How can a tool for greater open-ness end up closing the mind?

 

 

Transparency has been pushed as a powerful force that can fight corruption and improve governance by promoting accountability. Transparency will free us, they say, whilst achieving the goals of democracy.

 

Transparency and accountability have become two very popular “buzz” words in our globalized economy. As movement of goods and services started flowing at faster rates and greater frequency across national borders towards the end of the last century; international traders and multinational companies had to deal with more and more of the old-school, oligarchic, corrupt governments in what was previously termed the third world (typically countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America). Thus, there was a shift in the inter-relations between the market, nation-state and civil society (This in no way absolves the governments of countries in Europe, North America or the Far East of oligarchies. What happened, rather, was that perhaps oligarchies of the West wanted to expand their influence over the oligarchies of the Third World).

 

The terms “Transparency” and “Accountability” – touted as the foundations of good governance – were seen often in newspapers and television news channels; journalists recycled the terms, popularizing them further. Many non-government organizations (NGOs) took up the cause, because they saw governance as a critical factor in better implementation of social and development programs. The rapid spread of information-communication technology such as the Internet, social media, and mobiles, also contributed by making information widely and readily accessible.

 

Transparency became popular. Transparency developed a halo around itself.

 

Transparency is a necessary precondition for the exercise of accountability.  Without access to clear, accurate and up-to-date information, it is impossible to judge whether the standards promised have been met. Various tools, methods, and mechanisms for greater transparency have been developed or legislated in many countries.

 

Transparency essentially means openness, especially with respect to one’s operations, so others can see what actions are being performed and how policy decisions are being made. It does not seem that difficult. However, if one calls for transparency of whatever actions were taken by an organization, then that requires us to also examine the decision-making process (within that organization) that led up to those actions, policies or laws.

 

Decision-making is a process that can be rational, emotional, or irrational, and is based on explicit assumptions or tacit (hidden) assumptions. Thus, the exercise of “transparency” in the context of a company or organization would require stakeholders to question each and every one of those assumptions (underlying each decision or action); and the head of the organization in question would have to explain every assumption in some open-forum of transparency. That is difficult.

 

Assumptions are based on various factors ranging from the deeply personal, our socialization, the culture, education, and various other issues around us. Decision-making thus is very hard to explain; imagine doing it for every action. Therefore, most organizations create a hierarchical cadre of staff from the junior administrative assistant to the chief executive, bestowing them with different levels of autonomy and power. This autonomy allows the officer at each rung to work with certain assumptions, make decisions and then take appropriate action to solve a problem or attain an organizational goal.

 

Why does transparency make some people nervous?

The exercise of transparency can often challenge that autonomy and also that inherent respect for differential autonomy at different rungs of an organization. Too much transparency can bring it under the spotlight all the assumptions made.  Thus, transparent examination of organizational decisions can lay bare the internal workings of the decision-maker much more than any trained psychoanalyst could.

 

This kind of transparency has apparently rendered many government officers paralytic; according to a complaint voiced by the current Indian Prime Minister (also a trained economist from Oxford). He said, too much transparency was creating policy implementation paralysis and blocking India’s path to economic glory. He wanted India to make rapid strides in economic growth; however, rapid advances require rapid and big actions – and his government officers are unable to take actions because they felt paralyzed and too open and vulnerable. The over-exercise of transparency through acts such as the Right to Information (RTI) (in India) challenged their everyday autonomy. Advocating that the RTI Act should not adversely affect the “deliberative process” in the government, the Prime Minister voiced a concern that RTI was discouraging bureaucrats from expressing their views on files as they fear that these will be disclosed in the (open) replies.

 

(See link: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/pm-manmohan-singh-wants-rti-diluted/1/155069.html)

 

Of course these complaining officers and our Prime Minister conveniently forget that even now many government officers and ministers use their autonomy to autocratic advantage – whether to get favours for small things such as treatment at a hospital of their choice or to make millions of dollars by passing information in advance to their cronies.

 

The system of checks and balances is required and necessary in a modern society. Transparency can play a role in maintaining those checks over people who abuse power.

 

However, whatever one’s disagreements may be with bureaucrats and economist-politicians, one has to examine this tool and “force” called transparency. One has to use the lens of a cultural critique – rather than economic one – as to what dangers this tool may hold.

