Archive for the 'Institutional ethics' category

What I gleaned from the start of the semester faculty meetings.

Note that "gleaned" might suggest more in the way justified true belief than I actually acquired; at least some of these bullet points have all the tannins you'd expect from tea leaves. Also, there's maybe a little sarcasm, but I'm trying to get most of it out of my system before my first class meeting tomorrow. You have been warned.

Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Our university president and the governor of our state are super-excited about MOOCs. They're the wave of the higher ed future, y'all! And that excitement extends to entering a partnership wherein faculty at our university will develop MOOCs and the university will pocket a whopping 51% of the proceeds! The other 49% of the proceeds will go to a private company that will do ... something to add value to what our faculty build. No reason at all for California taxpayers to worry that this amounts to converting public funds to private profits!
  • Also, no need to worry that the University of California's bold initiatives MOOCward in UC Online have been much less successful than hoped. Because the California State University system will be able to figure it out!
  • Some faculty with an awareness of history pointed noted that, in the 1950s, precisely the same bold future of revolutionizing college education and broadening access to it was predicted, only with television as the delivery method. Remember how classroom instruction at colleges and universities had totally disappeared by the end of that decade? And this is why history departments must be phased out immediately!
  • So, our campus is phasing in its fourth "Learning Management System" (with which we develop and deliver content and interaction with students online) in 10 years. Faculty are scrambling to work out kludges to get the functionality with the new system that they had (but will be losing) with the old system. It combines all the hassle of a new prep with none of the intellectual thrill of a new prep. Bonus: Owing to the partnership with Udacity to develop and deliver MOOCs, there is absolutely no guarantee that the campus won't end up ditching this new LMS in favor of a (proprietary) LMS that Udacity prefers (and could yank out from under us in the event that the partnership founders). This is awesome incentive for those who have never used online tools in their pedagogy to start!
  • Faculty can reach a stage where they are so battered by directives from administrative levels beyond their department that they will hear their chair's proclamation "We will be doing [X] over my dead body" and ask "When must we implement [X]?" (I assure you, these are faculty who sincerely desire their chair's continued health and well-being.)
  • Administrators who think that they can appease disgruntled factions of the administrative units they oversee by making sure those factions are heavily represented on key committees and then listening to their concerns sometimes discover that listening to those concerns is not sufficient to appease the disgruntled factions.
  • Indeed, sometimes the disgruntled factions will make and distribute hundreds of fliers trying to rally the support of the less-disgruntled factions of their administrative units, including agitating for what could maybe shape up to be a coup against the administrators who listened to grievances but did not acquiesce to demands.
  • Such attempts to rally support from colleagues might be more successful if they showed awareness of the real challenges those less-disgruntled factions of the administrative units face, and especially of ways giving the disgruntled faction everything it wants might impact the resources and effective functioning of the less-disgruntled factions.
  • I have what feels like a memory that at least one of the first few start-of-semester faculty meetings early in my career here saw faculty generally gruntled. It's possible that this is baseless nostalgia, though.
  • You know what we hear that area employers are looking for in recent graduates? Good critical thinking skills. You know what core component of our General Education package the powers that be are seriously considering eliminating? Critical thinking! Of course, the proposal on the table is to fold the existing critical thinking requirement into another required course (the second semester freshman composition class), but some of us are fairly certain that student papers with solid mechanics but lacking critical thinking are going to end up being a horror show to grade.

I hope the rest of you in academia are experiencing a smooth start (or continuation, as the cas may be) to your term.

14 responses so far

Ponderable: Academic hiring and interviewing.

It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I'm remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department. Among other things, this means that I can consider the recent discussion of "conference interviews" at The Philosophy Smoker with something approaching "distance".

However, as I'm well aware, distance is not the same as objectivity, and anyway objectivity is not the kind of thing you can achieve solo, so I'm going to do a little thinking out loud on the screen in the hopes that you all may chime in.

The nub of the issue is how search committees in philosophy (and in at least some other academic disciplines) use preliminary interviews (typically 30 to 60 minutes in length) to winnow their "best" applicants for a position (as judged on the basis of writing samples, publication records, letters of recommendation, transcripts, teaching evaluations, and other written materials) down to the finalists, the number of which must be small enough that you can reasonably afford to bring them out for campus interviews.

