Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Texas: Déjà Vu All Over Again


A guest reflection from Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor at the George Washington University (his most recent book, Presidencies Derailed [Johns Hopkins University Press], seeks to extract wisdom from the experiences of university presidents whose contracts have ended unhappily):

It has been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.  That is surely true at the University of Texas where the chancellor of the university, Francisco Cigarroa, recently attempted to dismiss the president, William Powers. Watching the events transpire, one could not help but recall the 1970 excitement in Austin when Frank Erwin, the then chairman of the board at UT decided after conflicts with the dean of arts and sciences, John Silber, to as he put it “make Silber famous” by dismissing him.

Erwin, a historic ally of Governor John Connally, and Silber a robust Texas liberal crossed swords over the chairman’s desire to divide the college of arts and sciences into two schools, one in the sciences and the other in the social sciences and the humanities. It was generally believed that Erwin’s intention was to reduce Dean Silber’s powers by bifurcating his empire. Silber argued for the intellectual necessity of a united arts and sciences. Ultimately Erwin prevailed.  Silber departed for Massachusetts where he became president of Boston University and politically wiser for his experiences in the West administered with a strong hand. He served for almost four decades in one capacity or another, bringing what had been a mid-level largely commuter institution to the threshold of membership in the American Association of Universities (AAU) arguably one of higher education’s most elite organizations whose membership is limited to 64 research campuses.

From 1970-1977 I worked for John Silber at BU in several capacities, the last being vice president, before departing for Connecticut where I was named president of the University of Hartford.  On my last day at BU, President Silber showed up in my office around 5:00 PM with two glasses, a plastic bucket of ice, and an unopened bottle of very fine scotch.  We sat there together drinking for a couple of hours as he shared with me the wisdom of his career.  The most significant point was that the first thing to do as a president is to figure out who does the hiring and who does the firing.  It is the only way to stay ahead of your critics, he said, and then he recalled his experiences with Erwin.  Silber said, “When Frank Erwin decided to fire me, hundreds of faculty and well over 1000 students petitioned for my retention.  Frank Erwin with only one vote prevailed.  I always took that lesson very much to heart.”

Contemporary events in Austin and not too distant events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where president Theresa Sullivan managed to thwart efforts by a cabal of board members at the University of Virginia to dismiss her makes me wonder if today Silber might have prevailed in his disputation.  The voice of students and faculty and other stakeholders may be more persuasive than it was back in the day.


Ripple Effects


The Koch brothers’ gift of $25 million to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) for scholarships has had some ripple effects. As the Huffington Post reports, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the country’s biggest unions, has withdrawn its scholarship funding. The union’s donation had been on the order of $50,000 to $60,000 a year plus contributions by local union affiliates.

It appears that Michael Lomax’s crime (Lomax is president of the UNCF) was not so much accepting the gift but actually speaking before the “summit” that the Koch brothers hold annually to bring sympathetic donors, grant recipients, and grant seekers together. And even worse was the fact that Charles Murray (coauthor of The Bell Curve, but the author of many other books as well) spoke at the meeting, too. The taint was overwhelming. “Your appearance at the summit can only be interpreted as a sign of your personal support and the UNCF’s organizational support of the Koch brothers’ ideological program.”

A rather strong inference to draw from a single appearance that was probably designed to raise money from other donors as well.


Begging, Excuse-mongering, and Entitlement: How Students React to Low Grades


University of Maryland math professor Ronald Lipsman has written a revealing essay on the reactions he often receives from students when they get the low grades they have earned. Even in a math course, they’re apt to whine, make excuses, and claim that they deserve a better grade simply because they supposedly tried hard. Lipsman observes that this kind of behavior would have been unthinkable back in the 1960s, but now that the entitlement mentality has spread so widely, it’s common for students to try these gambits when they have done poorly in a course.


Group Learning: Good Pedagogical Method or a Waste of Time?


In today’s Pope Center piece, Professor Bruce Gans argues that when college professors (especially in the humanities) decide to break the class into small groups and have them work on something collaboratively, they’re almost always wasting time. Students usually learn little and the lazier ones take advantage of the more diligent ones. Sadly, even in college it is now widely assumed that group work is wonderful and should be encouraged.

Professor Gans’ piece dovetails with Troy Camplin’s recent one, in which he noted how useless it is for composition students to critique each others’ writing. Profs should teach and grade, not sit around while the blind lead the blind.

