Tag Archives: Peter Wood

Ahmadine-jabbing American Students

Central Connecticut State University is doing its part
for international diplomacy.  The campus
newspaper, The Central Reporter,
tells us that in late September CCSU professor of political science Ghassan
El-Eid brought a dozen CCSC students “to attend a dinner with Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran,” who was in New York for a meeting of the
U.N. General Assembly. 

President Ahmadinejad, of course, has had some practice
talking to American college students. Back in 2007, Columbia University
occasioned some controversy by inviting him to speak at its World Leaders
Forum.  Stinging from criticism of the
decision, Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger announced he would use the
occasion to annoy his guest.  As the Chronicle
of Higher Education
put it:

“Mr. Bollinger said he would
introduce the president by issuing “sharp challenges” to his denial of the
Holocaust, stated goal of wiping Israel off the map, support for terrorism,
defiance of sanctions stemming from Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and suppression
of human rights and civil liberties.”

Bollinger has long been a champion of vigorous free
speech (The Tolerant Society, 1986; Images of a Free Press, 1991; Eternally Vigilant, 2002; Uninhibited,
Robust, and Wide-Open
, 2010)–at least in principle.  His record in practice is a bit uneven.  In 2006, for example, after a group of
Columbia students violently interrupted and ended a
scheduled talk by members of the Minuteman Project, he had trouble finding
anything to say, but after a few months issued an anemic letter saying that
Columbia had investigated and taken appropriate steps to discipline the
students who had jumped the stage and assaulted the speaker.   He didn’t disclose the punishments, but
eventually it came out that those found guilty were merely given “warnings”
which were put on their transcripts temporarily, to be removed at the end of
2008.  One of the students, Monique Dols, gloated, “It’s a
light punishment; it’s a slap on the wrist. It’s a victory for free speech and
anti-racism.” 

When it came to Ahmadinejad’s visit to the World Leaders
Forum, however, Bollinger delivered what the Chronicle
described as “a blistering critique.” 
The event remains an odd milestone for the contemporary campus.  By inviting Ahmadinejad, Columbia University
bestowed a signal honor on one of the worst actors in contemporary world
politics, and then tried to reverse the meaning of the occasion by turning the guest
into the object of contumely.  Bollinger
earned both praise for being tough and criticism for being rude and undermining
“his own ideals of free speech and academic freedom.” 

Ahmadinejad turned Bollinger’s assault to his own
rhetorical advantage.  He began his
speech by reproving Bollinger.  The Washington
Post
‘s
transcript noted the applause: 

At the outset I want to
complain a bit from the person who read this political statement against me. In
Iran tradition requires that when we demand a person to invite to be a speaker
we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make
their own judgment and we don’t think it’s necessary before this speech is even
given to come in with a series of claims…

(APPLAUSE)

… and to attempt in a
so-called manner to provide vaccination of some sort to our students and our
faculty.

I think the text read by the
dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and
the knowledge of the audience here, present here. In a university environment
we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the
truth is eventually revealed by all.

Certainly he took more than
all the time I was allocated to speak, and that’s fine with me. We’ll just
leave that to add up with the claims of respect for freedom and the freedom of
speech that’s given to us in this country.

Ahmadinejad, having presided over judicial murder of his
political opponents and bloody suppression of public protest of his regime, is
no one’s idea of a friend of free speech or academic freedom, but he is a
clever tactician.  Bollinger played to
his own audience of academics eager to hear a blustery put-down of a
tyrant.  But Ahmadinejad played to a
world stage as a man witnessing against the hypocrisy of the West. 

Which brings us back to the outing for Central
Connecticut State University students. 
By this point, the Iranian president has perfected his pitch.  He knows American college students have a
tenuous grasp of history and world politics and that their deepest longing is
to be “inclusive.” And he serves up exactly that.  The student newspaper reports that the
students described him as kind to everyone who asked a question,”  “not as radical as the western media portray
him,” and–of course–“inclusive.” 

This was too much for one of my board members, Jay
Bergman, who teaches history at Central Connecticut, and to whom I’m indebted
for this glimpse into the vacancy of the soul of American higher education.
Bergman recounted the affair in the Litchfield County Times, complete
with a Bartlett’s full of Ahmadinejad’s venomous declarations. 

Professor Ghassan El-Eid, who arranged the event, is
something of a campus celebrity. 
According to the university he is a political consultant for MSNBC, has
“granted numerous national TV and newspaper interviews,” and “has also been
heard on NPR and the Pacific Radio Network.” 
Which I suppose is a way of saying that the honor granted the
undergraduate Central Connecticut students to dine with the dictator was no accident.  

Indoctrinating Students Isn’t Easy

UCLA has found a novel way to improve the politicization of its curriculum. UCLA Today, the faculty and staff newspaper, reports that the university’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Sustainability Committee have teamed up to help faculty members across the university figure out ways to slip sustainability messages into their classes, regardless of the actual subjects they are teaching.  Participating faculty members get a two-hour workshop and a $1,200 grant to turn their courses into vehicles of sustaina-ganda. 

The newspaper account highlights political science professor Miriam Golden who is using the extra money to change reading lists, data sets, homework assignments.  Professor Golden is ardently behind the cause.  “I think climate change is the largest global challenge to ever face the human race, and we need to help students understand the social and political implications,” she says.  But the money clearly helps.  She wouldn’t be altering the content of her courses without it.

Is it a good thing when a third party puts money on the table to ensure that a particular point of view gets extra attention and favorable treatment in a public university?  Not when Charles G. Koch pledged $1.5 million to support faculty appointments in Florida State University’s economics department for the purpose of promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”  When that story broke in Spring 2011, the higher education establishment expressed dismay at the supposed affront to academic freedom.  Two FSU professors, Kent Miller and Ray Bellamy, led the charge against the “intrusive actions” of the funders, but a faculty panel grudgingly found the grant acceptable.  The progressive commentariate could hardly find enough exclamation points to express its outrage at this commercial sullying of the pure soul of academic inquiry.

I don’t expect that UCLA’s little experiment in cash incentives to faculty members who adjust their teaching in the direction of global warming hysteria and the virtues of sustainability will elicit any similar disdain.  But the Koch “intrusion” at Florida State and the sustainability grants at UCLA are really two sides of the same coin.  Charles Koch would like universities to teach more about the virtues of free markets.  The sustainability crowd generally views free markets as a deep source of environmental ruination.  Both sides are ready to put some money into the game. The Koch grant supports the appointment of faculty members in one department who would be explicitly identified as advocates for a point of view.  The UCLA program is meant to insinuate a point of view across the whole curriculum.  Which sounds more likely to infringe on the integrity of academic programs or the intellectual freedom of students?

UCLA innovation is the cash incentive, not the attempt at broader product placement.  The effort to get sustainability incorporated in every class has been a goal of the sustainability movement for some time. The question for the sustainatopians has been how best to make this happen.  The National Association of Scholars has watched these efforts unfold first as naked aggression, as we reported in “An Elbow in the Ribs: Prof-Prodding Toward Sustainability.”  Sometimes it took more than an elbow bestowed on the reluctant professor, as we observed in “The Sustainability Inquisition.”  Carrots in the form of cash incentives are arguably an improvement over the sticks that the movement more typically uses. 

