Critical Thinking as Productive Questions?

1. There is no reason to suspect that college administrators are anything but empathetic toward victims of sexual assault. Thus, why do college leaders systemically focus their attention elsewhere?

2, Why is the discussion of campus sexual assault so painful to university administrators?

3. If I am correct in asserting systemic inattention to sexual assault compared to what is needed, what would change that behavior?

When I was in graduate school several of my teachers were partial to a theory of organizational change that was highly theoretical in the sense that positive social and economic change was attributed to technological change and institutional sclerosis was the inhibiting factor in human progress. Here an institution refers to any organized human action---for example, corporations, clubs, and the CIA.

 While I was not super-impressed by the argument, I did acquire a sensitivity that I do value.  INSTITUTIONS ARE OVERWHELMINGLY CONSERVATIVE in the dictionary sense of "conservative", viz., they fight vigorously to defend and perpetuate their existence as they are. Entire areas of scholarship are therefore devoted to organizational change.

The above paragraph seems simple enough, but it contains an abundance of analytical insight. What do we expect from institutions other than resistance to critique and obstreperous refusal to alter what they are doing?

Pope Francis used his Christmas Speech to lambast the Papal bureaucracy. the Curia, the administration that runs the Vatican for a “narcissistic pathology of power and existential schizophrenia." The world gasped because leaders of institutions are not supposed to talk like that. Many articles discussing the Pope's speech pointed out that Papal messages do not ordinarily have that tone of self-critique.

None of us expects to turn into the President's State of the Union speech next month to hear Obama's critique of the expansion of Executive power. And, of course, spokespeople for the CIA overwhelmingly see great benefit in torture.

If you think I am making sense, you understandably look outside of institutions for stimuli for change.

Now to universities.  They are under uncommon duress. Demographics are threatening their enrollments. They are largely just another private organization now because state legislatures have so sharply reduced public funding. There seems little place anymore for university leaders who are committed to an educational effort devoted to the development of improved citizens, friends, significant others, and thinkers. Instead, university leaders must focus on selling their product, and sell it they do.

The recruitment efforts of contemporary university leaders are no less slick nor any more honest than what we expect from the friendly car salesperson who approaches us to sell a shiny new vehicle as soon as we step foot on a car lot. Their efforts to generate revenue are extensive and guided by internal public relations offices. They compete for students with almost exactly  the sales talk that you would expect from someone selling a luxury singles apartment experience. The sales effort is stymied  by the underlying recognition that included in the package is  the requirement to participate in things called classes.

Universities must create and defend an image that competes with its multiple, well-financed competitors. From this perspective, there is nothing strange about an experience on our campus where a student claimed that she had been kidnapped, driven around northwest Ohio and sexually assaulted one night.  The next day happened to be one of those frequent events when our university expected busloads of potential students to descend onto campus to hear our sales pitch. Huge headlines announcing the kidnapping and alleged assault would greet the prospective students and their parents.  So our office of admissions dispatched its student workers all over campus to procure every copy of an offending newspaper in sight. Once assembled those newspapers were hidden in a place secure from the visitors' eyes. 

Every logical fallacy imaginable is used to lure new students. For example, it would be difficult to find a university that did not greet potential students with an array of banners proclaiming the superiority of the education and employment opportunities offered on "our" campus. In university land, all schools are much better than average.

The high rate of sexual assault on campuses is not part of an effective advertising campaign.  Any sexual assault on campus tarnishes the carefully crafted image of our alma mater.

My point here is that I would hope no one outside a university expects college administrators to make a push for full disclosure about the level of sexual assault on campus and the stories of human pain residing behind those  statistics. As soon as private and governmental bodies require that disclosure and discussion is as soon as significant progress will be made on this front. And in fairness, what would you do were you in charge of a university? 

1. Would a university administrator who ignored the institutional forces I discussed in this post have any meaningful avenue for discussing sexual assault in a manner that would reduce the problem and yet not get her or himself fired?

2. What could an engaged parent do to protect sons and daughters in this setting?

3. Are there good arguments to be made for the claim that institutional reforms need to come from within the organizations themselves?



AuthorM Neil Browne