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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

What to Do about “Low Productivity” Degree Programs?



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That is a question the UNC Board of Governors has to face every two years under a law requiring it to “encourage an economical use of the state’s resources.” Sometimes, programs are culled from the herd. In the latest review, out of 247 programs in the system that were identified as “low productive,” 22 were merged with other programs and 25 were discontinued.

In today’s Pope Center piece, Jesse Saffron takes a look at this effort at economizing.

An important but unaswered question is whether program discontinuation actually saves any money. A senior administrator was asked about that and replied that the faculty and resources would be “redeployed.” If you realized that you were spending some money needlessly, you probably wouldn’t think you had accomplished much if you simply “redeployed” the dollars — but then you spend your own money, while administrators spend other people’s money.

An alternative to dropping “low productive” programs would be to charge students differentially so as to reduce or eliminate cross-subsidies. Unfortunately, public universities can’t usually consider that.

Focus on the Cause, Not the Symptom



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U.S. News & World Report published an article today titled “Why Does College Cost So Much?” To help address that question, writer Mark I. McNutt spoke to Robert Reich, U.S. secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. Reich believes that the high costs of college are due to unnecessary spending on campus amenities and “administrative bloat.” The article concludes with a quote from Reich in which he bemoans that higher education has become, in his view, a “private investment” rather than a “public good.” 

Unfortunately, Reich’s analysis and the article, save for a brief discussion of regulatory compliance costs, leave much to be desired. Absent is cause-and-effect reasoning or, as economist Thomas Sowell puts it, “thinking beyond stage one.” While the symptoms that Reich mentions are serious and deserve attention, they are just that – symptoms. They are not the causes of higher education’s turmoil. 

It’s fair for Reich and others in establishment circles to believe that there exists a “market failure” necessitating government “investment” in postsecondary education. But it’s sloppy thinking and perhaps even disingenuous for them to ignore the very real governmental and political failures that exist in that realm. 

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A Victory at Yale



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A lot of people think Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands against Islamic extremists because she was forced to undergo genital mutilation and an arranged marriage as a young Muslim growing up in Somalia. Her critics also claim she’s no expert on Islam. 

But she told the standing-room only crowd that heard her speak at Yale University on Monday those assumptions are inaccurate.

In a moving and powerful personal testimony – one that befits an institution of higher education – Hirsi Ali offered her version of growing up Muslim, including this shocking revelation: at one point she said she was indoctrinated and considered herself part of the Muslim Brotherhood. She then goes on to explain the “cancer” at the heart of the religion, using her upbringing to weave the tale. A video of the speech was released Thursday, and parts of it are transcribed on The College Fix

A lot has been said about Hirsi Ali since she was disinvited to speak at Brandeis University’s graduation ceremony last May and in the weeks leading up to her appearance at Yale University, where the Muslim Student Association tried to silence her.

But she finally gave the campus speech they didn’t want her to give, and she laid out her case against Islamic extremism in a powerful and provocative way.

Her talk at Yale was a victory for free speech, intellectual inquiry and academic freedom. Hats off to the conservative students who invited her, and the administrators who didn’t buckle under pressure to censor her speech.

Tags: Yale University , Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Peter Thiel and Affirmative Action



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Peter Thiel’s new book is getting some buzz, so I thought I’d post a link to an excellent earlier piece he co-wrote, calling for an end to racial preferences in admission to Stanford.

Common Core Will Have an Impact on College



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Common Core is supposed to improve learning for students in in their K-12 years. There are many reasons to doubt that it will do that. In today’s Pope Center piece, English professor Mary Grabar argues that Common Core will have a detrimental impact on higher education.

She writes, “I have taught college English for twenty years and have researched Common Core for the last three years. I know that the project-based learning, the replacement of extensive reading and papers with group discussions on selective snippets, the replacement of literary classics with ‘informational texts’ and video, and the diversion from writing to ’speaking and listening skills’ will make students even less prepared to do the work of a traditional English class.”

