Lessons

One of the hard lessons we all learn growing up is that people who have power often abuse it. The Framers well understood this problem and tried to separate power among three branches of government. They also understood the vulnerabilities of their Great Experiment: faction and popular passions. The existence of this tradition, its deeply ingrained roots in the American psyche, still provide the best hope for a reaction against the excesses of the Republican domination of all three branches of government: a Republican-appointed judiciary that awarded an election without allowing for an accurate count of the votes; a Republican-dominated Congress that refuses to call that Republican President to account.

But you don’t have to be a Republican to abuse your power. And you certainly don’t have to be in government. It may even be easier in the private sector. Consider the behavior of the University of Miami, led by Donna Shalala, no Republican she (although she is paid over half a million a year and lives like one): according to the Miami Herald, her university is manipulating the process in its academic disciplines case against students charged with misbehavior during a quite well-behaved protest in favor of the unionization effort.

And the terms on which the University is settling the cases seem harsh: several students — the exact number isn’t clear — are being kicked out of university housing, which means they’ll probably be paying more to live somewhere less convenient. Here’s how Herald columnist Ana Menendez characterized the state of play:

Faced with a rigged system — lawyers say administrators were to function as witness, prosecutor, judge and jury — students began settling their cases with the university at about the same time the union announced a majority of janitors had voted to join.

The settlements continue. Punishments have included academic probation, a 500-word essay and, most ironically of all, community service.

”Here we are being sentenced to community service when we’re being tried for a service we did to the community,” said Amy Sun, 21, a psychology major who pleaded no contest.

Far more troubling than anything the students did is the way UM administrators have chosen to deal with it, going after students with a zeal that seems to have more to do with retribution than justice.

First, administrators threatened students with major charges that could get them expelled or suspended. When a who’s-who of Miami’s legal talent stepped forward to defend the students, UM quickly retreated, downgrading the complaint to “university offenses.”

”Under their own rules, a student who is charged with a university offense is not entitled to right of counsel,” said attorney Lida Rodriguez, who is advising Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, one of the student leaders. “They did it not out of kindness but out of trying to deprive them of the assistance of an advisor.”

Late Tuesday, Coker-Dukowitz, who had been one of the hold-outs, joined the others in settling his case. He, too, loses his housing at the coveted University Village, punishment that also imposes a financial burden.

[UM attorney Eric ] Isicoff maintains that the case against the students is not about free speech. UM, he said, is simply “representing the right of a whole other group of people who do not wish to engage in this manner.”

To which I have only one — carefully considered — reply: bull.

The kindest take on the administration’s position that I can construct is this: it wanted to send students a message that if they make life hard for the administration, and disrupt its operations, they will pay. And to the extent that the administration is worried about the long-run consequences one can see why it might be afraid to look as if it were setting a precedent that administrative offices can be occupied with no penalty. In fact, I think I’d be worried about that issue in their shoes too.

So if we’re going to see it that way — and remember that is the kindest construction I can put on what the administration is up to — then we have to also admit that the actual proceedings, none of which involve the actual occupation, are a complete abuse of process. (Not to mention that it’s unclear to me to what extent the two groups of students overlap.) The ostensible charges, failing to disperse from a peaceful gathering and leafleting with non-commercial political tracts, are NOT the sort of things that universities should punish. They are the signs of engaged citizens in a community. We should value and celebrate them.

For if we don’t encourage the creation of engaged citizens, then the engine that would keep the Great Experiment from collapsing will lose an essential mainspring.

Fortunately, my sense is that the students involved have not been cowed. Instead, they’ve been radicalized. And we may well reap the harvest when they come back in the fall.

I said at the start of the strike that it presented a teaching moment. At the time, many law students who wanted more than anything just to get on with their lives hated this characterization (and some of their reactions taught me something). But I still think it was a good description. It just turns out that the lessons were a little different than I expected.

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15 Responses to Lessons

  1. rachel says:

    I am curious as to how administration is dealing with faculty who openly support the students and the employees, an dhave been a little eeeeeensy bit critical how administration has handled the mess.
    Do you have any comments on that?

  2. Cathy says:

    Isn’t the university setting itself up for a nasty and expensive lawsuit from the students they are riding roughshod over?

  3. Michael says:

    As a tenured faculty member with a supportive Dean, I have little to fear. It might be different if I had administrative ambitions, but I don’t. And, as is traditional, the law school is one of the more autonomous parts of the university.

    The position of non-tenured faculty in a regular department whose head was not supportive certainly could be more precarious, but I have yet to hear of a problem. In any event, a university that got a reputation for that sort of retaliation would find it much harder to recruit faculty, so even if central wanted to be that stupid — and there is absolutely no sign whatsoever that this is the case — the price would be high.

  4. Geoff says:

    It’s just rediculous…isn’t the University setting THE place where students are supposed to express their views, regardless of whether it “interferes” with the administration? Shalala should be ashamed of herself.

  5. bones says:

    Our universities have become the high schools of America. Instead of being adult and affording students adult responsibilities and protections, the University treats them as children to be punished. If this had happened to adults in a public forum, “punishment” like being removed from your apartment would be met with legal representation and protection of your rights. Here the “uppity children” are being “punished” by a powerful individual who has no check on her power and no investment in the University students.

  6. Sue Ann Campbell says:

    I am a UM alumni, and I am so very upset by this action on the University’s part and especially Donna Shalala that I have started spreading the word to like minded alumni. Don’t give one red cent to the university and tell them why when they call for solicitations.

