Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Prove It!


As George Leef points out in the previous post, the claim by Jamie Meriotis that education is necessarily the pathway to prosperity is wrong. The pathway is effective use of human capital. In many cases that includes getting a bachelor’s degree, but not always.

I urge readers to look at the two maps that Meriotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, provides in his Huffington Post article to show that education equals wealth.

One of them gives the education degree attainment of the single richest person in each state (just one person, by name). What does that tell us? Fourteen percent, by the way, are listed as dropouts.

The other shows the percentage of each state’s residents who have at least a two-year degree and the average income for the state. As far as I can tell, the connections are “all over the map.” They are meaningless unless one takes other factors, such as population growth, into account.

I don’t think that Meriotis is actually trying to make any substantive claims with his maps, however. Rather, he’s trying to get people to agree with him and he’s using colorful insignia to do it. He says as much: “These connections are important because the narrative around prosperity matters.”

It’s just a narrative.

The Party Line from Lumina Foundation


Lumina Foundation has a mission of greatly increasing higher education “attainment” (its goal is for 60 percent of Americans to have college degrees by 2020) and no evidence that we have already oversold higher education ever gets in the way of its cheerleading. As Exhibit A, consider this piece by Lumina president Jamie Merisotis on Huffington Post. He repeats the old canard that education is “the path to prosperity in America.”

Nonsense. Having a college degree to your name is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for prosperity. Lots of people who don’t are doing well, while lots of people with degrees are struggling. Ignoring those obvious facts is essential, however, if you run an organization with a ridiculous mission.

Actually, the path to prosperity is to make the best use of your human capital. Formal education can help to do that, but the point where the cost of more seat time starts to exceed the benefit the individual derives from it varies greatly from person to person. For many people, that is short of a college degree, and much of what goes into a college degree does little or nothing to improve the person’s level of skill and knowledge.

The old central planners in the Soviet Union thought that they could boost their nation’s economy through targeted investments — steel, heavy equipment, and also education. What they didn’t understand (or couldn’t admit) is that laissez-faire allows the spontaneous order of the free market to make the best possible use of resources. Lumina is following in their footsteps, insisting that the path to prosperity is to put more and more people through the higher education mill. That can’t work either.


Let the Good Times Roll


Last month, Syracuse University was designated as the number one “party school” in America by the Princeton Review. Now, the dipsomaniacs matriculating there are making a pother because of a recent and relatively minor restriction on their raucous debauchery.

The students have been prohibited from partying at a hedonistic haunt called “Castle Court,” which is the parking lot of an apartment complex near campus. There had been instances of students dangling precariously from apartment balconies, starting fires in the parking lot, breaking glass, etc. The prohibition reportedly came at the behest of university officials concerned about students’ health and safety. 

A melodramatic YouTube video published Tuesday, which already has 45,000 views, features audio clips of Syracuse students protesting the university’s decision. Here’s a transcription of one female student’s vacuous bleating:

Like, [at Castle Court], it’s not about going to one frat and having one sorority be there and then two of them enjoying themselves together, it’s about us all coming together. Whether you’re in a sorority, whether you’re in a fraternity, or whether you’re not, it’s about being together as a university and showing school spirit and enjoying ourselves all together, which is like the most important thing about being in college. [It's about] being together, being around people who make you feel good and who want to have a good time.

Got that? Like, college is about showing school spirit and enjoying oneself. Totally. 

If you have the stomach for it, watch some of the videos on this YouTube channel (which published the video above) and you’ll get a good feel for the offensive combination of superficiality, ignorance, and bumptiousness now prevalent on many college campuses. 

My takeaway from this case and the videos is not that we should start campaigning for asceticism and temperance on the part of college students, but rather that we should be more critical of the parenting styles and K-12 schools that influenced them during their formative years.     

