Who Has the Power to Refuse?

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries has published a great post about tenure and the power (or lack thereof) of tenured faculty. Make sure you read the post (and subscribe to the blog because it rocks) but, in the meanwhile, 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.

Kudos to Dr. McPherson who resisted the silly and humiliating “training” the university wanted to inflict on him. And shame on all those tenured colleagues of his who did not join his protest.

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.

37 thoughts on “Who Has the Power to Refuse?”

  1. While I agree with you for the most part (these training programs are mostly common sense and thus a waste of time) sadly they can still be necessary.

    We had one old male professor reject the sexual harassment training course who cc’d the entire department on his e-mail exchange with the administration… and it contained several offhand comments that were clearly inappropriate and violated the sexual harassment policy. You could hear people hitting their heads on their desk down the halls as they received the e-mail…

    In any case, I would think this issue could be solved by just having a 10 question multiple choice quiz at the beginning of the training- if you pass it, no training, if you don’t pass it, take the training and try again. Covers the university’s butt, the people who need the training get it, and everyone else’s time is minimally infringed upon.

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    1. “Covers the university’s butt”

      -This is, I believe, the only purpose of these trainings. They allow the university not to do anything in order actually to address the issue. ‘Well, what more can we do?” the administrators will say. “We forced everybody to watch the training video.”

      There is a number of legitimate policies that could be instituted to punish those who actually engage in harassment. But those will take time and trouble. Who needs all that when you can htrow together a powerpoint and, as anon says, cover your ass?

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  2. When I was at the University of Virginia in the 1960s the faculty decided all academic issues and set most administrative policies. The job of the president of the university was to keep the legislature quiet and to acquire money. Even as an 18 yr old I was shocked that the president was effectively a eunuch. The system was based on the traditional idea going back to the University of Paris that a university is a self governing community of scholars. I was shocked that, in the comments on the UD site, “dmf” questioned the ability of even departments to govern themselves much less the faculty governing the whole university. That attitude is one that believes that the purpose of educational institutions is to meet the narrow needs of business and government as they immediately define them. This idea, of the university, and knowledge in general, as a machine that should turn out a product as ordered, is extremely shortsighted from a self-interest point of view and essentially anti-intellectual. One of the problems with having “popularly elected citizen legislatures”, that govern most universities in this country, is that self-important ignoramuses and incompetents are frequently elected. However, coping with and educating these legislatures is, in my opinion, usually preferable to coping with the dictates of more efficient authoritarian government systems.

    As to the specifics of McPherson’s complaint, I agree. I had to take sexual harassment, workplace violence and anti-discrimination courses as a state employee. The material in these courses was mostly very forgettable. After one disputatious meeting I got a call from the loser who told me that he was going to file a workplace violence complaint against my supervisor. I have had continual problems with that woman and would love to see her leave. However, I told the loser that I wouldn’t support him; she hadn’t thrown anything at him and she hadn’t tried to hit, stab or shoot him. He said that she raised her voice. I told him that he had raised his voice also. Finally he said that her eyes bugged out. That was workplace violence: her eyes bugged out. I told him that her eyes bug out all the time, maybe it is a physical problem. He filed his complaint without my support, it was investigated, it went nowhere and, thankfully, Mr. Loser retired shortly thereafter.

    What these idiots who attempt to institutionalize ethics with prescriptive courses don’t realize is that they are insulting to anyone with a modicum of self-respect and do nothing to fix problems. Today, having an argument with your spouse has become a “domestic violence” matter, despite the fact that violence occurred. Just because 0.000001 percent of loud arguments result in eventual violence does not justify punishing one of the participants in the other 99.999999 percent of the arguments just as a preventive measure. In this country you are supposed to arrest someone after a crime is committed, not before, despite the FBI’s entrapment programs. If you haven’t learned not to lie, steal or cheat by the age of 18, you are not going to learn it from a class. Especially not a class taught by the pontificating twits who are typically the instructors.

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    1. “What these idiots who attempt to institutionalize ethics with prescriptive courses don’t realize is that they are insulting to anyone with a modicum of self-respect and do nothing to fix problems. ”

      -I agree completely. If I thought for a second that sitting through a humiliating explanation of how I shouldn’t grab my colleague’s ass helped prevent a single instance of harassment, I would gladly subject myself to it. As it is, though, we are all getting insulted for nothing.

      At least, one could put through the training just those who have been accused of harassment. Even though I still don’t get the point.

