Sunday, March 19, 2006

Colleges and Hurricanes II: The Specter

Note: This post is the second part of a two part series. The first part can be found here.

There is a specter that haunts higher education in the State of Louisiana. This specter is called force majeure. Force majeure is a French language trope that makes what would otherwise be profoundly preposterous and utterly unreasonable, sound magically justified and somehow plausible.

This spectural linguistic slight of hand is now afflicting various Universities and university systems in the State of Louisiana. It is the term that certain administrations have seized upon to justify the immoral and quite possibly illegal shuffling of university programs, people and assets, with faculty members and students as collateral damage. Should a grandly titled (and remunerated) administrative suit have an old score to settle, force majeure and programs and people suddenly disappear. Need to save a few dollars? That is easy, Force majeure, and savings suddenly appear, as employees disappear.

The specter of force majeure has so far been seen at The University of New Orleans (UNO) and The Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) and other places in the State's university systems. Unfortunately, the specter of force majeure threatens to continue to spread like an STD at an orgy, through the universities of the State.

Of course, there are one or two minor procedural issues with this administrative wielding of force majeure. Not least of these is the fact that most of the universities in the State already have well worked out plans for situations of financial exigency. However, financial exigency is boring, rule bound and lacks the spectral and linguistic magnificence of force majeure. Whereas financial exigency would require careful deliberation, consultation and all sorts of other tedious activities, force majeure sweeps all before it, albeit all to often on to the welfare lines. With this magical pronouncement, the suits suddenly have carte blanche to do as they will.

The insidious nature of the spectral presence of force majeure is such that the mere threat of it's invocation is enough to leave even the most died-in-the-wool faculty trouble makers worry about their futures. Force majeure is no respecter of tenure, or rank. With a whisper of the incantation and the stroke of a pen tenured full professors dissolve into academic dust, as they suddenly become part of the faceless under-class of the unemployed. Only the most foolhardy would not have second thoughts when faced with a weapon of such awesome power.

The other great thing about force majeure is that it requires no further justification. Why did Professor X (the very productive, well respected scholar and excellent teacher) get cut, but Professor Y (the drinking buddy of the Dean/Vice-President/President, who has published a single letter to the editor in their career, who students hate) not? Simple -- force majeure. Not another word is needed. By invoking the specter, the trouble makers can be evicted, whilst the good old boys are protected. Brilliant!

Naturally, this sudden love of force majeure only makes sense from a certain short sighted administrative perspective. This specter spells a kiss of death to the long term well being of higher education in the State. With force majeure stalking the State's education system, what bright new Ph.D. would be suicidal enough to accept a position in this State? Even tenured faculty members are dusting off their Vitas and are applying for positions elsewhere. Effectively, the underpaid and overworked faculty, have hug a sign announcing "For Hire" around their collective necks. The best and the brightest are liable to be lured to greener, saner and safer pastures. Of course, some faculty members are simply too unattractive to be lured elsewhere. They have published too little, taught too much, served too much, or have just become too twisted and used up by the system. Unfortunately, these are the people who will be left to train the future brilliant young minds of the State, after the scorched earth of the specter has finished its deadly dance.

This depressing future scenario is not a forgone conclusion. At the current time, this is only a possible out come. Rationality and wise heads may yet prevail. The AAUP has showed signs of taking notice. The poisonous death dance of force majeure may be prevented. We hope. However, steps will need to be taken firmly and decisively, and soon, to prevent a further tragedy befalling this hurricane ravaged State. The heresy of force majeure must not be allowed to truly and fatally take hold. Even if the fiscal state of things is not too good, then sober, sane and carefully considered steps need to be planned, through consultation and dialogue with all stakeholders. A rash and expedient strategy, such as that embodied by the phrase force majeure, can only lead to further disaster. It must be stopped.

This alone only does a partial job. However, a rational plan, in conjunction with the full legislative support of the governors plan for faculty pay raises, may be sufficient to avert disaster. In the meantime, the specter of force majeure should be denounced as the vile, pernicious and idiotic notion that it really is. DO NOT LET THEM SELL YOU THIS LIE.

The CP

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