Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Re: Faculty Evals


On voluntary vs. mandatory student reviews — in any customer-review field, people are more likely to speak out when they’ve had a particularly good or particularly bad experience (try to get anything out of online hotel reviews, for example). Making them universal improves the quality, because you can get a sense of the average reaction to a professor, rather than just the extremes.

As for an actual faculty adviser encouraging grade inflation to improve student evaluations, that sounds like a reason to fire a faculty adviser, not an argument against student evaluations. If a school’s staff can’t be trusted to maintain grading integrity (or in this case, even pretend to), student evaluations are the least of the institution’s problems.

Also, if you’re going to pre-distribute the syllabus and have students sit in for a week before deciding on each class, you’re opening the door to students simply finding easy classes and good-looking professors, which are two of evaluations’ pitfalls anyway. I’d argue it’s a lot more efficient to save everyone the week.

Are there problems with student evaluations? Sure, and the peer-review idea seems like it could be helpful (though there’s the extra cost of other professors’ time, and the issue of professional courtesy that could distort the reviews). And as your reader said, schools need to bear the limits in mind. But they do have value, and again, if the school doesn’t oversee them and make sure they answer the important questions, they just pop up on the ‘net elsewhere anyway.

Prominent Journalism Dean Challenged Over Anonymous Quotes


John Lavine, the dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (my alma mater), is facing scrutiny over a series of anonymous quotes in an alumni magazine story he authored defending the school’s controversial curriculum overhaul.

“I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken,” Lavine wrote, quoting an unnamed student. The supposed comment set off alarm bells for Northwestern senior David Spett, who decided to track down every single student in the aformentioned class. All 29 students denied being the source of the quote in question. A full-fledged journalism brouhaha has ensued. The Chicago Tribune describes the controversy:

Lavine, 67, told the Tribune on Wednesday that the quotes “came from real people,” though he couldn’t recall whether they were provided by e-mail or during face-to-face conversations.

He defended his use of anonymous quotes by drawing a distinction between a news story and a “letter” to alumni in a magazine. “I am not about to defend my veracity,” he later said.

Questions about Lavine’s use of anonymous quotes prompted a lively debate in Professor Jack Doppelt’s media law and ethics class Wednesday, and in other Medill classrooms and hallways as word of the column spread.

Regardless of whether Lavine fabricated them, his decision to use anonymous quotes — that reinforced his own views in an active academic dispute — was ill-advised. Journalism schools like Medill instruct students to use unnamed sources sparingly, and only when absolutely necessary. Lavine would have been wise to follow his own school’s policy.


One Last Thing on Faculty Evals...


Another correspondent, Jeannine McDevitt, writes in with some anecdotal evidence on the grade-inflation-in-the-face-of-student-evaluation (hey, that rhymes!) issue:

I am a tenured faculty member at a small community college. My own institution is very reasonable in interpreting student evaluations.

However, last summer I attended a conference for faculty who had recently received tenure or were soon eligible, and I met a woman who was eligible for tenure at one of my state’s universities. Her student evaluations after her first semester of teaching were very negative, and she was called in before the tenure and promotion committee to warn her that her performance was unacceptable. Her faculty mentor spoke to her privately afterward and asked her about her grading. His advice to her was to give more A’s and B’s so that the students would like her. She was angry, but she decided to try that approach as an experiment the next semester. The result? Much more positive student evaluations, and a commendation from the committee on her “progress” as a teacher.

As far as I know, no one at my college has ever been told to inflate grades so as to become popular with students, but I am sure that my colleague at the conference was not the only person who has encountered such advice.

By the way, a couple of years ago, my college’s Faculty Senate proposed that administrators be evaluated by the faculty and staff members whom they supervise. The proposal was, of course, rejected on the grounds that faculty could not possibly understand all the many responsibilities of administrators.