NCAA President Faces Tough Questions at Senate Hearing


On Wednesday, a hearing before the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation got a little heated when senators took the time to grill NCAA President Mark Emmert about why his organization has been so slow to address the many issues, from sexual assault to exploitation of athletes, that have plagued college sports.

At one point, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) remarked that if the “real rule makers” of the NCAA were university presidents, he wanted to haul them into the chamber for a hearing.

Of course, as ACTA pointed out during the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the problem with college sports is precisely that presidents have too much power. We say as much in our latest blog post:

The NCAA may theoretically be in the business of regulating college sports, but, in reality, it is controlled by college presidents whose unchecked ambition often leads to poor governance and serious corruption. That is why active and engaged trustees are so important. They must provide a vital check on administrative authority and exercise real oversight.

Read the full piece here.


What Should We Do about Law Schools?


The bloom is way off the law school rose. Interest in obtaining a JD is down as more and more young people learn that the field is awash in would-be attorneys and that the credential costs far too much if you just want something that “opens doors.” The time seems ripe for serious changes in legal education and that is the topic of my Pope Center Clarion Call today.

I spar with one professor who believes that law schools need to change so they can become more “inclusive.” The change that we really need is to liberate legal education from the self-interested clutches of the American Bar Association, which for nearly a century has insisted on a model that raises costs and inhibits the market’s discovery process.

Southern Part of Hell


The once vaunted academic reputation of UNC- Chapel Hill lies in shreds on the field of play. The NCAA is re-opening a probe into shenanigans involving money sport athletes (basketball and football);  a special investigator — with U.S. Justice Department experience – is finishing up a probe instigated by the UNC system’s Board of Governors into phantom classes attended by athletes; and most recently, an academic tutor for scholarship athletes is suing the school for defamation after UNC officials attacked her in public for research she unearthed indicating 60 percent of money ball recruits were reading on an 8th grade level. Now a former star basketball player has agreed with Willingham.

Thinking back, I know when the problems arose regarding athletics wagging the academic tail at UNC. I sat beside Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford during a luncheon at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at UNC in 1990, the day of the announcement Florida State University was joining the conference in 1991. Little did I know I was a witness to history to come when I asked  Swofford  why a conference composed of top-level institutions of higher learning was accepting a former all-female teacher’s college with scant scholastic prestige. The answer? Georgia Tech had informed the conference it was pulling out to join the Southeast Conference unless the ACC landed a Florida TV market school.

Excuse me for being naive, but weren’t we proud of the ACC’s elite status? After all, member schools had denied entry to Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, now considered legends in football and basketball. Both were recruited but denied a scholarship due to the now quaint-sounding restrictions adhered to by all ACC schools until the 1980s and early 1990s:  Athletic scholarships could  be granted only to athletes who made an 800 on the SAT and possessed a 1.6 Projected Grade Point Average based on high school transcripts. This requirement resulted in 50+point losses to Notre Dame and Oklahoma in football, but ACC teams could walk off the gridiron with satisfaction that they played for a school that protected its academic prestige.  Today, Swofford is ACC commissioner and the league a money machine with little regard for academic standards.

UNC, once thought the paragon of ACC athletic purity and prestige, is up to its waist in the sewerage of scandal directly related to the abandonment of recruiting standards for signing  big money athletes in basketball and football. Yet the myth, called the Carolina Way,  continued until just recently – that UNC (and the ACC) was above the tawdry athletic antics of an Auburn, or a Miami. Until 2010, when Chancellor Holden Thorp received a call from the NCAA  informing him the college sports regulatory body had evidence UNC athletes had received improper benefits from “runners” working for sports agents recruiting Tar Heel football players for the NFL and pro leagues abroad.

Thorp was the personification of the Carolina Way, a true-blue Tar Heel who was deluded by the myths  aura of the school’s past. He was bred believing scholastics and honor prevailed in university athletics. Thorp was the Everyman for most Carolina alumni, who saw themselves as above the fray of coarse behavior regarding recruitment and retention of big money jocks. Not so elite as the Ivies perhaps, where academic scholarships are bestowed on athletes, but clean and good compared to the rest.

Since the call, UNC has wallowed in hypocrisy and obtuse public communications. The public relations firm  the school hired has mirrored the incompetency perceived by the public. Although the Board of Trustees, in conjunction with the UNC system Board of Governors, has hired a G-Man, all else has failed to improve the sudden fallen image of the school.

Chancellor Thorp has gone, replaced by Carol Folt,  a female from Dartmouth where girls field hockey and badminton represent the sports tradition. Folt was the choice of the faculty, another example of wardens capitulating to the inmates. (As an aside, Bill Roper, respected dean of School of Medicine at UNC, offered his services to replace Thorp. He was willing to absorb a huge pay cut to save the university. He was rebuffed so a female token could take the helm, whether qualified or not).

