15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut #15
Slaying the Dragons of Opportunity

Monday, May 3, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Liberia c. 2002

[The latest addition to the Unit for Criticism's "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Paycut" series on higher education is by George Gollin, professor of physics, writing on the St. Regis University diploma mill and the social obligations of academics. ]

"Slaying the Dragons of Opportunity"

Written by George Gollin (Physics)

The blood in the fields beyond the university makes me think about the struggle between good and evil, and my obligations.

I am a professor at a fine university, budget crisis notwithstanding, with an intact system of tenure. I am to be judged by my scholarship and teaching, but also my success at mitigating problems of community and society. I am expected to think deeply and carefully, to write clearly and honestly. It is a fortunate and protected position: I should be safe to speak truthfully about matters that are important.

There is a lot to say. It is wrong to tolerate human trafficking when evidence exists that should lead to arrests. It is wrong to ignore the sale of medical degrees to untrained customers. It is wrong to stand by while the importance of accessible higher education is devalued. It is wrong to value the institutional status quo above the safety of children. There is more, of course.

More than forty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased an abolitionist minister of the nineteenth century to say “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a profoundly optimistic statement, and one which I no longer believe to be true. I had felt that the dynamics of civil society were sufficiently informed by a collective sense of fairness and justice that the cultural pressures influencing our choices would ultimately point us in a good direction. The democratization of Eastern Europe, the changes in Northern Ireland, and the end of apartheid in South Africa were among the great triumphs of the last century which seemed to confirm this. Intractable conflicts could melt away. Over time we would move towards better schools and better healthcare, full employment, and regulatory protections that would keep the wolves at a distance. Public education, that great engine for social and economic progress, would receive adequate support.

But, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, there is too much “bad craziness” loose in the world. I do not think we can find our way back to a gentle equilibrium without challenging the evils that coil and flex below the disrupted surface of our civilization. A commander in chief in the throes of an oedipal fugue uses fabricated data to justify an invasion. The Supreme Court rules that commercial associations have the same right to free expression as flesh-and-blood human beings so that corporations can buy elections as if they were commodities. The principal virtue of a candidate for national office is experience at peeling the skins off large herbivores. Politicians curry favor with lunatics who advocate gun violence against elected officials. We abide this insanity.

The harsh consequences of inaction are fractal in their absence of scale. There is the collateral damage of shattered lives of people we know. One of my students deals with his younger brother’s death in a helicopter shoot-down over Fallujah, and his family’s fury at the “shit happens”-type response from the reptilian Donald Rumsfeld. Another learns of his uncle’s murder in the mass killings of Iraqi medical doctors by a violent faction intent on destroying the country’s health care infrastructure, but protected from prosecution thanks to their alignment with U.S. interests. There is more: we see the wreckage of cities crushed by the closure of mismanaged factories. Since the Holocaust there has been a succession of genocides: in Cambodia, Rwanda, and now in the Sudan.

We have a moral obligation to act, to buck the ugly trends, to bend the arc of history towards justice. Surprisingly, I have come to believe there is a way to do this, to deflect the trajectory of things in a good direction. In part it is a matter of paying attention.

Antonio Gramsci, the twentieth-century Italian political philosopher, described the means to effect social transformation as beginning with a “war of position” in which the seeds of change—new ideas—are injected into the public discourse. Over time, civil society will become less hostile to them so that a well-timed push, a “war of maneuver” in Gramsci’s terms, can move us off the status quo.

I suspect we are presented with opportunities when circumstances ripen and transformation becomes possible more often than we realize. One, which might have hastened the arrival of affordable healthcare in the United States if it had been recognized as such, was carried by the sad events surrounding Terri Schiavo. She had suffered extensive brain damage in 1990 and was maintained in a vegetative state for a number of years. When her husband tried to have her feeding tube removed in 2005, a horrifying legal brawl ensued which was hijacked for political gain by members of the United States Congress. Suddenly, legislators who had never supported the provision of even the most basic of services for the disadvantaged were pretending to care about the welfare of other humans. Their hypocrisy left them exposed. A well-prepared cohort of legislators could have introduced a “Comprehensive Quality of American Life Act” to address the important issues of healthcare, education in underprivileged communities, and so forth. It might have opened a national discussion that could have yielded comprehensive healthcare during the previous administration. At minimum, elected representatives who had briefly pretended to care about the public interest could have been asked why they had become so cold-hearted when they refused to support the initiative.