Moreover, Mary points out, colleges will be expected to align their courses with Common Core standards. That will only put further pressure on professors to lower their standards.

I find especially revealing a comment from the director of teacher preparation at Arizona State that Common Core: “Students will come not with a new set of information they didn’t have before but with different types of thinking that really are required for success in higher education.” Those “different types of thinking” probably mean the social attitudes that are dear to “progressive” educationists, not a better command of reason.

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Price Controls on Tuition



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The high price of college is leading to strange behavior. The latest is a proposal in the New Jersey legislature that would require an entering student’s tuition to be frozen for four and a half years (nine semesters).

The law would apply to both public and private schools, says this article on nj.com (Princeton excepted).

What’s wrong with this picture? To begin with, price controls have unintended (but predictable) consequences. For example, a school’s natural reaction to four years of no increases would be to charge a lot at the beginning in an effort to defeat the law.

More fundamentally, since when can a state tell private colleges what to charge? Is this just political grandstanding (popular, I understand, in New Jersey) or what?

A Shaky Admissions Scene



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Colleges and universities, especially private four-year schools, are worried about meeting their admissions targets, according to a new survey of admissions officers conducted by Inside Higher Ed.

Sixty-one percent of admissions personnel surveyed say that they had failed to meet their enrollment targets by May 1 (71 percent at private four-year schools). Thirty-two percent of the personnel surveyed admitted that after May 1 they had tried to recruit students who had already accepted other offers. IHE points out that this is considered an unethical practice by the national trade association of admissions officers.

Perhaps even more telling, 55 percent of those surveyed said that their recruitment strategies next year “would include a focus on ‘merit’ scholarships,” which, IHE points out, “are frequently used to attract students who might otherwise attend another institution“  (rather than providing funding on the basis of need). The percentage of private schools with this policy was 58 percent; public, 53 percent.

These figures are a just little more worrisome this year than last, but according to IHE, the situation last year was already serious. Especially for private schools, problems with enrollment can mean a decline in revenues and also pressure to accept poorly prepared applicants.

‘Education Deserts’ and Accountability



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The discussion about a proposed federal college rating system has raised concerns that ratings, while potentially beneficial to middle-class students, may impose new burdens on aspiring college students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. 

An issue that has recently emerged is the potentially damaging impact of the proposed ratings on “education deserts,” or geographical areas with few schools from which to choose. The schools that do serve these areas, some argue, should be immune from losing funding. That is to say, a rating system might provide useful information for a student deciding between multiple institutions, but for those who can only choose the geographically accessible option regardless, the de-funding of such schools on the basis of low ratings could be harmful.

The argument, however, rests on questionable assumptions. First, one must assume that attending a failing school is better than not going at all. But is it wise to incentivize students to attend a sub-standard institution? Those with low graduation rates are likely as not to leave students saddled with debt and with nothing to show for it. 

This focus on the geographic distribution of schools, moreover, is rooted in an outdated model of higher ed. As resources and options for online education improve and increase, access to brick and mortar schools holds diminishing value.

In fact, eliminating the option of going to a very bad, but “traditional,” brick and mortar institution might encourage more students to consider online education. Given that many online providers have proven to be just as effective as traditional schools while requiring far less actual instruction time, this would be a good incentive indeed.

Underprivileged and non-traditional students stand the most to gain. Not only is online education a low-cost option, it’s an option that allows more flexibility to balance other obligations like work or family. And because many online programs are self-paced and competency, rather than credit, based, online learning may well enable more effective instruction—exactly the kind of results-based thinking that motivated calls for a ratings system in the first place. Rather than worrying that putting bad schools out of business may leave some students with no options, we should be excited for the many new options that will rush to fill the void.

