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Decisions, Dilemmas, and Erasmus

10 Mar Posted by in Academics, Business, Policies | 1 comment

Recent developments got me thinking about the kinds of decisions I am involved with as Provost. The most interesting set involves policies — what new buildings should be top priority, how to establish a new degree program, what enrollment targets should be, how to build an international collaboration. A delightful feature of my job is the range and impact of policies determinations in these kinds of areas. Of course they require thought, data and listening to others; of course their diversity is a challenge — it’s impossible to be adequately expert in all areas; of course one may end up being wrong, or partly wrong. But the challenge is truly riveting.

A second set of decisions involves people: deciding whom to hire or not, evaluating a complicated promotion case, or even worse, trying to sort through a conflict among individuals. These can really keep me awake, for it’s impossible to be sure of the best course or, in cases of conflict, even to decide who’s telling the truth.

But it’s the third decision set that prompted my recent musings: when a superior or an external force threatens to make me complicit in a policy that goes against deep principle (my principle, of course). Fortunately, I haven’t faced too many of these as Provost. Those that have erupted have, so far, been manageable either by modifying the impending problem to a point of acceptability; or by realizing that the clash of principle, though real, can be finessed by simply out waiting one’s opponents and changing a policy later on; or by deciding that while the clash is real and unavoidable it isn’t important enough to require a public stand. But, at least for a few days, until the sorting out eases things, the discomfort is real and deep — which is of course precisely what a moral dilemma should entail.

And while the discomfort lasts — and this is probably the real contribution of this blog, in encouraging further reading — I always think of a freshman Western civ passage that made a deep impression on me at the time, and that is still vividly relevant: an epistolary debate between Sir Thomas More and Erasmus. Erasmus was arguing against administrative service on grounds that it always forces compromises of principle: far better to be pure and removed. More, in contrast, admitted the dilemma but said it was preferable to be involved, for at least then one could make an impure situation somewhat less impure, improving conditions for others in the process even amid some compromise. I thought at the time, and still believe, that More had the better of this one (I never liked Erasmus much anyway) — that undue purism is ultimately selfish. But the debate is terrific and, as I’m implying, rerunning it mentally can be stimulating during the occasional moral crisis. And unfortunately it’s also worth remembering that More ultimately encountered a moral dilemma that he could not resolve, and was put to death for his obstinacy. Fortunately, in contemporary academic life, literal decapitation has become less fashionable, and we also have tenure to fall back on.