Our usually tranquil summer in tree-lined Gambier has been rocked by storms and power-outs, and by a major controversy over outsourcing at Kenyon College. The crisis came when a maintenance workers’ union contract ended and the College announced that a subset of workers including “skilled trades” and supervisors would be transferred to employment by a “French multinational firm.” The response included a Change.org petition and a faculty letter leading to suspension of the plan. A college more accustomed to New York Times op-eds about Ivy-quality teaching and competitiveness found its employment practices subject to commentary by HuffPost.
The reasons put forth for this “outsourcing” are interesting. Of course cost-cutting is everywhere; and then, our new high-tech buildings need so much more high-tech maintenance than they used to. Meanwhile, the College recruits from global pools for faculty, students, and IT workers, so why not maintenance? Why not custodians from India? As one administrator observed, the faculty are fond of their iPads made in China. This last argument was met with scorn but no good answer.
But the notion of outsourcing goes far deeper. The human body, we learn, outsources much of its genomic potential to the human microbiome. Instead of encoding genes to digest the complex fibers of wheat, broccoli, apples, and so forth, we rely on our intestinal microbes to do the heavy lifting, letting our intestines absorb the simple sugars that come out. Much of our skin defense, too, relies on skin microbes producing antimicrobial fermentation products. The rare bad guys such as MRSA (drug-resistant staph) are not so much foreign invaders as home-grown Timothy McVeighs.
How far can this go before we dissolve into bacteria? Do we care?
My next Frontera book features outsourcing of all outlandish sorts–brains outsourced to computers, votes outsourced to pollsters, energy outsourced to (still working on that). And of course the Frontera faculty get outsourced to an unmentionable Lunar establishment.