Truth in Advertising

How can professors be prevented from indoctrinating their students? And, how can it be done in ways that protect academic freedom?

Trying to stifle classroom proselytizing is futile. Today’s ideologues are unstoppable. Instead, a more effective strategy is ensuring students know what to expect before enrolling. This prior knowledge serves as an implicit contract. If students desire passionate rants and fervent lectures—and many do—let them choose that path. However, those who prefer a traditional education should not be trapped with an ideologue.

The solution is simple: truth in advertising. If students sign up for a traditional education but find their English literature professor using the classroom as a soapbox to denounce America’s evils, it’s academic fraud. It’s no different than Burger King advertising an all-beef burger and sneaking in cheaper soy meal. This concept might seem novel in academia, but such fraud prosecutions are commonplace in the real world.

In the case of university classrooms, however, diluting intellectual content is deceptively complex, and so straying from advertised content per se is not an offense. All professors are probably guilty of occasionally going far afield from the course’s official purpose, so establishing fraud can be complex. Familiar, acceptable “escapes” from giving full value for the money include inviting guest lectures who add little beyond being entertaining or just holding marginally relevant b******t sessions under the guise of “class participation.” I can recall a novice colleague teaching a criminal justice course who, whenever he felt a loss of words, would just say “dope,” and a certain student would immediately begin a long-winded discourse on the local drug trade. A world-famous Columbia University political science professor during the 1950s was famous for spending half the class quietly fumbling with his pipe and trying to get it lit. The legal standard cannot follow the official course description 100 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, stopping proselytizing can be difficult when students love this time-wasting. Whether excoriating the evils of capitalism or other ephemera, students know that they need not pay attention, take notes, nor worry that the professor’s utterances will be on the exam. And, for good measure, if the professor is a lenient grader who does not require serious papers, welcome to the classic “gut” course. Why stay awake or even attend class?

Nevertheless, there’s a fine line between occasional digressions and relentlessly pushing a political agenda not mentioned in the course description. A flippant aside about Trump is one thing, but making the vilification of conservatives the focal point of a course on the U.S. Constitution is quite another.

The good news for those opposing proselytizing is that state and federal laws prohibit mislabeled products, which might be applied to the academy. A rash of lawsuits, for example, have been leveled against firms falsely claiming their food to be “organic.”  The U.S. Code targeting food adulteration can conceivably be applied to those who turn a course on 18th-century English poetry into a Marxist struggle session.

The evidence for fraud may already exist since colleges regularly review a professor’s teaching record for annual salary increases and promotion. These reviews may also examine course evaluations, which often tell of professors ignoring the required subject matter in favor of flights of ideological fancy. Under such circumstances, faculty and administrators can be held legally responsible for those who ignore the official course description and turn lectures into agitprop. Officials signing off on possible deception may thus be liable for damages from aggrieved parents and students.

Beyond formal course descriptions, a wealth of data sheds light on professors who may not strictly adhere to them. One such source is the alignment of course catalogs with publicly available reading lists and paper assignments. Additionally, paid note-takers often transcribe lectures, with these transcripts sometimes finding their way to local copy shops for sale.

Platforms like Rate My Professors further contribute to this pool of information, hosting a staggering 19 million student comments on 1.7 million professors across 7500 schools. Here, students candidly discuss professors’ teaching styles, biases, and adherence to the prescribed subject matter.

Identifying professors who significantly deviate from the required curriculum is not overly complex—like analyzing a McDonald’s hamburger in a laboratory to break down its components and assess its alignment with expectations.

This monitoring will not infringe on academic freedom or even turn students into little Stasi agents. Deception is not protected by tenure, and nothing prevents the department or the professor himself from requesting that the course title be changed to reflect political proselytizing. This is just telling like it is, not censorship. Moreover, this requirement is ideologically neutral insofar as it applies across the political spectrum.

Consider an example from food: competitors in the snack food industry once accused Pringles of false advertising by calling their product “potato chips” when it contained only 42 percent genuine potato. Proctor and Gamble avoided a lengthy legal battle with the federal government by eliminating “potato” from the product’s name. Absent a legal definition of “Pringle,” nobody could be fooled, and no fraud was possible.

A more nuanced approach would require a detailed list of course ingredients rather than a few vague descriptors. We might, for example, now have “Nineteen Century Poetry with a Special Emphasis on Race, Class and Gender.” Ironically, such a trendy course label may invigorate today’s moribund English Departments.

Imagine if professors adopted a system akin to movie ratings, appending labels like “R” or “X” to their courses. Much like legal disclaimers on consumer products, these labels would inform prospective enrollees that a particular professor does not tolerate dissenting political opinions and mandates ideologically driven political participation. Such “X-rated” courses might also come with trigger warnings and designated safe spaces, effectively shielding the university from potential lawsuits filed by disgruntled students.

A bonus to this let-the-sunshine-in approach is that the outside world will now have a better grasp of what currently occurs in the classroom. Ironically, a few schools may thrive by coming clean about their political missions.  A “traditional education” is not always the desired product, and notorious “party schools” or diploma mills thrive. If people want to pay $60,000 to hear capitalism condemned as the very embodiment of evil, let the market provide this message by openly admitting what goes into their instruction.


Image by ChayTee — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 329526041 & Edited by Jared Gould

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One thought on “Truth in Advertising”

  1. First, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that Chapter 93A, the Consumer Protection Statute, does *not* apply to the University of Massachusetts.

    While this ruling was based on the fact that a subdivision of the Commonwealth is not a “person”, there is the larger issue of courts being reluctant to get involved in academic disputes and courts are no more going to rule that a course was fraudulent than they are going to rule that a grade wasn’t what it should have been. They’re not going to touch it.

    “Instead, a more effective strategy is ensuring students know what to expect before enrolling. This prior knowledge serves as an implicit contract. If students desire passionate rants and fervent lectures—and many do—let them choose that path.”

    The real “Truth in Advertising” involves the transcript — and the employer reading it. IF an institution is going to permit passionate rants for credit, then it ought to identify such courses on the transcript lest it defraud (a) potential employers and hence (b) those students who didn’t take such courses.

    A good example of the latter involves Columbia University and the Federal Judges who have announced that they will no longer hire Columbia graduates — at least a few of whom probably have managed to avoid the lunacy and taken normal courses with sane professors. These are the students who are truly defrauded as they have done the work but don’t get credit for it because of the reputation.

    What I think is we need a national undergraduate exit exam along the lines of the NY State Regent’s Exam, complete with colleges and universities being required to issue two different types of diplomas — a “Nationally Recognized” diploma for those who pass this national exam, and a “local” diploma for those who don’t, just like NY State has been doing for about a century now.

    States can do this because every college or university awarding a degree does so under the auspices of the state government giving them permission to award degrees — which inherently includes the right to further regulate who is getting these degrees.

    And look at this on a national level — if you get a Regent’s diploma, your student interest rate is 6%, if you don’t, it’s 16% and this is justified on the fact that people who graduate college actually knowing something tend to get jobs where they can repay their loans.

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