All posts by George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

An Anti-Koch Rampage at Wake Forest

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC is a selective school with a faculty that has a considerable number of, to use Roger Kimball’s phrase, tenured radicals. Just about two hours to the east in Raleigh is Wake Tech Community College, a typically unpretentious school offering lots of “practical” education.

Recent events at the two schools shed some light on the difference between our prestigious four-year universities and utilitarian community colleges. The comparison is not flattering to the former.

The tale at Wake Forest begins with the hiring of Professor James Otteson as Executive Director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism. Otteson, a true scholar and proponent of classical liberalism had previously taught at Yeshiva, NYU, Georgetown, and the University of Alabama.

Aristotle’s word for ‘Flourishing’

Otteson’s interest in classical philosophy gave him the idea for a campus institute that would explore the idea of human happiness – what he’d eventually call the Eudaimonia Institute, borrowing Aristotle’s term for flourishing. The Institute would be interdisciplinary, drawing upon scholars in philosophy, economics, and political science to discuss the institutions that lead to human happiness.

No one raised the least objection to Otteson’s project until he announced that it had received a grant of $3.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. Suddenly, many faculty “progressives” who had seen nothing dangerous in the Eudaimonia Institute woke up to the terrible prospect of their lovely campus being polluted with money from the ‘evil’ Koch brothers. A faculty senate committee formed to “investigate” the donation promptly declared that the money must be rejected. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the committee insisted (yes, all in caps) that the university must “SEVER ALL CONNECTIONS TO THE CHARLES KOCH FOUNDATION.”

Another faculty senate committee then weighed in. It declared that if Wake Forest kept the Koch funds for the Eudaimonia Institute, its academic integrity, financial autonomy, and institutional governance would all be compromised. Petulantly, the committee wanted the administration to cancel a conference the Institute had already scheduled on campus. The anti-Koch rampage even went so far as to cause the business school to drop a course Otteson had taught for years as a requirement for graduation.

Faculty Hostility

Wake Forest did not decide to reject the $3.7 million, but the faculty senate in its implacable hostility has managed to paralyze the funds. They can’t be used without its approval, which won’t be forthcoming.

During the turmoil at his home campus, Professor Otteson was invited to give a lecture at Wake Tech. He spoke on the morality of the free market, on income inequality, and on justice – topics central to classical liberalism. How was his talk received?

Wake Tech economics professor Kelly Markson writes about that in this piece published by the James G. Martin Center. She was there and writes, “At my school, Professor Otteson received a warmer response. That’s partly because most if not all of those in attendance were unaware that Otteson was being censured at WFU, and went in without any preconceived ideas. There were no protests nor rioting for this Koch-funded speaker. Students attended with an open mind. The result? Otteson hit a home run.”

The students all listened politely and those who lined up to engage with Otteson in the Q and A session, asked sensible questions – and received sensible answers. Obviously, Otteson succeeded in doing at Wake Tech the thing that is most central to higher education: He got people to think.

It’s interesting that a strong defender of free markets and opponent of big government like Jim Otteson can get a good reception at a college talk (notwithstanding the fact that Koch funds helped pay for it), while people with similar views get shouted down by students who are furious that such an individual is even allowed on campus. I think that Markson points at the explanation when she says the students went into his talk without any preconceived ideas.

At big, prestigious schools like Wake Forest, the left invests heavily in spreading preconceived ideas. In classes, many faculty members love to impart their notions about social justice, institutional racism, the evils of capitalism, and so on to their students. Moreover, the students learn that those who oppose “progressive” policies are not just mistaken, but malevolent. Therefore, whenever a wrong-thinking person is asked to speak, it is very easy for leftist groups to organize raucous, even violent protests. They’ve been conditioned to respond in anger when they hear names like Murray or Koch.

Getting People to Listen

The calm response to Jim Otteson’s talk at Wake Tech suggests that the default setting for American students is still, “I’m willing to listen.” The basically no-nonsense faculty and administration at Wake Tech have done little or nothing to implant in them the intolerant, “I’m not going to listen because I know you’re spewing hate speech” attitude.

That makes me slightly optimistic. Apparently, it isn’t the case that America’s students are becoming intolerant zealots. Only that those who get steeped in “progressivism” and its offshoots while in college become the kinds of rioters we’ve seen at Middlebury and Berkeley and Yale and Evergreen. That’s bad, but limited.

Or, to turn this around, it should worry all the leftist zealots that they seem to have gotten nowhere with students at an ordinary school like Wake Tech where the focus is on useful learning rather than political indoctrination.

NYU Professor Sides with “Snowflakes” Against Free Speech

Many leftist academics have denounced the recent spate of riots and shouting down of non-progressive speakers on college campuses – and good for them – but you knew that there were others who were glad to see students fighting back against such supposedly dangerous people as Charles Murray. One of them has put his thoughts into an op-ed piece for the New York Times and it is worth reading to understand why this kind of behavior is apt to continue.

Writing on April 24, New York University vice provost and professor of literature Ulrich Baer makes a case for the suppression of some speech in “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech.”

In Baer’s opinion, “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.”

Let’s stop and take a look at that assertion. Freedom of speech really does mean “blanket permission” for each person to say whatever he thinks, just as free trade means blanket permission for people to enter into trade with anyone they want. Once you take away that complete freedom, you enter a world of selective permission to speak or to trade and that in turn requires having some person or group in authority to decide who receives permission and who does not.

Baer continues, declaring that “the inherent value” of some idea a person might want to express must be “balanced” against something else, namely “the obligation to ensure that other members” can “participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.” But how do we (that is, whatever authority gets the power) balance the value of an idea against the notion that each community member must be able to participate in discourse? If we have a regime of free speech, then everyone is able to participate in discourse and no one has to “balance” anything.

What Baer is getting at is the claim that some ideas are so hurtful to some people that those injured individuals cannot participate in discourse because they aren’t “fully recognized.”  The question he never addresses is why we should believe that.

Let’s say that a college allows someone on campus who argues in favor of white supremacy, as Auburn recently did. Everyone was free to ignore the speaker as a fool or argue against his ideas. No non-white student or other members of the Auburn community felt “unrecognized” by this speaker’s presence or unable to participate.

Baer argues that some ideas should not be debated because they “invalidate the humanity of some people.” On the contrary, even terrible ideas should be debated. Doing so sharpens the case against them, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty.

Furthermore, Baer sets up a straw man when he writes, “I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America.” Of course, the sorts of nasty actions we have seen at Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere won’t “end free speech in America,” but what they do accomplish is to prevent particular instances of free speech at specific places.

If we excuse those actions, as Baer does, we will get more of them and less free speech. You would think that a college professor would understand that our national commitment to freedom of speech necessarily means defending it each time it is attacked.

Implicit in Baer’s piece is the idea that because certain groups of people are less adept at making rational arguments for themselves, they should be allowed to veto people who are (or at least might be) good at that by preventing them from speaking. That, obviously, is a dangerous concept. Who then gets to decide when a person or idea is unacceptable and deserves to be censored? History gives us the answer: It will be those who are zealous fanatics for authoritarian programs that undermine civility and our social fabric.

Enough of the College-for-Everyone Agenda

Every so often, someone in the higher ed establishment does a bit of cheerleading for the team –proclaim that college degrees are so beneficial that the country should try to put far more young people through college.

The most venerable such effort is a report that the College Board puts out every three years entitled College Pays. Here is the most recent in the series. The formula is the same every time: point to the fact that on average, people who have finished college earn more than people who haven’t, then call the difference between those averages the “college earnings premium” and imply that the causal factor is having gotten that degree.

Related: Gary Becker Is Wrong to Say College is Still a Good Investment

In addition to those higher average earnings, we’re also told that college education creates huge benefits for society: better health and longevity, more steady employment, higher rates of voting and civic engagement, among other social goods. In this view, college isn’t just a private benefit that confers increased earnings on graduates, but a public good that makes the whole nation better off.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Philip Trostel, a professor at the University of Maine at Orono, has just reprised that number. He argues here that getting a college degree is “practically a windfall-profit investment for most” Americans and that the benefits of college go “way beyond the earnings premium.”

Close to ‘Fake News’

Trostel starts with the supposed lifetime earnings premium, which he calculates at $1,383,000, before adding that the premium is probably going to increase since it always has. Therefore, even if a student paid “full sticker price at an elite college,” getting that great earnings boost would still make it “a great investment.”

That claim is very close to “fake news.” Assuming it’s true that on average individuals who have college degrees earn significantly more than individuals do without them, it doesn’t follow that any person in the latter group will necessarily gain a large earnings boost just by virtue of earning a degree. After all, the types of people who are drawn to higher education are different from the types who aren’t. They tend to be more talented and ambitious.

Furthermore, the earnings data this comparison relies upon are necessarily drawn from the past. The problem is that at many schools, a college education just isn’t what it used to be. Standards have declined for both admission and academic performance. Students today don’t have to work as hard and many apparently derive little or no intellectual benefit from their years in college.

