Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

An Amazing Assertion of Bureaucratic Power


Under Obama, federal bureaucrats have really been swinging for the fences with breathtaking new assertions of power. This one, I submit, takes the cake.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has declared Harvard Law School in violation of Title IX, not for any actions it took, but just for having failed to repeat the agency’s views about the law in a “guidance” letter.

Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who used to work for the OCR, explains the controversy in this Examiner piece. He writes, “This is an egregious violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. But Harvard has acquiesced in this finding, since the OCR has the power to cut off all of Harvard’s hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds.”

That point gets at the root of the problem, namely that federal bureaucrats are empowered to spend or withhold money so as to bend universities to their will. Of course, there is no constitutional authority for Congress, much less a bunch of its minions in the bureaucracy, to exercise such power. This gives strong support for the argument that Columbia Law professor Philip Hamburger makes in his book Is Administrative Law Unlawful?

Hamburger argues that the whole of administrative law is unconstitutional. It violates the separation of powers and harkens back to the concept of royal prerogative that the Founders wanted no part of. (For more on Hamburger’s case against administrative law, read my Forbes piece about it.)

The only real solution is to abolish the Department of Education.

Re: Harvard Confronts Obamacare


One of Obamacare’s steadiest opponents has been Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon. I suspect that PBC readers will savor his take on this development.


A diverse group of social psychologists calls for more diversity in their field


In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Chapman University professor Richard Redding writes about a remarkable article that is forthcoming in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The article, to which a link is included, is by six social psychologists whose political philosophies are all over the map. What unites them is their conviction that their discipline suffers as a science because the range of opinion that is now deemed acceptable has shrunk to the point where it’s extremely hard for any point of view that’s different from conventional leftism to get a hearing. Redding shares that conviction and encourages scholars to consider the likelihood that no science can advance if unconventional ideas are ruled out of bounds.

Among the authors of the article is NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, who has been declared an outcast by such writers as Paul Krugman for having the audacity to say that conservative/libertarian ideas need to be considered, not ridiculed.

Redding and the article authors argue that if academic fields feel that they must have demographic diversity, they should be at least as adamant on philosophical and viewpoint diversity. Unfortunately, while academic departments bend over backwards to say they welcome women and minorities, they often act in ways that repel students of any background who don’t agree with “progressive” ideas about economic and social policy. Until those who dominate in social psychology see what they’re doing in that regard, the field will suffer.

Harvard Confronts Obamacare


Credit the New York Times. It reported Monday on the shock expressed by Harvard professors (some of whom are quite willing to be named) by the modest cost increases they are experiencing as a result of Obamacare.

Read the article for the ironies. Out-of-pocket costs are going up but premiums on average may even go down. The Times writes:

Jerry R. Green, a professor of economics and a former provost who has been on the Harvard faculty for more than four decades, said the new out-of-pocket costs could lead people to defer medical care or diagnostic tests, causing more serious illnesses and costly complications in the future.

On the other hand, the Times says:

Harvard’s new plan is far more generous than plans sold on public insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. Harvard says its plan pays 91 percent of the cost of services for the covered population, while the most popular plans on the exchanges, known as silver plans, pay 70 percent, on average, reflecting their “actuarial value.”

(Fortunately, less well-off professors have a safety net because Harvard has resources “to provide protection against high out-of-pocket costs for employees earning $95,000 a year or less.”)

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, comments on the situation and remarks:

Perhaps President Barack Obama can issue an executive order waiving Obamacare for Ivy League faculties that believed his election was the dawn of a new era of enlightened rule. 

Brace Yourself: A Misleading Op-Ed on Racial Preferences!


I know that’s a dog-bites-man story if ever there was one, but I thought I should note this op-ed that the Washington Post ran over the weekend, with the online title, “The misleading lawsuit accusing Harvard of bias against Asian Americans.”  Here’s what I posted as a reply:

It’s the op-ed here that is misleading, not the lawsuit. It admits that, yes, schools like Harvard and Vanderbilt do consider race in admissions, which means that, yes, they do discriminate. No one believes that schools should automatically admit students based on SAT scores, but that’s not what’s at issue here. Most Americans, Asian Americans included, oppose racial admissions discrimination, and there is no good reason for it. A school doesn’t have to have a politically correct racial and ethnic mix to teach students anything.  
And even if there were some benefit to such a mix, the costs overwhelm it. It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it mismatches African Americans and Latinos with institutions, setting them up for failure; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school and encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.