The money might be put to some good uses.  Who would object to the Earth and Space Sciences professor taking the cash to make videos of fluid dynamics to explain how the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” came about?  There is, however, something a little unsettling about an effort to make every class in a university into a brick in a wall of advocacy.  “Sustainability” falsely presents itself as settled wisdom not only about the science of climate change, but about the proper economic, political, and social responses.  These are matters where students deserve the benefit of hearing the best arguments from all sides.  UCLA’s decision to stack the deck is, unfortunately, all too common for the University of California.  The best response from UCLA faculty members would be to refuse the money and to teach their courses in the spirit of fair-minded scholarship, not as exercises in recruitment to a cause.  

Barry Commoner, Connected

Barry Commoner died on September 30 at age 95. His passing shouldn’t go unmarked, as he was one of the architects of what has become the dominant ideological movement on American college campuses:  sustainability. Commoner, a professor of biology and a third party candidate in 1980 for President of the United States, was the chief perpetrator of the so-called first law of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else.” 

The unity of all things goes back at least to the ancient Greek Parmenides and probably to our intrepid ancestors who descended deep into French caves to paint images of galloping bison.

But in Commoner’s hands, “Everything is connected to everything else,” became a weapon, a  slingshot to put rocks through the windows of modern civilization. The  “law” gave an air of scientific authority to remote worries. The death of a snail darter in a river in Tennessee might herald some unimagined catastrophe elsewhere in the food chain.   

By Commoner’s logic, there is no “reasonable” limit to how many degrees of separation should be traced between purported cause and conjectural effect. If we are now faced with governors and mayors of big cities who discern the elusive footprints of global warming in a late season hurricane, their uncanny knowledge of meteorology owes more than a little to Professor Commoner. He’s the guy who taught us to err on the side of wild surmise. 

Well before his rise in the 1960s as the main heir to Rachel Carson’s chemicals-are-scary form of environmentalism, Commoner had been an activist against open-air nuclear testing. He helped conduct a study showing the presence of the isotope strontium 90 in baby’s teeth, which showed that radioactive fallout was indeed finding its way into our bodies. It may have been difficult to gauge to what degree this amount of strontium 90 was actually harmful, but it proved fairly easy to alarm the public.

The dangers of science multiplied by the heedlessness of free market capitalism became Commoner’s great theme. He spun it out in a series of books, beginning with one I had to read in high school, Science and Survival (1966). The Closing Circle (1971) is an indictment of modern technology. The Poverty of Power (1976) continues a theme from Science and Survival in which Commoner used the laws of thermodynamics to give an air of finality to his policy preferences. In Poverty, we learn that the very laws of the universe dictate that solar power is our only alternative. 

In a more sober age, Commoner would have been recognized as a crackpot. In our age, he was a celebrity. Time put him on its cover in 1970. He garnered awards and at least eleven honorary degrees. The New York Times noted his death with a major obituary that only here and there touched on his extremism. The Times obit observes, “Although the rules were plain enough, the thinking behind them required leaps of faith.” The obit also notices Commoner’s long infatuation with Marxism and his prefiguring of the sustainability movement by crowding the environmental ark with the bestiary of a leftist political zoo: 

“Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem.”

My favorite detail is that out of his concern for the environment, Commoner’s shirts were always wrinkled–ironing being a superfluous waste of energy.  It must have gladdened his heart in later years to see colleges banning bottled water and creating tray-less cafeterias to save the resources needed to wash away spilled soup. 

Much as I regard Commoner as a source of intellectual and cultural mischief, I must praise him for one thing, and not a small one.  He early on set himself in direct opposition to the other great exaggerator and doom-monger environmentalist of his time, Paul Ehrlich.  Ehrlich saw (and presumably still sees, although these days he is on about global warming) overpopulation as the root environmental problem and preached the need for coercive government control as the only solution.  Commoner fought back on both fronts.  Ehrlich’s father, incidentally, was a shirt salesman.  Everything is connected to everything else.

The Wacky World of Victim Studies

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Bruce Bawer’s new
book, The Victims’ Revolution:  the Rise of Identity Studies
and the Closing of the Liberal Mind
, arrived on the front page of the “Back
to School” issue of the New York Times Book Review.  Any
author of a book on higher education would have to be delighted to be awarded
such prominence.  The review itself, however, sliced in the opposite direction,
declaring The Victims’ Revolution to
be quaintly out of touch with the realities of American higher education;
behind the times; mistaken in its basic points; “lacking in balance;”
full of “dubious assertions;” guilty of preciosity in its criticisms;
and oblivious to the real issues of the day.  


The reviewer, Andrew
Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, earlier this
year offered up his own diagnosis of what ails American higher education
now.  In College:  What it Was, Is, and
Should Be
, Delbanco argued that “the vast majority of college students are
capable of engaging the kinds of big questions–questions of truth,
responsibility, justice, beauty, among others–that were once assumed to be at
the center of college education.”  His is
the voice of a moderate reformer who is at peace with most of the changes in
higher education that have arisen in the last half century, including its
massive expansion, but who sees some room for improvement.

Continue reading The Wacky World of Victim Studies

Anger and the Banality of Academe

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My
editors at the Chronicle last
week declined to permit me to publish my last piece on the same-sex marriage
debate. They pointed out, reasonably enough, the topic is “too far afield from and
tangential to academe and academic policy to run on Innovations.” That
topic has, of course, had plenty of play on another Chronicle blog, Brainstorm, but I
understand the skittishness of the post-Naomi opinion section of the Chronicle when
it comes to dissent from
the prevailing norms of academic opinion, and I quietly slid the article over
to Minding the Campus, where
its academic anchor held fast.

With
that out of the way, I turned to issues that I was pretty sure wouldn’t set off
tsunamis of protest: the importance of teaching the history of Western
civilization; my own multicultural undergraduate education; and the creative
side of coming to terms with cultural loss. I am rather enjoying this placid
stretch, and rather than rush to re-join the debates over student financial
aid, the higher-education bubble, governance at UVa, the role of technology on
campus, the latest sustainalunacies from last month’s conference at UC
Davis, and the like, I’m sticking with the theme that higher education is
relaxing deeper and deeper into banality. Not just any kind of banality but a
banality that artfully and sometimes pleasingly combines the detritus of
popular culture, the ersatz sophistication of the opinion elites, a consumer
ethic, random bits of globalized commerce, and the jumbled fragments of the old
civilization. We recline in the shade of those ruins. And it is not so bad
.

Continue reading Anger and the Banality of Academe

Oppositional Gay Culture and the Future of Marriage

Parade.jpgThese are banner days for the gay-rights movement. “Banner Days” is in fact the front page headline in The New York Times Book Review for a review of Linda Hirshman’s new book, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. The reviewer, Rich Benjamin, praises Hirshman’s work but feels the need to chasten her on the extent of the “victory”–

There are no federal protections against anti-gay employment discrimination. Same-sex marriage is explicitly forbidden in 38 states. Most Southern states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Gay families face codified and implicit discrimination when adopting children. Gay youth across the country are stigmatized by their peers.

Benjamin is surely right that these are fairly large discrepancies to
accommodate to a thesis that the gay-rights movement has achieved
unalloyed victory. Gays and lesbians are a lot more mainstream than at
any earlier time in American history, but they nonetheless remain divided
from American culture and society in significant ways.

