29 April 2009

Democracy & The University

The Objectivist
A Democratic University
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 28, 2009

An interesting issue is shaping up at SUNY-Fredonia and this has to do with the way in which the campus is run. On a business model, the university is a business and the faculty and staff have no more say in how things are run than employees do at any other business. On the democratic model, a university is a democracy in which faculty, and perhaps staff, are stakeholders who have a say, if not a vote, on how things are run. A moderate view that lies between the above views is also possible. Some of the recent disagreements on campus reflect differences in these models.

One example that highlights the difference between the two models had to with the creation of a college of business. The University Senate is the body that represents the faculty and staff at Fredonia and makes reports to the President. Its role is merely advisory, but at many colleges administrators are hesitant to run roughshod over it. Last year, the Senate voted against creating a college of business. That is, they voted against creating a new semi-autonomous wing of the college that focuses on business. President Dennis Hefner promptly overrode the Senate’s decision in part because of a desire to have the business program receive accreditation. The faculty and staff’s opposition was in part financial. The position required a new dean and a new dean probably costs around $151,000 ($126,000 in salary plus 20% benefits) and an upgraded secretary (around $10,000 more). The opposition also claimed that there was a greater need for a college of art. Now the opposition seemed odd to me, given that the university budget is roughly $89 million, the money is an insignificant portion of that, especially if this is a requirement for accreditation and this is a valuable thing to get. Nevertheless, the decision to summarily override the Senate seems to indicate a view that the Senate was not a serious center of power.

A second example concerned the role of teaching assistants. Last summer, the administration used an ad hoc committee to put forth a proposal that banned undergraduate teaching assistants from grading other undergraduates. The proposal ruffled feathers because it was unclear whether such academic questions should be ruled by ad hoc committees rather than by the Senate. The result was confusion because it was unclear whether the proposal was a rule that bound departments or whether it was merely a suggestion. Later, the Senate referred the issue to one of its committees to study the issue. When asked, neither the committee nor anyone else seemed to know whether the proposal was a rule. In a surprising vote, the Senate decided to prohibit undergraduate grading.

A third example has to do with the administration’s claim to a more central role in hiring. It asserts that academic departments have a merely advisory role in deciding who is hired. While this was always the case, most departments operate on the assumption that they have the dominant role in hiring. In making its role explicit, the administration appears to be gearing up to take a larger role in hiring and this seems to involve a policy shift. The administration also asserts that when considering affirmative-action candidates, departments should downplay the prestige of the institution a candidate attended, the caliber of the journals in which she published, and the strength of her recommendations. Because current hiring is done largely on these grounds, this could lead to conflict.

A fourth example has to do with cuts. Fredonia State has budgetary problems and part of the administration’s solution to the problem is to cut three faculty lines, nine staff lines, and some programs. The Senate was not told what lines or programs are going to be cut and didn’t vote on it. Again, this is consistent with a business model of the university. When corporations decide what employees to let go or what products to discontinue, they need not consult, let alone seek the vote of, rank-and-file employees.

A fifth example concerns a recent draft of personnel policies that the Fredonia State administration recently put forth. The draft concerns tenure and promotion of faculty and professional staff. Tenure is given to a professor, usually after a six-year probationary period, and it reflects the fact that his position or employment is permanent. The administration’s proposal differed markedly from an earlier set of suggestions from a committee of faculty and staff.

The administration’s proposal called for a new committee to review a department’s promotion decisions and all but one of its members are to be chosen by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs for an unspecified length of time. The proposal also put forth a new criterion for research. It proposed that research credit be given for the scholarship of engagement. While it is not clear what exactly this consists of, it appears to be a sharp break from the traditional view of research as including only grants, peer-reviewed books, book chapters, articles, artistic performances, etc. The proposal also includes language suggesting to some that promotion would rest in part on collegiality (that is, how well a professor works with and gets along with his colleagues). These and other changes have produced a firestorm. Several departments (philosophy, history, and psychology) released sharply worded criticisms. The matter got even stickier when the faculty union (United University Professions) chimed in. It claimed that a number of the changes concerned the terms and conditions of employment and thus the university had to negotiate with it before the changes could be implemented.

The different models of a university are interesting. The business model sees the university as a firm in which decisions are made from the top and the faculty are mere employees. As such, the administration might seek their input but doing so is optional and faculty have no real complaint if they are shut out of campus governance. The democratic model sees the university as a democracy in which the faculty have significant decision-making powers with regard to how things are run and their input is essential to campus governance. The latter appears to lack support from either law or morality. Legally, faculty have at most an advisory role and the final decision as to what programs to have and who to hire, fire, and promote is within the administration’s purview. Morally, the faculty do not own the university or even their position and hence do not have rights that extend beyond those set out in their contract.

