Tag Archives: student protests

Mismatch: The End of a Liberal Dream

The most disturbing thing about mismatch research (examining the contention that a student can be adversely affected attending a school where her level of preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate ) is that it demonstrates a tense inequity: recipients of affirmative action at selective colleges are not as smart as non-recipients. That’s the blunt truth, and nobody likes to acknowledge it.

Smart means something specific and local, of course, in this case math and verbal aptitudes. Those are what the SAT and ACT tests measure, and they are what calculus, freshman composition, organic chemistry, and dozens of other first-year courses demand to greater and lesser degrees.

If two students enroll in a statistics course and #1 scored 150 points higher on the math SAT than #2, he is a whole lot smarter in that class. It is entirely possible that #2 exceeds #1 in other aptitudes, such as the skills that go into drawing and painting, but those won’t help in Statistics 202. Student #2 is inescapably cognitively disadvantaged. In order to compete with #1, #2 must work twice as hard, logging more hours of homework, stopping by the instructor’s office each week, and using the school’s math tutoring service. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, and #2 shall soon enough shift out of STEM fields and head toward an easier (for him) major or drop out altogether.

This is the mismatch catastrophe of affirmative action, and the strongest current argument against it.

But progressives don’t believe it.  They can’t, because if mismatch is real, then a crucial article of progressive faith will fall.

The article is this: people are products of circumstances, and if we alter the circumstances, we can improve them. That premise obviously applies to affirmative action. Yes, the progressive admits, Student #2 comes into college less prepared than #1, but that’s not because he is less intelligent. It’s because he came out of an environment that didn’t cultivate math aptitudes as well as #1’s environment did. Once we place #2 in the same environment as #1, aptitudes will equalize sufficiently for #2 to function competitively among his peers. That’s the progressive rationale.

If only it were true. But the fact is that aptitudes are not so fluid. It is true that recent research has demonstrated that cognitive gains can happen among adults, but in those studies, the gains were highly specific relative to a single task such as the ability to comprehend patterns in matrices.  Furthermore, the subjects underwent specific training in completing it.

No cognitive psychologists believe that the ordinary life of a college student provides the kind of deep-intelligence training that will enable him to raise his SAT math score 100 points after a semester on campus. Even if we allow a near-total influence of environment on intelligence (that is, reducing the “heritability” factor to nothing), a change of environment cannot produce significant changes in aptitude fast enough to benefit Student #2 in the first year. By the time a person reaches age 19, intelligence has hardened too much to rise with a semester of higher education, no matter how much academic support and the company of high-achieving peers surrounds him. It takes longer than that, even with total and concentrated immersion.

The only way for affirmative action policies to overcome the mismatch problem is for colleges to create a wholly separate extracurricular habitat for recipients. This means extensive daily tutoring and other academic support. They won’t raise math aptitudes much, but they will enable students to complete the coursework and perform on exams at a higher level. Some of the campus protests made recently by African American students, including the Black Students at Emory (my home campus), add this component to the list of demands.  In this aspect, the students are correct. They need more help, and universities that have admitted underprepared students through affirmative action are duty-bound to provide it.

But it’s a necessity that proponents don’t want to acknowledge. Progressives don’t like genetic or other biological explanations for group differences in intelligence. They smack of fate, and they (supposedly) dissuade us from working for progressive reform. But environment, too, is fate, for all practical purposes. That’s the sad truth, and for supporters of affirmative action to ignore it is to show them as ideologues, dogmatic and anti-science.

Times Sees Shift Against Student Protesters

The New York Times published an article Sunday on how painful it was at Yale for Erika Christakis, whose harmless opinion on Halloween costumes triggered non-negotiable demands by enraged black students and their allies. But The Times buried the lede. Here is the actual nugget of fresh information in the article: “Yet the mood on campus may be shifting in her direction. Increasingly. College administrators are pushing back against student demands perceived as doctrinaire…

The University as Nursery

One of the implications of the shift of pressure against free speech from left-wing faculty and administrators to undergraduates is that the ideological framework of liberal bias doesn’t quite apply.  Yes, we have language of “racism” and “sexism,” along with demands that relics of US history that fail the PC test be torn down.  But the political thrust doesn’t gibe with talk about safe spaces and microaggressions.  That’s an idiom of therapy, not politics (even while it is used as a tool of power).

One prominent critic of higher education discerned the difference at work way back in May 1992 in a commentary in TLS.  The title was “The Nursery-School Campus,” and the author was Camille Paglia.  Here is the relevant passage:

By the early 1970s, American universities had become top-heavy with full-time administrators who took to speaking of the campus as a “community,” which faculty soon discovered was governed by invisible codes of acceptable speech, opinions, and behavior. . . . Many of the students, neglected by their prosperous, professional parents, are pathetically grateful for these attentions. Such coddling has led, in my view, to the outrageous speech codes, which are designed to shield students from the realities of life.  The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be postponed. Faculty who are committed to the great principle of free speech are therefore at war with paternalistic administrators in league with misguided parents. 