The winnowing down is crucial. From more than a hundred applications, a search committee can usually reach some substantial agreement on maybe twenty candidates whose application materials suggest the right combination of skills (in teaching and research, and maybe also skills that will be helpful in "service" to the department, the institution, and the academic discipline) and "fit" with the needs of the department (as far as teaching, advising students, and also creating a vibrant community in which colleagues have the potential for fruitful collaborations close at hand).

But even if we could afford to fly out 15 or 20 candidates for campus interviews (which typically run a day or two, which means we'd also be paying for food and lodging for the candidates), it would literally break our semester to interview so many. These interviews, after all, include seminars in which the candidates make a research presentation, teaching demonstrations (hosted in one of our existing classes, with actual students in attendance as well as search committee members observing), meetings with individual faculty members, meetings with deans, and a long interview with the whole search committee. This is hard enough to squeeze into your semester with only five candidates.

So, the standard procedure has been to conduct preliminary interviews of shorter duration with the 20 or so candidates who make the first cut at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. For departments like mine, these interviews happen at a table in a ballroom designated for this purpose. Departments that have a bit more money will rent a suite at the conference hotel and conduct the interviews there, with a bit less background noise.

Job candidates pretty much hate this set up. The conference falls during winter holidays (December 26-30 or so), which means travel is more expensive than it might be some other time of year. Search committees sometimes don't decide who they want to interview at the convention until quite late in the game, which means candidates may not hear that a department would like to interview them until maybe a week before the conference starts (boosting the price of those plane tickets even more, or making you gamble by buying a plane ticket in advance of having any interviews scheduled). Even at conference rates, the hotel rooms are expensive. Occasionally, winter storms create problems for candidates and search committee members try to get to, or to flee from, the conference. Flu season piles on.

Search committee members are not wild about the logistics of traveling to the convention for the interviews, either. However, they feel like the conference interviews provide vital information in working out which of the top 20 or so candidates are the most likely to "fit" what the department wants and needs.

But this impression is precisely what is in question.

It has been pointed out (e.g., by Gilbert Harman, referencing research in social psychology) that interviews of the sort philosophy search committees use to winnow down the field add noise to the decision process rather than introducing reliable information beyond what is available in other application materials. This is not to say that search committees don't believe that their 30 or 60 minutes talking with candidates tells them something useful. But this belief, however strong, is unwarranted. The search committee might as well push itself to identify the top five candidates on the basis of the application materials alone, or, if that's not possible, randomly pick five of the top twenty for campus interviews.*

Of course, search committees seem not to be in a great hurry to abandon conference interviews, at least in philosophy. My (brief) experience on the scientific job market didn't include conference job interviews per se, but I did have preliminary interviews of very much the same nature and duration with some private sector companies and national labs -- which is to say, I don't think it's just philosophers who are making hiring decisions that are at least partially grounded on a type of information we have reason to believe could be misleading.

The question, of course, is what to do about all this.

Search committees could abandon these preliminary interviews altogether. That would surely put more pressure on the written components of the applications, some of which might themselves be misleading in interesting ways. I'm guessing search committees would resist this, since they believe (although mistakenly, if the research is right) that they really are learning something important from them. It's not obvious to me that job candidates would unanimously endorse this either (since some see the interview as a chance to make their case more vividly -- but again, maybe what they're making is pseudo-evidence for their case).

Search committees could work to structure preliminary interviews so that they provide more reliable information (as the research suggests properly structured interviews actually do).** This would require search committee members to learn how properly to conduct such interviews (and how properly to record them for later examination and evaluation). Moreover, it would require that search committee members do something like acknowledging that their instincts about how to conduct free-flowing, open-ended preliminary interviews that are also informative are probably just wrong. This is a task with a difficulty level that's probably right around what it takes to get science faculty to acknowledge that having learned a lot about their field might not be sufficient to be able to teach it effectively, and that science education research might be a useful source of empirically grounded pedagogical insight. In other words, I think it would be really hard.

Search committees could keep conducting preliminary interviews as they always have. Inertia can be powerful, as can the feeling that you really are learning something from the interviews. However, it seems like a search committee would have to take into account the claim that, empirically, interviews are misleading when drawing conclusions on the basis of preliminary interviews. (Of course this is a normative claim -- the search committees ought to take this worry into account -- rather than a claim that mere exposure to a research finding would be enough to remove the search committee's collective powers of self-delusion.)

Or ... search committees could do something else?

What else could they do here? How do those of you in scientific fields handle the role of interviewing in hiring? Specifically, do you take concrete measures to ensure that interviews don't introduce noise into hiring decisions? Or do you feel that the hiring decisions you need to make admit of sufficiently objective information that this just isn't a problem for you?