Continue reading Oppositional Gay Culture and the Future of Marriage

UCLA: Still Obsessed with Diversity

diversity.jpgWhat is it with universities in California? Financially strapped, troubled by protesters making impossible demands, and worried about the declining value of their academic programs, many of the state’s great universities decide to…redouble their commitment to a fast-fading political ideology.

The latest example is the impending vote by the faculty of UCLA’s
College of Letters and Science that would add a course on diversity to
the general education requirements. Only it is not called a course on
diversity. Because the word “diversity” has become too obviously an
enunciation of a contentious political agenda, the supporters of the new
requirement have renamed it “Community and Conflict.” Kaustuv Basu,
writing
on Inside Higher Ed, quotes a UCLA official who observes that
earlier efforts in this vein failed because the word diversity “means
different things to different people.” And the chairman of the Faculty
Executive Committee helpfully explains that the community and conflict
requirement “is not designed to be a diversity requirement.”

Continue reading UCLA: Still Obsessed with Diversity

Why They Seem to Rise Together:
Federal Aid and College Tuition

It’s called “the Bennett Hypothesis,” and it explains–or tries to explain–why the cost of college lies so tantalizingly out of reach for so many. In 1987, then Secretary of Education William J. Bennett launched a quarter century of debate by saying, in effect, “Federal aid doesn’t help; colleges and universities just cream off the extra money by raising tuition.” Now Andrew Gillen, research director of CCAP–the Center for College Affordability and Productivity–has tweaked the data and produced a sophisticated “2.0” version of the hypothesis. It’s filled with heavy math, game theory and terms like “inelastic fairly vertical curves.” You probably won’t read it. We know. But it’s important. So here are some smart people who have read it, and have something to say: Peter Wood, Hans Bader, Richard Vedder, George Leef and Herbert London. image for mtc.jpeg

Peter Wood: They Are Insatiable

Long before I knew it was called the “Bennett Hypothesis” I knew that colleges and universities increase tuition to capture increases in federal and state financial aid. I attended numerous meetings of university administrators where the topic of setting next year’s tuition was discussed.
The regnant phrase was “Don’t leave money sitting on the table.” The metaphoric table in question was the one on which the government had laid out a sumptuous banquet of increases of financial aid. Our job was to figure out how to consume as much of it as possible in tuition increases. This didn’t necessarily mean we were insensitive to the needs of financially less well-off students. A substantial portion of the money we captured would be reallocated as “tuition discounts” or “institutional aid.” That is to say, just as Andrew Gillen observes, we combined Bennett Hypothesis-style capture of external student financial aid with “price discrimination.” And we did all this in the pursuit of educational excellence. It was a large private university in the shadow of world-ranked neighbors and it was attempting to pull itself up in the world of prestige and influence by its bootstraps. There were townhouses that needed buying; laboratories that needed building; faculty stars that needed hiring; classrooms and residence halls that needed refurbishing; symphonies that needed performing; grotesque modern sculptures that needed displaying; and administrators that needed chauffeuring. So long before I heard of “Bowen’s Rule,” I was also familiar with the idea that “in the quest for excellence, prestige, and influence, there is virtually no limit to the amount of money” a university could spend. Familiar as these ideas are, I have never seen them as well elucidated as Andrew Gillen has in Introducing Bennett Hypothesis 2.0. If there is a fault in this remarkable policy paper it lies in the modesty of the title. Gillen has provided what by all rights should be a foundational document for any further analysis of the vexed issue of how federal (and state) financial aid interacts with the pricing strategies of colleges and universities. Gillen’s sophisticated revision of Bill Bennett’s idea explains many of the perplexities of the data. Yes, Pell Grants do not drive tuition increases the way general tuition assistance does. Yes, many colleges prefer to increase their selectivity rather than expand capacity. (He doesn’t mention, however, the strategy of doing both at once by creating highly selective “honors programs” and remedial tracts at the same institution.) Price discrimination in the form of variable tuition discounts ensures that no ordinary observer can figure out what is happening when federal aid mixes with pricing strategies. One of Gillen’s most compelling observations, however, is what he calls “the dynamic story,” which he introduces by way of game theory. This is his explanation of why a college cannot plausibly sit on the sidelines as its competitors raise tuition and use the increased income to raise their standing. Gillen’s theory, though highly plausible, remains to be tested. Let’s hope that comes soon.

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Richard Vedder: Market Discipline, Please

Andrew Gillen masterfully demonstrates that Bill Bennett is right–federal financial aid programs lead to higher tuition. The implications of this and related financial aid effects are profound:

1. The intended income transfers from taxpayers (and, increasingly bondholders) to students have been largely diverted to college coffers; swelling payrolls and leading to armies of new university bureaucrats, million-dollar college presidents, an academic arms race and other pathologies;

2. This, in turn, has thwarted university productivity growth and helps explain why higher education is vastly more expensive than in most other major developed countries;

3. The goal of helping low-income students has not been met, and a lower percent of recent college graduates come from less affluent students than was true in 1970 when Pell Grants did not exist;

4. To the extent that these aid programs have increased enrollments (read Gillen), they have added to the growing disconnect between labor-market realities and student job expectations, creating armies of college graduates who are bartenders, taxi drivers, etc.

5. Enrollment increases, in turn, have contributed to a dumbing down of higher education and to declining standards.

What to do? The federal government needs to wind down its financial aid commitment. Restrict eligibility for aid to truly low-income students. Impose performance criteria for aid recipients: mediocre students will lose aid. Make the college absorb some of the risk for loan defaults–a lesson we should have learned from the financial crisis. Give Pell Grants as vouchers directly to students, not schools. Reinstate private lending options. Unveil new human capital contract approaches that reduce debt reliance. Downsize and reinvent federal programs and allow market discipline to operate more.

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George Leef: Will Politicians Pay Attention?

William Bennett is no economist (in fact, he once told an interviewer that he never reads books on economics) but his instinct on the connection between federal aid and rising college costs was pretty accurate. While higher education establishment defenders have often tried to dismiss Bennett’s insight, it’s basically correct, Gillen shows.Not always, however. Gillen argues persuasively that student aid targeted at low-income students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college contributes little or nothing to rising costs because the institutions cannot “capture” the additional funds. That finding doesn’t mean that it would be a good policy to increase this kind of aid, of course.Government student-aid programs that are universally available, however, do lead to rising college costs. Gillen has worked through various differing scenarios to show how increasing student aid is apt to influence college officials. Particularly important in that regard is his emphasis on looking not just at short-run effects, but also what he calls “the dynamic story.” Here’s what he means. Even if some schools decide not to raise tuition when government aid puts more dollars in student pockets, those that do will spend the revenues gained on the zero-sum game of gaining prestige. Since most colleges won’t want to keep falling behind in that arms race, they’ll eventually give in and raise tuition. Not always, however. Gillen argues persuasively that student aid targeted at low-income students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college contributes little or nothing to rising costs because the institutions cannot “capture” the additional funds. That finding doesn’t mean that it would be a good policy to increase this kind of aid, of course.Gillen concludes that the only escape from Bennett 2.0 is for the nature of competition in higher education to change–away from seeking greater “prestige” and toward competing for consumer dollars by offering better value. He’s right and the rumblings of disaffection with mere credentials and the search for real education seems to presage just that.I applaud this work, but will it make any difference? After all, it is clear beyond any doubt that raising the minimum wage is counter-productive, but politicians keep doing that. Why should Gillen’s demonstration that the more politicians try to make college “affordable,” the more costly it becomes be any different?