Going forward, there is no reason to assume that the “college premium” will be nearly as large as it was in the past. Financial firms know to advertise that “past performance is no guarantee of future performance” and a college economics professor ought to know to be similarly cautious.

What About Side Benefits?

Besides, there is plenty of evidence that large numbers of recent college graduates, far from earning more, are working in the same kinds of jobs as people who have only high school educations, and they are struggling to pay off their college loans.

As this paper published by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity explains, the labor market has become saturated with workers who have college credentials (but often not the skills that are in demand) and many are underemployed. And a recent study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that for the last two decades, around one-third of college graduates have wound up working in jobs that do not call for any higher education.

If the claimed earnings gain is for many students just a mirage, what about those other social benefits? True, they correlate with college completion, but that does not mean college completion will cause them. Again, the two populations tend to have different characteristics. Those who are inclined toward post-secondary education are on the whole more inclined to have healthier lifestyles and more social attributes than those who are not.

Think of it this way – even if you could focus on a guy who barely graduated from high school and loves to drink and smoke, and lure into college and manage to get him through to a degree, is that likely to change his behavior? Probably not. (Nor will he probably have learned as much of value to himself and society in college compared with what he’d have done while working in the real world.)

Does College Improve Behavior?

Just as it’s a mistake to think that having a college degree causes higher earnings, it is also a mistake to think that having a college degree causes people to behave in more desirable ways.

Finally, as Frederic Bastiat taught, good economists look for unseen effects as well as those that are easily seen. There is a large cost to college other than the obvious financial one, namely the fact that so many students pick up terribly mistaken ideas in college. It’s primarily on college campuses that young people become imbued with such progressive notions as social justice, white privilege, sustainability, intersectionality, anti-capitalism, institutional racism, microaggressions and more.

On many campuses, intellectually weaker students can get through by taking lots of “experience learning” courses which simultaneously build up their GPA (since an A is almost guaranteed as long as you say politically correct things in your “reflection papers”) and make them believe that social problems are caused by freedom and can only be solved through government activism. (The recent report from the National Association of Scholars, Making Citizens, is extremely valuable for making that point.)

Spending our limited resources to under-educate young people so they’ll support leftist causes and candidates is doubly damaging.

An Expensive Credential

Trostel laments that “access to college education may well continue to be compromised, which makes not just the potential students who are deterred, but all of us worse off.” The trouble with his view is that the students who might be deterred – and in recent years the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college has declined somewhat – are overwhelmingly going to be the academically marginal and disengaged students for whom college is just an expensive credential.

America’s sharp students are in high demand and can easily obtain the loans, grants, and scholarships they need for college and post-graduate studies. If more students who don’t have their ability decide that some other kind of education or training after high school is better for them, that is no cause for concern.

We can’t pull ourselves up by the bootstraps by promoting the “college for everyone” agenda, but by trying we waste resources and diminish the college learning experience.

College Faculties, Heavily Tilted Toward the Left, Shun Diverse Viewpoints

A paper recently published in Econ Journal Watch, “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” shows what almost everyone believes to be true – that college faculties in the social sciences are predominantly left of center. More than that, it shows that this is truer in some fields and geographic regions than others and, most importantly, that the leftist trend is becoming more pronounced over time.

Authors Mitchell Langbert, Anthony Quain, and Daniel Klein describe themselves as classical liberals who find both major parties to be “by and large, horrible,” so the study cannot be dismissed as merely partisan griping.

Related: The Age of Liberal Education Is Ending

They describe their findings modestly: “Other than indicating that Democratic-to-Republican ratios are even higher than we had thought (particularly in Economics and History), and that an awful lot of departments have zero Republicans, and that, yes, the ratios are higher at more prestigious universities and lower among older professors and among professors with higher-ranking titles, and that there are some regional effects, the paper does not offer new results of any great consequence.”

I think the authors are too modest, too restrained. Their findings are quite disturbing for anyone who holds a right-of-center or classical liberal philosophy since the paper points up the success that “progressives” are having with their project of seizing and holding the commanding heights in the war of ideas.

The authors surveyed voter registration data for professors in the five disciplines noted in the title at a wide array of schools. Out of 7,243 professors, 3,623 were registered as Democrats and just 314 as Republicans. Moreover, registrations for the Green and Working Families parties, both radically statist in outlook), equaled or exceeded Republican registrations in 72 of the 170 academic departments included in the study, and in many departments, there were no Republicans at all.

Related: Affirmative Action for Conservative Faculty?

Economics was the field with the lowest ratio of Democrats to Republicans (5: 1) and history the field with the highest (36:1).  In the middle were journalism (21:1), psychology (19:1), and law (9:1).

The fact that economics professors are mostly left-of-center will probably surprise many people since it’s widely believed that economics is the one social science discipline where free market/classical liberal scholars outnumber the left/interventionists. (See, for example, Peter Sacks’ MTC essay, “Don’t look for Marxists or Keynesians in Economics Departments.”) In an earlier study, Klein and Charlotta Stern showed that among members of the American Economics Association, only 8 percent held to what they regard as free-market principles.

If you thought that college students would be reeled back into reality when they take economics (which relatively few do anyway), the findings here are grim news.

Another worrisome conclusion from this paper is that the leftist domination of the faculty is intensifying. For example, in 1963, the D:R ratio in history was about 2.7:1. Today, it has mushroomed to36:1. Furthermore, the data show that the D:R ratio is lowest among emeritus professors and highest among assistant professors. Therefore, it appears, in the future college faculties will be even more politically and ideologically lopsided than today as the conservative older cohort retire.

The subject of the left’s domination of academe has been hotly debated, with different explanations offered. The explanation advanced by Langbert, Quain, and Klein is “groupthink,” which is the tendency for people to prefer to associate with individuals who hold similar beliefs and to avoid people who robustly disagree. That is especially true in the academic world, where ideas count for almost everything. Also, because academic hiring is controlled by departments, once an ideological slant sets in, groupthink drives them toward ever-greater uniformity.

Related: The Leftist Intellectuals Hovering over the Campus

What this means is that non-leftist students face — and let’s use the right word here — discrimination if they want to pursue a teaching career in these (and quite a few other) disciplines. Knowing that, most of them turn to more hospitable academic fields or look for employment outside of academe after graduation.

The big question is whether this matters. Leftists tend to make light of studies like this one, arguing that voter registration tells us nothing about the way professors conduct their courses. Overwhelmingly, they assert, these professors are devoted scholars who teach their courses without any bias. The authors, however, think otherwise, writing, “Works like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012) and Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology (2014) represent a trend toward recognizing that scholarly interpretations and judgments are inseparable from a scholar’s sense of duty to higher purpose.”

That “higher purpose” is to serve as “change agents” as many professors admit they see their role. Sometimes we come across confessions from “progressive” faculty members that they feel proud and justified in teaching with a leftist bias to overcome what they see as the lamentable “right-wing” upbringing of many of their students. A good example is the book by English Professor Donald Lazere entitled Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. (I wrote about that book here.)

So the classes taught by these professors probably won’t be taught without some ideological slant, and frequently with a very strong one. Even if students aren’t entirely “flipped” from right to left, the constant promulgation of leftist ideas is certain to affect quite a few of them, making “middle-of-the-road” students more inclined to accept leftist notions and making those who were already leaning that way into Social Justice Warrior types, the students who have been responsible for so much turmoil on campuses in recent years.

What is to be done? The authors offer no suggestions.

One palliative that I think helps slightly is to fund programs that bring professors who advocate free market and classical liberal thinking to campuses that are notoriously leftist.  At the University of Colorado, for example, a program brings in a visiting professor each year who will advance conservative and libertarian ideas. Last year’s visiting professor, Brian Domitrovic, wrote about the experience for the Pope Center. Clearly, it was a year well spent.

While such efforts are beneficial at the margin, they are rather like trying to stop a forest fire with your garden hose.

The depressing truth is that except some institutions, the faculties at our colleges and universities will continue becoming more leftist in their composition and more virulently political in their teaching. It’s a condition with no known cure.

Top College Endowments Are Political Targets Now

One of the pillars of our education establishment, The Education Trust, recently published a report meant to pressure colleges and universities with large endowments into spending more of their earnings on one of its pet causes – very low or even free tuition for students from poorer families. The study, “A Glimpse Inside the Coffers: Endowment Spending at Wealthy Colleges and Universities,” claims to show that these institutions “aren’t doing nearly enough” to help such students.

To cite just one example from the report, suppose that the University of Pennsylvania were to raise its endowment spending up to Education Trust’s recommended five percent level – and spent all of the additional money on reducing tuition for poor students. By doing that, Penn could double the number of low-income students entering the school, from 109 per year to 218 per year.

Now, I am no fan of the way our colleges and universities that have gigantic endowments choose to spend their money. I think that too much goes toward the student amenities arms race, toward the hiring of unnecessary administrators who have to pretend to be busy at jobs such as “Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion,” and toward luring “star” faculty members who don’t teach much, away from other schools. But just because they waste a lot of money already is no reason to favor Education Trust’s plan.