If you prefer to comment pseudonymously for this discussion, feel free, but one pseudonym to a customer please.

* For all I know, campus interviews may introduce some of the same kinds of noise to the decision-making process as conference interviews do. However, many include teaching demonstrations with a sample from the actual student population the candidate would be asked to teach if hired, a formal presentation of the candidate's research (including responding to questions about it), and ample opportunity for members of the hiring department to get a sense of whether the candidate is someone with whom one could interact productively or instead someone who might drive one up a wall.

** It is worth noting that some search committees, even in philosophy departments, actually do conduct structured interviews.

19 responses so far

Solving California's higher education budget -- with word problems!

Are you in the mood for some word problems? Let's go, and please remember to show your work for full credit!

1. Read this passage from Inside Higher Ed:

University of California administrators announced Thursday that the system will centralize payroll and human resources for its 10 campuses and five medical centers at a new site in Riverside. The new center is part of a system-wide initiative designed to save $500 million in administrative costs and direct them back toward the university's academic mission. UC officials said the new center would save "as much as $100 million annually" and create up to 600 jobs when fully deployed, which they hope to be within three years. Part of the savings will come from eliminated positions on the individual campuses, but officials would not say how many people would be losing their jobs.

(a) Assume the scenario where the net change in jobs is zero (that is, where each of the HR jobs lost at another UC campus is completely offset by a job created at the new site at Riverside). Also, neglect non-salary costs (on the assumption that salaries are a much larger total cost). Calculate the average salary of the 600 HR employees required to save $100 million annually.

(Hint: Let the average pre-consolidation HR salary equal x.)

(b) Now assume the best-case scenario where the new site at Riverside results in net creation of 600 jobs in the UC system. Again, neglect non-salary costs (on the assumption that salaries are a much larger total cost). Calculate the average salary of the 600 new HR employees required to save $100 million annually.

(c) Propose a strategy for recruiting HR specialists willing to work for the salary you found in (b). For bonus points, propose a strategy that does not require the use of Schedule I drugs.

Extra-credit: Explain why it makes sense to describe this cost-cutting plan as "creating jobs".

2. Read this passage from California Watch:

In the first test of the California State University system's recently approved executive compensation policy, the presidents appointed to lead CSU East Bay and CSU Fullerton are slated to each receive the maximum salaries allowable under the new rules.

After CSU trustees approved a large pay increase for the new San Diego State University president last summer on the same day that they raised student tuition, the university system faced a chorus of criticism from legislators, the media and the public. Trustees approved a base salary for SDSU President Elliot Hirshman of $400,000, including $50,000 from the university foundation. That's $100,000 more than his predecessor's salary.

In response, the CSU trustees in January approved a new executive compensation policy [PDF] that limits new presidents' base pay to no more than 10 percent above their predecessors.

In a pay package [PDF] slated for review at this week's Board of Trustees meeting, newly appointed CSU Fullerton President Mildred Garcia will get $324,500 in base pay, plus housing and a $12,000-per-year car allowance. That's exactly 10 percent more than her predecessor, Milton Gordon, who in 2011 had a base salary of $295,000. 

It's also 10 percent more than Garcia earned in base pay at her previous post as president of CSU Dominguez Hills, according to CSU's executive compensation summary [PDF].

Leroy Morishita, the new president at CSU East Bay, will get $303,660 plus $60,000 per year for housing and a $12,000 annual car allowance. That's 10 percent above predecessor Mohammad Qayoumi's base pay in 2010, as well as a 10 percent raise for Morishita, who had been serving as interim president in Qayoumi's stead since July.

(a) For a CSU campus whose outgoing president has a base salary of $300,000 per year, what is the minimum number of new presidents that must be hired before the base salary reaches $1 million?

(b) Given 23 campuses in the CSU system, and assuming an average presidential base salary of $150,000 per year, how many years of hiring a new president at each campus annually would it take to double annual presidential salaries?

(c) How many lecturers could you hire per year with the amount of money required for each of the 23 CSU campuses to hire a new president at the maximum 10% increase of base pay? (Assume an annual lecturer salary of $36,000.)

(d) If a new CSU campus president gets a 10% increase in base salary and faculty on that campus cannot get a 1% increase in base salary, what percentage of the faculty's grading should the campus president take on?

Extra credit: Not all compensation for campus presidents comes in the form of salary. If housing renovations are included in campus executive compensation packages, and if such renovations can be paid for out of campus Foundation funds, explain why Foundation funds cannot be used for faculty salaries or for non-salary compensation for faculty (e.g., to pay for house or car repairs).

