Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Flip Side of the Tragedy of the Commons


You’ve no doubt read much about the tragedy of the commons, which involves waste because common ownership leads to overuse. Nobody can say “no.”

It turns out that there is a flip side to that problem, known as the tragedy of the anti-commons. That occurs when it’s impossible for the owners to get to “yes” and therefore property is underused. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jane Shaw explores the ramifications of the anti-commons problem in higher education. Because colleges and universities have so many “owners” (not in the usual sense, but in the “stakeholder” sense of control over decisions), it is difficult for them to make decisions. Put another way, it’s easy for campus groups, especially the faculty, to veto anything they don’t like.

The anti-commons problem is apt, she argues, to hinder college leaders as they try to make quick adjustments to changing circumstances in the future. Whether some schools survive or not might depend on their ability to overcome the anti-commons problem.

The Effort at Rehabilitating Mike Nifong Has Been Smashed to Atoms


William Cohan’s recent book that purports to show how the Duke lacrosse case should have led to conviction for the students and cheers for District Attorney Mike Nifong has just been dealt a staggering blow. As Radley Balko explains here, a judge in North Carolina has just reversed one of Nifong’s convictions under circumstances showing clear and blatant prosecutorial misconduct.

If I were Cohan, I’d call off the book tour right now and find someplace to hide.


Unlikely Allies


The Chronicle of Higher Education this week published its annual “Special Report:  Diversity in Academe,” and I’m doing my best to read through it.  

I’ve noticed, however, at least three pieces so far that offer more or less direct support for getting rid of racial and ethnic preferences (of course, probably they all provide indirect support for it, one way or another).  

There’s an excerpt from Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Place Not Race, which argues (along lines similar to Richard Kahlenberg’s over the years) that preferences should be based on socioeconomic  status rather than skin color. There is also a Latina student who doesn’t like being labeled “underprivileged” just because of her ethnicity.

And there is an article by a mixed-white-and-Asian academic who has decided he will now check the “white” box instead of the “Asian” box, because Asians in his department are no longer considered “underrepresented” and are, in fact, probably now considered to have met their quota. Now, this professor is, I suspect, not yet at the point where he will be tithing to the Center for Equal Opportunity, but the realization that some nonwhites are getting discriminated against in the name of “diversity” has certainly got him thinking.  (Silliest line in his piece:  “A white colleague remarked that no one seems to complain that we have too many white faculty members when we add to their numbers.”  Uh huh.)

One other thing:  As I’ve often noted, just because it is, alas, legal to use racial and ethnic preferences in choosing students does not mean it is legal to use racial and ethnic preferences in selecting faculty. The fact is, the applicable statutes are different, and the federal courts have never recognized (and some have rejected) the notion of a “diversity” defense for employment discrimination.

So, So, So Sensitive


You’ve undoubtedly heard of the latest liberal buzz phrase on campus: “trigger warnings.”

The idea is that you ought to warn sensitive students that they are about to hear words that could make them uncomfortable in the classroom–words that could “trigger” discomfort.

In this morning’s feature story for The College Fix, Andrew Desiderio reports on the latest expert recommendations on the use of trigger warnings.

At Oberlin College, for instance, professors were warned against the dangers of traumatizing students when discussing topics such as “racism, colonialism, and sexism.”

That probably eliminates a third of the Western literary canon. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – too much racism. Heart of Darkness – too much colonialism. The Scarlet Letter – sexist.

Many leading educators today appear determined to wrap all of today’s college students in a giant snuggly bubble of self-esteem rather than to have them read anything uncomfortable, provocative, or politically incorrect.

Click here for the full story.

Facebook: The Marxist Utopia Come True


After 40 years of stealth attacks, the migration of radical philosophy from college campuses into society is manifest: politically correct speech codes; denigration of Western values cloaked beneath the seemingly sensible sobriquet Multiculturalism; quotas masquerading as the allegedly worthy an   inarguable establishment of affirmative action; emotional victimization replacing generally accepted historical facts; the concept that personal perspective trumps reality.