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Hans Bader: Ever-growing Bureaucracies

You don’t need to be a Ph.D in economics, like Gillen is, to know that government subsidies usually lead to higher costs. That subsidies drive up costs is something I learned in introductory economics, long before I got my degree in economics or worked for the Education Department. The value of Gillen’s study is to show that this conclusion logically remains true even under widely-varying assumptions about educational markets. Gillen does not discuss certain Education Department rules that drive up tuition even more directly. For example, certain low-cost schools are affected by the Education Department’s 90-10 rule, which requires that the school keep tuition high enough for students that no more than 90 percent of its funding is covered by federal financial aid. So as financial aid rises, tuition necessarily rises even faster. But financial aid is not the only way that the government drives up tuition. State and federal regulations imposed on colleges have mushroomed in recent years, requiring colleges to hire ever-increasing numbers of administrators to comply with them. (There are now more college administrators than faculty at the California State University system and many other colleges). For example, colleges in New Jersey are subject to a costly and complicated anti-bullying law that has 18 pages of required components. Colleges in some states are subject to state sexual harassment laws that are more stringent than federal law, and hold colleges liable for uncapped damages for harassment by students, effectively requiring them to create specialized university bureaucracies to swiftly investigate and discipline students, rather than relying on ordinary campus disciplinary bodies that operate at a slower and more deliberative pace. Government regulations often require that a school be accredited, a condition that accreditors like the American Bar Association use to force law schools to use racial preferences in admissions or run costly diversity and sensitivity-training programs (despite the dubious legality of some such programs and admissions preferences). Such mandates have contributed to the growth of a vast and costly “diversity machine” in college administrations. Recent Education Department guidance documents have also made Title IX compliance more difficult and costly for colleges, by seeking to force them to process sexual harassment complaints against students in ways that differ from customary college procedures in disciplinary cases, and to give certain complainants the ability to appeal a school’s finding that an accused student was innocent. Gillen cites a study showing that for-profit colleges whose students received federal financial aid charged 75 percent more than those whose students were not eligible. I wonder if some fraction of this difference was the result of government mandates tied to the financial aid, rather than the aid itself. image for mtc.jpeg

Herbert I. London: We Need Controls

My experience in higher education confirms the opinion that federal aid has an influence, a profound influence, on tuition decisions and other aspects of university finances.

Clearly not all federal aid is the same and not all college responses to aid are the same. However, there is a dynamic quality to federal subsidies that cannot be ignored. Every federal dollar given to a university will be spent. This is a version of higher education’s Parkinson’s Law. The institution expands in multiple ways to accommodate government largesse. Derek Bok, former Harvard president, said, “Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.”

Every dollar given to a college goes through the turnstile of institutional improvement. Teaching loads could be reduced, new laboratories might be built, an academic “star” might be lured into a newly created position. But year one in this allocational arrangement is not always related to year two. If the initial costs are borne by government aid, the future costs may put pressure on the administration to seek additional revenue, very often in the form of tuition increases.

In fact, the process tends to be self-fulfilling. Aid producers reforms; reform leads to additional expense; additional expense very often translates into upward pressure on tuition rates. While President Obama has discussed controlling college costs, he overlooks the influence federal assistance has on college affordability. Nor is there any reason to assume a change of direction. There is political capital to be garnered by demanding cost controls and, at the same time, expanding access to tuition assistance. That these conditions may be contradictory is lost on a public increasingly frustrated with the inflated cost of a college education.

The Keeton Case–An Abuse of Academic Power

Cross-posted from NAS.

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Several weeks ago, KC Johnson–a scholar I much admire, not least for his fearless dedication to principle–published an essay on Minding the Campus under the title, “Keeton Defense Contradicts NAS Principles.”  We offered Professor Johnson the opportunity to re-post his article or contribute a further statement on the NAS website.  He accepted and posted both the article and an addendum of about the same length as his original.

I would like to respond in defense of the NAS’s position.  But, first, for those who haven’t followed the controversy, a summary.

Keeton So Far

It concerns a court case in Georgia.  Jennifer Keeton was a graduate student at Augusta State University (ASU) where she began studying for a degree in Counselor Education in fall 2009.  She completed two regular semesters and two summer sessions but was then dismissed from the program because she refused to participate in a “remediation plan” that was designed either to change her views on homosexuality or convince her to misrepresent those views.  Miss Keeton, citing her Christian beliefs, held that homosexuality is a form of “identity confusion,” and had stated this view in class.  The faculty members involved rejected her view and cited it as “a violation of the codes of ethics to which counselors and counselors-in-training are required to adhere.”  The remediation plan to which she was assigned singled out Miss Keeton’s view that homosexuality is a “lifestyle,” and posited that “sexual orientation is not a lifestyle or choice, but a state of being.”   (The quotations are from Keeton’s complaint in U.S. District Court, July 21, 2010.)

The most recent development was a decision handed down by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit, January 6, 2012.  The three judges upheld an earlier ruling denying Keeton’s motion for a preliminary injunction against her dismissal from the program.

This is likely to be only a way-station in Keeton’s search for legal relief.  But the 11th Circuit panel did use some strong language to uphold the Augusta State University’s position.  Keeton had claimed that the college had violated her First Amendment rights to free speech by (in the words of the panel) “discriminating against her viewpoint; by retaliating against her for exercising her First Amendment rights and finally by compelling her to express beliefs with which she disagrees.”  To these claims, the panel replied that the “ASU’s counseling program is not a traditional public forum,” but a “supervised learning experience,” and therefore the First Amendment does not apply.  It also held that ASU didn’t impose the remediation plan out of a desire “to discriminate against her personal and religious viewpoint,” but because it plausibly believed Keeton intended “to impose her personal religious views on her clients.”  The court decided that ASU “officials were not asking her to change her beliefs.”  Rather, the school’s primary concern was her “ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor” and her “ability to maintain ethical behavior in all counseling situations.”  At particular issue was Keeton’s supposed determination to “refer clients to conversion therapy,” i.e. therapy aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation.

In general, the 11th Circuit panel upheld the idea that ASU acted appropriately because the view of homosexuality its actions embody is warranted by the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.  The panel recognized that, “As a condition of continuing as a student in the ASU counseling program, Defendants required Miss Keeton to pledge to affirm the morality of sexual conduct she believes immoral,” but found this requirement educationally and professionally appropriate.  That’s because, “Keeton expressed her intent to violate several provisions of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics, which ASU was required to adopt and teach in order to offer a counseling program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

NAS’s Position

The National Association of Scholars along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed an amicus brief on behalf of Keeton.  It was drafted by Eugene Volokh and filed in October 2010.  We argued that Keeton’s First Amendment rights had indeed been trampled.  The brief said that the First Amendment presumptively forbids imposing special obligations on university students who express particular viewpoints; that the lower court had erred in equating ASU’s retaliation against Keeton with normal curricular decisions; and that the lower court’s decision–to rely on “academic standards” as a tool for barring disfavored speech–would justify a vast range of restrictions on intellectual freedom.

