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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Assess the Student, Not the Prof



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The president of St. John’s (the “Great Books” college) has written a column pointing out that not just professors but students should be held accountable for what they learn.

In an Inside Higher Education essay on assessments, Christopher B. Nelson writes that “obsessing about the responsibility of the teacher without paying at least as much attention to the responsibility of the student is hardly going to produce helpful assessments.”

And:

True learning is not about having the right answer, so measuring whether students have the right answers is at best incidental to the essential aims of education. True learning is about mastering the art of asking questions and seeking answers, and applying that mastery to your own life.

Nelson is, of course, pushing back against what he calls a “whirlwind” of interest in assessment by accreditors, government, and institutions themselves. Like others in the humanities, he is rebelling against “check the box” assessment, but he does not consider assessment impossible. In fact, he cites the new Gallup/Purdue “well-being” survey of college graduates as suggesting ways to assess student success over the long run.

Strange Doings at Wellesley



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An anti-Zionist poster and pictures of children killed by Israelis, both put up in prominent places by an on-campus pro-Palestinian group, created tension at Wellesley—and then the two leaders of the Jewish student group Hillel were abruptly dismissed.

The two who lost their jobs were part-timers, one a director of Wellesley College Hillel and the other a chaplain. The school said that it will start immediately to look for a full-time rabbi to serve as chaplain.

The Boston Globe quoted Wellesley’s dean of students as saying that the change took place with the “sole purpose of strengthening Jewish life.” That’s not the way the students saw it, though. Said one: “The college’s handling of the situation was really bizarre and upsetting for the entire Jewish community.”

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Millennials Miss the Mark on Free Speech



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In September, at UNC-Chapel Hill’s sixth annual First Amendment Day celebration, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Greg Lukianoff explained to a full auditorium of students and professors that those expressing the most antagonism toward free speech today are Millennials, people in the 18-30 age range.

While that contention seems to go against our intuition, a cursory glance at a typical college campus reaffirms Lukianoff’s findings, what with “trigger warnings” and campus speaker “disinvitations” becoming ubiquitous throughout the country. 

Not only do the “progressive” students who support such free speech incursions seem to be offended by the slightest emotional and intellectual pinpricks, they also want to shut down debate and muzzle their enemies’ voices. 

One such authoritarian “progressive” is Zach Traynor, a Dartmouth student who recently wrote an op-ed for his school’s newspaper stating that America “has gone too far in allowing people to say whatever they want, and should curtail speech that is obviously harmful to society, such as hate speech.” He writes:

Those in support of aggressive civil liberties will protest: What is stopping the government from moving past sensible restrictions on free speech, once they are in place, to something more Orwellian, as in China or other authoritarian regimes? At face value, that is a fair question, but given America’s deeply-held cultural norms and the power of the Internet and social media, such a scenario is highly unlikely. We need only small but significant change to the freedom of speech in this country: namely, the prohibition of unambiguously destructive, hateful speech.

Have Mr. Traynor’s reassurances allayed your concerns, “aggressive civil liberties” advocates? 

Ungainly “Gainful Employment” Rule



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George Leef’s latest Forbes column begins:

At the end of October, the Department of Education released its much-awaited “gainful employment” rule. It is supposed to fix (or at least improve) the problem that many students who pursue vocational training with federal student aid money wind up without a job that pays well enough for them to meet their student loan payments.

As I’ll explain, the rule won’t solve that problem, but only limit the range of choice for students.

And Mr. Leef does just that:  Read the rest of his column here.

It’s All About the Money



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Janet Napolitano, formerly of the Homeland Security Department and now president of the University of California system, is insisting that the state give the system an additional $100 million—or she will retaliate by raising student tuition by five percent a year for five years.

In “Tuition Showdown,” published elsewhere on NRO, Kevin Williamson discusses this threat (her adversary is none other than Governor Moonbeam). He also analyzes what a college education ought to cost and refers to the extravagant spending of California universities these days (UCLA paid Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees totaling $550,000).

By the way, Napolitano is getting $570,000 per year plus $9,950 per month to rent a home, $8,916 a month for a car, and $142,000 to relocate from Washington, D.C. But according to the California Aggie (the student newspaper at UC- Davis), her salary still puts her “in the bottom 25th percentile of presidents of similar academic institutions.