The democratic model has a certain romantic appeal to it, one that views the faculty as not merely experts on academic matters, but as stakeholders who have a say in the university in the same way that a partner in a law firm has a say on what his firm does. However, governing a university involves trading off various goals and it is not clear that the faculty are an expert on this. For example, the university has more full-time staff (441) than full-time faculty (244) and this involves a decision to weigh some goals (for example, police, counseling, and student activities) over others (for example, having professors rather than graduate students teach writing). In addition, faculty are not partners because they do not own any part of the university. In any case, Fredonia appears to be moving unequivocally in the direction of the business model.

08 April 2009


The Objectivist
Eugenics: Improving the Gene Pool
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 7, 2009

Eugenics is the idea that we can make the world a better place by improving human beings’ gene pool. It receives little press these days because it was abused by the Nazi and United States governments in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite this history, it is still worth pursuing.

The idea behind eugenics is that there are some inheritable traits that are good for society and some that are bad for it. High intelligence is good for society. Richard Lynn, a professor of psychology at the University at Ulster, has pointed out that it correlates with educational achievement, job performance, high income, and occupational status. In contrast, low intelligence correlates with low educational achievement (for example, dropping out of school), poor job performance, low income, and low occupational status. He notes that criminals have an average IQ that is significantly lower than the average person (92 versus 100). Intelligence is in large part inherited from one’s parents. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of The Bell Curve (1994), estimate that around 40% to 80% of one’s intelligence is inherited. Others such as University of California at Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen estimate that roughly 70% of one’s intelligence level is inherited.

Roughly, 2.7% of the population is developmentally disabled (mentally retarded). About 2.2% of the population is mildly retarded. Some studies indicate that only 20% to 30% of the retarded have full-time employment. One older study indicated that they constitute about 10% of the prison population, about four times their percentage of the overall population. In addition, of the ones who have children, a significant number are unfit parents. Developmental disability also has a significant genetic feature. One study indicated that if one parent is developmentally disabled, then 17% of their children will be so as well; if both are, then 48% will be so. As a group, they impose significant costs in terms of unemployment, welfare, and prison.

In addition, some destructive personality characteristics have a significant genetic component. People with psychopathic personalities have a tendency toward antisocial behavior. Many lack a conscience or the ability to control their behavior. The late Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Lynn both note that while people with this disorder are around 6% of the population, they constitute 60% of male prisoners, an even higher percentage of recidivist criminals, and a significant portion of drug addicts.

The argument for eugenics is that if we can make our country a better place by changing the gene pool and if doing so does not infringe on anyone’s rights, then we may, and probably should, do so. Among the means by which eugenic goals might be accomplished are through carefully controlling who gets to immigrate to America and by providing incentives for people with desirable genetic traits to reproduce. In the United States, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants have higher than average IQs and are vastly overrepresented in the professions and scientists. Similarly Jews constitute about 2% of the population and are overrepresented in the professions and intellectual elite. For example, at one point in time they constituted 27% of the Nobel Prize winners. Favoring them in immigration would likely have desirable eugenic effects. One country, Singapore, in the late 1980’s gave economic incentives, such as tax benefits, to better educated women and high earners to have children. This did increase the percentage of children born to more educated women (specifically, women who graduated from high school). State and federal governments might consider such a program.

If one is a libertarian, then the state should not pursue this goal. However, in a country in which the government has run amuck (for example, government at all levels will take 40% of all income produced this year), this concern is beside the point. Eugenic programs should be weighed against other social programs.

One way to see the desirability of eugenics is to consider programs that have eugenic-like effects. Some infertile couples pay women to donate their eggs. They pay a premium ($5,000 to $50,000) for the eggs of women from Ivy League and other elite colleges and often specify that the donors have high SAT scores and good college grades. This is obviously an attempt to get smarter children. Other couples have their fetuses tested for genetic problems such as Down’s syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, Huntington disease, cystic fibrosis, and spina bifada and abort fetuses with these defects. On one study around 80% of Canadian women who found out that their fetuses had a serious genetic disorder aborted them. For couples that use in vitro fertilization, it is increasingly possible to screen embryos for genetic defects like Down’s syndrome and to implant ones without them. There are also advances made in inserting new genes into animals (gene therapy). It is hoped that the insertions can be used to treat those with genetic diseases and this has been done in some cases with humans. Many of the same reasons that make couples want to use this technology also make it a good idea for both charities and the state to encourage such practices for eugenic purposes.

The usual objection to eugenics is that it has been misused in the past. The United States forcibly sterilized over 64,000 people between 1907 and 1963. The Supreme Court in Buck vs. Bell (1927) permitted the forcible sterilization of the unfit and leftist Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson supported it. In Nazi Germany, the government slaughtered millions of Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others as part of a eugenic campaign. However, the use of atrocious means to achieve a goal does not make the goal bad, nor does it rule out rights-respecting means of accomplishing that goal. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes that what is wrong with these past programs is coercion, not eugenics. In addition, Richard Lynn points out that many other goals have been subject to misuse. Christianity led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless other misuses and this alone does not show that it is false or bad. Just about every government that pursued large-scale genocide also had strong gun-control policies and many do not consider this history a good reason to get rid of gun control.