The thread that ties this cultural coup d’etat is fundamental Marxism, the political virus the West thought was stamped out with the victory over the USSR in the Cold War. Yet, Marxists and socialists on US campuses didn’t get the memo. Or, in predictable modus operandi in the halls of academe, have ignored the real politic of the real world. Why not? Professors have been free to do as they please for centuries. Not the taxpayers and legislatures nor governing bodies and administrators exercise any control over curriculum or professorial propaganda in the classroom. The lunatics do indeed run the academic asylum.

The radical scholars, now a large majority after decades of self-selection, ignored the real world  and intensified their allegiance to the dominant manifestos of  Marxism – even in light of the implosion of the philosophy’s most successful iteration: the Soviet Union. As the sane world sighed in relief that  the Cold War between communist tyranny and free Western democracies was over after 70 dangerous years,  the professorial class  continued the struggle for world socialism because it suited their theoretical mindset, even in the face of complete failure in practice. The classless society looked good on paper when Marx called for it, and it sounds good today in academic jargon.

So the question begs, while we know the societal evils caused by the radical scholars, what particularly does unrepentant campus Marxism  as a philosophy contribute to the world’s over-arching  self regard? Actually, you  see it or hear it hourly via Facebook and the related Internet phenomena that promote the quotidian activities  of the nobodies over the somebodies. On Facebook, Marxism prevails, the intimate details of the unimportant people of the earth are ennobled, even if nothing of importance is noted. In this flawed world, someone on the fringe of society gains more sway than someone who made a valuable contribution.  As in the utopian Marxian/Communist paradise on earth, everyone is equal on Facebook, despite their lack of accomplishment.

History, as the Marxist theory on campus manifests, is not about The Greats – the kings, queens, generals, statesman, explorers, engineers, scientists philosophers, artists, writers and swashbucklers – it’s about the common man pulling together in common pursuit of the State. Witnessing authors and television presenters grasping for a story line in history relying on peasants and workers dramatizes the process to eliminate the individual and elevate the collective in our society today.

Gone are the heroes. In their place come the newly empowered insignificants. You can see them on reality television, or stars in sitcoms and dramas and films, websites and chat rooms. Of course, the bona fide  better known are covered in the media, but usually they are self-motivated celebrities seeking attention. If a really  accomplished person gains attention,  the current societal urge is to bring them down for being better than the Lumpenproletariat, for defying the goal of a classless society.

The professors have inflicted more damage than you thought. Eight thousand years of Western society, and its grand history of individual accomplishment, is,  to coin a phrase, relegated to the dustbin of history. 


The Vanishing STEM Crisis


The idea that the nation may not be experiencing a crisis of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) has emerged. Since federal aid, university and industry hopes, and students’ education plans all depend on the opposing idea—that there is a crisis—the debate is going to be a heated one.

The Pope Center first aired this revolutionary idea two years ago, and this week George Leef discusses the latest findings, especially Michael Teitelbaum’s book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. Leef writes:

Far from “falling behind,” Teitelbaum shows that the U.S. has a glut of people with STEM education. After surveying the best research, he states that America “produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”

But this goes up against a great deal of conventional wisdom. One educator has already labeled Leef’s anti-crisis viewpoint “rubbish.”

It’s time for genuine debate on this issue.

Liberal Professor Makes Fun of ‘Trigger Warnings’ in Chronicle!


News Flash: NYU university professor with a sense of humor! Maybe Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches history and education, at New York University is an old-style liberal.  I think so because he makes fun of the faux sensitivities on today’s campus, most recently evidenced in the call for “trigger warnings” for potentially traumatizing classroom material.  Zimmerman offers his own sample syllabus for Introduction to U.S. History in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There is a dig at President George W. Bush, but also “the Clinton years,” which he warns students were pretty “gross.”

