Tag Archives: first amendment

The Seven Deadly Sins of Higher Education

About 15 years ago I began writing extensively about the rising cost of higher education, even starting a research center (the Center for College Affordability and Productivity) focused on that topic. I am now convinced that rising costs are NOT the dominant problem facing our universities. There are at least seven deadly sins –not precisely the original Christian deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—but pretty close.

Let’s start with greed. The first deadly sin is that colleges are outrageously expensive. It takes a larger proportion of the income of the typical citizen of New Jersey to pay the listed tuition fee of Princeton University today than it did in 1840. Whereby the cost of virtually everything else has risen less than our incomes, thereby making them more affordable, college is the unique exception.

The federal government has contributed mightily to the problem: tuition growth has accelerated rapidly since the late 1970s –when federal student loan and grant programs were vastly expanded to the bulk of the college population. In 1987 Education Secretary Bill Bennett claimed federal aid programs enabled colleges to raise fees dramatically, and recent research at both the New York Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it. Higher tuition fees have funded a vast unproductive university bureaucracy (the sin of gluttony) that detracts from teaching and research.

Related: How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

Not only are costs rising, benefits are falling. The second deadly sin is that there is far too little “good” learning going on in America’s universities. By good learning, I mean learning that entails the transmission of the knowledge and wisdom of previous generations to the current one and enables us to add to this past cultural and intellectual capital. Today’s college students, typically spending less than 30 hours weekly for 32 weeks a year on academics, are remarkably ignorant about our own past, giving them the impression that they are the Superior Generation, possessing an extraordinary fount of knowledge and moral virtues.

Thus historical and wrathful ignoramuses at Yale insisted that John C. Calhoun’s name be taken off a college, despite the fact he served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, was in Congress (elected by the people or the state legislature) for over two decades, and held major cabinet appointments under two other presidents.  Like many others of his generation, he strongly defended slavery, becoming a strong believer of state rights. Times change, and the notion of today’s faux Superior Generation that “only our values are morally sound” denigrates those responsible for America’s exceptionalism.

This sin in not limited to historical illiteracy. For example, I suspect one-third of my students use the word “compliment” when they mean “complement.” A federal Adult Literacy Surveyed some years ago showed declining literacy among college students, an undoubtedly continuing trend. I doubt most college students could name one of John Milton’s works and are clueless on what Aristotle or Rousseau contributed to our culture. Contrary to the contemporary zeitgeist, an appreciation of the contributions of some “dead white men” strengthens the greatest civilization ever created.

There are not only sins of omission (failure to teach the Western canon) but also of commission –the third deadly sin is that political correctness has led to the suppression of many ideas and freedom of expression, robbing students of the vitality associated with questioning conventional wisdom. We increasingly preach ideology –universities often appear to be secular theocracies, with campus bullies – 21st-century Torquemadas–suppressing free expression.  Scientists, for example, are increasingly afraid to suggest that global warming is possibly not quite the threat the establishment believes –the Spanish Inquisition redux.

Why aren’t university presidents asserting their authority to put an end to this foolishness, especially the suppression of First Amendment rights and free expression? To be fair, some do, but far too many let the campus crazies intimidate them. The fourth deadly sin is one of feckless non-leadership –sloth if you will –that enables the barbarians to storm the gates and dramatically diminish the vitality and good coming from the campus experience.

Related: Crime but No Punishment at Middlebury?

Yet the presidents are not alone in consenting to the gradual deterioration of the campus learning environment. A fifth sin emanates from a faculty that too often fiddles with its often non-consequential research while letting Rome (or Berkeley, Missouri, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury or Yale) burn. After all, the faculty do the teaching and usually control the curriculum. It is the faculty that removed required courses in history, language and other foundational subjects while implementing all sorts of politically correct courses devoid of intellectual content to appease vocal minorities.

Also, the governing boards of universities are typically made up largely of excessively prideful folks who combine their lust for recognition with a slothful inattention to what really is happening on campus—a sixth sin, one of neglect. To be sure, the information they receive comes typically from the president, who often fails to inform trustees of wasteful spending and campus scandals.  When trustees occasionally try to fulfill their oversight role by seeking delicate information, they are sometimes ostracized and even sued —witness the sad spectacle of Wallace Hall, a regent at the University of Texas, a man who exposed an admissions scandal– and consequently faced impeachment and vindictive legal proceedings.

Or how about governance in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where Duke University trustees protected the university president as his administration savagely and unjustly punished the lacrosse team, or where North Carolina’s trustees were either sinfully unaware of a major athletic scandal or hid it from the public they allegedly served. Trustees, indeed,   too often serve as administration cheerleaders rather than overseers.