Related: Another Bad Idea—Mandatory Endowment Spending

Here is the fatal flaw. Going to an elite, high-cost college is little or no better than going to a lower-cost, non-elite one. Sometimes, in fact, students (no matter their family’s finances) get a superior education at a non-prestige school where there are fewer distractions and where the faculty pays more attention to the undergraduates.

Is Prestige Worth the Cost

Sticking with Penn, let’s suppose that the university decided to follow Education Trust’s advice and succeeded in enrolling an addition 109 students from low-income families with very low tuition and other fees. Penn is indeed a very famous school, but where would those 109 students have gone otherwise?

Perhaps some would have gone to a private liberal arts college in the state or region. Grove City College is a possibility. For decades, the administration at the school has kept costs to the lowest possible level (although certain it isn’t free) and, even more important, students get lots of direct attention from the faculty. Courses are taught by experienced professors, not by grad students. The curriculum remains solid, not full of trendy, narrow, politicized classes.

Yes, a degree from Penn is regarded as prestigious – far more so than a degree from Grove City or most other schools, public or private, in the state. The question, however, is whether that prestige is worth the trade-offs to get it.

Evidently, the people at the Education Trust (along with a majority of America, I’d guess) think so. That is because they have bought into “the Chivas Regal effect” – namely the notion that something must be better in quality simply because it costs more.

Leaders at our high-cost colleges have been promoting that idea (and cashing in on it) for years. It just isn’t true, however. Going to a high-cost, elitist school is neither necessary nor sufficient for students to get a good college education and get on track for a successful career.

I don’t often agree with New York Times writer Frank Bruni, but his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be nailed an important truth. (My review of the book is available here.) Students often do very well at colleges that almost no one has ever heard of; conversely, the environment of big, famous schools can be damaging to some students.

I will add one further objection to Education Trust’s “More Free College!” idea. To the extent that Penn or any other wealthy university enrolls more students who are from relatively poor families, it will also have to reject an equal number of other students who aren’t from low-income households. Some and probably most of those students will be very highly qualified students who were eager to go to Penn despite the cost.

Those students will most likely be ones who don’t check off any “diversity” box and are therefore expendable in the school’s enrollment management calculus – in other words, sharp Asian kids. They will have to settle for one of their backup schools.

I’m not saying that is a national disaster, but it does mean shuffling some of our best students away from colleges where they’d have been challenged and into ones where they’ll do fine but perhaps not their very best.

For all the lip service they pay to various “social justice” ideas, college leaders, are pretty steadfast in protecting their freedom to use their wealth as they think best. I hope they live up to that and ignore the Education Trust.

The Remarkably Feeble Fisher Opinion

After the death of Justice Scalia, most people who have been following the protracted Fisher v. University of Texas case (myself included) expected that the Court would let the university’s racial preference system stand. It did that in a 4-3 decision released on June 23.

Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. (Justice Kagan had recused herself.) So even if Justice Scalia had still been alive, the Court would have upheld the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that the racial preferences the university uses to achieve “diversity” are constitutionally acceptable.

Writing for Competitive Enterprise Institute, lawyer Hans Bader skewers the decision, which approves a governmental policy that “discriminates against white and Asian applicants” and “gullibly deferred to a university’s pretexts for using race….”

I want to focus on those pretexts.

Bear in mind that the Court has in the past held that if a governmental institution is going to use racial categories, it must show a “compelling interest” in doing so and that there are no racially neutral ways of accomplishing it. Also, courts are expected to look at such plans and purported justifications with “strict scrutiny.”

In Fisher, the University of Texas claimed that it needed to use racial preferences in order to:

Bring about the destruction of stereotypes.

Promote cross-racial understanding.

Prepare a student body for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.

Cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.

Lamentably, rather than carefully analyzing those reasons, the majority justices were content with, in Bader’s words, “blind deference masquerading as strict scrutiny.”

Let’s examine those four justifications one by one.

Supposedly, UT needs to discriminate against whites and Asians and in favor of students who are regarded as “representing” an underrepresented group because otherwise considerable numbers of its students would go through college with the racial stereotypes they harbor intact.

We are supposed to believe, therefore, that the state’s flagship university, with its high admission standards, nevertheless has found that quite a few students harbor racial stereotypes. These are very intelligent young people who have grown up in the wired world, in a country with a black president and great numbers of conspicuously successful people from all races and ethnic groups, and have in their schooling heard teachers sing the praises of tolerance and multiculturalism – and yet many hold to racial stereotypes!

I would love to know exactly what those students believe about all our various racial and ethnic groups. Presumably the university does, because it feels the need to combat their stereotypes.

I would also like to see the university’s evidence that students drop all their bad stereotypes as a result of being on a “diverse” campus – or to be more precise, a campus made marginally more diverse due to the policy of favoring students from certain groups. (After all, quite a few minority students are accepted without preferences.) Certainly the university has carefully studied how the attitudes of its students change over their years and has proof that stereotypes are overcome.

Actually, I doubt it. This is merely a pretext.

Second, the university claims that its increased diversity enhances “cross-racial understanding.” That makes it sound as if UT officials believe that there are distinctive thoughts and beliefs for the different racial groups they recognize – that students in each of those groups just aren’t able to “understand” students from the others unless the school is allowed to admit some additional black and Hispanic students under its policy.

That just isn’t credible. Nearly all of the students admitted to UT are American teenagers who have grown up in our culture. They mostly like the same things, no matter what their racial background. Now, it’s true that there are disagreements among individuals, but they have nothing to do with racial misunderstandings. Two white students might disagree vehemently over abortion; two black students might disagree vehemently over immigration policy; two Asian students might disagree vehemently over “affirmative action.”

And if this is anything other than an excuse concocted to defend the policy, Texas must have proof that by the time students graduate, they have substantially less “racial misunderstanding.” Such proof, however, has never been adduced.

What about the supposed need for a workforce that’s prepared for a diverse society?

To take this justification seriously, you’d have to believe that whether or not the nation’s workforce can adapt to “diversity” depends on letting UT (and other universities) discriminate in favor of a few minority students while turning away an equal number of whites and Asians.

Even if you think “diversity” improves the ability of students at a school to learn how to deal with people from other groups, all that racial preferences do is to move a few more minority students to one campus, which means fewer of them at other campuses. There is no net gain in college “diversity” when UT-Austin accepts a few more black and Hispanic students, who would otherwise have enrolled at other schools.

But there is no reason to believe that the marginal increase in diversity at any campus is essential to preparing students for a “diverse world.” Intelligent people have always figured out how to deal with people who are different, with or without the “optical diversity” (a phrase used by Professor Sheryll Cashin, who argues in favor of dropping racial preferences in favor of socio-economic preferences for students from poorer families) they’re treated to at a few prestige universities like UT.

If you doubt that, consider the Japanese. Their universities are notable for their lack of diversity and yet the Japanese are famous for their world-wide success in dealing with people who are different.

Lastly, it is true that UT needs racial preferences so that its graduates can become leaders viewed as “legitimate” by the citizens of the state?

To believe that, you’d have to think that many Texans wouldn’t regard their elected officials as “legitimate” if they hadn’t graduated from a university where the student body had been chosen to ensure “enough” blacks and Hispanic students and not “too many” white and Asian students.

That also strains credulity. People have many reasons for favoring or disfavoring candidates, but nobody decides that a candidate is not “legitimate” unless he or she has graduated from a college with a properly diverse student body.

And if that were true, where is the evidence that Texan leaders who did not graduate from schools using racial preferences have a “legitimacy” problem?

Suppose that Fisher didn’t involve a university using racial preferences in its admissions, but instead a corporation using them in its hiring. Can you imagine the reaction of judges if the company tried to justify a discriminatory hiring policy by saying, “We believe that our customers would lose confidence in our products if they thought our workforce had too many minorities”?

That argument would be laughed out of court.

But racial discrimination for “diversity” is judged by different standards. It’s one of those preoccupations of academic liberals and liberal justices won’t deprive them of it. We will have to look to voters, legislators and university trustees to do that.

Profs Go to the Mattresses Against Israel

Decades ago, American professors largely stuck to teaching their subjects and kept their political passions separate from their academic work. Read, for example, Alan Kors’ account of a graduate school experience of his, where a decidedly leftist professor rebuked the class for just writing what they thought he wanted to hear and assigned the students to read and write cogently about Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

Sadly, things have changed drastically and today the norm among professors, at least in many of the “soft” fields, is to strive zealously for political change. We hear about their proselytizing in the classroom day in and day out, but that has now spilled over into scholarly associations. They aren’t just for professorial exchanges any longer. They have been dragooned into the realm of political advocacy and activism.

Related: BDF–Jew-Hating Propagandists on the March

The poster child for this ugly development is the campaign for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Because the government of Israel pursues some policies that pro-Palestinian professors loathe, these professors demand an end to contacts with Israeli universities until the nation alters its approach to the Palestinians.

Among the academic associations where the boycott movement has had success is the American Studies Association (ASA). Back in 2013, the association’s National Council passed a resolution calling for the boycott. The ASA’s statement about the resolution declares:

“We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

“Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”

Related: The Campus War over Israel

Then-president of the ASA, Professor Curtis Marez defended the action, stating here, “The boycott is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education.”

