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Friday, March 24, 2006

Hospital Unions

March 24th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

Thomas P. Glynn, III is quoted as saying that  "we prefer to handle labor-relations privately" (Boston Hospitals gird for a possible union organizing drive, Boston Globe, March 24, 2006: C1, C7).
I can think of two arguments for taking that position. The reasonable argument is that sometimes Unions prevent the employer deploying staff in a flexible manner depending on the work requirements. Sometimes this resistance is reasonable as when employers, in cost cutting moves, try to reduce staffing levels to dangerously low levels but at other times it is not, as when employers try to develop multi-skilling opportunities for their employees and pay for those increased skills.
The unreasonable argument is to ensure that the employer can maintain its power over employees, dealing with them in an hierarchical command and control manner with a minimum of accountability for its actions. For management to take this view is especially unacceptable in a hospital setting where feedback on patient conditions can often come from the lowest level of employee.
I wonder which of these perspectives Mr. Glynn takes.
Going on to the larger issue, I think it is a mistake for Hospitals to resist Unionization. They should be embracing the opportunity to engage in a constructive dialog with the Unions that will benefit patients, employees, and patients.  Yes, Unions sometimes act in a bloody-minded fashion as the Yale case indicates but that followed years of resistance to Unionization by hospital management.
It is a truism of labor relations that management get the Unions they deserve. Resistance to Unionization may create difficulty, embracing Unionization will not.

Monday, March 20, 2006

FBI Monitoring

March 20th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

I agree with almost everything that James Carroll says in his column, The Politics of Pacifism meets FBI Monitoring (Globe, Monday, March 20th, 2006: page A11).
However I disagree when he says that "the FBI ... sees enemies everywhere..." It did not see enemies in the time leading up to 9/11. The FBI is like the drunkard who seeks his lost car keys under a lampost rather than in the penumbra where he dropped them. The FBI looks in the easy places like the peace movement and eschews the hard task of connecting the dots that might have prevented 9/11.
As someone who was young in the 1960's, I am saddened to see the FBI repeating the mistakes that it made during the Vietnam war. Like the country it serves, the FBI has not learned from history

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Who is accountable for the "Black Room"?

March 19th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New York Times

Your report in today's paper (In secret unit's 'Black Room,' a grim portrait of U.S. abuse, Sunday, March 19th 2006, page A1) tells us that the incidence of prisoner abuse in Iraq is much worse than we had thought. Abuse was not confined to Abu Ghraib but has also occurred at other camps in Iraq.
You also tell us that, as before, punishment has been reserved for the lowest echelons. Like Abu Ghraib, only Privates and Sergeants have suffered any penalty. Until the Iraq war, the military usually followed a doctrine of "command responsibility." If subordinates are found guilty of malfeasance, then their failure to control their troops is also a black mark upon the commander, and on the commander's commander and on up the line of command. For it is those at the top who approved the torture memos (for a while) and who did not speak out forcibly against these crimes.
It is these senior figures  who set the tone, climate, and culture of the army: a culture in which abuse of prisoners was allowed to happen.
In the Iraq war, there has been no accountability for the senior Commanders. When are we going to see the likes of Army Commanders, the Army Chief of Staff, and the the Secretary of Defense held accountable for the human rights abuses that have occurred under their command?
When will the U.S. public demand that the President be held accountable for all that has gone wrong during his two terms of office?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Deval Patrick's house

March 16th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

Like Martha Hammel (Letters, March 15th. 2006) I was disconcerted to see the level of conspicuous consumption exhibited by Deval Patrick in his new summer home in the Berkshires. However, as a supporter of Deval Patrick in his campaign for governor, I would urge Ms Hammel and those sharing her views not to fall into the trap of single issue voting.
I would ask that they consider the whole portfolio of positions that Deval Patrick has taken on civil rights, education, health care and the economy. I am sure that when all these issues are taken into account, Deval Patrick looks like a very attractive potential governor.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Troop Levels in Iraq

March 13th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New York Times

President George Bush said today that future troop levels in Iraq will depend upon the situation on the ground.
Why do I not believe him?
Before the Iraq war began, General Shinseki told him and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that we needed 300,000 soldiers to pacify Iraq. [Paul Wolfowitz pooh-poohed this number as he thought there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq as there had been in Kosovo where the General had served.] We did not get those 300,000. In the early stage of the occupation, Pro-Consul Bremer told him and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that we needed more troops to control the just-beginning insurrection. We did not get more troops.
The consequences for Iraq have been devastating: the looting that occurred just after the fall of Saddam (and continues in remote archeological sites to this day); and the full scale insurrection that is now under way with dozens of Iraqis killed each day and with the destruction of hallowed religious sites.
No, I do not believe Mr. Bush. I do believe that there will be a draw-down of American troops later this year, but it will occur as the 2006 election season gets closer and will have nothing to do with the state of play in Iraq itself.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

SAT errors

March 9th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

It is good thing that the College Board is issuing revised scores to the students and colleges affected by their errors (Colleges scramble amid SAT glitch, Globe, March 8th, page A1). The intent is that College Admissions Officers will be able to re-evaluate the affected students and give them a better chance of admission.