When the 11th Circuit panel handed down its decision, NAS reiterated these points.  We think the panel made a mistake.  One dimension of the mistake is that it would force Christians, like Miss Keeton, who believe that homosexuality is immoral, to either tailor their beliefs to ACA standards or similar doctrinaire social positions, or else forego careers in the counseling profession.  That is, of course, just one consequence.  The 11th Circuit panel’s decision opens the door for colleges and universities to de-select students holding any beliefs that happen to be in disfavor with the factions that dominate the increasingly ideological academic and professional associations.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this leads.

Professor Johnson’s Criticisms of NAS

Professor Johnson’s criticisms should be read in full in his own words, but for the sake of brevity, I will summarize.  He makes two main points.  First, the panel’s ruling would not exclude “Christians” from the counseling profession.  Second, the NAS’s position in the Keeton case contradicts NAS’s own defense of equal treatment for all on campus.

My Response

The first criticism is simply a matter of whether the word “Christians” is taken to mean “all Christians” or “some Christians.”  I would have thought that both context and common sense would have favored the latter reading.  There are clearly many Christian denominations that have embraced contemporary views of homosexuality.  In New York City, it is easy to find Christian churches flying the rainbow gay flag.  But there are also many denominations that have stayed with traditional Christian teachings that homosexual behavior is always wrong.  Keeton comes from a branch of Christianity of that type.  I don’t know the proportions of the denominations on either side, but I’ll stick with the view that there are substantial numbers of Christians who would be excluded from the counseling profession if the 11th Circuit panel’s decision stands.

Is the NAS, by defending Keeton’s right to express her views on homosexuality, forsaking its defense of equal treatment for all on campus?  Not at all.  We defended Keeton because she was (and at the moment still is) the object of an abuse of academic power.  She should have the right to hold and express her views on homosexuality without having to give up her educational and career aspirations.  It is plain that her views are indeed in conflict with the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics, and that this Code has been given further force by the counseling education accreditation body, CACREP.  But existence of a bureaucratic apparatus to enforce a form of political correctness does not change its ideological character.

The court in this case has given extraordinary deference to the mechanism by which mere opinions are elevated to the status of professional standards.  There is no deep and compelling reason why all members of the counseling profession should be made to hew to a single view of homosexuality.  Realistically, the vast majority of people seeking professional careers in counseling in the United States today are going to be not only relaxed about homosexuality, but also enthusiastic about the principle of affirming the sexual orientations of clients.   But does the counseling profession have any room at all for the minority who have dissenting opinions?   We think it should, and that universities offering graduate instruction in this field should champion the principle of intellectual diversity, even if that means challenging the edicts of accreditors and professional associations.  Those edicts should not outweigh the First Amendment or a student’s freedom of conscience.

“Equal treatment” in this case means protecting those who espouse unpopular views, even highly disfavored ones.  Keeton posed no threat to other students or to potential clients.  She wore her views openly and gave fair warning to anyone who disagreed with her.  She should not have been denied the opportunity to complete her degree program merely because she espouses an unpopular opinion.

An Emotionally Charged Issue

The treatment of gays and lesbians, as well as other sexual minorities, remains a fraught issue in American society.  We have no wish to stereotype the contending views and the NAS does not take positions on matters outside higher education.  We do not advocate for or against the view that counselors should affirm the sexual orientation of their clients.  Our position, rather, is that universities should leave their students free to decide.  The error of Augusta State University–a public institution–was to impose its own doctrinal position on Miss Keeton.

Professor Johnson thinks that doctrine well founded and consonant with the way in which the counseling profession should go about his work.  He may be right.  But the wholesomeness of the doctrine is not the issue.  The issue is rather whether a public university should be imposing a doctrine at all.

The argument that it should impose this particular doctrine–that counselors should affirm the sexuality of their clients–is that it embodies a correct standard of professional practice.  Not to impose it would be to accede to a form of malpractice.

The argument against imposing this particular doctrine is that it is indeed “doctrine”–an attempt to foreclose discussion on a matter that remains intellectually and morally unsettled.

We realize that to say an issue is “unsettled” pleases neither of the sides who are invested in the view that they have the right answer and that all reasonable people ought to be compelled by reason and evidence to agree with them.  NAS, however, is determined to favor First Amendment freedom, even in circumstances where individuals for whom we have the highest respect regard the views to be protected as undeserving.

What’s Next

Keeton is appealing the panel’s decision by asking the 11th Circuit to give her case full consideration.  Her lawyers are focusing on the questions: (1) “Whether a state university may require a student to promise to sincerely convey a controversial moral judgment that the student disbelieves as a condition of receipt of a state education;” and (2) whether persons have a right against state-compelled speech in any context other than one in which the state makes their presence mandatory.”   That is to say, the appeal narrows the dispute from whether Keeton’s First Amendment rights were violated to the more specific question of whether a state university has the power to require from a student a sincere promise to uphold a “controversial moral judgment.”

This might sound dry, but the matter at stake is one of real importance.  As Keeton’s petition to the 11th Circuit for a re-hearing eloquently puts it:

This case presents a rare instance of blatant, express, and coercive reeducation that should be intolerable across the political spectrum. A business school could not require its students to “affirm” capitalism or disavow socialism as a condition of receipt of an education. A geology department could not require its students to affirm–or deny–the reality of global warming to avoid expulsion. A law school could not require its students to affirm–or deny–the interpretive or moral legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence, nor require students to promise to defend–or oppose–the death penalty in their future professional efforts. A medical school could not require its students to affirm–or deny–female circumcision or sex-change operations. A political science department could not require its students to affirm any particular school of political thought or civic policy proposal. Nor could any of these educators require students to give a running account of the status of their beliefs, and make “correct” beliefs and a promise of ideological cooperation (instead of academic performance) the condition of continuing receipt of a State education.

 The ASU faculty’s conduct in this case is a renunciation of individual conscience and academic freedom, and is intolerable under the First Amendment.

Can Keeton be required “to announce the morality of homosexual sex to clients seeking such approval?”  The 11th Circuit panel said yes.  But this kind of compulsion is deeply at odds with ordinary ideas of American freedom.  If one is seeking to join an organization that has an official creed–be it a church or a group organized to save wildlife, promote the rights of sexual minorities, or advance gun ownership–it would be perfectly reasonable to expect that agreement with the creed would be a condition of membership.  Universities have, within a limited sphere, a right to creeds of their own, as when they demand acceptance of principles of academic integrity as a condition of admission.  But this zone of enforced agreement should not extend to matters of moral judgment beyond the competence of the university to decide.

Conventional opinion now favors the view that homosexuality is simply part of the natural range of human variation.  Conventional opinion might well be right, but that is not really any kind of argument against the right of a minority to hold a dissenting view.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this case is that ASU presented Keeton with an alternative.  According to ASU officials, she was free to hold her personal beliefs so long as she promised to lie about them in her dealings with clients.  The counsel for the University officials explained:

“[I]s it a requirement that the counselor lie? Absolutely.”

 And:

“She doesn’t have to believe it. But she does have to tell the client that [it’s okay to be gay].”

It is hard to think of more vivid evidence that a university has crossed a line that should never be crossed when it conceives of its academic standards as a requirement to lie.

BEST and Not Even Second Best on Global Warming

Crossposted at the National Association of Scholars.