That stance has nothing to do with the study of American culture, but it satisfies many ASA members who are consumed with rage against Israel and cannot confine that rage to their own writing and speaking. It does not, however, satisfy some ASA members who maintain that the association has been “hijacked” by others to make it serve their political agenda.

But this involves more than just losing an argument to majority vote – about two thirds of the members voted for the boycott – because the law restricts what non-profit organizations may do. Four ASA professors have just filed suit against the association, claiming that the boycott is outside the scope of its charter and thus violates District of Columbia law.

The case, Simon Bronner et al. v. The American Studies Association has been filed in the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia. Legal support comes from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights.

Kenneth Marcus, president of the Brandeis Center says of the suit, “It’s about any association officer or director who is thinking about using their association as a tool to advance their own ideological agenda. This should send a signal that if association activists are not concerned that BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) resolutions are anti-Semitic and may be a violation of academic freedom, they should be concerned that they may violate corporations law.”

In short, this is a suit over drawing a line. Non-profit organizations such as the ASA have legal boundaries that are not supposed to be transgressed, boundaries that should keep activists from using them for their own purposes. That is the same problem we find in classrooms when professors turn them into soapboxes for their own ideological preaching, as University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt did.

Too often, college administrators turn a blind eye to these line violations. Let us hope that the judge who hears this case is made of sterner stuff.

Jane Mayer Peddles Her “Sky is Falling!” Story

Jane Mayer is a writer for The New Yorker who knows her audience. It consists mostly of elitist progressives who like reading that their enlightened transformation of America is imperiled by greedy conservative villains. She has written many articles and most recently, a book entitled Dark Money on that theme.

The February 26, 2016 issue of Chronicle Review (the companion publication to The Chronicle of Higher Education, but much more overtly political) contains an essay drawn from that book, “How Right-Wing Billionaires Infiltrated Higher Education.”

To leftist readers, that’s certain to sound frightful. Higher education, after all, is supposed to be the domain of highly intelligent, far-sighted, compassionate scholars—the sort of people they admire. How awful to hear that it has been infiltrated by malevolent billionaires, who have (as the cover of the issue puts it) “tugged academe to the right.”

In the essay, Mayer recounts the tale of how this dastardly deed was done, beginning with the John M. Olin Foundation’s “offensive to reorient the political slant of higher education to the right.” That so-called offensive meant funding a few scholars at major universities who dissented from the prevailing leftist notions about the impact of government. Those scholars were all of a classical liberal bent, their thinking informed by the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

That intellectual tradition has always been present in American universities, but following the New Deal, progressives who could see nothing but good in the expansion of the state came to dominate most faculties. For many students, contrary ideas could only be found if they ventured into the dusty shelves of the library. Was there a case against socialism, for instance? Students would probably never hear that there was unless somehow they chanced upon a reference to Ludwig von Mises’ great 1922 book.

What Olin and other foundations wanted was to revive an intellectual tradition that was out of favor with the elites who thrive on government control. They weren’t “tugging” higher education in any direction, but merely trying to add to a voice that was mostly going unheard. If a philanthropist put money into sponsoring a series of string quartet performances, we wouldn’t object that he was tugging the music world toward the classics.

But Mayer knows that she needs to keep her readers edgy, so she throws in lines like this, a quotation from a “progressive political strategist,” who says of Olin and other conspirators, “What they started is the most potent machinery ever assembled in a democracy to promote a set of beliefs to control the reins of government.”

That isn’t within light years of the truth. The objective of Olin (which spent itself out of existence ten years ago in keeping with the benefactor’s wishes), the Koch Foundation, and many smaller foundations is not to take control of the reins of government but instead to suggest to people that we’d be better off if the reins of government were loosened.

Mayer wants readers to think that some sort of coup is in the making, but all that’s happening is that a rather small number of students will get to hear one or two professors who think critically about the impact of government.

Critical thinking is supposed to be something colleges encourage. Mayer is opposed to letting “right-wing billionaires” encourage it with regard to the effects of government policy. She can’t resist name-calling and wails about “a tiny constellation of private foundations filled with tax-deductible gifts from a handful of wealthy reactionaries.”

That’s both nasty and false – the people behind this movement are only “reactionaries” if that word now means anyone who thinks government has grown too big.

If Mayer wanted an accurate title, she might have written “How a Handful of Classical Liberals Added Some Intellectual Diversity for Students to Consider.” But that wouldn’t scare her readers.

 How MOOCs Foil Distraction

By George Leef:

With the surge in online education over the past few years, one course at the University of California has been exceptional. “Learning How to Learn” with an enrollment of 1,192,697 since it was initially offered last year, is the world’s most popular online course, according to The New York Times, narrowly beating out “Machine Learning.” Students who have taken it include cardiologists, engineers, lawyers, war refugees in Sudan, and 12-year old kids.

“Learning How to Learn” is the creation of neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute and Oakland University professor Barbara Oakley.  What is so fascinating about the course is that it teaches how the brain functions – the knowledge that enabled Professor Oakley to go from being, as she admits in this Nautilus article, “a terrible student” who “flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science” to a professor of engineering.

Related: MOOCs: What You Need to Know about Them Now

She had great difficulty with college course material, especially math, because the standard fifty-minute class with homework assignments didn’t convey the material effectively. Eventually, Oakley realized that the problem was the way the educational experience was structured did not match up well with the way our brains work best.

She explains, “Human brains have evolved with a flitting, fleeting ability to maintain focus on any one thing. Those who kept too fixed a gaze on the wildebeest they were stalking could end up being killed by the lions stalking them. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that humans may not have been meant to sit boxed up for prolonged periods, focused on a teacher in a classroom.” In short, she says, “We’re built to be distracted.”

Short Bursts of Attention

That is why online education can be far superior to the traditional arrangement of putting a number of students in a room with a teacher or professor at an assigned time for a span of 50 minutes. While some learning can occur in that format, it is decidedly sub-optimal. Most students learn more in short bursts of attention highlighted with motion, followed by an interaction (a quiz of some kind) to ensure that they grasped the content.

Once Barbara Oakley figured that out, she was able to conquer the math and earn her Ph.D. in engineering. She learned how to learn the abstruse concepts. Well-designed online courses make it easier for students to progress through the material they need to learn.

Oakley’s experience matches up perfectly with that of Kevin Carey, who signed up for the daunting online MIT introductory biology course and wrote about his hard-won success in his book The End of College, which I reviewed here.

The Feedback Loop

Lacking in the science background expected of students attempting the course, Carey was able to earn a solid B only because he could listen (and watch) the videos at times of his choosing, with no distractions. He had the ability to go back over a point as often as necessary, consult with other students in study groups, and benefit from frequent quizzes so he’d know if he really understood the material or not.

That last element, the feedback loop, is especially important.

Oakley explains that research from physics shows that “students don’t really learn from careful explanations – they learn from making mistakes….Mistakes in the frequent low-stakes quiz questions available online can force students in physics—or any other subject—to revisit the explanation.”

Stopping a “real” class every few minutes to quiz the students and get their corrected answers back to them is hardly possible.  But in an online course, the feedback loop is a feature easily built in, one that simultaneously keeps students attentive and increases their comprehension of the subject matter.

Innovations in learning, however, have led to a Luddite reaction from many educators who don’t want to change what they have been doing for years or fear that online courses will make their jobs will disappear.

Oakley calls them the “MOOC deniers.”

Among them is Professor David Bromwich of Yale, who recently wrote an article entitled, “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Bromwich argued that online coursework “discourages more complex thinking about the content and aims of education.” University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Zemsky brushes aside the development of MOOCs claiming that they’re “neither pedagogically nor technologically interesting.”

Fortunately, educational traditionalists can say whatever dismissive, misinformed, or hostile things they want to about online courses without having the slightest impact on their growth. Educators like Oakley and Sejnowski will keep on improving their courses and large numbers of students will continue to give enroll in them and learn from them.

There is probably no more free market in America than the market for educational material. Nothing can prevent people from offering different modes of learning and students from trying them. No governmental agency (at least to my knowledge) has the power to regulate online education. Whereas incumbents can and often do turn to regulators to stifle new competition in other markets, education remains a wonderfully laissez-faire domain.

Don’t get me (or Professor Oakley) wrong. We are not saying that online courses are always the best or that face-to-face education will disappear. Our argument is simply that by expanding the range of choice for students, online courses catalyze healthy competition. That is vital in education, a field that has long rested contentedly.

The lessons from “Learning to Learn” and other MOOCs can help professors improve their “real” classes. They alone are not the answer to improving education. Oakley writes, “That will come from a variety of sources: MOOCs, resources developed by textbook companies, and teachers themselves. Online assets will not serve as a replacement for in-person instructors—rather, they’ll serve as assets, provide high-quality personalized tutoring and great testing materials with rapid grading.” (If you want to look into “Learning to Learn” yourself, you can do so here.)

