Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Another Fisher-Related Point


At the oral argument before the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas, some of the conservative justices had some fun at university counsel’s expense regarding the pesky business of just how one goes about deciding which person ought to be put in this or that racial/ethnic category.  On a new website here, Professor Jonathan Bean of Southern Illinois University elaborates on the problems inherent in this enterprise.

STEM Courses Won’t Hurt These Students, but They Shouldn’t Expect Jobs


San Jacinto College near Houston is trying to get more “underserved minority” students into and through courses that prepare them for work in STEM fields, according to this story in Diverse Education. Undoubtedly, such coursework will prove more beneficial to these students than most of the rest of the school’s curricular offerings. The discipline needed to pass math and science courses is good training for almost anything. But if the students think that they’ll have “good” jobs waiting for them after graduation, they’re probably going to be badly disappointed, as I argued in this Forbes piece.


The Specter of Post-Tenure Review


Around the country there are some stirrings about making tenured professors more accountable. However, this may be just be one of those periodic waves of conscience that quickly dissipate.

As Jesse Saffron discusses today, the latest effort is at the University of North Carolina, where a new policy resembles one adopted by the University of Texas at Austin a few years ago. The key to toughening the policy seems to be bringing deans and provosts into the evaluation process, not just faculty.

One signal that the policy may have teeth is that the faculty senates on all 16 constituent campuses of the University of North Carolina voted against it. (Apparently, their vote was advisory only.)

But there are reasons to be dubious, too. To quote Saffron:

  • Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at UT-Austin, told Inside Higher Ed that his school’s review process is “a complete waste of time” and amounts to busywork. He said the school’s administrators are “deluged” by annual reviews and only devote serious attention to a few professors each year. 
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed post-tenure review policies in 2002 and revealed that faculty firings resulting from post-tenure reviews were extremely rare.  
  • And in 2001, only four tenured faculty out of 2,711 in the Arizona university system were given overall unsatisfactory ratings. 

But perhaps there’s hope.

How Leaders of “Non-profits” Manage to Profit


IHE has this short piece on Evan Dobelle, recently ousted as president of Westfield State in Massachusetts for his wild spending that clearly had nothing to do with advancing the interests of the school. Ten years earlier, he was terminated from his post as president of the University of Hawaii for similar reasons.

This is further support for Professor Henry Manne’s argument that all education is really for-profit education. The distinction we draw between for-profit entities (boo, greedy!) and non-profit ones (altruistic, hooray!) is terribly misleading.

Learning Law Without First Getting the JD


The July 30 New York Times had an interesting article by Sean Farrell entitled “The Lawyer’s Apprentice.” It’s about the small (maybe microscopic is better) movement in the few states that allow people to “read law” rather than getting a JD from an ABA-accredited law school as the path into the legal profession. Earlier in our history, “reading law” — that is to say, learning it as an apprentice in a firm — was the norm. Only after the ABA got involved and decided to build a barrier to entry did things change. But as most lawyers will tell you, they still have to learn as apprentices, only they must first get their JD.

The article makes it plain that it’s hard to do it this way, in large measure because there aren’t many lawyers who will take a person in for the training. Some apprentices fail to pass the bar exam, but then it’s also true that some who have earned their law degrees also fail. Truth is, memorizing material for that exam is an experience unto itself.

Apprenticeship doesn’t work out for everyone, but it does for some, such as the guy who recently made partner in a major Seattle firm, despite his lack of a JD. It can be done. The takeaway from the piece is that the few liberal states should liberalize further (they make it needlessly difficult for people to try to get into the legal profession by the “reading” route) and the illiberal states should start to liberalize.



The War Is On


William Deresiewicz attacked the university reform movement in a recent issue of the Chronicle Review (the left-wing magazine of the Chronicle of Higher Education). For example, he went after Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who pioneered MOOCs with his course on artificial intelligence and then quite Stanford and started an education company, Udacity.

Deresiewicz was reacting to a new movie, Ivory Tower, which features Thrun and other educational disruptors such as libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel. But Deresiewicz went on to blast the entire university reform movement as “hustlers and ideologues” and “pied pipers” – people who want to create a “factory model” of education.

George Leef responds to Deresiewicz on the Pope Center site.

Campus Grievance Procedures Not Designed for Felonies


The accused are denied due process and judged by kangaroo courts. Victims are ignored and mistreated. False accusations fly, crimes go unpunished, and justice is rarely served.

