Compliance, coercion and contract | The Triangle

Compliance, coercion and contract

“You’re guilty.” That’s what Drexel University says to its entire work staff in the so-called compliance videos we are compelled to submit to qualify for the raise that just might…some day…finally arrive. Or, for that matter, to remain employed at all.
Prove that you’re innocent.

The presumption that one is guilty, or may be guilty, or may at some future, unspecified time become guilty, is the premise of all authoritarian regimes. Regular proof of innocence is consequently required.

In Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, or in today’s North Korea, you would or will be called on to demonstrate your absence of subversive intent by public displays of loyalty. At Drexel, and of course elsewhere in the beleaguered citadels of academia, you demonstrate that you are not a cheater, not a pedophile, and not in general a lousy guy to be around, by watching compulsory videos pitched to the intellect of a three-year-old, and punctuated by “test” questions that are, in reality, a pledge, electronically recorded, to conform your social and professional conduct to the rules implied (but not directly stated) in a variety of scenarios.

Where the rules of “do’s and don’ts” are clearly spelled out and you have no say in what they are and no choice but to obey them, you are living in an authoritarian world.

Where the line between permissible and impermissible conduct is only implied or suggested by example, you are living in a world in which there are no rules at all, and there is simply perpetual surveillance, including self-surveillance, until you tire of it and turn yourself in: guilty as not charged. That’s when you know you’re living in a totalitarian world.

It’s the world that Drexel’s administration has set up for you to receive a paycheck.

Let me state the obvious: universities have the right to expect civil and courteous conduct from those who make up the academic community. Standards of such conduct may evolve over time, and it is sometimes useful to codify them, with the participation and consent of those affected. It is reasonable to ask that people who attend and work at the university be generally familiar with them, and it may be useful to have certain personnel, such as campus police, or get more specific training. As a principle, such rules should be as simple, clear and as few as possible. Their purpose should never be to regulate conduct, but only to support an atmosphere in which the free and unimpeded flow of ideas can take place, which is the point of having a university in the first place.

Let me emphasize that point: universities are places that ought to promote unfettered intellectual freedom; they are, in fact, laboratories of freedom that should serve as a general social model. Whatever serves intellectual freedom, including democratic process, should be encouraged; whatever chills or restrains it should be removed. Mandatory compliance tests are completely incompatible with academic freedom on every level, and insulting to every member of the Drexel community. Insofar as they modify contracts, they may well be illegal as well.

Let me address that last issue. When compliance with sexual harassment tests was mandated, the initial penalty for failing to complete them was denial of merit pay increases. The second penalty was employment termination.

Taking tests is not part of my job specification at Drexel; I give them. My job performance is evaluated in terms of teaching, scholarship and service both to the University and the wider community. No other criterion legitimately applies. If I’ve done my job, I’ve earned a raise—earned, not merely deserved it. Regular raises are, at Drexel as elsewhere, an understood part of job compensation itself. Placing arbitrary conditions on getting the raise one’s performance entitles one to is, in effect, rewriting the job contract itself. If I can be compelled to sit through and respond to a video predicated on the assumption that I don’t know my job or how to conduct myself while doing it, then why shouldn’t the University be able to require me to wash dishes or scrub floors to qualify for a raise—or to stay employed at all?

This isn’t a far stretch. Many employees, and certainly faculty, know that their workload has been increased in various ways, of course without corresponding compensation. Committee work, the bane of faculty existence, has increased exponentially as administrators offload more and more of the work they’re paid to do on faculty shoulders (but none of the substantive decision-making, which administrators keep strictly to themselves). Taking compliance tests is, among other things, an additional workload obligation, which, since it has nothing to do with productive labor, not only consumes thousands of hours of staff time but requires make-up work to accomplish the real tasks that have been shoved out of the way.

Wasted time, of course, isn’t the most serious issue involved here: it’s not only the demeaning and infantile nature of the material one is required to sit through and respond to, but the work environment of conformity and fear it is designed to create. The compliance videos presuppose a world of workplace harassment, boorish advances and sociopathic predators—supervisors abusing and intimidating staff members, faculty glomming on students—that demand constant monitoring by a conscripted Thought Police and prompt reporting, of course, to the appropriate authorities. The “correct” answer to just about every question the videos demand response to is that your obligation is to turn in any and everybody whose behavior may appear to deviate a scintilla from some presumptive norm. It’s the McCarthyite mentality of the “If you see something, say something” videos and placards that blanket all transportation centers now, and that gives you one and only one option: to snitch.

The damage this does can’t be overstated. A university should be a place of civility and collaborative endeavor, but also one of uncensored expression and exchange. You should expect an open forum for your ideas, but also rigorous questioning and challenge. You should be prepared to offer the same forum to others, even (or, rather, especially) when your most cherished convictions and ideals are contested. Academic disputation isn’t a parlor game; it’s the inquest of knowledge, and knowledge isn’t born without struggle and sometimes strife. There’s no way to learn something new without discarding something old, and the process can be painful as well as exhilarating. It also can and should be civil; indeed, incivility has no place in serious discussion because it detracts from the business at hand. Students must expect to be challenged and even shocked, too, just as faculty are, and encouraged to explore and challenge for themselves. It’s a world that’s the antithesis of the snitch. It’s a world that has no place for policing of any kind, and where what should be presupposed is not superiors abusing subordinates but the natural egalitarianism of free minds.

What is most intolerable, then, is not the ludicrous scenarios depicted in the compliance videos, but the idea that any of us should be subjected to them. That they are enforced by the threat of contractual violation only adds injury to insult.
If there’s any word that has no place to begin with in a university, after all, it’s “compliance.”