Friday, September 12, 2008

Thoughts on San Antonio

This story in IHE is somehow both shocking and unsurprising.

Apparently, San Antonio College has a policy stating that anybody who teaches 12 or more credits in a given semester is entitled to full-time status, including benefits (read: health insurance). This is a fairly common policy at cc's, and one with which I'm quite familiar. San Antonio's innovation has been to require adjuncts who hit 12 credits to sign a waiver waiving their right to full-time status and benefits as a condition of getting that last course.

So they have a policy, but they have a practice of requiring anyone to whom the policy would apply to waive it.

The story is worth reading in its entirety, if only to follow the tortured explanations offered by the college spokesperson. (My fave is the 85 days vs. 90 days. Very cute.) Her stated argument boils down to “it's either that or we don't run the class.” Her unstated argument is that they can't afford to pay what it would cost to make everyone they need full-time, so they're doing what they can to make ends meet.

This is the kind of stuff that gives administrators a bad name.

I can't imagine that this would hold up in court. If it did, I'd expect to see retailers and restaurants start requiring employees to waive their right to the minimum wage, contractors requiring employees to waive their right to OSHA standards, and the like. Down that road lies madness.

(I've always wanted to write “down that road lies madness.”)

Libertarians like to argue that freedom of contract is one of the most fundamental human rights. What they fail to recognize is that contracts have ripple effects far beyond their signatories. (In other words, there is a 'market' that is larger than individual actors, just as there is a 'society' beyond individual adults, and in both cases, the whole is importantly different than the sum of its parts. Some libertarians actually go so far as to resort to patent absurdity -- “there is no society” -- or veiled threat -- “there is no alternative” -- to avoid dealing with this.) When individuals were allowed to use poor judgment, they created a housing bubble – and crash -- that first priced more prudent sorts out of the market altogether, and is now dragging down the entire economy. Your poor judgment stole my home equity – the idea that I shouldn't have anything to say about that is absurd. Similarly, if individuals are allowed to use poor judgment to get around minimum compensation laws, they'll drag down the prevailing market for everyone else. The idea that everybody else should just sit there and take it is somewhere between 'na├»ve' and 'offensive.' This is a fundamental failure of libertarian thought, built into its structure.

That's why I don't have much patience for the “nobody held a gun to their heads” line of argument. It can be used to justify all manner of exploitation, and often is.

People entrusted with decision-making positions ought to hold themselves – okay, ourselves – to a higher standard than “nobody held a gun to their heads.”

As a profession, I think we owe it to prospective grad students to warn them away, and we owe it to some chronically-underemployed freeway fliers to be candid about their prospects. In both cases, the point isn't to make people feel lousy about themselves, but to help them avoid or escape a situation in which success is unlikely.

But at the end of the day, 'ought' won't always cut it. As long as this kind of exploitation is relatively easy to do, some places will do it. That's why we need rules of the game, and why waiving those rules – even by mutual 'consent' – can't be tolerated. Recognizing each other's basic humanity involves recognizing that, at some important level, we're all in this together. We all have moments of weakness, and those moments affect other people. That's why we have to recognize the fact of collective consequences for individual actions, and therefore the potential legitimacy of collective restraints on those actions. If we don't ban abuse of the weak, the weak will be abused, whether that weakness is physical, economic, or anything else. Saying “they asked for it” doesn't make it right.

I honestly hope for a housecleaning in San Antonio. Some things are just too basic to let slide.