Arab Prof Intolerant of Israeli Symbols at Sapir


Cinematography lecturer Nizar Hassan is still on suspension — and awaiting termination — from his academic duties at the Sapir College in Israel, because of his divisive decision to refuse to teach a student who was wearing an IDF uniform. He faces additional charges that he forcibly wrested from another student a backpack decorated with the Israeli flag and refused to meet with her because she was wearing a Star of David necklace.

Re: ‘Subjecting the Wise’


A reader, Vivek Rao, writes in: 

I think that student evaluations of faculty should be made available, but we should be wary of their shortcomings. There was a study finding that student evaluations of professor depend in part on the professor’s looks and whether he is an easy grader.

The study is here.

There are a number of methods that have much the same utility as student-review of their professors, but are absent the pitfalls. A number of schools have introduced a peer-review structure for professors; doubtless this is equally or more unpopular with professors, territorial as they are, but the reviews carry the weight of non-specialists who nonetheless understand the expectations of the field. Their criticisms, I imagine, are far more likely to be taken seriously as well, rather than simply appeased by inflating grades.

Concerns about the structure or the “reasonableness” of the workload could be addressed by predistributing syllabi, as many professors do, or by instituting a “shopping period” where students turn in their registration cards only after a week of sitting in various courses. That these measures are already in place at Harvard, as well as a voluntary student-review, makes the wisdom of implementing a universal, mandatory student review questionable.


Re: ‘Subjecting the Wise . . . ‘


They certainly have flaws, but I have to disagree that student course evaluations are “counterproductive.” It’s sad that some professors give higher grades to get higher ratings in return, and even sadder that some students will go out of their way to take easy classes (because of the wide range of difficulty, college GPAs are as much a measure of course selection as of work quality) — but my college had evaluations, and I often found them quite valuable.

Students comment, for example, on lecturing ability, fairness in grading, reasonableness of workload (I don’t think it’s wrong to avoid professors who intentionally assign more reading than can plausibly take place, just to test your ability to “find the important parts”), usefulness of reading assignments, political indoctrination, etc. And while it’s absurd to put a professor’s learning on the same level as that of his students, I do think student suggestions can improve teaching.

In short, it gives students a reference with which they can make the most of the few spaces in their schedules. Also, yes, when the instructor arbitrarily gives you Cs on all your assignments, with little comment, and isn’t much help when you ask about it, it’s fun to give a scathing review (not that that ever happened to me).

Finally, if the school doesn’t create and oversee these systems, they pop up unauthorized elsewhere on the Internet, anyway.

Re: Does ‘V-Day’ Accomplish Anything?


I have my own thoughts on the V-Day movement, over at Townhall.

‘Subjecting the Wise to the Scrutiny of the Unwise’


At the same moment the Harvard Faculty gave approval to the digitization project that Robert and I wrote about today, it also made mandatory professor evaluations, which are compiled in a book called the ‘Q’ (it used to be called CUE — for Committee on Undergraduate Education — but is now simply one letter, presumably because it’s “cooler” that way).

Here’s an amusing colloquy from The Crimson’s article on the subject:

After several Faculty members spoke in favor of the reforms, government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 drew a link between the course evaluation process and grade inflation.

“Studies have shown, I say solemnly, that the young faculty, particularly, who are subjected to course evaluations, tend to raise the grades of their courses to avoid untoward comment,” Mansfield said.

[...] Mansfield added that he thought the evaluations “subjected the wise to the judgment and scrutiny of the unwise.”

Keep reading this post . . .

Making College Finances an Open Book


In this week’s Clarion Call, Gil Brown of George Mason University writes about the system he developed at Oregon State to make college finances completely transparent.

There’s a big problem, of course — many college administrators would rather keep everything dark and confusing to minimize scrutiny.

Why Not a Department of Hillbilly Studies?


This short essay by Professor Robert Weissberg is one you won’t want to miss.

“In the category of satirical analysis of the state of higher education, the Oscar goes to…Robert Weissberg.”

Does ‘V-Day’ Accomplish Anything?


