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The Year of Horror?

Posted By NAEP Admin, Monday, February 19, 2018

By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link

Every year, print media seems to be dominated by bad news and this year the December 10, 2017 New York Times magazine cover declared 2017 “The Year of Horror.”  Although the focus proved to be on horror films that entertain by graphically answering the question of how things might get worse if we cheer up, there was no shortage of all-too-real horror stories.

Clearly, unacceptable sexual conduct on campus, ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault, would be high on most lists of concerns for us.  Unfortunately, higher education seemed to lead the way early in the escalation of public awareness.  We were reading about events involving students well before the entertainment industry, big business, and the political world took center stage.  It’s not just about, or even primarily about, student interaction any more.  I suspect many on campus breathed a private sigh of relief as the spotlight was taken by nationally known power brokers who included business moguls, politicians and celebrities. There, the unacceptable misconduct has taken place in a work environment.

Higher education has been stumbling around in its effort to deal with this problem on campus.  Zero tolerance may sound precise and all-inclusive, but the term is difficult to define in practice and solutions are anything but simple. As experience broadens our understanding, we have realized this was a much bigger problem than some drunken interaction at a party. Our sane, sober, adult workplace is involved, as well.   Obviously, our number one concern has to be prevention. Number two is dealing with the aftermath.  What do we do now?  Amateur investigation, leading to exoneration, termination or expulsion, does not provide justice for all involved.

If media coverage reflects reality, overall, we seem to be moving away from internal solutions and toward increased early involvement of the justice system and federal agencies.  The shift is driven, at least partially, by civil actions protesting our typical quasi-legal approach.  Given America’s increasingly litigious environment, more than likely that trend will continue, until charges amounting to legally defined crimes are routinely referred to the authorities at the onset.  Institutions will probably continue to provide support to all students involved but look to the authorities for adjudication.   For those involved, these are personal horror stories. 

Maybe the next most important issue bearing on higher education’s reputation last year was free speech. We are not talking about casual profanity, obscenity and random racial epithets.   Words are still an important problem but, generally, the issue is with the expression of thoughts by one group deemed to be unacceptable and even dangerous by others.  The old children’s rhyme about sticks and stones had been superseded by efforts to silence the expression of the “harmful thoughts” identified by those offended or threatened.  Thought-control is the issue.   

In many ways, this is a more fundamental problem than sexual misconduct, because free speech is protected by the U.S. constitution and, to many Americans, discussion of the limits of free speech seems strange indeed.  The challenge is to find ways to live in peace in an environment where, with few exceptions, anyone is free to express any opinion—no matter how obnoxious.  To get there, we’ll have to find ways to remove the perceived potentially threatening aspects of speech. 

And then there were the hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and wildfires.  As ever, preparation and recovery plans were the key.  Funding the later always seems easier than the former.  And, in recovery, procurement expertise plays a key and very visible role.  Prevention is not on the table, but maybe we need a national resolution to invest in preparation to reduce the financial and human cost overall.   

Last year’s big issues and their solutions seem a long way from managing an effective purchasing operation. But I think productive engagement by all business leaders on campus in addressing these problems is well within the range of what might be expected by a chief business officer.

I have never been a fly on the wall when all this is discussed on campus. But I can imagine a chief business officer seated at a conference table and surrounded by trusted advisors, looking for viable solutions.  Seated are a mix of people of good character who have demonstrated a high-level, sound judgment, awareness of the issues involved, and who are known for their discretion and fair mindedness. Ideally, a lawyer with specific expertise is at the table.  But these are not just legal problems.

Was it a year of horror?  On a national scale I’d vote “no,” with the fond hope that 2018 will be a better year. 

What’s happening on your campus?

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