Whistleblowers

Note: The following post provides opening comments by Penny Weiss (professor of Women’s and Gender Studies) at the September 18, 2019 Saving SLU Teach-In.

Good afternoon. I’m Penny Weiss, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies here at SLU, and I’m happy to welcome you to this teach-in.

A whistleblower is a person who learns of unethical or even illegal activity within their organization, public or private, and reports on or refuses to participate in it. Such calling out plays an important role in holding companies and educational institutions and governments accountable.

People sometimes have trouble deciding whether whistleblowers are heroes or villains, whether to celebrate or vilify them. In virtually every case, it takes considerable courage to speak out about corruption, about failures to abide by publicly affirmed values, about inadequate or dishonest leadership, about skirting ethical norms and democratic procedures and educational best practices. And in addition to courage, holding these bodies accountable takes knowledge and hard work, for good critique is based on a solid and detailed understanding of institutional practices and norms, and usually requires steadfastly following up on mere tidbits of information and connecting dots often intentionally made separate.

It is, despite the courage and knowledge and hard work entailed in critique, nonetheless common for vested interests to seek ways to discredit those who want to hold them accountable, and to delegitimize their cause, even when those raising questions have a great deal of affection for and stake in the institutions they are challenging. They might, for example, be called ill-informed or self-interested or ungrateful, and sometimes there is even retribution just for raising the issues. And it isn’t just easy for challenged institutions to cast whistleblowers and their claims aside, it’s to be expected, because much work—much highly paid work—is done in the name of institutional self-preservation. The backlash is also usually pretty unoriginal and shouldn’t in the end be treated as a surprising or an insurmountable obstacle for those who are trying to keep their institutions democratic, transparent, and accountable. It’s just an unpleasant, distracting, predictable, matter of course. We can deal with that, especially if we deal with it together.

Our institution, with a $1.23 billion endowment, has claimed to be in financial crisis mode for many years now, a crisis which they assert justifies major cuts to academic programs and to personnel. We have spent many millions on consultants, outsiders to whom we have granted enormous institutional authority and sway, and millions more on upper-level administrators who cannot seem to come up with long-term solutions or to work collaboratively with faculty to pinpoint and address the problem, or possibly even to reframe it. The economic situation keeps most of us, as SLU workers, feeling vulnerable and even dispensable, vaguely threatening the many and cutting the few in a way that can haunt us all in a near-death experience kind of way. It can make us all, the now perpetually vulnerable, less likely to speak up. And yet we have a responsibility, as employees, as colleagues, and especially as educators, to help create a learning environment and a work environment that is as just and as equitable and as democratic as it can be.

We’re at the beginning or in the midst of processes that may well determine the character of SLU for the future, from portfolio review to longer-term budget planning to the creation of a common core. All signs also seem to be saying that we are about to face yet another round of deep cuts to our academic budgets and thus to our academic mission and potential, and that we will also in a year’s time possibly confront a proposal for a dramatic restructuring of SLU itself. It behooves us all to be good citizens of the SLU community at this moment, alert, informed, caring, active, collaborative citizens who are interested in the well-being of both the parts and the whole of a sustainable SLU. Despite our vulnerability, in fact because of our vulnerability and the vulnerability of SLU itself, we cannot afford to be silent, apathetic, or misinformed.

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