How much more progressive is the corporate world than academia?

Academia is a hotbed of leftism and has been for centuries. At the same time, it’s also one of the most conservative institutions in the Western world. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Leftists are conservative.

The recent writings of Lucas, Mary, and Rick have highlighted well not only academia’s shortcomings but also some great alternatives, but what about stuff like this? The link is an in-depth story on how senior professors use their seniority to procure sexual favors from their junior colleagues. There is, apparently, not much universities can do about it either.

If a manager within a corporation tried any of the stuff listed in the report, he or she would be fired immediately. Sexual harassment is still an issue in the corporate world, but it is much, much easier to confront than it is in academia. The same goes for government work. The President of the United States couldn’t even get away with a blow job from a teenage intern without dire consequences in the 1990s.

What makes academia so different from corporate and government work? Is it tenure? Is it incentives? In the corporate world profits matter most. In government, “the public” matters most. In academia, it’s publish or perish. I don’t think this has always been the case. I think the publish-or-perish model has only been around since the end of World War II. Something is horribly wrong in academia.

In the mean time: corporations, churches, governments (it pains me to say this, but it’s true, especially when compared with academia), and all sorts of other organizations continue to experiment with social arrangements that attempt to make life better and better.

Pathologies in higher education: a book, a review, and a comment

Cracks in the Ivory Tower, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, brings a much needed discussion of the pathologies of US higher education to the table. Brennan and Magness are two well-known classical liberals with a strong record of thoughtful interaction with Public Choice political economy.

Public Choice is an application of mainstream economic concepts to political situations. One of the key points of Public Choice is that people are self-interested and rational. This drives the choices they make. But people also act within formal and informal institutional environments. This constrains and enables some of their choices to a large degree. In other words, people react to incentives.

The Public Choice approach is not so much a normative handbook, but rather an attempt to explain how politics operate. The application of this theory to understand higher education in the US is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the economics of higher education.

It is perhaps surprising how the subtitle of the book stresses an aspect that tends to be extraneous to Public Choice scholarship: “The Moral Mess of Higher Education”. Of course we all draw on moral reasoning and assumptions in order to pass judgment on economic and political phenomena, but normally the descriptive side is kept separate – at least by economists – from explicit value judgment.

John Staddon, from Duke University, has reviewed Brennan’s and Magness’ book. In his review, he focuses on three main key issues. First, colleges and universities act on distorted incentives created, for example, by college rankings, to recruit students in ways that are not necessarily related to maintaining or expanding the academic prestige of the institution.

Second, teaching in higher education, at least in the US, is poorly evaluated. Historically, it has shifted from student evaluation to administrative assessment.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

This is not necessarily conducive to improvement in the quality of teaching. Perhaps colleges fare better than universities here, given that their faculty is not expected to allocate a large amount of hours per week to research and writing.

Third, Brennan and Magness offer a critique of what is known in the US system as “general education” courses. In their view, it is clear that those courses are unhelpful in a world where academic disciplines are increasingly more specialized. However, offering those courses is a good excuse for universities to grab more money from the students.

This is where Staddon begs to differ:

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university.

I tend to agree with this point, and I do not think it is a minor point. We can do colleges and universities without football, without gigantic administrative bureaucracies, and without the gimmicks to game the college ranking system. I could even go further and argue that we should do colleges and universities without dorms and an artificial second and worse version of teenage years right when students are supposed and expected to behave like adults. Getting rid of those tangential features of US higher education should help refocus on knowledge and reduce the cost.

Colleges and universities in the US are also expensive and unnecessarily inflated because of the structure of the student loans system, which also generates perverse incentives. But this point has been explained and described to exhaustion in the economic literature. This also has to change.

However, I am not convinced that making universities focus on professionalizing their students would be the best way to go. Brennan and Magness raise some important issues and concerns, some of which also apply outside the US, but the Staddon highlights in his review an important counterpoint: higher education, at least on the undergraduate level, shouldn’t be seen 100% as an investment good, but also as a consumer good:

Higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Undergraduate education is there to hand over knowledge to the next generation. It can be small and cheap. You need an adequate building, a small library with the best classic books, electronic access to journals, and faculty that excels at teaching. Courses would be general, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary by definition. The program could last only three years. An optional additional year could be offered to those with an academic profile, where they could pursue more specialization as a bridge to graduate education.

This is more or less the mediaeval model. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel in order to deal with the crisis of higher education. What we need is to get back on track – back to the bread and butter of college education. This is a reflection that both sides of the story – those who demand education and those that offer it – need to make.


