We Have Too Many Colleges, So Cut Federal Funding

We have clearly oversold higher education. Through subsidies and political hype, we have prodded huge numbers of students to flock into colleges and universities. Naturally, those institutions also expanded in number and in the volume of students.

Now that it is becoming evident that a college degree isn’t necessarily a good investment and for many is a terrible waste of time and money, many schools are struggling, causing Washington Post writer Jeffrey Selingo to write a July 20 column, “How many colleges and universities do we really need?”

Selingo correctly observes, “At too many colleges attended by the vast majority of American students, costs are spiraling out of control and quality is declining.”

That’s right. As we’ve poured more and more government money into college “access,” schools have pocketed much of the money and gone on a spending spree – and then increased their tuition and fees, leading politicians to cry that they must increase student aid more to keep higher education “affordable.”

And it’s true that quality has declined.  A high percentage of today’s students (*far higher than, say 40 years ago) are academically weak and disengaged. To accommodate such students, most schools have lowered their academic standards and allowed the curriculum to degenerate into a hodge-podge of trendy, often frivolous courses.

I agree with Selingo’s diagnosis, but not his proposed cure. He writes, “What we need is a federal commission similar to those that have been tasked with closing military bases over the years. In the case of higher education, this commission wouldn’t just recommend colleges for closure, but it also could identify where mergers or alliances could produce the best solution for clusters of struggling institutions.”

That is a bad idea. Federal political meddling is the very reason why we have the problems we do. Looking to still more of it to solve those problems is extremely naïve.

The main problem is that the analogy to closing military bases is a poor one. We had quite a few bases that were unnecessary. But while quite a few public colleges and universities suffer from low graduation rates and job placement overall, it is often the case that some parts of those schools are worthwhile. A college’s English major might be a joke but its biology major academically solid. Swinging a political – and a federal commission will certainly be highly political – is apt to chop away the good with the bad.

Selingo does suggest that the commission doesn’t just have to close schools, but could also recommend mergers and alliances. Fine, but school administrators can and have been doing that. Why expect better results from appointed commissioners than from school officials who have more direct knowledge and stronger incentives to make good decisions?

Instead of a top-down solution, we need a bottom-up solution. We’ll continue to have enormous waste and inefficiency as long as the federal faucet keeps pouring easy money into higher education. Shut off the faucet and then the invisible hand of market competition will get busy.

The weakest students will stop enrolling without the subsidies. When they stop showing up, administrators will have to prune away the worst majors and departments that cannot be sustained. Cost-saving mergers and alliances will be more avidly explored, but administrators who are best positioned to assess the pros and cons.

A doctor knows to always look for the root cause of an ailment and to deal with it – not just ameliorate the symptoms. With higher education in America, the root cause is the fact that easy money has terribly distorted the decisions of both students and school officials.  We must deal with that.

Amherst: No Pretense of Fairness

Amherst is being sued –and rightly so–in one of the most egregious of the many campus sex cases. In brief, this is what happened.

  • After heavy drinking, two Amherst students had sex.
  • The male involved was the boyfriend of the female’s roommate. Her friends made nasty comments about her or abandoned her for cheating on her roommate.
  • Months later, joining a group of victim’s rights advocates, the accusing student (AS) concluded that the drunken sexual encounter had been rape and brought charges.
  • In a  lightning-fast investigation,  Amherst  did not discover that AS had sent two  crucial text messages to fellow students: one admitting she had seduced the male in question, regretted it and worried that the male had been  too drunk to lie about it; the other inviting a second male to her room for sex immediately after the alleged rape.
  • In a kangaroo court hearing (no lawyer, no discovery no direct cross-examination), the male was found culpable and expelled.
  • Having learned about the exculpatory emails, Amherst refused to re-open the case, and blamed the accused male.

In a defiant response to a lawsuit filed by the accused student, Amherst claimed that the process worked as it should have in this case. Or if it didn’t, it was the accuser’s roommate’s fault—he should have found out about the text messages and forwarded them before the investigator’s investigation ended. Or if it wasn’t the accuser’s fault, it was the accused student’s own fault for (in a hearing with no lawyer) not developing clever supplemental cross-examination questions about the text messages. But Amherst, according to Amherst, did everything right, according to both college policy and federal law, producing a hearing “conducted with fundamental fairness, in good faith.”