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Richard Kahlenberg’s Predictable WSJ Article



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While many “liberals” are fuming that the Supreme Court will probably revisit the old battlefields of racial preferences now that the Fifth Circuit has declined to rehear Fisher v. Texas, others are trying to capitalize on it by pushing a different approach to “diversity.” One of them is Richard Kahlenberg, who has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Achieving College Diversity Without Discriminating by Race.” Kahlenberg wants preferences for students from lower socio-economic classes, which he maintains would create better diversity than using racial preferences.

I don’t support that because I think the entire diversity project is misconceived, as I explain in the comment I posted on the WSJ site:

I’m not sure if Kahlenberg has ever been a college professor, but I have. Most professors, certainly those who teach subjects where there is a true body of knowledge to be mastered, are not the least bit interested in diversity. They couldn’t care less about the ancestry of a student, the socio-economic circumstances of his family, his sexual orientation, or any of the other things that “progressives” obsess about. They actually want a homogeneous student body — homogeneous as to academic ability and interest in learning.

The big “progressive” hobby of using government to socially engineer the country to their liking causes a great problem for serious educators, namely that classrooms become increasingly filled with mismatched students who have scant interest in studying. That causes downward pressure on academic standards and grade inflation.

Everyone is unique. We should abandon this folly of trying to make colleges “diverse.”

An Intellectual Cocoon



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On Tuesday, Brown University hosted a debate about “rape culture” and due process on college campuses. The debate featured libertarian Wendy McElroy and feminist Jessica Valenti. Before the event, Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, e-mailed the entire campus community, writing, “I disagree [with McElroy]. Although evidence suggests that a relatively small number of individual perpetrate sexual assault, extensive research shows that culture and values do matter.” Previously, McElroy had contended that there is no pervasive “rape culture,” and that only a small group of sexual predators are to blame. She’s also questioned the legal burden of proof for college sexual assault cases, which she believes are often rigged against male students. 

When Paxson sent her e-mail, she was preemptively inserting herself into the debate, an unbecoming act for a university leader. But she went further, announcing to Brown students that a counter-event, titled “The Research on Rape Culture,” would be held at the same time as the McElroy/Valenti debate. A promo for the event stated, “Students who may feel attacked by the viewpoints expressed at the forum or feel the speakers will dismiss their experiences can find a safe space and a separate discussion.” 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Samantha Miller has put the entire ordeal into clear perspective: “Given the debate organizers’ prior arrangements to provide support to anyone who actually felt the need for it, Paxson’s choice to counterprogram the event makes little sense in terms of ‘emotional safety.’ But it makes all the sense in the world if you assume the real goal is to provide an intellectual cocoon for students – an effort to create an ideological bubble on campus in which students’ beliefs will be free from challenge.”

Oxford Disinvites a Debate



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The opposition to free speech where the speaker is presumably going to say things that could upset some thin-skinned campus groups has led to a great many “disinvitations” for people who have been asked to speak is well known here. As we read in this College Fix piece, the same mentality is found in Britain. Oxford had scheduled a debate between two men over the morality of abortion, but an irate feminist group protested that men should not be allowed to debate what they regard as “their” issue. Oxford caved. No debate.

I used to teach logic years ago, and one of the fallacies I tried to teach my students to spot was the ad hominem circumstantial. That is the fallacy of claiming to have refuted someone’s argument by pointing to some circumstance about the person making the argument, rather than showing a fault in the argument itself. This case is an interesting variant — pointing to a circumstance about the person to prevent him from making an argument at all.

Here again we see the authoritarian nature of modern “liberalism.” It was always about expanding the scope and power of the state, and that includes the power to shut down debate.

Links of Note



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1) At the Pope Center, Robert Iosue, former president of York College, details how he instilled financial discipline at his school without sacrificing academic quality, and offers guidance to other colleges seeking to do the same. 

2) We may have already been thinking it, but this report confirms it: students at the K-12 level are not reading enough, and what they are reading is not at a level that will prepare them well for college.