Read more:

In a recent contribution to Notes on Liberty, Mary Lucia Darst has recently commented on the status of higher education during the 2020 pandemic and prospects for the future.

I also wrote about the college trap in the US a few years ago.

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

Nightcap

  1. Keen insights into American Higher Ed Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. About a possibly divine boy William Deresiewicz, Atlantic
  3. Warlike democracies Michael Federici, Modern Age
  4. In praise of grand strategy Ehrhardt & Ryan, War on the Rocks

A Queens’ Marxist in the Lions’ Court

When I first walked into the conference room, two other girls were already there. One of them caught my eye and with a friendly nod indicated I should take the seat next to her. I did and then observed the girl on the other side of the table.

She was quite striking, well-dressed in the trendiest fashion, and clearly intelligent, but she exuded an agitation and antagonism that clashed with the sleepy serenity of the room and our own quiet desire for friendship. As our other six classmates trickled in, the Girl across the Table never relaxed and though she responded correctly to any friendly overture, she did so with an attitude of suspicion. Puzzled but too preoccupied to give it much thought, I turned my attention to the department chair who was opening orientation.

For the first couple of weeks I was much too in awe of my new surroundings at this Ivy League university to concern myself with anything more than adjusting as quickly as possible. Only one of us had attended an Ivy for undergraduate and she was one of the nicest people in the class. Recognizing how intimidating the new environment could be, she went out of her way to demystify the place for us, and with her help we soon realized that the tranquil, yet demanding, atmosphere of the first day was genuine. We were meant to become our best selves, not to compete insanely with each other. About three weeks in, our entering cohort of nine had settled into a social and academic routine with everyone participating in a cordial, collegial manner, everyone except one: the Girl across the Table – hereafter called GatT. 

Her hostility from the first day was unabated, and now we were its direct target. During lunch, if someone suggested a book, she had a snarky putdown, even if seconds later she would be raving about another book by the same author. One evening a group of the classical music lovers took advantage of free tickets from the school to go to the opera. GatT came with us. Stretching our legs at intermission time devolved into standing in  a circle and listening uncomfortably as GatT made snide comments about how everyone in the lobby was dressed. As we turned to go back in, I heard her mutter something about “bourgeois” under her breath. A light went on in my heard: GatT was a Marxist – puzzle solved! The next morning, GatT publicly avowed her Marxist leanings during a seminar discussion. 

The mystery of her hostility solved, we moved on with our social lives and pretty much managed to maintain a state of cautious détente with GatT. She made her desire to lead a jacquerie against us fairly clear a couple of times a week. This became funny once a casual lunch conversation revealed that eight of the nine of us had some familiarity with firearms; I commented to the friendly girl from the first day that this particular jacquerie wouldn’t end the way GatT thought. Eventually we became accustomed to her outbursts, and it took one of extraordinary absurdity to elicit any reaction from us. The closest anyone came to snapping at her was the time she claimed that our completing assignments on time was an act of class oppression against her. 

One of the other students was the daughter of two economists who had became ardent free-marketeers after spending their youths as equally ardent Marxists; consequently her grasp of both arguments was comprehensive. After losing a verbal bout with her, GatT refrained from practical arguments and retreated to social commentary. One day during our daily class coffee gathering, she proclaimed that if she had known our school was an Ivy, in order to show support for the proletariat, she would not have applied. As the “discussion” continued, she branded us as privileged elitists. Meanwhile, we quietly drank our cheap coffee and pondered the fellowships that made this our most affordable option. 

The remainder of our graduate studies passed in the pattern of endless writing and studying, intense debates on all sorts of topics, excursions to museums and evenings at the theatre or concerts, and of course simply socializing with each other. We tuned out GatT’s insulting nattering and someone always ensured she received an invitation to whatever activity was scheduled. Despite her clear resentment, she usually came. 

In the final term, when the course load was intentionally light to leave room for writing the Masters thesis, GatT disappeared for a few weeks. We learned through her social media that she was participating in anti-austerity protests in Europe and was immediately sprayed with tear gas during a raucous demonstration. Soon after she returned to school, I ran into her. She told me that she hadn’t started writing her thesis yet: the submission deadline was three weeks away.

I haven’t seen GatT since that last meeting, but the rest of us stay in touch. During a dinner with some of the gang a few months ago we tallied where everyone is now. GatT was the only one we couldn’t account for; because of her propensity for agitating, we suspect she might be locked away in a third-world prison somewhere. We also wonder if she ever managed to complete her thesis.     