10 responses so far

Claims and their logical consequences (or not)

Within certain quarters of the administration of my fair university (and of the state university system of which it is a part), it is now taken as given that the classroom is a relic of a bygone era.

Lectures, it is declared, don't work. Besides, the Internet abounds with free streaming lectures (the ones from MIT, the TED Talks). What could we possibly have to add to that? So, it's time to phase out classes in classrooms and move our instruction online.

It's interesting to me that what is offered is a general declaration, rather than an identification of any particular lecture classes of ours that are not working. As it happens, the particular classes are what we offer, not some abstract generalization of "the lecture class".

Moreover, to the extent that lectures are a suboptimal delivery method for information and skills, this seems to be connected to a lack of opportunity to engage in what we in the biz call "active learning". This can be as simple as a pause for questions, or to have students work through a problem where they try to apply or extend something presented in the lecture. It might also involve a more elaborate small group exercise or a facilitated discussion.

Here's the thing: many (if not most) of us who teach "lecture" courses already incorporate a lot of active learning.

And, if the concern is that we should do more of it, or do it better, why would one conclude that the answer is to take this interaction out of the classroom and move it online? Why, especially, would one conclude that one should move it online while making class sizes much, much bigger?

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that the way to increase active learning is to make class sizes smaller?

Of course, that would cost more.

However, if the goal is really better pedagogy, not just cutting a few million dollars here or there, it might be worth remembering that facilitating active learning -- not to mention evaluating it to provide students with useful feedback and/or grades -- requires more instructor labor, not less, when it's done online.

Or, maybe the administration is only interested in improved pedagogy if the improvements (and whatever extra labor they require) can be had for free.

The whole thing kind of makes me wish the folks further up the org-chart than I am would just spell out exactly what they care about, and exactly what they don't care about. As it is, enough is left implicit that it's really hard to know whether there's any common ground for us to share.

2 responses so far

When patching the boat becomes unethical (a dispatch from a university in crisis).

Apr 12 2012 Published by under Academia, Institutional ethics, Personal

"We've spent years figuring out how to do more with less. It's time for us to figure out how to do less."

-- my department chair, circa 2008

I have recently arrived at the suspicion that operating in crisis conditions undermines one's ability to make objective judgments. My hunch is that the effect is especially strong when it comes to evaluating whether an on-the-ground response to an extreme reduction in resources will help or hurt the broader goals one (or one's institution) is trying to achieve.

And indeed, this hunch is something I am just articulating to myself (rather than leaving it as a miasma that envelops my head and my workplace) as my assistance has been requested in devising a radical curricular response to "the new normal" of hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the budget (with more to come!) that we have been told are never coming back. The radical curricular response, as I understand it right now, would have the virtue of saving a significant amount of money. However, it would do so by taking particular pedagogical goals that it is difficult to achieve well in a 15 week semester and cramming them into about 5 weeks of another semester-long course -- and by delivering the whole thing completely online to all of our incoming freshmen. This latter detail concerns me in terms of the workload it will entail for the faculty teaching the course and evaluating student work (since, in my experience, the time required teaching online has never been less than teaching the equivalent course in a classroom, and indeed has always been substantially more). And, it concerns me in terms of the challenges it will create as far as getting new college students to engage meaningfully with the course material, with their professors, and with each other. (My experience teaching upper division students online is that even keeping them engaged is a challenge.)

There is a piece of me that loves problem-solving enough that I have been thinking through topics and readings and assignments that might efficiently achieve the pedagogical goals in question. There are people I respect, people I like, who believe this goal is attainable and consistent with our educational mission.

But, there is another part of me, one whose voice is getting louder, that says this is an exercise in patching a boat that cannot, cannot stay afloat under these conditions. This part of me argues that we need to recognize this radical curricular response for what it really is: a signal that we have passed the point where we can actually deliver a quality college education with the resources we will be given.

If that's what it is, can it be ethical to proceed as if we can somehow deliver something close enough to a quality college education? Should we not, instead, call it as we see it and identify the resources we need to do the job we're supposed to do?

Obviously, asking for appropriate resources does not guarantee that we will get them. It may result in our doing the job right but for fewer students. Conceivably, it might also result in the administrators finding ways to clear out faculty who say the job cannot be done with less (by eliminating our departments, for example, or by ramping up class sizes and cutting salaries to the point that the job becomes intolerable) until the ones who remain are the ones willing to play ball.

I have tended to view adaptability as a good thing, but I have long been suspicious of the assumption that we should regard the environment to which we might adapt as an immovable object -- especially when that environment is made up of people making policy decisions. I think I'm ready to find out whether university system administrations can adapt when faculty take a stand for quality education.

13 responses so far

Some ethical decisions are not that hard: thoughts on Joe Paterno.

Ethical decision-making involves more than having the right gut-feeling and acting on it. Rather, when done right, it involves moving past your gut-feeling to see who else has a stake in what you do (or don't do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to you; to whom you have obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by your action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull you in different directions as you try to make the best decision. Sometimes it's helpful to think of the competing obligations and interests as vectors, since they come with both directions and magnitudes -- which is to say, in some cases where they may be pulling you in opposite directions, it's still obvious which way you should go because the magnitude of one of the obligations is so much bigger than of the others.

The ethical decision-making strategy I teach my students (drawn from Muriel J. Bebeau, "Developing a Well-Reasoned Response to a Moral Problem in Scientific Research") is one I find useful in all sorts of real situations (which is pretty much the point of an ethical decision-making strategy). Occasionally, this means applying it to evaluate whether a decision which someone else describes as "really tough" actually is.

For example, on the downfall of Joe Paterno, I encountered comments on the ethical decision he had to make (and on how well or badly he did with that) like this:

If this guy met his “legal obligations” by reporting the report, not something he saw himself even, then why isn’t that enough? He likely would have preferred to do even less. And he’s not the police, he isn’t charged with investigating and finding out the facts.

and this:

We all have to balance competing ethical obligations all the time, let’s at least do each other the courtesy of admitting that it’s difficult.

Is it difficult?

If you would rather not think about a situation where a responsible adult had to figure out what to do when child rape was reported to him, you probably don't want to read the rest of this post. I don't blame you. However, if you should find yourself in a relevantly similar position as the responsible adult, whether you want to think of it or not, you'll be on the hook to do good ethical decision-making of your own.

Let's have a look at the bare-bones of the JoePa case: A graduate assistant tells the head coach that he has witnessed an emeritus member of the coaching staff in the team's shower facilities performing a sex act on a 10-year-old. The head coach need to figure out what to do.

Who are the interested parties here?

  • The head coach, who needs to make the decision about what to do.
  • The child who was abused, who has an interest in being protected from future abuse.
  • The graduate assistant, who has an interest in being an effective member of the football program, as well as in not being punished for being a whistleblower.
  • The emeritus member of the coaching staff. He has an interest in maintaining his reputation and relationship with the football program, and in being treated fairly. If he didn't actually abuse the child, being treated fairly may amount to something different than if he did commit the abuse.
  • Law enforcement agencies have an interest in getting information about criminal acts so they can investigate them, establish the evidence for a prosecution, and stop criminal acts that are ongoing.
  • The football program, the university, the university community, and the larger society. These communities have a bunch of interests, including continuing a successful football program that lots of people enjoy, keep kids in the community safe from abuse, and upholding the values off the institutions and communities.

The head coach is (I hope) thinking through possible courses of action that include taking the matter to the police or taking the matter to the university's athletic director. He might also be considering what would happen in the case that he does nothing. What are the possible consequences of these various courses of action?

If he takes the matter to the police:

  • The police may act to stop the emeritus matter of the coaching staff from committing further abuse.
  • The police will likely launch an investigation of the allegations to determine whether they are grounded. The police investigation will also collect evidence that may be used in a prosecution.
  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus matter of the coaching staff may be damaged.
  • The reputation of the emeritus matter of the coaching staff will likely be damaged.
  • The administration of the athletic department and the university might be upset at the unfavorable light cast on them by the incident, if the allegations become public.
  • The reputation of the football program with the university community and the broader community may be tarnished by news of the incident.
  • It may take a bunch of time to cooperate with the police investigation.

If he takes the matter to the university's athletic director:

  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus matter of the coaching staff may be damaged.
  • The reputation of the emeritus matter of the coaching staff will likely be damaged.
  • The administration of the athletic department and the university might be upset at the unfavorable light cast on them by the incident, if the allegations become public.
  • The reputation of the football program with the university community and the broader community may be tarnished by news of the incident.
  • It may take a bunch of time to cooperate with the police investigation -- if the university's athletic director passes the matter onto the police.
  • The abuse may stop -- if the athletic director passes the matter onto the police.
  • If the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may have to involve the police himself, which may anger the athletic director.
  • Or, if the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may have to spend a lot of time trying to convince him to involve the police. This may anger the athletic director and be emotionally draining to the head coach.
  • If the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may feel guilty that he didn't do more to stop the abuse.

If the head coach decides to do nothing:

  • The abuse may continue, and more kids may be abused.
  • The reputation of the football program and the university may remain intact.
  • In the event that the situation becomes public later, the reputation of the football program and the university may be badly damaged -- as might the reputation of the head coach.
  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus member of the coaching staff may remain intact. Or, it might not.
  • The head coach's relationship with the graduate assistant may suffer.
  • The reputation of the emeritus member of the coaching staff may remain intact.
  • The head coach's conscience may be troubled.

What are the head coach's obligations here?

  • To protect those who cannot protect themselves.
  • To protect his team.
  • To uphold the values of the athletics program, the university, and the larger community.
  • To protect the reputation of the athletics program, the university, and the larger community.
  • To protect colleagues from unfair treatment (but not from just consequences)
  • To provide the information he has about the child abuse to law enforcement so they can investigate the allegations to determine whether there is evidence to support them.
  • To maintain his own integrity and good conscience

I take it there is no ethical obligation to avoid headaches or awkward moments with one's colleagues.

Looking at these obligations, nearly all seem to pull in the direction of the head coach doing something, rather than doing nothing. Indeed, they strike me as all pulling in the direction of doing something effective, rather than passing the buck to a higher-up and being done with it.

Some might argue that there's a conflict between the obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves and the obligation to protect colleagues from unfair treatment. However, it seems like the head coach should be able to uphold his obligation to protect colleagues from unfair treatment without having to cover up what was reported to him (and without that allegation being buried by an administrator higher up in the hierarchy). Indeed, as a grown-up, the emeritus member of the coaching staff has far more resources to secure fair treatment than does the 10-year-old child.

How people make decisions tells us something about what obligations and interests they take most seriously. Do they care more about the values of their organization or its reputation? Do they care more about vulnerable people or about people they know personally who might be hurting those vulnerable people? Do they choose blissful ignorance over the involvement that might be required to obtain accurate information, or to pass on the information they have (no matter how uncertain it might seem to them) to the people whose job it is to conduct investigations in these sorts of cases?

(I'm not claiming here that police investigations of allegations of child rape are perfect. However, they seem likely to do better by the potential victims and other vulnerable members of the community than not investigating such allegations at all.)

Some ethical decision-making is hard. There are cases where we are bound by strong obligations that pull us in different directions.

But this particular case really isn't that hard. It may require effort to do the right thing, but figuring out what the right thing to do is here is not rocket science.

16 responses so far

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.

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.

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Does the punishment fit the crime? Luk Van Parijs has his day in court.

Earlier this month, the other shoe finally dropped on the Luk Van Parijs case.

You may recall that Van Parijs, then an associate professor of biology at MIT, made headlines back in October of 2005 when MIT fired him after spending nearly a year investigating charges that he had falsified and fabricated data and finding those charges warranted. We discussed the case as it was unfolding (here and here), and discussed also the "final action" by the Office of Research Intergrity on the case (which included disbarment from federal funding through December 21, 2013).

But losing the MIT position and five year's worth of eligibility for federal funding (counting from when Van Parijs entered the Voluntary Exclusion Agreement with the feds) is not the extent of the formal punishment to be exacted for his crimes -- hence the aforementioned other shoe. As well, the government filed criminal charges against Van Parijs and sought jail time.

As reported in a news story posted 28 June 2011 at Nature ("Biologist spared jail for grant fraud" by Eugenie Samuel Reich, doi:10.1038/474552a):

In February 2011, US authorities filed criminal charges against Van Parijs in the US District Court in Boston, citing his use of fake data in a 2003 grant application to the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Maryland. Van Parijs entered a guilty plea, and the government asked Judge Denise Casper for a 6-month jail term because of the seriousness of the fraud, which involved a $2-million grant. "We want to discourage other researchers from engaging in similar behaviour," prosecutor Gregory Noonan, an assistant US attorney, told Nature.

On 13 June, Casper opted instead for six months of home detention with electronic monitoring, plus 400 hours of community service and a payment to MIT of $61,117 — restitution for the already-spent grant money that MIT had to return to the National Institutes of Health. She cited assertions from the other scientists that Van Parijs was truly sorry. "I believe that the remorse that you've expressed to them, to the probation office, and certainly to the Court today, is heartfelt and deeply held, and I don't think it's in any way contrived for this Court," she said.

Let me pause for a moment to let you, my readers, roll your eyes or howl or do whatever else you deem appropriate to express your exasperation that Van Parijs's remorse counts for anything in his sentencing.

Verily, it is not hard to become truly sorry once you have been caught doing bad stuff. The challenge is not to do the bad stuff in the first place. And, the actual level of remorse in Van Parijs's heart does precisely nothing to mitigate the loss (in time and money, to name just two) suffered by other researchers relying on Van Parijs to make honest representations in his journal articles and grant proposals.

Still, there's probably a relevant difference (not just ethically, but also pragmatically) between the scientist caught deceiving the community who gets what such deception is a problem and manifests remorse and the scientist caught deceiving the community who doesn't see what the big deal is (because surely everyone does this sort of thing, at least occasionally, to survive in the high-pressure environment). With the remorseful cheater, there might at least be some hope of rehabilitation.

Indeed, the article notes:

Luk Van Parijs was first confronted with evidence of data falsification by members of his laboratory in 2004, when he was an associate professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Within two days, he had confessed to several acts of fabrication and agreed to cooperate with MIT's investigation.

A confession within two days of being confronted with the evidence is fairly swift. Other scientific cheaters in the headlines seem to dig their heels in and protest their innocence (or that the post-doc or grad student did it) for significantly longer than that.

Anyway, I think it's reasonable for us to ask here what the punishment is intended to accomplish in a case like this. If the goal is something beyond satisfying our thirst for vengeance, then maybe we will find that the penalty imposed on Van Parijs is useful even if it doesn't include jail time.

As it happens, one of the scientists who asked the judge in the case for clemency on his behalf suggests that jail time might be a penalty that actually discourages the participation of other members of the scientific community in rooting out fabrication and falsification. Of course, not everyone in the scientific community agrees:

[MIT biologist Richard] Hynes argued that scientific whistleblowers might be reluctant to come forwards if they thought their allegations might result in jail for the accused.

But that is not how the whistleblowers in this case see it. One former member of Van Parijs' MIT lab, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity, says he doesn't think the prospect of Van Parijs' imprisonment would have deterred the group from coming forwards. Nor does he feel the punishment is adequate. "Luk's actions resulted in many wasted years as people struggled to regain their career paths. How do you measure the cost to the trainees when their careers have been derailed and their reputations brought into question?" he asks. The court did not ask these affected trainees for their statements before passing sentence on Van Parijs.

This gets into a set of questions we've discussed before:

I'm inclined to think that the impulse to deal with science's youthful offenders privately is a response to the fear that handing them over to federal authorities has a high likelihood of ending their scientific careers forever. There is a fear that a first offense will be punished with the career equivalent of the death penalty.

Permanent expulsion or a slap on the wrist is not much of a range of penalties. And, I suspect neither of these options really address the question of whether rehabilitation is possible and in the best interests of both the individual and the scientific community. ...

If no errors in judgment are tolerated, people will do anything to conceal such errors. Mentors who are trying to be humane may become accomplices in the concealment. The conversations about how to make better judgments may not happen because people worry that their hypothetical situations will be scrutinized for clues about actual screw-ups.

Possibly we need to recognize that it's an empirical question what constellation of penalties (including jail time) encourage or discourage whisteblowing -- and to deploy some social scientists to get reliable empirical data that might usefully guide decisions about institutional structures of rewards and penalties that will best encourage the kinds of individual behaviors that lead to robust knowledge-building activities and effectively coordinated knowledge-building communities.

But, it's worth noting that even though he won't be doing jail time, Van Parijs doesn't escape without punishment.

He will be serving the same amount of time under home detention (with electronic monitoring) as he would have served in jail if the judge had given the sentence the government was asking for. In other words, he is not "free" for those six months. (Indeed, assuming he serves this home detention in the home shared by his wife and their three young children, I reckon there is a great deal of work that he might be called on to do with respect to child care and household chores, work that he might escape in a six-month jail sentence.)

Let's not forget that it costs money to incarcerate people. The public picks up the tab for those expenses. Home detention almost certainly costs the public less. And, Van Parijs is probably less in a position to reoffend during his home detention, even if he slipped out of his ankle monitor, than is the guy who robs convenience stores. What university is going to be looking at his data?