No matter, there is no hope UNC will ever recover anyway. Its insides are corroded with destructive radical scholars running the academic side, money-focused cowboys directing the athletic program and third-rate political appointees making administrative decisions on the Board of Trustee level and system-wide Board of Governors.  

The Carolina Way is a sad joke. And the Carolina Blue sky cloudy and overcast.

How One Faculty Union Spends its Dues Money


In the recent Supreme Court case Harris v. Quinn (which I wrote about here) the issue was compulsory unionism. Home health care providers, almost always family members, had been declared to be public employees by Governor Blagojevich simply because that allowed the Service Employees International Union to siphon off some of their money. Unionistas raised the usual argument that these people would be “free riders” on the union’s wonderful efforts on their behalf if they were not required to pay. The plaintiffs in Harris did not want to fork over any of their funds and one reason was that the SEIU supports a host of political causes they don’t agree with.

Pertinent to all that is Professor Mitchell Langbert’s recent post about his own faculty union at Brooklyn College. Evidently, it devotes most of its dues money to politics, such as supporting Working Families Party. If he could refuse to pay the dues, would that make him a “free rider” — or is it not the truth that by taking his money by force and using it in ways he disapproves of, the union is legally plundering him?

In arguing against government supported religion, Thomas Jefferson offered the opinion that it is “sinful and tyrannical” to compel someone to pay money in support of ideas he does not believe. That applies with equal force to compulsory union dues.

Student Debt Crisis: Yes or No?


“Student debt crisis” has become one of the most often heard phrases in America, but is there really a crisis? In this Pope Center piece, Jane Shaw examines a recent Brookings study in which the authors conclude that there is no crisis and some of the commentary by those who think (or at least want others to think) that we really do have a crisis.

I do not think we have a student debt crisis. We most assuredly do, however, have a serious resource misallocation problem which evidences itself in the fact that a very larger number of college grads (and dropouts) have borrowed a lot of money to little or no purpose. Just as the “crisis” in home foreclosures several years ago was just the manifestation of policies that had created an unsustainable bubble in housing and thereby misallocating lots of land, labor, and capital, so too with college. To focus on the debt problems that many face is to miss the underlying trouble: college costs too much, educates too little, and many young people enroll just because they want a piece of paper.

Reading the Tea Leaves


For those of us who try to forecast where higher education is going, we can glean a little from the Chronicle of Higher Education. It recently surveyed 350 presidents of four-year colleges and universities, public and private, on their views of innovation. Among the findings:

1) How much change American higher education needs to undergo in the next 10 years

  • Massive disruption: 12 percent
  • A moderate amount of disruption: 55 percent
  • Evolutionary or small changes: 33 percent

2) On the current pace of change in American higher education:

  • Too fast: 10 percent
  • Just about right: 27 percent
  • Too slow: 63 percent

3) Changes that should be given emphasis:

  • Cutting cost: 23 percent
  • Changes to the model of teaching and learning: 46 percent
  • Technology and online tools: 31 percent

4) Changes that are being emphasized:

  • Cutting cost: 38 percent
  • Changes to the model of teaching and learning: 23 percent
  • Technology and online tools: 39 percent

(That is, there is too much emphasis on cost control, not enough on changing the teaching model.)

And how is change going to come about? The presidents say presidents and faculty should lead the change, but that’s not happening. The authors summarize:

As presidents view the matter, politicians are driving change, but should in fact have little say, if any. They also maintain that business people have too much influence. Faculty, on the other hand, are failing to step up to the plate, according to the presidents….

More Law School Downsizing


As we read in this piece, the Thomas Cooley Law School, the country’s largest independent law school, has had to cancel its entire incoming class for this year at one of its five campuses — Ann Arbor.

Law school costs too much, takes too long, and the degree opens few doors. As the article suggests, more downsizing is likely. I suspect that the job prospects for unemployed law professors won’t be very good, especially for those who taught the kind of courses that Professor Charles Rounds called “bad sociology, not law.”

The Budget Squeeze


Jenna Robinson and I got tired of the complaint that state legislatures are starving their state universities. The complaint is usually phrased the way John L. Pulley did in 2012, “A quarter century ago, state funds covered 78 percent of the cost of college, says Julie Bell, education group director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Today the figure is 60 percent.“

Could it be that instead of cutting appropriations (the implication of such remarks), perhaps revenues were growing and as a result the state appropriations became a smaller part of the total?

