Saturday, June 25, 2011

Exploiting Student Labor

The new director of an architecture program discovered that some faculty members had used their own residences as the sites for students’ design/build studios. The director said that this practice had to stop because it constituted a conflict of interest, with faculty members using student labor to increase the value of their property, although the professors involved claimed that the use of their own homes enabled their students to make mistakes and to take risks that they could not otherwise do.

A central issue in the ethics of economics involves the proper use of human labor. Adam Smith saw the division of labor as a way of increasing people’s productivity and with it, their wealth. Through this collective activity, Smith believed, the material conditions of everyone would improve. Karl Marx agreed, although he argued that since workers “own” their labor, they should control the process and benefits the most from it. In Marx’s view, capitalists exploited other people’s labor by making them work more than they needed to in order to meet their needs and that of their communities.

Architecture, of course, has long had a division of labor at its core. Architects design a building, engineers size the elements necessary to make it stand and operate, and contractors build from the detailed drawings and specifications. And much of the tension in the construction industry arises from the ethical conflict identified by Smith and Marx. Who should benefit the most from the division of construction-industry labor: the architects and engineers who determine what contractors build without actually doing the work or the contractors whose labor is essential to realizing the building?

A whole system of contracts, codes and regulations has arisen to ensure some degree of fairness in this industry and to prevent the exploitation of people in the process. Contracts ensure that the design team gets paid for their work, codes ensure that the safety of people gets protected, and regulations ensure that, at least in public work, trades get paid the prevailing wage.

Almost none of these protections exist, however, for the design/build projects students engage in during school. In most cases, students work for credit rather than for pay and create structures as part of a class that rarely get inspected by code officials. On top of that, the faculty members involved often end up serving in the role of the client, determining the nature and location of the project and deciding upon the grades that individual students will get as a result of their effort.

While design/build projects can offer invaluable lessons for aspiring architects, such exercises also leave open the possibility of real abuse, as in the case here. However much it may give students greater freedom in what they build and more latitude to make mistakes, using student labor to improve professors’ own property constitutes the very exploitation that Marx cautioned us about. The faculty members involved not only control the application and extent of the students’ labor, but also benefit inordinately from the product of that effort.

The professors’ protests echo those of capitalists in Marx’s era. Smart people can always find reasons, whether economic or educational, to justify unethical behavior. That becomes particularly ironic in institutions of higher education when faculty, who often lean to the left politically, end up engaging in activities that characterize the most repressive, right wing regimes.

The new director has no choice but to demand that the faculty members cease and desist. Should they refuse, the director needs to report them, regardless of the personal consequences. Might, in this case, must make things right.

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