Are They Really Worth All That Money?


As we read in this Edububble piece, most of the highly-paid public employees in Maryland are university employees. Lots of them make over $300K. The highest paid non-university employee makes only $283K.

Are those administrators and profs really worth that much — or could it be that the higher education establishment is particularly good at scooping up tax dollars?

The Latest Campus Lunacy—Trigger Warnings


A few months ago, we were reading about the terrible problem of “microaggression,” but apparently that has been succeeded by a new bit of campus lunacy, namely the call for “trigger warnings” on book. That is, if a book might for any reason cause a student distress, it’s obligatory to post a “trigger warning” about the content.

In this SeeThru post, William Murchison comments on this new mania.

Almost any book might “trigger” an emotional response in someone, so if this nutty idea catches on, we’ll see trigger warnings everywhere. Perhaps even lengthy ones, listing all the possible “triggers” in the book. Why, there could be many new jobs for out-of-work academics in poring through books to find potential triggers.

And who will be held responsible for the failure to warn if a student is “triggered” by something that was overlooked as possibly dangerous material?

The Private-College Scramble


Inside Higher Ed has a story today about private schools scrambling to meet their “enrollment targets.” In Pennsylvania alone, the story says, two dozen schools are still looking for students for the fall.

One is Widener University, where an admissions official, Edwin Wright, is responding to a changing environment. He tells Ry Rivard of IHE that “he saw multiple colleges offer aid packages worth up to 80 percent of their sticker price to the same student with a below-2.5 grade point average and a 940 on the SAT.” The publication continues: “Wright said Widener was reacting to aid packages offered by other schools that were for ‘really average students.’”

This story touches on the duplicity of the colleges that use what is politely called the “high tuition-high discount” model. First, the high tuition, says IHE, “can lead to confusion among applicants who believe the price a college says it charges is what the college actually costs. “

Second, it can fool parents into thinking their children are getting merit aid when really the school is trying to fill up classrooms and dormitories. “Most colleges offer students huge discounts in the form of need-based aid for low-income students and ‘merit’ aid for students from population groups they would like to enroll.”

Of course, some students are offered merit aid, and deserve it. But this story suggests that some schools are frantic.

That does not bode well for the qualified students who attend, for the schools’ financial condition, or the for future of less-selective private colleges.

A Joke, But Not So Funny


Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes in this column on USA Today that higher education is becoming a joke.Why?

Because at many schools, students and administrators are behaving in foolish ways: the protests against commencement speakers, the hysteria over all those naughty “microaggressions” (such as “Hump Day” because it might be offensive to Muslims), the craze over “rape culture,” and so on.

Money quote: “From the economics to the politics, colleges and universities are looking less like serious places to improve one’s mind and one’s prospects, and more like expensive islands of frivolity and, sometimes, viciousness. And that is likely to have consequences.”

It almost seems as though the students and administrators are trying to deflate the bubble.


You Thought “Disinvitation Season” Was Over


It isn’t.

More than 60 students and alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have protested the selection of Michael Johnston, a Democratic state senator in Colorado, as commencement speaker.  In a rather verbose letter (what are they teaching at that school? not writing), the group of several dozen has asked the school to rescind his invitation. The pith:

Senator Johnston embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers, a vision that we believe ultimately harms students and communities. 

Truly a dangerous person (in spite of being a Democrat).

This commencement season seems the most disrupted in recent years. Thanks to Robert Shibley and his colleagues at FIRE for coining the term “disinvitation season” and asking that it end!

Haverford Protesters Get Well-Deserved Rebuke at Commencement


There is still justice in the world.

Last week, former UC-Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew as Haverford College’s commencement speaker in the face of student protests over the violent way police dispersed Occupy protesters at Berkeley in 2011. It was a last-minute shot in this year’s embarrassing spate of commencement disinvitations and protests.

