About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
February 29, 2008 [feather]
Check out

... these short videos of Thomas Sowell on tenure and on college costs.

Erin O'Connor, 9:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)




February 28, 2008 [feather]
Eliminating the middle man

Alumni give billions to higher ed every year--but it's often unclear where exactly their money goes. And, as debates about higher ed's effectiveness intensify, savvy alumni are increasingly interested in controlling where their giving goes.

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed's Face Value blog, Erin Strout reports on a Williams alum who is trying to convince Williams to allow alumni to work directly with student groups whose missions they wish to support:


Three years ago a student group at Williams College, Williams Students Online, set up a PayPal account to collect donations for a pizza fund. David Kane, a 1988 alumnus, bought $200 worth.

"It made me happy because I got to contribute something small but tangible to a student group that I like and respect," he writes in an essay in The Williams Record.

Now Mr. Kane wonder aloud why he and other alumni can't have such interactions with students more regularly. "Because College bureaucrats trust neither students nor alumni to behave responsibly, at least as far as fund-raising is concerned," he surmises. "The College wants to control the money. It does not trust students to ask for reasonable things. It does not trust alumni to refrain from funding unreasonable requests. It worries that student awkwardness will harm its relationships with alumni donors."

Mr. Kane is asking college officials to consider setting up a Web site modeled on DonorsChoose.org, an organization that allows public-school teachers to enter donation requests, and donors to choose which requests to support. College students could enter projects they'd like to start, and alumni could choose to donate to them.

"My pizza buying should not mark the high point of direct alumni donations to student groups," he writes. "It should be just the start."


Obviously this idea would only address certain small-scale aspects of alumni giving--this is not the sort of giving that pays for a building, launches a center, or endows a chair. But for what it is, it looks very ingenious, enterprising, and useful. It's also very free in ways that I can well imagine might worry college officials of a certain stripe. I'd love to know what readers think. Do you see problems? Possibilities? Broader applications?


Erin O'Connor, 3:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




February 27, 2008 [feather]
Out of the woodwork

When I was in the seventh grade, all the kids spent a semester taking wood shop. Then you'd switch, and all the kids would take home ec. I liked wood shop. We made little book ends, learning to cut, sand, stain, and finish the wood. I still remember the shop teacher telling us what our goal was with the sanding phase, which seemed to last forever to my twelve-year-old sense of time. "Smooth as a baby's butt," he would say; "You aren't done until it's smooth as a baby's butt!" He'd probably get fired for harassment for saying something like that today. But I loved it, and so did everyone else, and I liked my semester of wood shop.

But I would not have liked it if my English teacher had decided to turn the class into shop -- which is exactly what a Virginia high school teacher has recently done. He wanted his students to develop respect for Native American culture, so he had them spend the school year carving a canoe out of a tree. (That's when they weren't building fountains to show their grasp of Native American narrative technique.)

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was unimpressed by the teacher's self-described "constructivist" approach to learning and refused to certify him.

During the year I recently spent teaching high school English at a small New England boarding school, one English teacher required her students to write and illustrate comic books. The students recognized the make work for what it was, and heartily resented the conversion of English class into art class. Those that were vocal about their feelings did not get a respectful hearing--but were instead seen as troublemakers.

Erin O'Connor, 9:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)




If teens had a dime ...

... for everything they don't know, they'd be rich. According to a new AEI study by Rick Hess, the current fashion for emphasizing "skills" over knowledge has translated into "stunning ignorance." 1,200 high school students were surveyed in January. Of these, only 43% knew that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. Only 52% knew what Orwell's 1984 is about. Only 51% knew what McCarthyism was. One in four thought that Columbus sailed to the New World after 1750. One in four was foggy about who Hitler was. They weren't sure about Job, either. But they knew the things that teachers had drummed in, scoring well on questions about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

I'm sympathetic to arguments that education does not equal memorizing dates or cramming facts. But I don't think those arguments are reasonable refutations of the results of studies such as this one (and there are many such -- see, for example, Losing America's Memory, ACTA's disturbing study of elite college seniors, who overwhelmingly failed to pass a basic high school-level multiple choice history test). While proof of education is not reducible to the ability to regurgitate information, it's also true that possessing such information is a reasonable index of how much one actually knows about how the world works and where we've all come from. Moreover, absence of basic knowledge bodes very poorly indeed for one's ability to navigate the world competently or to find meaning within it.

