Of coronavirus and climate change: Zooming in on the future of academic and professional conferences

We’re about to go live with the Dec. 2020 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop (https://www.humiliationstudies.org)

Last May (link here), I speculated about the future of academic and professional conferences in view of the unfolding pandemic. I opened by affirming how meaningful these gatherings can be:

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. . . . With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

I went on to acknowledge that the pandemic was forcing the cancellation of many events and the moving of others to online formats. Although I understood that platforms such as Zoom were making online conferences doable, I lamented the inherent limitations:

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Fifteen months later

Since posting that entry, I have participated in many online conferences, workshops, and seminars, with the events originating as close as Boston and as far away as India and Israel. I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from around the world. Some of these interactions would not have occurred had the program been held in face-to-face settings. The travel times and costs would’ve been prohibitive.

However, I also was reminded over and again of the aforementioned limitations of such events. The informal chats and get togethers that are connective highlights of many academic and professional gatherings were sadly missing. Who knows what great ideas and future collaborations never materialized because we couldn’t chat over coffee or a meal?

Looking ahead

Well folks, like it or not, for at least three reasons, I think we’re going to be online for many of these events during the years to come.

Viral matters

First, this virus appears to be spinning off variants and mutations that will make travel planning an ongoing and earnest game of whack-a-mole (public health edition) for the foreseeable future. These realities are especially acute for conferences that attract an international constituencies.

For example, I’m currently helping to organize a global conference in France, scheduled for summer 2022. Let’s just say that a lot of folks are in a wait-and-see mode, even in terms of submitting panel and presentation proposals. Very recently, the European Union took the U.S. off of its safe travel list due to our current outbreak. Who knows what things will look like next year?

Air travel and climate change

Second, there’s the impact of air travel on climate change. Global aviation (including both passenger and freight) accounts for roughly 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of other modes of transportation (especially auto travel), commercial air travel — in particular — is disproportionately the province of people and businesses who can afford airline tickets.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop flying or shipping goods by air. But if people are going to fly, then let’s get the maximum bang for the buck. To me, that means prioritizing flights to maintain ties between families and friends, above all. I also think we need to value tourism, study abroad, and other travel purposes that enrich our lives.

In addition, I think we need to pick and choose between professional conference opportunities that require air travel carefully and wisely. On the one hand, piggybacking active participation in a favorite conference with seeing friends and family seems like a good use of a plane trip. By contrast, if one’s conference participation amounts to flying across the country to talk for 20 minutes on a panel and little else, then maybe it’s not a responsible expenditure of jet fuel.

Costs

Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility and affordability. Factoring in air fare, hotel room, registration fee, and daily expenses, a major conference can cost as much as a getaway vacation. For academics, especially, funding support for conference travel is unevenly distributed, to say the least.

Online conferences even the participation field a bit, notwithstanding their built-in limitations. Registration fees are often lower, and there are no plane tickets or hotel rooms to be booked. You can eat at home.

Of course, there’s a third conference or workshop possibility, and that’s a hybrid format that allows for both in-person and online participation. Unfortunately, the logistical nightmares from a planning standpoint make this an unrealistic option for most conferences, unless they’ve got oodles of money and first-rate, tech-equipped facilities and staff to go with them.

The professional benefits of high-quality, in-person conferences, workshops, and seminars with plenty of opportunities for informal interaction are significant, and thus I would hate to see these events disappear. For the time being, however, I think that we’re going to do a lot of our interacting online.

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Some previous blog posts about conferences and workshops

“A workshop as annual ritual” (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

“A short speech in Rome” (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

“Workplace Bullying University, ‘All Star’ edition” (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

“Dr. Edith Eger’s ‘The Choice’: On trauma and healing” (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

“North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems” (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

“Conferences as community builders” (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

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Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

LOL: “We have ZERO TOLERANCE….”

 

(image courtesy of ya-webdesign.com)

We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:

We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.

At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.

Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.

I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples. 

Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.