The Endangered Textbook Market



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One of the most discussed but least understood higher education topics is college textbook prices. Between 2002 and 2012, those prices increased by 82 percent (compared with a 28 percent increase in the CPI). Each semester, many students shell out almost the equivalent of a middle-class mortgage payment to pay for the various books required in their courses. 

Alternatives have appeared in recent years. Students can rent digital and hardcopy textbooks now. And some professors, perhaps sympathizing with the plight of their students, allow individuals to purchase older textbook versions. Other professors compile their own books, offering them to students at low prices or free of charge. 

Now, however, it looks like a more existential threat to the textbook market has cropped up: some students are uploading their textbooks as .pdf files and allowing anyone with an Internet connection to download them for free. 

For me, it’s hard to believe that this threat did not disrupt the textbook market years ago. The peer-to-peer technology and the ability to upload and share big files almost instantaneously has been part of mainstream culture for fifteen years (Napster came out in 1999).

The textbook and publishing industries are certainly aware of the problems posed by “free textbooks.” The Book Industry Study Group, which represents various constituencies in the publishing world, conducted a survey of 1,600 college students and concluded that they “continue to become more sophisticated in acquiring their course materials at the lowest cost” and that such “illicit” behavior will “continue to increase in frequency.” 

Obviously, from a student’s perspective, the ability to obtain free books is a great way to save a few thousand dollars over the course of his or her collegiate career. A college student’s recent Tweet - printed in the Washington Post article linked above - may accurately sum up the attitude of today’s textbook purchasers: “Finding a textbook PDF is like winning $100 on a scratch card.” 

Cha-ching, indeed.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Gets to Speak



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Yale invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, to speak on campus. Yale’s Muslim Student Association protested and demanded that the invitation be withdrawn. Yale stood its ground (unlike other schools where protests have caused craven administrators to back down), so the Muslin Student Association had to rely on free speech to counter the “offensive” Hirsi Ali.

In this Minding the Campus essay, Mark Bauerlein looks at the resulting document, which is long on feelings but devoid of arguments. He writes, “Instead of sticking to criteria of truth and falsity, the statement turns to ‘values,’ and not values of accuracy but of speech and (ugh) diversity.”

Bauerlein continues that this “feeble whine” might be ignored “were it not for the fact that it fits perfectly with customary practice in higher education. In countless episodes, we have seen truth and error give way to feelings of offense, and the powers that be have responded sympathetically.”

Quite right. I suspect that if we could take a poll of American college professors, an alarmingly high percentage would agree with the notion that feelings trump reason.

“Pragmatic Political Action”



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In a recent opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pomona College president David Oxtoby argues that it’s time for universities and students to “force political change” on the issue of global warming. He writes:

[The change] must be driven by students who see the big picture and the future – students who are committed to pragmatic political action, much like those in decades past. The reality is that the implications of climate change are here. If we are not effective in our efforts to move political decision-makers to act, the future of our students and the planet will be grim.

There appears to be a disconnect between Oxtoby’s thesis and a passage appearing at the beginning of his article, in which he writes that the primary purpose of colleges and universities is to instill skepticism and to get to students to “weigh competing values.” It seems like he’s much more in favor of turning campus communities into political action committees. 

Unionizing Has Costs, Adjuncts Discover



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Recently, adjunct professors at Mills College in Oakland, CA, voted 78 percent in favor of union representation by the Service Employees International Union. SEIU has been aggressively pushing adjunct unionization around the country, evidently on the belief that adjunct faculty members are the best pickings left in the field of public employment. No doubt, most of the professors who heard the SEIU pitch were enthralled — more money, more respect! No downside at all, especially since the school as a “social justice mission.”

Now, however, the downside is manifesting itself. As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, some of the adjuncts have had their workloads reduced and some are being laid off.

The union campaign occurred in the face of a sizeable budget deficit for Mills. If that came up at all, no doubt the SEIU told the adjuncts not to worry about it.