Amherst: The Process Worked

Amherst’s response comes in three levels. First, it suggests that the college did everything right: the investigation worked as it should, even though the investigator did almost all of her campus interviews in just one day; and the panel made the correct judgment, even as the college denied the accused student any right to meaningful cross-examination or legal representation. After all, AS claimed (more than a year after the fact) that at some point she had withdrawn consent, and the accused student was too drunk to recall the incident.

It’s possible, as Reason’s Robby Soave has noted, that despite this damning contextual evidence, AS’s months-after-the-fact story about nonconsensual sex is correct. But in a case that relied solely on AS’s credibility, in which AS denied to Amherst’s investigator that she had relevant text messages, such material effectively destroys her claim—as Soave also, correctly, observed.

Desperately Defending the Accuser

In its filing, Amherst tries to rehabilitate AS in two ways. First, the college suggests that—even if they had been produced by the school—the text messages would have had “no bearing” on the case, since they were simply discussions about irrelevant aspects of AS’s sex life. But the intercourse is almost certainly relevant (since AS misrepresented to the panel and the investigator why the male student came to her room), and the messages contain several items discussing her intercourse with the accused, not with the second male.

Second, Amherst portrays AS as courageously forthcoming, and therefore wholly credible. It denies that she changed any significant aspect of her story—though even the school’s own investigator couldn’t “say it was clear to me” when AS actually claimed that she withdrew consent. It’s also true, the college’s outside attorneys concede, that AS told the school’s investigator that she didn’t have relevant text messages about the incident. But that answer was truthful, according to Amherst, because AS could have understood that the investigator was only asking her “whether she had communicated or recorded in writing that the Incident had been ‘non-consensual,’ which she did not.”

In other words, Amherst has implied that its investigator was only interested in obtaining from AS contemporaneous documentation that would confirm, rather than undermine, AS’s story. And this is how the college’s system was supposed to work? On this point, Amherst had two unpalatable options: (1) concede that AS lied to the investigator, and therefore is of dubious credibility, or (2) hint that its investigator wasn’t interested in obtaining exculpatory information. I suppose, given those two options, and given the ideological climate at the college, the lawyers had little choice but to implicitly rebuke the investigator.

Amherst’s Fallback Position: Blame Its Students

In a federal judiciary that includes such opponents of campus due process as Ronnie Abrams (Vassar case) and Jesse Furman (Columbia case), perhaps this argument might carry the day. But even Amherst seems doubtful. And so the school offers a second line of defense–to the extent the result was unjust and the school failed to consider exculpatory evidence, it was because Amherst students (either AS’s roommate, or the accused student himself) failed to do their jobs.

On this point, Amherst begins with AS’s roommate, the former girlfriend of the accused. (The roommate seems to me to have been badly treated by all parties in this case—including, now, Amherst.) While the college goes out of its way to defend the unreliable AS, its outside counsel choose to cast aspersions on the roommate—one of Amherst’s own students—by suggesting that she wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the existence of the text messages in her one and only interview with the investigator. Why? Because the roommate answered, “I don’t think so” to the following question from the investigator: “Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you think would be important for me to know?”

In other words: the roommate—a college student, not represented by counsel—was supposed to: (1) assume that AS hadn’t turned over clearly relevant messages (and understand why they were relevant); (2) recognize that the text messages (for which she was neither a sender nor a recipient) represented “anything else” in the investigator’s question; and (3) not wonder why this supposedly experienced investigator wouldn’t simply ask about text messages. Moreover, if the investigator had taken a more professional route—that is, scheduling follow-up meetings with relevant witnesses rather than interviewing all the witnesses in the case in a one-day whirlwind through campus—she might have realized the importance of the text messages and asked about them in a follow-up interview with the roommate.