But Birgeneau’s replacement, former Princeton president William Bowen, surprised the crowd at this weekend’s graduation by using his address to publicly rebuke the Haverford’s illiberal student protesters (see the video over at The Corner). As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.

Bowen got a standing ovation.

It’s about time we see more pushback against efforts to silence and shame “controversial” speakers and honorees. If only the commencement speakers at Brandeis, Rutgers, and Smith had been so bold.

The reaction to Bowen’s speech shows that students and parents have had enough of this nonsense. They know a perpetually-aggrieved minority of students and faculty shouldn’t have a hecklers’ veto over every commencement honoree; they know protecting students’ freedom to learn means protecting intellectual diversity and tolerance.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, virtue may finally be thrust on the academy by its impudent crimes. 

Specializing in Non-Communication


In his 1946 classic Economics In One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt explained that the “art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” Although Hazlitt had no academic background in economics (in fact, he didn’t finish college), his deep understanding of its “art” was rivaled by few academic economists of his era. He secured his legacy by not just mastering the subject, but also by explaining it in a clear and accessible way to an educated lay audience. H.L. Mencken wrote that he was “one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”

Unfortunately, as economist and historian Gary North explained recently, that kind of Hazlittian clarity is severely lacking in academic circles. According to North, many university economists today are mere “technicians” and “specialists in non-communication”:

They may have published an article in some obscure academic journal. They have no influence in the economics profession. But they know all about some technical detail. They have spent their lives majoring in minors. They are still writing narrow monographs at age 50, because that is what is safe professionally.

North is highly critical of economists’ lack of communication skills and their willingness to “compromise” with the “academic guild.” “They are after tenure, which means they will never have to work hard again in order to receive above-market salaries,” he writes. 

For North, the shining example of how young scholars should model their careers comes from Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), the Austrian School economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist whose treatises and articles have influenced my thinking and thousands of others interested in free markets, liberty, and justice: 

He wrote with enormous clarity from the very beginning. There is no one else like him in the history of the economics profession. Nobody else wrote that clearly – not even Hazlitt, who was not cursed with a college education. Rothbard wrote clearly, and he wrote until the day he died. He cranked it out, and it was always worth reading.

Time to Pull the Plug on Federal Student Loans?


Today’s Pope Center piece is a poll on that question. Should we end federal student lending? Should we keep it even though it’s had some bad effects? Or should we keep it because it’s really needed? Please vote and comment if you’re so inclined.

Will Penn Divest From “Moral Evil”?


There have been two big trends on American campuses recently. One trend is the “keep away speakers we don’t like or who might hurt someone’s feelings” movement that has flexed its muscles at so many schools. The other is the “divest from bad things” campaign, which mostly targets fossil fuels, but as we read in this IHE piece, also includes tobacco. Penn has been asked to divest from all tobacco stocks because the tobacco industry is engaged in “moral evil.”

Just as with fossil fuel stocks, divestment is a purely symbolic gesture. If those stocks improve the university’s portfolio, the divestment crowd says, “Well, get rid of them and take a lower return so we can feel good.” The tobacco business will go on exactly the same no matter who owns the shares, but the activists will be able to crow. The marginal loss on the university’s rate of return won’t have any impact on them.

This is the same reasoning as with racial preferences for students from certain groups. The university is willing to pass up some more capable students so it can feel good about itself for promoting “diversity,” and similarly is willing to pass up the higher return on “bad” stocks so it can feel good about its stance against evils in the world.

Stanford Joins the Crusade Against Fossil Fuels


Stanford’s trustees recently voted to divest all holdings of fossil fuel stocks and Peter Wood has a splendid essay exploring that decision here.

The leader of this crusade is environmentalist Bill McKibben, who envisions a world free of fossil fuel usage and thinks that he can demonize coal, oil, gas and so forth (how about peat?) through his campus events. Once people realize that our very planet is at stake, they’ll stop using all that horrible stuff.

