Selling Out Education?

Florida State University in Tallahassee

For Sale?

Because of the financial crisis (and other factors), public universities are having a harder time with their finances. As businesses often do, some schools have addressed their financial woes by cutting employees. The cuts often begin with adjunct and visiting faculty and then move on to full time staff and even regular faculty. In truly dire circumstances, some administrators even find their bonuses being trimmed.

While cutting positions often appeals to some folks, perhaps because it gives them that business feel, there are also attempts to increase revenue in various ways. Tuition has, of course, been increasing steadily. However, that somehow never seems to keep up with the financial needs of the schools. Schools also seek outside money, often in the form of grants and gifts. However, even these sources are often not enough.

Florida State University  hit on on interesting method of securing funds. A while ago, the FSU economics department entered into a contract with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. In this contract, FSU received $1.5 million to create two endowed chairs to “promote political economy and free enterprise.” While this all seems rather good, one concern is that the contract specifies that Koch’s representatives have the right to reject candidates selected by the faculty hiring committee. In short, the representatives have veto power over hires.

One practical concern is, obviously enough, that FSU seems to have sold out for relatively little. While $1.5 million seems like a substantial sum, it actually amounts to very little when considering the budget of FSU. At the very least, they should have asked for more in return for granting this level of influence. To be rather crude (and perhaps  unfair), if one is going to be a whore, at least be a well paid whore.

More importantly, there is also the matter of ethics. Having served on a few hiring committees I am well aware about how they are supposed to function. As one might expect, candidates are supposed to be assessed based on their academic merits rather than their ideological views (and based on private conversations, it appears that a specific ideology was used to assess the candidates).  Since universities are supposed to operate on the basis of academic integrity and academic freedom,  granting such decision making power in return for a cash payment seems to be questionable, at best.

One obvious reply is that the idea of academic integrity and freedom are little but pleasant myths. After all, it is well known that people are often hired based on having the right connections and the right ideology.  The deal with Koch merely puts things in writing and puts cash on the table. As such, to single out this situation for special condemnation would be an error, given that the basis of criticism has no real substance.

To counter this reply, while it is true that some people do not take the matters of integrity and freedom seriously, it is not true that no one does so. To use an obvious example, the search committees I have served on have been above board and run with integrity and respect for academic freedom. There is also the obvious fact that appealing to a common practice does not show that the practice is right or correct. That is, of course, why there is a fallacy called “common practice.” Naturally enough, if the Koch Foundation is wrong for what it has done, those who do the same sort of things (be they left or right leaning) would also be in the wrong.

Another obvious reply is that schools need to relax their concerns over these principles in the face of the economic woes. Just as an individual might do things that /she might not otherwise do for money when in dire straights, universities also have to swallow their pride and set aside what principles they might have left so as to secure they money they need. To make this into a properly ethical argument, an appeal can be made on utilitarian grounds. While allowing people to purchase veto power over endowed faculty positions might have some negative consequences (like allowing people with money to ensure that certain ideologies are pushed), the positive consequences could outweigh the negative. After all, accepting such money can allow schools to address their budgetary woes and continue to provide students with educations. While this education might be of a different sort than what would be offered if the money was not needed, it is still an education.

The counter to this reply is that the negative consequences could very well end up outweighing the positive consequences. Using the analogy of the individual, doing questionable things for money can have a corrupting effect on the character and can damage one’s reputation.  If it turns out that the cost exceeds the benefits, then accepting such money would not be a good thing.

As I see it, accepting money in return for such veto power is a violation of professional hiring ethics. Naturally, I do agree that if money is offered with conditions and accepted, then there is (on the face of it) an obligation to stick to that agreement. As such, by taking the money, FSU has obligated itself to the terms of the contract. However, they should not have entered into that agreement.

Naturally, it might be wondered if I would still hold this view if my continued employment was contingent on my university accepting such a deal.