3) According to a USA Today survey, top-echelon college football coaches are rolling in dough; the average salary for such coaches has doubled in the last 8 years from $950,000 to $1.95 million.

Contextualizing Trends in College Pricing



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The College Board’s annual Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid reports are out, and—at least on the surface—they seem to bring some good news this year. While tuition and total student debt are up, the rate of price growth has slowed, and students are borrowing less today than they have in the past.

But for all the attention this news has been getting, when you look closely, the good tidings are only skin deep. Over at Real Clear Policy ACTA’s Michael Poliakoff and I delve a bit more into the numbers are attempt to discern what the data really reveal. We note, for example, that:

The Great Recession put a tremendous amount of strain of college and university budgets, as state appropriations evaporated and families’ finances suffered. Instead of making the tough decisions that would allow them to maintain academic quality while cutting back, many schools made up their financial shortfalls by passing the costs onto students in the form of higher tuition and fees. The decline in the rate of price increase this year doesn’t reflect institutions’ learning to control costs; it is simply the process of returning toward the pre-recession status quo.

And, of course, it is important to remember what the College Board’s reports don’t measure: whether students are learning anything for all of their money.

Check out the whole piece here.

‘Freshman’ is now an offensive, dangerous, sexist word



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Elon University has dropped the term “freshman” from its vocabulary and replaced it with “first-year” – because apparently the term “freshman” is now offensive.

“Using language that allows for a more inclusive understanding of gender will be important in our culture moving forward,” Leigh-Anne Royster, director of Elon’s “Inclusive Community Wellbeing,” said in an email to The College Fix. “Moving away from language, including pronouns, that denote a gender binary will be something we see more and more as our culture evolves to celebrate a wider range of identities and expressions.”

But wait, there’s more.

“The term has often been felt to refer to the vulnerableness of young women in college for the first time,” Royster added. “Given the rates of sexual violence perpetrated against women on college campuses, it is useful to examine any use of a term that suggests that a group of people just entering college might be targets for such violence in any way.”

Greg Zaiser, Elon’s vice president of admissions, also told The College Fix some believe “freshmen” is a “sexist” term, and Elon seeks to move away from gender stereotypes.

What the administrators at this private, liberal arts college in North Carolina know all too well is that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

“They engrained over and over in our brains that it was supposed to be ‘first-year,’ not ‘freshman,’” one student orientation leader told The College Fix. “They were very adamant about using the correct terminology and stressed the importance of using language that would make the new students feel comfortable.”

But the new students are not comfortable, it turns out. Some said they didn’t like the change. Perhaps they see it for what it is: a politically correct, Orwellian move to validate social progressive tenets. 

Tags: politically correct , Elon University , Freshman

Prof. Salaita Helps to Make Univ. of Illinois’ Decision Against Hiring Him Look Even Better



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The American Studies Association held its annual meeting on Nov. 7 and one of the panel discussions was entitled “Scholars Under Attack.” As we read in this piece, not all of the American Studies people are happy with the stance their association has taken with regard to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but others are delighted to be out in front with their support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Read about it here.

Of particular interest are the remarks of Professor Steven Salaita, whose extraordinarily nasty tweets about this cost him a faculty position at the University of Illinois on the grounds that he evidently lacks civility. Salaita is quoted as saying, “Civility is the language of genocide. It’s an inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not racist.”

Really? War is peace, freedom is slavery and now civility is violence. Some people get so wrapped up in their own red hot righteousness that they can’t tell when they’re making fools of themselves.

College Degrees and Taxi Medallions



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There are some strong parallels between college degrees and taxi medallions, writes Rachelle Peterson in this Minding the Campus essay. “Having an expensive permit to drive people around has no correlation to the actual competence of the driver,” she writes. “Perhaps there are some tangential regulatory benefits in the form of screening out the truly inept and crazy. But the medallions don’t make the drivers any better…they just set up massive barriers to entry that protect the exclusive few who got in.”

It’s a good analogy, although taxi licensing was deliberately set up to limit entry and we have gradually morphed into a system under which the lack of a college degree keeps people out of many occupations and jobs. A big reason why companies now insist on college credentials, even if they don’t really ensure competence any longer, was that the Supreme Court’s 1971 Griggs decision started a move toward using the college degree as a legally safe proxy for competence and trainability. (I explain that connection in this recent Forbes piece.)

