Musings on socially just decisions

As many of you who read our blog probably know, Carleton College decided this past January to NOT close during the polar vortex. There were impassioned debates about the decision on Facebook, in editorials in The Carletonian, and at formal and informal faculty gatherings. We’ve already discussed on this blog what our stance is about weather-related closings, so in this post, we wanted to expand on our ideas about how differences in experiences and power might be taken into account as institutions try to make decisions.

When we got the email from the administration about the decision not to close the college, it was mentioned that the administration had heard from many members of the community. It was not clear to us from the email how many community members had expressed their views and, among those who had, how many had been in favor of remaining open and how many had been in favor of closing. The first suggestion we’d have to make decision-making processes more just is to make them more transparent.

Getting information about a simple breakdown of how many were in favor of one option over the other is a start towards having more just and transparent processes. For example, considering only faculty perspectives for now, say 100 faculty wrote to the president to express their views on the issue. Let’s imagine that 50 faculty wrote in favor of remaining open, and 50 voted for closing.  The first question we would ask is be how representative were those 100 faculty of the faculty in terms of rank (e.g. tenured, untenured, tenure-track, visiting). Was there a preponderance of tenured faculty expressing their views, for example? If fewer untenured or visiting faculty expressed their views, we would think about how we can ensure that all faculty felt comfortable enough writing to express their views. As tenured faculty, the two of us do not worry much about writing an email to the Dean or the President to make clear our positions on any issue at the college, but we’re not sure that all faculty feel this way. Having channels for honest feedback from those who are vulnerable in terms of job security is an important issue in any hierarchical institution.

Next, if there is relative representation of all ranks of faculty among the 100 faculty who expressed their views, we would consider if there are patterns among those who argued in favor of one option over the other. For example, did more faculty who live close to campus favor staying open over those who would have had to travel longer distances? How about faculty with young children? Since the decision to remain open or close likely had differential impact on faculty depending on their life circumstances, it seems important to consider such impacts.

Third, paying attention to and acknowledging differential impact of such decisions is important if we are to make decisions that do not assume that the status quo is a just one. Martha Minow, a legal scholar, notes that we often encounter “the dilemma of difference” when trying to make decisions based on differences in status, category, or identity because both ignoring differences or taking into account differences can (re)create the stigma of difference. She notes that this dilemma partly is created because of how we think of differences. As she describes it:

We can treat differences as the private, internal problem of each different person, a treatment that obviously depends on communal agreements and public enforcement. We can treat differences as a function of relationships and compare the distributions made by different people to the costs and burdens of difference. Or we can treat differences as a pervasive feature of communal life and consider ways to structure social institutions to distribute the burdens attached to difference.

Taking that last approach can help us move towards a more equitable institution and one important aspect of that approach, Minow argues, is that we need to tilt the balance towards previously marginalized voices and perspectives and towards those people who are negatively impacted disproportionately by the status quo. Minow’s exhortation mirrors what we can learn from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work in Silencing the Past: “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production,” or, as Adriana paraphrases for her students, we need to think about which voices and perspectives have no chance to be heard. Have we set the table (our decision-making process) in ways that everyone who is impacted by the decision is invited and able to attend? And of course, there’s still the question to ask about who gets to set the table in the first place and “invite” others. While ensuring that diverse, marginalized, and minoritized voices are represented at the table is important, there is still power in being the ones to invite those voices.

Bringing it back then to the example of how to make a decision about whether to close the college during inclement weather, we’d argue that paying attention to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students who would be negatively impacted by the decision to stay open or to close should be given extra consideration. We might want to consider (dis)ability, access to proper wear/gear, family and child care responsibilities, travel distances…and, of course, which members of the college community even have the chance to express themselves. We would want to make sure that our assumptions about people’s statuses and abilities don’t get in the way of listening to their professed needs. We’re thinking, for example, of possible assumptions  that all 18-22 year olds are non-disabled and can, say, walk really fast to avoid frostbite.

Hopefully, our previous paragraphs make clear the complexity of decision-making processes at a college and the effort it takes to do it well, i.e. making sure that diverse, marginalized, minoritized voices are able to participate. We’ve focused on the role of faculty, because ours, like many institutions, maintains the desire to drive decision-making through shared governance, where faculty expect and are expected to have a say in important institutional decisions. While we support a strong faculty voice and a robust shared governance model (something we’ll write more about in a future post), we also want to point out that as faculty, even with our different ranks, our voices and perspectives are generally given more weight and consideration than staff members. This privileging of faculty voices, no matter the history or rationale for them, means that when faced with a decision such as what to do when a polar vortex comes to town, insidious inequities (of voice, of autonomy) between staff, faculty, and students can get masked.

In other words, when the institution opts to stay open, but invites individuals to make the “best choices” for their individual safety, the impact falls differently. Faculty are empowered to cancel classes if they want (or not); students’ freedom to make a choice probably depends on class attendance policies; and finally, staff members may not always feel like they can make decisions that might go against supervisors’ explicit or implicit expectations about whether they should come in to work on a -40 degree day. These variations in how “empowered” we may feel to make our own best choices need to be accounted for in how institutions make such decisions.

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