Mandatory training violates my rights (and tenured faculty are chickensh*t)!

Via the Twitters, DrugMonkey paged me for a consult:

Loon-tastic. Where's @docfreeride? RT @CackleofRad: Sexual harassment training is an attempt to brow-beat the tenured.http://clarissasblog.com/2011/09/06/who-has-the-power-to-refuse/

The post linked in the tweet contains some interesting tidbits:

I wanted to call your attention to the story of Dr. Alexander McPherson who resisted the attempts of  the University of California Irvine to take the mandatory sexual harassment training:

“I have consistently refused to take such training on the grounds that the adoption of the requirement was a naked political act by the state that offended my sensibilities, violated my rights as a tenured professor, impugned my character and cast a shadow of suspicion on my reputation and career,” McPherson said.

“I consider my refusal an act of civil disobedience. I even offered to go to jail if the university persisted in persecuting me for my refusal. We Scots are very stubborn in matters of this sort.”

It’s so good to hear that such things still take place. Normally, at every campus I have visited or heard of, the most beaten down, brown-nosing, terrified folks who are ready to kiss ass of every minor administrator are not the tenure-track faculty, the adjuncts, the instructors, the grad students, or the secretarial staff. It’s the tenured profs. It’s as if the moment you got tenure, you somehow immediately learned to tremble in the presence of any minuscule administrative pseudo-authority. I have no idea why that is but I have gotten used to the fact that any resistance even to the greatest act of stupidity on campus will not come from tenured people. ...

Every year, I am forced to take the so-called “ethics training” that teaches me in the most condescending way you can imagine not to accept bribes, not to divert university funding to my relatives, and not to steal office supplies. So I know where McPherson’s outrage is coming from.

I'm a little pinched for time at the moment (it being the first instructional day after a long holiday weekend) and thus will have to postpone a deeper and more nuanced consideration of the constellation of issues raised by the post. But, if I can channel the advice-nurse from our pediatrician's office, here's a quick identification of some of those issues, and my shooting-from-the-hip response to some of them:

What to say about required faculty training in safety, ethics, sexual harassment (and how not to do it), etc.?

It's fair to say that faculty, among other employees, frequently grumble about such training. Many feel (and not without cause) that the training they are required to complete (whether in a face-to-face meeting in a conference room or by way of an online module with a quiz) focuses on stuff that should be pretty obvious to anyone who is paying attention. And, given the obviousness of much of the content, it would not be surprising to find that some of the people delivering it did so in a condescending manner (because it could be challenging not to be condescending to a grown-up who didn't know better than to accept bribes or to demand sex for good grades or what have you).

But, it's not clear that the obviousness of the content or the seeming pointlessness of the task raises it to the level of an attack on one's academic freedom. Without something like a positive argument, I'm not persuaded by the claim that mandatory training violates anyone's rights or impugns his character any more than having to turn in grades by the grade-filing deadline or having to take roll on Census Day does.

And, the mere fact that ethics training, or safety training, or sexual harassment avoidance training is delivered in a stupid way that is likely not to engage faculty productively in being ethical or safe or non-harass-y does not mean that faculty have no need for training in these areas. Arguably, the fact that a handful of faculty members each year will be caught doing unethical stuff, or sexually harassing their students or colleagues, or running labs that are death-traps, suggests that such training would be really helpful -- if not to the wrongdoers, then to their colleagues, supervisors, and underlings looking for effective ways to respond to the wrongdoing. It just needs to be good training.

Are tenured faculty more cowardly in the face of administrative edicts, and if so, why the heck don't they put on their Big Professor Pants and stand up to the stupid edicts?

I would love to see some actual empirical data to support the claim that the tenured professoriate are the biggest chickens in the academic pecking order. This has not been my experience of things (especially in a department with many senior colleagues who will go to the mat for their students and colleagues and department on a fairly regular basis).

But, in the absence of clear data one way or another, let me suggest that the underlying phenomena that might be observed in a coarse-grained manner as "taking a stand" or "folding like a card table" could be more complicated. For example, an apparently spineless tenured faculty member who doesn't publicly protest the annual ethics training may:

  • Be collecting actual data on the effectiveness of the training currently in place, in order to build a stronger argument to the administration for abandoning this training and/or replacing it with more effective training.
  • Be involved in ongoing discussions with administrators about the effectiveness of this training, and/or the size of the burden it puts on the faculty to complete it -- and may be reasonably confident that the administrators with the power to change the training requirement will be most receptive to such one-on-one engagement rather than public defiance.
  • Be picking her battles, having judged the required ethics training far less onerous than (for example) the new course assessment regime or paperwork requirement for ordering lab supplies or what have you; fighting all the battles you could fight in an academic workplace can use you up right quick.
  • Be of the opinion that actually, the existing ethics training, while imperfect, is doing some good (and that the people who seem to be making the biggest stink about it are actually the ones who seem most inclined to cut a corner or two when it serves their interests) -- in other words, she may disagree with you that this is a site of administrative inhumanity to faculty, and thus be disinclined to protest it.

It's also worth noting that, at least on campuses where administrators have been chosen from the ranks of the faculty, tenured faculty may be more likely to know the administrators from their time in the faculty. This makes it harder to regard administrators as pure evil in a suit. Dealing with folks you know to be human beings with commitments to the self-same institutions and principles you value sometimes requires some finesse. -- and using some finesse when dealing with an administrator does not make you that administrator's lapdog.

