Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Million-Dollar Club


The Chronicle of Higher Education examines the 2012 IRS forms for private colleges and finds that 36 presidents make more than $1 million a year and the average presidential pay is nearly $400,000. You can see the list here.

At the top is Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytech at $7.1 million; others in the Top Ten include, among others, Lee Bollinger of Columbia, at just under $3.4 million and David W. Leebron at Rice, at $1.5 million. Drew Faust of Harvard earns just under a million, as does Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, but Yale president Richard Levin just makes it as no. 10, with compensation of just under $1.4 million.

Watch What You Say


John Fund reports on the college president, Robert Jennings of Lincoln University, who recently resigned under pressure because he told female students that they should watch out for men on campus.

While his attempt at fatherly advice on sex may have been inartful, it hardly justified his critics’ charge that he was blaming women for sexual assault. Nonetheless he has seen his career ruined, thanks to the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the issue of sexual assault

I agree. Earlier, I called Jennings’ advice “avuncular” and I’m not even sure it’s inartful. But John is right: it dive-bombed his career.


Jonah Goldberg on the “Gang Rape that Wasn’t”


Jonah Goldberg, who was suspicious from the start about the Rolling Stone article on a brutal rape at the University of Virginia, discusses the article and multiple related issues on the NRO home page.

And so does Kevin Williamson on the Corner.

Breaking News: Rolling Stone Retracts Its Story


Today, Rolling Stone issued an apology for its gripping story of a brutal rape, published last month. The apology followed several days of increasing doubts expressed in the media about the veracity of “Jackie,” the woman described in the story. Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, wrote, in part:

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.

Debunking “Diversity”


The College Fix has an interesting article about a debunking by two mathematicians of a “widely touted study [by Scott Page] claiming diversity is a better attribute than ability in spurring productivity and problem solving ….”  My own math skills are so poor that I wouldn’t dream of saying anything more on that angle of the matter, but I will quote this testimony I gave to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission years ago:

Likewise, the title of Scott Page’s new book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies might lead one to believe that it proves racial and ethnic diversity is good for business, but in fact its claims are more limited than that. Indeed, much of what Professor Page has to say is similar to part III of my April testimony–specifically, that for many jobs diversity of any sort is irrelevant; that in any event it is what he calls “cognitive” diversity that ultimately matters, not skin-color diversity per se; and that employers should “avoid lumping by [racial] identity” and should “avoid stereotypes” (and, of course, Professor Page does not address the legal prohibition on racial discrimination, even when it is said to be justified by believed “cognitive” differences).


“This Will Revolutionize Education”


Oh, really? Whether it was the motion picture, radio, computer, or now the Internet, technological advancement has always been followed by that prediction. But maybe the way information is delivered is not as important as the environment in which it is delivered. Maybe learning is a social process, a process that works best with engaged teachers who inspire and demand much from their students. These and related ideas are discussed in this new video from Veritasium, an educational science channel on YouTube: 

Apparently, Mount Holyoke Needs a “Safe Place” for Conservatives


When a student at Mount Holyoke dared to question the leftist narrative about Ferguson, she was subjected by vicious attacks by lots of those open-minded progressives. Read about it here.

Remediation: Can it Really Work?


Owing to the badly eroded standards that we find in many public school systems, a large percentage of the graduates who want to enroll in college are incapable of doing even the least demanding college work. Colleges that want these paying customers go to considerable lengths to improve their academic ability; quite a few of them, after one or more remedial courses, are deemed “ready.”

The trouble, as Clark Conner notes in today’s Pope Center article, is that only a small percentage of them ever earn their college degrees. That tends to suggest that remediation doesn’t accomplish very much — after all, it’s hard to make up for many years of educational neglect and malpractice — but there could also be other reasons why graduation rates are low. I’m certain that a fair number of those students realize that even with a degree, they’re apt to have trouble in the labor market and sensibly decide that it’s not worth the further expense.

But focusing on the possibility that remediation can be improved, Conner looks at a recent paper by Bridge Terry Long of Harvard’s education school. She advocates three changes: better placement of students into remedial courses, better support for those students while they’re in college, and decreasing the need for remediation by improving high school preparation.