Aspiring Adults Adrift


The team of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have written a follow-up book to their 2011 Academically Adrift. This one is entitled Aspiring Adults Adrift and the message is not encouraging. I suggest this short Wall Street Journal video, in which Daniel Henninger discusses the book with Professor Arum. Key point in my view is Arum’s contention that colleges mostly treat students as consumers and “do everything to keep them happy.” The problem, of course, is that keeping students happy blends very poorly with rigorous academic work. Thus, we have large numbers of graduates who lack the skills, attitudes and disposition necessary both for success in the labor force and also to be responsible citizens.

Some Common Sense about “Dirty Money”


On August 28, Inside Higher Ed ran an interesting story about Professor Cynthia Jones of Texas-Pan American entitled “Dirty Money.” Professor Jones, who teaches philosophy, dissents from the common academic notion that taking money from allegedly bad sources (e.g., the Koch brothers) is ethically wrong. She argues that so long as the source can’t dictate research results, there is no reason to refuse a grant or donation.

That supposed ethical problem arose a few months ago when the United Negro College Fund did not turn down $25 million from the Kochs, money it will use for more scholarships. (I wrote about that controversy in this piece.)

I particularly liked Professor Jones’s point that it is ridiculous to gripe about funding from private sources and blissfully accepting government funds: “It’s amusing that we think government money is somehow clean but private money is somehow dirty.” Sadly, though, she doesn’t quite nail the point down with the observation that government money comes via coercion against taxpayers, but only complains about how the state government in Texas is “ethically suspect.” The most squeaky clean, ethically upright government ever still gets its money through force, while private sources obtain theirs through voluntary processes.


Resistance Fighter


Cary Nelson, humanities professor, author of “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical,” and labor union organizer, has been taking on a new, and I would say, a more positive role. He’s opposing the growing movement against Israel known as “Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment” (BSD)

One wing of that movement is trying to get academics “to work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects that promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy.” It is having some success in at least raising the issue; several fringe professorial associations have signed on to the boycott, and the Modern Language Association has debated a condemnation of Israel for hindering the entrance of scholars into the West Bank.

Nelson has also been one of the few academic defenders of the University of Illinois (where he works) in its contretemps with Steve Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded when his vicious tweets against Israel surfaced. 

Most recently, Nelson wrote an article on Inside Higher Ed probing whether or not the BDS and related anti-Israeli movements are anti-Semitic. He says that they are: 

While the BDS movement undoubtedly gathers some conscious anti-Semites into its fold, the way in which it more broadly assigns the traditional pariah status of Jews to the Israeli state is equally troubling. Debates about BDS resolutions and petitions often invoke the standard tropes anti-Semitism has deployed, notably that BDS opponents are organized and funded by an international Jewish lobby, an accusation that surfaced during the Modern Language discussion of its 2014 resolution condemning Israeli visa policies.

He’s probably right: Anti-Israel viewpoints undoubtedly reinforce traditional anti-Semitism and vice versa. I wonder, though, how much of the hostility to Israel comes from Ivory Tower leftists simply because they champion causes that sound compassionate, especially when supported by their “groupthink” colleagues, and who have a deft ability to screen out reality.


About the Faculty “Teaching Load”


One way in which professors — tenured ones, anyway — have benefited from the great expansion of higher education is in the reduction of their teaching obligations. Back in 1993, Thomas Sowell commented on that in his book Inside American Education: “This research is paid for not only by faculty grants but also by reduced teaching loads — which is to say, by hiring far more professors than were required before to teach the same number of courses.” Many taxpayers are amazed at how little time many professors devote to the classroom, and it seems that college and university officials are concerned about that. They’re concerned enough to use misleading data when they report how many courses their faculty teach. That is the point of Jenna Ashley Robinson’s Pope Center Clarion Call this week. When queried on this, some of the UNC institutions provided misleading if not downright false information.