Finally, at least some tenured faculty may be casing the administrative joint, figuring out how they might bring about lasting change for the better from the inside. Flipping the bird to the existing administration might take that option off the table.

10 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    There are, in simplistic terms, two types of problematic conduct: The stuff that's very blatantly obviously wrong, and the stuff we do that is in gray areas. Training that focuses on case studies of gray areas, that engages in thought-provoking discussions of things that we may not have thought about before, can be incredibly beneficial. Training that says "Remember, don't sleep with a student in exchange for a good grade, and don't embezzle" is pointless for anything other than legal ass-covering. It's a way of establishing that when some sociopath does these things that any sentient adult should know to be wrong, the institution can't be faulted for not saying that it was wrong.

    The problem, from an administrative viewpoint, with getting a good discussion going on the gray area stuff, is that now you're putting people in a situation where they will have to consider judgment calls. From an ass-covering and risk management perspective, you don't want people _thinking_ in these cases, you want them deferring.

  • John Hawks says:

    Refusing to participate in required training (which may be state mandated) may constitute reason for dismissal for cause.

    Unless our "civil disobeyer" has an actual academic freedom argument, I wouldn't be so blithe about refusing to attend.

  • odyssey says:

    Be warned, Clarissa is NEVER wrong...

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I'm fascinated by the idea that tenure provides an exemption from laws that cover other places of employment.

    I've seen reports of cases where failure to take "mandatory" safety or harassment training led to incidents being settled at lighting speed because Counsel advised the defendants that the training (or lack thereof) record would make the case a slam-dunk for the plaintiffs.

    The phrase "jointly and severally" comes to mind, too. How would that play in a criminal complaint? I have no idea.

    As always, IANAL.

  • John Schilling says:

    The purpose of mandatory sexual harassment training, etc, is not to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment. The purpose of mandatory sexual harassment training is to ensure that the institution and its upper management will not be included in the lawsuits that follow when sexual harassment does occur. "Look, we gave everyone the proper training, if they still went and harassed anyone it must have been malice on their part and not negligence on ours. Go sue them instead"

    So if you're going to "collect actual data on the effectiveness of the training currently in place", be sure you're collecting the right data.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    Damn! I wish I'd seen that before I spent 2 hours completing modules on sexual harassment, disability discrimination, chemical and fire safety, and infection control at the new job today. I never considered that in some way this violated my academic freedom (although technically I'm not tenured yet); I figured they were just seeing if I had the constitutional fierceness to last through this boring, obvious material.

    BTW, when in doubt on a sexual harassment question, the answer is "discuss with your supervisor."

  • Isabel says:

    So it's hatin' on Clarissa'a Blog week? The usual suspects are all in a tizzy (and all a-twitter). I'm disappointed to see you join the pile-on.

    I've had my own issues with Clarissa but I still read her blog - and enjoy her point of view. She's a narcissistic and opinionated blogger. What else is new?

    Jeez, get a grip people.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    I do hope that we're recognizing that "disagreeing with" and "hatin' on" are not equivalent positions.

  • Julian Frost says:

    Every year, I am forced to take the so-called “ethics training” that teaches me in the most condescending way you can imagine not to accept bribes, not to divert university funding to my relatives, and not to steal office supplies.

    I think this is the problem, and can vouch for what Clarissa is saying. I'm an external contractor at a large South African bank, and I was required to take some ridiculous online multiple choice exams. The courses taught me nothing I didn't know. I was constantly rolling my eyes while taking the exams.
    I agree with Alex @1. The training should involve ethically grey areas, and get people thinking. Sadly, this seems unlikely to happen.

  • becca says:

    On the one hand I have, actually, a modicum of sympathy for those who object to the training. Frankly, it reminds me of my own response to the 'don't plagiarize' lecture we got in the first year of graduate school. The problem with that training was that the person leading it (although otherwise in my experience a really decent sort) decided that all plagiarism could be viewed accurately with "black-and-white" ethical analysis.

    The year long discussion based ethics course was a lot more useful, and if everyone had such a course and remembered it, it would prevent e.g. over-reach by IRBs (as seen by faculty proposing research) or faculty proposing research that they haven't made a case they have the financial assets to finish (as seen by IRBs).

    Taking a stand against black-and-white 1 hour long tedious 'training' sessions that do NOT encourage ethical analysis and probably not ethical behavior, may indeed be fighting the good fight. Though there are probably more effective ways to do it than this prof has picked.

    On the other hand, the only individual I actually knew personally who decided to take a stand on sexual harassment training (by arguing with the black-and-white analysis presented during the training) managed to have the distinction of being 1) the only person ever to have to retake Scripps sexual harassment training and 2) the person with the most overt issues with women I've ever met (NB: he had gone through a nasty divorce and lost custody of his kid). He also kinda screwed up the lives of a least one tech and grad student in the lab he worked in as a postdoc.
    In short, in terms of public opinion, if you object to having to take sexual harassment training, this will probably put your "character" in a much more shady light than taking it. Gut-feeling reaction (which I would use if I were in a position to hire people or give them slots for speaking at conferences or anything else important)? Professor McPherson is a clueless douchecanoe who is not going to be a good colleague- ditto the people supporting him.