How the Brain Learns

We often hear complaints that colleges are “failing their students” because high percentages drop out. I have never regarded that complaint as worth listening to; it’s the students who fail by not doing what it takes to pass.

But Oakley’s work casts a new light on this matter. Something can be said for the argument that if a school doesn’t encourage its faculty to look into what we have learned about our brains and does all it can to incorporate the research into their courses, it has indeed failed its students.

Instead of devoting time and money to workshops on “diversity” and similar fads, colleges should consider a faculty workshop on how to improve teaching effectiveness. Many professors will grumble, but the alternative to doing so might be unemployment.


George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Policy Research.

Why Get-Tough Accreditors Make Classes More Fun and Less Demanding

America’s higher education system works like this. The government dangles lots of easy-to-get money for college in front of every high-school graduate, nearly all of whom have heard repeatedly that a college degree is essential for a decent life. Without “higher education,” their lives will be nothing but low-paid drudgery.

Salvation lies in enrolling in college, but unless the school is accredited, they won’t be to use any of that federal grant and loan money to pay for it. So great numbers of students get their Pell grants, federal loans, and then find a college that promises them a bright future.

Related: Accreditors—Hip-Deep in Politics  

The role the accreditors are supposed to play is to guarantee that colleges are educationally sound. Politicians don’t want federal money wasted on degree mills or other dubious schools. Accreditation was thought to be a good defense against that.

Back in the 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward into higher education began, the system seemed reasonable. Most of the students who went to college were pretty well prepared and the admission and academic standards at most schools were at least moderately demanding. Expanding “access” to higher education appeared to have only an upside.

The trouble is that Uncle Sam’s increasing “generosity” towards college proved to be very corrosive of those standards over time.

College administrators quickly developed a taste for the additional revenue they could obtain by enrolling more students. To do that, many lowered admission standards and the academic quality of the college-going population began to decline. (That decline was worsened by the fact that academic rigor at many of our high schools was simultaneously falling, as “progressive” educational theories spread.) But to keep the increasingly large number of weak and disengaged students they were luring into their schools happy, it was necessary to water down the curriculum and lower academic expectations.

After decades, those trends have led us to our present, dismal situation – many students who shouldn’t have entered college in the first place are racking up debts for college while learning little and often failing to graduate.

Related: Why Accreditation Is a Waste of Time

Instead of acknowledging that college subsidies have produced some bad consequences, President Obama and his (now departing) education secretary Arne Duncan are now pinning the blame on the accreditors for not solving the problems caused by easy money and low standards.

In a November 6, 2015 statement, Secretary Duncan said, “Accrediting organizations are watchdogs that don’t bite.” He announced that the department would request from Congress new power to set standards for the way accreditation agencies measure the schools they evaluate. The idea behind this is that if accreditors force their schools to improve on such metrics as graduation rates, they we will solve or at least ameliorate the problem of “failing schools.”

This is a classic example of rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic – a waste of effort that fails to address the underlying problem. That problem is simple: Colleges can’t educate students who really don’t have much ability or desire to learn.

There are many colleges, both for-profit and non-profit with very low graduation rates. Some are in single-digits. Many of the students who enroll find that college work, even with today’s prevailing low standards and watered down curriculum, just isn’t what they want or need and drop out. School administrators would like to have them remain enrolled and graduate, since that means both more money and a boost in the various ranking systems. They have “retention” programs, which are supposed to stop the dropout hemorrhaging, but despite all their efforts, reality asserts itself. Many students are “mismatched” at any college.

What will happen if the Department of Education could compel accreditation agencies to “get tough” with these “failing schools”?

We will see the kind of system gaming that we have seen in K-12 when schools get the diktat to improve or else. Colleges and the accreditors will fudge or cheat so they will look good enough under the metrics.

Related: What’s Wrong  with Accreditation—a Textbook Case

If you doubt that, consider how college professors do the same thing when they’re under pressure to “improve.” Since job retention often depends on meeting some benchmark on their student evaluations, they concentrate on that. A perfect illustration of that is found in Peter Sacks’ book Generation X Goes to College; to keep his job, he needed better evaluations and thus engaged in his “sandbox experiment,” of making his class more fun and less demanding. (It worked.)

Similarly, if an accreditor insists on better outcomes, the easiest way for a school to produce them is to further reduce its academic standards and do still more hand-holding so as to encourage students who’d otherwise have dropped out into remaining on campus. Even if the great majority of your students are pitiably weak, you can probably engineer a marginal increase in your graduation rate by a “sandbox experiment” at the whole institution.

To the educrats, any increase in graduation rates will look like progress because they are obsessed with our “educational attainment” level. But the sad truth is that America is already saturated with people with college credentials doing jobs that only call for high school skills or less. (For evidence on that, see this report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.) More people will have spent time and money on college credits of scant intrinsic worth. That’s not progress.

Now, imagine that to save their own skins, accreditors marginally increase the number of schools they de-accredit, throwing to the wolves some of the schools that cater to the weakest students and have the most intractably low outcomes. Those institutions will close, causing the educrats to proclaim that they’re solving the problem. But the students who would have gone to them will just take their federal money to another marginal school, thereby making it harder for it to meet the accrediting standards. Nothing really changes.

Accreditation changes are the wrong medicine for what ails higher education in the U.S. We can only hope that Congress will ignore the Education Department’s plea for more power over the system. True, accreditation does a lousy job of ensuring academic quality, but low quality and poor outcomes are inevitable given Washington’s “college for all” penchant.

Appalachian State Takes Diversity Groveling to a New Low

College officials usually wait until there has been some “crisis” – most often imaginary, based on a hoax or misapprehension – before they introduce new measures meant to “improve diversity” on campus. At Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, however, the administration recently introduced a new “bias incident response team” (BIRT) as a way to help attract more minority faculty and students, without any such catalyst.

App State, as most people in North Carolina call it, “suffers” from being an overwhelmingly white school located in an overwhelmingly white region. Only some 13 percent of the student body and about 10 percent of the faculty are from designated minority groups.

Like almost every public college or university these days, App State has a bevy of administrators whose jobs exist only because of the mania for “diversity.” The university’s Office of Multicultural Student Development and its Office of Equity, Diversity, and Compliance teamed up with campus groups that want to push for ever-more diversity (Appalachian Social Justice Educators, the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Board, and the Black Student Association) to get the administration to approve six initiatives intended to, as they see things, improve the school.

This piece in The Appalachian gives us a look into the dynamics of pressuring administrators into kowtowing to new diversity demands. Everette Nichols, interim assistant director of multicultural student development, is quoted as saying, “Many of the student groups that I work with in Multicultural Student Development played a role [in creating the initiatives]. Last year we had a number of students attend the Black Lives Matter conference in Arizona and they came back with multiple ideas regarding material they learned at the conference.”

Bidhu Jayne, App State’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and compliance states that the initiatives will improve campus diversity by sparking “conversations about what personal steps we all can take to be cognizant of how inclusive an environment we are creating.”

The most salient of the initiatives is the creation of BIRT. Far from stimulating any conversations, however, this is apt to silence them because students will have to fear being reported for any speech or conduct that might violate the school’s broad and vague “harassment” policy.

It defines harassment as “Engaging in unwelcome and unsolicited speech or conduct based upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, political affiliation, veteran status, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression that creates a hostile environment or circumstances involving quid pro quo exchanges.”

A “hostile environment” can be created with any “demeaning” material.

A Lame Defense of Trigger Warnings and Micro-Aggression Mania

Many American campuses are caught up in a great new utopian project – protecting students from speech, writings, images, or anything else that they might find upsetting. Because of the spreading mania for trigger warnings and “protecting” students from micro-aggressions, schools are moving away from their focus on education – which, after all, almost inevitably upsets some students by challenging their beliefs. As Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in his superb book The State of the American Mind, students often enter college today with an expectation that what they’ll get is confirmation of their existing beliefs.

Unfortunately, some higher-education leaders are going along with those expectations, trying to make their schools into blissful oases where young people never have to deal with upsetting people or ideas.

In an op-ed published in the August 31, 2015 Los Angeles Times, Barry Glassner (president of Lewis and Clark College) and Morton Shapiro (president of Northwestern University) admonish us, “Baby Boomers, Don’t be so Quick to Mock Colleges on Trigger Warnings and ‘Micro-aggressions.’”

Because, say Glassner and Shapiro, college leaders have only good intentions and are merely trying to create safe, welcoming learning environments for all students. They acknowledge that there have been “easy targets” for critics, such as the protest at Oberlin College against allowing dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers speak on campus lest she offend some students who call her a “rape denier.”

But it would be wrong to throw out their “protect the students” baby with such bathwater since, they write, “Wholesale denouncements of young people’s concerns only hinder our efforts to do right by our students.”

Glassner and Shapiro proceed to tell us, “Many students have genuine concerns that deserve to be taken seriously,” which may well be true. It would be far better, however, to deal with such cases individually rather than throwing a wet blanket over free speech on campus.