That seems to be the case as the chart made from Department of Education IPEDS indicates.

FIRE Launches ‘Stand Up For Speech’ Litigation Project to End Speech Codes


For more than two decades, speech codes—policies on college campuses that limit what and where students may engage in free expression—have been a constant problem. First struck down (in the modern era of political correctness, anyway) 25 years ago in the case of Doe v. Michigan, speech codes have nevertheless hung on and miseducated a generation of students about freedom while robbing them of their basic rights. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) has spent its 15 years of existence fighting these codes, systematically classifying them, and engaging in public advocacy aimed at convincing colleges to do the right thing and get rid of them. While we’ve been winning, the fight has been slow. That’s why FIRE this week launched the “Stand Up For Speech” Litigation Project, bringing four federal lawsuits in a single day against schools with unconstitutional speech codes. The schools are Iowa StateOhio UniversityChicago State, and Citrus College (Calif.). More lawsuits are planned in the coming weeks and months.

FIRE has much more about this in our press release, and a whole website dedicated to showing how speech codes have been and are being struck down at, but it’s important to note that FIRE is doing this not because we love being in court (we don’t) but because the incentive structure was all wrong—colleges were more afraid of offended students’ complaints than they were respectful of their Constitutional responsibilities. (I have more about this in my Washington Post op-ed.) FIRE aims to change that. As long as the First Amendment is seen as optional by our nation’s public colleges and universities, attempts to change the culture on campus from one of repression to one of freedom are likely to be in vain. 

Why Would a Dean Shy Away from Grant Money?


It’s an implicit part of the job description for higher ed administrators: rake in as much money as you can. Therefore, it is noteworthy when a dean dithers away a chance at a grant that would have helped hire more faculty members with the credentials that matter to accrediting bodies. That is exactly what happened recently at Brooklyn College, though, and in today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Professor Mitchell Langbert explains the lamentable circumstances.

Important if not decisive in the dean’s aversion to Professor Langbert’s efforts at procuring the grant was that the money would come from the Koch Foundation. Taking money from Koch often triggers a derangement among hard-core leftists, as I observed in this recent Forbes piece. It seems that the dean did not want to risk an outbreak in Brooklyn.

Professor Langbert argues that the failure of the dean to pursue a grant that could have probably been secured supports the case (recently made by Professor Henry Manne here) that there is really no distinction between for-profit and non-profit management. In “non-profits” the managers just take their profits in different forms, such as avoiding conflict.

The Free Rider Problem in Higher Ed


Alex Pollock of American Enterprise Institute mostly writes about our housing woes, but sometimes applies his insights into our housing troubles to higher education. He does so in this piece.

Colleges, he argues, are free riders on our dysfunctional student loan system. They get the benefits as students pay their bills with borrowed money, but suffer none of the costs when the students later default. (Pollock points out that the true default rate on student loans today is about where defaults on subprime mortgages were soon after the housing bubble burst.)

What to do? His serious solution is to insist that colleges have some “skin in the game.” That is, if schools had to consider the possibility of losing money when they admit students who have little likelihood of succeeding, they’d think twice before roping in any and every kid they can.

He also has a less serious proposal for taxing colleges. If we could implement his skin in the game idea, that would be quite enough.

The Envy of the World -- NOT


I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone say that America’s higher ed system is “the envy of the world.” At its best, American higher ed is superlative at a few notable things, such as educating top-level researchers. That, however, tells us nothing about the results at the great mass of our colleges and universities, which are not trying to train contenders for Nobel prizes, but just trying to impart some useful skills and knowledge to the masses of students who enroll. How do they do at that?

Not well, argues Kevin Carey in this New York Times piece published Saturday. While many of us assume that America’s colleges and universities are excellent (probably because we heard that claim repeatedly), that’s a mistake. “America’s schools and colleges and actually far more alike than people believe — and not in a good way,” Carey writes. “The nation’s deep education problems, the data suggest, don’t magically disappear once students disappear behind ivy-covered walls.”

The data to which Carey points is a recent international study of adult knowledge, the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Just as the well-known PISA shows that American school students mostly lag behind kids of similar age in other countries when it comes to language and math abilities, PIAAC shows that our college grads also, on average, are comparatively weak. Carey observes that American college grads “look mediocre or worse compared to their college-educated peers in other nations.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Our higher ed system has suffered from dumbing-down, grade inflation, students and parents with an entitlement mentality, and administrators who are far more interested in degree attainment than learning. Of course other countries where those pathologies don’t exist or are less pronounced are going to make the U.S. look bad.

