In a speech I gave to my class at the University of Southern California Occupational Therapy (USC OT) program in January 2011, titled "The Horror of Modern-Day Benevolence," I had to muster up enough boldness to publicly announce an indelicate truth: that USC OT has lost its way, that it has abandoned its true mission. A university has only one mission: to train the mind. That’s it! And each department is to train the mind in its area of expertise. That’s it! But USC OT, both inside and outside the classroom, has made it its mission to turn OT students into salesmen and activists, salesmen and political activists who crave more and more government money without any rational guiding principle other than “more is always good and less is always bad.”
Specifically, our professors have entered the practical realm of politics. This means that they are not merely concerned with teaching politics, but have become players in promoting a specific politics. This is done under what they call political advocacy. But universities exist to impart knowledge and skills. In order to do this they have to foster an atmosphere of objective inquiry. Such an atmosphere cannot co-exist with the partisanship required of political advocacy.
Once an academic department makes an immediate political gain part of its mission in the classroom, all objectivity is lost and the integrity of its true mission aborted. The department’s partisanship alienates those who disagree and emboldens those who agree to engage in more and more illegitimacy, leading to further alienation of those like me. The result is an environment where (1) only one point of view is promoted and (2) which is hostile to any views that challenge the orthodoxy.
The mission of this website is to remind the department of its true mission. USC OT needs to be a place where all feel welcomed and where the goal is to create informed thinkers and first-rate practitioners of occupational therapy, not activists and salesmen who eagerly engage in special interest group politics. To the end of returning the department to its only legitimate mission, I will use this website to point out how the department’s pursuit of political influence leads to misinformation and hostility in the classroom. This website will also serve those students who feel alienated by the department’s false mission – they will know they are not alone and that they are right in feeling wronged by the department.
One of the red flags raised by the department’s political activities is that it may have violated tax laws. The tax law for entities such as USC states that these “organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for elective public office.” During the last election, the department engaged in a whole host of activities that flirted with illegality. On two occasions in our Medical Lectures course the department made class time available for a representative to influence our vote. Then AOTA, which the department requires us to join, sent out an email asking us to vote for Sen. Barbara Boxer, accompanying the email with a photograph of the senator with a USC OT administrator. As USC OT students we also received a voter guide through our student emails from an organization called USC Occupational Therapy Policy and Advocacy Organization, which promoted every Democrat running for state-wide office and every liberal proposition on the ballot. At best, the department used technicalities to skirt the law to pursue its political objectives, a tactic beneath the dignity of a university.
Many may think that all this unseemly behavior on the part of the department is justified because it is part of the noble goal of helping patients get OT services. But if you heard the lecture by Paul Fontana, a prominent member of AOTA, in our Leadership class, you would have heard the true purpose of AOTA, and the true purpose of the department’s political advocacy, which is incredibly ignoble.
AOTA is a special interest group whose purpose is to muscle in on as much government money as it possibly can. Since government money is limited, however, AOTA also works to muscle out other special interest groups trying to muscle their way in. So from AOTA’s point of view, occupational therapy should be as expansive a profession as possible, providing treatments for swallowing, recreation, psychological needs and anything else AOTA can entice a politician to pay for.
But AOTA doesn’t want any other discipline to broaden its horizons; all other disciplines must be narrowly confined to what they already do. So, AOTA tries to limit physical therapists from doing ADLs, and personal trainers and recreational therapists from helping people function because AOTA doesn’t want others taking a piece of the government pie. Although Mr. Fontana acknowledged that patients are in need of the kind of treatment occupational therapists offer, he adamantly opposes other groups helping them even though they can do it and in many cases can do it cheaper. You see, the political purpose of AOTA is not to help patients, but to have occupational therapists get paid as much as possible for helping patients even at the risk of having patients not get any treatment at all.
If I were dealing with any other academic department, I would not bother with this website. But the theory behind occupational therapy recognizes the importance of creating an environment where people can function. My hope is that the department will see that just as occupational therapists need to create the proper physical and cognitive environments for people to thrive, the department needs to create a philosophical environment where all can thrive – all 120 of us. To do that it needs to recognize that as people we are a totality of values and interests of which occupational therapy is only a part. It does not matter to many of us that a politician will give more money for OT if that politician also favors other things that contradicts our values.
I have never admitted the following but do so now because I want to make clear that my current view of the department is radically different from what it was originally. Over the summer, on the last day of Neuro, I dropped off cakes and pastries at the door of our classroom. As I did not want any recognition for it, I sent a fake message from several of the girls in class to the professor explaining why they had done it. I did not want any thanks for it because I gave it as an expression of my thanks. I gave it to express my thanks to the beautiful environment I experienced and the wonderful job done by Dr. Clark and her professors in creating it. It was an absolute pleasure to see a community of nurturing, kind people, enthusiastic about their profession. It was a fun environment, filled with laughter and joy, dancing and singing in the classroom. I had never experienced anything like that. I was wowed by it. I was wowed by my classmates; I was wowed by my professors. It seemed the ideal community. It was exciting to see people thriving and enjoying themselves and so I gave in appreciation for an experience that deserved celebrating. So my outlook on our department has not always been what it is now. It was quite the opposite, which perhaps has made all that has happened even more painful.
I hope to have the environment we had over the summer back again. I think it would be quite easy to accomplish. The talent and commitment is already here and we’ve already experienced it. I’ve experienced it with Dr. Rafeedie, who brings a passion and intensity to the classroom that very few can match, and who went above and beyond what any professor had to do to help a student when she reached out to her own friends to tutor me when I was struggling in her class; I’ve experienced it with Professor Stein, one of the most effective lecturers I’ve ever had and the only one kind enough to wear funny costumes and dance for her students; I’ve experienced it with Dr. Bodison, who is true to the spirit of OT by adapting her course to accommodate students’ weaknesses even though she doesn’t know that we know it :); I’ve experienced it with Professor Pitts, who has been nothing less than the most classiest lady in all her dealings with me and who structures her courses with a meticulousness that would make a Swiss watchmaker jealous; and who hasn’t experienced it with Dr. Fazio, who is the embodiment of the ideal professor, always in control but never controlling, and always serving as a magnet drawing out the best within us. There is no professor I admire more.
So, the talent is here. The commitment is here. I just wish the mission was here.
The full statement is as follows: Under the Internal Revenue Code, "all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” Retrieved from http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=154712,00.html
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