Thursday, October 08, 2009

Not ideal

The late political philosopher John Rawls made a distinction between "ideal theory" and "non-ideal theory." The former was for political philosophy, the latter for the difficult choices one sometimes had, regretfully, to make in the messiness of actual political situations. I was reminded of this today in a faculty meeting, though even Rawls' non-ideal theory seems still too idealistic for our thoroughly unideal realities.

Our predicament is easily described. We voted no confidence in the university president, but he has made no move to leave and has recently started to sound like he might be staying on as long as his friends on the board of trustees want him to stay on. As long as he's president, it's his prerogative to reappoint or dismiss the deans of the school's various divisions and, in part by his design (many are interrims, appointed in lieu of a search when their predecessors left), about half of the university's deans have contracts ending in June 2010. So we have a lame duck lording it over lame ducklings, basically. Nobody has any guarantee of who will be in charge of what even a year from now. In response to this situation, the faculty senate (on which I still sit) passed a resolution encouraging all divisional faculties to start whatever processes their divisions have to go about recommending reappointment for deans or recommending the start of a search process for a new dean. We feel the university needs stability, but also that it will be easier to find a new president if the divisions are stable. Except, of course, that the board of trustees has made no move to start a presidential search, and may well see the current deans as troublemakers (they did not oppose the no confidence motions and even, in some ways, promoted them). Actually I take back what I said - the predicament isn't easily described at all!

What makes it even less ideal than the non-ideal is that there are no fixed points at all. The president may be gone within a year, or still here in five. The provost, himself an interrim, may be gone in a year, or stay longer. The deans, many of whom (including ours) came in as interrims themselves, haven't had a chance to do much in their divisions and may not have a chance in the future. Meanwhile, the divisions themselves are up for grabs - for a period of years the rapidly changing inhabitants of the provost's office have been contemplating reorganizations and realignments; our version of death panel scaremongering darkly intimates that the president wants not only to fire the deans, but to consolidate divisions and so eliminate some of the deanships (including, the rumor goes, our own). Most of this is surely nonsense, or nonsense which doesn't affect the present situation, but which parts?

It's like Neumann's boat (is that the name? the boat which was always at sea but remained seaworthy because it replaced/reinforced its planks one by one [ship of Theseus, perhaps]) but one where you don't know which of many planks seeming to need immediate replacement to replace first.

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