Sustainability, the New Campus Fundamentalism

Back in 2008, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, wrote here that on campus, the word ”sustainability” was moving away from its normal English meaning (prudent use of resources with the needs of future generations in mind) toward a usage with heavy ideological baggage: “sustainability” (definition 2) – a condition that arises when capitalism and hierarchy are abolished; individuals are made to see themselves as “citizens of the world;” and a new order materializes on the basis of eco-friendliness, social justice, and new forms of economic distribution.

On Thursday in New York City, NAS released a 260-page report on how far the new version of sustainability has spread, particularly on campuses: credentials can be earned in 1,438 distinct college programs and its message now extends to such unlikely subjects as English composition, mathematics, art history  and psychology—all without any transparency on what is happening or why sustainability is being pushed so hard on students who should be examining and debating ideas on their own, not guided or nudged  toward a pre-packaged ideology.

Rachelle Peterson of NAS, co-author of the report with Peter Wood, said the movement “represents  a significant shift away from giving students access to rational and moral knowledge that prepares them for wise, conscious choices, ands toward training operations that elicit automatic responses.”

Under the argument that true sustainability requires an end to social oppression, the report says, the movement embraces identity politics, calls for the overthrow of patriarchal systems and misogynist bias, the virtual elimination of extraction of energy from fossil fuels, an end to industrial development in the underdeveloped world and a return to subsistence of near subsistence standards of living.   The need to overthrow capitalism, though not supported by all, is common and much discussed theme in the movement.

At the release of the report, Peter Wood called Continue reading

Campus Hypersensitivity—at Last a Pushback

A campus debate on sexual assault was too much for Emma Hall, a junior at Brown, She had to retreat to a “safe space” because “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Exposure to ideas you don’t already have is problematic on the modern PC campus, as Judith Shulevitz explained Sunday in a New York Times article, “In College Hiding from Scary Ideas.” We are in the midst of a flurry of articles on the fear of ideas, the discomfort with disagreement and the infantilization of college students. Some of the articles are appearing in outlets that almost never tell readers about such things, such as the Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In the Chronicle, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis, discussing a ban on teacher-student sex, objects to campus codes that depict women  as quivering and vulnerable in the face of male  power. She writes: ‘’’what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life?…The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing. Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen. If you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method.”

On the left, Continue reading

Now Cornell Is Being Sued

Cornell is the latest university to face a due process lawsuit; last week, attorney Andrew Miltenberg filed a suit in New York’s Northern District. (You can read the complaint here.) The specifics are depressingly familiar—though with something of a twist, since Cornell featured one of the earliest post-“Dear Colleague” letter battles over due process. In 2012, the university administration ignored the prescient warnings of Cornell Law professors, one of whom described the school’s new policy as “Orwellian.” Indeed, the Cornell Daily Sun reported that Mary Beth Grant, who presided over the case that triggered the new lawsuit, “acknowledged the concern expressed by opponents of the change that an increase in allegations of sexual assault will result in more students being falsely accused or found in violation.”

The basics: in December, the two students had intimate relations after a night of drinking. Sixty-six days later, the accuser filed a complaint with Cornell, arguing that she was too drunk to have given consent. (It does not appear that she ever reported this alleged crime to the local police.) Cornell, which has moved to the OCR-approved “single investigator” model (in which a person supervised by the Title IX office serves as the equivalent of police, jury, and judge in a criminal trial), then opened an inquiry.

Much like the case at DePauw, the thrust of Cornell’s investigation consisted of asking students who themselves had been drinking at a party to analyze the intoxication level of anotherstudent who had been drinking at the same event—more than two months after the evening in question had occurred. According to the complaint, several students who partied with the accused and accuser affirmed that all had been drinking, but that no one was incapacitated; one witness maintained that the accuser had seemed more intent on initiating events. As at DePauw, the university gave more weight to students who corroborated the accuser’s story than to apparently identically-situated students who backed the accused’s version of events, seemingly to shoehorn a finding that would edge past the preponderance-of-evidence threshold. Apart from the accuser, Cornell’s main witness appears not to have been any of the students with whom the accused and accuser partied, but instead a close friend of the accuser with whom she breakfasted around 30 hours or so after the alleged encounter.

