Waking Our Original Intentions: Action Dialogue with Ben Teehankee

Hilary: Hi Ben.  Or more formally, Professor Benito Teehankee.  First let me say thank you for staying up so late to talk! Between being a Professor and innovator around action research for the prestigious De La Salle university, I know you also play in a jazz band! So a big open question to start what is on your, your mind, on your heart these days?

Ben: I’d say it like this: Getting our school to really be the school it was always meant to be.  To be a catalyst for positive social transformation. That’s what makes me feel good about each Monday rolling around.  We see a lot of challenges especially for young people in the Philippines and I think our university plays a key role in helping our students make sense of these challenges and those facing our country more generally. We have to do plenty of “catch up” though. Technology and the norms surrounding young people’s behaviors are changing fast, so we need to work harder and differently than what we’ve been doing in the past. It’s both a challenge and a source of pleasure for me as I try to deal with that.

Hilary: I know you also write an op-ed type column for the national newspaper. What’s eating at you these days?

Ben: I contribute regularly to two business columns. And my recent column was around Labor Day. Our country goes through this annual ritual where the labor and business groups try to address the situation of workers in the country. Our unemployment and underemployment are among the highest in the region. In my columns, I push for a more humanistic type of management where managers engage workers and help them to have decent options. Many of our students need meaningful work options after graduation. With high unemployment and equally high population increase, we tend to lose the engagement of a lot of young people during entry into the labor force. We have easily a million a year entering the labor force. Our young workers are often not given the right kinds of opportunities

Hilary. So that’s really a challenge for you as a management educator.

Ben: This is something I’ve written about on a continuing basis, hoping to influence the business groups who are constantly arguing that the only way we can be competitive is to keep our labor as cheap and as temporary as possible. This mindset, I feel, is really quite dangerous but it’s the dominant mindset. And then, of course there’s the issue of the environment. Because we are an archipelago, we often face environmental issues in quite serious forms. Just last week our president shutdown Boracay — which is one of our main tourist beach destinations — for six months. Because the water quality in Boracay had become so low. And we have other continuing problems, such as one of the longest communist insurgencies in the world, and so on. All of these tie together, in my view. We face a basic issue of a lack of humanism in our country.

Hilary: And your country is known as one of the more human centered. Filipinos are loved the world over. Does the insurgency, the environmental degradation, the underemployment of young people who suffer poverty of both money and purpose… does it all come together in telling us we need a sustainability paradigm shift. Kids need work and the world needs to be cleaned up. In a human centered way. Do you think academia is up to it?

Ben:  I was hooked into academia by my early teaching experience. Academia for me was always about ideas and concepts and of discussions and discourse. But also, there had to be a purpose for doing academic work. This was one of the guiding principles of the founder of our institution – De La Salle a pragmatic idealist because he engaged with social realities and acted to change them by working with others.

Hilary: The original action researcher!

Ben: The principle is “communion in mission.” So academia, in my view, is both the life of the mind and also the life of action — of making a difference by working with others.I think I’ve always been inspired in the 35 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve always loved being in academia.

Hilary: And what does liberation of the academy mean to you?

Ben:  We need get off our high horses and engage with the world. We sometimes put ourselves in a bubble because of the traditions of academia. I think liberation is about becoming more relevant at the same time that we are rigorous. We need to be rigorous not merely in the ways usually argued for, such as through quantification and procedural objectivity. I think we need to always be critical about what we’re doing and be mindful of having real impact. We are nowhere near that as far as I can tell.

Hilary: What do you mean when you say critical about what we are doing?

Ben: I mean being upfront about the assumptions we make about the world and then allowing open questioning of those assumptions. For example, in business management, we tend to teach to the numbers and emphasize how managers need to achieve this or that result. And then we ask: how do we know if we’re getting there? We say “here are the numbers.” And so our students learn this numbers religion very efficiently. Why do we believe that numbers are even real evidence? We’ve seen so many times how major business scandals result from people playing with the numbers.
Unfortunately, when questions are raised in meetings about underlying assumptions, I can see the discomfort of people. In the extreme, sometimes there is open hostility to the questioning of taken-for-granted beliefs, especially when the latter are expressed as numbers.