What is the optimal balance between teaching and research (assuming that non-teaching time is really devoted to research, which isn’t always the case)? Some profs only teach, such as Dirk Mateer at Penn State explained in this piece. Others do very little teaching, sometimes just one course per semester. If teaching loads reflected comparative advantage, the variation would make sense. To some extent they do, but that is often not the case since some professors who enjoy low teaching loads produce little research that is of any value. My surmise is that the loss to the world of good research that never gets done because a professor is too busy teaching is very slight (if an idea is truly worth investigating and writing about, a scholar will find the time to do it), while the loss because professors who would be good teachers are spending too much time working on obligatory but pointless research is far larger.

The Degradation of Campus Culture


Politics has an engrained “divide and conquer” bias that threatens civil society. It causes many people to view themselves and others not as sovereign individuals, but as members of special interest coalitions and warring parties. That mentality makes it easy for power-lusting demagogues to pander and appease and gain control of our wallets and world views. It’s tribalism on a grand scale and it fans the flames of our darker recesses. 

Colleges and universities have been fanning those flames for decades. Campus culture has been degraded by an increasing obsession with identity politics – an obsession in which race, sexual orientation, ancestry, perceived victimization, income inequality, “green” initiatives, and “social justice” are topics du jour and meta issues deserving urgent attention. 

Recently, the all-women’s liberal arts college Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts) made headlines when it decided to explicitly allow transgender individuals identifying as women to enroll. “Just as early feminists argued that reducing women to their biological functions was a foundation of women’s oppression, we acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body,” said the college’s president, Lynn Pasquerella, during a recent convocation address. 

The policy was advanced by Open Gates, a “student led community organization dedicated to the full inclusion of trans women at Mount Holyoke College.” The student who founded Open Gates told Inside Higher Ed that “there is a lot of work to be done in terms of consciousness raising.” 

It’s worth noting that MHC had never banned transgendered applicants. This entire spectacle, which has garnered so much media ink, is the result of a group of students and administrators dreaming up new conflicts, turning non-issues into issues, and distracting an entire campus from real academic work. But at MHC, the term “real academic work” may need some clarification. 

The student who founded Open Gates is majoring in gender studies, which MHC’s gender studies department’s website describes as a degree program with a “commitment to uncovering the realities of women’s lives, understanding the nature of women’s oppression, and charting paths to significant social change.” It’s a major that investigates “the very nature of gender” and “other forms of difference and power such as class, race, nation, and sexuality.” 

Perhaps the ridiculousness of MHC’s gender studies degree description would be amusing if it wasn’t a serious statement from an actual college department in which students can receive actual degrees. As is, it’s just a frightening representation of much that is wrong with postmodern campus culture, a culture that is rapidly bubbling over into our broader society. 

The Salaita Affair Continues


Steven Salaita’s situation–fired from the University of Illinois before being hired–continues to make news. The university, which took offense at a series of crude and hateful messages about Israel, is now considering a financial settlement for terminating Salaita’s agreement with the university. The chairman of the board of trustees, Christopher Kennedy, told the Chicago Tribune, “We are not trying to hurt the guy. We just don’t want him at the university.” (The story is on Inside Higher Ed.)

Robert Weissberg, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a different view from most previous discussions, which have centered on Salaita’s academic freedom. Weissberg says that the case is not about academic freedom. Rather, it’s about the failure of the university to judge Salaita on his academic achievements, particularly those relevant to the American Indian Studies Program, which was poised to hire him. Salaita had no history of scholarship on American Indians, as far as Weissberg–or, it appears, anyone else–has found; just a journalistic article in which he favors giving the United States back to the Indians.

If it hadn’t been for his outraged and outrageous tweets, Salaita would have been a faculty member teaching young people in an area he knows little about. He’d have as much learning to do as his students.

Getting Crazy on Campus Again


Many colleges are back in session, and you know what that means – absurdness abounds.

And if the first week of school is any indication, 2014-15 promises to be another year in which political correctness, indoctrination and academic bias rules the day at most campuses.