What Does “College Ready” Mean?


Based on a new report from Renaissance Learning, an educational and learning assessment company, “college ready” students are reading fiction and nonfiction books on a 7th grade level by the time they arrive at campus. 

“We are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there when, on average, they read at about the grade 6 or 7 level,” said Dr. Sandra Stotsky, an education expert and professor emerita at the University of Arkansas. 

Stotsky, in a recent interview with Breitbart Texas, argued that while K-12 schools deserve much of the blame, colleges are not “sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school level reading is needed for college readiness.” She said that in one review of freshman summer reading assignments, five of the top seven books selected by colleges were on a 7th grade reading level. 

“[Colleges] seem to be suggesting that a middle school level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills,” she said. 

Read the full article here

Bogus Statistics Support the “Campus Rape Culture” Mania


Bogus statistics provide the basis for quite a few leftist manias, such as the claim that “Women only earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men!” and “One in five women is raped during college!” The latter statistic has become the rallying point for the current frenzy about the supposedly overwhelming “rape culture” found at most American colleges and universities.

A few people dare to challenge it, and one of them is Wendy McElroy. In this piece published on The Hill on December 24, she cites Bureau of Justice Statistics figures that are greatly at odds with the “one in five!” chant. Those numbers show that rape is much less frequent, closer to one in fifty. Furthermore, women are safer on college campuses than elsewhere and sexual assault overall has been declining for the last 15 years.

“The data raise an awkward question,” McElroy writes. “What if the rape culture does not exist? What if it is a political construct used to impose gender policies and cement voting blocks?”

That’s exactly it.  Statists need a constant procession of “issues” to keep people clamoring for government officials to do something! I would not expect any of the “rape culture” advocates to look at the statistics and say, “Oh, never mind. I guess we don’t need to throw away due process of law after all.”

Martin Anderson, R.I.P.


Martin Anderson, the Keith and Jan Hurlbut Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a conservative adviser to presidents, died on January 3, 2015, at the age of 78. A critic of bad government programs (such as urban renewal) and an author of several books about Ronald Reagan, he won a place in my heart with his 1992 book Impostors in the Temple.

The subtitle of the book is “American Intellectuals Are Destroying Our Universities and Cheating Our Students of Their Future.” Hard though he was on intellectuals, he was perhaps even more critical of  university trustees.

“Generally speaking, trustees are terrified of the faculties they oversee,” he wrote. “The faculties know this, delight in it, and largely ignore these wealthy, distinguished ‘overseers.’” Ironically, Anderson recommended adding more intellectuals to the boards–-people of the caliber of Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell—because they would know how universities work.

He offered a straightforward 10-point plan for correcting the ills of the universities, and most of his points would not come as a surprise. One was to stop athletic corruption, for example; another was to end tenure. But his top recommendation was to prohibit teaching by graduate students (undergraduates “once again would be taught, graded, and counseled by mature, learned adults,” he wrote).

There’s much more to the book. Sadly, few of his recommendations have been adopted.

You Can Get a Quality Education Anywhere


Many Americans wrongly believe that a Harvard education is automatically superior to an education at, say, Florida State. But that belief is incorrect and reinforces the notion that a school’s admissions selectivity is a sign of high academic quality. As George Leef points out in today’s Pope Center piece, whether a student attends Harvard or a football powerhouse such as Florida State, the kind of education he or she receives ultimately boils down to individual initiative. 

Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, and Florida State, “football powerhouses” that made it to the semi-finals this season, nevertheless have talented faculty and ambitious, intelligent students who are doing rigorous work. Sure, some students at those schools party their way to graduation and have no interest in being challenged academically. But if students take their college experiences seriously and fight for a top-notch education by selecting quality courses and finding engaged professors, the fact that the diplomas they earn come from schools known more for athletics than academics matters little. 

Read the full article here.

