively said, "Get your fingers out of your pockets!" "Stand over there!" To the university employee who was playing Joe local cop, he was going to treat me no differently than were I a homeless man at a bus stop. The difference is that I had been vetted, so the "cop's" aggressiveness was "overkill." I had been compliant, so his aggression did not come from anything I had said or done. I could thus see the problem: that the university employee not only disrespected scholars, but was overtly hostile to us.
Six months before that, I had complained to a franchised restaurant manager at the Student Union about one of his student employees. The manager, come to think of it, had the same tone as the security employee who accosted me for having a red light, which "is illegal in the State of Arizona." No matter that I was on a university campus. Similarly, the restaurant manager ordered me, "Stand over there!" I rebuffed his tone, replying that it was not appropriate. He was like a child, continuing to bark orders at me. I finally said, "You know, that's low class even for Tucson." He replied that he would get back at me by calling the police. I headed immediately to the Union's administrative office, with the restaurant manager just steps behind--hounding me!
So I was surprised when I was in one of the Union offices calming recounting the incident to the marketing director only to hear a young university security employee in the lobby YELLING at me to get out of that office. The director and I were stunned. She told the young man that I had done nothing wrong and was welcome to continue to use the Union. He arrogantly dismissed what she said and told her he would follow me until I left the building. I would report the immature man with the legal right to use lethal force to the university's Human Resource department, only to find six months later--on my birthday--that he had not been fired. In fact, as the "back up" to the security employee who pulled me over for holding a red light, the kid's bravado was palpable. "I've seen him before," he told his coworker. "He was not cooperative." Stunned, I corrected the lad, explaining that his conduct had been out of order as per the Student Union's administration. In spite of the fact that I had been compliant on the bike "infringement," the other employee must have utterly dismissed my correction. "Get your fingers out of your pockets! Stand over there!" It was a power-play, as my moving a few feet along the broad sidewalk made no real difference whatsoever in distance between myself and the two university employees who had a faculty member in their cross-hairs. I complied of course, but I must admit I mentally checked out of that university at that moment. "We're done here," I said to myself in reference to my loyalty to such a dysfunctional organization. From then on, I truncated my research project with the hope of not having to set foot on that campus again, and from what student librarians would tell me, I was not the only visiting scholar to come to that conclusion and leave utterly disenchanted. As if the university security department is not a handful for students, staff, and faculty, step off campus, and the local police are perpetually stationed--watching us--and they are so blatant about it we can only wonder at the underlying mentality.

On a quiet weekday morning with just five people out and about, the scene just a block from the university's main entrance was under surveillance.

On another quiet weekday morning, at same location, a squad-car pulled up across the street from a parked police jeep. The jeep belonged to two policemen apparently "eating" at the local establishment (not the two guys pictured above), so it is strange that the employees in the squad-car in the foreground pulled up anyway, oblivious to the obvious concern that two vehicles in close proximity would arise. The two employees got out of their car and walked a half a block, so they really didn't have to pack so to make the police presence so apparent on that street. A local squad car will even go through the main entrance and loop around inside the campus even though the university's own security presence can be said to be excessive. For a local police employee to make the incursion even though it is obvious that campus security is right there ahead, watching!, is yet another indication that the overkill is pathological in nature.

That security jeep is manned, and stationary. Nevertheless, a local police car had just looped around anyway, just before I took the picture. The excessiveness would have been readily seen had I taken the picture earlier.

I wrote to the alderwoman of the ward that includes the university about the excessive presence of the local police near and even on the campus. Demonstrating possible collusion or at least wayward incompetence, she replied that she does not get personally involved in such matters. Clearly, there would be no accountability locally too. Perhaps the mentality on campus was merely a reflection of a decadence locally, reaching even the local government. Such a system is devoid of the check provided by a feedback loop. For it to be operative, a sense of humility concerning the possibility of being wrong, including of going too far without realizing it, is necessary.
I submit that a society has an interest in policing large institutions that are themselves not governments (i.e., accountable to the people) and yet hire employees and permit them to regard themselves as part of a local police force. A university is a non-profit or for-profit organization, even if some money is received from governments. Security employees are non-academic employees rather than part of the local police force. For some non-academic employees to be not only rude, but aggressive toward faculty--including scholars/doctorates--ought to be anathema to academia. Perhaps in spite of its money for research, American academia has become rather decadent and weak. Such a condition definitely exists in the dysfunctional culture and administration at the University of Arizona. 

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.