The university largely based its decision on the accuser’s claim (months after the fact) that she had Continue reading

Cuomo Joins the No-Due-Process Club

The politics of campus due process are most unusual. Since the emergence of crime as a major (federal) political issue in the 1960s, Republicans have tended to be the tough-on-crime party, Democrats more concerned with the rights of the accused, especially when the accused are poor or racial minorities. (Obviously there have been exceptions in the case of both parties.) But in the case of campus sexual assault, it’s been the Democrats—from President Obama on down, and especially including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill—that have been the tough-on-crime advocates demanding the decimation of due process protections. Republicans have either been willing accomplices (Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley) or basically acquiescent (the House Republicans who have allowed the Office for Civil Rights to escape without meaningful oversight).

It remains to be seen how—or even if—Congress will further weaken students’ due process rights over the next two years. But the odd politics of campus due process means that students’ rights are particularly vulnerable in the nation’s most liberal states. California led the way, enacting an “affirmative consent” law that effectively replaced the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt. When asked how an accused student could defend himself under the law’s terms, the measure’s co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), candidly replied, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Cuomo and the Language of “Survivors”

Affirmative consent came to New York via an executive order from Andrew Cuomo. Now the Democratic governor seeks to codify the concept into law. Cuomo’s fiscal year 2016 executive budget contains a wholly non-budgetary provision—a plan to rewrite, by statute, the definition of sexual assault, though only when the state’s college students are accused through a campus disciplinary process. Cuomo seems intent on outdoing Assemblywoman Lowenthal for indifference to due process.

The most extraordinary provision of Cuomo’s proposal is a “victim and survivor bill of rights.” He is referring here not to students who filed a claim of sexual assault and saw their attacker convicted in a court of law—or even saw their alleged attacker found culpable through the OCR-mandated, due-process unfriendly system currently used at SUNY. No, according to Cuomo’s language, the mere filing of a sexual assault complaint on campus transforms the accuser into a “victim” or “survivor.”

Many of the provisions of the “bill of rights” are reasonable, even commendatory—except that Cuomo has decided that a person becomes a “survivor” before any adjudication takes place. For instance, the list of rights includes the right to “confidentially or anonymously disclose a crime or violation.” But alleging a “violation” of campus procedures is just that—an allegation—and the person making the allegation is an accuser or at most an “alleged victim.” Tellingly, Continue reading

‘Testocracy’ Is Here to Stay–Alas

In her new book, Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier attacks “testocracy,” the over-reliance on standardized tests in deciding who gets into college, who has the chance to attend America’s premier institutions, and who is relegated to the cheap seats of community colleges and for-profit schooling.

Unfortunately, Guinier’s “Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America,”” contains a number of unexamined assumptions or logical flaws that critics of the prevailing meritocracy (myself included) have been making for years.  For example, Guinier claims that colleges ought to select students on the basis of democratic merit because doing so would be good for the society — as opposed to over-relying on academic merit that can detract from social and economic welfare.

By what authority can Guinier make such a claim?  Who determines that colleges and universities are responsible for deciding what educational policies or admissions systems are in the public interest? State legislatures? Boards of Trustees?  If so, then we can agree that policymakers are free to assign colleges and universities with the mission of selecting students on the basis of “democratic merit” or any type of merit they choose.

Why Reform Pleas Fail

The bigger question: Why have institutions largely ignored pleas to reform the “meritocracy” as we know it? Like some other critics, Guinier asserts that colleges and universities “ought” to be reforming admissions to include democratic merit for the sake of the “public interest.” But perhaps she ought to ask why the testocracy remains so intractable, and why efforts to upend it have largely failed to fundamentally change the way Americans look at merit.