Higher ed often seems like a fantasy land to the people who work in it, but it is a part of the real world, where actions have consequences. In recent weeks, professors have learned that vituperative tweeting can boomerang on you and now that union promises might not come true.

 

‘Exploring Whiteness’



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The white guilt campus movement has become such that white students are now actively trying to combat their perceived white privilege.

“Exploring Whiteness” is a new discussion group at Stonehill College, a private Catholic university in Massachusetts. It aims to tackle “what it means to have whiteness” and how to be “part of the solution.” Which means having white skin must be the problem? Only students with a “European heritage background” are allowed.

“They’ll be given one assignment a week that just has to do with noticing. Like spending a week looking at who is in positions of power and who is cleaning up after the show. The goal for any of these groups is for people to be more aware of what’s around them,” a campus official recently told The College Fix about the club.

The end goal? “Interrupt the cycle of racism in our society.”

This epitomizes the problem with a college education today. Administrators’ and scholars’ priority is to mold kids into resenting America, to teach them to self-identify through skin color or sexual orientation rather than as Americans, and to give them a worldview that sees this great country as nothing more than an oppressive, racist, and divided nation.

“Exploring Whiteness”​ may not be at every campus, but its theories are already taught widely inside most humanities classrooms in America.

Bad Manners Tell Sad Story



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Manners are the give-away. Chewing with your mouth open is comparable to having no idea who Churchill was. And while radical scholars are responsible for the murder of Western values, their odious influence on politeness is a comparable capital crime. The activist Left views proper manners as code for elitism by WASPS, or obsequious ignorance by white hayseeds– like grown men saying “yes m ‘am” to 18-year-old waitresses. Either way, good manners were assigned to the dustbin of history, right along with  traditional Western values.

The harm to young people was made manifest when I joined a table of three attractive and smart female undergraduates for a supper soiree to discuss the importance of Western values to living a useful and fulfilling life. When food arrived, I stopped my peroration mid-sentence. All three co-eds attacked their meal like drunken Vikings, with knife and fork held in each hand poised for a homicide. I said, “ladies, stop, you do not want table manners like yours to be seen  in public or polite company – especially in front of your future employers and work mates.”

The reaction to my comments was surprising. “Please show us what to do,” they chimed in unison. While each one appeared well-reared, well-groomed and competent, they knew they had been deprived of essential information in school and at home before arriving at university. Table manners served as the conduit to that reality,  a visible manifestation of a large lacuna in the education and socialization of America’s young.  Like the millions of other victims of radical manifestos in education and society, they wander through the moonscape of modern cultural life cut off from previous generations and deprived of the glittering prizes of self-fulfillment.

But knowing you have been screwed is a start on the path to recovery. Out of the blue, a report showed up on National Public Radio, unintentionally making the case for traditional liberal arts education by airing a segment instigated by a new interest in proper manners by Gen Xers and Millennials. To prove the connection between manners and proper education, the interview with the creator of the Art of Manliness web site let slip the following pertinent comment: “For the ancients – from the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans – being a man meant being physically strong, having martial courage, taking risk, being daring. But you tempered that with some of the softer, contemplated virtues, like compassion, temperance, empathy for those who are weaker than you.” In other words, civility and good manners.

The problem is the Ancients to younger generations could refer to aliens from outer space or bearded Biblical prophets. The continuous and venerable lineage of knowledge and morals, from the early Greeks through the glory that was Rome, the rise of Christianity, the flourishing of culture in Renaissance Europe to the practical evolution of individual rights, the common law and parliamentary government in England, is a terra incognito to modern college students. Yet, there it was on NPR: the Ancients evolved values pertinent today, and the abandonment of those values is a cause of intense concern today.

The ideal, developed over the centuries of Western civilization, is combining knowledge and bravery with fine manners and informed conversation. These qualities define  a gentleman, not the propensity to cry at chick flicks. But even so, that the need for good manners is being expressed from the heart of radical darkness, at least exposes  the façade created by the fake intellectuals who spurn good manners and western values in the name of utopian fabrications on the  true nature of society.  They have claimed the high ground on campus, the public schools and  modern civilization for too long. Good manners could start the revolution that brings them down.