There is one small psychological problem that makes an unbiased re-evaluation difficult. We all use the "anchoring heuristic." The first piece of information sets a baseline with which additional information is compared. The evidence is that when new information comes in such as new and better SAT scores, we make an insufficient adjustment; the old score drags down our new evaluation, so that in the students' cases, they will still be slightly downgraded even though the admissions officer is working with the new score.

There is a solution. Have a different admissions officer review the file, together with other new files, and make sure that only the new SAT score is included in the file.

Science and Government

March 9th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New Yorker

There are two things wrong with John Marburger's view of the relation between Science and Government (Political Science, New Yorker, March 13th, 2006).

First he argues that when presenting conference papers scientists are not just reporting data, they are also "putting forward a point of view that should reflect U.S. policy." He has got things backwards. In sensitive areas like AIDS policy, surely government policy should reflect the data rather than some ideological view that the administration holds.

He also says that "This administration is more management-oriented than others." That has to be joke. Perhaps the administration adheres to an outdated "command and control" view of how managers operate, but effective managers do not work like that any more. Real managers thrive on information to underpin their decisions. We only have to look at the range of information disasters that have beset this administration to conclude that it has no idea about how to ensure that current and accurate data (on Iraq, on hurricanes, and on port security) gets to the decision makers. There is no more managerially inept administration in living memory.

The implications of the administration's attitudes to science are and will undercut our ability to sustain the incredible scientific advances of the last century.

Monday, March 6, 2006

University Presidency

March 6th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

John Silber and Robert Putnam provide disparate views on the ideal university president (Ideas, March 5th, 2006).

Silber views the ideal as a corporate CEO operating with the faculty in a command and control mode and, as long as he/she has the support of the Board of Trustees, riding rough-shod over the views of the faculty to impose a vision on the university.

On the other hand, Putnam views the President as a persuader; as someone who, in the common phrase,  is a "herder of cats" -- not an impossible task but a difficult one.  He views the president as one who establishes the vision through gaining the input of the faculty and then works with the faculty to implement that vision. Silber will have none of that. He claims that the average professors  "maybe well-informed in their specializations but they have little knowledge and experience -- and no responsibility-- with regards to the needs and goals of the university as a whole." But the President too, though having the responsibility, is a captive of her/his own discipline and background and training. The President too is ill equipped to understand the needs of the whole University with its disparate and conflicting parts. The President has to learn from the faculty, the President has to negotiate with the faculty, and the president has to earn the support of the faculty.

The University is not a like a business corporation, however much John Silber wishes that it were. It is, in Henry Mintzberg's words, a professional organization. In such organizations, the goals and vision have to be hammered out by the professionals. In the University, the role of department chairs, Deans, Provosts and Presidents is to facilitate the work of the teachers and researchers who make up the core of the university. They are NOT there to direct that work.

John Silber did much good for Boston University, but he also did some harm -- look at the debacle of finding his successor. Robert Putnam is correct: in the University, excellence cannot be coerced.

Saturday, March 4, 2006

University Governance

March 4th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New York Times

Dear Editor:
Once again John Tierney (in his March 4th Column NYT, page A25) has it completely wrong. Despite his assertions, the Faculty is the University.
The University, like a law firm, an accounting firm, a high tech start-up, and a medical practice, is a professional organization. It is not like a business corporation with a command and control hierarchy. The goals, mission and direction of a professional organization are set by the professional members of the organization. The President is one among many.
The non-professionals and the administrative professionals (President, Provosts, Deans, and Department Chairs) are there to facilitate the productivity of the faculty in teaching and research (at least in this column, unlike that of February 25th., Tierney acknowledges the existence, though not the importance, of research). They are not there to compel the adherence to a new vision, however attractive that new vision may be.
If the vision is compelling, Presidents can persuade their colleagues to adopt it; but it is a question of persuasion rather than a question of the giving of orders.
Despite Tierney's assertions, tenured faculty can be removed for cause. None of us want to be surrounded by colleagues who are not pulling their weight in terms of teaching and research.