How on earth have we failed so miserably in dealing with sexual assault on campus?

With due process still under fire at America’s elite schools, and legislation on campus sexual assault pending in Congress, it is timely to reflect on a letter the American Council on Education’s president, Molly Broad, sent to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions last month. Therein, Broad explains the difficulties faced by campus administrators in dealing with accusations of sexual assault. She is worth quoting at length:

Conducting education and providing information is an area where college officials have vast experience. … But performing investigations and adjudicating cases is a far more difficult challenge. … Our disciplinary and grievance procedures were designed to provide appropriate resolution of institutional standards for student conduct, especially with respect to academic matters. They were never meant for misdemeanors, let alone felonies. While we take our obligations to the victims/survivors of sexual assault very seriously and are fully aware of our responsibilities with respect to sexual assaults, our on-campus disciplinary processes are not proxies for the criminal justice system, nor should they be.

Simply put, the higher education community is not equipped to play judge, jury, and executioner in matters that require the expertise of law enforcement and judges. After all, incidents of assault are often clouded in a morass of drugs, alcohol, and spotty memories. And when the accused actually is guilty, colleges and universities lack the authority to mete out the kind of punishment a crime as serious as sexual assault deserves. No matter how you cut it, someone, whether the accused or the victim, will not see justice served.

In spite of this, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) continues to insist that campus bureaucrats deal with matters of criminal sensitivity. The OCR has led a shakedown of schools with Title IX complaints. As Broad notes in her letter, OCR guidance is often unclear and inconsistent with other federal laws. On occasion, OCR requirements have even undermined institutions’ ability to cooperate with local law enforcement! But the Obama Administration’s OCR keeps pressing on, threatening to expand its “guidance” to elementary and secondary schools.

Sexual assault is too serious an issue to be dealt with in a parallel, quasi-legal system run by college administrators who proclaim their own lack of competence in these matters. As Broad correctly points out, colleges and universities are equipped to provide education and training about sexual assault. And it would be wonderful to see schools take serious steps to provide alternatives to the reigning culture of underage drinking and parties on many campuses. But this is an opportunity for trustees, presidents, and administrators to work together and remind the OCR that colleges are educational institutions, not law enforcement agencies.

Sexual assault is a crime. Let’s treat it as one.

Chug! Chug! Chug!


Remember the good ol’ days? The days when dull-brained college students could slam back a case of cheap domestic swill, yet suffer only fleeting embarrassment? 

“Tyler, bro, do you realize what you did to the statue near the campus promenade last night? Things got weird. Jennifer says she never wants to hang out with us again now. Thanks a lot!”

These days, however, getting ripped out of your mind on Pabst Blue Ribbon, bottom shelf whiskey, and other goodies can lead to long-lasting public shame and ridicule. Just ask the North Carolina State University students featured on “Wolfpack Passout,” a Twitter page loaded with up-close pictures of college students who have, you guessed it, passed out due to heavy partying. An ABC news affiliate in Raleigh reported on it and the reaction from students and campus officials here

Partying is not new. Being an immature college student isn’t new, either. But the phenomenon of becoming an overnight social media sensation for all of the wrong reasons is. And while I may laugh hysterically at the idiocy of these amateur booze hounds, the parents and taxpayers who are paying for their tuition probably don’t (and shouldn’t) share my lightheartedness on the matter. Future employers may take issue with the pictures, too. 

Of course, these Twitter-famous students are not in the minority; debauchery like this happens at universities all over the country, and not infrequently.

College used to be reserved for serious students and future intellectuals. Now it’s flooded with boobs representing the lowest common denominator. 

Obama Administration Non-Scrutiny on Race


Last week the Department of Education published a notice in the Federal Register, soliciting applications for the award of a new program:  “The objective of this program is to support a Center for the Study of Distance Education and Technological Advancements at an institution of higher education … to study and develop best practices in postsecondary education for online education and the use of technology-based teaching and learning tools.”  Okay, but then the notice goes on to state that, if a school is more than 85 percent white, then it is not eligible.  Period.

As discussed here on an excellent new website, “The New American Civil Rights Project,” this is clearly illegal and unjustifiable.  The Federal Register notice, by the way, gives no explanation for the discrimination, nor, of course, any legal justification for it.  This absolute racial requirement is not given strict scrutiny, but absent-minded non-scrutiny.

