Sunday, February 12, 2017

What is the University?: De-Centering Education in an Age of Risk and Regulatory Management

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

People constantly ask variations of the question--What is the University? --usually as a rhetorical throat clearing to put forward some sort of ideological position that advances a particular agenda in the service of quite specific objectives.  That is to be expected, of course. But it is not the subject of this post.

Rather, the more interesting answer to this question ought to start with a more fundamental set of questions: (1) what are the objectives of regulatory society? and (2) how has the university changed to resemble and amplify greater society.  Asked in this way, the answer becomes much more interesting than the ideology-by-other-means discussion that tends to put off everyone but their advocates. 

The answer to these questions might be gleaned by the resources that universities increasingly devote--not to knowledge production and dissemination--but to the regulatory control of their stakeholder populations (students, faculty, staff and others that affect the university and its operations) either  for its own account or as a pass through institution administering privatizing regulatory demands of superior public institutions (usually state and federal governments). A recent communication from the President of Penn State University perhaps nicely illustrates the trend--not because it stands out but for precisely the opposite reason, for the way in which it reflects standard practice among universities, for the way it applies consensus within higher education about the regulatory role of the university. Indeed one might expect this to serve as a standard generic letter of its kind issued in some variation by many similarly situated high officials. It is for that reason that the communication is most interesting.

This post considers the larger societal consequences of the changes suggested, as a general matter and in common with other universities, by that communication.  The object is neither to condemn or praise the tend--but rather to notice them and consider what they might say about the character and function of the university generally in early 21st century America. The communication is reproduced below and is followed by some brief thoughts.


All members of the Penn State community are asked to remain mindful of their individual commitment to Penn State’s core values of Respect, Responsibility and Community by helping to keep the University a safe and ethical institution. In addition, as members of this community, everyone should be responsible stewards of University funds, whether generated from state, federal, student or other sources.

The University does not condone wrongful conduct by any member of the Penn State community, no matter what position he or she may hold.

Penn State University encourages the reporting of misconduct. If you see something, say something.

If you report misconduct, be assured that the University will protect you from retaliation. See AD67 ( or contact the Office of Ethics & Compliance for more information (

The following resources are available for faculty, staff, students, and others:


A summary of types of misconduct and how to report is available at

If at any point you are unsure where to report, you may contact:

The Office of Ethics and Compliance, Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm ET: 814-867-5088
The Penn State Hotline, 24/7: 800-560-1637 or

Suspected ethical or policy violations
(including fraud, theft, conflict of interest, abusive or intimidating behavior, retaliation, athletics integrity or NCAA compliance)

Report the misconduct to your supervisor or HR representative (
Use Penn State Hotline at 1-800-560-1637 or Both are anonymous and available 24/7

Crime or emergency situation

Contact the campus police or security office
In an emergency, dial 911

Child abuse, including child sexual abuse

Contact the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Services "ChildLine" at 800-932-0313 or
If the child is in immediate danger, dial 911 first
You must also email communicating that a report has been made. For more information on AD72 (Reporting Suspected Child Abuse), see
Further details can be found in the Building a Safe Penn State: Reporting Child Abuse training available on the Learning Resource Network at

Behavioral threat

Contact the Behavioral Threat Management Team at 855-863-BTMT (2868), 814-863-BTMT (2868), or

Bias, discrimination or harassment

Contact the Affirmative Action Office at 814-863-0471
Visit the Report Bias website:
Acts of intolerance by students may be reported to the Office of Student Conduct at 814-863-0342

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct**

To make a report to the University:
Contact the University’s Title IX Coordinator at 814-867-0099 or
To file an online report: Visit the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response's website at to file an online report
To file an anonymous report: The Penn State Hotline is available 24/7 at 800-560-1637 or Both are anonymous and available 24/7

To file a complaint outside of the University:
The Office for Civil Rights (Philadelphia Office) at 215-656-8541 or email
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Philadelphia District Office) at 800-669-4000
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (Harrisburg Regional Office) at 717-787-9780
** Additional information regarding information and resources available in relation to incidents of sexual harassment and/or misconduct (including a campus-specific list of victim support services and confidential reporting options) can be found at

