Sunday, September 7, 2014

University "Codes of Responsible Conduct"--Fashionable Gesture, Radical Imposition of Obligations to Mutual Spying, or Traps for the Unwary?

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

Ethics has become an increasingly import aspect of governance cultures in public and private institutions. Once a principal concern of economic enterprises and governments, universities have sought to inculcate cultures of "ethics" within their operating environment. The intensity of these efforts, like those of other public and private institutions, has intensified as the common cultures that serve to ground an understanding of the nature and character of ethics has fragmented.

But it is precisely because of this fragmentation of the grounding culture that efforts to memorialize the framework of ethical conduct has encountered difficulties. These difficulties sometimes produce ethical codes that may appear as generalized gesture. (e.g., University of Illinois Code of Conduct). They invariably are reduced to short hortatory statements that are sometimes burdened with double duty as mandatory rule (a role to which they are ill suited). In either guise, these codes sometimes may produce either traps for the unwary or appear to impose radical new obligations that may produce cultures of mandatory mutual spying rather than ethical cultures among the affected university stakeholders.

Many times these efforts are generated as a response to outside pressure--from regulators, governments or as a result of scandal that suggests some sort of moral failure among employees, athletics staff, administrators or trustees. Often times the determination to proceed with these efforts as well as the drafting and management of its development is conducted by administrators, either through administrative staffs or under cover of a committee well larded by individuals who are described as "representatives" of most of the important sectors of university stakeholders. Often, institutional representative organs, like a faculty senate, are given a brief and pro forma opportunity to comment on wording only after the Code is ready for imposition, an opportunity that is expected to produce no substantive change and timed to make it virtually impossible for effective consultation on the embrace of the policy or the premises for the construction of the Code in the first place. Still, even this nod ion the direction of engagement ought to be gratefully received with hopes that a more effective relationship might emerge--in the future.

This post considers a generalized "typical" product of this next generation "Code of Responsible Conduct". It suggests that Codes of this type, reversed engineered int he sense that they are generated in the usual case in what might be understood to be hermetically sealed environments in which inputs are carefully screened o conform to the expectations of the form of the final product, may create some substantial traps for the unwary and provide a wide space for discretionary discipline which in the hands of unethical administrators can be used as a cover to punish faculty and staff (and lower tiered administrators) indirectly. This is most likely with respect to Codes that impose a positive obligation to report "wrongdoing."  This is not to suggest that hortatory Codes are wasted efforts--indeed the opposite is true.  But the analysis that follows suggests that Codes that purport to add a mandatory element may prove more troublesome than helpful, even in the short run.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Statement on Civility From Administrative Elites at Penn State--Civility and Its Discontents in the Academy; Defining the Space and Terms of Debate Within or Beyond Social Norms

The issue of civility has become a more interesting subject for debate within and among universities.  No less so, it seems, among University administrators and their associated elites. I have written generally about the topic of civility within the academy in the past.  See HERE. Others have discussed the issue in the context of movements toward cultures of civility in other universities.  See The Order of Civility (Sept. 7, 2014).

The issue appears to have reached the highest levels of administration at Penn State.  I include below the "Dear Friends" letter on civility widely circulated and signed or affirmed by a large host of persons holding administrative or related positions at Penn State, a commentary by Onward State and the Penn State President's reply. 

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

I would be curious to hear reactions beyond those in Upward State.  The letter can be understood from a variety of perspectives and might imply any number of things--but it is unclear whether the virtues of Kremlinology would be useful here.

I only note that beyond its signatories--among whom there was no doubt discussion of some sort, enough to satisfy its participants--I do not recall any discussion of the topic, nor any effort to engage the university community in the premises underlying its message or messages sought to be conveyed in these communications, worthy as they may be.  Beyond the basic and quite laudable notion, which ought to be embraced by all, that our social norms posit that social conventions on discourse are a necessary element in discussion among stakeholders in an organization, it is not clear whether respect requires more. It is less clear to what standards the excellent statements produced allude, or who would police them--it certainly ought to be troublesome if the power or prerogative to control the terms of debate and to judge participation for breaches of the boundaries of civility is vested unevenly among those involved in debate.  More troublesome perhaps might be a system of civil discourse grounded first in an invitation within a hierarchically arranged system for civil exchange  irrespective of place on the hierarchy and second an insistence that only those at the top of the hierarchy were authorized to set the tone, impose boundaries and judge the conformity of expression of those below to standards that they wholly control. It would be useful to consider the approaches of other institutions even as Penn State seeks to assume a leadership role in this area.

I am partial to this definition of civility:
Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored. (Institute for Civility in Government
The difficulty, though, is that civility operates in this context only where there is an equivalence of power relationships, or robust systems of accountability and constraints on discretionary authority to construct a system of civility that  conforms to the model formally but which masks a regime of servility, one in which fear of reprisal or marginalization occupies an important place. In any case we should applaud the invitation to begin a discussion on the topic--and for that we can be grateful to those individuals identified in the "Dear Friends" letter. 

Perhaps this is a useful topic for a Senate forensic.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Resolution to Honor the Late Penn State Vice Provost W. Terrell Jones

(Terrell Jones)

It is with great sorrow that I report the recent passing of Terrell Jones, whose presence we will miss greatly here at Penn State.  To honor his memory the Penn State University Faculty Senate will consider the following resolution to honor Dr. Jones at its next meeting.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Essays From the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom

Apologies for the long silence. I have been absent far too long--duty called. But I am back now and things will be gearing up as we consider in more detail issues of social media, administrative bloat, electronic communications, the role of the board of trustees in a university and other interesting issues.

To get things started in a small way, I have included here links to a set of interesting articles that appear in the current issue of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom. This from their press release:

I’m pleased to announce that Volume Five of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom has just been published. This issue of JAF is focused on the intersection of electronic communications and academic freedom, specifically exploring the shifting landscape for academic freedom resulting from the proliferation of social media. Our intent with this issue is to examine how the advent of sites such as Facebook and Twitter blur the lines that separate areas of research expertise and broader public engagement, often leading to both a facilitation of and impingement on academic freedom.

The bulk of this year’s issue deals with various assaults upon academic freedom, most notably those originating from the increasingly techno-oriented world outside of the classroom that is now permeating the halls of academia. But we also devote a large portion of the issue to examining the systemic threats to our profession, whether it’s assaults on tenure, hiring, and the specter of corporatization that threatens to undermine the very ideals of higher education.

Links to the articles and brief descriptions follow: