Friday, October 31, 2014

Administrative Growth: More Complicated Than It Appears

I've written before about "administrative bloat" - the ongoing complaint (often from faculty, sometimes from state legislators) that universities have added too many administrators in recent years and not enough faculty. There are numbers to support this contention, so the general trend is not in doubt. The real question is why this is happening.

Faculty of a certain bent are wont to attribute this to the general greed and tribal affiliation of administrators - that administration breeds more administration and that administrators don't care about the faculty. While good for whipping up the masses, this argument lacks much in the way of evidence. Yes, there are administrators here and there who see themselves as a breed apart from faculty and who take an adversarial position. But a great many don't, and many are more than happy to add more faculty lines when they can find the resources to do so.

My contention has been that there are forces outside of higher education entirely that help to drive the growth in administration. Today's Chronicle has an excellent example of just such a force:
Overseeing Sex-Assault Cases Is Now a Full-Time Job
Hiring people to take the lead on Title IX compliance and put together good, effective responses to sexual assault cases that protects both victims and accused is an important thing. In today's climate, with folks on both sides lawyering up, it's probably a necessary step to get out in front of the issue. But it also costs money. That's one more administrator on many campuses - money that could, under other circumstances, fund a faculty line.

So to my faculty colleagues - please, the next time you get the urge to complain about administrative bloat, look carefully at who's being hired to do what. Where there are positions your university really doesn't need, make that argument. But don't paint administrative motives too broadly. Sometimes, those new administrative positions can help make the world a better place.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I'm Not Watching Football Anymore

I have been, for most of my life, a football fan. Specifically, I have been a fan of the NFL, and of the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s when the Chuck Noll-led dynasty was legendary. I can't not root for the Steelers - it's programmed into my autonomous responses by now, like Pavlov's dogs.

I had less interest in college football until I attended Ohio State for graduate school. Even there, I never went to a game, and I've remained diffident about big-time college football. Yes, I have rooted for the Buckeyes, but as a lifelong faculty member and administrator in higher education I have some sense of how much sports cost, how few programs actually make money, and how much other people get rich off the backs of the players and the rabid loyalty of the fans. I've blogged about this before (here, here, and here). Suffice it to say that what interest I had in BCS football has been waning for some time.

But now I find that I just can't watch the sport at any level anymore. I've come to this realization after a long accumulation of issues that just won't go away. The science on concussions, which started to get significant public attention a few years ago, is stark: a LOT of football players, especially NFL players who play for a number of years, are essentially damaged for life. Some of them go on to damage the lives of others around them. And while I appreciate that the NFL is putting a small portion of its vast wealth into studying the issue, I don't think there's a solution short of "don't play football". Maybe someone will invent the miracle helmet that can change the laws of physics, but so long as our brains can move within our skulls I think the problem is going to persist.

Then there is the issue of domestic violence, brought to light this season in a couple of very high-profile cases. An op-ed in the NYT recently - written by somebody who is still a genuine fan of the game - had a poignant take on the issue of violence and pro football. These men engage in violence - controlled and structured, true, but violence nevertheless - for a living. For many, that has an effect on the psyche just as it has an effect on the brain - and there are complex interactions than can make it worse.

Then in this past weekend's paper came this story about injuries in the NFL. Across the 32 team rosters there are roughly 1700 players (some proportion of which don't see a lot of action - kickers, third-stringers, special teams players, etc.) By this point in the season, less than 1/2 way through, some 200 of those players have been injured severely enough to be taken out for 6 weeks or more. Injuries include torn-up knees and muscles, broken legs and collarbones, strains and sprains of all kinds - and, of course, a few severe concussions. By this point, roughly 1/8 of the workforce has gotten hurt. Short of soldiers in a very active war zone, I don't know a lot of professions with that kind of casualty rate.

At some point, I just can't watch this anymore. I still appreciate the supreme skill and artistry of the game played at the highest level. Some of what these players do is remarkable to behold. But the cost which that artistry is exacting on those same players is nearing the horrific. That knowledge sits in my head, demanding attention, any time I try to watch a game. I just can't enjoy it anymore, knowing that I may well be watching the ruining of another man's future life for my entertainment.

Let me be clear - this is a personal conclusion, which so far as I'm concerned affects only me. I have lots of friends who are still fans of the game at both the college and pro levels, and I don't ask that they change their habits or demand that they think the way I do. I wouldn't dream of calling for a boycott on watching football, nor would I make the argument that football should somehow be banned. Making such arguments would be an attempt to bully or harangue my views onto others. I'm not interested in that.

So if you enjoy football, great - I hope you watch for as long as it brings you enjoyment. But as for me - I've had enough. All the damage being done - voluntary or not, consciously chosen or not - is just too much. I have plenty of other things demanding my time. Time to try a football-free fall.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guns and Safety: The Missing Human Dimension

A case that (on its surface) pits free speech against gun rights has been making the rounds. A female scholar invited to speak at Utah State University cancelled her appearance there after receiving death threats. In explanation she cited Utah laws allowing people to carry guns on campus, and the campus police's inability to regulate the presence of guns at her talk. She also criticized the university for not doing enough to insure her safety.

Since the speaker fits the profile of the Left (a feminist scholar engaged in cultural critique of misogyny in video-game culture) and the thing she complains about is one of the banner issues for many on the Right (the right to carry firearms freely), this pretty much guarantees this story plenty of airplay. And while there will be some thoughtful discussions, for the most part this will generate a great deal more heat than light in the coming days.

In an effort to promote the former and try to avoid the latter, I want to pick up on one particular aspect of the larger argument here: the discussion about guns and personal safety. This is a subject on which I have written quite a few times in the past (do a search for Gun Control or Stand Your Ground on this blog and you'll find plenty of references). Readers will note that I am not a purist on the issue, insofar as I have written that there are circumstances under which the carrying or employment of personal firearms can protect someone.

But here is where a dose of wisdom from my academic field - the study of conflict at the international level - comes in handy. Because "security" is really two things: whether you are secure, and whether you feel secure. It is both objective and perceptual. And these two aspects are not at all the same thing.

Objective security is often knowable only after the fact: you either are attacked or you aren't. If no one attacks you, you are objectively secure. However, you may not feel secure. If you feel that an attack is imminent or even possible, you may perceive yourself as being insecure even when, at that particular moment, you are not being attacked. And that's where the trouble lies.

Advocates of concealed-carry or open-carry rights talk a lot about how guns make people more secure. Setting aside the tactical question of whether, and how often, having a gun will actually help you protect yourself, I have no doubt that for these folks, carrying a weapon makes them feel more secure. So they're being sincere when they talk about guns increasing security - meaning their feelings of security.

The problem is that when you carry a gun, you make people around you feel less secure. You present yourself as a potential threat for lethal violence. When you carry a weapon - especially if it's openly visible - people are likely to assume that it's loaded and that you're willing to use it. If I don't have a gun - or, for that matter, even if I do - that may decrease my security substantially insofar as I am now aware that there is someone in my vicinity who is both willing and able to kill me.

In my field, this is called the security dilemma - efforts to increase my security decrease the overall security of the system, and may make me less secure in the long run. This dynamic is just as real at the interpersonal level as it is among nations. We just don't understand it very well in our individual lives.

Ardent gun-rights supporters tend to respond to this observation with, "well, they shouldn't feel that way" - or "well, I have a right to carry my gun anyway". At that point, it becomes clear that you don't really care about security - yours or anyone else's. You're carrying the gun because it makes you feel powerful, or because it's a part of your identity, or because you feel the need to show "them" (whoever "them" is) what you can or can't do. It's an ego thing.

People who are genuinely interested in security should be able to realize that security is not only individual, it's collective. That when one individual carries a gun, it make lower the level of security in the room. Just ask John Crawford III how that works. Funny - I haven't noticed any NRA members picketing because his 2nd amendment rights were violated.

So if you have genuine concerns about security, that's fine - take the legal steps you feel are necessary to make yourself feel more secure. But recognize that by so doing, you may be making everyone else around you less secure. And while that may not be illegal (in Utah or elsewhere), it is reprehensible. Perhaps what we need to seek is not so much personal security as mutual respect and concern for our neighbors. That's a value I would think everyone (Red, Blue, Purple, or otherwise) could get behind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Student Safety and Assault Prevention: There's Got To Be a Better Way

There's a lot of attention these days to the topic of sexual assaults on college campuses. This has been a good thing in that institutions and students are becoming much more aware of the issues. I hope that all of this attention will reduce the number of assaults, sooner rather than later. Young women (and men) deserve a college experience free from fear for their personal safety.

I have blogged on these issues several times, including a response a couple of years ago to a highly-publicized case from Amherst College. More recently there was the hashtag battle between #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen, which served to illustrate some of the battle lines in the ongoing struggle to redefine the culture of sexuality and relationships on our campuses. This is a fluid discussion in which there are stops and starts, advances and retreats. Overall I think progress has been made, but there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

One of those challenges is the tendency for people who are really on the same side of the issue to get in fights with each other. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than the continuing battle between what might be called the "don't blame the victim" perspective and the self-defense perspective. An article in today's Inside Higher Ed showcases an excellent case of this:
U. of Wisconsin faces criticism over list of safety tips
Because I work in higher education but am also involved in the self-defense community, I can see both sides of this issue. The "don't blame the victim"/sexual assault awareness folks have a point: historically, rape and sexual assault have been protected by a culture that tolerated arguments such as "she was wearing X" or "she was flirting" or "she was drunk" or "she had it coming, what did she expect to happen when Y". Many a rapist has walked free because our culture took these kinds of arguments seriously. That is changing, which is good. But these kinds of arguments still need to be rendered entirely off-limits and illegitimate, much as we have done with "boys will be boys" and drunk driving.

So I understand both the legitimacy of concerns about victim-blaming, and the sensitivity to the issue. This can be a very touchy subject because real victim-blaming has been used to mask and protect rapists in much the same way that the Confederate battle flag was used to mask and rally racists in the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem is that this sensitivity is being turned against a different point of view altogether - the self-defense community. From the self-defense perspective, nothing that was on the now-removed U. Wisconsin website was problematic or controversial. Advice about awareness ("keep your head on a swivel") and forethought ("don't look like a victim", "make yourself a hard target") are stock in trade for a community of people who, in my experience, are both extremely well-meaning and extremely knowledgeable about what they deal in.

These are folks who study the problem (interpersonal violence) closely and understand it in ways the rest of us don't. Their advice is practical and effective. And many of them dispense this advice for free out of a sense of wanting to help people lead lives free from fear and victimization. In other words, they're on the same side of the issue as their critics - both sides want the incidence of sexual assault and rape to be reduced to zero.

Certainly there are elements of context which can help. Sexual assault awareness campaigns often point out - quite rightly - that the strong majority of such assaults are committed not by strangers attacking while you are out walking in the dark, but by acquaintances who are known to the victim and who gain the victim's trust first. That kind of assault calls for a whole different set of responses, chief among them teaching college men not to engage in assault and rape (and their peers to punish them when they do).

That said, there are sexual assaults and rapes by strangers, just as there are muggings and robberies by strangers. The kind of advice that the UW police put out is standard anti-mugging advice, which nobody questions. And while we also want to engage in other strategies that reduce the incidence of such stranger-based attacks, it makes sense to educate students about how to avoid them. With other kinds of crimes, this is not a controversial idea - but then, other kinds of crimes don't have the history that rape does.

This seems to be the real crux of the matter: how can we encourage women (and men too!) to learn to be smart and take basic steps to protect themselves without sending the message that we are blaming victims for what happens to them? This is a political and linguistic problem, not a real contradiction. There is no logical way to get from the statement "I am learning self-defense in order to better protect myself and my friends" to "it's my fault if someone else attacks me". In my field we call this a conflict of perception rather than a conflict of interests.

There's a side point here that illustrates the gap in perceptions and cultural misunderstanding between these two communities. It shows up nicely in this quote from the Inside Higher Ed article linked above:
Referring to the post's suggestion that a student should keep his or her "head on a swivel," one Jezebel commenter asked, "So literally live every moment like I'm an Army Ranger deployed to Afghanistan?"
I have heard this same reaction from some folks I've trained in self-defense. They take advice about awareness to mean that they need to be afraid all the time in order to protect themselves. That's a real turn-off, and I can understand why untrained civilians would run away from that kind of "advice".

But the truth is very different. I do live with my "head on a swivel" most of the time, in that I try to be aware of the people around me at all times - where they are, which direction they're moving in, and some basic impression of who they are and what they're up to. The fact that I do this - and the fact that I have some physical training in the martial arts to receive and counter attacks - means that I am not afraid. Awareness doesn't create fear, it dispels it. It is part of a package of living in confidence that, I think, is a goal shared by nearly everybody.

But I also get that, until you have undergone some training and experienced this kind of confidence, it's counterintuitive. People outside that circle mistake awareness for hyper vigilance and decide they don't want any part of it. And because it is an experience that is difficult to convey solely with words, the words that the self-defense community (including the UW police department) uses are often inadequate to the task.

This is where we need something else I've written about recently: mutual respect. Rather than attacking each other, I hope that the self-defense community and the sexual assault awareness and advocacy community can come together for an open and honest dialogue that starts from a simple premise: they are both on the same side and they both want the same thing. Both sides need to understand the other better, and both need to recognize that the other has something important to bring to the table. If that happens, perhaps we can overcome this particular challenge and find a way to incorporate the wisdom of self-protection into our larger societal response to sexual assault and violence.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confederate Flags and Aggressive Identities: When Did "Just Being Me" Become an Offensive Game?

Another conflict over the display of the Confederate Flag has cropped up on a college campus. That's not particularly remarkable; such conflicts occur all the time. What's interesting about this one is that it has stirred up an institution north of the Mason-Dixon line generally thought of as a more liberal/progressive place - Bryn Mawr College.

Despite its unusual location, the conflict has played out predictably as an argument between those asserting their rights to display their heritage under the basic doctrines of free speech, and those asserting their rights to learn in an environment free from coercion or oppression.

As usual, almost everyone is disappointed in the outcome. The students who displayed the flag eventually took it down, likely disappointed that their rights to free speech and to their cultural identity had been trampled on. On the other side, many minority students were disappointed that it took so long to affect that outcome, and are now blaming the college for being insensitive to their needs and voices. I feel bad for the college administration - if ever there were a higher ed version of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, this is it.

What interests me about this story is not so much where it takes place, or the predictable nature of how it has unfolded. It is the origin of the conflict itself - the decision by two students (unnamed, at least in the story above) to put the flag up in a public space in the first place. That's a decision I both understand and find puzzling.

I understand it, in that college students do a lot of things out in public as a means of asserting and experimenting with their identities. Clothes and hairstyles change; attitudes and arguments are adopted, often loudly; posters and flags put up in decoration. This is the time of life when students are growing into their own identities. As southern young women in a predominantly northern institution, it doesn't at all surprise me that these two would choose to assert their southern-ness. I imagine that they, too, felt the pinch of being in a cultural minority (which they undoubtedly were).

I also get the "they have every right to" argument. Yes, we all believe in free speech, even speech that offends. But we see what happens when the argument turns only on rights. It bogs down in anger, recrimination, and division. Rights are important, but they are not the highest good here. They are necessary but not sufficient if the goal is building real human community.

Given that, what I don't understand is why these two young women chose to assert their cultural identity in a way that they must have known would cause pain and anger in others. It's possible that they might argue naiveté - that they didn't see this reaction coming. I find that hard to believe; even relatively sheltered young women from the south must know how incendiary the Confederate Flag is as a symbol. So I can only imagine that this was done deliberately - not necessarily to cause anger but indifferent to whether it bothered others or not.

And there lies our great failing. 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, we have not yet found a way for two important identities - African American and White Southerner - to coexist. The two groups pose no existential threat to each other anymore, yet they continue to behave as if they do.

Some of this, of course, is the difficulty of coming to terms with history. But this far removed from that history, that is an obstacle that should be overcome. Most White Southerners who fly the Confederate Flag today don't want to enslave African Americans, and many of them have overcome the racism of their ancestors. They, and their African American colleagues who are generations removed from slavery and Jim Crow, are free to forge their own identities for themselves.

The problem is not that we can't fashion identities that are both true to their roots and yet coexist with others. The problem is that we don't know how. We know what doesn't work - flags and snarky memes and "in your face" combativeness don't get us where we want to go. Sadly, that's a lot of what these young adults see the rest of us doing - we're no better at it then they are.

But there is a better way. Its details vary from context to context, but it starts in the same place every time: I am who I am. You are who you are. I respect you for who you are, and I ask that you do the same for me. After that, everything else is conversation. If I respect you, I don't demand that you change who you are. But if you respect me, you may change anyway. Everything begins and ends with respect.

If I act out of both identity and respect, I don't throw my symbols in your face. I don't put up flags I know you hate and mark the floor with tape to cordon off "your side" from "my side". I hope that out of this latest kerfuffle at Bryn Mawr, a few of their students - some of the best and brightest we have - will figure this out.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Blame Game: America's National Pastime

The headline on today's New York Times Magazine screamed at me this morning:
Every Hour an Acre of Louisiana Sinks Into the Sea. Who is to Blame?
Interestingly, in the online version the title changes to "The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever". That's an interesting shift, but I'm not sure what to make of it.

What grabbed me about the in-print headline was not the declarative statement of fact. That Louisiana's coastline and wetlands are slowly being drowned is not news; Hurricane Katrina but a big red exclamation point on a process that's been going on for years. The really interesting part is the question: Who is to Blame?

This is a reasonably accurate representation of the article, which is about a lawsuit (or a movement to create one) to pin responsibility for the encroaching water on the oil and gas companies, and thereby get them to pay for remediation. The details of that fight I leave to others to get into. I doubt the lawsuit will go anywhere, but I could be wrong.

But the broader "Who is to Blame?" question seems to me emblematic of our culture today. We are so tribalized and balkanized into different subgroups that there is no more "we", only "us" and "them". Every problem that confronts us becomes a battle over whose fault it is. Pay attention to Tea Party News (or even Fox News) for a week and play Bingo with how many of the world's problems they blame on Obama. I doubt it would take you seven days to win that game. E pluribus unum indeed.

"Who is to blame?" has become our default question, the first response to every issue. Coverage of the lone Ebola case in the US has focused to a large extent on whose fault it is that the patient was turned away from a Dallas hospital the first time he visited. Don't get me wrong - that's an important question if you run that (or any other) hospital. For the other 99% of us, however, it's irrelevant next to the information we need to know about Ebola and the kinds of collective action we need to take to protect ourselves.

Organizations that are perpetually engaged in blame-fights almost never do well; many a business has gone under in a blaze of blame-throwing. Why should we expect a country to be any different? Problems don't get solved by asking whose fault it is; they get solved by coming up with solutions.

Some will say, but don't you have to diagnose the causes of the problem? Of course you do. But diagnosis and blame are not the same thing, as any good manager knows. It's one thing to identify mistakes and errors; it's another to engage in punitive witch-hunts. The former is productive, the latter is not.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE bad actors out there, and maybe the oil and gas companies are among them. But many of those actors are "bad" (in that they pursue their own self-interest to the detriment of everybody else's) precisely because there is no "we" anymore. They are not "part of us", they are their own tribe looking out for their own interests and screw the rest of the world. The Wall Street hubris kings who broke the financial system a few years ago suffer from the same problem - they think of themselves as a breed apart, not as Americans or citizens or even New Yorkers.

I have no idea how to fix this, of course. I have a small blog read by maybe three dozen people. The New York Times is rather bigger, and they're hardly the only one feeding the Blame beast. But somewhere I would like to see people start to ask not "Who is to blame?" but "How do we fix it?"