For several years now, college campuses have been holding “V-Day” events on February 14. The justification given is that performing “The Vagina Monologues” and other antics somehow helps to combat violence against women. In this article, my colleague Jenna Ashley Robinson doubts that it accomplishes anything beneficial.

Harvard Mandates Open Access to Academic Work


I think this is good news — in part:

Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a policy this evening that requires faculty members to allow the university to make their scholarly articles available free online. . . .

The new policy will allow faculty members to request a waiver, but otherwise they must provide an electronic form of each article to the provost’s office, which will place it in an online repository.

The policy will allow Harvard authors to publish in any journal that permits posting online after publication. According to Mr. Suber, about two-thirds of pay-access journals allow such posting in online repositories.

Given that this is academic work, often made possible by university salaries and research budgets, I do think it’s legitimate for schools to place some restrictions on it. (My sneaky second reason for liking this is that, as a journalist, I sometimes find it difficult to get a hold of academic articles.)

But I hope they’ll be fairly liberal with the waivers, considering some journals apparently require the author to relinquish the right to online publication. It would be quite unfair to shut the door on a third of pay-access journals, though such a move might force those journals to open up.

Cabranes On Wimpy Campus Boards


The New York Sun has an important editorial on a recent article by Judge José Cabranes, who has served as a trustee of several major campuses for more than three decades. Cabranes argues that university trustees actually exercise very little authority, and have almost no influence, on campus affairs. Should trustees take a position at odds with the will of faculty, Cabranes rightly says, they would throw the university “into turmoil” and “make the president’s own position within the university untenable.”

The Sun highlights Cabranes’s suggestions for restoring trustee oversight:

Trustees should meet at least once a year “to evaluate top executives and set their salaries” . . . if the trustees themselves can’t do that, “then perhaps Congress or the state legislatures should impose the requirement” . . .

“Benefactors . . . should carefully target their donations to programs they admire and which can be reviewed from time to time” . . . [and] “legislatures might be well-advised to modify their nonprofit corporation statutes to provide private rights of action for donors to enforce the terms of their gifts.”

In an earlier speech (which I cited in “Raise High the Towers: A Call to Good Governance”), Cabranes — more controversially, but again, rightly — opined that “potential board member liability will help ensure board member’s diligent performance of their duties.”

Whether such efforts to reinstate trustee responsibility have a prayer to succeed is another story.

John Agresto Gets It Right


Candace recently called our attention to an op-ed by John Agresto that explained how both right and left have been wrong on Iraq, the former especially after the fall of Hussein. Agresto went to Iraq to help re-build its system of higher education, and, especially, to add a component of liberal arts to its largely professional and vocational aims (medicine engineering, etc.). Liberal arts can be key in forming a populace capable of reflection and self-government. (Leave aside what has happened to liberal studies here. John, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, was thinking of the real thing.) Here is the situation in Iraq’s universities produced by the looting that our then starry-eyed Secretary of Defense described as an offshoot of ”freedom.” This is from an interview Agresto did with Academic Questions for the Summer 2006 issue:

Except for the three universities in the Kurdish region and a very few others, the universities were fundamentally stripped bare–no desks, chairs, equipment, computers, typewriters, copiers, lecterns, paper, pencils, blackboards, fans, wiring, plumbing, or books.  And what couldn’t be stolen, like libraries, was generally burned.

Ravitch Protests Bloomberg Boost


Education Next pushes the idea of Bloomberg-for-president in an upcoming issue, creating some controversy.

(Sounds like the piece makes the case why he could be education secretary, not quite commander-in-chief.)

A Big Step towards Public Access at Harvard’s Library


Harvard’s library is creating an online public repository for its private holdings dating to 1638 and the new academic work generated by its professors. (The article references a Faculty meeting where the proposal will be voted on; that happened yesterday, and the proposal passed by a wide margin I’m told). 

For the university to shrink away from its proprietary rights on a scale like this is surprising. I’m not exactly sure the common man will be rejoicing in the streets now that he can access the university’s extensive collection of 19th-century daguerreotypes, but it is a gratifying step.