 

Every tool can be used for good or for bad. A hammer, in the hands of a carpenter, is an effective tool that helps build homes; but a hammer in the hands of a serial murderer, can also shatter many a skull.

The tool is as good as the user.

 

Transparency is a great tool to foster greater freedom of information and use that information to fight autocratic tyranny of many people in power – politicians, bureaucrats, and others. However, one has to use the tool judiciously and also put the tool in the right hands.

 

This piece explores the use (correct or incorrect) of transparency in the case of academia and whether transparency when applied to the intellect or mind actually leads to the fulfillment and achievement of democratic ideals.

 

Furthermore, one may ask: what is the link a Prime Minister in India has with an education law in Texas – never the twain shall meet?

However, these connections have to be sought; howsoever tenuous and thin because it is in these connections that the larger games are played out in the global arena. Just like a commodities trader reads a newspaper article about deficit rain in Brazil due to various climatic changes affecting the sugarcane crop and immediately starts buying the material that is used to make household water tanks in distant China. Because he or she reasons that within a few months the lack of rainfall will affect China and force half a billion households to start buying household water tanks for storage.

 

Thus, intellectuals of this global world have to start reading the signs of impending changes in democracy laws just like the commodities trader. They have to start putting the pieces together. Using transparency as a tool to control how students think or putting limits to what teachers teach only gives transparency a bad name. The law in Texas sets a precedent. And this can be used anywhere else at the convenience of those in power. Maybe the oligarchies in power are tired of transparency; maybe the global economic system has no use for transparency anymore. It would be ironic if the arguments in this piece were used by some anti-transparency think tank to push its agenda of rapid economic growth without checks and balances.

 

There may be no conspiracy, but there are connections.

The bill to control academic freedom in Texas is connected to lobby groups in Washington DC, who are connected to economic think tanks that influence global financial institutions and thereby connect to New Delhi via the various multilateral loans; and sometimes directly through the graduates of ivy-league or premier business schools who are offered positions in various committees and planning commissions by the government.

 

Some parts of this piece are adapted from a previous piece written by Clark where she points out to different episodes and different players at different times and in different places; all of whom played a role (weak or strong) in the passing of this Texas bill; players whose words and actions were used to justify the passing of the bill. (See Debra Clark. Three Clicks and Academic freedom is out. Academe; September-October 2010; pages 44-46; www.aaup.org;)

 

This examination in no way undermines the role of transparency in corrupt countries (listed in Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” http://www.transparency.org/cpi2012/results); nor does it argue for less transparency in those countries. It only brings to light how people in power can mis-use any tool – even a tool for overall public good. It also brings us to acknowledge and recognize the brilliance of Audre Lorde’s famous (1984) essay: “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

(See link here: http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/margins-to-centre/2006-March/000794.html)

Can Transparency Laws Curtail Academic Freedom?

House Bill 2504, signed into law on June 19, 2009, mandates public universities in Texas (USA) to post on their Web sites detailed syllabi for all undergraduate courses, curriculum vitae for each regular instructor, a departmental budget report for each course offered, and reports of student course evaluations. And, according to the state law, all of this must be “accessible from the institution’s Internet website home page by use of not more than three links, searchable by keywords and phrases, and accessible to the public without requiring registration or use of a user name, a password, or another user identification.”

 

The process of passage of House Bill 2504 was smooth. When the bill was presented to the state House Higher Education Committee, it was unanimously approved; it was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 19, 2009.

 

The Texas conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in June 2010 passed a resolution asking for the law’s repeal:

 

“This logistically burdensome and unfunded legislative mandate constrains classroom innovation and faculty-student interaction while substantially raising costs. The bill has a chilling effect on the ability of students and faculty to openly and honestly discuss controversial subjects in the classroom. It allows persons opposed to open discussion of controversial scientific and cultural positions to target such discussions by requiring faculty to post detailed descriptions of material to be covered in their classes on keyword searchable websites. It is a clear assault upon the principles of academic freedom long supported by AAUP.”

 

But Texas institutions hurried to produce Web-friendly and faculty-friendly forms and links in order to comply with the new law.