Student Misconduct

Contact the Office of Student Conduct at 814-863-0342 or


Contact the Office for Research Protections at 814-865-1775 or

Policy AD88 – Code of Responsible Conduct:
By-laws of The Pennsylvania State University (section 8.13):
Policy HR91 – Conflict of Interest:
Policy RP06 – Disclosure and Management of Significant Financial Interests:
Policy AD77 – Engaging in Outside Professional Activities (Conflict of Commitment):
Policy AD85 – Sexual and/or Gender-Based Harassment and Misconduct (Including Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, Dating Violence, Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Related Inappropriate Conduct):
Policy AD86 – Acceptance of Gifts and Entertainment:
Policy AD91 – Discrimination and Harassment and Related Inappropriate Conduct:
If it is not clear where to turn for assistance, any of these offices will guide you to someone who can help:
Office of Human Resources Employee Relations Division at 814-865-1412 or
Office of University Ethics and Compliance at 814-867-5088 or
Office of Affirmative Action at 814-863-0471 or
Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at 814-867-0099 or
Office of Student Conduct at 814-863-0342 or
Office of Internal Audit at 814-865-9596 or
Clery Act Compliance Manager at 814-863-1273 or
Your campus, college, or unit's Human Resources Strategic Partner. Contact information is available

Training for employees is available on many of the above topics through the Office of Human Resources' Learning Resource Network at


1.   At first reading one might wonder if the university is under siege from unsocialized beings that have managed to infiltrate its space. Universities now appear to be vulnerable.  And they, like the society in which they are embedded, are vulnerable to a number of quite distinct societal pathologies. The University, indeed, has compiled a list of the greatest of these so that it might make the general population aware:
  • Abusive or intimidating behavior that creates a hostile or offensive environment
  • Cheating, plagiarism, or other violations of academic integrity
  • Discrimination
  • Financial misconduct (falsifying expense reports, embezzlement)
  • Research misconduct
  • Stealing, theft, or misuse of University services or resources
  • Substance abuse by an employee or student
  • Sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct
  • Violations of University policy and the Student Code of Conduct
  • Violations of local, state, federal, and international laws and regulations that you encounter during your work at the University
Universities, like the society in which it is embedded, no longer appears to be a safe place, even in its ordinary operation. One must now consider, as a routine part of one's existence, the constant possibilities of the evils described and be aware of the responsibilities for reporting. One worries constantly about risk and its control.  But the list also suggests the extent to which traditional institutional sources of legal, social, religious, moral and ethical control have receded into the background and how the university has emerged as the institutional foundation of an authority both to define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors but to transfer their governance form their traditional institutional setting into the administrative mechanisms of the university.

2. A second reading produces wonder at the scope of regulatory authority now vested in, and the range of conduct now managed through, the governance mechanisms of the university. The quality of these threats listed threats is extraordinarily broad in scope. They include everything from criminality, to violations of university rules and mores, and, in the case of international law, at least an odd extension of the binding authority of such law well beyond their legal effects within the United States.  There is no such thing as international law binding on individuals unless it has been transposed into domestic law.  Such international law might bind the United States but not its people. To paint with such a broad brush suggests the new enforcement role of the university beyond even the authority of the state.  It may, with respect to those individuals within its control, extend its governance authority beyond law and into both the transnational and societal sphere.

3.  A third reading  might note the strong incentive towards cultures of reporting and surveillance that these choices of regulatory management apparently encourage. The modern university is not merely focused on a broad scope of behavior governance but also on creating a mechanics where its own views of conduct are not merely internalized by its subject population, but where the subject population itself becomes the principal means for enforcing these norms. The university, in a sense, has now moved to the center not just of norm creation but also of the social engineering necessary to ensure that all of its subjects become willing deputies of its disciplinary regimes. 

4.  A fourth reading might then contemplate the extent to which that incentive then points to a greater and perhaps more depressing insight--the surveillance and reporting cultures illustrated by these regimes are grounded in a very dark presumption about human behavior. In effect, the university has embraced the basic premise that unless individuals are monitored and cultures of denunciation are encouraged, individuals when faced with a moral choice to do right or wrong, will choose wrong over right enough to destabilize the system.  The language of justification used by universities, of course, is the language of risk and liability and with it the presumption that the ideal university is the riskless university.  That creates its own perversions, especially in an environment that cannot progress without risk and contention. But the message is clear either way--the university cannot trust its individual employees, to ensure appropriate behavior it is required to institute substantial systems of monitoring and to encourage individuals to monitor and denounce each other. In the absence of these systems individuals will be inclined to abandon the rules and norms the university has in place in favor of others. This transformation of fundamental beliefs in human nature is neither unique to the university nor has it been incubated there.  American corporate law long ago moved in this direction in changing the character of the duty of care and monitoring by corporate boards of directors; the American Justice Department has long encouraged cultures f surveillance and internal denunciations. Yet perhaps one can lament the passing of a societal baseline in which individuals were presumed to do right and systems constructed on that basis.    