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

Damned Models and Cutting off the Chinese

I have a good eye for what ought to be there but isn’t. Don’t congratulate me; it’s a natural talent. I am retired so, I usually spend hours listening to the radio, reading newspapers and, watching television and, (Oops) on the internet. Nowadays, I do more of the same.

Today’s lecture is going to be a little longer than usual, on the one hand. On the other hand, there will not be a test. Bear with me; it’s going to be worth it (if I say so myself).

The first thing that’s missing from the endless and frankly a little sickening commentary on the C-virus epidemic is a good explanation of what’s a “model.” I mean the kind of models that are being blamed a little bit everywhere and especially in the conservative media for seemingly wildly inflated predictions (of infections, of deaths, of anything connected to this illness). Just from listening to talk radio, I think that some, or many, believe that with “computer models,” computers actually do the thinking instead of people. It’s not so.

The second thing missing is a clear description of the downside of national economic self-sufficency that appears so tempting now that we are extra-sensitive to both the comparative incompetence of our China-based suppliers, and to the possible ill-will of the Chinese Communist authorities.

First, first: a model is logically pretty much the same thing as we do when we say, ” On the one hand, on the other hand.” That’s as in, “One the on hand, If have saved $20, I will buy a nice cake; on the other hand, if I manage to save $200, I will look for a good used bike.”

The problems are: 1 that we have only so many hands; if we had one hundred each, and remembered each, we could produce mental models that cover more possibilities; 2 that we are not agile at combining possibilities, like this: “If the third hand and the fortieth hand are combined with the fifty-first then, this will happen.”

Models – designed by humans working slowly – can be entered into computers with many values and many combinations of values to tell us what would (WOULD) happen if… That’s all, folks.

Don’t blame the models, don’t blame those who build the models, in this capacity, rather, blame those who don’t do the needful to explain to decision-makers what actual models do and don’t do. (It’s true that they are often the same as those who actually construct the models but in a different role.)

Also, blame American universities and colleges that should have been in the business of teaching this stuff to all students since the late sixties and that have only done it for a tiny elite minority. A big missed opportunity. Even high school students could learn, I believe.

Second undiscussed issue. Under normal circumstances, self-sufficiency has a certain intuitive appeal: Let’s not count on others because they might fail, or fail us and, at any rate, distance makes the best linkages vulnerable. Now that we worry about running out of essential medical supplies made in China, now that we fear a shortage of the raw materials that go into our medical drugs, our intuition seems broadly vindicated. It did not help that a highly placed Chinese Communist official actually threatened the US aloud, about a month ago, with withholding medications. (I am guessing he is not going to have a happy retirement.)

Much about our intuition is correct, of course. As I never tire of stating (wittily, if you ask me), we should not count on steel deliveries from China to build the naval ships we would use in a war with China. The steel deliveries might be too late.

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there is a downside to national self-sufficiency. It violates the general principle that specialization makes for efficiency. Just imagine that you had to grow all your own grain, harvest it, mill it, raise your own cattle, slaughter it, butcher it, skin it, preserve the meat, treat the skins (and cut and sew clothes out of them). You would do a bad job of some of these tasks, at least, possibly of all. You would have much less to consume than is true now. You would be poor.

And that’s the downside: National self sufficiency is a sure path to poverty. I am not speaking of small differences but of big ones. I remember clearly when the cheapest hammer at the hardware store cost $20, five years later, the cheapest hammer cost only $5. What happened in between was expanded imports from China. (Don’t even begin to talk about quality; the difference among the cheapest items of a kind is largely illusory anyway, or much exaggerated.) And if you think this is a special case, ask your self if the Canadians – who love bananas – should grow their own in the name of self-sufficiency.* (For an expanded view of international trade, see my series of articulated short essays beginning here: “Protectionism; Free Trade, Step-by-Step.”)

Here again, American colleges and universities deserve strong blame. First, many don’t even require a course in economics to graduate. One of the best undergraduates I have known personally, an honors students who is now very successful in her career, never heard a single lecture on anything pertaining to economics. Second, economics professors, by and large, do a piss-poor job of teaching international trade. Across 25 years of teaching in a business school, I have met a fair number of good MBA students who had taken three courses in international trade and still did not see the possible downside of self-sufficiency. So, this simple idea is not widespread among the educated populace. It’s not well anchored enough in the opinion media for many to push back intelligently against the wave of demands that the US minimize its dependency on what we obtain from abroad in general. (A national policy designed to induce American companies to source in Vietnam, for example, rather than in China is a different and defensible proposition.)

So, here you have it: Models are not to blame, confusion about them is; economic self-sufficiency is the road to poverty though it might be worth it. Knowing these two things does not prevent us from taking action collectively. It makes for more rational action in these irrational times.