No quick cures are at hand. If it were possible to improve high school preparation (which should actually begin in grade school), far fewer students would need remedial courses, but the grave problems in K-12 are deeply rooted and very resistant to change.

Conclusion: don’t expect very much to come from efforts at improving college remediation.

Those Poor Stressed-out Students


Wake Forest University has created a space in its library called “ZieSta,” where students can sleep. Before getting this space, when they became tired, some students would go to their rooms to rest, but those are so far away on this gracious campus that sometimes the students wouldn’t come back to study.

This follows other efforts by Wake Forest, located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to make life more comfortable for its stressed-out students. Last year, says the Inside Higher Ed story, the school added board games and a piano to an outside seating area. This year it hired a “director of well-being,” who is quoted as saying about today’s students: 

They’re paying more than any one has had to and they know they’re graduating into a world with very few guarantees. Their self-worth tends to be tied to accomplishments both in and out of college. And we have high expectations here, so we have to make sure that doesn’t tip into distress.

Avoiding distress? I would venture to say that the reason is just as likely to be the success that Wake Forest’s nearby neighbor, High Point University, has had in drawing students with high-toned amenities. Those include laundry service, concierge service, and a “director of Wow!”

Another Misstep at UNC-Chapel Hill


I was planning to congratulate UNC-Chapel Hill on taking a genuine step toward reducing or nullifying grade inflation. The school was about to institute—at long last—what is called contextual grading. That is, a student’s transcripts will have both the grade he or she received in a course and the average grade for that course.

The point is that if the average grade is an A, then the individual’s A does not have the value it would have if the average were B or (heavens forfend!) a C.  Thus, the new transcript strikes a blow against inflation.

But students have protested, glitches have occurred, and the university has postponed the innovation for at least a semester.

Come on now. This plan has been under study since 2009, it went through a faculty approval process led by sociology professor Andrew Perrin, and now it is postponed.

We don’t really know why. The Daily Tar Heel suggests a variety of reasons. If the response is to students’ protests, that’s a terrible thing (more about catering to students in another post); if it is, rather, due to the technical problems of implementing the plan, where has the registrar been all these months and years? And if, as the registrar seems to imply, the faculty is somehow at fault, then we really do have to wonder how a university can get anything done.

Prestigious Schools Aren’t Necessarily Better


“Go to the most prestigious college you can!” That’s been the conventional wisdom in America for the last several decades. It has caused a great many students and their families added expense because prestigious schools are better. But what if that’s not necessarily so? A recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Colleges’ Prestige Doesn’t Guarantee a Top-Flight Learning Experience” challenges the conventional wisdom.

Looking at data from “Nessie” (National Survey of Student Engagement, that is), author Dan Berrett observes that it isn’t uncommon for a fairly low-ranked school (e.g., North Carolina’s Fayetteville State) to have stronger marks for effective teaching than do far more highly ranked schools such as Bryn Mawr or Harvey Mudd.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with higher education. Small, low-budget schools where the faculty concentrates on teaching are better for many students than esteemed, big-budget schools where the faculty is often too busy with other things to pay much attention to the undergrads.

But Berrett quotes one person who finds that hard to accept, NC State professor Stephen Porter. Berrett writes, “It struck him as bizarre to argue that attending a deep-pocketed college with a renowned faculty and a rich array of educational programs was equal to going to an under-funded college where most students commute.” I know it’s hard for someone steeped in higher ed’s belief system to doubt that more money and a “renowned faculty” must lead to superior education, but that is often the case.  A good college class does not depend on having spent tons of money on all the educational trappings, and unrenowned professors can be just as competent — and often more dedicated to working with students — as those who have landed positions at prestigious institutions.

“Gainful Employment” Rule Limits Students’ Choices


The federal government’s war on for-profit education providers has intensified in recent years. Politicians such as Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa have denounced for-profits for seducing students into taking out substantial loans for degrees that in many instances provide poor job prospects upon graduation (that is, if students actually graduate; many do not). New “gainful employment” rules at the Education Department are aimed at these “failing” schools. 

