Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

“Academic Slums”


The truth is beginning to take hold: the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill is about corruption of its academic administration, not merely its athletic program.

In a Raleigh News & Observer article, a UNC business professor (and business man) castigates those who dismiss the problem as mere athletics:

Maybe I am missing something, but where was the athletic scandal? Were teams shaving points? Were tennis players intentionally making bad line calls? Were soccer players taking performance-enhancing drugs? Were athletes competing on the field who were academically ineligible?

He argues that business-like governance is needed at the school and, in fact, praises UNC for making the dean of UNC’s business school, James Dean, its provost.

Going further, economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams writes that universities like UNC benefit by creating “academic slums, where weak students can ‘succeed.’”

Athletics departments benefit from the millions of dollars the student-athletes earn for them, but in addition, the whole university thrives, except for the students who were accepted even though they can’t do the academic work.

Stronger academic departments benefit because they do not have to compromise their standards and bear the burden of having to deal with weak students. Then there’s that feather in the diversity hat upon which university administrators are fixated.

The story is different for the students who aren’t ready for college. “How cruel is it for UNC to admit students who have little chance of academically competing on the same basis as its other students?” Williams asks.

Pretty cruel.

“Let the Sunshine In”


That’s the title of a short piece I did today for Minding the Campus, urging the new Congress to pass a bill that requires federally-funded universities (a) to report whether they use racial preferences in admissions, and (b) if so, how those preferences comport with the Supreme Court’s constraints on them.  Let those who support racial preferences explain why they should be kept secret from taxpayers and why the federal government needn’t know if their use is consistent with federal law. 


College Prerequisites Are...Racist?


A junior mathematics major at UNC-Chapel Hill recently wrote an op-ed for the flagship’s paper, the Daily Tar Heel. In it, he writes, “Due to racist prerequisites, some students of color or low socioeconomic status are excluded from pursuing certain majors.” He then singles out College Algebra for being a prejudicial barrier to entry to STEM fields, and suggests that the university should enhance academic tutoring and mentorship for black students.

The student partially blames the public K-12 system for leaving students ill-prepared for the rigors of a strenuous college degree program, and of course he’s right to do so. But his idea for turning college into a remediation warehouse is misguided.

He continues: “Any student graduating from an accredited North Carolina high school should be able to complete any course of study that results in a degree.” Any student? Any course?

First, it should not be the task of universities to make up for the academic negligence that takes place at the K-12 level. Second, not even all top high school students should be “able to complete any course of study that results in a degree.” Bright literary-minded students may not perform as well in a statistics course as bright math-inclined students. Individuals have different skill sets and proclivities. And being able to “complete any course” does not mean being able to “excel in any course.” 

The op-ed writer appears to have fallen for two unfounded and oft-repeated assumptions: that merely being cycled through college degree programs is in the best interest of low-achieving students, and that greater production of STEM graduates is in and of itself a worthwhile goal. 

Two Very Different Views of College


Back in October, Harvard’s president Drew Faust penned an article for USA Today in which she dished out a heaping plate full of smiley face cliches about higher education: more money, healthier lifestyles, greater civic engagement, and of course, the way college “opens minds and worlds in ways that defy measurement.”

True for some, but for a great many young Americans, the college experience is nothing like that. For contrast, I suggest reading Eileen Toplansky’s Nov. 8 American Thinker article “I Did Not Come to College to Read.” Toplansky, who teaches English at Union County College in New Jersey, finds little of that mind opening going on. “What more instructors are faced with is a classroom of bored students who would rather stare into space than actually tackle the lesson at hand. And remember that for financial aid purposes, ‘D’ and ‘D-’ are passing grades.”

The college environment hardly consists of deep thinking about academic disciplines and mankind’s problems. Instead, students are bombarded with rhetoric on the panoply of leftist causes. Faculty members have to concentrate on how to get students who don’t want to do assignments to make some effort.

Higher education? It’s barely education at all.

Many Law Schools Lined Up Like Dominoes Ready to Fall


In this recent post on his TaxProf blog, David Caron links to a piece by Cleveland State’s David Barnhizer, which contains distressing news for a lot of law schools: they could go belly up.

Law schools are good evidence for my argument that we have oversold higher education. For many years, people kept hearing that law school was a good “investment” that would pay off even if you didn’t land a lucrative job in the legal profession. And now we have a surfeit of them, with many highly-paid professors and deans nervously hoping that other schools will fail and they’ll survive.

But if you think about law school the way the higher ed establishment types usually do, it’s hard to see any problem. After all, on average lawyers earn way more than do people without college degrees, and quite a lot more than most people with them. Therefore, doesn’t it follow that we need more law school graduates? Based on the argument we usually hear from the establishment, it would seem that we should be opening more law schools and enrolling more students to fill the apparent demand.