I bring a physicist’s vocabulary to this. Gramsci’s mechanism relies on a complex system’s “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” which you know as “the butterfly effect.” His wars of position and maneuver are what we call the “chaotic control” of a nonlinear system. With proper preparation, or a lucky alignment of events, a small nudge at just the right time can make a large difference in the future state of the world. The hard part is finding the butterfly and recognizing when it should move its wings.

Sometimes it can be made to work. In 2003 I learned of an awful thing called “St. Regis University,” a diploma mill run by a gang of high school dropouts in eastern Washington state. In spite of their lack of formal education, they had come to control significant portions of Liberia’s Ministry of Education and diplomatic corps, and were allowed to pretend that they ran a cluster of legitimate universities in Monrovia, Liberia. Even before the end of the country’s horrific civil war, at a time when the infant mortality rate was nearly 15%, these hoodlums were selling thousands of bogus degrees in medicine, engineering, and education each year, mostly to Americans, all the while earning millions of dollars at it. Surely their criminal activities were interfering with Liberia’s ability to rebuild after the civil war, as well as injecting unqualified individuals into positions of responsibility in the United States.

I wrote a long analysis of their business in hopes of triggering an investigation by the state of Washington. But Attorney General Gregoire, in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign that was going badly, buried my report. Two months later an official in Georgia wrote to Gregoire after a St. Regis salesmen sold degrees to public school teachers who received raises. Again, nothing happened. Then an Indianapolis television reporter named Sandra Chapman ambushed two St. Regis salesmen at a Chrysler plant. They had just sold $217,000 in bogus degrees to workers who were going to lose their jobs when the plant closed in a year. Chapman interviewed Jeff Weber, an Indiana official who thought he was powerless to act since he believed St. Regis was in Liberia. She also interviewed me.

That was the initial setup, the rough equivalent of Gramsci’s war of position.

I contacted Weber to show him proof that St. Regis was run from Washington state and suggested he write to the Attorney General. He sent her a strong letter that used the word “prosecute,” and gave me a copy on the sly.

I waited six weeks. It appeared that Gregoire was ignoring Weber’s letter so I sent it to a print reporter in Spokane who published a story three days later. He wrote that “Gregoire, who wants to be Washington's next governor, said through a spokeswoman that she’s aware of the issue [St. Regis] but wouldn’t say why a consumer protection action hasn't been initiated or if one is forthcoming” (Bill Morlin, Spokane Spokesman Review, August 14, 2004). One of my higher education friends in Oregon passed word to Gregoire that 60 Minutes was doing a diploma mill story and that CBS might stop by to ask about St. Regis. In reality the Oregon colleague had no idea if 60 Minutes was planning to interview the Attorney General.

It was like playground basketball: pass, pick, feint, shoot. We had suddenly shown gubernatorial candidate Gregoire why she had a stake in flattening St. Regis. My report finally made its way to Spokane, where an Assistant Attorney General opened an investigation that blossomed into an eight-agency federal criminal prosecution. That was our “war of maneuver,” in which we encouraged those in positions of responsibility to move in particular directions by taking advantage of a fortunate alignment of circumstances.

It worked. A few years later eight people pleaded guilty to various felonies. Most went to prison. The St. Regis prosecution triggered new legislation and enforcement policy in Alabama, Idaho, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. The Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 included material about diploma mills, driven by the St. Regis case. And more comprehensive legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives a few months ago.

That was our successful “war of position.” Christine Gregoire did win the 2004 election to became Governor of Washington, but by the slimmest margin of 125 votes, and only after two recounts.

Perhaps some observant citizen will recognize a harmonic convergence that opens an opportunity for transformation, that could move us from our Illinois status quo of corrupt politicians, flawed narratives resistant to change, and short-sighted planning that mortgages our future for the baubles of power and position. It is important that we be receptive to the possibility.

Doing good is part of my—our, if you are also a professor at this university— job description. It is required of us. Our promotions and tenure decisions are to include a reckoning along this dimension. We have an obligation to watch for opportunity, to work the fluctuations of micro-history, sometimes in opposition to dark forces.

When circumstance hands us a sword, we should rise to slay the dragon before us.


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Lauren said...

I still sort of hope that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice--though I agree that if it does it needs a whole lot of pushing! Thanks for this inspiring post.