Nonetheless, AS made a mistake. As even Amherst admits that AS “did not provide text messages to Attorney Kurker [the investigator],” she referenced them indirectly in the hearing: “I texted a friend to come over to talk to me and spend the night.” Amherst’s attorneys now argue that this sentence of testimony, buried within a longer discussion of what AS did after the alleged attack, shows the accused student had all the chances he needed. Although he “had the opportunity to do so,” Amherst’s outside counsel maintains, “he never asked [AS] to identify ‘the friend’ whom [AS] texted.”

In other words: the accused student—representing himself in a proceeding whose outcome would alter the rest of his life—was supposed to: (1) have had a clear enough understanding of the case to have recognized that AS made a key admission in her testimony; (2) have composed (in writing) a follow-up set of questions on the text messages as AS’s testimony was occurring; and (3) have submitted these questions to the panel chair and hope that the chair (who wasn’t required to do so) asked them of AS. And since the accused student failed at playing Perry Mason, Amherst now contends he’s out of luck.

Amherst and Its Officials

While the accused student couldn’t have a lawyer with him, he did have an Amherst-approved “advocate,” Torin Moore, who had come to Amherst after obtaining a graduate degree in social justice education from UMass. What was Moore doing as AS made her potentially damning admission? Amherst doesn’t even bother to defend his performance during the hearing. And what about the panelists? The college obliquely concedes their failures: AS “was not asked that question [about the text messages] by anyone else.” Why were they disinterested in this relevant information? Amherst doesn’t say.

Finally, a striking element of the original complaint was a realistic portrayal of the deeply unhealthy campus climate at Amherst on issues of due process—a task that the accused student’s attorneys, Max Stern and Hillary Lehmann, accomplished by liberally quoting from Amherst officials’ statements and documents. The Amherst filing ineffectively tries to rebut this portrayal by accusing Stern and Lehmann of producing a complaint that “mischaracterizes and selectively quotes out of context” Amherst materials. Yet in 39 pages, the college can’t identify a single specific mischaracterization.

UC San Diego Loses in Sex-Assault Case

After several troubling court decisions on the handling of college sex cases, a state judge in California has issued a ringing defense of due process. The ruling by Judge Joel Pressman, first reported by Ashe Schow, held that the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), had provided a fundamentally unfair procedure to a student accused of sexual assault. Scott Greenfield has an excellent analysis of the ruling, which also has been covered by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as well as by FIRE.

The case involved two students (both pseudonymous) who had a brief affair in early 2014. Contemporaneous text messages the accuser sent suggested that the intercourse had been voluntary, and that the accuser was at least somewhat experienced with alcohol. The sexual relationship quickly ended, but soon after the accused student attended a late spring social event at the accuser’s sorority (with another date), the accuser filed a complaint with UCSD.

The accuser wrote out a statement and was interviewed by one of UCSD’s “complaint resolution officers,” Elena Acevedo Dalcourt. (UCSD has refused to turn over either the statement or Dalcourt’s interview notes.) Only then did the accuser make a formal statement alleging two separate instances of sexual misconduct: first on the evening of a party (at which she had “brought a change of clothes to [the accused student’s] place,” with the expectation of sleeping over) and then on the morning after. She also claimed that despite a text message that she had a contact who “usually” purchased her alcohol (since she was underage), she actually was “inexperienced” with alcohol, and the accused took advantage by encouraging her to drink heavily.

Investigator Dalcourt found insufficient evidence of the first claim, but concluded that it was likely sexual contact occurred without “effective consent” the following morning. The investigator reached this conclusion because the accuser, in her interviews, “exhibited signs of a trauma victim.” Dalcourt’s report did not reveal what those signs were.

UCSD’s theory of the crime was as follows: after a night of what appears to have been voluntary intercourse, despite the accuser’s later claim, it was nonetheless at least 50.01 percent probable that the accuser told the truth when she charged that there was non-consensual sexual contact the following morning—even though later that same day, she would (a) text the accused about hooking up; (b) attend a formal at her sorority with him; and (c) have consensual intercourse with him again that night.