* Those of you who received a decent education in economics might wonder here if I have just dealt improperly with the topic of Comparative Advantage. I haven’t, I have not even begun.

Prediction: Online Adjuncting is About to Boom

SUNY has been pushing for more online for some time. It means an increased ability to sell credentials to a broader market with lower real estate costs.

As far as I can tell, the primary constraint has red tape. I don’t know who put it there (unions? accreditors? governments?), but getting a class certified to go online on my campus has meant going through a steep enough up front cost that few people bother. Combine that with the fact that an online class is simply less fun and you’ve got a recipe for a mercifully slow expansion of online teaching.

That changed this week. Now almost all of SUNY is online, like it or not. The red tape might be there when we get back to normal, but the up front cost to getting a class online will fall enough that many adjuncts will get in on the action next fall.

About 15% of summer 2020 classes are slated to be led by adjuncts. I predict that by summer 2021 that will increase to 25% and that will just be the start of a much larger trend of adjunctification of online classes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Departments of Higher Education should have mystery shoppers

As you know, I teach at a SUNY campus. As you can imagine, the views I express here are only my own and certainly not those of any authority figure in the bureaucracy I live in or the higher ed industry more broadly. My union would be mortified.

In my opinion–coming from a limited perspective within the sausage factory–the problem we’re facing is that universities are good at education and bad at credentialing (at least when there’s a significant demand for the signal value of a degree). This has lead to a host of problems–Baumol disease, growing administrative expense, all sorts of cultural unsavoriness, declining standards, grade inflation, etc.

Education just happens. You can’t plan for it. You don’t do x amount of philosophy and then you’re enlightened. But a navel-gazing, consequence free environment with a culture of inquiry is a fine place for education to happen.

Credentialing on the other hand is a common pool with the usual problems. It doesn’t have to interrupt the educational component of the university, but when actors in this setting follow the basic economic logic of their situation enrollments (and budgets) expand and the nature of the good produced by schools shifts from unquantifiable to commodity.

In such a setting there is a strong case to be made for regulation. At the very least to manage the common pool resource of the signal value of a bachelor’s degree, but more ideally to ensure students aren’t simply learning to minimize cost while navigate a bureaucracy.

Of course, NOL readers know that regulation is never easy and comes with many problems of its own. In fact, many of the problems I see in the industry are the natural bureaucratic outcome of such regulation (particularly as I sit here avoiding the work I’ve got to do making my tenure packet more closely resemble a checklist version of the guidelines my campus gave me. God I hate this!). For a taste of how this mess is currently killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, check out BadAssessment.

How do we improve the regulatory quality? Mystery Shoppers!

My industry is disciplined through:
* direct state regulations,
* marginal nudges through strings-attached financing,
* “self”-regulation through quasi-public regional accreditation and much-less-public discipline-specific accreditation,
* direct consumer experience,
* U.S. News (and similar) rankings, and
* Peter Theil and other critics complaining about how the education system is broken.
My proposal could be done at any of these levels, but to my knowledge is only actually done at the statistically invalid level of direct consumer experience.

Governments could invent many students and their traits and send copies of these students to a sample of online programs. Teams would manage sets of students and gather data. With several of these students taking different paths through each school the agency could learn something useful about the school as a whole–is it a degree mill? How does the actual student experience compare to other schools? Are there pitfalls that might put vulnerable groups at a disadvantage?

Peter Theil could do it more aggressively and generate an upper-bound estimate on the bullshit in the industry.

The College Board or U.S. News would probably turn it into a new costly margin of competition between schools, but that’s probably an improvement over what we’ve got now.

To my knowledge, nobody is doing this. In my opinion, given the stakes and the size of the industry, it’s worth approaching this from many directions. Mystery shoppers would certainly be a more direct evaluation than the hundreds of pages of sacrificial paperwork we’re currently using.

Madness Entitlement

Most American undergraduates in four-year colleges want to study abroad for a while. (I think this is probably true. I would bet 75/25 for.) In 2019 (or 2018, not clear) 20% of American students were diagnosed with or treated for depression. I can’t vouch for this number. That’s from an article by Andrea Petersen in the frou-frou pages of the Wall Street Journal of 11/12/19. (Yes, the WSJ has had frou-frou pages for years.) Petersen cites a study of 68,000 students by the American College Health Association in support.

The sunny, gay article (in the original meaning of the word “gay”) examines some of the ways in which American colleges and universities assist mentally and emotionally afflicted students with realizing every student’s dream of studying abroad. The measures taken range from allowing students going to Europe to bring their emotional support dog with them (would I make this up?) to training host families in how to alleviate their American guests mental suffering.

