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May 27, 2018

How about gifts to students?

The world of gifts is complicated. Much of the anthropological theory derives from various accounts of gift. From Malinowski to Mauss, from Polanyi to Sahlins, all considered gift giving one of the central cultural phenomena. Last week I wrote about gifts to professors, but how about gifts in the other direction, from professors to students? It is clearly, a much more complicated, and multidimensional issue.

Bourdieu describes gift as an imposition of obligation. He states that, “[T]he initial act [of giving] is an attack on the freedom of the one who receives it. It is threatening: it obligates one to reciprocate and to reciprocate beyond the original gift…” (Practical Reason, 94). On one hand, teachers of all kinds view their work as at least partially a gift-giving to students. There is an assumption that most of us go above and beyond of just what the job requires. We do expect some gratitude from students, and are hurt when it is not shown. Your real estate agent expects a polite “thank you,” but not profound gratitude.

Consider a professor who gives up a couple of hours of his or her day to help a troubled student with understanding course materials. This seems fine, right? What if someone gives a student an expensive laptop? That would raise all kinds of questions, and at the very least look very weird: not a good idea. How about a professor who takes an entire class to a restaurant and paying the bill out of pocket? Well, it is still a bit weird, but maybe not so much? What about several faculty who invite graduating students to a party with tacos and burritos? – Well, that seems totally fine. Why is that? Because tacos are cheaper, or because they split the bill? I don’t know, it just feels right to me, but perhaps not to someone else.

I am trying to show here that there is an implicit cultural norm of gift proportionality, specific to our culture. Yet the norm seems to be ill-defined, and perhaps shifting. The norm does exist, and there is such a thing as a gift too big to be appropriate. Note, it is fairly easy for a professor to turn down a student gift, not s easy the other way around. To be in a position of saying, “Thanks, but I cannot accept this,” is to be in a position of power.

I am a bit worried that if we do not watch it, different faculty will start competing with other programs on generosity, and some will feel pressure to be more generous. Anthropologists know several cultures where competitive generosity got out of hand, including some Melanesian societies. I am thinking we need to both acknowledge the beauty of human generosity, and yet be careful to set some limits.

OK, how do we do that? I have no idea, actually. A written policy seems to be too intrusive, and too rigid. A conversation, perhaps? - how do you hold a conversation like that with two hundred people? This is an invitation to think together.

May 21, 2018

Student gifts, or How do we regulate Academia

Someone has recently asked me if we have a written policy on student-to-faculty gifts. My answer is this: politely decline all gifts of value other than a thankyou card. Suggest Instead giving to the College or the University. No fruit baskets, no champagne, no Starbucks gift cards. Here is a more detailed reasoning for the case by Lionel G. Standing. If you want a written policy, here it is. As your dean, I just wrote it down, effective immediately: no gifts from students.

More seriously, it is not that simple. Writing a good policy takes time and intellectual effort. With zero-gift policy, there are many nuances and exceptions. For example, you may have an international student from a country where introduction souvenirs are a sign of routine politeness. Your graduate student may also be your colleague and collaborator, older and wealthier than you are. A refusal to accept a gift may be a rude gesture in your own cultural background, etc., etc. To have a good written policy, we should consider all these and other exceptions, define what a gift is (is a ride to a conference a gift? A dog-sitting gig?), set a threshold for monetary value, get feedback from people, revise, vote to approve, publish, maintain version control, etc. It looks like an expensive proposition; we all could be doing something else, moving our College somewhere. So why do all that? We do not really have a problem with student gifts. The absolute majority of faculty have enough common sense to discourage students from gift giving. Spending that much time on a minor problem seems to be luxury we cannot afford. It is really a case of the Parkinson’s law of triviality, which deserves a special blog one day.

Another consideration is that written policies tend to weaken ethical controls. Academia is governed by both ethics and policies, which overlap and mingle in complex and not always predictable ways. Policies often provide an excuse to abandon ethical reasoning altogether. Let me give you an absurd example, so you understand the logic: Let’s say a hospital says to its doctors – no more than two free lunches a year paid by Big Pharma sales persons. OK, there are 22 major pharma conglomerates in the world. That’s 44 free lunches, which a doctor will intentionally schedule throughout the year. Instead of limiting the abuse, the policy presents the bribes as a benign and finite resource, which you would be foolish not to use. So you end up with more abuse than before, because of the way you tried to regulate it.

Another way is to engage in a conversation with the doctors and state that free lunches are not really OK, they are corruptive and unethical. This way, they will be worried about their reputation, and police the problem as a professional community. The ethical constraints are less clear, but can be as effective and less expensive to implement.

Here is what I am trying to do here. Next time a student gives you an envelope with something like a gift card in there, please think hard – how does she or he expect you to return the favor? What is the message you are sending by accepting or declining a gift?

May 13, 2018

Money loves quiet: CSU and the surplus

I heard the expression “money loves quiet” from a friend of mine. He meant that discussing money need a quiet, serious conversation; it should not be discussed loudly, with much emotions or naiveté. He is not entirely right, there are times and places for loud, emotional, political conversations. And yet, there are also times and places for quiet, realistic assessments and plans.