      We are talking about highly educated people who live in the world of Internet, television and ubiquitous communications. And somebody seriously suspects that they truly don’t know what harassment is? And a PowerPoint or an instructional video will open their eyes?

      No, I can’t take that seriously.

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  3. Those trainings may be idiotic, but I don’t understand how the guy says it’s an attack on his character, etc, etc… if it’s mandatory for everbody. When I hear tenured male professors saying this, I hear a douchebag, sorry. As for Irvine in particular, Google University of Irvine Derrida scandal.

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    1. I feel that being told not to accept bribes is an assault on my character.

      Seriously, if you came to my house and I repeatedly told you not to pee on the floor and asked you to sign papers to the effect that you understand that it’s wrong to pee on my floor, would you not be annoyed and offended? I have a feeling you wouldn’t be coming back to my house anymore.

      At work, however, they humiliate us because we don’t have a choice.

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      1. Well, it’s the difference between workplace and private place. “I feel that being told not to accept bribes is an assault on my character.”

        I would, if it’s only being told to me. If it’s part of something every person in my workplace has to take, then I would think it;s silly, but I would never take it personal.

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      2. This is in effect what one finds with the so-called “integrity tests” (sometimes even called “personality tests”) administered utterly routinely to applicants for low-status jobs such as retail. It’s inconceivable that the HR Establishment has any belief in the efficacy of this strategy in getting the most honest sorts of employees, or even in covering their butts. The only plausible explanation is that their intent is to communicate who’s in charge, or as you put it, to humiliate.

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  4. How does a sexual harassment training relates to not taking pens or paper home? Would I be harassing the secretary if I did so? To answer your questions, I did do a mandatory anti sexual harassment training, and I thought it was a waste of time. However, watching the way certain male faculty in other departments behave, I am not so sure anymore. And they have no problem with me taking paper home. In fact, I don’t even pay for my own photocopies on campus!!!!
    When somebody says that such a mandatory training for everybody offends his sensibilities and impugns his character, 5 or 6 years after that same university had a high profile sexual harassment case that landed them in the cover page of the LA Times, he is an asshole.

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    1. Do you think people sexually harrass because they haven’t been offered a timely training? And after they get the training they immediately see the error of their ways and don’t harass any more?

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      1. Bingo. FWIW my mom was nearly fired by one of the biggest R1 systems in the country because, while attending the mandatory sexual harassment “training” she had the temerity to say in class that many of the instructor’s assertions were counterfactual and unsupported by the social science literature. It is notable that she holds two advanced degrees in social science and works as a clinician. The instructor was considerably less qualified.

        These programs are almost without exception bullshit CYA tissue to insulate administrators from lawsuits. They are not intended, and do not operate, to actually prevent any harassment. That’s what effective grievance procedures and civil law are for.

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  5. People won’t change their behaviour, whether they get training or not. The point is about legal liability. When something happens at the university, it’s not just the employee that gets sued – it’s the institution as well, for not doing everything reasonable to prevent said incident from occurring.

    In the good ole days, ignorance of the law (or the rules) was not an excuse. Now, it seems to be. Therefore, the administration has to ensure that everyone has been at least informed of their responsibilities, rights, expectations and rules.

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  6. No, I think what the training provides is the “i didn’t know, why do you take everything so seriously …? excuse. I’ve heard that one one too many times. Now, you can say that you should know. And thus, I’m not subjected to “friendly” old douchebags who think it’s OK to put his arm on my shoulders or make loud comments about how good my legs look in a certain skirt. It did nit happen to me personally, but I’ve witnessesed those encounters. One of them ended up in s complaint, and the professor dismiissed it in “you take everything so seriously…” terms. Well, the female professor argued that according to the manual, that was harassment. He wasn’t fired, but he did town it down.

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  7. And it wasn’t even something specific to UC Irvine, but a course Irvine instituted following State law:

    “Campus officials say McPherson, 64, could be placed on leave if he doesn’t attend a training course Nov. 12 to comply with Assembly Bill 1825. The state law, passed in 2004, requires businesses that regularly employ 50 or more people to have supervisors undergo sexual harassment prevention training.”

    You can think whatever you want about the law, but if you don’t like to comply with it, I suggest you move to another state.

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  8. “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.”

    This is interesting. It’s the opposite, in my experience. What campuses have you visited? Obviously no need to name names, but are we talking US/non-US; Ivy League etc.?