A New Islamic Studies Director at Duke


Duke University has just appointed a new director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. Spencer Case, writing elsewhere on the NRO site, points out that Safi isn’t exactly impartial in the issues of the day involving Islam.

In particular, Case refers to a blog post Safi wrote last year for the Religion News Service. The title, “Zionist Atrocities at Palestinian Village of Deir Yassin, 65 years ago…and Today” says a lot. But in addition, Case recounts:

Zionist atrocities at Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, 65 years ago…and today

- See more at:

Zionist atrocities at Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, 65 years ago…and today

- See more at:

Zionist atrocities at Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, 65 years ago…and today

- See more at:

 The article featured a black and white photograph of a prison yard littered with hundreds of human corpses. The people in that photograph are not Arab victims of Deir Yassin, but Jewish victims of the holocaust. A article noted: “It’s clear that the photo is there to magnify the impact of [Safi’s] words, and to serve as a historical record of what he describes.”

The Religion News Service retracted the post for “failing to meet the editorial standards of Religion News Service.”

Did we ever expect impartiality at Duke?

An Effective Cartel?


It takes four years of hard work to get a degree in engineering. It takes six years of…well, education…to get a library degree (and the mere possibility of a job). Casey Reep has looked into the reasons why a master’s degree is required. The answer appears to be the American Library Association, which has successfully kept non-master’s-degree poachers outside the library or in menial positions. Reep notes that the “professionalization”of librarians (an effort to distinguish between librarians and clerks) started early in the twentieth century, and a 2011 study of requirements for  library jobs revealed that “a master’s degree was compulsory for entry-level positions, but that the degree alone was insufficient, calling for practical experience from internships, co-op programs, or employment,” Reep writes.     

The apparent cartel overseen by the ALA seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Maybe that’s why it’s effective.


Poetry in Motion


Who says the liberal arts are impotent in today’s high-tech world when a governor may have risked his future political career appointing a poet laureate whom the literary community would not accept? North Carolina’s chief of state found out, and fast, that his selection of a female state worker who had not earned her spurs was a bad move.

Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican elected in the historical 2012 GOP sweep of both Houses of the Legislature, has been the target of the Democrat-biased Raleigh daily since the took office. Naturally, the Raleigh News & Observer gleefully stoked the controversy by publishing dozens of letters lambasting McCrory for bypassing the traditional process that sought input from the North Carolina Arts Council. The paper threw kerosene on the conflagration by sponsoring a contest calling for poems from readers criticizing the governor for his uninformed choice and low-brow tendencies. 

Valerie Macon, whose oeuvre comprises two self-published and jejeune commentaries on social issues, resigned as poet laureate in a matter of days under pressure from the outraged poets, writers, and arts advocates. Medicare funding, teacher pay and the Common Core receded from the headlines to make way for an issue no one saw coming. The frustrated governor proceeded to make things worse by criticizing the literary and arts community for pointing out to him there is more to poetry than merely possessing a social conscience.

This episode makes it clear there is an unwritten, unspoken, intangible perception that a liberal arts background defines who is a leader and who is a technician. Or, to be precise, between an “educated” person and someone simply trained to perform a function. Governor McCrory demonstrated that deep inside voters prefer statesmen to proles with pedicures, a distinction the public couldn’t quite figure out about the governor–until now. McCrory, who has been mentioned as a possible GOP presidential contender, has been exposed as a Philistine over a decision he thought was trivial in his quotidian worldview.

He found out the hard way that poets are people, too.

Paul Ryan Joins Call for Accreditation Reform


Reform-minded lawmakers and policy wonks from both parties have started to take up the mantle of higher ed reform. Yesterday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) addressed the topic in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute accompanying the release of the House Budget Committee’s new report, “Expanding Opportunity in America.”

In his talk, Ryan tackled an issue that was once unheard of outside a tiny circle of higher ed reformers: breaking up the college accreditation monopoly. “We need to give students more options—in other words, we need accreditation reform,” Ryan proclaimed.

The Budget Committee even cited ACTA’s work on the subject, quoting from our 2007 report on accreditation reform:

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni sums up, “If the accrediting process were applied to automobile inspection, cars would ‘pass’ as long as they had tires, doors, and an engine—without anyone ever turning the key to see if the car actually operated.” Not only does the current accreditation process fail to truly access quality, its emphasis on high cost inputs makes it more difficult for fledgling institutions to get off the ground, shielding established schools from competition.