Just consider that in the last week, The College Fix has reported that:

  • The first official hate-crime hoax of the semester has already occurred. A female student at the Virginia-based Sweet Briar College hung “White Only” and “Colored” signs on water fountains on her dorm. When she fessed up, she said she was trying to “make a point.” The college’s president was sympathetic, calling the stunt “well-intentioned” and “theoretically positive.”
  • A wacky freshman orientation at Vassar College suggested that “jokes” and “traditional gender roles” can lead to rape and murder, and that to ask a pregnant woman if she is having a boy or a girl is “violent.”
  • A “disorientation guide” put out by student radical activists at Columbia University describes capitalism as being “responsible for countless wars, endless poverty, and mass exploitation and oppression for the sake of profit” and a system that establishes and encourages “racist, sexist, classist and homophobic conditions.” (page 13 of the manifesto)

And it’s only Week One.

Tags: indoctrination

Add to Reading List: “Aspiring Adults Adrift”


In 2011, Richard Arum’s and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift revealed that many students go through four (or five or six) years of college without realizing any gains in learning or critical thinking skills. The book sparked a national debate about the value of college degrees and the role higher education should play in preparing students for jobs. Today, that book’s follow-up,  Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, was released by the University of Chicago Press. 

Aspiring Adults Adrift tracks many of the same individuals analyzed by Arum and Roksa in 2011. It highlights how many of those graduates are experiencing unemployment and underemployment woes, still living with and relying on parents, and delaying starting families. An Inside Higher Ed review of the book can be found here.

Arum and Roksa emphasize that colleges and universities are largely to blame for those graduates’ problems, as they have, over the years, adopted an approach that focuses more on building fancy amenities and enhancing students’ non-academic experiences than on improving educational standards and increasing coursework rigor. 

The Feminist Thought Police Are On the Job


Apparently, it is forbidden (in certain circles, such as NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show”) to say that college women should learn how not to drink too much, in order to fend off date rape. The former president of George Washington University said something to that effect and was reamed by comments and emails saying that he was blaming the victim.

An online petition tried to get him to apologize. One commenter said:  “10 out of 10 rapes are caused by rapists. Not survivors who were drinking too much, wearing ‘too little,’ or walking alone at night.”

Trachtenberg explained his position further–to the Washington Post–but where was he wrong? We are witnessing an explosion of victimology surrounding the issue of date and acquaintance rape at college. It’s called that less and less, however; now it’s sexual assault or just plain rape and it apparently doesn’t matter what the victim was doing or what the relationship was with the perpetrator before she was raped. It’s rape and it justifies spending millions of dollars to provide counseling and advice and sensitivity training. Meanwhile, the other party in the date rape may have his life changed by being expelled from school.

As Trachtenberg remarked after the surge of negative reaction, in today’s environment “Don’t drive drunk is okay. Don’t date drunk, not so much.”

The Thin Gruel of English Department Fads


I have been mystified by what has happened to English departments since I was an English major half a century ago, but I’m beginning to get the drift.

For one thing, English has split into two parts. “Composition” has emerged. As R.V. Young noted in a 2010 essay, composition is “a new research field requiring theorization and publication, requiring numerous and mutable theories, since everyone in higher education is now expected to have an ongoing research project. … Reading and writing are completely different skills not to be learned together, and literature must, therefore, be banished from the composition classroom.”

But even the treatment of literature has totally changed in English departments, several times in fact.

In a new Pope Center essay, Troy Camplin charts the history of the trends in studying literature. They have culminated in analysis based on warmed-over remnants of outmoded ideologies from other disciplines—Freudianism, Marxism, feminism, etc. (Marxists are rare in economics departments, and Freud is no longer very popular in psychology departments; feminism does not seem to have a disciplinary base.) Camplin contrasts that superficial eclecticism with the solid grounding required for a major such as biology, where knowledge of chemistry, physics, and math is a must.

He has some ideas for getting English back on track (making it more like biology).

My Aha! Moment


I was very surprised recently when a North Carolina State University student told me that he felt his online classes were actually more engaging than his on-campus ones.

Call me old-fashioned, but I didn’t see how that was possible.

