University gains president, loses ethics

Joel Helfrich

Outrageous!” exclaimed many people here at the University as our Board of Regents announced last Monday that they would not abide by Minnesota’s “sunshine” open meeting law. Days later, the board announced Robert Bruininks as the “final” candidate for University president. These actions signal that our University officials and regents are untouchable and their actions fly in the face of a set of guidelines that should be adhered to. Yet again, we should ask: Where is the public process? Why is the current process flawed? How far will our University go to break – indeed, trample – any code of ethics? We must do something to turn back the tide of the technocrats of this University – the power that resides in the Institute of Technology and Morrill Hall. When will faculty, staff and students realize that “research” equals only “hard sciences and technology,” and the rest is meaningless fluff, as far as the administration and the regents are concerned? As clearly articulated by the Board of Regents meeting on Oct. 11 and the Community Fund Drive, money is all that matters.

We would be smart not to give any more money to an institution that cares little about indigenous rights, the rights of “minority” students, and anyone whose work rests outside of the so-called “sciences.” Unfortunately, the recent use, study and definition of science come from empirical positivism and the work of Karl Popper, among others. Popper’s definition of science goes against the old definition of science as Germans saw it. The German word “verstehen” (to understand; interpret; see; know) shows science as a systematic body of knowledge about approaching the universe that can include, for example, both history and biology. But it is Popper’s narrow sense of the way in which we understand the universe that is most prevalent on university campuses today, despite efforts by scholars such as Paul K. Feyerabend, who critique empirical positivism. But so-called science, closely linked to greed – think rankings, money and “research” – has made the University do some pretty unethical things: decide to knock off Mount Graham for a flawed telescope project; genetically manipulate wild rice for profit; and patent essential medicines that makes them unaffordable to the rest of the world. Now they have bypassed state law and selected a president without public comment. The secret ways in which this public institution – supported by public dollars, including yours and mine and imbued with the mission to educate – conducts its business, needs to be stopped.

What is clear is that a few individuals whose interests rarely rest with the vast majority of students often make these decisions. At this university, we should carefully watch and evaluate the actions and decisions of regents, administration and faculty members who make decisions based on money, but who disguise their efforts and work in terms of “research” and “knowledge-creation.” Many students are concerned about the general culture of the higher governing bodies of this place. At its core, this entire issue is a question of cultural values. This is no longer, at so many levels, an institution of public interest.

Universities should be places to question and reinvigorate and sometimes reinvent society. Are we doing this or manufacturing mental clones to work in the system rather than evaluate the principles and ethics the system runs by? We should live up to our land-grant status and provide for communities that surround the University. The University’s Extension Service, an embodiment of our land-grant status, should be a first priority. As stated by the University’s charter, “The object of the University shall be to provide the inhabitants of this territory with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts.”

Recent decisions by University administrators and faculty have led me to believe that we have a long way to go if we want to truly educate our citizens. In other words, instead of fulfilling the dreams of faculty, perhaps we should adhere to the original goals of our land-grant status and attempt to educate all people.

But education without principle is not enough. And money is not a good enough principle to follow. How do we want to be educated? Do we want to continue the current educational system that perpetuates colonial ways of thinking, or will we create an education based on values, respect and honorable ways of living?

At some point, students will need to realize that tuition increases are not going to help them as students. (Expect to see another increase next year while we use public money to fight terrorism.) Remember, undergraduate tuition increased by 16 percent and then 13.8 percent, respectively, in the past two years. Then, ask yourself: What am I getting for my education? What services do I actually get? What do new buildings do for me? What reward do I reap because of the money professors and the University takes in? Then remember that our land-grant charter states, “Tuition in all of the departments shall be without charge to all students in the same, who are residents of the territory.”

The University, I have seen, is like any other corporation but more insidiously disguised in what is supposed to be the honorable pursuit of knowledge. Is the University growing on our breaking backs? Is greed taking over as the unspoken guiding principle?

This University wants to do things secretly at a high level that affect everyone in it. Indeed, this University’s actions impact entire communities and the entire state. The University writes history daily. As a public institution, the public should be involved. The public should not be closed out, nor should decisions be rushed just because it fits into the schedule of the regents or the administration. Principles should be followed. The public provides the checks and balances for what the regents do. But the Board of Regents seems like a runaway train inebriated by its unquestioned power.


Joel T. Helfrich’s columns appear monthly. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]