Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

ABA: No Business Dictating Diversity


John and George, what caught my attention in Heriot’s article, which rightfully condemns the American Bar Association’s mandating of discrimination in law schools, was the following simple but crucial reminder: “The ABA is not a university, and its Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is not entitled to academic deference,” i.e., the organization has neither the standing nor right to be dictating the schools’ admission policies.

Attention Dartmouth Alumni



ABA Accreditation Fuels Diversity Mania


The Wall Street Journal featured a revealing article by law professor Gail Heriot. She discusses the travails of George Mason’s excellent law school with regard to accreditation by the American Bar Association. GMU has been thrashed for not meeting adequate minority quotas.

More evidence that accreditation doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about academic quality. Instead, it is used to push ideological agendas.

This would not be a problem at all if GMU (and other law schools) could just tell the ABA, “We don’t care what you think of us,” but so long as student eligibility for federal student aid is at stake, it can hardly do so. (Unless, of course, it finds a way to help needed students finance their education without any federal funds, as Hillsdale has done.)

We ought to cut the Gordian Knot and deregulate the legal profession, as I argued here.



Congrats to the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, for its successful first conference. The group was formed by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami to provide a balance to the left-wing nuttery of the Middle East Studies Association, which likes to pretend that there’s no such thing as Islamic radicalism, except perhaps for the variety that’s properly inspired by a wholly reasonable hatred of the United States. CHE has a report.

Lowering the Bar


In the WSJ, Gail Heriot writes on how the American Bar Association forces law schools to admit less-than-qualified students for the sake of “diversity.”


Textbook Price Controls?


Textbooks cost too much. A NYT editorial wants federal legislation. Is there no problem too small for government action?

Can Colleges Effectively Channel Facebook?


CHE has an interesting article (subscription required) about the latest trend in alumni outreach–customized social networking sites:

Trying to emulate the popularity of Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, hundreds of college alumni associations have begun to offer their own online social networks, seeking to stake a claim on the computer screens of current and former students, especially young alumni.

But many of the sites have struggled to attract alumni and to keep them interacting with the devotion they show to their online profiles on other networks. That makes the sites less useful to colleges, which want to foster closer ties with alumni and keep tabs on their whereabouts for fund raising and other purposes.

“Social networking is definitely hot, and people want to know what to do,” says Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the alumni association at the California Institute of Technology.

The question, he says, is, Do these exclusive networks fill a need for alumni?

On that last question, I’m not convinced that it does (at least for younger alumni).  My alma mater recently launched one of these sites, and while I’ve created a profile, I haven’t spent a lot of time on the site.  Almost all of my college friends are on Facebook, and its much easier to interact with them there.

When Law Students Attack


Students at Northwestern Law School are upset at the administration’s choice of a speaker for this year’s graduation:  Jerry Springer.  The school points out that as a 1967 graduate, a former mayor of Cincinnati, and a star of television and opera, Springer should be able to offer valuable insights on law and government.  Students counter that, in the final analysis, he’s still Jerry Springer.

The controversy raises the question of what commencement speakers are good for.  Last year the outgoing president of George Washington University, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, announced that he himself would deliver GWU’s commencement address.  Students were furious.  The student newspaper complained:

The lack of an outside perspective gives GW the appearance of a bottom-tier institution uninterested in academic discovery or the enrichment of students. At an event that receives coverage by local and national media, the Commencement speaker makes a strong statement about the nature of the University and its ability to attract high-profile movers and shakers from academia, politics, business, science or even entertainment. . . .

Students feel cheated. While many may not be keen enough to appreciate the importance of a speaker not connected to the University, all realize that Trachtenberg is a speaker at Commencement each year, and that this year students will merely be receiving one speaker for the price of two. Additionally, plenty of confused students may be wondering why they paid a $100 graduation fee for such a lackluster event.

In the end, graduates were also treated to an address from Wolf Blitzer, who received an honorary degree, thus justifying the pricey Wolf tickets.

     Students are getting mighty picky, aren’t they?  At Columbia, my alma mater, the last three Class Day speakers have all come under criticism.  This year it’s Joel Klein, who as chancellor of New York City’s public schools brought about great improvements in the education of millions of children. That cuts no ice with the students, whose general reaction on hearing his name was, “Who?”  Last year it was John McCain, whose daughter was graduating; students worried that if they listened without protesting, people would assume they were Republicans.  The year before, it was the actor Matthew Fox, class of 1989, best known for his work on the television series “Lost.” The general sense among fastidious Columbians was that he wasn’t quite famous enough for students to endure the humiliation of having a TV actor speak at Class Day.