Last year, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller quietly assembled a team of researchers for the purpose of creating a new and independent assessment of the evidence for global warming.  The group, which eventually called itself Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST), came to public notice in February 2011 in an article by Ian Sample in The Guardian.  My colleague at the National Association of Scholars, Ashley Thorne, interviewed Professor Muller in April.  Since then the world has been waiting.

Last week we got the results–or at least a preliminary version of them. BEST released four scientific papers, all of them currently under review for publication. Richard Muller summarized the results of all four in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism.” The researchers found that:

about one-third of the world’s temperature stations have recorded cooling temperatures, and about two-thirds have recorded warming. The two-to-one ratio reflects global warming. The changes at the locations that showed warming were typically between 1-2ºC, much greater than the IPCC’s average of 0.64ºC.

But Muller is careful to add:

How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.

In a separate summary the researchers wrote that the “average world land temperature” has increased “approximately 1º Celsius since the mid-1950s.”

Continue reading BEST and Not Even Second Best on Global Warming

Higher Sex Ed

This article appeared on the National Association of Scholars site on August 30th.

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Eros is notorious for its power to thwart our better judgment and to baffle the rational mind. It can draw us to destinations we would do better to avoid and can prompt forms of resistance that are themselves out of balance and a little crazy. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure portrays a city under the interim rule of a Puritanical judge, Angelo, who would stamp out unlawful expressions of desire by draconian enforcement of the laws. Not only are his efforts futile, they turn out to be hypocritical, since Angelo himself turns seducer.

We are faced with a Measure for Measure moment in higher education today. On one hand, higher education is Angelo-like attempting to stamp out what it judges to be the wrong kinds of sexual expression. On the other hand, colleges and universities are dallying as never before with all sorts of “transgressive” sexual ideas. The main focus of all this is male students, who are expected to submit to a regime in which the boundary between “sexual harassment” (subject to often extreme penalties) and ordinary masculinity is vaporous; while at the same time inhabiting a campus in which faculty members extol the pleasures of promiscuity, pornography, and license.

Eros confuses, but for real bafflement, consider the mixed messages on campus.

On April 4, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, issued a letter announcing that colleges and universities must employ a new and much lower standard of evidence in reviewing complaints about sexual harassment. The new standard, “preponderance of the evidence,” means that the complainant wins when the university judges that 50.01 percent of the evidence supports the allegation.

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What Happens to the Old Universities?

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, $32.95, Jossey-Bass, 475 pages.

The Innovative University.JPGOnline college courses are a “disruptive technology” destined to drive profound changes in higher education in the United States and around the world. This is not an especially new idea. Management guru Peter Drucker, for example, declared in 1997, in an interview with Forbes: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. […] The college won’t survive as a residential institution.” And a great many others–some enthusiastic, others mournful–have since made similar pronouncements.

The term “disruptive technology,” however, is a bit of a novelty. It comes from the co-author of The Innovative University, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, best known for his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. That book might best be thought of as elaborating Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of the “creative destruction” characteristic of capitalist economies. (Schumpeter, in turn, was appropriating and revising an idea framed by Karl Marx.) For Schumpeter, writing in the 1940s, “creative destruction” was mainly a matter of new technologies pushing aside old ones: an essential characteristic of free markets. Christensen added up-to-date examples and some vivid characterizations of how disruption unfolds.

The Innovative University can be read at one level as an attempt by Christensen and his co-author Henry Eyring to fit higher education to Christensen’s template of technological change. The book, however, doesn’t stop there. It is a sprawling army of topics and themes and metaphors. Besides the idea that online learning is the disruptive technology that will transform higher education, Christensen and Eyring are intent on (1) reprising the whole history of Harvard University, (2) narrating the rise of Brigham Young University Idaho from its extremely humble beginning in 1888 as a Mormon elementary school and later as the two-year Ricks College; and (3) detailing the administrative challenges in turning Ricks College into a hybrid residential-online powerhouse, (4) explaining and decrying the 1967 Carnegie Classification of colleges and universities, which fed the appetite of many institutions to move from modest teaching missions to become research-oriented, doctoral degree-granting universities.

Continue reading What Happens to the Old Universities?

The Campus Left’s Nostalgia Party – RSVP

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I head an organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), that is often accused by its critics on the academic left of nostalgia for days when higher education was an exclusive club for the privileged.  The accusation is false.  NAS focuses on the enduring principles of the university:  rational inquiry, liberal learning, and academic freedom.  True, there have been points in the past when these principles have been better observed than they are today, but our interest is in the future of the university, not its past. 

Thus I was eager to learn more when I heard that a group of professors had come forward to promote an ambitious “Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.”  Alas, my excitement proved premature.  It turns out that the Campaign is mostly reactionary.  It was put together by an alliance of groups, mostly unions, fearful of current trends and desperate to halt developments that may well lead away from a recent epoch in which higher education was indeed “an exclusive club for the privileged.”  The “Campaign for Higher Education” might be better titled, “The Way We Were.”

In January the California Faculty Association (CFA), a faculty union, convened a meeting of seventy faculty members, representing several other unions and other organizations, including the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported under the headline, “Faculty Groups Gather to Craft a United Stand on Higher-Education Policy,” that the attendees agreed to take back to their memberships a document drafted by the CFA that “outlines a set of principles it believes should undergird higher-education policy over the next decade.”  AAUP president Cary Nelson indicated that the principles would be presented publicly in April in a series of teach-ins.

Continue reading The Campus Left’s Nostalgia Party – RSVP

Honoring One of the Perpetrators at Duke

What if all college professors were forced to be higher-education entrepreneurs, with salaries pegged to the number of students they attract to their classes? That’s the model recently proposed by a Texas professor who styled himself “Publius Audax” on a Pajamas Media blog. Publius launched his proposal, he wrote, as the solution to a projected $25 billion budget shortfall over the next two years that is likely to hit the Texas higher education hard. Publius’ argument is that his “entrepreneurial professor model,” when coupled with other reforms would “harness the power and efficiency of the market” to make public higher education cheaper and better. The other reforms include abolishing tenure, eliminating state subsidies to public campuses, getting rid of “core curricula” (which nowadays are nothing more than pointless distribution requirements, and allowing private “charter colleges” (both nonprofit and for-profit) onto public campuses in order to provide more competition.

Hmm, my own undergraduate alma mater was founded by a highly successful entrepreneur, the railroad baron Leland Stanford. What if college professors were more like Leland Stanford and less like the brilliant but economically illiterate head-in-the-clouds types who taught at Stanford when I went there?

Here is how Publius’ entrepreneurial professor model would work: All professors and lecturers would receive a base “living wage” of $30,000 plus benefits. Beyond that it would be up to the professors themselves to generate a “tuition-based bonus” for themselves consisting of 50 percent of the tuition income generated by students enrolled in their classes, “up to a maximum of 320 students (960 student hours).” All instructors would be allowed to teach up to eight classes a year. In order to gin up the price competition further, professors, department heads, and even entire colleges could offer tuition rebates to students, the money to come out of the professors’ salary bonuses. Professors with ultra-large classes could hire teaching assistants—but the money would again have to come out of their salary bonuses. And to ensure that professors wouldn’t game the system by handing out easy A’s to all comers, there would be a strict grading curve. No more than 15 percent of students in any given class could receive an A-grade, and another 15 percent would have to either flunk or receive a D. Professors whose grades deviated from the curve would lose their bonus for every student whose grade exceeded the curve. This would not only keep the professors in line, Publius argues, but would “transform the campus culture, replacing partying with studying” as students scrambled to stay out of the bottom of the class.

