Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Indulging the Politics of Age in University Benefits--The Example of Move to Strip Older Family Members of Education Benefits

Universities sometimes provide a window onto the darker natures of societal expectations and beliefs.  And there is nothing like the drumbeat of fiscal crisis (the extent of which remains debatable) to permit these darker natures to indulge in otherwise taboo behaviors.  

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

Nowhere now is this more notable than in the way in which the current (and fashionable) fear of a benefits "crisis" has permitted universities, and sometimes even their faculties, to indulge their darker passions in sometimes quite regrettable ways. I have written about the way in which these crises have permitted universities to indulge in eugenics.  (See, The New Eugenics--The Private Sector, the University, and Corporate Health and Wellness Initiatives).

Today universities are beginning to indulge their passion for discrimination--this time against older persons. The latest trend is marked by the indulgence of a desire to reduce the availability of educational benefits to faculty members by capping the age at which such benefits might be accessed.  

While such efforts tend to be carefully crafted to avoid legal liability for discrimination, the discriminatory intent, as a matter of social norms, is inescapable.  This post considers the vacuity of the rationales usually put forward to support these efforts and suggests that though there may be a legal authority to enact these discrimination, there ought to be a moral basis for opposing these efforts. 

A typical approach, undertaken with the complicity of university faculty senates, include language like the following: 

Implement an age limit of 35 for a dependent child to initiate an undergraduate academic program. The benefit would continue until graduation with the first Baccalaureate degree.

The limitation is clever.  The cleverness is bound in the choice of 35 years as a cut off number that avoids the thresh hold for legal claims for discrimination in the United States.  I suppose the idea is that if the age group against which discrimination is to be asserted includes a subset of people with no actionable age discrimination rights, then the entire provision can be defended as non-discriminatory, at least as a legal matter.  Of course, one wonders what happens in that context to university declarations of a moral obligation to "·do the right thing" or university efforts to impose far reaching ethical standards. See HERE and HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Certainly the rationales offered in supprot of these efforts are short on justifications grounded in university ethical standards or on university social norms requiring its stakeholders to do the right thing. Instead,  the rationale offered is invariably odd, at best, and quite troubling otherwise.  Usually these efforts are undertaken either because data for enrollment by age indicates a small number of dependents who currently use the benefit beyond age 35. Or faculties are induced to rationalize these measures as a way to balance university resources in providing tuition benefits to employees.

The there is a great tension and contradiction between the rationales usually offed.  It is difficult to understand how one can argue first that the benefit is hardly used as a rationale for eliminating the benefit (because no one is using it) and then argue that eliminating the benefit is necessary as a cost cutting measure.  The first suggests that very little cost is incurred, and the second suggests that cost savings will be achieved. 

Beyond the contradiction, however, is the idea, underlying these functional rationales, of an absence of a normative rationale supporting elimination of the benefit--at least one that could be constructed while avoiding the inevitable conclusion that the university will single out a discreet group--older people, adult learners, for special treatment.  It suggests an attitude about this group that is dismissive at best and malicious at worst.  Might it suggest that adult learners are less worthy than others--they had their chance and now are looking to get another chance at the expense of the university.  But since the conditions for attaining this benefit is the same for 18 year old as it is for 48 year old, that cannot be the case.  The appeal, then, is no doubt inadvertently, to prejudice.  And it is this call to prejudice that university faculty senates ought to resist.  

Indeed, on a broader level, the time might well have come for university senates in public and publicly assisted universities to more pointedly engage their human resources administrators not merely with respect to broad plans for managing benefits, but with the need to embed a strong ethical component in decision making, a process that lamentably has to date been driven by financial considerations to the exclusion of virtually anything else.

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