Eugenics is a policy that could help the United States by increasing the number of talented people and decreasing the people who place a burden on all of us through welfare, crime, and other destructive behavior. It is important that note that while eugenics is a goal worth pursuing, because many of the people with low-levels of intelligence and tendency toward criminality have genetic disadvantages they should be neither blamed nor considered unworthy of care and respect.

Abortion & Christianity II

The Theist
On the Sending-Fetuses-to-Heaven Objection
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 16, 2009

My colleague The Objectivist argues that Christian pro-lifers are inconsistent in believing (1) that (many or most) abortions are morally wrong and (2) that all fetuses go to heaven. ("Christians on Abortion", Observer, March 19, 2009 ) How are these inconsistent? At first glance, they seem entirely consistent. The Objectivist's idea is that Christian pro-lifers must accept another claim, something like: (3) Any action which on the whole greatly benefits the recipient of the action is not morally wrong. Going to an eternally long, blessed life with God and his people is a benefit of infinite value. His idea is that dying early is bad, but that this harm is infinitely outweighed by the gain of heaven. (He's arguing from pro-life premises here, and assuming the fetuses are just smaller versions of the beings which later go to college, get married, etc.)

The Objectivist is correct about one thing: arguably, the three claims just listed cannot all be true. He's mistaken, however, in thinking that the Christian pro-lifer must accept (3). This third claim, I'll now argue, is false. Anyone, whether Christian or atheist, pro-lifer or pro-choicer, should reject it.

Thus, it doesn’t matter if (3) conflicts with (1) and (2).

Imagine a spoiled brat born to absurdly wealthy parents--call him Ritchie Rich. Ritchie's parents think he can do no wrong, and indulge his every whim. When he comes of age, Ritchie discovers a new interest--rape. His parents decide to enable their son's new hobby--whenever he commits a rape, a quick-response team swoops in, pays the victim one hundred million dollars and gives her a quick and painless shot that erases only her memory of the last hour. Add one more element to the story: Ritchie is known to be infertile.

Ritchie knows about this whole arrangement, and continues his career as a serial rapist. Is he doing anything wrong? Not according to The Objectivist. After all, while he's inflicting temporary harm on his victims, in every case he knows that he's also guaranteeing that his victim practically wins the lottery, and will suffer from no unpleasant memory relating to the rape. To the contrary, it is obvious that what Ritchie is doing is wrong. This is so, even if looking back on it, some of his victims are glad that they were victims (because they're enjoying their new wealth).

We should distinguish three ways a good thing can swamp a bad thing: outweighing, compensating, and morally justifying. Suppose your parents promise you summer camp, and then arbitrarily, for no good reason, break their promise. As a result, you happen to find a very enjoyable summer job. It may be that your getting this job outweighs the good things you would have gained from going to camp. But this doesn't compensate you for the broken promise, or morally justify your parents' promise-breaking. Again, perhaps your parents realize they've wronged you, and they ask if it'd be fair for them to double your allowance in compensation. You say yes. Here, the increase in allowance may outweigh your loss (of summer camp benefits), and may be a just compensation for said loss, although it doesn't make your parents' promise-breaking morally right. For an example in which a good swamps a bad in all three ways, suppose that you come down with appendicitis, and your parents force you, against your will, to have your appendix removed. Here, the good (avoiding further pain and complications) outweighs, compensates you for, and morally justifies your being forced into surgery.

Back to aborted fetuses. That you send little Freddy fetus to heaven probably outweighs the harm he suffers. His life is cut short, and importantly, he's deprived up the opportunity to freely decide what sort of person he will be, and in particular to decide whether he will be God's friend or enemy. He gets an infinite gain. But did he also suffer an infinite loss--of the one chance to control what sort of person he becomes? It's not easy to compare this loss with this gain. Let's grant, though, that his gain strongly outweighs his loss. Still, it doesn't follow that Freddy has been justly compensated for his loss, or that your action in aborting him was morally justified.

The Objectivist argues back, lamely, that in aborting Freddy you're saving him from certain...risk--that is, risk of wrongdoing, and ultimately risk of hell. The answer to that is that we all greatly value opportunities to control how our lives go and what sorts of people we become. Suppose The Objectivist decides to head to the store for more Doritos, but on the way to his car, a group of would-be do-gooders tackle him and hog-tie him with duct tape, on the grounds that driving is risky. It is, but he would rightly argue that he has the right to assume that risk, because he has the right to control how he lives his life. If he could talk, Freddy the fetus would say, "Me too!"

The Objectivist's argument is hopeless. If it were right, then not only would Christians be inconsistent in opposing abortion, they’d be inconsistent in opposing any kind of homicide whatever. Consider a church shooting, where, let’s say, a bitter (but not insane) ex-boyfriend enters his ex-girlfriend’s church and fires at anything that moves. Suppose all the victims are heaven-bound. Does anyone think that it is really inconsistent to believe this, and that the gunman did something morally wrong? Again, a husband, out of sheer greed, kills his wife to get her insurance, and (let’s suppose) knows she is heaven-bound. It is inconsistent to agree that she went to heaven and yet hold that the husband’s action was wrong? Gimme a break.