    I am even going so far as to reconsider giving to the university sponsored United Way campaign.
    I will still donate to charity, and I will even donate to the same charity I earmark with my annual pledge to the United Way, but I refuse to make the university look good by giving them credit for my donation.

    I used to be proud of being an alumni. Now I feel I should hide the fact, lest people think I am of the same ilk at Shalala.

  7. “For if we don’t encourage the creation of engaged citizens, then the engine that would keep the Great Experiment from collapsing will lose an essential mainspring.”

    Be it at the macro-social or micro-social level, there probably is no better way to express this concept.

  8. Barry says:

    “In any event, a university that got a reputation for that sort of retaliation would find it much harder to recruit faculty, so even if central wanted to be that stupid — and there is absolutely no sign whatsoever that this is the case — the price would be high.”

    Posted by Michael

    Maichael, there *might* be a hypothetical price to pay, sometime in the future, of an amount highly unlikely to affect the well-being of the higher administration. However, the price would be very high for the untenured professor in question, as he/she has just be demoted in career status, and would have to seek a tenure-track position, and then tenure, at another university. Therefore, this would have a discouraging effect on untenured faculty, just as it would in ordinary private employment.

  9. Michael says:

    Barry – it’s evident from their behavior that many untenured faculty didn’t feel discouraged from being very active during the strike. For example, at least one of the prime movers of the picketline blog is not tenured. Given the level of support by senior faculty, I think the odds that they won’t be subjected to reprisal are good.

    If, however, this proves too optimistic, I’m certain there’s a LOT of legal talent around willing to go to bat for them.

  10. Barry says:

    That’s a different thing, Michael – I’m disagreeing with the ‘ — the price would be high.’ part of the statement. And assuming that the higher adminstration would strive for strong legal deniability of retaliation, so that it’d be very hard to prove.

  11. Anon. says:

    I hope this has been reported to the AAUP (I certainly hope they have a local chapter). A censure from the AAUP doesn’t mean much, but many university administrations do not like it, because it warns teachers considering working there that the administration evil.

  12. Michael says:

    But there is nothing to report! Nothing has happened to the faculty (that I’ve heard of)!

  13. joey says:

    Michael, the faculty who supported the strike don’t need to be confronted with the same directness and viciousness with which the students are being confronted by the adminstration now. They can be picked off stealthily, one by one, way down the line. Tenure can be denied for small reasons that are often petty or unfair, but not necessarily unreasonable on paper. Most often, junior faculty whose tenure is denied don’t bother taking on a university — too much hassle, too much money, too little chance to succeed. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more than a small number of untenured and even tenured faculty ARE scared. I have recently spoken to an untenured UM faculty member who, while willing to sign the petition in favor of the students, didn’t feel up to sending a signed letter to to the editor of the Miamk Herald.

    I don’t think you should underestimate this problem. The untenured people you mention in a comment above are taking chances. The fact that they are is proof of their courage, not of the fact that they feel safe. This is not to say that faculty or anyone else should be cowed by power. In times of trouble, willingness to take chances is what ultimately makes all the difference, and anyone who risks his or her safety for the sake of others should be commended and honored. But it is necessary for the academic and legal communities to keep their attention trained on the risks the untenured faculty are taken, so that it will be hard for the administration to sabotage their job security once the strike has lost the limelight.

  14. joey says:

    Michael, the faculty who supported the strike don’t need to be confronted with the same directness and viciousness with which the students are being confronted by the adminstration now. They can be picked off stealthily, one by one, way down the line. Tenure can be denied for small reasons that are often petty or unfair, but not necessarily unreasonable on paper. Most often, junior faculty whose tenure is denied don’t bother taking on a university — too much hassle, too much money, too little chance to succeed. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more than a small number of untenured and even tenured faculty ARE scared. I have recently spoken to an untenured UM faculty member who, while willing to sign the petition in favor of the students, didn’t feel up to sending a signed letter to to the editor of the Miamk Herald.

    I don’t think you should underestimate this problem. The untenured people you mention in a comment above are taking chances. The fact that they are is proof of their courage, not of the fact that they feel safe. This is not to say that faculty or anyone else should be cowed by power. In times of trouble, willingness to take chances is what ultimately makes all the difference, and anyone who risks his or her safety for the sake of others should be commended and honored. But it is necessary for the academic and legal communities to keep their attention trained on the risks the untenured faculty are taken, so that it will be hard for the administration to sabotage their job security once the strike has lost the limelight.

  15. Michael says:

    Joey – All you say is true. What I have been pushing back against are two implications that one might draw from some of the comments. Contrary to what one might draw from some comments: (1) There is as yet absolutely no evidence of retaliation against faculty and there are some good reasons to surmise it may never appear. 2) The ability of the university administration to do stealthy retaliation is substantially constrained if the department and (especially) its Chair are vigilant and supportive.

    If I were a junior faculty member in the Arts & Sciences (the law school is completely cool about this sort of stuff) then I would be very careful about making sure my department was supportive and even so I’d have residual worries — as does everyone before tenure votes.

    As far as I can tell, however, the very large majority of faculty opinion during the strike ranged from very supportive of the workers, to mildly supportive, to neutral. The minority of administration supporters was tiny — although things got much more complex when one got to issues of tactics and especially the degree to which faculty should tolerate/support disruptions of daily life.

    In that climate, fortunately, the risks to activist faculty are lower than they would otherwise be — although, as you rightly point out, we can never take that for granted.

    I remain concerned, however, about the quickness with which people seem ready to go to the other extreme — charging the university with the very serious offense of political retaliation against faculty in the complete absence of any actual evidence. That is neither just nor helpful.

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