Taking Responsibility

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About 15 years ago, I liked to do research at the Montana State University library, but I was unable to take my son, a toddler, with me. The reason was that the open Bau-haus-style stairways of the library had such widely spaced bars serving as bannisters that a small child could easily fall between them, perhaps even tumble two stories onto a hard floor. So I kept my son away. It always puzzled me that in an age of liability the university could get away with ignoring such an obvious peril.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that two small children did fall through the openings (in two separate accidents), and one was severely hurt. Suddenly, the library and university managers scrambled to put in plastic barriers along the stairway so it couldn’t happen again. They had / I discovered” a problem that had been obvious for years. This situation illustrates one way that accidents happen. For years, the university’s failure to be responsible – perhaps because the decision-makers were not the owners? – had been countered by cautious parents who recognized the danger. But eventually, a couple of parents failed the responsibility test. Perhaps they reflect an age in which parents are less responsible than in the past.

Now, as I drive to my office in the technology park that is owned by the same university’s alumni foundation, I notice another accident waiting to happen. The streets in this private park are narrow and winding. Although all office buildings are supposed to have off-street parking, there seems to have been a serious design flaw or miscalculation. Some buildings simply don’t have enough parking spaces for their employees, so people park their cars, SUVs, and trucks in the street; there is no other place. This seriously obstructs drivers’ vision.

No one in the technology park, apparently, feels the need to fix this flaw. So far people have driven cautiously – avoiding hitting the cars that suddenly come around the bend. One of these days, however, the lack of responsibility on the part of the park owners will not be canceled out by caution on the part of the driver. Two cars will go too fast; an accident will occur; people will be stunned; something will be done.

Who will be at fault? If a society is to be free (with minimal regulation), then organizations and individuals both must take responsibility – preferably before harm is done, not after.

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