Paglia gets right at what stands out in the protests today: not the political content, but the childish demands.  Grownups listen to them march, chant and think that it all looks more like a tantrum than a revolution.

This is not a trivial point, or a dismissive one.  We should take the brattiness seriously, but see it as a result we have created, not a starting point to which we should respond.  Paglia locates the evolution in the hiring back in the 1970s of higher-Ed administrators who had no teaching duties and no academic research background—in other words, bureaucrats.  They were hired to manage the swelling population of Baby Boomers flooding the colleges and requiring more and more investment in the overall college experience (and less focus on coursework).

Hence the emphasis on “community.”  It’s a word nearly all my colleagues, even the most liberal ones, wouldn’t use to describe their classrooms. But administrators loved it, especially those most invested in attracting and keeping female and minority students.  The term sounds warm and welcoming, especially, the administrators assumed, to youths whose parents never went to college and who might feel out of place.  The message was simple: “We shall take care of you—we care about you.”

But the old story of paternalistic dreams played out once again.  To create utopia, the social engineers had to order and regulate the conduct of the inhabitants.  The “codes” arrived, the underside of community organizing.  I’ve seen it happen repeatedly.  The people most fired with goodness and concern are the first to act—and overreact—against disrupters.  It’s not enough to maintain liberal principles of free speech and freedom of association and rights of conscience.  Those are formal rules that don’t have any positive content.  They don’t tell people what the True and the Good are.  They allow people the space to form their own conceptions of the True and the Good.  With that freedom, unless everyone arrives at the same ones, the community foundations crack and tumble.

When the campus engineers say, “We need to build a stronger sense of community,” then, what they really mean is, “We need to suppress the dissenters in the room, across the campus, throughout the discipline.”  People who oppose affirmative action, revere the classics, vote Republican, oppose abortion . . . they spoil the local culture. They make others feel bad.  How smooth and positive might our school and our department be if they were gone.

You see how the bureaucracy prospers in this set-up, whether it fails in its aims or achieves them.  To create a community in academia, you need a lot more than professors. You also need a legion of counselors, diversity officers, and various “campus life” personnel.  And when the inevitable frictions arise, such as disputes over admissions policies and student-faculty relations, you need more administrators, including lawyers to draft new speech and conduct codes. And when THOSE cause more collisions between a student religious group and anti-discrimination policies, then you need more officers to handle infractions and . . . . That’s how bureaucracy works: the more it stumbles, the bigger it gets.  And it justifies itself in the right and proper name of “community,” which is to say, student well-being.

As long as those efforts were confined to administrators, “community-building” practices were usually contained to passive-aggressive forms of advocacy and policing.  Officials generally knew not to step over the line into outright censorship or harassment.  They knew that bad publicity and upright alumni and donors wouldn’t like it.

But now that the safe-and-secure, racism-free, sexism-free, homophobia-free community-building vision has been adopted by the undergraduates, those constraints are gone.  Sophomores don’t care about bad press. They don’t listen to donors and alumni. They can demand and occupy and march all they want, and nobody will tell them “Stop!” They have lots of time on their hands—after all, they study only 14 hours a week—and they have solid peer pressure backing them up, which means a lot more to them than the authority of the faculty and president and deans.  We are, indeed, in the nursery-school campus. The difference is that the day-care providers don’t know how to say “No.”

What Students Are Demanding Now

As protest season expands, students at a growing number of colleges and universities are listing their demands. Many of them are want to expand the campus diversity bureaucracies, curb free speech to stop microaggressions and anti-protest remarks, and impose mandatory social-justice training for students and faculty.

Walter Olson of Cato and Overlawyered.com compiled a list of demand highlights. They include:

  • “An anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions perpetrated by faculty and staff” [@wesleyan_u]:
  • “Incorporate into each department at least one queer studies class.” [Dartmouth]
  • Compulsory, in-person, and regular [faculty] anti-oppression training” led by individuals with significant experience in anti-oppression work [Brown]
  • “Campus police participate in the University-wide political education…. Policing as an institution must be abolished.” [UNC, Chapel Hill]
  • An increase in tenure-stream faculty whose research specializes in…Black Queer Studies, Hip-Hop Studies…Decolonial Theory” (Michigan State)
  • Prioritize recruitment and retention of undocumented students.” [@GuilfordCollege]
  • “Mandatory programming [on] ways in which racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy structure our world.” [Chapel Hill]
  • One confession of racism by a faculty member each week @GuilfordCollege]

KC Johnson of CUNY, Brooklyn College and Minding the Campus, tweeted, “Striking how many demands violate core academic freedom principles by stripping from faculty control of curriculum & hiring.” FIRE’s Alex Morey wrote, “Among the enumerated items on lists of demands popping up at dozens of schools—at institutions like the University of WyomingSan Francisco State University, and Amherst College—demands that college authorities take steps to dissuade or even sanction community members who express disagreement with the protesters are worryingly common.

Particularly concerning are calls for speech codes demanding punishment of constitutionally protected “hate speech,” mandatory trainings requiring students to voice agreement with certain ideologies (compelled speech), and rules about what faculty cannot, or must, teach.”