The Hidden Student Debt Bomb


That’s the title of an excellent piece by Jason Delisle of the New America Foundation in the December 31 Wall Street Journal.

Delisle works for a leftish organization, but federal higher education policies have gotten so harmful that they’re drawing criticism from all sides now. Delisle aims in particular at Obama policies that are meant to make student loan repayments easier for the students, but which are certain to stick taxpayers with billions of dollars in losses.

I have often commented on the similarities between the housing bubble and higher education policy. Making it easy to repay student loans is like the policies designed to keep people in the houses they improvidently borrowed to buy. When politicians decide to be “kind and generous” toward students or homeowners, they just get in the way of sensible cost/benefit calculations.

There’s one big difference, though — the houses that were built to meet the inflated demand were at least well constructed and of eventual benefit to someone. Many of the students dragooned into college these days get an education in name only and a credential that is rapidly falling in its allure.

The student loan policies are objectively foolish, but in politics what is foolish can still “work.” Delisle observes, “This all makes sense when you realize that the student loan program has been developed to achieve two political goals: Loans should be available to any student, at any school, pursuing any credential; and student debt is bad and burdensome, so it should be easy for borrowers to repay.” We will suffer huge but hidden costs (this is merely another tributary of the great federal river of red ink) just so politicians can crow about how they’re concerned about students in debt.

Meet “Mr. White”


The story is the stuff of high drama. It centers around “Mr. White,” a former college basketball coach and wannabe power player in college athletics who was willing to engage in ruthless academic fraud to achieve his goals.

In an attempt to climb the ranks of Division 1 basketball, he “helped” academically weak players by taking their courses for them and stealing exam answers. He cheated for hundreds of athletes and had D1 coaches on speed dial, ready to call when they needed a “job” done (usually to help a junior college transfer meet NCAA requirements).

He was obsessive-compulsive about covering his tracks and not getting caught, at one point telling athletes: “You fail the course by telling anyone I helped you. You fail by not doing exactly what I say.” 

At various points throughout his 14-year stint of fraudulence, parents, coaches, and college administrators helped him and paid him (with both cash and in-kind payments, such as VIP game tickets and passes to top basketball camps) to make certain that “their player” was given a boost. 

“Mr. White” thought his “services” would put him in the good graces of prestigious basketball coaches and programs looking for their next hire. But after a two-year NCAA investigation, he’s decided to call it quits. He now expresses remorse for his actions, though he says he’s unsure whether he’ll “snitch” on the people who took part in his schemes. 

Read the full story, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.  

Peter Wood on the Campus Tolerance for Violence


NAS president Peter Wood has written an excellent essay, “Campus Tolerance for Violence” on Minding the Campus. He surveys many recent instances where faculty members and grad students have voiced their support for violence in response to various real and perceived injustices. Rarely does anyone argue back that acts of violence, especially random acts like the murder of the two NYC police officers, can’t accomplish anything good, that victimizing other people won’t redress any wrongs or convince anybody that things should change.

“How does it happen that American higher education provides cosseted professional careers for so many who disdain the basic conditions of free inquiry on which colleges and universities depend?” he asks. “Why does the academic world so often turn a blind eye to advocates of unlawful violence?”

I strongly recommend Wood’s essay for his answer.

Here, I think, is part of it. Increasingly, American education teaches students (starting early on) that it’s their feelings that count. If they feel strongly about something, they’re entitled to act on them. Reason and analysis aren’t important; if anything, they’re meant to deny people the militancy they need. If someone disagrees with you, students learn from their teachers, rational argumentation is not the appropriate response, but that anger and denunciation for having unquestionably evil motives is.

From there, it’s a short step to armchair calls for violence in the service of some great cause. Remember that Professor Steven Salaita, he of the vicious tweets regarding the conflict in Gaza, said that civility is a “racist” concept.  To whatever extent students follow their professors as role models, they’re learning some extremely bad lessons.

Building College Athletes’ Moral Character


Over at SeeThruEdu, Thomas Lindsay discusses the University of Texas at Austin’s new Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation, which is designed to strengthen athletes’ moral character and financial literacy.