5.  A fifth reading would then consider the contradiction of broad regulatory governance systems like those intimated in the message reproduced above and the traditional foundation of university governance on honor codes and codes of conduct that presumed self control. It is impossible to reconcile a system founded on honor and one founded on mutual monitoring.  They are based on fundamentally different views of societal norms for personal conduct and personal responsibility.  What is clear is that systems grounded in mutual monitoring shift responsibility from the individual to the community in which she operates.  She is no longer the active agent of her actions.  She is the passive vessel of the judgement of those around her which, when exercised in the form of a denunciation, then enmesh her within the rights vindication mechanics of administrative decision making, one that has as its course, not justice but risk reduction.  

6.  A sixth reading might cause one to wonder at the issue of interpretive discretion at the heart of systems grounded in denouncing others.  Not only does it appear that individuals are now passive vessels, but also that the broad scope of offenses and their somewhat expansive scope leaves a substantial area of interpretive discretion.  Together that suggests that in the absence of absolute coherence in understanding  even a person who believes she is complying fully with all of the universities social and governance norms may find herself denounced on the basis of an assessment of violation based on a different understanding of the nature of compliance; it doesn't matter if the individual thinks she is doing right--what matters in the first instance is if those around her think she is doing doing in accordance with their own view of what that means. Privatized enforcement through denunciation vests in the reporting individual an initial and substantially important role in interpreting the rules that serve as the basis for the denunciation.  Where the institution (and perhaps the state through the institution) encourages a very broad reading of the rules (that is where the institutions are prepared to accept many false positives) then it runs the risk that reporting will shift to a "better be safe than sorry" approach. And worse, the possibilities of abuse are readily evident.  What better way of satisfying a need for revenge or of hobbling a competitor than through denunciation? It is true enough that (mostly) the innocent will prevail, but the cost of such vindication to the university and to the victim may be great indeed. 

7.  A seventh reading might then begin to think about how the regulatory management structure created effectively shifts the burden of enforcement from the state to the accused who must, from the time of the denunciation, effectively prove that she did nothing wrong.  That burden shifting is not a trifle--the costs in terms of productive time, of stress, of loss of reputation, and of the financial resources sometimes needed to vindicate against a false accusation can substantially interfere with productivity.  For the institution, of course, and without consultation, this shifting represents their own balancing of the fear of letting some of the guilty escape punishment (which they view as the greater evil) against the reality of subjecting others (and perhaps many others) to the grinding wheels of an administrative mechanism that might in many cases have little of the process protections built into public systems.

8.  An eighth reading might then cause one to wonder about the consequences of the fear of retaliation that lies just underneath the litany of threats, resources and reporting-denunciation obligations.  The denunciation university is happy enough to see communal monitoring when it is applied horizontally with a class a stakeholders or downward from a higher status group to a lower status one (e.g., faculty-students).  Where however lower tiered individuals seek to denounce higher tiered ones (faculty denouncing a university administrator) then complications may arise. The most important of these are the use by the higher tiered official, or that class of officials of which she is a member, of their authority to punish the denouncing individual.  The University again faces a contradiction which it only partially resolves.  The resolution requires construction of a "whistle blower" protection scheme that purports to protect those who use the denunciation process.  Lamentably these whistle blower provisions, usually copied from those offered by governments, tends to provide scant protection.  They include a number of traps for the unwary but more importantly they tend to shift the burden of protection to the person who suffered the retaliation, who now bears the burden, after injury, to see redress.  That in many cases effectively eviscerates any purported protection offered.

There is no doubt that the university acts reasonably within the culture of the economic sector in which it operates.  All universities tend toward the embrace of the premises that are given expression by messages like the one from the Penn State University resident.  The university, as a herd animal, cannot be expected to act very differently from the other members of the herd.  And they should not be expected to think for themselves or chart their own course  based on their own traditions and expectations of their students, faculty, staff and others. And there is the tragedy which necessarily produces  the University President's message and that is circulated without the slightest thught, by its readers, that there is anything here worth pondering. 

More importantly, the Message also reminds us the the extent to which the university now focuses less on  education--in the sense of knowledge production and dissemination--and much more on human management.  That human management includes authority respecting conduct that was once in the domain of other institutional actors--the state, societal organizations and cultural communities.  Yet now, in a way that mimics the state, these institutions increasingly serve to generate and enforce common norms.  Not that these norms are good or bad--that is irrelevant--but that authority for their genesis, protection, promotion and enforcement now falls to the university. What is the university, then? The university appears increasingly to be the training ground for the emerging forms of relationships between the individual and power--political, legal, religious, societal, and cultural. It is the institution that now teaches its stakeholders that they are passive agents of norms and active agents of the institutions they serve. They are conduits of data and themselves data to which the institution reserves an authority to act (on behalf of all). In place of personal responsibility there is communal monitoring.  In place of engagement there is control, for control of behavior of knowledge and of its dissemination becomes the central element of the riskless university of this century. 

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