30 March 2008

Philanthropy, Capitalism, and Social Change: Can there be stranger bedfellows?

Michael Edwards has a fascinating, and important, article in openDemocracy: Philanthrocapitalism: After the goldrush. He describes the latest trend in globalized philanthropy, namely, how recently wealthy entrepreneurs - many from the tech sector - invest their vast fortunes in ways that draw from ideas promoted in social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, and corporate social responsibility. Its promoters "claim that methods drawn from business can solve social problems, and are superior to the other approaches used in the public sector and in civil society." As well, they "claim that these methods can achieve the transformation of society," notably without effecting "deeper changes in the distribution of power and resources across the world."

Philanthrocapitalism uses capitalist rubrics of competition, market dynamics, quantitative accountability, the ability to scale, and the imperative for growth, and applies them to social and charitable causes. If these methods work to quickly achieve wealth for private individuals, why not employ the same, proven-successful methods for the collective benefit of those who cannot access traditional capitalistic venues for their own benefit?

Marshall McLuhan actually thought about this issue way back in 1972, in his almost undecipherable book, Take Today: The executive as dropout. He asks - and answers - the question, "Why is a kingdom not a business? Because it’s a service. In business, money is the measure. In kingdoms, man is the measure. Every service is paid for by huge disservices to the community. Count your blessings, but don’t try to evaluate them!"

Edwards frames the same observation this way:
The most important results measure impact at the deepest levels of social transformation, and there is a wealth of evidence showing that they are generated by social movements that rarely use the language or methods of business management. Yet, to repeat, there is already evidence that those who do use these techniques encounter trade-offs with their social mission.

It is easy to identify quick fixes in terms of business criteria, only to find out that what seemed inefficient turns out to be essential for civil society's social and political impact - like maintaining local chapters of a movement when it would be cheaper to the central office to combine them. And although solutions have to work economically this doesn't necessarily imply the raising of commercial revenue. Philanthrocapitalists sometimes paint reliance on donations, grants and membership contributions as a weakness for civil-society organisations, but it can be a source of strength because it connects them to their constituencies and the public - so long as their revenue streams are sufficiently diverse to weather the inevitable storms along the way.
He goes on to warn that, despite the best of intentions (isn't it always the way?) philanthrocapitalism might well be harming social movements and the vibrancy of civil society. The reason? Because the methods and metrics used by each are polar opposites:
Business metrics privilege size, growth and market share, as opposed to the quality of interactions between people and the capacities and institutions they help to create. When investors evaluate a business, they ultimately need to answer only one question - how much money will it make? The equivalent for civil society is the social impact that organisations might achieve, alone and together, but that is much more difficult to evaluate.
For me, I see this as articulating the difference between organizations founded on an Industrial Age foundation, as opposed to those created with a UCaPP sensibility. Reading each through a Valence Theory informed lens highlights the differences. Like most traditional BAH-organizations, the predominant focus is strictly on quantifiable outcomes measured in economic terms, with all other valence relationships taking positions of secondary or less priority. But just, social transformation in a contemporary context requires balance among all the five valences: Edwards points to the civil rights movement in the U.S., and asks, "Would philanthrocapitalism have helped to finance the civil-rights movement in the US? I hope so, but it wasn't "data-driven", it didn't operate through competition, it couldn't generate much revenue, and it didn't measure its impact in terms of the numbers of people who were served each day, yet it changed the world forever."

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17 March 2008

Reflections of an Adult Educator, Redux

A year or so ago, I posted a series of five reflections that were based on a conversation between Ian Baptiste and Tom Heaney in October, 1996 at the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and Community Education in Lincoln, Nebraska. As I am now preparing a talk that I will be giving at this year's NETC conference in April, entitled, "No Educator Left Behind: The present future of educator reform," I thought it would be worthwhile to bring those reflections forward. I have posted the complete series, Reflections of an Adult Educator, as a downloadable document, with a bonus reflection on some principles that I believe are fundamental to any conversation about education - and educator - reform.