US Attorney’s Office alleges that eBay cyberstalked and terrorized its critics

As many targets of workplace bullying can attest, some companies will engage in extraordinary, sustained measures to intimidate and retaliate against their critics. However, for many reasons, those stories usually do not become the stuff of major federal lawsuits and prominent news coverage. All too often, targets are left to their own devices to explain and verify harassing, even terrorizing behaviors that, at least on the surface, may seem implausible.

So perhaps it is useful to draw upon retaliatory campaigns in other contexts to understand just how extensive and sick those efforts can be. In fact, a story coming out of Massachusetts about how eBay employees allegedly cyberstalked and terrorized a local middle-aged couple who had blogged about eBay’s business practices illustrates the lengths to which a corporation will go to silence its critics. It is all now part of federal criminal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As Travis Anderson reports for the Boston Globe (link here):

It was a modest newsletter published by a suburban couple, hardly something that seemed likely to draw the ire of a Fortune 500 company. But eBay executives were growing weary of the bloggers’ pointed criticism, federal prosecutors said Monday, and they vowed reprisal.

“We’re going to crush this lady,” one eBay executive texted another in April 2019, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Boston that alleged a bizarre intimidation campaign against a Natick couple by the online juggernaut.

Six former eBay employees are accused of harassing and cyberstalking the husband-and-wife team, sending a host of disturbing items that included fly larvae, live spiders, and a bloody pig mask to their home and traveling to Massachusetts to surveil the couple to make them stop publishing a newsletter critical of the online retailer, federal prosecutors said.

…That campaign included “anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including . . . a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse,” and pornography sent to neighbors but addressed to the husband.

Some executives allegedly “sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick,” prosecutors said. Some defendants also tried to install a GPS tracker in the couple’s vehicle.

Workers, too

Folks, we’ve seen this before in the workplace context, or at least variations of it. Targeted employees who report wrongdoing or blow the whistle can face, in turn, savage retaliation.

Cyberstalking, vandalism, thefts, break-ins. You name it. Credible accounts of hard-to-believe bullying and harassment from reliable individuals. 

The anonymous behavior of the terrorizing activities makes initial investigation, at least, very difficult. You can see the damage or the effects, but tracing the source(s) takes time, resources, and money.

Are these typical instances of workplace bullying? Thank goodness, no. They reflect a small share of bullying and related situations. But they are the ones that, from my perspective as a law professor and legal advocate, most strongly highlight the need for workplace anti-bullying legislation in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which I have authored.

Plaintiffs’ employment lawyers see these cases and often wonder about (1) the potential client’s psychological stability; and/or (2) what, if any, existing employment protections might apply. One hopefully would understand that someone on the receiving end of an orchestrated campaign of bullying and harassment might not be the most emotionally stable individual for the time being. As for the law, well, these scenarios illustrate the need for workplace laws, which open the door to inquiring about, and obtaining through legal discovery processes, relevant evidence.

Some try to access police help. But local law enforcement agencies often dismiss it as a workplace “dispute.” Federal law enforcement often doesn’t think it’s a serious enough priority when compared, say, to global terrorism — forgetting, of course, that this is a form of domestic terrorism.

Major corporations and other larger employers have enormous resources to hassle, harass, intimidate, and terrorize their critics, including both consumers and employees. Right now, our legal system isn’t fully up to the task of playing a sufficient protective role.

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

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Let’s follow an Eightfold Path to psychologically healthy workplaces

A decade ago, I put forth a list of eight questions designed to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers. I called it the “Eightfold Path” to a psychologically healthy workplace. Looking back at it, I would add “dignity affirming” to the qualities implicated by these questions. Otherwise, I pretty much still like what I wrote. Here goes:

1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?

2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?

3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?

4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?

5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?

6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?

7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?

8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

The conceptualization of this list was strongly influenced by relational-cultural theory, as pioneered by Dr. Jean Baker Miller. (Go here to access the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute’s website.) Dr. Miller, whose work came to my attention via Dr. Linda Hartling of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network (link here), asserted that “Five Good Things” come from growth-fostering relationships:

1. “A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.”

2. “The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.”

3. “Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).”

4. “An increased sense of worth.”

5. “A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.”

As we consider what types of organizations and work experiences we want to create and sustain, these points should continue to inform us.

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about managerial pronouncements:

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant), and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When the human resources office announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

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