Under the rules, a school “fails” if its graduates’ average loan payments are greater than 30 percent of their discretionary earnings or 12 percent of their annual earnings (the Department says that if the rules were in place right now, 1,400 programs and about 800,000 students would be affected). In today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, George Leef argues that the latest regulatory blitz is the result of blanket hostility toward for-profits. It’s a futile attempt to deal with a dismal job market that’s been prolonged by the current regime. Rather than recognizing that “easy money” and the third-party payer problem have created bad incentives for both students and colleges and distorted the job market, the government is compounding such problems. It mistakes the symptoms for the disease. 

One faulty assumption is that if students at for-profits are graduating with big debt and minimal job prospects, the educational quality at such schools must be low. But entry-level job training tends to be standardized. The real problem is that there is a shortage of entry-level job opportunities that traditionally have been available to individuals with some level of postsecondary education. And that’s a problem faced by everyone, including those who attended nonprofit schools.

Now that the effects of years of federal subsidization are becoming visible to all and wreaking havoc at the macro level, the very people who have perpetuated the problems are proposing to “do something,” even if such policies will come with their own set of unintended consequences and eliminate educational opportunities. 

Tragi-comedy of the Academic Commons


First, the headline is amusing.  “About 100 brains missing from the University of Texas.” Second, the story is risible. Third, it’s a stunning sign of university negligence–a tragedy of the commons in academia.

A collection of human brains stored in formaldehyde, originally from the Austin State Hospital but housed at the University of Texas for the past 28 years, has disappeared. The brains were kept in the basement of the Animal Resources Center because there wasn’t enough room for them in the psychology lab, where about 100 other human brains still remain.

The USA Today article quotes a UT psychologist: “It’s entirely possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks.” The psychologist is co-curator of the collection.

One of the lost brains probably belonged to a notorious killer, Charles Whitman, a sniper from the university’s tower whose rampage in 1966 killed 16 people.

Hat tip: Susan Lewis.

Hate Crime Hoax Exposed as Fraud, Students Still Demand Justice


Recently there was a hate crime committed at the University of Chicago that was so vile, so ugly, that the feds got involved. It didn’t take long to discover – yep – it’s the latest campus hate crime hoax, of which there are many.

In this case, “a University of Chicago student who claimed his Facebook page was hacked and filled with racist and violent messages against him and another student has now admitted he faked the attack,” reports Matt Lamb of The College Fix.

But here is where the story gets even more annoying.

“Intended to shame the school into making drastic changes around race and speech on campus, the hoax appears to have worked,” Lamb reports. “The students behind the ruse, the hoodwinked university and the school newspaper have argued that the hoax … should not detract from fixing the school’s ‘culture of racial intolerance,’ in the words of a petition demanding policy changes.”

Yes, that’s right. The racially charged hacking incident was just a scam to push a diversity agenda, and even after it was discovered as an outright lie, it’s still being used to that end.

For those interested in reading about the anatomy of this misadventure, The College Fix has all the sordid details.

Tags: hate crime hoax , university of chicago

Few Colleges Make Efficient Use of Their Space


Some years ago, the Pope Center published a paper by economics professor Robert Martin in which he argued that college officials would much rather spend their time trying to raise more money than in trying to lower costs and improve efficiency. In this Real Clear Policy piece, Tom Lindsay supports his argument, specifically with regard to the very inefficient use of facilities we typically find at colleges. He quotes architectural planners Philip Parsons and Gregory Janks, who say that “Colleges have been prodigal.” Indeed so.

Some schools have been trying to make more efficient use of space to lower their costs, and we will no doubt see more of that as the incentives swing away from merely getting bigger to getting more efficient. Lindsay provides several examples in his article, including Kean University in New Jersey and BYU-Idaho. And there is also the ultimate space-saving innovation, online courses.

Creative destruction occurs when people find better and more efficient ways of doing things. There wasn’t much reason to search for them in higher education’s fat years, but it appears they’re behind us.

Where Are the Entrepreneurs?


We’ve all heard arguments against the prevailing wisdom that “everyone should go to college”—we’ve even written them! But in the Washington Post last month, entrepreneur Peter Thiel (of PayPal and Facebook fame) offered a fresh perspective. He explained that pushing everyone into college will damage our economy.

“Instead of doing something new,” the top college graduates tend to go into safe fields such as investment banking and management consulting. They merely “jockey to collect rents from old industries instead of working to create new ones that could raise the standard of living for everyone.”