“The Forgotten American Dream”


In the middle of the 20th century, some sociologists and economists began to speculate on what society would look like in a post-capitalistic world - a world that had become so wealthy that the big “problems” of the day would revolve around how to distribute wealth and what to do with “free time,” i.e., leisure. Technological progress would remove the burden of workday drudgery, leaving mankind free to engage in nobler endeavors. But which leisurely pursuits would be pursued? This newfound interest set in motion the creation of leisure studies departments. 

University of Iowa professor Bejamin Hunnicutt has become a prominent defender of the field. He recently gained attention with the 2013 release of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, a book that argues that the American Dream has “been reduced to economic growth and confined by government budgets,” and that our lives would be enriched by working less. Earlier this year, in an article on Politico, he asked, “Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?” He was responding to conservatives who had pointed out that one of Obamacare’s detrimental effects will be cuts to Americans’ work weeks. For Hunnicutt, of course, that unintended effect is a desirable one. 

George Leef, in today’s Pope Center feature, looks closely at the leisure studies field, and upends its defenders’ basic assumptions. The inescapable problem of scarcity is completely ignored by leisure studies scholars, according to Leef. The Marxist utopia envisioned by many academics disregards the fact that “goods and services only appear when individuals work to produce them.” Also, argues Leef, individuals have different preferences for leisure, and those preferences are revealed by how much time they spend working. “Some poor people prefer to allocate more time to leisure while some rich people choose to be workaholics. People have different values,” he writes. 

Also overlooked by leisure studies academics is that free market capitalism provides workers with more leisure, without any coercion from central planners or regulators. As our standards of living progress and as the division of labor becomes ever more expansive, our options – including how we choose to spend our free time  - multiply. As Leef points out, “Only in American universities – fulsomely supported through people’s work – could [leisure] become the grounds for a field of study.” 

The UNC Saga Continues


Kenneth Wainstein’s report on the 18-year reign of “paper classes” at UNC-Chapel Hill was designed to end the scandal once and for all. But that’s not happening.

For one thing, the NCAA has re-opened its investigation of UNC-Chapel Hill. In that light, it might be of more than cursory interest that the NCAA has just punished the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The university “lacked control over, and failed to monitor, its athletics program” for five years, says the NCAA. Because it did not “properly certify the eligibility of 40 student-athletes,” the university will be punished by vacating all basketball and men’s ice-hockey wins with the ineligible players, reducing points for women’s skiing and swimming competitions, banning post-season play this year, reducing scholarships, and a fine of $30,000.

That seems to set a high bar for punishing UNC for its severe academic fraud, which took place for 18 years involving 3,100 students (about half of whom were athletes).

We’ll see. Meanwhile, Michael McAdoo, the former UNC-Chapel Hill football player whose badly flawed student paper launched the search for academic fraud in 2011, is suing the school. His class-action suit, filed in federal court, says that the university deprived him of a “legitimate education” because it focused entirely on keeping athletes eligible to play. 

Intellectual Diversity and Law Schools


The Federalist Society last Saturday sponsored a symposium at Yale Law School that discussed “Achieving Intellectual Diversity” on law school faculties.  It was a sequel of sorts to an earlier symposium that it had sponsored at Harvard Law School.  Saturday’s event began with opening remarks by Yale Law School’s dean, Robert Post, and two others, followed by three panels:  “What Can Law Schools Do To Encourage Intellectual Diversity?,” “What Can Intellectual Diversity Do for the Practice of Law?,” and “What Can Intellectual Diversity Do for Legal Scholarship?”

A video will be available of this valuable event, and I’ll be sure to share that link with Phi Beta Cons when I get it, but in the meantime here is what I, as a participant on the second panel, had to say.

Board Games


Higher education’s three-part governance is broken, and the fundamental problem isn’t hard to find. Faculty and administrations behave as expected, both aggressively pursuing their interests. Boards of governance, on the other hand, are missing in inaction. There was a time in the early 19th century when they were the universities, exercising an iron grip on classroom content. While liberalizing was necessary at that time, today academia suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of using their considerable power to make sure that academia maintains some balance, governing boards have been effectively neutralized by their own weakness.  

Without strong boards that bring common sense from the outside world into the insular Ivory Tower, academia races headlong into the mission-creeping aggrandizement favored by administrators or into the People’s Republics demanded by the highly vocal leftist faculty.