Here’s the example the authors give. “One of us watched a brilliant young African American woman who had been highly engaged on campus and in her course work an ‘A’ student, recoil from her classes and her classmates after returning to her dormitory one afternoon. There she was confronted with racist slurs scrawled on posters she had put up….”

Does that case and similar ones that occasionally happen (and keep in mind that lots of them have turned out to be hoaxes) call for a school-wide assault on verbal slights (microaggressions)? I don’t think so, but if a school were to embark upon one, would it do any good? People who intend to inflict harm on others won’t be deterred from doing so just because the school tells them that they should be careful not to hurt other students’ feelings.

And trying to stop all of the inadvertent personal slights that we all encounter in daily living is an impossibility. As Megan McArdle observes in her piece, “How Grown-Ups Deal with ‘Microaggressions’” in any diverse group of people, “microagressions are unavoidable. A culture that tries to avoid them is setting itself up to tear itself apart.”

She goes on to explain that once we start down the path of policing microaggressions, we make “impossible demands on members of the ever-shrinking majority: to know everything about every possible victim group, to never inadvertently appropriate any part of any culture in ways a member doesn’t like, or misunderstand something, or make an innocent remark that reads differently to someone with a different experience. Which will, of course, only hasten the scramble for members of the majority to gain themselves some sort of victim status that can protect them from sanction.”

Thus, like nearly all well-intentioned liberal projects, the prevention of microaggressions does scant good, but opens up a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.

What about trigger warnings? Does that part of the Cocoon Trend fare better?

Glassner and Shapiro write that a student recovering from sexual abuse really could be traumatized by a class reading or discussion. No doubt, that is possible. Again, however, it would make far more sense for such a vulnerable student to bring her concerns to the professor’s attention rather than to institute a general policy requiring trigger warnings for every possible idea or image that might cause any student in class mental distress.

Glassner and Shapiro want to exonerate the students who push for a campus where they’re “safe” from hurtful words, writing, “Today’s college students would not be struggling to deal with sexual assault and racism from their childhoods and on our campuses had their parents and grandparents made the world as harmonious as we imagined we would.”

No, that’s not the problem at all. The world actually is much more harmonious than in the past, just not perfectly so. But while doing much to improve civilization, those older generations also sowed some bad ideas that have taken root among many young Americans. In particular, I’d point to the “progressive” notion that it’s the responsibility of “society” (government and institutions like colleges) to solve the individual’s problems for him. Progressives have been peddling that for more than a century. That’s what the Nanny State is all about.

It has led some students to believe that there’s virtue in claiming victim status so they can complain to authorities when someone acts in a way they dislike. And it has led others to realize that they can aggressively take advantage of that status to censor ideas they don’t agree with. The protests against speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others stem not from concerns that their words will cause psychological harm, but simply from the fact that they’re saying things that the students don’t want anyone to hear.

The silk of the supposedly protective cocoon is easily spun into a gag by those who think it’s proper to silence all who disagree with them.

Far from deserving praise for their efforts at protecting students with genuine concerns, college leaders like Glassner and Shapiro should be criticized for not seeing how they are encouraging bad habits among young Americans who, more than anything else, need to grow up.

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.

Student Ratings Bait Profs Into Lowering Standards

In the fall of 1980,  towards the end of my first semester of college teaching, I received a memo saying that on the last day of class I was to hand out the course evaluation forms for students to complete and return.

A few weeks later, the packet of forms they had filled out was stuffed in my mail box. I read through them and was not surprised to find that most of the students who had done reasonably well had rated the course highly and, naturally, that most of those who had done poorly said it was terrible. Some of the comments from students in the latter group were scathing.

In quite a few instances, I wondered, “How would you know the course was so awful – you hardly ever showed up.”

‘Keep ‘em Happy’

By my second year of teaching, I had decided that the freshman and sophomores I taught had nothing useful to say. The evaluations were just a measure of popularity. I didn’t waste time reading them.

Quite a few years later, when I started doing think-tank work on higher education, one of the first books I came across was Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks. In his book, Sacks (who frequently writes for Minding the Campus), discussed his first year of teaching journalism at an unnamed but clearly non-selective college. He wanted to teach an academically strong course and demanded quite a lot of writing from his students, all of which he carefully critiqued.

Then came his first course evaluations. After his superiors had read them, Sacks was called in for a meeting. The chairman was concerned that so many students had given the course very low marks. He let Sacks know that he would not be rehired if his evaluations remained so terrible.

Of course, Sacks took that seriously. The next semester he had to produce far higher evaluations. He did so by resorting to what he called “the sandbox experiment,” which meant making the course easier, more fun, and less critical. That worked. After his second semester, Sacks got far higher ratings from his students and saved his job.

Get That 4.7 Average

The importance of student evaluations has not diminished at all in the almost two decades since Sacks wrote his book. Good evidence to show that is found in Stacey Patton’s piece, “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She targets the obsession that grips non-tenured faculty members in a humanities department at a “West Coast research university.” The obsession is with getting at least a 4.7 average on the five-point scale used for course evaluations.

Patton quotes one such professor (who goes by “Janet Wilson,” fearing adverse career repercussions if she used her real name) who says that she and other department members “talk about how to reach 4.7 more than we talk about how to teach.”

There is an abundance of helpful ideas on how to elevate your scores in the article. Here are some of them: bake cookies or brownies for the students, hand out the evaluations when the most irascible student is absent, give the evaluation right after a puff assignment such as “an easy paper where they can talk about themselves,” don’t give students much time to fill out the forms, which increases the likelihood they will just circle all 5s and hurry out, and let students “hand in papers late, retake exams like it’s the DMV, and complete extra credit.”

It’s all sandbox stuff. (I don’t recall that Sacks ever baked goodies for his students; the techniques for buttering up students have no doubt “advanced” since his teaching days.)

Janet Wilson concludes, “We all know we can’t afford to uphold grading standards because of the pressure put on us.”

Exactly, and Patton observes, “Faculty members speak of evaluations’ driving decisions on hiring, promotion, and tenure; adjuncts say they feel paralyzed when a low score can mean a pink slip.”

The Decline and Fall of a College Education

Cookies, si; rigorous grading, no. That’s what American higher education has come to and here is the reason. At many colleges, keeping the students happy is the paramount concern. School officials still pay lip service to academic excellence, but the truth is that revenue maximization is far more important to them.

Happy students are more apt to remain enrolled than are unhappy ones. That’s why faculty members are under pressure to show “good” evaluation numbers, even though that means treating all of the students like little kids.

If most college students were seriously looking for education, they wouldn’t want to be treated that way. If they really wanted to learn to write well, for instance, they wouldn’t object when a professor took a red pen to their drafts and showed them where their writing was poor.

Sadly, few students enter college with a desire to work hard to improve their knowledge and skills. Far more enter college with an entitlement mindset that has them thinking, “I’ve always been told I’m a good student and therefore deserve good grades.” Taking their evaluations seriously only helps to further erode our pitiable academic standards.

Course evaluations might make sense at a level where the students were both dedicated and somewhat knowledgeable about the subject. Professors fortunate enough to teach such students would probably welcome their feedback since it could help them improve the course.  But asking the typical freshman or sophomore to rank a course and comment on it rarely produces any valuable insights. It merely encourages faculty members to worry about their popularity instead of worrying about teaching a sound, challenging course.

It is also worth noting that more than a few dedicated educators who couldn’t stand the “keep ‘em happy” imperative have left teaching. They have been replaced by the brownie bakers, deadline extenders, and extra-credit givers who are content to abase themselves and undermine academic standards for fear of bad evaluations by students who shouldn’t be in college in the first place.

The Severely Biased New Prof at Boston University

Fresh off completing her doctorate at the University of Michigan, Saida Grundy has landed a job on Boston University’s faculty – Assistant Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies. What can B.U. students anticipate from her?

Editors at the site SoCawledge dug into Grundy’s thinking and found a lot of tweets that resemble those of Steven Salaita in their nastiness. Whereas the object of Salaita’s animosity is anyone who defends Israel, in Grundy’s case it is the white race.

Among her tweets is this one: dear white people: u are all ben Affleck. Those euphemisms for ur ancestors like “farmers” & “pioneers” means owned humans & killed natives

No doubt Professor Grundy knows that no white person now living either owned humans or killed natives, and that the great majority of whites in the past did neither of those actions.  Still, she appears to harbor a deep animosity toward whites anyway.

Another: every MLK week I commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned busineses. and every year I find it nearly impossible.

But the Reverend King had nothing against white-owned businesses. Why does Grundy feel the desire to discriminate against them?

Read through the tweets and you’ll see a young woman who has been brought up with (or perhaps schooled to have) animosity boiling within her. She illustrates very well the problem that former BU professor and now NAS president Peter Wood calls “bee in the mouth anger.” (I strongly recommend his book on that.)

What will her classes be like? It’s hard to believe that they will be “safe places” for white students, especially men.

After her tweets were made public, the university knew it was in a mess.