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12 March 2008

Interview on Global TV About Ryerson, Facebook, and Avenir

For the record, let me state that I am not yet a professor. Over there on the right side of the screen I describe my current status: (as of this posting) I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. But that long descriptor doesn't work well for television or press interviews. I typically ask producers to use the tag, "Researcher at OISE (or University of Toronto)" to describe me.

But, collaborative construction of identity being what it is, since I sound like a professor, and carry myself (i.e., walk) like a professor, and more or less look like a professor, and am located at the same place as a lot of professors, media outlets often construct me as, well, a professor. So despite my direction otherwise, Global calls me professor in this morning's interview.

With that out of the way, these days, Ryerson University seems to be sounding, walking, looking like, and locating itself as an institution firmly rooted in the Industrial Age. The appeals decision about Chris Avenir's case is yet to be announced. But according to Ryerson spokespeople, they are framing this case as one of "drawing the line" with respect to academic integrity. Unfortunately for Avenir, it seems that the so-called line is an arbitrary judgement about gaining "academic advantage" that might well be drawn wherever Avenir is not. In doing so, Ryerson is enacting what organization theorist and professor Chris Argyris calls organizational defensive behaviours. Simply put, Ryerson will not be wrong in this case, constructing their reading of the circumstances to justify their initial action - an action that was over-the-top, in my view.

But pushing their case for academic integrity to the extreme causes the inevitable reversal. Ryerson risks their own reputation in the eyes of current, and more important, future students who might consider Ryerson U as a place to pursue higher education as preparation for the contemporary world and workplace. The Avenir case demonstrates that contemporary forms of cyber collaboration causes some of Ryerson's professors a bad case of fear, loathing and paranoia. By arbitrarily deciding that physical presence collaboration is acceptable (eg. the university provides physical space in which that collaboration occurs) but an online space for the same activity is not, the institution sends a strong and clear signal: If you want a great Industrial Age education, Ryerson might be the place for you. But if you want to prepare yourself for the UCaPP world of the 21st century, perhaps U of T, Queens, Western, or Waterloo might be better choices for an Engineering school.

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10 March 2008

danah boyd (and me) on Cultural Sustainability

Another brilliant and insightful post from danah boyd, and one that gets to the heart of (one aspect) of what I'm researching. She picks up on a term that is mostly used in Northern European and Aboriginal contexts, and muses on cultural sustainability:
To me, the idea of "cultural sustainability" is about companies whose actions offset the consequences of their presence (or disappearance). For example, when large companies abandon cities that they've been in for years and where the entire city revolves around them, their move has a HUGE culturally destructive force. How do they offset this in a functional way? How does this get considered to be an externality that needs to be factored in?
What danah is talking about is partly incorporated in my suggestion of replacing the often cliché corporate vision statement with a tactility statement, answering the question, who do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them, today? Understanding the multiplicity of ways - essentially through the five valence relationships - that an organization can touch the communities in which it locates, and with whom it does various forms of business begins to address the concept of cultural sustainability.

But the key, I think, comes from understanding the problematics of the term sustainability, drawing from the analogous term, environmental sustainability. The widely and commonly held definition of that term comes from the Brundtland Commission's report, entitled Our Common Future in 1987. That report suggested that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A not unreasonable approach, but one that presents hidden dangers. Who decides what are the needs of the present? Who can know what will be required to meet future needs? Whose values are being imposed on both the current and future generations in defining needs, especially relative to wants (and such things as maintaining an affluent and privileged lifestyle)? Herman Daly takes a different approach. In his position paper presented to the World Bank in 2002, he describes a throughput-based construct of sustainability, specifying that "the entropic physical flow from nature’s sources through the economy and back to nature’s sinks, is to be non-declining." In other words, don't take more (energy) out of the planet than you can return.

In these terms, environmental sustainability is not so much about anticipating future needs, or economically offsetting present profligate ways (hearkening to the neo-liberal doctrine that if everything was monetized, the problem of externalitites* would be solved). This whole business about purchasing carbon offsets, for example, is a mechanism for the privileged and affluent to effectively outsource their environmental guilt, without necessarily reducing their environmental consumption as Daly suggests. Rather, environmental sustainability from a deep ecology perspective is about ensuring that there will be energy resources in the future by making sure there is no net depletion of resources today. In a way, it's the old campsite rule: When camping, leave the campsite in better shape than when you found it.