In this See Thru Edu post, I discuss one reason why otherwise conservative Trustees, Regents, Governors, Visitors—the ones from whom reform is expected—are so ineffective: because they see higher education’s problems not as situations to be addressed, but as “costs’ to be borne in the pursuit of other goals, as if academia was the business world.

Also on See Thru Edu, Hamilton College history professor Bob Paquette took a no-holds-barred look at his own school’s governing board. He describes a new breed of college trustee as “financiers from Wall Street and executives from left-leaning non-profits,” with an “accommodationist, rent-seeking, internationalist mindset largely compatible with the left-leaning culture so visible in, say, the bowels of the State Department or the EPA.” 

Judging B-School Applicants


Over the last ten years, the percentage of Asia-Pacific students taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) – the business school entrance exam – has doubled. Today, 44 percent of GMAT-takers come from countries such as India, Korea, and China (only 36 percent are from America). And, as this Wall Street Journal article indicates, those students are crushing their American competition. They’re far outpacing Americans, particularly on the quantitative section of the test. Many B-school admissions officers say that a score on the quantitative section is the best predictor of success in an MBA program. 

One result of these disparities is that Americans’ percentile rankings have dropped, even though their raw scores have remained constant in recent years. With Asia-Pacific students applying to and attending American business schools in large numbers, some schools complained to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the GMAT. As the WSJ put it, schools “don’t want to become factories for high-scoring test-takers from abroad.”

The schools were unsatisfied with the global rankings, which made it harder to determine American applicants’ relative scores. Their thinking: a test-taker from Georgia may be in the 74th percentile globally, but how does he or she compare to other Southerners? To other Americans? Other males/females? And so, in September, GMAC announced new “benchmarking tools” that will allow B-school admissions officers to compare applicants without relying solely on global percentile rankings.

From the B-schools’ perspective, boosting enrollment from abroad is a goal to be balanced with another interest: enhancing ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic “diversity.” In this instance, however, I’m in agreement with one B-school admissions officer (who chose to remain anonymous) interviewed by the WSJ. The officer argued that the focus should be on improving math instruction at the K-12 level, not creating a “different [admission] standard for U.S. students.” 

False Sexual Misconduct Claim Derailed Former Yale QB’s Dreams


In case you missed it, an op-ed published Nov. 3 in the Boston Globe by former Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt is making the rounds. In it, Witt details how his promising NFL career and an opportunity at a Rhodes Scholarship were completely derailed by a baseless “informal complaint” lodged against him and adjudicated by the then-newly-created Yale University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.

If ever there was a quintessential example of how “jerrybuilt, due-process challenged​“ campus sexual assault tribunals wield far too much power, and how mere claims are held sacrosanct by administrators to the detriment of the young men who stand accused, it’s this one.

“I would say more about what the accusation itself entailed if indeed I had such information,” Witt writes. “Under the informal complaint process, specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct. For the committee to issue an informal complaint, an accuser need only bring an accusation that, if substantiated, would constitute a violation of university policy concerning sexual misconduct. The informal ‘process’ begins and ends at the point of accusation; the truth of the claim is immaterial.”

As Greg Piper on The College Fix points out, Witt “goes on to state that Yale pretty much lied to him about the consequences of this ‘informal complaint’ – Witt’s post-graduation job offer was rescinded and his potential Rhodes Scholarship became untenable following an ‘anonymous tip.’”

“I cannot begin to describe how exasperatingly difficult it has been to try to explain to people what an informal complaint is and how there was never any evidence — nor any effort made to discover evidence — to substantiate the claim made by my accuser,” Witt writes. “My summer employer and the NFL certainly couldn’t understand it, and the media flat out didn’t care — the words ‘informal complaint’ were all that was needed to establish my guilt in their eyes.”

How many more Patrick Witts need to have their lives ruined before there’s an end to this madness? There are currently at least 44 lawsuits filed against universities across this nation alleging due process and other violations in adjudicating sexual assault claims.

Witt is now attending Harvard Law School. I have a feeling I know what type of legal battles he might want to tackle first.



Tags: Patrick Witt , sexual misconduct claim

The Surprising Story Behind UCLA’s Diversity Mandate


That UCLA is on the verge of approving a new policy to require students to take some sort of diversity course to graduate is not surprising. Many universities foist such extraneous indoctrination on students.

What is surprising is the large and vocal contingent of professors who bravely called out the requirement for what it is – an unnecessary and biased burden, financial and otherwise, on students and the school. Or as one astute scholar labeled it: “Ideological puffery.”

The faculty vote to approve the requirement didn’t exactly sail through. It was 332 to 303. What’s more, this effort has been raised at least twice before in the last decade and both times it failed.