Speaking of the public's money, recall that another piece of the sentence is restitution -- paying back to MIT the $61,117 that MIT spent when it returned Van Parijs's grant money to NIH. Since Van Parijs essentially robbed the public of the grant money (by securing it with lies and/or substitute lies for the honest scientific results the grant-supported research was supposed to be generating), it is appropriate that Van Parijs dip into his own pocket to pay this money back.

It's a little more complicated, since he needs to pay MIT back. MIT seems to have recognized that paying the public back as soon as the problem was established was the right thing to do, or a good way to reassure federal funding agencies and the the public that universities like MIT take their obligations to the public very seriously, or both. A judgment that doesn't make MIT eat that loss, in turn, should encourage other universities that find themselves in similar situations to step up right away and make things right with the funding agencies.

And, in recognition that the public may have been hurt by Van Parijs's deception beyond the monetary cost of it, Van Parijs will be doing 400 hours of community service. In inclined to believe that given the current fiscal realities of federal, state, and local governments, there is some service the community needs -- and doesn't have adequate funds to pay for -- that Van Parijs might provide in those 400 hours. Perhaps it will not be a service he finds intellectually stimulating to provide, but that's part of what makes it punishment.

Undoubtedly, there are members of the scientific community or of the larger public that will feel that this punishment just isn't enough -- that Van Parijs committed crimes against scientific integrity that demand harsher penalties.

Pragmatically, though, I think we need to ask what it would cost to secure those penalties. We cannot ignore the costs to the universities and to the federal agencies to conduct their investigations (here Van Parijs confessed rather denying the charges and working to obstruct the fact-finding), or to prosecutors to go to trial (here again, Van Parijs pled guilty rather than mounting a vigorous defense). Maybe there was a time where there were ample resources to spend on full-blown investigations and trials of this sort, but that time ain't now.

And, we might ask what jailing Van Parijs would accomplish beyond underlining that fabrication and falsification on the public's dime is a very bad thing to do.

Would jail time make it harder for Van Parijs to find another position within the tribe of science than it will already be for him? (Asked another way, would being sentenced to home detention take any of the stink off the verdict of fraud against him?) I reckon the convicted fraudster scientist has a harder time finding a job than your average ex-con -- and that scientists who feel his punishment is not enough can lobby the rest of their scientific community to keep a skeptical eye on Van Parijs (should he publish more papers, apply for jobs within the tribe of science, or what have you).

9 responses so far

Can nothing be done about the exam-talkers?

That isn't a typo -- the issue is students who talk to each other while taking exams.

I received the following via email from a reader (lightly edited to remove identifying details):

I'm wondering if you and your readers can help me analyze this situation.

I caught two students talking during an exam.

This is not the first time for this pair. The first time this happened, I explicitly communicated my expectations about conduct during an exam to all of my students, specifically stating that talking during an exam will be taken as cheating. The academic integrity section of the undergraduate bulletin also states that conversation during an exam is not allowed.

After the second incident, I wanted to penalize both students with a zero for said exam and forfeiture of the dropped-lowest-exam-score policy. The students immediately said they will appeal to the dean and their parents have been hounding the chair as well as the administration.

The message I'm getting now is that I cannot prove the talking during the exam actually took place (although I saw it). Not only that, I'm basically being bullied to drop it for fear that the parents will file a law suit, maybe because the administration has decided the university cannot deal with another scandal after a recent one fueled by alcohol.

My question is, when did talking during exams become acceptable? (That it's acceptable is the message I'm getting regardless of what's written in the academic bulletin). I have not been teaching long but have read about faculty being fearful of repercussions when reporting cheating students. I don't want to end up like that, compromising my principles for fear of repercussions such as loss of job (I'm not protected by tenure). Unfortunately, this is where I am headed. This whole incident is very demoralizing. Is it too much to expect students to abide by a shared code of conduct during exams? Is this response by chair and administration common?

I'm going to give my advice on this situation, but since my correspondent specifically requested help from you, the commentariat, please post your advice in the comments, making sure to point out ways you think my advice goes wrong.

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17 responses so far

Harvard Dean sheds (a little) more light on Hauser misconduct case.

Today ScienceInsider gave an update on the Marc Hauser misconduct case, one that seems to support the accounts of other researchers in the Hauser lab. From ScienceInsider:

In an e-mail sent earlier today to Harvard University faculty members, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), confirms that cognitive scientist Marc Hauser "was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards."

ScienceInsider reprints the Dean's email in its entirety. Here's the characterization of the nature of Hauser's misconduct from that email:

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