Lindsay applauds the new center, but laments the fact that it’s even necessary: “Universities, in the beginning, had as part of their mission the inculcation of character. That isn’t exactly where they are today: a fact that goes toward explaining and clarifying our cultural problems.”

“College athletes are today’s Roman gladiators, with a somewhat better life expectancy. The sporting public values their ferocity and size more than their intellectual and moral attainments, if any,” writes Lindsay.

Would it Help to Audit Colleges?


In this piece published in today’s Wall Street Journal, Robert Iosue and Frank Mussano discuss the high and steadily increasing cost of college. I think their analysis of the cause of steady cost increases is pretty accurate — “easy access to government loan money has given colleges license to boost tuition with no motivation to keep costs down.” The faculty teach less and the number of administrators who teach not at all has grown and grown. But almost all college presidents prefer to raise money (through tuition and other means) to battling with all the campus “stakeholder” groups to minimize costs and maximize productivity, which is to say, student gains in skill and knowledge.

Iosue, who served as the president of York College for 15 years, knows whereof he speaks. As he explained in this Pope Center piece recently, he did manage to keep tuition increases low while at the same time improving the academic climate and reputation.

The remedy he and Mussano offer — a federal audit of colleges, seems to me one that is not apt to accomplish much other than to keep some Education Department bureaucrats busy. The underlying sickness is caused by that gusher of governmental funding into an overwhelmingly non-profit system. High costs and poor learning outcomes are symptoms and I just can’t see how even the best audit could make more than a tiny difference in either cost or results.

Skin in the Game


The idea that colleges should be on the hook for some portion of their graduates’ outstanding student loans has been around for a while. Some say it’s a great way to put a dent in the national student loan debt. Others also argue that colleges, by having “skin in the game,” would enhance the quality of the student population, as they’d be more cautious about who they accept, knowing that a sub-par student with high debt and low job prospects would be a future financial burden. 

Proponents of the “skin in the game” idea may have a good test case at Adrian College in Michigan, which has announced a special program that will guarantee up to $70,000 of a graduate’s student loan debt. If a graduate in the program earns less than $20,000 per year, the college will make all of his or her loan payments. If the graduate earns between $20,000 and $37,000, the college will make payments on a sliding scale. 

Read more about the program here.

A Defense of the Very Reverend Jane Shaw


Campus Reform, followed by Rush Limbaugh, poked fun this week at  the Very Reverend Jane Shaw, newly appointed dean of religious life at Stanford University (and no relation to me). They ridiculed her for naming climate change as the most important issue of our time, for saying that she’s not very “churchy,” and for wanting to bring more art into religion (as she has done as dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco). She is also a lesbian. The point seems to be that she is not really religious and this is a sign of our society’s decline.

Okay, she deserved some of it. How can any Christian consider climate change the issue of our time in the face of vicious wars (complete with beheadings), global poverty, and racial animosity in our own country? It defies common sense.

And Dr. Shaw, as interviewed by Palo Alto Online, is indeed the epitome of the British female academic. Speaking with a full-throated British accent, wearing very round horn-rimmed glasses, she is easy to parody–astutely informed about the Bible, biblical history and English literature, but not communicative about the role of God, in her life or anyone’s.

But she did say that she reads Morning Prayer every morning and Evening Prayer every night.  Give her something for that!

And we really don’t know much about her spiritual life—although she was quick to say that she welcomes people into the church whether they are spiritual or not.

I fault the interviewer, who seemed afraid to ask questions about Shaw’s faith and instead asked her about non-religious issues such as the role of technology in modern society. I’d like to know whether Dr. Shaw believes in God; and if so what does she mean by God? In fact, do Anglicans believe in God these days? Does “anything go” theologically? Where does Anglican theology fit into “religious life” if at all? What is religious life if it isn’t just spiritual? And so forth.

Then we might criticize her answers. Or we might be surprised.

Should Brandeis Student Be Expelled?


Last weekend, Khadijah Lynch posted two Tweets that have ignited a debate about free speech in higher education and the role universities should play in terms of regulating student conduct.