     All this amuses me, because in my day, more than a quarter-century ago, we would have considered ourselves wildly fortunate to get Al Molinaro from “Joanie Loves Chachi.”  Instead we heard a modestly successful business executive tell us that when things get too much for us, we should go fishing.   (“The purpose of a keynote Commencement speaker is to provide an outside voice that gives students their final bit of enlightenment before leaving the world of academia,“  wrote the GWU editorialist in 2007.) Choosing a commencement speaker is one of those occasions in life, like getting married, when you have to look in the mirror, size yourself up, and be brutally honest in answering the question:  Is this the best I can do?  In those days, Columbia was third-rate and we knew it.  Now it’s improved greatly and can afford to be much more selective in choosing speakers, though evidently not as selective as its students would like.

     (Truth be told, though, while Columbia has come up in the world, it still falls short of the top rung.  You can tell this from the way the press has treated Barack Obama’s sociological observations on Pennsylvania’s working class.  In the current issue of our print magazine, Fred Siegel writes:  “Perhaps his remarks about bitter Pennsylvanians’ clinging to their guns have finally made visible the real man and his Harvard hauteur.”  And Dean Barnett recently wrote in The Weekly Standard:  “Anyone who has ever walked by Harvard Yard has heard the kind of condescending comments that Obama offered in San Francisco.”  Obama got his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, but you never hear anyone say, “That guy went to Columbia–no wonder he’s such a snob!”).

     In this area, I think Cornell University has the right approach:  No honorary degrees and no commencement speaker except the university president.  Who came up with the idea that graduation ceremonies were made for celeb-spotting?  For most graduates, it’s something to wait through impatiently so you can go out and get drunk afterwards.  If you’re looking for somebody who will give a memorable speech, Jerry Springer is a much better bet than some judge or physicist, and if you’re expecting to impress people years later with the name of your commencement speaker, you are doomed to a lifetime of disillusionment.  On the other hand, though, perhaps the controversies are a hopeful sign:  If commencement speakers are the biggest thing that students can find to complain about, the world must be in pretty good shape.

Jazzed-Up Philosophy


Candace de Russy quotes Prof. Joshua Knobe on an “experimental philosophy” study demonstrating, he says, that “people seem to have leftist intuitions when they consider abstract principles but these intuitions evaporate when they turn to concrete cases.”  Based on what Knobe says, the study actually just verifies the pollster’s maxim that you can get people to agree or disagree with just about anything, depending on how you phrase it.

The abstract statement (“Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages”) could easily be taken to include any such situation—for example, when physically attractive people, or members of certain racial or gender groups, are given higher salaries.  Most people would consider that unfair.  The concrete statement (two singers, one of whom was born with a better voice) affords no such ambiguity.  So the researchers did not compare the same statement stated abstractly and concretely; they compared two different statements.

To make them comparable, the abstract statement would have to be rephrased as something like, “Suppose that some people produce better work than others, and thus make more money, solely because they have genetic advantages.”  Indeed, you could make a strong argument that the case of the jazz singers actually contradicts the abstract statement. Beth doesn’t make more money than Amy “solely because” of genetic advantages; she makes more money because she sings better.

Pollsters like to do the same thing when they have a slow day.  They’ll ask, “Do you think the government should reduce its expenditures wherever possible?”  Unsurprisingly, most people say yes.  Then they’ll ask, “Are you in favor of taking bread from the mouths of starving children?” and the answer will be no.  Does this prove that the general public is a bunch of hypocrites?  No, it just means that the abstract question was ambiguous; most people would interpret “wherever possible” to exclude survival aid to the desperately poor.

More on Experimental Philosophy


Here is an intriguing email from Joshua Knobe, an assistant professor of philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill:

I very much enjoyed your recent post on experimental philosophy, and I was thinking that your readers might be interested in hearing a little bit more about what experimental philosophers have been up to.

The basic idea behind experimental philosophy is that we can make progress in addressing philosophical questions by going out and actually doing experiments to figure out how people ordinarily think and feel about certain issues.  Often, the experiments help to give us a sense for the underlying conflict at the root of philosophical debates.

Anyway, I was thinking that your readers might be especially interested in a recent study by the philosophers Chris Freiman and Shaun Nichols that helped to get at some of the issues at the root of the conflict between liberals and conservatives. (The new study is available here.)