Over at our blog, ACTA discusses the importance of the mainstreaming of accreditation reform. With more and more friendly voices in Congress, the end of the college accreditation cartel finally seems in sight.


More Brilliant Ideas from the Ivory Tower


Have you been wondering what academics are doing these days? A professor at New York University, Matthew Liao, has been trying to use biotechnology to reduce the human “footprint” in order to curb global warming.

He has a couple of ideas—one is to create “a pill that would trigger nausea if [people] ingest meat, which would lead to a long-term aversion to meat,” writes Molly Wharton elsewhere on the NRO site. Why do we need this? Because 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from cultivating livestock.

If the pill doesn’t work, perhaps a patch that “make its user sick if he or she tries to eat a juicy burger” could be tried.

But the problem isn’t just that we eat too much meat; we’re also too big. Dr. Liao suggests using gene imprinting or hormones to reduce our height by 15 centimeters or so.

No, this is not the Onion. At least I don’t think so. He told this to the Atlantic and the BBC.

Now the kicker: Professor Liao is director of bioethics at NYU. If you were wondering what bioethics is all about, apparently it is about changing people so they do what the nanny-state-turned-into-a-totalitarian-state thinks they ought to do.

Langbert on Deresiewicz on the Ivy League


I recently noted the New Republic article by William Deresiewicz that usefully pans the education that students receive at our purportedly “elite” colleges and universities. In this blog post, Brooklyn College professor Mitchell Langbert digs more deeply into that piece, arguing that while it is true that elite colleges do not ensure a solid education, it doesn’t follow that it is better at non-elite ones.

In another Deresiewicz piece that will be the subject of a forthcoming article of my own, he claims that “the college ideal” is under vicious attack by “powerful forces” but the truth is the matter is that the college ideal has withered at most colleges and has been doing so for quite a long time. Those few students who are interested in that ideal have to look hard to find it.

Shining Sunlight on College Sports


College athletics have come under fire, and the powerful NCAA in particular. From its treatment of college athletes to its failure to investigate cheating in a timely manner, there is mounting concern about the association from all corners. College sports have, in recent years, grown considerably as an industry. Who exactly is reaping the fruits of this expansion, and how is money spent? A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) intends to make following the money a lot easier.

The Standardization of Collegiate Oversight of Revenues and Expenditures, or SCORE Act, focuses on transparency. The bill calls for the reporting of key financial information from schools, conferences, and the NCAA and goes on to list numerous financial line-items to include, from team uniforms to grants in aid to athletes.

This bill warrants close consideration. As the cost of college continues to rise, it’s important that students (and their parents) have an understanding of schools’ financial priorities “Whatever we think, we need better information,” Price pointed out to the Durham Herald-Sun. “Fragmented information risks misinformation.”

A big part of the problem with college sports is that the oversight of trustees is often co-opted by administrators, namely college presidents.  Indeed, many colleges now spend six times as much on athletics per athlete as they spend on academics per student.

The NCAA already collects and stores most of the data the law would require, making it easy to implement. Rep. Price’s bill wouldn’t require additional reporting by schools themselves, merely that the NCAA’s data be made public.

An increase in transparency is certainly in order. Only when armed with this information can all those concerned make the case that schools should refocus financial priorities on education and use sports revenues in a way that supports the entire campus community. 

Affirmative Action in Film?


The reductive kind of “diversity” practiced by the university today, by gender, race, and other factors, is not only a destructive policy in itself but seems to produce a reductive way of thinking about everything. So I thought when I read an excerpt from Katie Pavlich’s new book, Assault and Flattery: The Truth about the Left and Their War on Women. Pavlich’s purpose is not only to combat the Democratic claim that Republicans are conducting a “war on women,” but, as the subtitle indicates, to turn the accusation against the accusers. In a section excerpted in the Sunday New York Post, she rightly points out how Hollywood, a bastion of the Democratic Left, treats women unfairly and even abusively. She cites, for example, Tinseltown’s staunch support of a known child molester, Roman Polanski, and its disregard of his victim.

Some of her evidence for the Hollywood Left’s depredations against women, however, is more questionable and sounds very much like that offered by supporters of affirmative action. “A 2011 study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University,” Pavlich writes, “showed women are grossly underrepresented (although slowly increasing in representation) on the silver screen.” Lauzen’s research reveals that “In 2011, females remained dramatically under-represented as characters in film when compared with their representation of the US population,” and the figures were only somewhat better in 2013.