    Your banner says you’re an academic, but I can’t find an ‘about’. What sort of academic are you (i.e, are you an asst. prof, administrator, grad student, ‘independent’ researcher)? I’m interested in how you formed this opinion of tenured professors being the most beholden unto the administration.

    Cheers

    ~T

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    1. Canada and the US.

      Canadian U, Ivy, Ivy, US State U.

      I’m on the tenure- track right now. The post is based on many years of observations of the North American system of higher ed.

      I really would like to be wrong on this particular topic. So if anybody wants to tell me I’m imagining this, feel free. 🙂

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  9. I must be honest, in my 13+ years (i.e. post-BS) experience of US and UK academia (Ivyish, non Ivy & State) it really is the junior profs (non tenured) who suffer the most with the vagaries of institutional administrative BS. (Caveat – I can only speak to Life Science environments.)

    The very new don’t have the experience to know what to ‘do’ and what to ignore, and making waves early on can mark you as a troublemaker. The last thing a new Asst. prof wants to do is upset the Dean/Chair & senior colleagues.

    Once you’re tenured you’re (essentially) bullet proof though. I say kudos to Prof McPherson, but I can’t imagine many junior TT scientists having the moxie to do this – right or wrong, you play the game.

    What examples do you have of tenured profs being more beholden? I can understand certain administrative burdens becoming harder to refuse (most Universities seem to have a very top heavy administrative structure of academics and non-academics).

    I wonder if a major influencing factor though is level of funding? If you’re sitting on a couple of nice R01 (or equivalent) grants, plus a training or programmatic grant you’re inherently very valuable. If you’re not well funded and/or primarily teaching faculty then I can certainly see how one might be nervous to ‘rock the boat’. Being close to retirement, but not quite there yet, must add a certain perspective!

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  10. I think tenured professors have more cover from which to defy administrators. However, tenured professors also seem more “assimilated”, more willing to make excuses, explain why this idiotic policy really is a good idea, etc. Untenured professors seem to be more likely to complain to their tenured colleagues within the department about idiotic things coming from outside, while the tenured folks tell us young ones to Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Rules.

    So help me god, if, upon receiving tenure, I start making excuses for idiotic rules, somebody should just euthanize me right then and there. It’s one thing to follow a rule because you have to, and quite another thing to smile and praise it as you do so.

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    1. That’s how I feel, too. I’m afraid to turn into one of those people who comes up to a younger colleague and whispers, ‘Of course, you are right about everything you said at the meeting but you have to learn that there is such things as politics and not everything that you are thinking should be said out loud.”

      So let’s promise to euthanize each other if we ever get to the point of whispering dissent in corners but voting “yes” against our convictions during meetings.

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      1. I’d even be fine with the person who said “Of course you are right, but saying it in this place at the right moment will backfire. Let’s work on fighting for it in a different way.” Telling somebody to fight smarter can be a very good form of support.

        It’s the ones who say “No, you have to understand, it’s like this because blah blah blah and it’s perfectly fine and reasonable” that really bother me.

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        1. I know. I hope I never become “reasonable” in this way. If I have an opinion to express and a point of view to uphold, I’m planning to do so. I feel like many people just talk themselves into accepting certain things because they think they have to.

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  11. I am a tenured professor and I agree that as a group, those with tenure seem less likely to enjoy the academic freedom they have earned. Even I was much more outspoken before tenure. Untenured people who keep their head down so as not to question the status quo do not change and speak their minds once they get tenure. If anything, they get even more cowardly. Part of it is that you know you are going to be with the same people for a very long time. Part of it is the assimilation that occurs, as Thoreau suggests. A final factor is that you can do anything you want to pursue your own agenda, so combatting the administration seems less urgent.

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  12. Actually sexual harassment training isn’t punitive training for harassers, it’s training about the laws on it and what they mean. It can be very beneficial if you are a victim or a potential victim. I was sexually harassed, for instance, and didn’t know it until an administrator informed me that it was. I thought it was harassment, yes, and I wanted OSHA protection from it, but I didn’t realize it was sexual harassment because I wasn’t being harassed for sex by a superior, I was just being cyberstalked by an ex who was tenured in a different department than the one I am tenured in.

    It’s also really good to know how sexual harassment is defined and what the dynamics of it are if you have students you advise, or who ask you questions about how to proceed in professional environments, and so on. McPherson sounds like a silly old fart who probably does engage in borderline sexual harassment — that would be why he thinks training on it must be there to slap his hand.