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  1. s. wallerstein

    Mike:

    Since you could be the next guy to go, taking this position publicly about your employer is quite courageous on your part.

    You don’t need a pat on the back from me, but not everyone would speak out as you do.

  2. Mike;

    Thank you for this comment. I had read this story before, and I was very concerned. Let me give you an example from another profesion that can show how important independence in the academic field is.
    I am very familiar with Biology, Medicine, etc field. As you know every knowledge created can have a clear impact on public health. Many years ago, there was the controversy around smoking and cancer, and a young researcher presented in a meeting data contradicting his initial key findings. He determine for the first time the mechanim by which smoking could cause cancer, and in this meeting he was going against his initial data. Not surprisingly, his latest research was funded by a tobacco company. The influence of pharmaceutical companies on clinical trials, lead by academic researchers, could be so important that currently physician are under strict rules: they can not accept anything from reps and they must disclosure if their research is privately supported. Independent academics have in the past pointed to potential liabilities in drugs; something more difficult to do if your salary is paid by the manufacturer of that drug. But the ability to have a reliable independent authority in a field is also key to disregard completely unfounded claims, like vaccination can cause autism, that can lead to important health problems.

    The economic field is no different in my opinion. We have seen very clearly how the efficient market theory failed to predict the recent market crash and completely disregard the possibility of that happening.

    Without truly independent thinking, technological, scientific and phylosophical progress would be impossible. What if, the Koch brothers would support only faculty that does not believe in evolution, or in climate change.

    In my opinion, the function of bonafide independent experts in our society is key; the information and knowledge are so vast that it is impossible for a single individual to have informed opinions in multiple areas.

    And finally, in my opinion it is a matter of common or public interest to preserve the independent role of academics.

  3. On the bright side, as originally drafted, the agreement called for the Koch foundation and FSU to raise up to $6.6 million for six faculty positions.

    Slipping under the radar amidst the hoo-hah over the agreement announced back in 2008 is the fact (also announced back then) that the FSU have joined the ranks of some 60 odd US institutions in taking rather more than thirty pieces of silver from BB&T, to allow the finance department to provide the ‘Certificate Program in Free Enterprise and Ethics’, for which – in line with BB&T’s ‘core values’ – Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is compulsory reading.

    “If somebody says, ‘We’re willing to help support your students and faculty by giving you money, but we’d like you to read this book,’ that doesn’t strike me as a big sin,” says David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Science. Would you believe he’s another economist?

    The 10 primary values of BB&T – who have already donated $3M to fund the establishment of the BB&T Program of Free Enterprise at the FSU – are taken straight from straight from Ran (as you might expoect of a bank that has given the University of Texas $2M to fund research on her work).

    “Honesty – Being honest is simply being consistent with reality. To be dishonest is to be in conflict with reality, which is therefore self-defeating…

    Integrity = Because we have developed our principles logically, based on reality, we will always act consistently with our principles. Regardless of the short-term benefits, acting inconsistently with our principles is to our long-term detriment. We do not, therefore, believe in compromising our principles in any situation..”

    How truly inspiring.

  4. BB&T’s Randian values can be found here:

    http://bbt.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=18&item=122#values

    “What is, is. If we want to be better, we must act within the context of reality (the facts)… At BB&T, we believe in being ‘reality grounded’.”

    How super it is that a bank lists “Reality” as its No.1 value.

  5. Mike

    I had meant to echo S.Wallerstein’s approval of the fact you have chosen to speak out against your own institution on this but I do get distracted – I see the Randian menace everywhere.

    The economics departments are, of course, the first to be sold. But philosophy departments will find themselves struggling in years to come. And then somebody will come offering to pay for courses – if the lecturers teach this book as if it were part of the canon – and then they will offer to pay for chairs – but it will only be a libertarian or Objectivist bums that get to sit on it. And the philosophy department itself won’t have any veto of the selling of chairs or souls.

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