Since, barring some dystopian apocalypse, the female proportion of the population will always hover around fifty percent, does that mean that half of all characters in films must be female forever and ever? Or that for every war movie featuring mainly men there must be a film about a sorority? This kind of bean counting, as President Clinton once called it (when it suited him), is not a good way to judge the value of art, although, admittedly, the Left started it and continues to press it in many areas, and it may give us some gratification to see their own tables turned on them.

Pavlich continues, “A ratings system known as the Bechdel test takes a look at how women are portrayed in film. In order to pass the test, a film must accomplish three things: 1.It has to have at least two named women in it; 2.Those two named women must talk to each other and 3.Those two named women must talk to each other about something other than a man.”

Pavlich reports that all the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films failed the Bechdel test, while Hunger Games: Catching Fire passed.

But the Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings series are expansive, imaginative, and inspiring films while The Hunger Games presents an immature view of life saturated in sullen hatred and adolescent resentment.

Beyond even bean counting, the kind of schematism represented in the Bechdel Test is likewise not a good way to judge the value of art. Such approaches bind us to a single strand of our identity and prevent us from seeing the larger human picture in which we all belong. It stands to reason that the Iliad and the myriad war tales that have followed it will have more “male” characters, as will most adventure and fantasy films, but they can be meaningful for women as well as men if they arise from a genuine and well executed vision of truth, and an understanding of the genuine diversity of human experience.

Athletics: Let’s Get Serious (Or Can We?)


Do we have to accept the status quo in college sports? Today’s status quo is to provide scholarships to academically unqualified students and support them with heavy-handed tutoring, easy majors, and even “no show” classes to keep them eligible. Yet many fail to graduate or graduate with meaningless degrees.

Jenna A. Robinson has combed through three documents that attempt to address those problems. They are the Knight Commission report of 2010, the 2013 Hunter Rawlings panel report on UNC-Chapel Hill, and the standing recommendations of the Drake Group, a national association of faculty trying to change college athletics.

The pickings for genuine reform are slim, but Robinson dissects the proposals: the pointless, the promising, and the should-be-tried. As for the last category, they would improve the situation but, as she points out, “universities must find the political will to implement them.”

Elite Colleges Are Not Really So Great


The key assumption made by people who insist on “affirmative action” (i.e. college admissions preferences for certain groups) is that getting into an elite institution is so good for “underrepresented” students that officials should bend their standards severely to admit them. Going to an “elite” college means getting an “elite” education, which will enable to poor and minorities to leap ahead, thus making the US a more “socially just” nation. Right?

For years, a number of contributors on this blog have argued that there isn’t necessarily anything great about going to an elite school. They are not necessarily ideal or even good learning environments. In this New Republic piece, William Deresiewicz argues strongly that parents should not send their children to Ivy League or other prestigious schools if they want them to get a solid education.

In a forthcoming Pope Center piece, I will joust with Deresiewicz over an irascible Chronicle Review piece he wrote last month, in which he slashed away at the motives of higher education critics and reformers. His NR piece, however, makes a very important point that will put him on the enemies list of affirmative action proponents.

Graduation Plan B


If you’ve followed higher education policies recently, you probably recognize the term “completion agenda.” It stems from the fact that many students enter college with the goal of graduating—but they never do.

Only about 56 percent of those who enter college to get a bachelor’s degree obtain a diploma within six years. For community college, the statistics are worse. Only about 29 percent of students starting in community college get an associate’s degree in three years.

Policy-makers have latched on to the figures, starting with the 2006 Department of Education report. That Spellings Commission report highlighted low graduation rates and began to push for “student learning outcomes.” As a 2011 article from the American Council on Education said, “Almost every other new initiative, research report, or news story on students and higher education somehow relates to graduation rates.”

So now we have many efforts to get students to complete their college or at least get some kind of degree. That brings us to “reverse transfer.”

It got a big boost in 2012 when a group of private foundations such as the Lumina Foundation provided seed money. It’s simple—if students started at a community college, transferred to a four-year school but never graduated, they may be eligible for a community college (associate’s) degree.

So in about 15 states, officials are trying to find those students to determine if they have already taken enough credit hours to have achieved the equivalent of an associate’s degree. If so, they will be able to get one.

And now, as Harry Painter discusses, reverse transfer is getting a push by U.S. senators for a national program.  He points out that if it’s such a good idea it will spread from state to state and really does not need federal intervention.


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