Monday, August 25, 2014

The Common Good

by Lynn Staley
Harring and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities and Medieval and Renaissance Studies

The western idea or ideal of a common good has its roots in classical philosophy, in ancient literary texts, and in the traditions that radiate from Abraham, father of those three often contentious children. 

The tension between personal pleasure, fulfillment, and enlightenment and the common good is inherent in those works we teach in CORE 151.  Gilgamesh is chastened for his focus upon himself and his princely “rights” to enjoy the bride before her husband does; the Iliad begins with a conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles that points up the dangers to the community of individual passions, as, indeed, the Trojan War pits private gratification against the common goods of peace.  Nathan tells King David the story of the man who seized and ate the beloved lamb of the poor man, the lamb who had been cherished like a child in the poor man’s bosom.  Ahab commandeers Nabaoth’s vineyard, thus depriving him of peace in the cool of the evening.  Jove rapes any beautiful woman he sees, leaving them to the wrath of Juno, the sorrow of their parents.   Terrible ego-driven anger or ambition burns up an earth that once flourished.  The texts taught in CORE 151 are powerful evidence of ancient inquiries into the nature of community and thus into the need to reconcile individual desires with a common good.  As these texts (and history) amply demonstrate, when it goes the other way and a common good is reconciled to an individual desire, the results are disastrous.   The ethics of a common good underpin efforts to make just societies, to create solutions to war and savagery, to make and maintain places like Colgate where learning can happen, where growth in self-understanding and mutual understanding can flourish.

(We can all fill in this picture from our knowledge of our own disciplines.  I have chosen CORE 151 because I teach it and because all students take it.  It is one of the threads binding this campus in a common endeavor.)

I turn now to Colgate in the summer of 2014 and what seems to me like a new set of realities that both have an impact upon our lives within the Colgate community and upon the village in which this university is set.  Both Deborah Knuth and Mary Moran have earlier posts about the loss of community within Colgate, and I urge you to go back in this blog and read them.  Here, I would like to call attention to the issue of “outsourcing” that threatens to turn both university and village into a corporation, if not an ethical wasteland based only upon fiscal exigency.

During this year, we have outsourced the golf course, segments of Human Relations, the Barge, and Salvage and tried to outsource student housing.   Does this mean positions formerly occupied by local people are no longer needed and are phased out while administrative positions seem to multiply?    I was on leave last year and did not attend meetings.  When I came up for air, I found a new Colgate, much of which seems to be directed by outside corporations.  In all sectors of campus/village life people have lost jobs or people have left because they find these new policies untenable.   

We hear about lost jobs as “retirements” and are invited to receptions to “celebrate” the achievements of those retiring, or we simply hear that someone has decided to “retire.”  Where we as faculty members mourn a lost sense of community, some mourn lost incomes, lost ways of life.  We are told that these changes reflect “best practices” in the business world.  Whose best practices?  What does “best” mean here?  Such practices leave us increasingly without people who have a stake in both the university and village communities.  

Who made these decisions?  Where did these new policies come from?  Are there checks on figures who plan and make such policy changes?  Why has no one realized that in so doing we send money out of the village, in effect bankrupt it and make it vulnerable to more outside investors who can then “cherry-pick” its properties, offer us a false dream of economic growth?

The concept of a common good has at its core the recognition that we should not harm our neighbor.  We should not kill his “ewe lamb,” seize his vineyard, deprive her of the possibility of a future, destroy her efforts to  live justly and harmoniously. 

What can we do?


1)      We can pay attention to committee composition.  Which committees sign off on these deals?  Are the faculty representatives on those committees not in a position to critique those in power?  If so, we need to insist on faculty representatives who can vote against what I will call corporate moves and alert the AAUP to policy changes.


2)  We can demand to know the nature of contracts the university makes with outside vendors and if those contracts harm village merchants. 
We can make sure that we support community vendors of food and wine when we organize events for departments or programs.   

3)    Many people have already been hurt. What efforts can we take to remedy the situations? 
We can insist upon a review of all outsourcing contracts with an eye to reversing current trends.


4    We can insist that the status of the movie theater and the Palace theater should be sent through the governance system for review.  Again, there are good local people involved who may not be able to speak out.


5)     We can insist upon the primacy of the governance system.  Extracurricular meeting have no consequences.  It is through the governance system that we are partners in a shared endeavor.


The number-crunchers will tell me I am unrealistic, that there is money to be saved, that this is the way things are.  Many of us remember when students and faculty at universities all over the country protested against university investments in South Africa.  They argued that universities supposedly devoted to the pursuit of wisdom should not support a nation founded upon unjust social principles.  The number crunchers replied with their economic “wisdom.” 

I believe that no system founded solely upon a species of economic “wisdom” can stand.  I believe that we have a responsibility to our neighbor.  I teach in a university whose tenets are those of intellectual inquiry and of equity.  Both students and faculty devote much energy to the subject and the reality of community.  I would like to extend our understanding of community to a consideration of the ways in which we can increase the possibilities for those in the village who right now see Colgate as predator rather than neighbor.  Colgate does much good in this area, but are our current fiscal policies threatening the ethical fabric of our community? 

The roots of the word “corporation” are from the Latin, to make into a body, and today the word is frequently used to indicate a body that is multi-national or, at least, national and far removed from community concerns.  I suggest that we, as discerning and involved faculty members of this university, act to return us to a way of thinking of our corporate body as belonging to each of us, as a body composed of many and inter-dependent parts, each working for the well-being of the whole.   Let us not acquiesce in a future where the body has grown heads so far removed that we find our future foreclosed by the economic “necessity” of satisfying their omnivorous mouths. 

1 comment:

Barbara Regenspan said...

Hard to add anything to this wonderfully lyrical and richly educative posting. Just one thought attempting to do double duty by connecting Lyn Staley's posting to the one by Jessica Graybill that follows: The "economic wisdom" that enriches some while impoverishing others directs a non-sustainable global system. Please hear self-confessed C-student and billionaire Nick Hanauer harangue his fellow plutocrats on this issue: https://www.ted.com/talks/nick_hanauer_beware_fellow_plutocrats_the_pitchforks_are_coming#t-431777