These are interesting times in California. The State has a record 9 billion dollar surplus, and yet the Governor is arguing for restraint, warning of future economic downturns. It cannot get more serious for CSU and UC systems, which may experience budget cuts despite the record surplus. Even if we do not, the most important serious conversation we need is on the long-term trend. Just look at this one picture by the Government Accountability Office; it is worth many words. The long-term trend nation-wide is to defund public higher education. Some states did I quickly and abruptly, some gradually. California may be unique in many ways, but nothing suggests a different long-term trend. It has little to do with politics, and everything to do with the economics of mass higher education. Simply put, not one country in the world has figured out how to provide quality higher education to the majority of its youth. If you’re curious, there is a wealth of info on the CSU Budget site.

Yes, there are times for students to go to the Capitol and demonstrate against tuition hikes, and for the Unions to demand wage increases, and for the System to lobby the legislature and the public. Then there is a sober analysis of what the public can and cannot afford and what we should do about the long-term trend. The answer is obvious: we must learn to diversify our revenue streams, and to reduce our expenses. I have never heard a quiet conversation that would dispute this simple thought. If any of you did, please let me know.

Our College is a tiny part of the giant CSU System, but the solutions are the same. We need to invest in building capacity for additional revenues. You can count all the realistic possibilities on the fingers of one hand: (1) Expand Continuing Education self-support programs, especially those online; (2) Enter the consulting business (service contracts); (3) Ramp up grant proposals; (3) Build capacity for fundraising, including a possible major gift; (4) Cut costs by streamlining processes and redesigning some very expensive programs, and closing down habitual money-losers; (5) build retail service business (e.g. diagnostic and tutoring services). All five actually require investments and time. As long as we have a relatively stable budget, we will make these investments. There is no money to waste. In fact, I think all academic units should be evaluated, in part, on their investment strategies, not just on their ability to maintain the status-quo relatively trouble-free.

One of the signs of maturity is the ability to distinguish between the loud political conversations and the quiet economic ones. Can you do that?

May 7, 2018

Prospective memory and the future-heavy world

One of Lisa Cantrell’s podcasts begins with a tragic story of a young father who forgot his sleeping baby in the backseat of his car. Lisa and her guest examine the so-called the prospective memory – remembering to perform a pre-planned action. It is, in a way a memory of the future. Apparently, humans are especially bad at it, because we have not evolved to plan for the future without environmental cues.

The podcast prompted me to think about the school year that is drawing to the end. The College’s leadership group collectively monitored over 80 new projects, not including the routine procedures like part-time pool applications and contracts, class scheduling, six distinct cycles of RTP, probably about a dozen staff searches and six faculty searches, etc. Each of us also kept track of our individual projects. For example I had 52 big enough to get on my to-do list, plus who knows how many that got done without writing them down, or completed straight out of inbox. Each branch chair has a similarly sized list, and every staff member does, too. Every faculty member keeps track of a host of class-related activities, preparing for classes, grading, individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, jokes already told to one group, but not to another, etc. When I regularly taught classes, I though teaching ninety students takes up about half of my total mental capacity. Faculty also keep tasks related to many other commitments – writing, researching, serving on committees, all the external engagements. It is a complicated world with many moving parts; nothing like our ancestors had to deal with. We live in a very future-heavy world. Our brains struggle to remember things that have not happen yet.

We create artificial cues to combat the weakness of prospective memory. In Lisa’s story, her guests suggest putting a diaper on the front seat. We make lists, calendars, routines, activate reminders, create tasks, and ask other people to remember. The gimmicks work to some degree, but I can easily name a dozen things that I initiated with a full commitment to execute, and then forgot to see through. None of it is as tragic as one in the story, but nothing to be proud if either. Every one of my colleagues forgets things. Despite our best efforts to manage projects, some get away from us. “Dropping the ball” is one of the most damaging causes of our failures. Why is that?

People have invented many things to keep themselves on track. The more sophisticated they are (for example, the Gantt charts), the more time-consuming they become. There is a point of diminishing returns, a threshold, after which one can spend so much time on planning and monitoring that no time will be left for actually implementing. Therefore, we trade the risk of forgetting for more time to do things. For example, Outlook has a handy Tasks feature for some thirty years, and very few people use it: too many clicks.

What can be done other than going through panic attacks themed “Did I forget something?” Obviously, I do not have a good solution, or else I would remember everything. However, it helps to identify at-risk projects, and plant some extra reminders for them. The at-risk projects are new; they are not built into any calendars or anyone’s established job routine yet. They may not have a clear and pre-planned chain of events, and depend on the initiative of one or two people. At-risk projects develop an ambiguity about whose court the ball is in. At-risk projects usually begin as great ideas, which is why the decision to go through is taken with too much enthusiasm, without considering the bandwidth capacity.

However, the main solution is to pay attention to Lisa’s point: human beings do not have a good prospective memory capacity. Understanding out limitations is as important as understanding our abilities.