That’s why the iconic figures he mentions—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerman, and Steve Jobs—are important illustrations. “They aren’t famous because of the similar ways in which they left school,” he said, but “because of what each of them did differently from everybody else.”

And there’s more in that little op-ed, such as his comparison of the university and the Catholic Church in the 16th century. “A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.”

Hillary Speaks!


This fascinating Washington Post story gets into the background to Hillary Clinton’s big speech (big financially, at least: she raked in $300,000) at UCLA — her “Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership.” Particularly interesting is the fact that UCLA agreed that its recording of the talk would be only for its archives and the public would get only a two minute “highlight video” on YouTube, which would be taken down after one year. Was there truly any thought leadership on display? You’d have to ask one of those who bought a $250 ticket for the event. (That bothered a UCLA grad, lawyer Charles McKenna, who emailed the university to ask why a public university was charging $250 to listen to a public official talk. The school ignored him.) Her speech was also available on a big screen for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Had any of them recorded her speech and made it public, I surmise that person would face a battery of Hillary’s lawyers making copyright infringement claims.

In any case, it’s remarkable how willing UCLA officials were to accommodate HRC.

Hat tip: Martin Wooster

Helpful Advice for College Trustees


The sad truth is that many college trustees — probably a large majority — take that position just for the pleasure of it. They aren’t worried about improving the school; many are only vaguely aware of problems like low academic standards, the lack of anything resembling a serious core curriculum, and needless spending. But tickets to big games, receptions, and getting the VIP treatment — now we’re talking!

Those who might have other ideas will find few sources of information or inspiration, but one such source is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). ACTA recently published a very useful pamphlet entitled “Implementing Governance for a New Era” and in today’s Pope Center piece, Jane Shaw discusses it.

Here are some of the points that trustees who aren’t content to be mere institutional ornaments might think about.

Does the school do anything to assess academic progress? Few do, on the assumption that just passing classes must indicate that students have learned something. That, however, is a mistaken assumption and trustees should push for the use of an instrument to show how much progress students have made, for example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

Does the school have a speech code that restricts debate, discussion, and the dissemination of information? If so, they have authority to change or abolish it.

Do athletic programs cost more than they bring in? If so, is that cost worthwhile? Trustees can insist on accurate figures, then decide on the proper trade-offs.

College presidents are not supposed to be in complete command of their higher ed ships, but it has turned out that way due to a pretty somnolent group of trustees at most schools. ACTA is doing something important in trying to arouse them before the collision with looming icebergs.

Welcome to My World


If there is one way to sum up my first three months as a Faculty Senate chair, it’s that I’ve taken the red pill that unearthed the reality of 2014 higher education.  If there is a second way, it’s in this “Plight of the Public Regional College” article in the Chronicle (warning: paywall).

This red pill exposed me to conversations where previously I was not fully in the know. As a faculty member, I’m in the center of my world of teaching and research.  But,when I learned what kept upper administration up at night, I saw that many colleges face declining enrollments, which forced discussions on ways to either bend the curve upwards or to right-size. While the latter is a viable option in the strategy textbooks, it’s not to go-to plan for schools that depend on state aid.

I get to straddle the fence between administration and faculty, which, pun intended, can lead to painful situations at times. Some faculty think that administrators just want to make their lives miserable, and some administrators have good intentions, but the lack of (or time away from) classroom experience can lead to decisions that are not in sync with conditions on the ground. A less confrontational view of this struggle is that because of  tunnel vision, faculty may find it difficult to grasp university-level problems, while administrators have to make tough decisions to appease multiple stakeholders – which ultimately will not make everyone happy.

There are days where I wish I had my own school. But, in the big picture, this is a valuable “internship” in modern university life.

Synchronized Swimming for Sea Monkeys


The title of this post is the title of a study that outgoing senator Tom Coburn made fun of in his 2014 Wastebook –a compilation of wasteful government expenditures. But Duke emeritus psychology professor John Staddon defends the study on the Pope Center site–and other studies that have laughable names.

In his view, the harm caused by studies that superficially sound wasteful is outmatched by harms from the government’s monopoly of research funding, the bureaucratic demands of that monopoly, and the self-satisfying bonuses that the monopoly gives to its minions.


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