Or is it just hokum? The Stanfordians aren’t giving up cars or computers or warm buildings. They’re just making a pointless gesture. McKibben enjoys a comfortable life, flying around in airplanes that use jet fuel. I think he’s found his comparative advantage as an environmental zealot and is milking it for all it is worth.

Core Curriculum All Over Again


Universities can take several approaches in developing what used to be called “core curriculum” or general education—the required college classes that mold young people into educated citizens of the nation and world. Here are three:

  •  A long time ago there was the idea that students should learn what universities for centuries had passed on as important. They should take courses such as Rhetoric, Classic Texts in Political Philosophy, the U.S. Constitution, Western Civilization, Literary Classics of the Western Tradition, etc. All those courses are now being taught at Belmont Abbey College, but you’ll look hard to find them elsewhere.


  • A more modest approach is to make sure that some basics are provided for students. The American Trustees and Alumni Council (ACTA) has surveyed 700 institutions to see if they require these basic courses: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural or Physical Sciences. Only 22 colleges or universities do.


  • Finally, there is what happens at most schools today. Essentially, nothing. Following a blistering critique of the general education program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Pope Center has published a study of general education at North Carolina State University. The GenEd program at the land-grant university is only slightly better than UNC-Chapel Hill’s. It follows the same approach as Chapel Hill—students select courses from broad categories, with their choices guided by politically correct themes. Rather than provide “breadth of knowledge,” writes Jay Schalin, such a selection enables student to choose “many courses that are either very narrow, trivial, or both.” How about Music and Social Life? Or Plants in Folklore, Myth and Religion?

         Now, that’s a core curriculum.

Another Commencement Speaker Goes Down


Haverford College was going to have former University of California chancellor Robert Birgeneau as its commencement speaker, but the usual kind of student protest has caused him to bow out. Inside Higher Ed has the story.

Birgeneau is a dyed-in-the-wool academic liberal (how else could one get to be chancellor at Berkeley?) but during his tenure, some students protesting tuition increases were pepper-sprayed. It’s pretty silly to hold that against Birgeneau, but these days if you want a speaker kept away, it’s sufficient merely to complain that he didn’t prevent every bad thing from happening.

This trend may kill off the tradition of having commencement speakers.

Legitimate Dilemma, End-run, or Both?


Ever since colleges and universities in the South were desegregated, the role of historically black colleges and universities has been uncertain. State governments in the 1960s and 1970s had two somewhat contradictory educational goals—strengthening the HBCUs, which had been treated unequally, and racially integrating their historically white universities.

That meant that many top students at HBCUs attended historically white schools, leaving HBCUs with academically weaker student bodies in spite of the infusion of some state funds. Today’s emphasis on racial diversity at elite schools around the nation has only put more stress on HBCUs, because good minority students are so eagerly sought after.

That is especially the case for the more demanding schools such as the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T), the only HBCU in North Carolina that has an engineering school.

Unfortunately, the difficulty of finding students for NC A & T has led to two fairly egregious excursions around North Carolina’s rules governing the institution (as well as an unrelated excursion). As Jesse Saffron points out:

  • No state university in North Carolina is supposed to admit more than 18 percent of its students from outside the state, but NC A&T has exceeded that—in 2012 it topped 31 percent out-of-state students.
  • Similarly, for the 2006-07 school year, NC A&T has forecast higher enrollment, for which it obtained state funds—but then its enrollment declined, rather than grew.

In both cases, the governing board of the University of North Carolina system gave the school a pass. It did not require NC A& T to pay a penalty (as the rules dictate) and even created a pilot project allowing a 25 percent out-of-state cap. And the school was allowed to keep the extra enrollment funding—even building the funds into its annual appropriations for the next four years. Saffron writes:

Rule by individuals who exercise broad discretionary authority, rather than rule by impartially written and objectively enforced laws, can lead to poor stewardship and even malfeasance. 


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