Saturday, September 24, 2011


The chair of a an architecture program needed to move the time of a class taught by a local practitioner in order to make the schedule work better for the students. When the chair asked the practitioner if he could adjust his schedule accordingly, he asked what it was worth to the chair to make this change and that he would do it only if he got paid more money.

Recent protests in India occurred because of widespread public disgust at the level of corruption in that society, in which, as an Indian colleague of mine describes it, people in both the public and private sectors take bribes in order to perform a service more readily or to step up the response time. My colleague explains that this has become so rampant that people just factor this into the cost of doing business and that those who expect such payments often justify it because so many others do so as well. The rising cost of living, the rapidly growing population, and the over-burdened infrastructure in India all fuel this culture of covert payments. But it violates a basic tenet of civil society: trust that people will do their job well and in a timely manner for the agreed-upon price and for fair compensation.

The expectation of a bribe represents a form of extortion. In the case of India, it sounds like the corruption in that society involves a more passive form of extortion, putting something lower on a list of priorities or performing a service more slowly or after a longer delay unless the person in need pays a little extra to expedite the work. In the case of the practitioner who asks for more money from the program chair in order to move the time of a class, the extortion is more active and obvious and even more objectionable as a result. Extortionists obtain things by threatening others. The question this practitioner asked – what is it worth to the chair to change the time of the class – carried with it the implied threat that he would refuse to make that change without receiving more money to do so.

We can imagine how this person might justify such extortion. Adjunct faculty who teach the occasional course rarely get paid as much as fulltime faculty members would for the same course, when measured as a percentage of their salaries. This practitioner might rightly believe that he should receive more money for the course he teaches and he may have seen the chair’s need to move the course’s time as an opportunity to get what he thought he deserved. But the issue here isn’t whether this practitioner deserves more compensation, but how he went about trying to achieve it. The use of threats to get something – anything – from another person ranges from the unethical to the outright criminal depending upon the nature of the threat and stakes involved.

Here, no crime occurred. The practitioner didn’t physically threaten the chair or demand more money at gunpoint. But the practitioner did try to extort money from the chair, thinking that he had the upper hand, which turned out to be his mistake. The chair, when confronted by his threat, immediately said that the program would find another way to deal with the schedule conflict and thanked him for coming in to discuss it. And the chair never asked that practitioner to teach another course again. Extortion, in other words, may seem like a way to get more money and to take advantage of a situation, but over the long term, it never pays.

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