BU’s president, Robert Brown had to say something and came up with this attempt at straddling the fence: “At Boston University we acknowledge Dr. Grundy’s right to hold and express her opinions. At the same time, we fully appreciate why many have reacted to her statements. Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form….We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes….” (You can read Brown’s entire statement and more about the raging controversy here.)

At least Brown recognizes the racism, bigotry, and stereotyping that is such a big part of Grundy’s view of America. Many educators have rushed to her defense, claiming that people outside of higher education have misunderstood her and vastly overreacted. That’s the tenor of this Inside Higher Ed piece. The problem, according to author Colleen Flaherty is that “what professors write, think, or talk about doesn’t necessarily always translate to a wider audience…Ideas that are relatively uncontroversial among colleagues might elicit outrage from the public.”

Elaborating on that notion, VCU sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said, “A lot can go wrong when you use ‘inside’ language ‘outside’ because we rely so much on social ties and context to make meaning of words.”

So we are apparently to believe that the only problem here is that Grundy made the mistake of letting the general public know what she thinks about race in language that revealed her evident biases.  If she had just kept her angry stereotyping within what Cottom usefully calls the higher education “bubble,” those ill-educated outsiders wouldn’t be upset over words they can’t comprehend out of their “context.”

The truth is that by using “outside” language on Twitter, Grundy allowed the whole world a clear view of the way her classes are apt to go. Academic writing is usually impenetrable (even to other academics), but you can’t hide anything in the tiny thought compressions of a tweet. If Grundy had used Twitter only for mundane personal stuff and reserved her vitriol for classrooms filled almost entirely with students inclined to nod in agreement, nobody would know what bile her students were steeping in.

Finally, Grundy herself says that she regrets having stated things “indelicately.” What that means is that she regrets having used clear “outside” language that revealed her biases instead of the cloudy language of academe that would have kept them hidden.

NOT IN AN ELITE COLLEGE? NO WORRIES!

Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist who has figured out something important – many Americans are completely caught up in the Frank Brunicostly, pointless, and often damaging obsession with getting their children into our supposedly elite colleges and universities.  His new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is his effort at talking sense into parents and students about this.

Bruni’s subtitle tells us that he means to give us an “antidote to the college admissions mania,” and I think the book succeeds quite well at that. In sum, he argues that students can get a very good education at a non-prestigious college or university and also that getting into one of our insanely sought-after elite schools is no guarantee of getting a good education. He writes, “The nature of a student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the skills he or she picks up, the self-examination undertaken, the resourcefulness honed – matters more than the name on the institution attended.”

That’s right, but a great many Americans put themselves through years of terrible angst over the presumed need to get into a prestige college. That has become a big part of our individual “brands.” Because the number of places in those schools is small, however, lots of students end up devastated when they don’t get in and have to “settle” for a backup school. Bruni quotes one young woman who said, “I felt so worthless” after being rejected by all of her top choices.

Doing Well at Denver

To show that the college “brand” obsession is a mistake, Bruni recounts quite a few interesting cases where individuals have done extremely well in life even though they attended non-prestige schools. One of those stories is that of Dick Parsons, Chief Executive Officer of Time Warner and Citigroup. Where’d he go to school? Harvard? Princeton?

No – University of Hawaii. Parsons told Bruni that he “can’t remember a single thing he learned in college,” except that he could handle the world far from home.

Condoleezza Rice is another fabulous success story, of course, but she didn’t enroll in an elite university. In fact, she didn’t play the game of hunting for colleges at all. She went to the University of Denver because her father had taken a position there. Moreover, she took some time in discovering her real interest. At first, she was a music major, but soon realized that, good as her piano talents were, she wasn’t going to have a career as a virtuoso.

After meandering along for a while at Denver, she happened to take a course entitled, “Introduction to International Politics” taught by Czech refugee Josef Korbel. She was fascinated with the subject and immersed herself in it, taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn from a great scholar. Later, Rice would take her Ph.D. under Korbel, go on to become provost at Stanford, and eventually Secretary of State.

Furthermore, Bruni shows, the prestige schools that so many students sweat blood trying to get into don’t have a lock on awards such as MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” and Fulbright scholarships. Many of those recipients graduated from obscure colleges. That fact underscores his point that college education is what the student makes of it. Students who are eager to learn can almost always find one or more faculty members who’ll be delighted to have such a student to mentor—but it might be easier to make that connection at a small school than a big, famous one.

His College? Nobody Asked

Bruni also acknowledges that having gone to college, prestigious or otherwise, might have very little to do with an individual’s later success. His own story is enlightening in that regard. He could have gone to an Ivy, but instead chose the University of North Carolina (and now regrets that he devoted so much of his time there to fun rather than taking better advantage of the learning opportunities available). Did his UNC degree or his subsequent degree at Columbia have anything to do with his journalism career?

Not much. He writes of his first full-time position with the New York Post, “the Post hired me only after, and because of, a four-week tryout, the success of which had less to do with the classes I’d taken at Columbia than the writing I’d done at the UNC newspaper and on the side. And none of the people who hired me for subsequent jobs ever asked about or mentioned Columbia – or, for that matter, Chapel Hill.”

That is a point critics of the entire degree mania have been making for many years – college credentials often have little to do with the student’s life after graduation. Sadly, even though those credentials frequently do little to enhance the individual’s knowledge and skill, they have become generally regarded as essential for a host of jobs that are mostly learned by doing.

Without meaning to, Bruni doesn’t merely indict the elite college admissions, mania; he also indicts the entire “got to go to college” mania.

The book’s case that going to an elite college is not essential for success is solid; unfortunately, Bruni doesn’t examine the related question, whether going to an elite college could actually be a big mistake. That’s important because liberals insist on racial preferences to get “minority” students into those schools. Supposedly, going to a prestige college is a great benefit, so when the likes of Harvard and Berkeley bend their admission standards to enroll those students, they’re not only “improving diversity,” but also advancing social justice.

What about ‘Diversity’?

As many researchers have observed, however, using preferences puts weaker students in academic settings where they do poorly. They might have done fairly well at a school with lower standards; attending a prestige institution sets them up for failure, or at least sliding into one of the soft majors with lousy career prospects. In other words, they’ve been mismatched. Unfortunately, Bruni never mentions the work of Richard Sander or other affirmative action critics. That would mean challenging one of the great shibboleths of leftist policy. He doesn’t go there.

Not only does Bruni fail to consider the harm done by mismatching students into prestige colleges, he also tries to shore up the progressive crusade for “diversity.” Although most of his book sensibly argues that college education depends on what the individual student makes of it, he tries to pitch the notion that “diverse” schools are necessarily better. “College needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplanned territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they are,” he writes.

That sounds delightful to liberal social engineers who think that they’re able to make education better by mixing in just the ideal proportions of students who “represent” various racial and socio-economic groups. But it’s not true. Most of the book shows that it’s not true. Condi Rice did not get a superb education at Denver because the campus was or wasn’t “diverse.” She got that education because she came across a professor who got her deeply interested in his subject.

Or consider another college that Bruni praises, St. John’s with its two campuses where students immerse themselves in great books with dedicated professors. The wonderful education those students get has nothing at all to do with the blend of races in the classes.

Nevertheless, the book conveys a useful message — stop worrying and wasting money trying to get into elite colleges when many others will do just as well or perhaps far better.


 

Student Debt Harms the Economy, but is Only a Symptom

These days, Americans are talking a lot about underinflated footballs and overinflated student debt loads. In the latter camp you’ll find the president of Purdue University (and former governor of Indiana) Mitch Daniels. On January 28, he contributed an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How Student Debt Harms the Economy.”

Daniels points to the fact that the average college graduate in 2014 left school with a debt load of $33,000, then links that to evidence that many young Americans are delaying marriage and childbearing. They are also postponing the purchase of homes, cars, and other big ticket items due to the drain of having to make college loan payments.

Furthermore, Daniels maintains that the student debt burden is impinging on entrepreneurship. He cites data showing that the percentage of younger adults who own at least part of a new business has been dropping for the last ten years. “Common sense says that the seven in 10 graduates who enter the working world owing money may be part of this shift,” he writes.

Daniels is no doubt correct that Continue reading Student Debt Harms the Economy, but is Only a Symptom

A Ridiculous ‘Triple-dog-dare’ to Peter Thiel

Defenders of the higher education establishment often show little understanding of the arguments critics make. As a recent example, I give you this December 22 Washington Post piece by Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner, “I’d like to take this opportunity to triple-dog-dare Peter Thiel.”

Thiel is the super-wealthy guy who has been funding sharp and ambitious young people to eschew college in favor of studying entrepreneurship and developing their business ideas with him.

He has also argued that government policy has created a higher education bubble similar to the housing bubble: Just as the government generated a housing mania that led many Americans to foolishly invest in a house in the belief that it would be a sure-win investment no matter the price, so has it generated a college mania in which most young Americans feel they must “invest” in a degree, no matter the cost, because it will give them a huge increase in lifetime earnings.

MOOCs Not a Big Factor Yet

Talk about a higher education bubble has Drezner all upset. He declaims, “I don’t care how many times you read Atlas Shrugged, the truth is that most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs – and for those people, the rewards of a college education have never been greater.”