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    1. According to this logic, I must also be “a silly old fart who probably does engage in borderline sexual harassment ” and also a borderline paper clip thief and bribe-taker because I also find such trainings to be extremely humiliating and condescending.

      If somebody is going to give me lessons in ethics, I, at the very least, need some proof that their ethical credentials are better than mine. Why some HR bureaucrat is going to lecture me on how to behave is beyond my understanding.

      Such trainings are completely in line with the recent attempts to impose a dress code on professors because, supposedly, we have no idea how to dress ourselves decently without firm guidelines.

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  13. “That’s how I feel, too. I’m afraid to turn into one of those people who comes up to a younger colleague and whispers, ‘Of course, you are right about everything you said at the meeting but you have to learn that there is such things as politics and not everything that you are thinking should be said out loud.”

    So let’s promise to euthanize each other if we ever get to the point of whispering dissent in corners but voting “yes” against our convictions during meetings.”

    No. No, because titling at strawmen is a waste of everyone’s time. I’m not trying to sound like PhysioProf here, but I can hear his voice in my head right now…

    Are you a scientist who has devoted her life to do science and to follow your natural curiosity? Or are you taking up a valuable lab space hoping to tilt at windmills?

    If you have a problem with mandated HR events then take it to HR and the senior administration and voice your complaint with reason. Whispering behind your hand does no one a service, and is certainly not an efficacious way to effect change at your institution.

    By all means refuse to toe the party line, but remember A) why you’re there (a 2hr ‘training’ cannot possibly so onerous that it is a make/break situation), and B) you’re an adult professional in a professional environment and there are more effective ways to make a point.

    Is mandated sexual harassment training any kind of infringement on your rights? No, of course it’s not. It’s a required event because there really are some idiots in the world in any walk of life, but it’s impossible to single them out – they don’t wear a badge or patch on their jacket. For obvious reasons it’s also unfair to ‘single them out’ in advance. However, to wait till someone has been harassed is to leave it too late.

    Is it annoying to have to go these events that are a waste of time to “us normal people”? Possibly (although the commenter above would suggest not). But a more effective use of one’s time and effort might be, instead of boycotting and raising an empty stink for the fourth estate to salivate over, is to work endlessly to create an equal opportunity, open and friendly work environment for everyone fortunate enough to have this job.

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    1. No, I’m not a scientist. I’m a professor of Spanish Literature who teaches about that windmill fighting fella. 🙂

      I haven’t participated in any sexual harassment training. I just quoted the story of somebody who did. However, there are so many really crazy initiatives introduced by corporate-trained administrators in today’s academia. We, the profs, keep just accepting all of these innovations that effectively steal the university away from educators and students because everybody seems completely terrified of some unspecified threat.

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  14. Tideliar-

    Even giving up and doing nothing, and encouraging others to do the same because it’s futile to fight, is better than trying to persuade somebody to buy into it. The person who says “This is indeed stupid but fighting it is futile, pick a better battle” at least still has the honesty to recognize that it’s stupid. The person who says “No, no, you see, they wouldn’t do this unless there were a perfectly good reason…” has given up their capacity for independent thought.

    I am a practical man, and I recognize that some battles are not worth fighting. That does not obligate me to think that everything they tell me is good.

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  15. 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

    Interesting… Let me think… Yeah, I would say you’re right on the money. And in my personal experience, most of the time all that it takes is for one to say, politely but firmly “sorry, that is not going to happen”. But, very few do it, and when they do it is often for the wrong reasons…

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  16. Now here is a battle not worth fighting.

    The real question is, do tenured professors participate in efforts to investigate and eliminate research fraud, administrative fraud, other malfeasance by top-level administrators? Now those are battles well worth fighting.

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    1. Well, how about a chancellor of one school I know whose plagiarism in both his dissertations was revealed but the committee consisting of faculty members just let him slide on it?

      Obviously, they thought this was one of those battles that aren’t worthy.

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  17. The problem is the overflow of new regulations from our federal and state government and federal agencies. Required training is expanding from Human Subjects, Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR), to now Financial Conflict of Interest (FCOI). It is another unfunded mandate universities have to deal with in order to do research. Focus should be placed on elected officials (most of which are lawyers), and the federal agencies that fund us to stop these knee jerk reactions. University administrator’s, if they are doing their job correctly, are just trying to keep up with the ever changing and expanding regulations in order to protect the faculty, and the university from fines, or winding up in jail. Yes, refuse university administrations over zealousness, but be careful about the laws.

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