I don’t make light of depression but hey, here is a sound idea: Take a depressed young person probably still struggling to establish his/her identity and, for half or more, also struggling with grade issues, separate him/her from his/her recently acquired college support system, drop him/her suddenly in a country whose language they don’t understand (including most of the UK and some of Ireland), insert the student someplace where he/she is a nobody, with zero recognizable accomplishments. Wish him/her well. Wish for the best.

The mindlessness gets worse. Ms. Petersen comments on the big problems that arise when students gone abroad suddenly cease to take their medication. She cites by name a psychiatry professor who recommends avoiding any interruption in treatment by taking along enough medicine to last for the whole duration of the stay abroad. Excuse me, but isn’t it true that much anti-depression medicine is feel-good drugs easily subject to abuse? Isn’t it also true that a quantity large enough to last a year, even six months, is a quantity large enough to qualify you as a dealer in some, in many countries? Do you really want your inexperienced twenty-year old to spend even a little time in a slammer among people whose language he/she has not mastered? Isn’t this picture pretty much a definition of batshit crazy? (1)

Yes, they say, but it’s worth taking this kind of risk, or some risks, for the great enrichment studying abroad provides. What enrichment, I ask? If you polled twenty experienced college professors in a variety of disciplines, I am sure you would find only lukewarm endorsement for the practice. Study abroad disrupts learning in the same way vacations disrupt learning, or a little worse. In return, what good does it do? The easiest thing first: No, almost no students will “learn” a foreign language while studying abroad for a quarter, for a semester, even for a school year. That takes several years; immersion is both problematic and much oversold as an initial language learning method. (Actually, I think it does not work at all. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many immigrants stuck in low pay jobs after twenty years.) Immersion lasting a few months will benefit the handful of students who have already spend several years studying the language of the country where they stay. It will make the pieces fall into place faster, so to speak. For the rest of them, they well come back completely unable to line up a sentence beyond, “Lets’ go.” They will often, however, be equipped with rare words such as “antifreeze,” and “suntan lotion-30 strength.”

But living abroad may open young minds in some esoteric, seldom described ways. I tend to agree with this, more or less on trust. But so does an equivalent amount of time spent in a lumber camp. So does a stay in an area occupied by a moderately different social class. So does serving the homeless. So does – come to think of it – working at Burger King if you haven’t already had the experience. Everything different from one’s own experience opens the mind. Why one has to do it at great expense and specifically in a foreign country is not obvious to me. There are always the vestiges of history strewn all over Europe, of course, but I don’t believe many undergraduates begin to do the homework necessary to understand what they are looking at. In fact, I believe only a handful do in a thousand.

Finally, someone a little more honest will say: But they have so much fun! I agree there, although guardedly (I have observed American students abroad being actively miserable). Yes, studying abroad can be a lot of fun for a twenty-year old. But so can a vacation. And, it’s a lot cheaper. And, it’s more honest; it involves no pretense of learning, of significant culture acquisition.

So, one may ask, why do so many American universities maintain the pretense of the essential educational nature of study abroad? Two reasons: First, “Study Abroad” is often a profit center. They are able to charge more for tuition there than is eaten by such programs in faculty and bureaucratic salaries and benefits. Often, low-paid local instructors teach most of what courses are taught anyway. Besides, being abroad at someone else’s expense is often in itself a fringe benefit for American faculty sent abroad (presumably to teach the same courses they would teach at home, but not really). I took advantages of such an opportunity myself once. I spent three radiant months in Italy with my young family, most expenses paid. I did very little real teaching. I counseled students only because I felt like it. There were no boring faculty meetings to attend. It was pretty much a vacation.

The second reason American universities contribute to the fiction of study abroad is that it’s well aligned with their general mission. I explain: Do you wonder why so many undergraduates plunge into deep debt to earn a degree of little practical value (French, history, political science, biology, and best of all, psychology)? Aside from the traditional answer of personal cultivation (to which I happily subscribe for a large minority of the students I have known), there is the highly important symbolic matter of chartering. A college degree is and has been for many years a certificate of belonging to the middle class. No college degree? You may be rich, you may be respected, you may be talented; you are not middle class except if you are all of the above to a very high degree. Having studied abroad, being able to illustrate the fact with superficial comments about a foreign country, or more than one, is part of the chartering deal: “When I was in Italy….” There are costs but little by way of risks involved in the venture. It’s unlikely anyone in this country will be rude enough to address you in Italian; no one will ask you to demonstrate more than a spotty familiarity with Italy’s architecture; it’s unlikely anyone will try to make small talk with you about Italian history. You did it? Good enough! It’s just another youth entitlement. What’s wrong with this?