 

The transparency bill may be only the beginning of modifications to Texas higher education. The Texas House Higher Education Committee is currently in the midst of an interim legislative study to determine the feasibility of offering a curriculum that “emphasizes ethics, Western civilization, and American traditions” and that would satisfy portions of the Texas Core Curriculum at Texas public universities. Commenting on this recommendation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative lobby group, representative stated that “our universities need to address this deficiency, and if they do not, the legislature should find ways to encourage universities to do so.”

 

Moreover, in April 2010 testimony before the Higher Education Committee, by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, called for a curriculum that emphasized ethics and American traditions in order to “improve society in the wake of moral muddiness.”

 

Are we going to see more such laws that in the name of transparency push one-sided agendas in order to control and regulate academic freedom?

 

The Texas law seems to be a hybrid of seemingly good intentions and bad ones—an apparent desire for transparency concealing an agenda with disturbing implications for academic freedom. As so often in politics, this is the story of a two-pronged approach— rhetorical and ideological—that has blossomed into an alarming political agenda.

 

The rhetoric of transparency in the USA traces back to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Many states subsequently passed sunshine laws allowing journalists to obtain government documents in a timely fashion. While transparency is essential to journalists’ reporting of government activities, a few activists, notably in Texas but with ties to other states and to national groups, have adopted the rhetoric of transparency to further their own conservative agendas.

 

The path from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to Texas House Bill 2504 (HB 2504) is evident when the politics behind the new law is examined closely.

 

How does one go from freedom of information to curtailment of academic freedom?

One of the key figures involved in its passage, a member of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a student activist organization dedicated to the preservation of conservative and traditional values, was also a higher education policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. In April 2009 testifying before the Texas State House of Representatives’ Higher Education Committee in favour of House Bill 2504, this member said that the Sunshine Survey, a tool developed by journalists, demonstrated that “Texas is the national leader in open government” and that this was “a good first step to becoming more transparent.”  Then this member cited a 1996 Texas comptroller’s report, noting that “in-class teaching is an activity state funding directly supports, creating a legitimate interest in how it is conducted.”

 

Thus, the link between the Freedom of Information Act and classroom teaching in universities was established using transparency or open governance, as the critical bridge. Further, transparency would help in student decision-making. HB 2504 would simply allow students to make more informed decisions throughout their enrolment process, giving them more control over the education for which they are paying.

 

The following example was offered: “Posting ‘significant professional publications’ could also play a role in a student’s decision making process. If a student is looking to take an African history course, he would most likely choose a professor who had sufficient knowledge of this subject rather than an African history professor whose research focuses on Russian history.”

 

The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online details state-by-state accessibility of government information online. The study was developed and written by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. It showed that many states lagged in providing government information. Though spearheaded by journalists, the Sunshine Week Web site notes that its purpose is to allow people “to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”

 

But where did the Texas bill really originate? Not with journalists, nor in Texas.

 

The second prong to this story involves the John William Pope Centre for Higher Education Policy, a libertarian think tank based in North Carolina. The Pope Centre has been demanding “educational transparency” across the United States for years and has published several online articles and reports on the issue. The Pope Centre advocates what it terms a transparent “consumer-oriented” approach to higher education. For example, in July 2008 the centre published a report by its senior writer, Jay Schalin, titled, “Opening Up the Classroom: Greater Transparency through Better, More Accessible Course Information.” Many of this report’s recommendations showed up almost verbatim in the Texas legislation.

 

Schalin’s report reads:

“Greater transparency and accountability are coming to higher education, one way or the other. Students, their parents, and government officials want to know whether their money is purchasing a quality education or merely financing an expensive system of meaningless paper credentials. In that spirit, this report proposes a major step toward improving transparency and accountability, one that cuts to the very core of academia’s purpose: making knowledge about the subject material taught in classes more readily available to students and the general public.”

 

The Pope Centre recommends posting course syllabi—the descriptions that go beyond the sketchy catalogue summaries—on the Internet, with access open to the public. The posting should occur at the time registration opens for the next term’s classes, typically two to five months before that term begins, and the syllabi for all courses should be available at a single Web site. The syllabi need not be the full documents with schedules used in class. But at the very least each should offer a detailed class description and a full list of all reading selections.

 

The Texas law mandates that course information be made available to the public on the institution’s Web site for each undergraduate classroom course offered. The site must also include a syllabus that (1) provides a brief description of each major course requirement (including each major assignment and examination), (2) lists any required or recommended reading, and (3) provides a general description of the subject matter for each lecture or discussion.

