Monday, December 10, 2012

Human Rights and Institutional Wrongs

December 10, 2012, 1:15 p.m.

Celebrating Human Rights, Grieving UI Center's Closing

Why is it that committees, and groups of administrators (in general, and in universities in particular), make decisions and take actions that one suspects, as individuals, none would do?

Why would a Board of Regents encourage the departure of one of the nation's most variously-talented and highly regarded university presidents -- now leading Cornell University?

When all acknowledge our nation's need for improved K-12 performance, why would universities close the primary source of educational innovation, their experimental schools (UI in 1972; UNI in 2012)?

And today, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the UN General Assembly, December 10, 1948), the University of Iowa acknowledges' students' need for global understanding, and administrators make trips to China as we reach out to bring students from abroad (along with their tuition dollars), why, oh why, would the University be dismantling what it already has in place? [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

Most dramatic is the decision to abolish its Center for Human Rights, which takes on a special kind of significance on this of all days.

We should all take an interest in human rights because of our personal values -- family, ethical, philosophical, religious.

But those who don't share those values, those in the university or elsewhere who think that money is all that matters, whether their own or the economy in general, should be especially concerned. Because human rights are not just some squishy utopian fancy of those sometimes cursed as "liberals." Human rights in the United States play a major role in how we're perceived by those in other nations. Human rights in countries where American firms do their manufacturing, impact on those firm's sales in this country. Human rights are often on the agenda of America's foreign relations and treaties with other countries.

Central to the University's best interests, any UI graduate who expects to participate in the global economy had best have the insights that a UI Center for Human Rights can help best provide.

But that's not all. Why is the University showing less that enthusiastic support for the International Writers' Program -- the gem in its crown for which it is best known around the world? Why the cuts in foreign language instruction at a time when language facility has never been more important in preparing students for a global economy?

And why would any university not make an extra effort to retain any international project as innovative, productive, and well-regarded as the "WiderNet Project" -- quickly picked up by the University of North Carolina after receiving inadequate recognition and support at Iowa?

If you're unaware of WiderNet, it's a very innovative effort of formerly-Iowa's Cliff Missen to potentially bring the riches of the Internet to every Third World village. Rather than wait for the initiation and completion of a multi-trillion-dollar optic fiber, towers and satellite global construction project, Cliff asked, "What's an affordable alternative that would enable us to accomplish most of this goal right now?" His answer: with the constantly declining cost of digital storage, we can put enormous quantities of the most useful Internet content on a hard drive plugged into computers in isolated villages, whether or not they have expensive Internet access.

So we've now lost bragging rights for that international program, too.

There are three legal and analytical concepts that are useful here. "Nonfeasance" is the failure to act; to ignore, to neglect one's obligations and responsibilities. "Misfeasance" is when action is taken, but the action is inappropriate. "Malfeasance" is a deliberately injurious, or hostile action contrary to one's obligations.

So which is it, when the University of Iowa dismantles what it already has? This is not "nonfeasance" -- the failure to create a Center for Human Rights. In 2012, that would be serious enough. No, it is the destruction of one. Thus, whether it is, in fact, properly characterized as "misfeasance" or "malfeasance" doesn't make that much difference -- since, so far as I know, no one is planning to sue those who made the decision. Whatever you call it, it has been a very unfortunate outcome. [Poster credit:]

Perhaps the reason institutions behave this way is simply, as this poster explains, "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

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