Subjects in the study were randomly assigned to receive either an abstract question or a concrete question.  Subjects who had been assigned to receive an abstract question were asked:

Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages.

Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:- It is fair that those genetically-advantaged people make more money than others.
Meanwhile, subjects who had been assigned to receive a concrete question were asked:Suppose that Amy and Beth both want to be professional jazz singers.  They both practice singing equally hard.  Although jazz singing is the greatest natural talent of both Amy and Beth, Beth’s vocal range and articulation is naturally better than Amy’s because of differences in their genetics.  Solely as a result of this genetic advantage, Beth’s singing is much more impressive. As a result, Beth attracts bigger audiences and hence gets more money than Amy. 

Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:- It is fair that Beth makes more money than Amy.

Surprisingly, subjects who were given the abstract question said that it was not fair, but subjects who were given the concrete question said that it actually was fair!  In other words, people seem to have leftist intuitions when they consider abstract principles but these intuitions evaporate when they turn to concrete cases.  The key question now is why all this is all happening and what it might be telling us about how people come to understand these issues.

Time to Fold Best of Ethnic Studies into Major Disciplines


… and shut down the rest. Or, as Ward Connerly pungently frames the issue in the UCLA Daily Bruin:

Once (students) graduate with a degree in ethnic studies, what the hell are they going to do with it? I think (these programs are) going to wither and die … because there won’t be the demand for them. If Senator Obama were coming along right now, do you think he would be majoring in some ethnic studies program? I don’t think so.

Obama Must Confront Ayers’s Radical Education Agenda


Unrepentant domestic terrorist and education professor William Ayers, who has ties to Barack Obama, plays a leading national role in pushing a political agenda in teacher education schools, writes Sol Stern in City Journal.  Ayers’s ideology makes it next to impossible for disadvantaged children to advance academically, as it is not concerned with details like the proven methods for teaching underprivileged students to read.
Ayers’s agenda has barely evolved since his Weatherman days. It’s still about defeating U.S. capitalism and imperialism, although his destructive impulses now find expression, not in setting off bombs in public places, but in enlisting America’s future teachers in the “progressive” revolution and persuading them in turn to indoctrinate public-school students. Ayers’s writings and activism in the education field, Stern says, may be having an impact in thousands of classrooms.

What does potential “education president” Obama think of Ayers’s agenda for transforming schools into leftist indoctrination centers? That is one of the major questions the electorate must pose to him.

Art and Woman at Yale


Michael Lewis the art prof on the mess at Yale:

Ms. Shvarts may have, as she asserts, intended her project to raise questions about society and the body. But she inadvertently raises an entirely different set of questions: How exactly is Yale teaching its undergraduates to make art? Is her project a bizarre aberration or is it within the range of typical student work, unusually startling perhaps but otherwise a fully characteristic example of the program and its students? …

Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.

Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect — and perhaps only in this respect — Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.

First Time as Tragedy, Second Time as Laundry


Old Glory got hung out to dry yesterday at Columbia University, where the College Democrats marked the 40th anniversary of the 1968 riots by washing and hanging 20 American flags to symbolize 20 things they hate about America.  This form of protest is much less destructive than the 1960s variety, and perhaps slightly less banal than setting up pup tents on the campus’s few strips of grass, as was the fashion in the 1980s. So overall, Morningside Heights has seen a lot worse.

The use of flags is evidently meant to convey that, as the head of the College Democrats’ “activist council” explains, “What we’re doing is very patriotic and I think people on this campus are smart enough to figure that out.”  Folks elsewhere might have a little more trouble, especially when the group’s media director says:  “We need to repair the flag, to bring it back to a point where it is not an edifice of cynicism.”  That makes a pretty good litmus test.  When conservatives look at the American flag, they see hope and inspiration; when liberals look at it, they see “an edifice of cynicism.”  But no problem–it all comes out in the wash.

The episode shows how old-school rioters differed from the “activists” of today.  The 1968 mob actually got things done–all bad, of course, but at least they could point to some achievements:  The gymnasium they had arbitrarily chosen as a cause never got built, the university president resigned, and the administration of discipline was made so legalistic and time-consuming that punishing protesters has been virtually impossible ever since.  Today, by contrast, the activists’ chief concern is making sure everyone knows that they’re against the Iraq war (in case you couldn’t guess).  Once that’s made clear, they can get back to their law-school applications.  If fabric softener and Cool Whip (vide infra) are the best today’s radicals can muster, it’s the surest sign yet that in the long term, the Establishment really won the Battle of the 1960s–something for which we can all be thankful.