To appreciate how entrenched is the “testocracy,” consider some history.  The story basically starts in France at the turn of the 20th century, when Alfred Binet invented the first intelligence scale for school children.  His intention was to create a modest tool for placing French school children in their proper grade. American psychologists got hold of Binet’s scale and commercialized it for widespread use. Thus was born an IQ test known as the Stanford-Binet.  Certain American psychologists convinced the United States Army to use the test on Army recruits during World War I.  That fiasco produced the dubious notion that certain recruits whose families had immigrated to the United States decades prior — Germans, Norwegians and other Nordic immigrants — were deemed to have superior intelligence. By contrast, more recent immigrants, such as Italians, Poles and Jews, were often labeled as mentally defective due to poor performance on the Stanford-Binet.

Nevertheless, “visionaries” at Harvard University believed that such intelligence testing could identify students who would find their natural place as future leaders in society. From that vision, the Educational Testing Service was created, and the ETS adapted the Stanford-Binet to produce the first Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Binet himself had observed that doctors’ and professors’ sons outperformed the children of carpenters and bricklayers on his school placement scale.  Decades later, SAT scores largely demonstrated that America’s future leaders would also come from the very established, well-educated families who already dominated the ranks of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. If, before the SAT, the privilege to attend Harvard was passed down on the basis of blood heritage, after the SAT such privilege was reproduced by means of the “scientific” veracity of an objective test.  The test proved that the established order was also the properly deserved order.

And so the much-maligned “testocracy” ship sailed long ago, and it has never wavered from its course. This, despite its psychometric flaws, which can lead to wrong or incomplete assessments of human ability.  We know that the SAT and tests like it have a limited ability to predict future performance in school or other real-world endeavors.  We know that such tests tend to select for people who excel in logical-mathematical ability, as opposed to creative ability and deeper thinking styles. We know that such tests correlate to parental income and education–the “Volvo Effect,” as it were–to a far greater degree than other measures of academic performance, such as grades or portfolio assessments. We know all these things. And, yet they do not matter.

A Permanent Fixture?

Instead of arguing ad infinitum that colleges and universities “ought” to revolutionize the way we understand and measure merit, perhaps it’s time to concede that, realistically, that debate is settled, and that continuing to recycle the same arguments decade after decade is, at last, a completely useless exercise.

Admissions committees at selective colleges and universities — the theatre in which these issues actually matter — don’t care about the SAT’s predictive validity or lack thereof.  Parents do not care how well the SAT predicts academic success.  Students don’t care either.

The SAT’s capacity as both a fair and accurate tool does not matter.  And few people beyond the usual critics care because it’s in nobody’s interest to care — except perhaps to those disenfranchised students and families who might, by some democratic measures of achievement, deserve to be chosen, but aren’t.

Forget about predictive validity and forget that some children from economically and culturally well-endowed families start the meritocracy game far ahead of other children born with fewer economic and cultural advantages.  Higher education authorities largely give lip service to these inequities. Even affirmative action policies tinker with the prevailing merit system on the margins, affecting a relatively small number of students at selective colleges and universities.   And, as Guinier herself concedes, the racial or ethnic minorities who benefit from affirmative action, are people of color who often come from relatively well- educated and affluent families.

The SAT as a Market Signal

From an economist’s perspective, the real reason the “testocracy” will not disappear is that the SAT and tests like it serve an important market signaling device in the higher education marketplace.  While most markets depend on price and value as the primary market signals for consumers and producers, higher education is a special case. Like it or not, higher education in the United States does operate under the glare of the “public interest.”  But the parameters the public interest are often vague and undefined, leaving colleges and universities free to enact business models they believe will maximize their own private interests while taking heed of some vague social contract.

Because of this vaguely defined public interest, educational authorities don’t allow price and value alone to determine who attends their institutions.  Were colleges to rely on strictly on price and value, the real prices that consumers would pay for elite higher education would most likely climb to unaffordable levels for all but the top 10 percent of households.

To be sure, elite education is already approaching this level of exclusivity, but it’s moderated by institutional aid, allocated on the basis of financial need.  Rich schools — like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or Yale — can subsidize capable students to such a degree that families need only pay a fraction of the true price, as determined by supply and demand.