So I challenged him to write a column for The College Fix defending his position. He did, and I’ve got to say it’s actually caused a bit of a paradigm shift in me regarding online education.

The NC State undergrad essentially explained all the ways in which he has been required to virtually interact in his online classes, citing forum posts, phone calls, video chats, interviews and surveys.

He also debunked common notions that professors are less available through online classes, or that students are more engaged in a course if they’re within four walls of a classroom.

He then cited several plusses of online education that have been valuable to him, most notably flexibility.

As I’ve watched over the years online education efforts grow more expansive with the advancement of technology and in the wake of the higher education bubble, I’ve been dubious of such efforts, concerned they were easy As or not a true replica of the classroom experience. Perhaps I’ve judged too harshly. 

While the extra-curricular “college experience” cannot be duplicated online, kids nowadays have grown up in front of computer screens, and for better or for worse, it comes naturally to them.

Done correctly, an online class can be as engaging as a brick-and-mortar one for some students.

Tags: online education , distance education , higher education bubble

There’s Assault and There’s Assault


UNC-Chapel Hill has just implemented a new policy for handling accusations of sexual assault. The announcement of that policy by Chancellor Carol Folt made front-page news in North Carolina today, just as details began to emerge about an actual assault on a UNC-Chapel Hill student.

That actual assault was not sexual and the victim was not female. A UNC-Chapel Hill walk-on football player, sophomore Jackson Boyer, was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion earlier this month.

It’s been called a “training-camp altercation,” an “alleged hazing,” and a “group assault.” The story first broke in a Yahoo sports column on August 26, although the incident apparently occurred on August 4. One day after it became public knowledge (but more than three weeks after it occurred) UNC coach Larry Fedora announced the suspension of four team players from UNC’s opening game this weekend.

And today the Durham Herald-Sun reported a tweet by Boyer’s older brother that said, “4 players isn’t even 25% of group that assaulted my brother, leaving him unconscious and badly concussed.” He also accused the university of “actively covering up both players involved and the extent of the violence.” According to a family friend, Boyer’s family is hiring an attorney, the newspaper said.

It is hardly worth saying that the fanfare over what the school calls its sexual violence policy seems inappropriate in comparison to the high-level silence greeting actual violence.

One-Upping Collegiate Bureaucracies


Students at a handful of universities have created web- and phone-based applications that are helping their peers navigate the often confusing process of course registration, as Ariel Kaminer reports in the New York Times. 

At schools such as Rutgers, Brown University, and UC-Berkeley, those applications are moving legacy registrar systems into the 21st century. For the lucky students accessing the new technology, the registration process has become automated, faster, and more customizable.

For example, if someone drops a high-demand course, a student with a particular application can receive a notification and register instantly. Other apps allow students to easily discover an interesting elective or see which courses their friends have signed up for. 

Kaminer points out that while some schools have embraced the innovations, not all universities have welcomed them, whether because of worries about complying with student privacy laws or concerns about potential harm to existing computer systems.

Harry R. Lewis, the director of undergraduate studies for Harvard’s computer science department, told Kaminer that “students are always more entrepreneurial and understand needs better than bureaucracies…since bureaucracies tend to have messages they want to spin, and priorities they have to set, [while] students just want stuff that is useful.” 

The New York Times Enters the Ratings Game


It probably had to happen eventually. The New York Times has decided to start ranking colleges but with its own left-liberal twist. It will rank schools on how economically diverse the student body is. Specifically (in the one official description so far) it will launch “a new rating of colleges and universities based on their ability to attract underprivileged kids.”

David Leonhardt (former economics columnist for the Times) will lead the project and will give some details on September 8 at a Times-sponsored conference on higher education.

The Chronicle on Higher Education reveals what is public so far about this ranking and suggests that it will be more like Washington Monthly’s ranking of colleges than U.S. News and World Report’s. The Washington Monthly, the magazine states on its website, “asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country.”