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Amen to Bard’s Reading Program, but…

President Botstein’s portrait of Bard College’s summer reading assignments in the context of the college’s curriculum and larger educational aims is winsome and compelling. The college leads its students astutely into reading important books. It attends to the order in which such books should be read—Virgil before Dante. It is mindful of the need to challenge students with books that demand their full attention.

The reasons Botstein offers for colleges to offer summer reading programs, however, don’t track very closely with what most of the colleges in the NAS survey say they are doing. According to Botstein, these programs are founded on the need to rouse high school grads from their summer torpor; to introduce them to general education; and for the institution to make a good first impression on its sometimes skittish and prone-to-transfer new students.

But the colleges we surveyed say something else. Many of them say some version of the idea that they want to “build community” on campus by giving students a “shared intellectual experience.” Kalamazoo College, which we quoted in the report, says its:

Continue reading Amen to Bard’s Reading Program, but…

Our Academic Freedom Forum

Congratulations to Minding the Campus for its forum on academic freedom. Saying something constructive about academic freedom doesn’t look all that difficult. It is one of the core doctrines of higher education. It has an abundant history, full of colorful characters, eloquent declarations, incisive legal arguments, and enlivening controversies. Yet somehow University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer managed to turn these ingredients into rhetorical sludge and draw disdain from left, right, and middle.
Peter Sacks faults Zimmer for hypocrisy. Zimmer promotes the principle of academic freedom the way The Museum of Modern Art promotes a niftily designed egg-beater: as something to gaze at under glass, not as a tool for frothing eggs. Academic freedom in actual use, says Sacks, is just a pretext for private universities to remain exclusive.
O’Connor and Black spot the Big Silence in Zimmer’s account of academic freedom: he says nothing about the duties that faculty members must shoulder if they assume the “right” to academic freedom. High on that list of duties is the need for disciplines to enforce tough professional ethics. Because these days, that enforcement has withered, and academic freedom in the true sense is pretty much a dead letter—just another rationale for privileged people to do whatever the hell they want.

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Responding To Weissberg

(This is a response to Robert Weissberg’s “Rescuing The University”)
Professor Weissberg’s “Rescuing the University” offers a compact assessment of the frailties of the movement to restore higher education to light and sanity. He also urges the merits of another, he supposes, untried approach. “Guerilla warfare” and “monastery construction” are the unflattering labels he affixes to some of the efforts he thinks futile. His dismissals strike me as too breezy. FIRE and the Center for Individual Rights, which he cites as among the guerilla forces, have some pretty substantial victories to their credit. Were it not for them, our nation’s universities would be far more strangled by speech codes and systems of racial preferences than they are. It is easy to take their victories for granted or to sleight their accomplishments as falling far short of a re-conquest of the university for wholesome respect of academic principles, but I think Professor Weissberg’s gloom gets the better of him here. Things could be worse. Much worse. Those organizations that pursue tactics based on challenging specific transgressions at specific universities have achieved not only tactical victories but have also kept alive ideals that were in danger of being smothered under the academic left’s self-proclaimed “consensus.”
Professor Weissberg cites Princeton’s Madison Center and the Veritas Center as examples of “monastery construction.” He could easily have expanded the list. (Here’s NAS’s count: There are now about 40 campus centers around the country that aim to keep the study of Western civilization and other major ideas disfavored by the establishment left alive during the dark-ish and still darkening age we inhabit. The National Association of Scholars has had a hand in founding many of them. Are they monasteries, holding out against the barbarian horde? We prefer to think of them as beachheads for faculty members and points of embarkation for students, who might never otherwise glimpse what the life of the mind is really all about.
Professor Weissberg dismisses these centers as weak, vulnerable to leftist take-over, and intrinsically unable to “restore the Enlightenment.” Surely there is some truth to all three criticisms. But there is also something blinkered in the attitude. Many of the centers are thriving and are in fact lifelines to thousands of students. I wouldn’t lightly brush aside the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Center for Western Civilization, right there in the heart of Ward Churchill country. The Center for Political and Economic Thought at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania shows that a well-focused program can transform a whole college. Even centers that have hit rough sledding, such as the Hamilton Institute that had to set itself up off-campus near the uber-PC Hamilton College in upstate New York, have proven to be nimble in creating important debates in the face of complacent and self-satisfied orthodoxy.

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A Report From Nowhere

A group called Strong American Schools has just issued a report with the provocative title Diploma to Nowhere. The report is a lavishly produced cry of alarm: our high schools are failing. Millions of graduates are tricked into thinking their high school diplomas mean they are “ready for college academics.” But they aren’t. As a result, 1.3 million students end up in college remedial programs that cost between $2.31 to $2.89 billion per year.

That’s alarming all right, but who is “Strong American Schools”? The organization’s website declares that it is “a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, [and] a nonpartisan campaign supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation promoting sound education policies for all Americans.” But the history of the organization and why it was founded are more elusive. The Gates Foundation issued a press release on April 2007 that throws a little more light on the genesis of Strong American Schools. The organization was apparently founded at that point with $60 million and the goal of injecting a particular version of school reform into the 2008 Presidential election. Strong American Schools’ original project was “ED in ’08” described as “a sweeping public awareness and action campaign that will mobilize the public and presidential candidates around solutions for the country’s education crisis.”

Of course a lot depends on what you think the crisis is. Is it our dependence on a teaching corps that in most states has been through the highly ideological training of schools of education and who bring their confused pedagogy to class? Is it our consumerist culture awash in short-term gratifications against which the schools can barely compete? Is it what Charles Murray calls “educational romanticism” that insists that every child can be “above average” and go to college if provided with the right kind of teaching? Is it perhaps an educational system that is dominated by teachers unions more concerned with their prerogatives than with educating students? Could it be the deterioration of academic standards which the No Child Left Behind initiative singled out as the key factor?

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What Does ‘Sustainability’ Have to Do With Student Loans?

The student loan crisis – or near crisis; narrowly-averted crisis ; or postponed crisis – no one is sure – comes co-incidentally at a moment when many colleges and universities are once again repackaging their basic programs. The new buzzword, as John Leo has pointed out is “sustainability.” I also recently tried my hand at unpacking this polyvalent idea. “Sustainability” sounds to the uninitiated as though it is about environmentalism, but it is much more. As I wrote in Inside Higher Education, many of the advocates of “sustainability” see it as an encompassing concept. It includes science, economics, and the social structure. And for many in the movement, the focus on social order is the basis for far-reaching attempts to advance “social justice” policies.

I doubt this development has come into focus for many parents or people outside the campus. The campus left learned with its promotion of the concept of “diversity” the advantages of packaging hard-core ideology in bland, feel-good terminology. Sustainability is another venture in this direction. No one can really be against sustainability (definition 1) – prudent use of resources with the needs of future generations in mind. But while most of us hear the word in that sense, campus ideologues are busy rearranging the curriculum and student life around “sustainability” (definition 2) – a condition that arises when capitalism and hierarchy are abolished; individuals are made to see themselves as “citizens of the world;” and a new order materializes on the basis of eco-friendliness, social justice, and new forms of economic distribution.

