Blogs > Liberty and Power > An Unaccountable Elite

Oct 9, 2009 9:40 pm

An Unaccountable Elite

Who am I talking about?

A judgement body from whose decisions there is no appeal; secret regulations, unknown, typically, even to body members; an ever-widening scrutiny, even of mundane activites, for unconforming ideologies.

Don't know? You should, since you've probably got one at your institution. It is called the"Institutional Review Board." Such bodies, officially, are charged with"protecting human subjects," and they are supposed to be governed by federal statutes. In reality, they are autonomous entities within universities that sit in judgment on fundamental issues, such as"what is science." From their decisions, there is no appeal, and since their membership always includes"non-scientists" and"members of the community," one cannot assume the knowledge or background we take for granted within the disciplines. Ignorance, misinformation, and just plain silliness are commonplace.

To give one example: one of my students wanted to do fieldwork on widows in India -- a fairly routine sort of inquiry, especially within my discipline (cultural anthropology.) Her proposal was rejected, and I quote,"because you are a white woman, and a white woman is like a white man, and a white man represents implicit force." The person who wrote this" critique" was a non-faculty (but full-voting) member of the IRB, and her qualification is that she has an undergraduate degree.

There are plenty of horror stories like this. And if you think they are confined to anthropologists or medical researchers or drug-trial investigators, you're sadly mistaken: the IRB process is increasing taking under its purview projects in the humanities, including history. The people who do"oral history" have run into this problem plenty already.

Soviet-style justice, based on secret rules, and conducted without accountability are no stranger in American academic institutions. Administrations seem to specialize in creating star-chambers, don't they? But that does not mean we have to accept their proliferation, or the distortions they create, or the absurd beaurocratic over-reach they represent.

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