Have Some Madeira, My Dear


There is no evidence, just anecdote, that sexual assault and rape are the scourge of co-ed higher education. But that inconvenient omission has not slowed down the feminist juggernaut to force college campuses to adopt protocols laid down by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. As UNC chancellor Carol Folt exclaimed announcing the adoption of the new policy, the school is taking  ”a vital step in taking a wide-ranging approach to ensuring a safe and welcoming campus.” She did not mention that, if UNC had not formulated and implemented what the task force ordered, the school would be sanctioned under Title IX anti-discrimination laws. In other words, the activists and the White House employed extortion to have their way with UNC.

Speaking of having their way, male college students are characterized as brigands lying in wait behind dorms to attack young women for sexual pleasure. This seems odd, and points out one of the  many contradictions in the picture of sexual assault drawn up by the female cadres. Back when virginity was valued, a man forcing himself on a woman was serious enough to be classified a capital crime. Now, girls have their independent female sexuality and a total loss of inner direction. The relationship between the sexes is defined by a strange mixture of female preoccupation with freedom to strut their stuff and an anachronistic obsession with protecting the goods, damaged as they may be. And public schools have emphasized unisex and female aggression; girls know the score earlier and earlier, and boys see sex as a commonplace. 

Yet, young males are mystified as never before. So like before, they rely on alcohol to wear down female defenses. The old Limelighters’ song “Have Some Madeira My Dear” (It’s ever so much quicker than beer) applies today, but the sexual-assault task-force types have connived to implicate the magic elixir in their quest to blame men totally for any issue involving sex. The liberal diva Diane Rehm, host of a daily  love fest of the Left on the predictably biased National Public Radio, asked a guest pushing the establishment of the task force requirements if it was true that fraternity boys masked strong alcohol in sweet drinks. Rehm was shocked, and outraged that unsuspecting co-eds are tricked into losing their inhibitions by drinking a potion that they never knew could cause inebriation. Come on Diane, never had Purple Jesus?

Utopians in all their causes think (no, make that feel) the facts and lessons of  the  past do not exist. They honestly  are committed to codifying and regulating human behavior, now to include sexual behavior, the greatest social mystery of all. As occurred with the Sexual Assault Task Force, the only way they can succeed is to defy free will by force. Stalin tried it, so why not here?


What about Freedom of Contract?


A number of questions have arisen since the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer to Steven Salaita, formerly a professor of English at Virginia Tech.

After mean-spirited, even vicious tweets surfaced in which Salaita attacked Israel’s policies and people, the chancellor rescinded the agreement with Salaita. The agreement had reached the final stages and was awaiting the trustees’ approval (pretty much a rubber stamp these days). Salaita had resigned his other post.

On the Pope Center site George Leef lays out the issues and reports some of the surprising reactions. (Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, defended the university, for example.)

Leef’s major point is that freedom of contract is a right, just as is freedom of speech. He writes:

I am a fervent defender of the First Amendment, but I think that extending the prohibition against governmental infringement with freedom of speech to the point where it interferes with the contractual decisions of public colleges and universities is a mistake.

No Sex Please, We’re Canadian


The Canadian student newspaper at Western University, Ontario, has abjectly apologized for a satirical freshman issue that, it says, “appeared to promote excessive drinking, drug use and sexual advances on teaching assistants.”

One article, “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” was the target of most criticism, especially from the university’s Society of Graduate Students. “This article makes rape culture and sexual violence worse, not better, on campuses,” said the president of society, as quoted by Katherine Timpf (writing elsewhere on NRO). In addition, the London (Ontario) Abused Women’s Centre took offense.

So Western University scrapped the entire satirical part of the “Frosh” issue.

Considering the reaction, The Gazette will not distribute the Frosh Issue during orientation week. In addition, we will carry out a full retraction by removing the Frosh Issue from campus and selected articles from our website.

Frankly, how bad could it have been? The president of the University Students’ Council called it “an error in judgment for these topics [excessive drinking, drug use, and dating TAs]  to be treated with irreverence.”

Irreverence? Is that all it was? Where is FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) when Canada needs it?


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