The UCSD Trial

A disciplinary hearing occurred on December 12, 2014, before a three-person panel of two UCSD administrators and a graduate student. The proceedings could have been a parody of how a college might seek to deny due process. In addition to a victim’s advocate at her side, the accuser had someone to speak on her behalf—a residence life bureaucrat named Anthony Jakubisin. He presented the case against the accused—and did so knowing that he couldn’t be challenged in any way by the accused’s attorney, Mark Hathaway, since university policy prohibited Hathaway from speaking at the hearing. Jakubisin informed all parties that “demeanor may be taken into consideration when deciding credibility”—but since the university allowed the accuser to sit behind a partition, the accused could not gauge her non-verbal reactions to questions. The two sides disputed whether the accuser was also shielded from the disciplinary panel; the university maintained that panel members could see her face, though not, it seems, her hands, while Hathaway, who was in the room, argued that she was shielded from the panel as well.

Jakubisin opened his case by referencing “prior sexual misconduct” by the accused student, which “seriously undermines” the accused’s claims of innocence from the charge that he faced. Yet UCSD’s own investigation had found no “prior sexual misconduct” by the accused. In a court of law, a prosecutor’s false claim of criminal conduct by the accused likely would have resulted in at least a mistrial. In UCSD’s disciplinary process, Jakubisin’s statement merited no response from any of the three potted-plant panelists. And the accused had no opportunity to rebut it through an opening statement from his lawyer.

Jakubisin then moved forward with questions for the sole witness at the hearing, the accuser, who said that the accused had tried to improperly touch her the first morning after they slept together. Though the only unequivocal claim of an actual assault came in the report from Investigator Dalcourt, based on interview notes that the university did not produce, Dalcourt didn’t testify at the hearing.

Citing the dangers of a victim re-traumatized by aggressive questioning, UCSD policies prohibit an accused student from cross-examining his accuser, even in cases (like this one) when the accuser’s word is the only evidence presented. The accuser therefore followed policy, and wrote out questions—he submitted 32 of them—that the panel chair could (or could not) choose to ask the accuser. This system, as Scott Greenfield has pointed out, is unfair on its face, since “questions beget answers, and answers beget more questions. Putting aside whether [the accused was] adept at formulating incisive questions, no one can effectively confront an accuser without hearing her answers and following up.” Even conceding these limitations, panel chair Rebecca Otten, the school’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and Housing Allocations, seemed indifferent to fairness. She presented to the accuser only nine of the questions submitted by the accused, and several of these she altered. She frequently denied questions without any explanation at all.

The rejected questions were hardly immaterial. Otten refused to ask about the text messages the accused student produced—which at the very least called into question the accuser’s credibility. The chair refused to ask whether the accuser had turned over to UCSD “all relevant text messages concerning [her] allegations.” Otten refused to ask whether the accuser had prepared her written report after she was interviewed by UCSD’s investigator, notes for which the university would not produce. The chair refused to ask whether the accuser had any meetings with de facto prosecutor Jakubisin before the hearing. And Otten refused to ask whether the accuser had “been honest and forthright at all times during the investigation . . . up through and including” the unsworn testimony she presented in the hearing. In an Orwellian argument, the university later cited “the requirements of due process” for Otten’s refusal to ask any of these questions.

At the hearing, the accused student unequivocally denied that any improper sexual contact occurred on the morning of February 1, 2014. (The accuser, of course, had asserted that the male student was “trying” to touch her in a sexual fashion.) Yet de facto prosecutor Jakubisin implied in his closing statement that the accused student had at some point in the case conceded to the contact, and instead had tried“to establish that there was some sort of implicit or explicit consent to digitally penetrate the vagina of the complaining witness on the morning of February 1st, because of past communication or activities between the two.” But the accused student had never made such a claim. Yet again, the panel allowed Jakubisin to speak unchecked, and yet again, because of UCSD procedures, the accused student’s attorney couldn’t rebut the misleading statement.

The Outcome

Given such one-sided procedures, it came as little surprise that the panel found the accused student guilty. Almost incredibly, it did so largely on the basis not of the testimony that it had just heard, but instead on the report produced by Dalcourt—who didn’t appear before the disciplinary board. The panelists also seemed oddly interested in the accuser’s deep personal ambivalence, noting that she “stated that she physically wanted to have sex with [the accused] but mentally wouldn’t.” And they implicitly faulted the accused student for sometimes invoking the 5th amendment, since the panel wanted to “hear more” from him. The panel recommended a one-term suspension, which various UCSD administrators subsequently increased to more than a year, without explanation.