So, what if your kid is a little cuckoo? What if she can barely get up in the morning because she is so overwhelmed? What if he cries all the time? Well, it’s worth the risk just to make sure he or she enters adult life as a clearly middle class person. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Is this mad or not?


(1) I am grateful to Brandon Christensen, the capable founder and Editor of Notes on Liberty, for introducing this irreplaceable expression into my vocabulary.

PS: I am a retired university professor. My long-form vita can be found here.

Some more borderline fraud from the higher education industry.

From the Wall Street Journal: For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity

The title pretty much says it all: the College Board is selling data about test-takers (i.e. high school students) to colleges who use that to market to a wider pool of applicants. That wider pool often includes students who don’t stand a chance of getting in to the schools that are now marketing to them, but the marketing gives the false impression that the school wants them.

Joe Six-pack Jr. takes the SAT, fills out a survey, and that survey goes into a database. Some school that normally ranks near the middle of the pack buys a piece of that database, including Joe’s data. They send him a brochure and a letter that looks like it was written specifically for him (and he doesn’t know any better) so Joe, figures he’s being recruited. Instead of just applying to his local state schools, now he shells out an extra $50 to apply to Middling University. They summarily reject his application because his SAT scores were 1100 and they’re only accepting students who scored above 1300. MU now looks a little bit more prestigious in the rankings (which means their current administration can take credit before jumping ship to take a higher paying job at a school looking to also increase in the rankings). The College Board gets paid. The administrators get paid. The U.S. News rankings get a little less useful for incoming students, but they don’t know that. On the other hand the rankings get a little more important for decision makers at schools. And Joe Jr. is funding this whole mess despite being a) the least informed, and b) the least well funded player in this whole mess.

Nightcap

  1. Christianity and the West: which came first? Jonathan Sumption, Spectator
  2. Argentina’s infernal cycle Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Good riddance to the INF Treaty Andrew Erickson, Foreign Affairs
  4. The assault on American excellence? Nicholas Lemann, New York Times

The 2020 Dems

The two Democratic presidential debates were performed against a broad background of consecrated untruths and the debates gave them new life. Mostly, I don’t use the word “lies” because pseudo-facts eventually become facts in the mind of those who hear them repeated many times. And, to lie, you have to know that what you are saying isn’t true. Also, it seems to me that most of the candidates are more like my B- undergraduates than like A students. They lack the criticality to separate the superficially plausible from the true. Or, they don’t care.

So, it’s hard to tell who really believes the untruths below and who just let’s them pass for a variety of reasons, none of which speaks well of their intellectual integrity. There are also some down-and-out lies that none of the candidates has denounced, even ever so softly. Here is a medley of untruths.

Untruths and lies

I begin with a theme that’s not obviously an untruth, just very questionable. Economic inequality is rising in America or, (alt.) it has reached a new high point. I could easily use official data to demonstrate either. I could also – I am confident – use official figures to show that it’s shrinking or at a new low. Why do we care anyway? There may be good reasons. The Dems should give them. Otherwise, it’s the same old politics of envy. Boring!

Women need equal pay for equal work finally. But it’s been the law of the land for about forty years. Any company that does not obey that particular law is asking for a vast class action suit. Where are the class action suits?

What do you call a “half-truth” that’s only 10% true? Continue reading

The Admissions Scandal Will Improve Universities

I would have been annoyed, I would have felt frustrated if my alma matter, Stanford, had been left out of the university admissions scandal. After all, what does it say about your school if it’s not worth bribing anyone to get your child admitted to it? Fortunately, it’s right in the mix.

I spent ten years in American universities as a student, and thirty as a professor. You might say that they are my milieu, that I am close to being an expert on them, or perhaps, just a native informant. Accordingly, reactions to the March 2019 admissions scandal seem a bit overwrought to me. That’s except for the delight of encountering the names among the line cutters of famous and successful people one usually associates with a good deal of sanctimoniousness. The main concern seems to be that the cheating is a violation of the meritocratic character of universities.

In fact, American universities have never been frankly or unambiguously meritocratic. They have always fulfilled simultaneously several social functions and served different and only partially overlapping constituencies. Sure enough, there is some transmission of knowledge taking place in almost all of them. I don’t mean to belittle this. I am even persuaded that there is a palpable difference between intelligent people who have attended college and those who have not. In addition, it should be obvious that some of the knowledge transmitted in higher education organizations is directly instrumental to obtaining a job (most engineering courses of study, accounting). That, although, in general, it was never expressly the primary role of undergraduate education in the US to procure employment.