Related: Troubling News from North Carolina

That brings me to the seventh deadly sin: a lack of transparency, combined with obfuscation, and deception. Universities go to great lengths to hide important information about themselves –the amount students learn or earn (after college), salaries of key employees, or morally questionable activity (remember Jerry Sandusky?) They bury the bad news, exaggerate and promote the good news. They suppress competition and innovation through their accreditation agencies that they claim promote integrity and high quality. I would be very hesitant to buy a used car from a senior university official in today’s America.

To be fair, not all universities are highly sinful, and there are many good people in America’s colleges. But the seven deadly sins mentioned above are prevalent enough to erode public confidence in our universities (as recent New America polling confirms), ultimately leading to reduced support and declining enrollments.

Duke Goes After a Critic in the Lacrosse Case

Six years ago, Duke University suffered a high-profile humiliation from which it is still struggling to recover. Students on Duke’s lacrosse team were accused of a brutal sexual assault on a local stripper who had been hired to perform at a party.

The charges were false. But in the interval between the initial headlines and the students’ eventual vindication, credulous faculty and others in the university community applied a presumption of guilt, denouncing the students as rapists.

A university steeped in traditions of free speech and the pursuit of truth was exposed as blinded by its own dogma, unwilling to acknowledge inconvenient facts that undercut the credibility of the students’ accuser, and indifferent to the students’ civil liberties.

Given this sordid history, one would expect Duke to be taking steps to demonstrate its renewed commitment to due process and first amendment principles. On the contrary, the university, which has been sued by the former lacrosse team players and their parents, recently served a subpoena on Robert “KC” Johnson, an outspoken critic of Duke’s handling of the (non-)rape scandal and co-author of the leading book on the subject.

Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, is co-author (with journalist and legal scholar Stuart Taylor) of “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustice of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.” (Disclosure: Taylor is a friend of mine). Duke’s subpoena demands Johnson’s disclosure of confidential information he received from sources for the book, including the former Duke students and their lawyers.

Duke’s subpoena, which is being contested in federal district court in Maine, is an offense to journalistic independence and academic freedom. Historians and journalists can’t perform their truth-telling function if their sources have reason to fear that their role, and the information they agree to provide, will later be exposed and scrutinized in court.

This is obviously true if the sources’ identity or information are confidential. This is also true in the fairly common situation in which a source, although named in a book as a source for one statement or fact, provides additional information to the authors, on a confidential basis, for still other statements or facts that are published unattributed. The process of conducting original research for a journalistic or historical work is crippled if lawyers are free to depose authors about these matters.

The legal privilege protecting the work of historians and journalists is not absolute, to be sure. The university’s claim to the subpoenaed information would be more convincing if Duke had exhausted all alternative sources and the information were truly essential to its ability to defend itself in litigation. But Duke hasn’t come close to meeting these standards.

Duke’s leaders should think hard about how much the school is willing to lose. If they insist on enforcing their subpoena, what will they say the next time a Duke professor receives an intrusive court order to turn over confidential research or communications?

­­­­­­­­­­­­____________________________________________________________________________________

Peter Scheer is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in California. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Coalitions Board of Directors.

Want to Hear Obama? Just Say You Support Him

Many people are miffed at the way the University of
Wisconsin is handling President Obama’s visit to our campus today. Concerns are
not with the visit per se–most of us think the event is something very
compelling, a bit of history entering through our gates. The location of the
speech in the heart of the campus is one problem–it requires the cancellation
of some classes. A far bigger one  is
that to get tickets to the event, students are required by the University to go to the Obama campaign website, provide
contact information, and then click on a button that says ‘I’m In!’.

A faculty colleague,
Ken Mayer, sent around an email of protest. He wrote: “Having a president visit as an
educational public event is one thing. Forcing students to declare their
support for a presidential candidate in order to attend the event on campus is
quite another. Should we be in the business of helping a campaign farm
thousands of email addresses?”

Mayer’s point is very well taken. The University is
making itself a partner in a campaign operation that will take extensive
student information and use it for campaign purposes. I cannot imagine this
procedure being employed for a typical public speech on this campus.

In addition, this procedure raises questions of
“compelled association.” Under the First Amendment, no one can be compelled to
associate with or support ideas or causes with which that person disagrees or
does not care to associate. A long line of cases support this principle: the
right not to speak or associate is the flip side of the right to speak or
associate.

It is very likely
that principled students–those on both sides of the political spectrum as well
as many students who have taken my First Amendment class–will refuse to so
associate. Interestingly, many pro-Obama faculty members I have spoken with have
expressed deep concerns about the procedure for obtaining a ticket. Mayer and I
have expressed our problems with the handling of this event to campus
authorities, but at least I have not heard back as of this writing.

Is this an example of a partisan university bending over
to accommodate the progressive hero? I do not know. I think the more likely
explanation is that decisions were hurried, and that it simply may not have
occurred to anyone that the registration procedures in this case posed serious
problems for the principles of an open university. By delegating this plan to
the campaign itself, we have forsaken our commitment to an open university at
the same time that we are striving to affirm those principles by holding this
extraordinary event. This is not something of which we should be proud.