Sustainability (2) is an amalgam of environmental extremism, shards of Marxism, romantic utopianism, and identity group politics. It doesn’t have a significant political following in America outside college campuses, and in that sense it is a fringe movement. But on campus it’s everywhere. Hundreds of campuses now have sustainability officers, courses that promote the ideology, and most ominously, “co-curricular” programs run through student life and residence halls that attempt to “educate” students about their mistaken “worldviews” and bring them aboard this new ideological ark.

Continue reading What Does ‘Sustainability’ Have to Do With Student Loans?

The Aristocratic Reign Of Group Preferences

Defenders and advocates of group preferences generally make their stand on a moral claim: group preferences are needed to advance the common social good. To oppose group preferences is, in turn, to act immorally. The vehemence with which defenders of group preferences frequently speak and the extreme tactics of some pro-preference groups such as By Any Means Necessary stem from this rootedness in moral conviction and moral antipathy.

Critics of group preferences also often make their stand on a moral basis. Many believe that group preferences perpetuate the sort of inequalities in our society that undermine the common good. Other critics tap directly into an almost visceral sense among Americans that group preferences are unfair. The critics of group preferences likewise imply some moral deficiency on the part of their opponents, who they see as not just advocates of unwise policy but also as architects of an unjust social order.

The moral claims of both supporters and critics run deep, but they of course do not exhaust the terms of the debate. We also make legal arguments, pragmatic claims about the likely consequences of policies, historical analyses, international comparisons, statistical investigations, and political appeals. This sprawl is characteristic of American life: whenever we debate something of fundamental importance, the arguments avalanche. Racial and gender preference began as an issue in graduate and professional programs in the 1970s, expanded into all of higher education, found welcome in the armed forces, and by the late 1980s moved into the corporate world. As the use of preferences expanded, the ideology of preferences centered on the concept of diversity diffused throughout American life until it was granted Constitutional imprimatur in 2003 in Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger.

But behind the avalanche of arguments when Americans debate something of fundamental importance, there is always a central moral question. Or perhaps better put, there is a tightly knit cluster of moral questions. Who are we? Whom do we aspire to become? What is the right way forward?

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Student Loans – Sequel To The Mortgage Mess?

A few weeks ago, I alerted readers to the threat of a tightening of the student loan market . Banks have been bundling student loans, like home mortgages, and selling them as securities. First Marblehead Corporation in Boston has been the nation’s biggest player in “securitizing” student loans, and just like home mortgage-backed securities, the student loan-backed bonds issued by First Marblehead contain a lot of loans of doubtful value.

These aren’t the loans that are guaranteed by the Federal government’s Title IV Student Loan program. When students have borrowed all they can in Title IV loans, they frequently need to borrow still more to meet the extravagant costs of college. They often borrow at relatively high interest rates from banks and other private lenders. These banks and lenders, in turn, act just like the sub-prime mortgage lenders did: they sell the risk to someone else. First Marblehead takes loans from many banks and bundle them together to create its bond issues.

As I reported, First Marblehead appears to have hit a major snag in October, when investors declined to buy the company’s new $1 billion student loan-backed bond offering. First Marblehead’s stock plummeted and a chill went through the whole student loan industry.

Continue reading Student Loans – Sequel To The Mortgage Mess?

First Mortgages, Now Student Loans?

Last week, First Marblehead Corporation, a Boston-based company, saw its stock plummet after cutting its dividend. The problem? First Marblehead is in the business of “securitizing” student loans. A year ago, this would have required some explanation, but the sub-prime mortgage mess has taught Americans – and people all over the world – the meaning of “securitizing.” It is one of those words that means the opposite of what it sounds like. A company bundles together some high-grade debt, some middle-grade debt, and some really doubtful debt and sells it to investors, who only think they are making a secure investment. As we learned with the securitized mortgages, no one really knows what these chimeras are worth. And a little bit of bad debt, like a little bit of ptomaine, goes a long way to making the whole meal undigestible.

First Marblehead isn’t saying exactly what happened, but Matt Snowling, analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey, told AP report Dan Seymour, that he believes First Marblehead “was trying to sell about $1 billion in bonds.” As Seymour explains, First Marblehead bundles student loans from numerous banks to put together its bond offerings. The deal usually specifies that First Marblehead has 180 days to sell the bonds, and failing that, has to buy the student loans itself.

Apparently, First Marblehead has been trying since October to sell $1.1 billion in these student loan-backed bonds – and found few takers. Meanwhile, banks keep issuing more student loans.

Continue reading First Mortgages, Now Student Loans?

Another College Aid Boondoggle?

President Bush just signed into law the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, passed by both houses of Congress on September 7. CCRAA – think of a crow signaling to his buddies that dinner is served – comes with the tag line, “The largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill – at no new cost to taxpayers.” The legislation certainly rearranges student financial aid in the United States.
The basic idea is that some of the funds that used to be spent subsidizing private lenders to make loans to college students will now be spent to increase the size of Pell Grants, cut the interest rates students pay on federally subsidized loans, and – in principle – reduce the federal deficit. CCRAA is also stuffed with other morsels. Eligibility for Pell Grants will expand. Students who commit themselves to becoming teachers in “high-poverty communities” will get extra assistance. College graduates who pursue careers in public service will have their loans forgiven after ten years. Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Institutions, and the brand new categories, “Predominantly Black Institutions” and “Institutions Serving Asian American and Pacific Islander and Native American Students” will divvy up a $510 million windfall over five years. And a multi-partner scheme will provide “matching challenge grants aimed at increasing the number of first generation and low-income college students.”

What does all this mean? In part it means that the private lenders paid dearly for their transgressions. The still-unfolding student loan scandal that began in January with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation into Sallie Mae, and that I wrote about here, put the (mostly Republican) defenders of “free market” mechanisms for distributing federal student aid in an untenable position. The “free market” in this case was never anything close to lean and efficient. To the contrary, it was (and still is) inefficient and frequently corrupt, dominated by players who found it easy to bribe college officials, wring favors from politicians by means of campaign contributions, bilk the Department of Education, and live off generous subsidies.

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The Study Abroad Scandal

The New York Times has headlined yet another scandal in higher education: colleges and sometimes individual college officials have been receiving generous “incentives” to steer students into particular study abroad programs. The incentives include financial bounties and free trips abroad for the officials. As the Times points out, the self-dealing by college officials in these programs looks a lot like the self-dealing by college officials caught up in the student loan scandal.
How big a scandal is it that some colleges and some college officials have found another way to line their pockets at the expense of students? Not very big by itself, but coming on the heels of the student loan imbroglio, the study abroad scandal has stilts. From that height we can wonder if study abroad and financial aid are the whole of it: How many other aspects of the university enterprise offer college officials the opportunity to receive “gifts” at the ultimate expense of students?

Once upon a time, a certain kind of student yearned for a semester abroad or sought out opportunities to take a summer course in Salzberg or Poitiers. This was the American version of the “grand tour” with which wealthy Europeans once capped off the education of gentlemen. But Americans, being a pragmatic people, usually made sure that the venture included academic credit for courses that would meet degree requirements at the college back home.

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