Neither Thiel nor anyone else is suggesting that everyone should want to be an entrepreneur; he’s just offering an alternative that a few students find attractive. As for the claim that the rewards of college have never been greater, Drezner refers a very dubious Pew Research paper that has been criticized for relying on past average earnings and ignoring the present reality that a great many college graduates cannot find anything but low-skill, low-wage work. (Here is my own take on that.)

Drezner takes delight in the fact that MOOCS haven’t (yet at least) made much of a dent in traditional college enrollments, apparently believing that the success of MOOCs is somehow essential to the case we critics and bubble theorists are making. Not at all.

The core of our argument is that higher education has become, for a large percentage of students, a poor value. While costs have risen sharply, academic standards have fallen to the point where a degree doesn’t necessarily betoken any advanced learning or skill. Although MOOCs (and other innovations) will probably gain traction because of the worsening value proposition offered by most institutions, whether they do so or not doesn’t prove anything about that core argument.

War on College?

Drezner also thinks he really nails Thiel and other critics by noting that enrollments at four-year schools have hardly changed. True, but again beside the point. Great numbers of young people still demand college degrees, but not because they desire further education. It’s because, owing to rampant credential inflation, they think that no decent jobs will be available unless they have a degree.

The trouble for higher education (and society) is that spending $100,000 or more for a degree that merely allows you a chance at such jobs as retail sales person or customer service representative is unsustainable. As soon as employers generally accept a more reliable, less costly means for screening applicants than possession of a degree, demand for college will plunge.

One reason why it hasn’t done so yet is that our degree mania remains unabated, even though a few companies (among them Google) have said that they’re much more interested in other indicators of competence. Another reason is that the federal government keeps making it easier for students to pay off their loans and even having a large portion forgiven.

With a flourish, Drezner offers Thiel a bet: By 2020, will average tuition rates at a basket of colleges be lower than today?  “If you don’t take the bet, that’s fine – but then just shut the hell up about a higher education bubble and admit that what you’re really advocating is a War on College.”

I wouldn’t make any bets on what happens with tuition levels, mainly because there is so much the federal government can and probably will do to keep demand high. That doesn’t mean, however, that I secretly advocate a “war on college.” What I want is for government to stop ruining college through meddling that keeps raising its cost and lowering its value.

The University of Michigan Vindicates Chris Rock

One of the most revealing statements of 2014 was made by comedian Chris Rock, who told interviewer Frank Rich that he no longer appears on college campuses because “everything offends students these days.” (Read about that here.)

In case you think Rock was exaggerating, a recent incident at the University of Michigan shows how correct he is.

Omar Mahmood is a junior, majoring in literature and anthropology. His religion is Muslim. He also happens to dislike the pervasive “Help, I’m an oppressed victim” mindset he finds on campus and had the unmitigated gall to write a satirical Continue reading The University of Michigan Vindicates Chris Rock

Another Myth about “Diversity” Crumbles

Once the Supreme Court (actually, only Justice Powell’s pivotal opinion) said in the Bakke case that programs to increase student “diversity” could be justified if they brought about educational benefits, the higher education establishment began a frantic quest for such evidence.

For example, the University of Michigan, needing something that would look sufficiently expert to impress judges who would rule on the legality of its system of racial preferences, had Professor Patricia Gurin cook up a study purporting to prove that the campus enjoyed educational benefits due to its diverse student body. Actually, it proved nothing, as Thomas Wood and Malcolm Sherman showed in this paper that refutes a host of weak “diversity” research.

Continue reading Another Myth about “Diversity” Crumbles

The “Gainful Employment” Rule is Sheer Folly

Since the UNC athletic/academic scandal has faded, the hottest topic in the realm of higher education has been the so-called “gainful employment” regulations released by the Department of Education at the end of October.

An avalanche of articles have been written exploring the issue involved, namely the large percentage of students who graduate from occupational training schools who are unable to earn enough to pay their student loans without severe difficulty. Will the proposed rule (945 pages long!) solve this problem by cutting off schools from eligibility for federal student aid if graduates’ debt exceeds 8 percent of their total income or 20 percent of their discretionary income?

In the November 13th Wall Street Journal, Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, argues in “Making ‘Profit’ a Dirty Word in Higher Education” that the rule would harm many students by closing educational programs they could have benefited from. He also contends that the rule  is motivated by little more than hostility towards schools that are run for profit.

Continue reading The “Gainful Employment” Rule is Sheer Folly

Can Psychology Help in Admitting the Best Students?

Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions director at a selective, highly respected college with a narrow academic focus – science, math, and engineering. How could you improve the likelihood that the students you’ll offer admission to will be the best of the many who applied? You already look at SAT and ACT scores, on which most of your applicants do very well, but what if you could find another criterion for evaluating them, one that would help you make the close calls?

That is precisely the position of Jim Goecker of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (RHIT). As we learn in this Inside Higher Ed story, he has decided that RHIT admissions should be based partially on the answers that applicants give on a battery of questions intended to shed light on an aspect of the applicant’s psychology, specifically the degree to which the student exhibits a “locus of control.” That is to say, how strongly they feel that they’re in control of their destinies.

RHIT is located in Terre Haute, Indiana and already admits a very strong, academically focused student body. (The median SAT math score is 710.) Still, Goecker believes that the school would be improved by preferring students who appear to have the “right” psychology.

Continue reading Can Psychology Help in Admitting the Best Students?

The Canary in the Law School Coal Mine?

Coal miners used to bring a canary down into the mine to warn them when the air was becoming too dangerous. If the canary went limp, it was time to get out.

For the last several years, conditions for American law schools have been getting progressively more dangerous, as students respond to the realities of the market: the legal profession is over-saturated with people holding Juris Doctor credentials. Law schools have been graduating far more students than there are legal jobs, and the number of jobs is apt to shrink further as technology sinks its teeth into legal work.

Continue reading The Canary in the Law School Coal Mine?

Making a Bigger Mess of Student Loans

The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy

Federal student aid programs abound in examples that demonstrate a point economists often make: government policies almost always have undesirable consequences that weren’t anticipated, or if they were didn’t matter much to the politicians.

At the time they were begun, during President Johnson’s “Great Society” years and shortly thereafter, hardly anyone forecast that they would result in huge increases in the cost of going to college. Decades later, it is evident that they have.

Continue reading Making a Bigger Mess of Student Loans

English Departments See Iceberg Ahead, Keep to Course

Last month, the Modern Language Association (MLA) issued the report of its Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.  The crucial word in the report is “unsustainable.” The authors recognize that the old model of luring students into doctoral programs, keeping them at work on degrees for up to a decade, and then letting them loose into a shaky job market can’t go on. Students have begun to realize that Ph.Ds might make nice wall décor, but that’s about all.

The job market for people with doctorates in literature and languages is dismal. According to the report, only about 60 percent of those who working on their degrees will find tenure-track jobs. By MLA estimates, roughly one thousand newly-minted Ph.Ds are about to enter a job market where there are approximately six hundred openings.

That ratio, however, is far too high; the MLA has failed to take into consideration the glut of older Ph.Ds who are also looking for academic jobs but haven’t been able to land one. The probability that a student who enters a doctoral program today will eventually cash in on his or her investment with one of those coveted tenured professor positions is quite low.

If you know anything about the nature of the MLA, you won’t be surprised to hear that the report attempts to pin the blame for the erosion of its market on various knuckle-dragging tendencies that oddly seem to be gaining strength in America: “anti-intellectualism, anti-aesthetic hostility to literature, antipathy to theory, and nativist animosity to the study of languages other than English.”

In other words, the English Ph.D. is a victim of dark, reactionary forces.

It never occurs to the authors of the report that the explanation might be different. As Mary Grabar wrote in her recent essay Goodbye to English Departments, “Decades ago, politics of race, class, and gender overtook any concern for preserving and perpetuating poetic art.” Could it be that there is less demand for English professors today than in the past because few people see much value in their heavily politicized and theorized courses?

The big point of the report is to recommend ways of saving the ship, but the recommendations aren’t much better than the analysis of the reasons why things are “unsustainable.”

For example, the authors want to “rethink admissions practices” by “taking care to build the pipeline of applicants for small fields and subfields from underrepresented groups.” To whatever extent that “diversity” move brings in new students for those “small fields and subfields,” it would just set a different group of students up for disappointment and failure.

Another recommendation is to strengthen teaching preparation. Now, it is true (as many undergrads will tell you) that many new professors in English (and other courses as well) are poor at teaching. But even if their grad studies turned students into exemplary classroom teachers, that wouldn’t do anything to solve the sustainability problem.

The most sensible of the recommendations is to reduce the time it takes to earn the degree to five years. It only serves the interests of the faculty to hold students as veritable indentured servants for as long as they do, but making it less costly to obtain a Ph.D. won’t do a thing to increase the demand for them.

Here is the bitter reality that the MLA won’t face – professors have been killing their market with all of their ideological zealotry and quirky tangents. Unless a miracle changes that, the ship is going to sink.