Now that, owing to decades of academic erosion, having obtained a college degree isn’t much of an indicator of competence, there’s movement toward college “competency based education” which, she writes, “proceeds by assessing skills and knowledge alone, apart from coursework, classes, lectures, and books.”

I have no complaint with competency based education, but it compares poorly with the way the country used to function. K-12 used to pretty well equip young people with fundamental skills and attitudes conducive to trainability. Then, employers would largely bear the further costs of apprenticeship and job training, which is where they belong — not paid for in large measure to taxpayers. Ideally, we would go back to that for occupational preparation and college would be for those who actually wanted to study something in depth. The way the government now waves gobs of money in front of all high school grads — an “attractive nuisance” as my friend Michael Poliakoff of ACTA puts it — if they will partake of any sort of accredited postsecondary education, guarantees huge inefficiency.

 

Colleges Do K-12’s Work



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The desire to “help” students from low-income backgrounds and substandard K-12 environments by steering them toward college, no matter how unprepared those students may be, has created a number of harmful consequences. One of those consequences, highlighted by this Wall Street Journal piece, is that unqualified college applicants with weak English and math skills and low standardized test scores are receiving billions in federal grant dollars each year to take remedial courses. 

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, was interviewed by the WSJ: “If somebody is reading and doing math at a middle-school level, they are not going to succeed at college, and we should stop pretending otherwise.” Right. And if those students are succeeding in college, we should be deeply concerned about diminishing academic rigor. While much remediation tends to take place at the community college level, it steadily has begun to creep in at four-year institutions. 

The signal that a college diploma used to send has been compromised; it’s become more and more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff because of “anyone’s acceptable” higher education policies. And the “progressive” push to expand college access has only hurt the people such access was intended to benefit. Real progress would entail a massive overhaul of shoddy K-12 schools that are in reality glorified day care centers. The fact that so many college students, even students exempted from taking remedial courses, exhibit such inferior writing and math skills is just one more indictment of America’s elementary and secondary education systems. It shouldn’t be higher education’s mission to fix that train wreck. 

Anti-Affirmative Action Lawsuits



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Roger Clegg reports on the Corner that Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has filed two lawsuits charging Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill with discrimination. The SFFA is a membership organization composed of “highly qualified students” who were rejected in favor of less qualified students due to affirmative action policies. The organization will hold a press conference today.

The Failure of Liberal Compassion



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As the aphorism goes, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Over at the Federalist, D.C. McAllister shows how that road was paved at UNC-Chapel Hill. She takes on the do-gooders in the African and Afro-American Studies Department who engaged in academic fraud to “protect” athletes from low-income neighborhoods, tough family environments, and weak K-12 schools. 

“At the core of this scandal is the failure of liberal compassion in which struggling students are treated with disrespect under the guise of sympathy by giving them academic freebies instead of challenging them to succeed on their own merit,” she writes. “Anyone…who put hope in the lies and deception of liberal compassion should feel a deep and abiding guilt for robbing people of their dignity, disrespecting them by not believing in their ability to succeed, enslaving them to the lying schemes of sympathetic benefactors, and for stealing their self-respect in order to bolster others’ pathetic egos.” 

McAllister has the right message, but the people who need to absorb it won’t. Most people have an unyielding belief in the rightness of their views, and they are even more obdurate when they believe that their beliefs are morally supreme. 

Introducing Homosexuality-based Affirmative Action



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The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that admissions officials are actively trying to guess who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or “ally” based on their applications.

Or as my colleague Greg Piper at The College Fix notes: UPenn is practicing gaydar in reading student applications. And although it’s unclear what exactly admissions officers consider “gay” and how that affects applicants’ chances, apparently they are pretty good at it.

“Since 2010 when the tracking of LGBTQ applicants started, the Office of Admissions has seen huge growth in the number of LGBTQ or ally applicants, plus a 152 percent jump in those admitted and 270 percent jump in accepted applicants who ultimately matriculate,” The Daily Pennsylvanian reports.