Do-It-Yourself Education


You probably know about the Rate My Professors website, but what about Koofers, Blinkness, or MyEdu?

These are students’ planning tools, for good and for ill. Rose-Helen Graham, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains them here. For example:

  • Blinkness lists which courses at a specific school have the most A’s
  • Koofers not only gives a course’s grade distribution;, but describes how many and how hard the exams are; what the homework is; and whether or not the professor grades on a curve
  • MyEdu lets you generate your semester schedule and then tells you what your GPA is likely to be.

Go figure.

UNC and Duke Peacefully Collaborate


Two two great North Carolina rivals can also cooperate on academics. In today’s Pope Center piece, Duke professor Jonathan Anomaly writes about the joint program in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

PPE programs are not new — they go back some 90 years — but have been growing rapidly in the US in the last decade. The Duke/UNC program began ten years ago and is very popular with students who want a serious academic challenge. Understanding public choice theory is a large component of PPE and in my view, nothing does a better job of getting students to abandon leftist shibboleths about government than that.

Unequalizing College Admissions


Test-optional admission has become an unfortunate trend in higher ed. In recent years, Smith, Brandeis, Wesleyan and other schools have declared that they will make submission of SAT or ACT scores optional for applicants, considering items such as high school work samples and subject test scores in their place.

ACTA has expressed concerns about such policies in the past, pointing out data showing that SAT and ACT scores correlate with performance in college courses and with retention and graduation rates. We have therefore urged schools to avoid getting swept up in enthusiasm for test-optional policies.

Even schools that go test-optional, however, will still consider standardized test scores if they are submitted. Sarah Lawrence College used to refuse to look at any scores, but they reversed that policy in 2012.

Now, Inside Higher Ed reports, Hampshire College has decided to go “test-blind.” Frustrated that many applicants have chosen to submit scores despite its test-optional policy, Hampshire will no longer look at scores as part of its admissions process. Hampshire College has a unique pedagogical model—traditional tests aren’t part of its curriculum. But its refusal to consider the test scores of students who wish to submit them raises even more concerns than a test-optional policy would.

Though it is often forgotten today, the SAT served as an early democratizing force in higher ed. Academic aptitude, rather than a student’s family background or the reputation of her high school, became the operative factor in college admissions. Even today, standardized tests can identify students who may have had poor teachers or guidance counselors but possess strong academic aptitude. Research has shown that concerns over inequity resulting from access to test-prep courses are overblown and that the SAT and ACT remain useful methods of predicting college performance.            

Standardized tests have increased in importance as grading standards in high school have weakened.  Between 1996 and 2006, the percentage of SAT test-takers with A-range grades rose from 36% to 43%, and the percentage of test-takers with grades in the C-range decreased from 15% to 11%. However, the same period saw a modest decline in SAT scores among students with A-range grades. As far as the ACT is concerned, in 2010 only 25% of the test-takers could meet all four ACT College Readiness benchmarks. Grade inflation is so notorious that several prestigious companies ask college graduates (!) for their SAT scores, deeming them a more reliable predictor of talent and potential than their college transcripts.

College admissions tests are not dispositive measures—but they remain useful. Making them optional is worrisome enough. Robbing students of the chance to prove their talent is worse.


Seattle’s New $15 Minimum Wage


T.J. Jan, a student at Seattle Pacific University, weighs in on his city’s huge minimum wage hike from $9.32 to $15, and explains why students and recent grads are likely to be hit hard by the sharp increase.

Apparently, there’s a neighboring city, just south of Seattle, where they’ve already tried it:

What about the neighboring city of SeaTac, home to the region’s main airport, which raised its minimum wage to $15 effective this year through a ballot initiative?

It hasn’t worked as beautifully as believers would have liked. Scrapping benefits like 401(k) plans and vacation time, and putting additional burdens on consumers such as higher parking costs, are ways that businesses in SeaTac have sought to save money.

If you work in Seattle, there’s a good chance your employer will have to take away benefits and employee lunches or raise costs in order to raise your wage. They might close or replace you altogether. Want to compete with a burger machine that can make 360 “gourmet” burgers in one hour?

Not only does a higher wage make job applications and interviews more competitive – it raises overall structural unemployment, which is affected by things like minimum wage, unemployment benefits and healthcare benefits.

At nearly $6 above current levels, the new minimum wage will radically affect structural unemployment. Unfortunately, that’s probably going to be students and recent graduates…

Click here to read the full story.


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