Liability 6/10/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Many years ago, back in my early days of teaching, I worked for an institution that assured me that as part of the family, they had my back. It was probably just self-preservation. When somebody thinks they have grounds to get rich through a lawsuit, they sue the money. They certainly wouldn’t sue an assistant professor barely making enough money to really get started in life, but rather they would go after the institution for which he worked. So, yes, barring some egregious violation, for example selling drugs to students or some other illegal activity, the powerful and well-paid attorneys for the institution would protect me. After all, if I were found guilty in a lawsuit, that could be used against the institution.

Unless the university cut ties with the faculty.

Through the years, the administrative and institutional support of faculty has changed. It started kind of slowly. It started off with new faculty getting “teacher’s insurance”, insurance against lawsuits from students. In time, these insurance plans began to be suggested by administrators. During this time, oversight and HR training increased. Today, faculty are required to have regular training on issues like sexual harassment. Administrators began to shift from protecting faculty to siding with students.

Don’t get me wrong. There are faculty that can be lecherous. Just like with police, most faculty get into the teaching profession because they want to make a difference and contribute to society. In my role as dean, a professor is married to a former student. This is not terribly unusual it does happen from time to time. The difference is that he became involved with her, in a very public way, while she was a student. More than that, she was his student, and in his class at the time. He even went so far as to tell me about the time he had flowers delivered to her, from him, during his class for everybody to see. Rather a brash way of showing to all students that she is with him, and to leave her alone.

Of course, I did nothing about this. I could do nothing as this happened well over forty years earlier. Things were very different then. Even when I was in graduate school back in the late ‘80’s early ‘90’s, a friend of mine was sexually harassed by a professor. These days, such behaviors are not tolerated.

There was a time that a faculty could do no wrong. Well, maybe not NO wrong, but they wielded quite a bit of power. Their word was beyond question and administration protected them fiercely. That was a bit before my time, but I remember the awe of being in the presence of my professors as an undergraduate. Today, I feel as if the pendulum has swung too far. It seems as if some students even take it as a game to try to get faculty in trouble.

But as hostile as things have become towards faculty, they have reined in the faculty. I’ve had the chance to get to know a lot of faculty, and a lot of police officers. There are striking similarities. In both groups, with few exceptions, they’ve entered their respective fields out of a desire for service. In both, the vast majority of them are good people of high moral fiber. In both, there are exceptions.

Today, the distinct difference is that faculty are almost targets by the upper administration, while police continue to enjoy unquestioning support. Maybe it’s not that bad, but from recent experience, administrators are ready to believe any negative comments from students, and to let faculty go in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, police officers with a multitude of complaints and violations are still on the job.

Recently I wrote a blog with the suggestion that officers be held responsible for their actions. I’m not suggesting they be completely abandoned by the departments if there are problems, but on the flip side of the coin, they can’t be protected for actions that simply should not happen. It’s excessively uncomfortable to feel like your every step is being observed with critical eyes, but today I cannot imagine a faculty member having flowers delivered to a student in his own class.

Whatever happens in the next days, weeks and years will be difficult for everybody. The idea of removing certain duties from police is of concern to me as well. I understand the complaints and have heard them firsthand from administration in the police department where I worked as a civilian employee, that more and more is being piled onto the police officers. For example, the question should be asked if, indeed, police should be sent for welfare checks and suicide prevention. There are better trained and prepared people, such as psychiatrists and social workers for this function, and yet these budgets have, indeed, been gutted through the years. Taking budget from the police and putting it towards these services, especially since somebody will have to be on call it towards these services, especially since somebody will have to be on call every hour of every day, is at first glance a great idea. But these are the calls where police have interaction with citizens in non-violent ways. To remove these interactions means police will only be called out for violent and criminal activities, which could lead to the perception that all people are criminals and violent. I’ve had police officers express the opinion that all native Americans are violent and untrustworthy criminals. Unfortunately, these officers don’t have social and friendly encounters to counter this concept. This becomes the danger of reducing the friendly encounters officers have with people, and these beliefs give rise to violence against citizens.

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