 

Posting faculty syllabi, says the Pope Centre report, will “expose a professor’s deviation from normal expectations. . . . Parents would be able to better decide whether their tuition payments are going for a good cause or are being wasted on mental pablum.” Putting syllabi on the Internet will allow students “to avoid redundancy and eliminate intellectual ‘holes’ in their education.”

 

However, while making an economic cost-benefit argument for such a law, the Pope Centre Report’s closing argument suggests that higher education watchdogs will be better able to monitor online syllabi to see which schools of thought a particular college adheres to and whether “professors are using the classroom to further their own political agendas.”

 

In order to demonstrate how very minute happenings can trigger such large events, if used cleverly, let us look at a story the Pope Centre ran on its Website about the Texas HB 2504. The article began with an anecdote about Taurie Randermann, the legislative aide of Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhorst, the HB2504 bill’s author. The story said that when Randermann was a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, she discovered that her course on ‘Communication and Religion’ was actually about fringe cults and religions. Her vehement reaction triggered a major change in the way that Texas’s colleges and universities inform students about classes.

 

However, later Randermann explains in another article that while she wished she had had more information about the religion course before she took it; that she did not actually inspire the bill. She said that Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhorst had already been working on the bill for well over a year when she talked to her, and, while the Pope Centre didn’t provide language, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, was the “primary liaison” who “coordinated all information between Kolkhorst’s office and The Pope Centre.

 

How the end-goal of good governance called “transparency” can become the means to someone else’s ends?

However, the anecdotes had been used, the torment to a student (of not having adequate information and the need for transparency) presented through the story of a student; and knowingly or unwittingly someone’s quest to have more information had been turned into law in order to control intellectual freedom. These are the interesting ways in which things happen in our world –while claiming to become more open it seems that our society is actually tending towards more narrow-mindedness – whether it is religious intolerance or the intolerance of any form of living-style that does not genuflect to consumer capitalism, or plain intolerance of the slightest dissent.

 

Is transparency to be used for monitoring whether a parent’s hard-earned money or students loans are being used effectively to help students attain the education they want? How would a student know what education they want? If a student were to know the education they need, would that student even enroll in a university? Furthermore, in a necessarily diverse and multicultural democracy how can it be okay to ensure that everyone thinks in only one way and all other ways of thinking have to be censured. Thus, the agenda of using transparency as a tool remains questionable, especially in the area of academics and any intellectual work.

 

Once again, the ugly question rises to confront us: Are our tools and knowledge to be used for regulation of the human being, or for emancipation of the human? Can emancipation be achieved through following just one path or through exposure to various paths and letting the individual make the choice. In the economic sphere we seem to be hell-bent upon giving people choices within the consumer framework; however in the sphere of “thinking and thought” we seem to be leaning towards restriction of choices.

 

Transparency is a great tool for governance and journalists, but can a tool be stretched to make an academic or intellectual conform to someone else’s standards of proper thought? Governance of the state or of the economy, running a bank or administering a university may require adherence to set standards; after all accountants cannot afford to be too creative. But, do the tools that apply to banks and bureaucracies apply in equal measure to the human brain?

 

Dissent is one of the hallmarks of democracy, and careful, sensitive, just management of dissent is the hallmark of a greater democracy. Democracies and modern societies move ahead by carefully incorporating dissenting ideas into the mainstream. That’s how societies become more open; even though the process may be a slow one. Quelling dissent by any means is a sign that democracy is dysfunctional or non-functional. If one puts a tank in front of a dissenter, we immediately point fingers in the direction of so-called undemocratic countries. However, when we cleverly use political groups and agenda-driven language to mask our undemocratic intensions, what do we call it – a legal precedent?

 

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Open Access Article:

© Debra E. Clark and Nilesh Chatterjee.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are properly cited. To view a copy of this license, visit: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

 

Proper Citation: Debra E. Clark and Nilesh Chatterjee (2013). How can a tool for greater transparency end up closing the mind? Transparency and its troubling ramifications. The Essayist, Vol 1, Issue 1, April 2013. http://www.the-essayist.org/2013/04/greater-open-ness-end-up-closing-the-mind/

 

Debra E. Clark is Associate Professor, University of Houston, Clear Lake, Texas

Nilesh Chatterjee is Head of Research at Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs (JHUCCP), New Delhi, India office.


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