The New American Dream



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Today, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report titled “Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream.” It begins with lofty rhetoric about the American Dream and how access to jobs is a crucial part of that Dream. It quotes such deep thinkers as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

The report’s authors conclude that research is the backbone of job creation and, you guessed it, the American Dream. Furthermore, since state funding has declined “precipitously,” it’s clear that the federal government should take on a more prominent role in funding research, especially since the gloomy economy has caused private industries to cut back on their own research and development. “We” should “invest” in the “future.” By “we,” the report’s authors mean taxpayers. By “invest,” they mean have politicians and bureaucrats funnel taxpayer dollars to various public-private partnerships, and by the “future,” they mean an idealized world in which the U.S.A. “beats” its “competitors” in the global struggle for economic predominance, predominance which is based largely on…academic research. 

Suffice it to say that the report is chock-full of saccharine statements and illogical assumptions that reinforce the statist, Big Government worldview held by many in academia. If you want a glimpse into the establishment mindset (and if you are opposed to it) definitely check out the report. 

Retired College President Understands the Problem with Easy Student Loans



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In the September 15 Wall Street Journal there were three letters responding to an editorial on the Obama administration’s soft and cuddly policy on repaying student loan debt, for those who get “public service” jobs. One of them was mine, one was by a man in Savannah who finds it appalling that “the government sees fit to forgive debt for people who choose careers in regulation, wealth redistribution and just plain giving stuff away,” and one, which I copy below, was by Robert Iosue, president emeritus of York College. He nails the problems exactly:

The taxpayer picks up the bill for a burgeoning new entitlement that has been administratively created. Is there anyone so blind as to not see a continuation, even an acceleration, in preposterous tuition increases? I can assure you that tuition increases didn’t cause loans to be initiated. Rather, it’s the other way around: Loans have caused tuition to go up.

Government loans are easy picking for the student who feels payback is a lifetime away, easy for the colleges since they get all the money and none of the obligation, and great for President Obama, for he and his followers can capture a block of voters at the expense of taxpayers who pay the bill

Robert V. Iosue

York, Pa.

Could Virtual Reality Disrupt Higher Ed?



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A college student drops out, develops a new technology or way of doing things, and then earns billions of dollars as a result. In the post-Mark Zuckerberg era, I rarely click on such stories. They seem to be so common that they’re now old hat. 

I did click on Brendan Iribe’s story, though. The University of Maryland drop-out’s fascination with virtual reality (VR) led him to create the company Oculus VR, which was purchased by Facebook earlier this year for roughly $2 billion.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Iribe explains why he thinks the latest developments in the VR world could be a big part of higher education’s “next step.” But while he’s confident that VR is finally poised, after decades of experimentation and rough starts, to become a practical and useful technology, he’s not willing to say that it will disrupt higher education anytime soon, nor does he believe that it should.

He recently donated $35 million to his former university for the construction of a new computer science building. He says that there are “a lot of great reasons for universities,” such as helping innovators collaborate and develop ideas, and allowing college-aged students to grow personally. “This is the way things work today, so you don’t go out and disrupt and change the whole university system overnight. Even if it’s an online system, these things take time,” he says. 

Nevertheless, Iribe says that, eventually, “we can have relationships and communication that are just as good as the real classroom” and that VR is going to be “one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time.” 

Pinker Gets It Right on Standardized Testing



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If you haven’t been following the discussion about William Deresiewicz’s missive against the Ivy League, then you may have missed Steven Pinker’s response in the New Republic. Despite having harsh words for Deresiewicz, Pinker recognizes that something is amiss at America’s elite colleges and universities. Schools like Harvard do not, Pinker argues, admit students primarily on the basis of academic merit. Instead, they have fallen prey to the temptation of “holistic” admissions.