The best of universities also contribute to the production of new knowledge to a considerable extent. University research is probably the bulk of the considerable body of American research in all fields. (Incidentally, I believe that the dual function of American faculty members as both researchers and teachers largely accounts for the superior international reputation of American higher education. More on this on demand.) The remainder of schools of higher education imitate the big guys and pretend to be engaged in research or in other scholarly pursuits. Many succeed some of the time. Some fail completely in that area. In fact most university professors are well aware of the degree to which each individual college or university offers conditions propitious to the conduct of research and such, and demands them. But teaching and research are not the whole story of American academia by a long shot. Those in the general public who think otherwise are deluded or, largely misinformed.

Most American universities are obviously superb sports venues; a few are world-grade in that area. In some schools, football financially supports learning rather than being an adjunct activity. Some, such as Indiana University where I taught, make do with basketball which can also be quite lucrative. It’s obvious too that residential universities- which include almost all the top names – are reasonably good adolescent-sitting services: Yes, they get drunk there but there is a fair chance they will do it on campus and not drive afterwards. If they do too much of anything else that’s objectionable – at least this was true until quite recently – there is a fair chance the story will get squashed on campus and remain there forever.

And, of course, of course, the big universities, especially the residential version but not only it, are incomparable devices to channel lust. They take young people at approximately mating age and maximize the chance that they will come out four, or more likely, five years later, either suitably matched, or appropriately unmatched. It’s a big relief for the parents that their darling daughter may become pregnant out of wedlock but it will be through the deeds of a young person from their own social class. For some parents, universities would be well worth the cost, if they limited themselves to staving off what the French call: “mésalliances.” (Go ahead, don’t be shy; you know more French than you think.)

Naturally, universities could not have been better designed to promote networking, offering at once numerous opportunities to meet new people (but not too new), and plenty of leisure time to take advantage of them, all in a conveniently limited space. As is well known the results of this networking often last a lifetime. For some, campus networking constitutes an investment that keeps paying dividends forever.

And, I kept the most important university function for last. I think that from the earliest times in America, universities served the purpose of certifying upper-class, then, middle-class status. This credentialing function is usually in two parts. The young person gets social points for being accepted in whatever college or university the parents consider prestigious enough, nationally, internationally, or even locally. The student gets more points for actually graduating from the same school or one equivalent to it.

This idea that higher education organizations publicly certify social status is so attractive that it has spread downward in my lifetime, from the best known schools, Ivy League and better (such as Stanford), down to all state universities, and then, to all lower admission-standards state colleges, and even down to two-year community colleges. In my neighborhood of California, possessors of a community college Associate of Arts degree are considered sort of upper lower-class. This small degree influences marriage choices, for example. I used to know a man of a sort of hillbilly extraction who was very intelligent and extremely eager to learn and who attended community college pretty much for twenty years. He kept faithful to his origins by never even earning an AA degree. (True story. Some other time, of course.)

Merit recruitment of faculty and students

I, and the academics I know are not very troubled by the cheating news, only by the crudeness involved, especially in the raw exchange of cash for illicit help. I suppose most of us realized, even if in a sort of subliminal way, that admission was never thoroughly or even mainly based on merit as measured, for example by high school achievement and by test results. My own undergraduate experience is limited but varied. I spent two years in a good community college where pretty much everyone who could read was accepted. Then, I transferred to Stanford with a full tuition scholarship. Academic merit did not loom very large in either school, and perhaps a bit more in the community college than it did at Stanford.

In order to preserve a reputation for intellectual excellence that contributes to their ability to credentialize without subsuming it at all, universities and colleges must actively recruit. They have first to attract faculty with a sufficient supply of their own (academic) credentials in relation to the status the universities seek to achieve, or to keep. Often, regularly for many, they also reach down to recruit as students promising young people outside of their regular socioeconomic catchment area. Their own motives are not always clear to those who make the corresponding decisions. One is do-gooding, of course completely in line with the great charitable American tradition (that this immigrant personally admires).

At the same time, colleges and universities don’t select scholarship recipients for their moral merit but for their grades, and for other desirable features. The latter include, of course, high athletic performance. Additionally, in my observation, many, or at least, some, also recruit poor undergraduates the way a good hostess composes a menu. When Stanford plucked me out of my young single immigrant poverty, it was not only for my good community college GPA, I was also an interesting case, an interesting story. (There were no French undergrads at all on campus at the time. Being French does not have cachet only for foolish young women.) Another transfer student they recruited at the same time, was a Turkish Jew whose mother tongue was 16th century Spanish (Ladino). How is this for being interesting? I am speaking about diversity, before this excellent word was kidnapped by an unlovable crowd.