You can read the university’s filing claiming that this record showed that the accused student received an “abundance of process,” a “generous process” even. (Imagine what an “ungenerous” process would have looked like!) As part of the university-provided “substantial procedural safeguards,” UCSD conceded, it hadn’t given the accused student information on the accuser’s initial interview with the investigator, or the witnesses’ interview with the investigator, or the accuser’s initial statement. But, it maintained, the panel never received this important information, either, so the accused student could claim no harm. UCSD attorneys also ridiculed the accused for positing “a false choice between compliance with Title IX and the due process rights of accused students”—yet the history of the last five years has shown that at too many universities, this choice is all too true.

Unlike Judge Abrams in the Vassar case and Judge Furman in the Columbia case, Judge Pressman did his job. Faced with a blatant denial of due process, he ordered the university to set aside its judgment against the accused student.

At the conclusion of the school’s disciplinary hearing, Otten, the panel chair, affirmed that “this process is educational in nature.” UCSD provided the accused with quite an education in the importance of due process.

Metal Fatigue and Campus Pessimism

When I was in college I got a job one summer blasting, scraping, and sanding the corroded sides of dry-docked ships.  It sounded like nasty, if well-paid, work. But before I could don gloves and mask in my war on barnacles, some union called a strike and my job was wiped out.  I ended up in a still less glamorous job on a road crew, scraping hapless raccoons from asphalt.

Even decay, it seems, isn’t an entirely reliable business.

My youthful almost-employment as an agent of maritime tidiness was resting somewhere in my mental scrapheap, long forgotten.  I’ve been busy with more up-to-date concerns, among them the critique of the campus sustainability movement. In March, Rachelle Peterson and I rolled out our stainless new National Association of Scholars’ study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, and we’ve been fashioning hood ornaments for it ever since.

But something stirred that old memory:  I noticed Rust: The Longest War, Jonathan Waldman’s corrosive new book.  It is what the title says, a book about the weathering away of steel girders and tie rods and all our other iron pinions with which we try to hold the present against the inevitable rust of time.  Sustainability? Take that, says rust.  And rust wins.

Steel for Stone

What a perfect time for Waldman’s thoughtful appreciation of this enemy of civilization.  We have built our world on metals.  Copper tools were invented about six thousand years ago, and copper alloyed with tin gave us the harder-edged Bronze Age about 4,500 years ago.  Metal plowshares, metal swords, and metal hand tools created the material conditions for large-scale agriculture and for cities and states, and eventually for art and science.

There is only so much you can do with wood and stone.  Today’s enthusiasts for “paleo diets” and pre-industrial technologies sometimes forget the eagerness for metal among those people who lacked it.  Western sailors had to fight Polynesians who would try to pull the metal nails out of the decks of visiting ships.  The Australian anthropologist Lauriston Sharp wrote a classic essay about an aboriginal tribe, the Yir Yoront, whose contact with whites was sporadic and minimal until the 1940s.  For the Yir Yoront, the stone ax was the principal “piece of capital equipment,” used to produce firewood, makes huts, and part of every important act of survival.  Making a good stone ax was arduous skilled labor and the ax itself was, unsurprisingly, an object of deep significance.

Yet given the opportunity to acquire steel axe heads, the Yir Yoront didn’t hesitate.  The steel axes rapidly displaced the old technology.  The anthropologist duly recorded that a kind of cultural collapse ensued “in the realm of traditional ideas, sentiments, and values.”  Women and young men obtained access to the new axes, which undermined Yir Yoront hierarchy and ritual.  Axes have consequences, as Richard Weaver might have said.

In Waldman’s book one can learn about the heroic endeavors of the American Galvanizers Association whose members take the battle to the rusty foe, while fighting rearguard actions against the rival stainless steelers and the paint industry.  It is an entertaining book as well as a handsomely written one:

Every metal is vulnerable to corrosion.  Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black.  It’s turned Mars red.