Tags: affirmative action , homosexuality

The Crazy Word That’s Verboten at Smith College



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The left’s lexicon of words deemed too hurtful to be repeated has reached a new level of ludicrousness.

The word “crazy” was redacted and replaced with “ableist slur” in the school’s newspaper and in a transcript of a panel event at the school on the subject of – wait for it – free speech.

It doesn’t get much crazier than this.

In response to this madness and other idiocy as a result of the Smith panel discussion, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s co-founder and chairman Harvey Silverglate wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “on campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech.”

“The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic,” he continued. “Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can’t survive.”

This country was founded in part on the ideal of freedom of speech; it’s the First Amendment for crying out loud. And yet there are colleges out there that charge tens of thousands of dollars annually (in Smith’s case - $44,450) to foster this notion among students that hurt feelings trump free speech. This ideology does not prepare students for the real world, in which life is not fair and feelings are often hurt.

When will the madness end?

Tags: Smith College , Free Speech

Killing the Liberal Arts



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Last weekend, FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate penned a must-read article in the Wall Street Journal.

In it, he tells the story of an event at Smith College gone ironically awry. In the modern academy, even progressive, feminist, ACLU members aren’t safe from ad hominem attacks by the mob.

The panel started innocuously enough with [panelist and lawyer] Ms. [Wendy] Kaminer criticizing the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain ’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguing that students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”

Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word … ”

And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” … There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.

[…]

The contretemps prompted articles in the newspapers of Smith College and neighboring Mount Holyoke College, condemning Ms. Kaminer’s remarks as examples of institutionalized racism. Smith president Ms. McCartney was criticized for not immediately denouncing Ms. Kaminer. In a Sept. 29 letter responding to the Smith community, she apologized to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by Ms. Kaminer’s comments in defense of free speech.

Was Ms. Kaminer being deliberately provocative? Surely. In the world of education that is not always a bad thing. Was daring to pronounce the ugly and offending word imprudent? Perhaps—but is that really the issue? The rush to denounce and attack her ought to make those concerned about free expression awfully queasy. Stop and contemplate for a moment what humankind’s legacy of literature and art would look like if everyone whose comfort level was violated could suppress the offending words and works. 

Speaking on an American university campus has become harder than walking on eggshells. The hypersensitivity that has gripped our colleges simply cannot coexist with the fearless, unrelenting, occasionally uncomfortable debates that ought to characterize the experience of higher education. For at the end of the day, we must always remember that while civility is a laudable virtue, free speech is a fundamental right, and education that stays within everyone’s comfort zone is hardly worth the name.

Thumbs Down on the “Gainful Employment” Rule



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In today’s Wall Street Journal, Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (the group that would be decimated — or worse — by the Education Department’s proposed rule) has an article arguing that the “gainful employment” regulation would be damaging and is motivated by the leftist animosity toward making a profit in education.

I don’t like the rule either. Not only is it unfair, but more importantly it doesn’t provide any remedy for the problem that gives rise to the angst over student debt repayment. The rule is worse than the proverbial band-aid on a machete wound; it’s more like a band-aid on someone with a brain tumor. Here’s my letter:

Steve Gunderson is right (“Making ‘Profit’ a Dirty Word in Higher Education”) that the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule makes no sense. Suppose that it were implemented and as a result many of the for-profit postsecondary schools that offer job training programs had to close because their graduates don’t earn enough to cover their student loan debts. Those students would then go to other schools where the training is no different and find themselves in similar circumstances after graduation, thus putting those schools in jeopardy under the rule.

The essence of the problem has nothing to do with the for-profit schools; it has everything to do with the fact that the Obama administration and particularly Obamacare has wrecked the job market for young people looking for full-time jobs. As long as the federal drag on full-time employment remains, we will continue to have a great surplus of young people — with and without college credentials — who can’t get a good start in a career.

Federal policy dangles lots of easy money in front of all high school graduates, encouraging them to enroll in college and worry about the costs later. That policy combined with the government’s impediments to a robust labor market inevitably causes the problem so many young people face, whether they went to a for-profit school or non-profit school: too little income and too much debt.

George Leef
Director of Research
John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
Raleigh, NC

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