Insanely Intense Competition

The role of the SAT is peculiar indeed.  Because institutions can’t rely strictly on a true market price, their allocation of subsidies is easily determined by a second-best solution: SAT scores.   It goes without saying that, in recent years, the competition for obtaining high SAT scores — sufficient to obtain access to richly endowed colleges and universities — has become insanely intense.

An SAT score is a simple market signal that correlates almost perfectly with the degree of selectivity of a given college or university.  Without the SAT or an equivalent clear market signal to partially substitute for price, the market would become insanely complex, involving transactions costs that would push up the price of higher education even higher, begging the question of who or what would bear the burden of these extra costs.

But the SAT avoids all that.  Owned by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization, the SAT serves some vague “public interest” in that it purports to measure merit of some sort, however flawed.  At the same time, the SAT easily sorts students into classes of student consumers who are most likely to “fit” the business model of a particular institution.  An SAT score in the 95th to 99th percentile easily identifies a pool of students from which a highly selective college or university choses which individuals to subsidize to one degree or another.  With highly sophisticated market segmentation techniques, risk-averse institutions know that for a given geographic location, a certain SAT score range will yield low-risk students who are “worth” subsidizing.

Low-risk students typically come from certain geographic locations and demographic markers, including income, wealth, home prices, education levels, and so on.   Low-risk students eventually graduate, find lucrative careers and join alumni organizations.   Alumni are called upon to donate back to institutions to build and maintain the very endowments that helped subsidize their education in the first place.  Alumni have children and grandchildren who become legacies who are provided generous admissions advantages. Thus the virtually self-perpetuating cycle goes on.

 Excluded from the Pool

To be sure, this highly competitive environment results in the exclusion of untold numbers of students.  This includes those who are essentially not allowed to even enter the competition because their unacceptable SAT scores exclude them from the viable application pool in the first place; and this competition also excludes the vast majority of students who, despite impressive credentials, are not selected from the viable applicant pool.

Yes, this competition yields results that might justifiably be called “unfair.” But the market seems to work with a fair degree of clarity and predictability.  That surely is worth a ton of value for both institutions and the larger society, and needs to be factored in any equation for reforming the meritocracy as we know it.

In order to compensate for these inequalities, Guinier argues that colleges and universities ought to employ selection methods that take into account “democratic” merit, including the many sorts of non-cognitive intelligences that help individuals function in groups and maximize the effectiveness of groups.  She believes that replacing “testocratic” merit with “democratic” merit would ultimately, be in the best interest of democratic society.

But I believe she discounts the degree to which existing admissions systems already take into account talents and skills that are not necessarily captured by classroom grades and test scores.  For the relatively high-scoring students who do make the pool of viable candidates, colleges do look carefully at non-cognitive factors and experiences that might tip the scales.

What’s more, a number of colleges and universities have in recent years become “SAT optional,” meaning that students can chose to submit test scores or not.  Obviously, those who choose not to submit scores must demonstrate merit in a variety of other ways that include Guinier’s “democratic” merit.  At some major universities, such as the University of California, academic measures still predominate, but lower-scoring students do have the opportunity to demonstrate how they have overcome barriers of poverty and disadvantage, providing a larger context in which to interpret their modest SAT score.

In the end, there is good news and bad for Guinier.  The bad news is that history, habit, and the nature of the higher education marketplace have made her book largely irrelevant.  Testocracy is here to stay and will continue to play a decisive role in American higher education. But, the good news for Guinier is that the enterprise is flexible.  Exactly what the public interest really is remains sufficiently vague. That means that colleges and universities are free to modify testocracy on their campuses as they choose. There will be ample opportunity for experimentation and discovering new and interesting ways to tap into the nation’s vast pool of undiscovered talent.  There’s no doubt the country cannot afford to waste human talent.  But, unless and until the courts or legislatures or boards of trustees settle once and for good exactly what “merit” should mean — a certainty never likely to be achieved — we would do well to stop pushing this particular boulder. For better or worse, it has become unmovable.