That’s what I mean by a lack of critical thinking. One of the reasons I have enjoyed academia is tackling these issues. Neil Postman in his book “Teaching as a subversive activity,” paraphrased Hemingway and said that our teaching job is to develop in our students a foolproof bullshit detector. Often times, we in academia should also ask if we ourselves have our bullshit detectors on and whether we are applying this to ourselves, too.

Hilary: What is inhibiting this?

Ben:  We can unwittingly be reproducing the very structures that prevent such transformation. For example, the preoccupation with teaching numbers I mentioned comes from a basic lack of awareness, a superficial perspective on what is normal and acceptable. Another inhibiting factor is a sense of being comfortable where we are: “Don’t rock the boat too much because we’re doing well.”

Hilary Yet your university is a Catholic school which was originally created to pursue social transformation.

Ben: Yes and as it happens, a large proportion of our students are members of the elite and are, therefore, beneficiaries of the status quo. Therefore, we also benefit from substantial tuition revenues and financial contributions from the elite. The original objective was to educate the children of the elite so that they will be sensitive to the poor and therefore be agents of transformation. While that goal sounded good on paper, the execution has been problematic. In time, administrative and academic leaders become very close to the elite, and so the university becomes part of the legitimization of the status quo. Instead of helping business leaders by giving needed critique, we are sometimes too non-confrontational. It’s a cultural constraint.

Hilary:  What can you do? And how do we help you do it? You were part of the AR+ Cookbook. You wrote an important chapter on transforming the university. So I want to understand where the pushback is and how to move through the pushback, because others want to do the same work you’ve committed to. We hear about the same thing from others. What would it look like for you to have the kind of institution that perhaps originally your institution wanted to be?

Ben:  I think it would be helpful for our faculty to build relationships with members of like-minded socially transformative groups. Like we have begun with AR+. I am doing this at some level now; with professional management associations and the like. When we signed up for the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education network (PRiME), I was prompted to link up and dialogue with the Management Association of the Philippines and the Shareholders Association of the Philippines. I have used this to open up discussions on some of the social issues surrounding business. 

Faculty are dealing with bread and butter stuff: submitting research articles and managing teaching requirements to get that promotion. In our country, faculty have heavy teaching load; from four to eight classes each term. So I think that if AR+ can help us build an ecosystem where our faculty can integrate teaching, research and engagement with practice in a way where these roles are mutually supportive, then we can enhance our transformative impact.

Hilary:  What makes you hopeful? What do you see as the trends that both in terms of what’s happening in your school?

Ben:  I think that when collaborative conversations open up about the need for social transformation and promoting changes in management practice, faculty and practitioners admit that they feel the same way about things. But the engagement activities have been ad hoc and unless there is really a basic change in faculty mindset, I don’t think we can sustain the links to effect any fundamental changes. For one thing, the teaching materials we tend to use contain frameworks and paradigms that have been frozen in time, such as in economics, say, for the last 50 years or so.

Hilary: We would like to develop forums for more faculty to be involved and maybe gain recognition for their work in action research. perhaps encouraging MBA students to begin thinking about presenting and publishing their action research work.

Ben: There are certainly good things to build up on. I think we really have to work through workload issues and our very fast trimesters.

Hilary: We don’t want to overload you either!

Ben:  One of the things I like about being engaged in AR+ is the sense that now I’m doing action research with others who believe in it, too. I have been a lone ranger type in pushing for action research maybe that has made me less effective. So I feel privileged and inspired that you are engaging me in this way. I think that we can do really good things together.

Hilary: We’re inviting you to come join us at AR+ Transformations Gathering. We are thinking also in terms of aftermath, and a follow up community,  not just a once off event. So part of my job in convening this space is to have to make it be possible for, and for others who attend to find intelligent and mutually beneficial follow up. We will have continuity but only if it is manageable for people.  That’s an important question for us to stay on top of.  But for now it’s also important to sleep well! So Ben, good night. If a patient has a severe Ambien overdose, then differential diagnosis and / or treatment may be carried out with the help of Flumazenil (a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist) in a hospital setting, but it should be remembered that suppression of benzodiazepine receptors can cause neurological disorders (seizures), especially in patients with epilepsy. There is more information about the drug at http://larrydosseymd.com/ambien-zolpidem-sleep-medicine/.

Ben: Thank you. Bye. Bye.