Doing What Job?

Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the Larry Summers matter. (You don’t mind if I call him Larry do you? Everyone else does. I’m not pretending I know him, it’s just that it’s easier than trying to remember whether he spells it Laurence or Lawrence. Plus it sounds so much more friendly, and knowing, and American, and as if I might be important enough to know him, which I’m not.)

It is only if Summers’ performance at the January 14th conference (where he wondered if the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and math might have a genetic basis) was intentional — it is only if he knew what he was doing — that he can be absolved of the most serious of the charges that might be brought against him. And that is not the charge that his views on the matter were uninformed and underresearched (as they certainly were), nor the charge that he has damaged the cause of women in science (which he surely has), but the charge that he wasn’t doing his job and didn’t even seem to know what it was.

Hmm. It’s not absolutely clear why the last charge would or should be more serious than the second, for intance, or who would be bringing these conditional mood charges, or whether different parties bringing these charges might have different ideas of which ones are more important. But anyway –

Larry Summers is no more free to pop off at the mouth about a vexed academic question than George Bush is free to wander around the country dropping off-the-cuff remarks about Social Security or Islam…The constraints on speaking that come along with occupying a position have nothing to do with the First Amendment (there are no free-speech issues here, as there almost never are on college campuses) and everything to do with the legitimate expectations that are part and parcel of the job you have accepted and for which you are (in this case, handsomely) paid

Wait. Yes he is – more free to pop off at the mouth. Of course he is. Larry Summers isn’t elected, he’s not answerable to the populace as a whole, he’s not accountable in the same way. We didn’t hire Larry Summers. Somebody did, but we didn’t. So these ‘legitimate expectations’ – they’re the concern of Summers’ employers, not the populace at large. Sometimes those two groups have sharply differing expectations. Think whistle-blowers, think union organizers, think Mafia underlings who go to the police.

Those expectations (and the requirements they subtend) are not philosophical, but empirical and pragmatic. They, include, first and foremost, the expectation that you will comport yourself in ways that bring credit, not obloquy, to the institution you lead. That doesn’t mean that there are things you can’t say or things you must say. Rather, it means that whatever you say, you have to be aware of the possible effects your utterance might produce, especially if those effects touch the health and reputation of the university.

So…my employer right or wrong? Is that what he’s saying? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Which is fascinating. Suppose Summers were the CEO of a tobacco company, testifying to a Congressional subcommittee, and he raised his right hand and swore that he did not believe that nicotine was addictive. He’d be doing that, no doubt, because of his awareness of the effects his utterance would produce on the health and reputation of his company. Good for the company – but not so hot from other points of view. ‘I was just doing my job’ is a pretty discredited defense these days. Enron executives were doing their best to do their jobs as they saw them, but sadly that involved shafting large numbers of employees and investors. Golly. Maybe ‘doing your job’ isn’t really the last word in moral responsibility. Walmart managers give their workers more to do than they can finish on their shifts, with the result that they are forced to work unpaid overtime – not occasionally and by accident but systematically and routinely. That seems to be the managers’ job, from the point of view of whatever next-level managers who are telling them to do it. Does that make it a good thing to do?

As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks because he expresses views you approve or low marks because he espouses views you reject. Your evaluation of him or her (now there’s a solution to Harvard’s problem) should be made in the context of the only relevant question — not “Does what he says meet the highest standards of scholarship?” or “Is what he says politically correct or bravely politically incorrect?” (an alternative form of political correctness) or even “Is what he says true?” but “Is he, in saying it (whatever it is) carrying out the duties of his office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise?”

Ah. The interests of the enterprise. So – when employees of shipping companies dump oil into the ocean, when employees of chemical plants dump toxic sludge in rivers, when extortionists succeed in extracting large sums of money, when engineers in Detroit build ever larger more inefficient more murderous automobiles, when advertisers persuade gullible fools to buy those immense cars by telling them that otherwise everyone will think their penises are too small, when managers of poultry plants and garment factories hire immigrants and pay them less than the minimum wage because they can get away with it – the only relevant question is whether or not they’re carrying out the duties of the office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise? That’s the only relevant question? Why? Why, exactly? Fish doesn’t say. Why doesn’t he? I don’t know. I find it rather baffling.

Well, [the ability to encourage difficult questions] may be the strength of the academy, but it is not the strength sought by search committees when they interview candidates for senior administrative positions. No search committee asks, “Can we count on you to rile things up? Can we look forward to days of hostile press coverage? Can you give us a list of the constituencies you intend to offend?” Search committees do ask, “What is your experience with budgets?” and “What are your views on the place of intercollegiate athletics?” and “What will be your strategy for recruiting a world-class faculty?” and “How will you create a climate attractive to donors?”

Yeah. So what? Fish is not the search committee, so why is he doing their talking for them? Why is he talking as if their point of view is the only one? Why on earth is he talking as if their point of view is the one we should all have? As if the interests of the people the ‘enterprise’ has an effect on are entirely beside the point – not just to the search committee, but to everyone? That’s the silliest argument I’ve seen in awhile. Morris Zapp would be embarrassed.

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