Rather than attempt a summary, I recommend you read the article in full. But it’s important to draw attention to a key point Pinker makes in his recommendations for retooling college admissions: standardized tests are a reliable, objective measure of academic aptitude.

Pinker points out that the standard canards about such exams—they aren’t really predictive of anything; they favor the wealthy who can afford test prep courses—have been “empirically refuted.” ACTA points to much of this evidence supporting the predictive validity of tests like the SAT in our trustee guide on the topic, and we have noted it frequently in our critiques of schools that have gone test-optional or test-blind.

As Pinker writes, “Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck.” This is something colleges and universities ought to consider before they decide to hop on the test-optional bandwagon.  

The “E for Effort” Grading Policy



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The University of North Carolina apparently ignored a troubling incident in the background of its recently chosen chancellor at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), Stacey Franklin Jones. ECSU is a small, historically black constituent university of the UNC system.

Jay Schalin has criticized the selection on a SeeThruEdu post. Dr. Jones was a dean at Benedict College, a private school in South Carolina, when the college president implemented a policy called “SEE,” or “Success Equals Effort.” In 2002, the president ordained that in the freshman year, 60 percent of  a student’s grade in each class would be based on “effort”—attending class, turning in homework, taking part in labs, etc. The rest would be based on actual learning. In the sophomore year, the percentages would change. (The current policy is 60/40, but when the AAUP criticized the policy in 2005, it said that the sophomore-year division was 50/50.)

Dr. Jones defended the policy in a local newspaper, in a rather brusque column chastising those who disagreed. And she fired two professors in her school who refused to adopt the policy. One of them said he tried it for a semester but when he had to give a C to a student who failed all the exams he stopped implementing it.

Those concerned with academic quality are undoubtedly appalled at the “E for Effort” grading policy. On the other hand, you have to wonder how bad the situation must have been if the solution was to reward mere attendance and completion of homework so heavily. I can imagine that such a policy might improve the atmosphere of a school that was behaviorally out of control. I don’t think there have been any reports about its effectiveness, however. (And how would one measure the effectiveness? Higher graduation rates would be suspect).

Certainly, treating the freshman year differently is not unprecedented. Fifty years ago at Wellesley, freshman grades were not included when student’s GPA was calculated upon graduation. (Otherwise, I would never have become a Wellesley College Scholar, and even then it was close.)

There are other implications from the selection of a chancellor who championed this policy, but I’ll leave them to others. This one is worthy of attention all by itself.

A Slow but Steady Road to Speech Suppression



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The Steven Salaita affair has raised interesting questions about contract, freedom of expression, academic freedom (not the same, of course), and the role of trustees.

And something else: the federal Department of Education can decide whether speech is against the law or not.

I learned this from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In his latest report on the dispute over whether the University of Illinois was right to rescind Salaita’s job offer, Peter Schmidt writes:

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has yet to issue clear guidance on when criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Semitism that violates federal antidiscrimination laws.

So the Department of Education is curbing speech now? Schmidt links to an article that he wrote in 2010 about the Department of Education’s consideration of what constitutes anti-Semitism and whether anti-Semitism is discrimination under the law. Schmidt wrote then:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizes the Education Department to deny federal funds to educational institutions found to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.

In 1964, did Congress intend spoken words to mean discrimination on a level to deny federal funds? I doubt it, but apparently the federal government sees it that way today. The threat to curb speech came in a 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter about bullying.

And, by the way, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mention religion, the Department of Education apparently has to split hairs when it comes to anti-Semitism. To quality (that is, to qualify for losing federal funds) the discrimination must be based on the “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic identity as Jews (rather than on the students’ religious practices).”

So that gets us back to whether anti-Israeli speech can be deemed anti-Semitic speech–and that gets back to whether opinionated speech is against the law and why the Department of Education is the one who decides.

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