But what does this have to do with higher education?

Preservations

The battle over sustainability on campus and elsewhere can be thought of as a contest between competing ideas of preservation.  Those who favor “sustainability” set themselves up as seeking the preservation of the natural order against the destructive changes to the planet wrought by humanity.  Those who critique the sustainability doctrine generally hold that humanity will thrive only by dint of further development of the earth’s resources and further advances in science and technology.  The critics seek to preserve the cultural legacy of our civilization.

Things, of course, get a lot more complicated than that two-way choice between preserving nature and preserving culture.  Both sides stake some claims to the other’s territory.  Sustainatopians want to preserve some pieces of culture as well as nature.  Uber-sustainatopian Bill McKibben, for example, fancies beekeeping.  And virtually all critics of sustainability favor clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment.  But once each side has gathered in its share of the other’s bounty, the division is robust.  Sustainatopians see nature as essentially benign and the Earth as terribly fragile.  Once the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide exceeded 350 parts per million, the Earth was on an unstoppable slide to catastrophic global warming.  That’s why McKibben named his activist group 350.org.

The enviro-catastrophism has in the view of its college and university advocates a straight line application to what colleges actually do.  How can you sit around reading Plato or Jane Austen when the Arctic icepack has melted?  How can we teach political theory as if nations mattered when the only viable solution to climate change lies in transnational institutions?  How can we teach biology as if the Anthropocene—the age of manmade climate change—hadn’t already begun to produce mass extinctions?

Indeed every subject in the curriculum can be refashioned around the goal of putting the issues of sustainability in its center. That’s exactly what the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment asks of higher education, and exactly what most of them are doing.  Rachelle and I spent some time documenting this.  Yale classifies more than 400 of its undergraduate courses as “sustainability focused” or “sustainability related.”  At Cornell, 68 percent of the academic departments offer sustainability courses.  At Middlebury it is 72 percent.

But leave aside the details.  The main point is that the sustainability doctrine authorizes—or perhaps more accurately demands—the subordination of all forms of inquiry to the larger goal of preserving the natural order.  Sometimes this is phrased in quasi-mystical language, such as the call from Peggy Bartlett of Emory University for a “re-enchantment” of nature.  But generally it is just assumed into place.  We all know the “climate consensus.” Our world is at grave risk.  Let’s not waste time on superficial things such as the old liberal arts curriculum.

The opposing view—my view—is that, even if the natural world is at risk, what higher education should be most concerned about is the preservation of our culture.  The chances of doing something about global warming are vastly improved if we remain a civilization that commands the power to innovate and the optimism to believe we can address our problems successfully.  Turning our colleges and universities into wheelhouses of apocalyptic fantasy and cultural despair is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Sustainatopian belief is corrosive.  It turns the institutions on which we depend for cultural vitality into recruitment centers for hostility to our civilization.

Rust Happens

Civilizations are, in principle, made to last.  But so are ships, bridges, and skyscrapers, and none of them last forever.  Rust happens.

Colleges and universities ought to be our galvanizers.  The effort to preserve is not a matter of resting content that we have true and perfect knowledge that merely needs to be carried forward intact from generation to generation.  Real preservation requires an active commitment, the blasting, scraping, and sanding of the cultural corrosion that inevitably gains ground if we don’t intervene; the replacement of the broken parts; the determination to keep the essential and to improve where possible

A truly sustainable civilization requires the strength to say no to the idea of going back to nature.  That so many in our society are fatigued by metal and ready to divest from carbon is a bad sign, a diversion of our imagination and energy to a dead-end fantasy at a time when we need robust and creative thinking. Trading up from stone to steel axes may have been traumatic, but trading back down will be a lot more so.

All Those Books on Identity and Victimization That Dominate Freshman Summer Reading

“There may be good cause to learn about those topics, but when they become the dominant trend for summer reading programs over multiple years, one starts to wonder what really is the intent of these programs. Such consistent pounding away at similar themes, given the entire vast array of books from which to choose, suggests the programs are meant to introduce students to a certain worldview…”—Harry Painter, The Pope Center,