Cultural sustainability, I think, can be subject to similar thinking. It's not about economic offsets to any cultural damage that an organization may inflict on a community by either its presence, or its subsequent departure. It's about ensuring that an organization does not deplete the complex ties, dynamics, and networks of relations from which culture in a community emerges. It's about the multiplicity of ways in which an organization touches those around it in any locale, be it in geo-presence or not. It's about the socio-psychological, identity, knowledge, ecological, and yes, economic connections that are formed among all the participants in a community. Simply put, I think the campsite rule applies here, as well: The introduction of an organization to any community should leave that community in better cultural shape than it was in before the organization arrived, and after the organization departs.

* * *

*A note on externalities - one of the concepts that danah introduces in her post. Business corporations are sometimes thought of as externalizing engines. To maximize returns, they attempt to externalize as many expenses as possible; in other words, to make what would otherwise be taken as expenses on their balance sheet somebody else's problem. Prior to environmental protection laws (and their enforcement, which is another matter altogether), polluting the environment was an externalizing action in which industrial waste spewed into the natural environment becomes someone else's problem and expense. The environmental cost of packaging is an externality in much of North America, since it is accounted for in municipal (ie. somebody else's) waste disposal costs, unlike in many parts of Europe where the producing organization is financially responsible for the cost of packaging disposal. Eliminating externalities is an economic solution to consequential damage, but does not necessarily prevent the damage in the first place.

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08 March 2008

Why Does Toronto City Hall Hate U of T Students?

Toronto City politicians aren't exactly known for either their foresight or insight. In fact, when it comes to seeing the multiple angles and complexity of the ecosystem that we call the City of Toronto, it seems that councillors are as blind as proverbial bats. The latest short-sightedness came to light this past week when city council voted to sell the Bloor Street McDonalds property to developer Bazis International to enable them to build a condominium development on that, and the adjoining site.

Forget, for the moment, that the sale went through for millions less than the actual market value of the property. Forget, too, that McDonalds has been getting away with paying less for their use of the property than the average apartment dweller in Scarborough. Why make this sweetheart deal? According to one of the proponents, Councillor Adam Vaughan, "The most important thing is what gets built there is a positive contribution to the development of the Annex as it faces Bloor St.," Vaughan said. "The money has to make sense, but the most important thing is the neighbourhood to the north is protected.""

Uh, Councillor Vaughan, sir? Have you actually visited the neighbourhood? Directly to the north is a parking lot, and to the north of that is Barristers' Row - some of the ritziest law chambers in the city. To the north of that (now three blocks north) are private residences. So let's take that same radius to the west and south. What you have is the University of Toronto, and its thousands of students. And what sits on the property that is going to be converted to condos for the ultra-rich? Affordable food services that serve those ultra-poor students. In fact, the Bazis development will rob the area of at least half-a-dozen eateries frequented by students, including Subway, Booster Juice, Pho Hung, Chinese Garden, Gabby's and McDonalds. And this is less than a year after we lost at least a half dozen affordable food services at the corner of Bedford and Bloor for that massive condo development now underway.

A livable city is made up of more than showcase architecture (like the Borg-meets-Granite-with-aluminum-siding monstrosity that is the new ROM) and condominiums for the elite. It needs more than bars that cater to the once-a-year Toronto International Film Festival. Especially in the neighbourhood of the university, Toronto's largest employer, by the way, a livable city needs places where students can congregate, share food and conversation that is integrated into the fabric of the city.

Jane Jacobs must be looking down at us and shaking her head in disbelief.