There is a strong contingent of conservative, libertarian and practical professors at UCLA who are willing to stand up for common sense. They were outvoted this time. But it’s refreshing to see they put up a good fight at all, and were able to convince a large number of their peers to vote “no” as well.” 

Tags: UCLA , diversity mandate

Causing the College Credentials Craze


While a few die-hards in the higher ed establishment keep saying that we must put more and more young Americans through college because the labor force needs more brainpower, it’s well established that much of the demand for people who’ve graduated from college is just screening. There are so many people who have degrees that nothing is lost by screening out all of the presumably less capable people who don’t. How we got on that track is the topic of a piece I have posted on Forbes.

Quite a bit of the blame, although not all, should go to the Supreme Court for its 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision. That case, which mangled the meaning of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so as to let the zealots at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have their way, turned ability testing into a legal minefield for employers by importing the “disparate impact” notion into the law. As a result, companies started turning toward college credentials as a proxy for ability, a way of screening out lower ability workers that wouldn’t cause any legal trouble.

We probably would have had something of a higher ed bubble just from the way the government has subsidized it and pushed the notion that more education is always worth it, but Griggs helped inflate the bubble too.

Here’s a question I would like to know the answer to: has anyone ever challenged a company’s college requirement on the same logic as prevailed in Griggs?


Community Colleges Not the Be-All and End-All


When it comes to community colleges, one of the concerns always lurking in the back of my mind has been how good a job they do. Of course, their success is uneven—the Pope Center has written about the tremendously talented community college teacher Kelly Markson and about a North Carolina college in turmoil, with claims of racial discrimination and mismanagement of funds.

In spite of this variation (and also a certain lethargy that seems to crop up in community college governance), I have generally felt that because community colleges are close to businesses in their areas, they are practical and down-to-earth and can prepare students for useful jobs.

But a new study says that when it comes to short-term certificates, which are proliferating at community colleges, there is no solid evidence that they help recipients get jobs. The study was conducted by researchers from Columbia University and the California Community Colleges’ Board of Governors.

The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes from the study: “Although we would not go as far as to say that short-term certificates never have any value, the evidence is suggestive that they tend to have minimal value over and above attending college and earning some credits.”

The fact that these colleges are public entities, sometimes run with little oversight, may mean that they, like other institutions of higher education are subject to educational fads, whether successful or not.

Evaluating Course Evaluations


In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call article, George Leef examines student course evaluations and concludes that they are at best unreliable. Unsatisfied with their grades or upset about the amount of work required in a course, students, at the end of the semester, can blast professors via low ratings and negative reviews. Leef points out that such evaluations encourage non-tenured faculty whose jobs are on the line to water down their courses and appease students at the expense of academic rigor. 

A couple of UC-Berkeley professors are challenging the current course evaluation paradigm. Philip Stark and Richard Freishtat argue that student evaluations have a response bias that motivates angry students to respond with greater frequency than satisfied students, and that department heads should take such reviews with a heavy grain of salt.

The professors provide another path forward: in Berkeley’s statistics department, faculty members create portfolios with information about their teaching methods, syllabi, and class assignments, which are then reviewed by department heads. Perhaps more important, a senior faculty member attends professors’ classes and then offers comments and critiques. 

Leef says that that close oversight, which is common in fields such as medicine and law, is absent in academia, particularly in disciplines outside of science and math. “I don’t expect UC-Berkeley’s statistics department’s strong system for ensuring that courses are taught well to spread into ’soft’ fields where there are no wrong answers and it hardly matters how much students have learned. But at least there is a good model available for any department that sees the importance of going beyond unreliable student course evaluations,” he writes. 

So That’s What “Leisure Studies” is All About!


From time to time, PBC posters like to poke fun at college courses that seem to be Seinfeldian — that is, about nothing. Among those are “leisure studies” courses, which you’d think were content-free credits. Earlier this year, a flap erupted when a professor of leisure studies wrote a piece pushing back against the criticism of Obamacare that it was pushing people out of full-time work. Perhaps you’ll remember that — the prof opined that less work was something to celebrate and only unfeeling, nose-to-the-grindstone conservatives could gripe about this good development.

A recent issue of Chronicle Review revisited that flap. We read in Nathan Schneider’s piece The Labors of Leisure that the professor in question was Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa. The piece is completely sympathetic to Hunnicutt and his academic discipline. Schneider writes, “Today the very idea of leisure sounds absurd to the ears of such cultural bellwethers as O’Reilly and Hannity, and like a personal insult to hardworking politicians like (Paul) Ryan. The corresponding decline of academic discourse on leisure is particularly ironic.”