Lynch, who at the time was the undergraduate representative in Brandeis University’s African and Afro-American studies department (she resigned this week), wrote that she had “no sympathy” for the two NYPD officers who were recently murdered and that she “hates this racist fucking country.” In a prior Tweet, she wrote that “the fact that black people have not burned this country down is beyond me.”

As Inside Higher Ed reports, petitions on Facebook and are calling on Brandeis to expel Lynch, while others are defending her. 

The AAAS department stated that Lynch’s comments “do not reflect” the department. But the official statement continued: 

While it may be easy and convenient at this emotionally charged moment to condemn Ms. Lynch, we must also strive to understand why she would make these comments. This means openly and honestly recognizing the very real pain and frustration that many young people of color struggle with in trying to navigate their place in a society that all too often delegitimizes their existence.

There are two petitions. As of this post, the “expel Khadijah” petition has 100 supporters and the “support Khadija” petition has 750 supporters. 

The Latest Top Ten


You’ll laugh. NRO’s Katherine Timpf lists her “top ten” most politically correct moments on campuses this year, and they describe a crazy year. They range from Harvard’s effort to ban water machines from an Israeli company (because it is an Israeli company) to “serious sanctions” against a “Taco Tuesday” event at California State University Fullerton because students wore “culturally insensitive attire” (sombreros).

Thank SCOTUS for Credential Inflation


Before the early 1970s, many employers did not require that applicants have college degrees – even for well-paying jobs necessitating advanced skills and intelligence. A high school diploma and a passing score on an employee aptitude test were, in many instances, enough for a worker to advance in a rewarding and lucrative career. Unfortunately, as George Leef points out in today’s Pope Center feature, the Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) effectively precluded employers from basing hiring decisions on aptitude test results. The reverberations of that decision are still being felt today. 

In Griggs, the Court deferred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) interpretation of section 703(h) of the Civil Rights Act (CRA), which permitted employers to use a “professionally designed ability test” so long as the test was not “designed, intended or used to discriminate…” The EEOC, which enforced the CRA, had promulgated a broad interpretation of that provision, making it illegal for a test to have a “disparate impact” on minorities. For example, if an employee aptitude test disproportionately weeded out black applicants, it would be considered illegal. 

As Leef makes clear, the end result of the Griggs decision was that employers became paranoid about using aptitude tests, for fear of potential litigation costs. Instead, they began to use the college diploma as the new employee screening device. “We probably have a college ‘bubble’ just from the effects of easy federal college aid and the push by politicians for educational attainment, but by making employee testing legally dangerous, the Griggs decision helped inflate it,” he writes. 

Another Chronicle Review Screed


Chronicle Review often publishes outrageous pieces by “progressive” academics eager to smear the free market and its defenders. A good example is the essay “Slavery and Capitalism” by Harvard history professor Sven Beckert. In the letter to the editor below, George Mason University economics professor Don Boudreaux strenuously takes issue with Beckert’s position.

20 December 2014

Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education

Dear Editor:

Sven Beckert struggles to portray slavery as essential to the origins of capitalism (“Slavery and Capitalism,” Dec. 12). His core argument boils down to this: slavery existed at the time of the industrial revolution; textile production was the leading activity of that revolution; textile mills used lots of “cheap, slave-grown cotton” from the U.S.; therefore, slavery was necessary for the creation of capitalism.

Problems aplenty infect Prof. Beckert’s narrative, but none more fatally than his presumption that using slaves to grow cotton made that commodity especially “cheap” (and, thus, an unusually inexpensive input without which there would have been no industrial revolution). Data from the 1880 U.S. Census show that by the mid-1870s the price of cotton at New York was about the same as this price had been, on average, during the quarter-century before it spiked because of the Civil War. And as reported by economic historian Stanley Lebergott, “by the period 1870-79 Southern production [of cotton] was running 42 percent above its pre-war level.”

If slavery made cotton especially “cheap” (meaning especially abundant) – so cheap and abundant to have supplied the necessary spark for the greatest economic transformation in human history – we can only wonder why this millennia-old institution failed to supply such a spark at any earlier time. Yet even greater wonder is caused by the data’s failure to show that the price of cotton was lower, and the supplies of cotton higher, with slavery than without it.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics

Much more could and should be said in opposition to this nasty guilt by association argument.



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