Attendance, grades and merit

At Stanford, I realized after a couple of quarters that many undergraduates did not care to go to class and did not care much about grades either. I discovered a little later (I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer!) that few were preoccupied with receiving good grades. That was because it was quite difficult to get a really bad grade so long as you went through the motions.

I was puzzled that several professors took an instant liking to me. I realized later, when I was teaching myself, that it was largely because I was afraid of bad grades, greedy for good grades, and I displayed corresponding diligence. I thought later that many of the relaxed students were legacy admissions (I did not know the term then) who had good things coming to them pretty much irrespective of their GPA. Soon, I perceived my own poor boy conventional academic striving as possibly a tad vulgar in context. I did not resent my relaxed fellow students however. I kind of knew they paid the freight, including mine. Incidentally, I am reporting here, not complaining. I received a great education at Stanford, which changed my life. I was taught by professors – including a Nobel Prize winner – that I richly did not deserve. The experience transformed and improved my brain architecture.

About ten years after graduating, I became a university teacher myself, in several interesting places. One was a denominational university that was also pricey. I remember that there were always there well dressed young women around, smiley, with good manners, and vacant eyes. (I don’t recall any males of the same breed; I don’t know why.) They would do little of the modest work required. Come pop-quiz time, they would just write their name neatly on a piece of blank paper. I gave them the lowest grade locally possible, a C, of course. Same grade I gave without comment to a bright-faced, likable black athlete who turned in the best written essay I had ever seen in my life. There were no protests, from any party. We had a tacit understanding. I speculate the young women and the star athletes had the same understanding with all other faculty members. I don’t know this for fact but I don’t see how else they could have remained enrolled.

And then, there always were always cohorts of students bearing a big sticker on their forehead that said, “I am not here because of my grades but in spite of my grades.” OK, it was not on their forehead but on their skin. That was damned unfair to those minority students who had gained admission under their own power if you ask me. Nobody asked me. And then, especially in California, there has been for a long time the tiny issue of many students whose parents come from countries where they eat rice with chopsticks. Many of those couldn’t gain admission to the school of their choice if they had invented a universal cure for cancer before age eighteen. As I write, this issue is still being litigated. I doubt there is anyone in academia who believes the plaintiffs don’t have a case.

Meritocracy!

Virtue out of evil

The mid-March 2019 admissions scandal might paradoxically make universities better, from a meritocratic standpoint. By throwing a crude light on their admission process and turning part of the public cynical about it, the scandal may undermines seriously their credentialing function. It will be transformed, or at least, it may well be watered down. I mean that if you can’t trust anymore that the fact that Johnny was admitted to UnivX is proof of Johnny’s worth, then, you might develop a greater interest in what Johnny actually accomplished while he was attending UnivX. You might become curious about John’s course of study, his choice of classes, even his grades, for example. That wouldn’t be all bad.

Some schools, possibly many schools because universities are like sheep, may well respond by strengthening their transmission of knowledge function, advertising the fact loudly and, with luck, becoming trapped in their own virtuous snare. Some universities, possibly those that are now second-tiers rather than the famous ones (those could well prove immune to any scandal, indestructible) may actually become more of the learning centers they have long pretended to be.

I can envision a scenario where the US has a first kind of good universities, good for intellectual reasons, to an extent, but mostly good for continued social credentialing. And next to the first kind, would be higher education establishments mainly dedicated to studying and learning. The latter, if they were successful, would unavoidably and eventually grow a credentialing function of sorts. That would be fine. The two categories might compete for students. That would be fine too. It would be good for recruiters to have a clear choice of qualities. I think that university professors, or some of them, many of them, would easily move between the two categories of schools. There would be a single labor market but different vocations, perhaps serialized in time. Above all, students would have more choice and more sharply defined choices. Everyone could stop pretending. Actual intellectual merit and grit would find a bigger place in the higher education enterprise.

This is all wool-gathering of course. It depends on one of my big predictions being false. I mean none of the above matters if American universities are committing suicide before our eyes. I refer to unjustified and unjustifiable tuition raises over thirty years, to their collaborating in the moral horror that student loans have become; I am thinking of their capture by a monolithic tribe of ideologues clinging to an old, defeated utopianism. I refer even more to their current inability or unwillingness to protect free speech and the spirit of inquiry.