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06 March 2008

Accusations Fly at Ry High

Ryerson - the polytechnic that refashioned itself as a university, thus earning the monicker, "Ry High" - is embroiled in yet another controversy. In a manner that demonstrates its well-tuned knee-jerk, Ryerson University has charged a first-year chemistry student with
...academic misconduct for helping run an online chemistry study group via Facebook last term, where 146 classmates swapped tips on homework questions that counted for 10 per cent of their mark. The computer engineering student has been charged with one count of academic misconduct for helping run the group – called Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions after the popular Ryerson basement study room engineering students dub The Dungeon – and another 146 counts, one for each classmate who used the site. Avenir, 18, faces an expulsion hearing Tuesday before the engineering faculty appeals committee.
This charge is wrong on so many levels, revealing the complete cluelessness of the Ryerson administration. At the most basic level, first-year students in the sciences have always been encouraged to collaborate on difficult problem sets and to learn from each other. In my first university physics class (about 100 years ago or so), Professor Ivey said to us in an off-hand way, "Now I know that you all form consortia to work out the problem sets..." We looked at each other. Consortia? Does that mean study groups? (We were engineers.) And a study group that sustained through our four-year program was born, inspired by the prof who knew darn well that no single individual was capable of working through the homework he assigned by him/herself. And this practice sustains to today. "It has long been a tradition for students to brainstorm homework in groups, particularly in heavy programs such as law, engineering and medicine. Each student in the course received slightly different questions to prevent cheating, she said, and she did not see evidence of students doing complete solutions for each other."

But let's assume, for the moment, that the issue is collaborating on homework is verboten and subject to academic sanction. Have students helping each other in the study hall or library been brought up on charges and threatened with expulsion? Have any other of the 146 participants in the Facebook group been charged?

The answer to both questions is a resounding No! In persecuting Chris Avenir, Ryerson administrators are responding in a juvenile, "child educator" way. They seek to make an example of Avenir, to create a chill among students. It's not so much that the group in which Avenir participated provided complete answers to the questions - the unique-questions-per-student protocol prevents that. It's that other enterprising students could theoretically turn Facebook into a thieves' den of illicit homework answers, and that would never do.

In their minds, Ryerson administrators must maintain their control over students and the mode of learning, true to their 17th century pedagogical heritage. Metaphorically, this is Ryerson U's president, Sheldon Levy, wearing a long, schoolmarm-ish dress, thwacking Avenir over the head with a yardstick in the one-room schoolhouse that is still, lamentably, Ry High.


Update (12 Mar 2008): Here's an interview that I did with Global TV news about this incident, and the potential ramifications for Ryerson.

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05 March 2008

Muriel Fung Award

[Please excuse this small, personal indulgence of pride.]

Established in 2001 by the OISE Graduate Student Association, The Muriel Fung Student Appreciation Award recognizes graduate students who have made outstanding extra-curricular contributions to OISE.

In naming the awards after Muriel Fung, former doctoral candidate in Sociology and Equity Studies and former OISE Research Officer, the Graduate Student Association recognizes her heartfelt commitment to developing the OISE community and concern with justice issues both inside and outside of the institution. The qualities of service, leadership and generosity of spirit demonstrated by Muriel Fung during her years with OISE ... are reflected in the efforts of those students who will be chosen to receive this award.

Last week, I received this email from the Vice-President of the Graduate Student Association:
It is with great pleasure that I write to inform you that you've been awarded this year's Muriel Fung Award, with much admiration and gratitude for all of your work, care and commitment to the OISE graduate student community. The committee was especially impressed with the range and strength of your involvement, the creativity with which you identify and meet students' needs in a wide range of areas, and how generously you share your time, knowledge and expertise.

I am so incredibly touched by this recognition from my peers, colleagues, professors and members of administration staff, all of whom were represented in the nomination documents. In my acceptance, I wrote: Throughout my time at OISE I have simply tried to help create an environment in which I would truly enjoy my graduate experience, and that, of course, necessarily helps create a great shared experience for all of us. But, of course, one person does not an environment make. It is really thanks to all the wonderful people throughout the institute - the people with whom I have been truly fortunate and privileged to participate - that I have had the opportunity to make my small, but varied, contributions over my time here.

Here's a photo of Mary Catherine Lennon, a member of the award committee, reading the citation, with Christina Parker, the secretary of the GSA and the one who led my nomination:

And a photograph of another winner, Virginia Stead, along with Associate Dean Carol Rolheiser, Dean Jane Gaskell, me, Christina Parker and Mary Catherine Lennon.

Thanks to the GSA, to the awards committee, and especially to those friends and colleagues who submitted testimonials for my nomination.

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