Argues Robert Darnton, the historian and now the director of Harvard’s libraries:

The motion also represents an opportunity to reshape the landscape of learning. A shift in the system for communicating knowledge has created a contradiction at the heart of academic life. We academics provide the content for scholarly journals. We evaluate articles as referees, we serve on editorial boards, we work as editors ourselves, yet the journals force us to buy back our work, in published form, at outrageous prices. Many journals now cost more than $20,000 for a year’s subscription.

Naturally, there is an insular someone, somewhere who objects to it. The New York Times quotes J. Lorand Matory, one of the anti-Summers instigators of several years ago, who complains that undercutting academic publishing houses means that “less popular journals” might be abandoned, and that precious academic conferences might have to be foregone. The tragedy! 

If Prof. Matory wants to, there is an opt-out from the Harvard digitization, although that would mean the wider public will be denied his seminal work on Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion (it concerns “male wives and female husbands in Yoruba religion and politics” according to his website — sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up).

Re: Liberal Arts and their Usefulness


It’s worth pointing out that most of the top schools don’t offer majors in Business or Journalism or anything overtly practical. I’m not suggesting one can build a general education out of the academy’s lacunae, and I never thought I would be praising the smug obstinance of the Ivory Tower, but this recalcitrance is something of a promising foundation. The refuge for people who have wanted to flee to “the practical” in these circumstances has increasingly become the social sciences, and especially things like “International Relations.” But often the practical-sounding doesn’t end up being so practical in the job hunt.

It’s often said that the most employable major at the top 20 schools is Classics. I believe it: Not only is having such a diploma an attention-getter in a time when, as Ferrall writes, employers realize the uselessness of most academia and the necessity of on-the-job training, but it certainly does differentiate an applicant in a world where, as George likes to point out, there are just way too many college graduates. Companies like Bain, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. host recruiting events exclusively for Humanities students. I even remember an advertisement in the school paper from Lehman Brothers that boasted: “We put a poet in charge of our automated trading block.”

I do agree with Robert that 18-year-olds will have a hard time grasping the logic behind going into the Humanities as a career-booster, which is certainly not intuitive. But what they should be able to realize is that one college degree is much like another: Really, the only things that matter in the realm of employment are where your diploma is from; what your summer internships were; and, in a somewhat distant third place, your GPA.

If Swarthmore or Amherst decided tomorrow to become St John’s College (which has a curriculum so standardized that students can transfer in between the Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses without missing a beat), their graduates would be no worse off because of it. The thing holding them back, as I see it, is not so much student demand for “usefulness” as universities’ slavishness to their faculty’s discrete interests.

Higher Education in NR Print


The latest National Review (February 25 issue) should be hitting newsstands right about now, and there are two articles Phi Beta Cons readers might be interested in.

One is “The College-Endowment Racket,” by Kevin A. Hassett, who points out that colleges have accumulated so much wealth because they’re not taxed. For-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix get no tax breaks, and they actually educate lower-income students more often, while Princeton’s annual yield amounts to more than $100,000 per student. Hassett suggests a consumption tax to replace our current system.

Two (shameless plug) is my own article, “The Left Fires a Counter-Volley,” which examines the non-profit, anti-gun Joyce Foundation and its sponsorship of Second Amendment symposiums at various law schools. Following the symposiums, these schools’ law journals ran special issues, disproportionately including articles that advanced interpretations of the Second Amendment that would make it difficult for courts to strike down gun control. (Side note: A new blog by some GW Law students has Keep reading this post . . .

Students Oppose Gun Bans on Campus


Reason TV links to a news report out of Colorado — there’s a new trend of “holster protests,” where students wear empty holsters to fight their schools’ no-guns policies.

Ben Stein Movie


Here you can see the trailer for a film hosted by Ben Stein about the academy’s intolerance for anything smacking of Intelligent Design. It’s called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.


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