More Pie-in-Face Protest


Journalist Thomas Friedman, hardly a champion of free-market capitalism, got a pie in his face this week while speaking at Brown University. The pie-slinging student scored Friedman for his “sickeningly cheery applaud [sic] for free market capitalism’s conquest of the planet.”

This is the latest in a string of cartoonish pie “attacks” on real (or perceived) conservatives or free-market advocates on campuses. Both David Horowitz and William Kristol have received the same treatment.

The New York Sun takes a rather sunny view of these pie protests, opining that

the sane majority of students at Brown and elsewhere can know that it is free market capitalism that has funded the financial aid, the endowed professorships, and the imposing campus buildings that have made American higher education the world’s finest, a ladder of opportunity for Americans of all backgrounds and political beliefs. 

Here’s hoping that the majority of students are so sensible. If so, it’s not because many of their professors have made the case made for free markets.

Not More Law Schools!


Maybe so. New York’s budget, just passed by the state legislature, contains $50 million for the development of three more law schools in the state. Story here.

If there is a demand for more lawyers, the private sector can and will expand, either by starting up new schools (as has been done recently in Charlotte), expanding existing ones, or both. There isn’t any need for government to spend money to expand the number of law schools. My guess is that this is simply pork for powerful legislators.

Budget Woes Cast No Shadow on U.C. Academics’ Island Paradise


The University of California has developed a beautiful research “paradise” near Tahiti, which ”insider” professors and students enjoy at UC-subsidized prices. Some killjoys say, however, that such pampering is unseemly at a time when tuition soars due to state budget deficits. It’s hard to disagree with Sen. Jim Battin, a Palm Desert Republican, who has long advocated retention of only essential state land. “Subsidizing resort life,” he says, “is not an appropriate use of public funds.”

“If It Stops Moving, Subsidize It”


The brilliance of Washington:

To summarize: Congress mandated a return on student loans that is too low to attract private capital in the current market. So Congress will now use your money to create artificial investor demand. Taxpayers will bear more risk so that Congress can fashion a new business model to replace the one it just destroyed. The Bush Administration, unwisely but typically, has endorsed this approach.

Uncle John’s Band


UC-Santa Cruz will open a Grateful Dead archive:

The university, located in a hippie-friendly city 75 miles south of San Francisco, already teaches a popular undergraduate course about the Grateful Dead’s music, and is known as “a hotbed of current Deadhead culture,” said Bob Weir, the group’s rhythm guitarist.

Bush at Furman


George Bush is scheduled to give a commencement speech at Furman University next month, and numerous faculty members don’t like it.  A letter has gone out asking for signatures, with a cover note that begins:

As you are well aware, the fact that the President of the United States will be speaking at commencement has created both  excitement and controversy.  This is understandable, as his administration is considered one of the most controversial and divisive in recent history.   But controversy can be a good thing.   Many faculty are trying to use this visit as a ‘teachable moment,’ both in terms of discussing policy issues in class and in terms of demonstrating the right of a free people to dissent.  To that end, a group of faculty has drafted the attached letter protesting some of this administration’s policies.

The “We object” letter begins this way:

Under ordinary circumstances it would be an honor for Furman University to be visited by the President of the United States. However, these are not ordinary circumstances. In the spirit of open and critical review that is the hallmark of both a free democracy and an institution of higher learning, we, the undersigned members of the Furman University community, object to the following actions of the Bush administration.

There is a problem here. Not that faculty members disagree with Bush policy on crucial matters (many conservatives and libertarians feel the same way). And not that they shouldn’t take the opportunity to express their disagreement. Rather, it is the contradiction between their collegial assertions of “discussing policy issues,” “teachable moments,” “dissent,” and “open and critical review,” on one hand, and, on the other hand, the solid, party-line “protest” and “objection.”  The “We object” letter includes a list of actions such as running up big deficits and extending federal power into properly local matters, but instead of posing these policies as topics for debate, the letter concludes, “We are ashamed of these actions of this administration.”

Shame is not an invitation to debate. It allows for no critical response. If the faculty members chose to host a series of extracurricular discussions of Bush policy and invited a few defenders into the room, that would serve the educational mission and, indeed, turn Bush’s visit into a teachable moment.  This statement, however, closes off back-and-forth discussion from the start.


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