First, what conservatives and libertarians find offensive about Obamacare is that it compels people to adjust to its onerous regulations by working less than they probably want to. Schneider evidently doesn’t grasp that economics is about making trade-offs, such as between work and leisure. It’s best to let each individual figure out for himself how to make such decisions. Nobody is saying that work is inherently good, only that making people work less when they’d prefer to earn more is a bad thing.

But second, what is this “academic discourse”? Schneider writes, “Fifty or sixty years ago, many sociologists saw leisure as an urgent challenge for their field; with more free time surely to come, how would people use it? Leisure-studies departments were one result.”

Good grief. This is much ado about nothing. Labor saving devices have been gradually liberating people from having to work to survive for centuries, and people have had no trouble deciding for themselves how to use that time. It varies from person to person depending on his unique set of likes and dislikes. What useful knowledge could possibly come from studying that?

Think Twice Before Giving to a College


Many American college grads like to give to colleges and universities, usually but not always the dear old alma mater. And sometimes they have particular uses in mind for the money. They assume that school officials will honor their desires, but unfortunately that is often not the case. In this SeeThru post, Rich Vedder takes us through the difficulties.

His suggested remedy is for schools that dishonor donor intent to lose their tax exemption for some period of time. I’d like to see the income tax abolished entirely, but until such time, that solution would no doubt cause college officials to be extremely careful not to violate the donor’s intentions.

For a thorough examination of the donor intent problem in colleges, check out Martin Morse Wooster’s Pope Center paper on the subject.

Wasting Time on the Internet


Next semester, English and creative writing majors at the University of Pennsylvania will be able to enroll in a seminar titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” From the course description:

We spend our lives in front of screens, mostly wasting time: checking social media, watching cat videos, chatting, and shopping. What if these activities – clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing – were used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature? Could we reconstruct our autobiography using only Facebook? Could we write a great novella by plundering our Twitter feed? Could we reframe the Internet as the greatest poem ever written? Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs. 

Reform-minded higher education observers may view this course as just another sign of the dismal academic times, another trendy course with no substance.

But the goals of the seminar – to challenge the technophobia possessed by many writers and to use social media as fodder for creating a work of literature - are in my view legitimate ones. I just don’t think creative writing majors should spend an entire semester focusing on “alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing” before they’ve paid sufficient attention to writing’s nuts and bolts.

Instead, they should read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. (In the opening pages, Prose makes a strong argument against traditional writing courses.) And their professors should read that book, too. And then those professors should design courses in which students read classic fiction and modern literature with an eye not toward the sociological or economic or cultural background of authors and storylines, but rather toward those authors’ word choices and sentence construction.

In other words, students need to study the artful science of fiction writing before they jump head-first into an avant-garde creative process like the one outlined in the above course description. “Wasting Time on the Internet” could be justified if students first had to painstakingly dissect the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, and other literary masters over the course of multiple semesters.

Good writing requires good reading, but that’s a skill given short shrift by many English departments.

NYT Writer Says We Must Put More Kids Through College; Tax on the Rich Way to Do It


Ah, the predictable New York Times. Economics writer Eduardo Porter recently penned a column lamenting that too few young Americans are getting their college degrees, which he naturally assumes is a serious problem. His solution to this imaginary problem is just what you’d expect — higher taxes on the rich! That will provide the money needed for kids from poor families to go to college. If that sounds like the usual brand of statist problem solving, i.e., coercion that will prove to be counterproductive, you’ll like today’s Pope Center piece by Professor Michael Stroup of Stephen F. Austin University.

Stroup tears big holes in Porter’s argument, including his weak assumption that the reason why these young people don’t get their college degrees is just a shortage of funds. There are lots of low-cost options for postsecondary education, but Porter overlooks entirely the well-known deficiencies in K-12 which leaves many students unprepared for anything like real college work, Stroup notes.

Furthermore, what effect would a check from the federal government have on the families Porter means to help? If we know anything about welfare programs it’s that ladling out cash only enables recipients to afford more of what they want, which probably does not include better education. (Bear in mind that the education establishment is dead set against people opting out of public schools, which is how some of those families might choose to spend their windfall.)

And of course Porter pays no attention to the opportunity costs of taking more away from “the rich.” There would be less capital to invest, less money to donate to charitable organizations. Couldn’t the NYT find an economics writer who understands trade-offs and opportunity costs? Guess not.

“Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”


So says an op-ed in the New York Times, of all places, so it must be true.  A key paragraph:  “So if alleged hiring and promotion biases don’t explain the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, what does? According to our research, the biggest culprits are rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.”  Gee, fancy that.  What’s more, a piece in The New Yorker re-explains that social psychology academia is biased against conservatives.  Wow.  Must be the time change — I better have another cup of coffee.


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