Comments are welcome -- and I would especially invite readers to discuss what exactly they think high school students, and college students, should know and should read.

Erin O'Connor, 9:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)




February 25, 2008 [feather]
Take back the reasonable person standard

Writing at City Journal, Heather MacDonald has some vital things to say about the incoherence--and hypocrisy--of campus attitudes toward student sex.


The campus rape movement highlights the current condition of radical feminism, from its self-indulgent bathos to its embrace of ever more vulnerable female victimhood. But the movement is an even more important barometer of academia itself. In a delicious historical irony, the baby boomers who dismantled the university's intellectual architecture in favor of unbridled sex and protest have now bureaucratized both. While women's studies professors bang pots and blow whistles at antirape rallies, in the dorm next door, freshman counselors and deans pass out tips for better orgasms and the use of sex toys. The academic bureaucracy is roomy enough to sponsor both the dour antimale feminism of the college rape movement and the promiscuous hookup culture of student life. The only thing that doesn't fit into the university's new commitments is serious scholarly purpose.

MacDonald rehearses the history of how the fallacious "one in four" statistic was produced and institutionalized, and charts how it has given rise to vast self-perpetuating bureaucracies, manufactured problems, gross injustice, and ideological dishonesty. She also shows us the insane human costs of institutional fetishization of that massively overbroad category, "date rape"--which too often obscures and diminishes the horror of actual rape, sidesteps the role alcohol plays in "he said-she said" scenarios, casts horny young men as predators, and treats young women as if they really are too dumb and too weak to behave responsibly or control themselves. This is not to say that date rape does not occur--only that as many campuses define it, it's anything the accuser, who may or may not remember what happened, who may or may not have encouraged and even assisted her "attacker," wants it to be. And that's a problem.

The whole article is well worth reading, but of particular value is the case study of William and Mary:


Anyone who still thinks of sorority girls as cashmere-clad innocents, giggling as they wait by the phone for that special someone to call, won't understand much of the campus "date rape" scene. A few incidents at the College of William and Mary, a pioneer in sexual-assault awareness, may correct lingering misconceptions.

In October 2005, at a Delta Delta Delta formal, drunken sorority girls careened through the host's house, vomiting, falling, and breaking furnishings. One girl ran naked through a hallway; another was found half-naked with a male on the bed in the master suite. A third had intercourse with her escort in a different bedroom. On the bus back from the formal, she was seen kissing her escort; once she arrived home, she had sex with a different male. Later, she accused her escort of rape. The district attorney declined to prosecute the girl's rape charges. William and Mary, however, had already forced the defendant to leave school and, even after the D.A.'s decision, wouldn't let him return until his accuser graduated. The defendant sued his accuser for $5.5 million for defamation; the parties settled out of court.

The incident wasn't as unusual as it sounds. A year earlier, a William and Mary student had charged rape after having provided a condom to her partner for intercourse. The boy had cofounded the national antirape organization One in Four; the school suspended him for a year, anyway. In an earlier incident, a drunken sorority girl was filmed giving oral sex to seven men. She cried rape when her boyfriend found out. William and Mary found one of the recipients, who had taped the event, guilty of assault and suspended him.

But in the fall semester of 2005, rape charges spread through William and Mary like witchcraft accusations in a medieval village. In short succession after the Delta Delta Delta bacchanal, three more students accused acquaintances of rape. Only one of these three additional victims pressed charges in court, however, and she quickly dropped the case.

A fifth rape incident around the same time followed a different pattern. In November 2005, a William and Mary student woke up in the middle of the night with a knife at her throat. A 23-year-old stranger with a prior conviction for peeping at her apartment complex had broken into her apartment; he raped her, threatened her roommate at knifepoint, and left with two stolen cell phones and cash. The rapist was caught, convicted, and sentenced to 57 years in prison.

Guess which incident got the most attention at William and Mary? The Delta Delta Delta formal "rape." Like many stranger rapists on campus, the knifepoint assailant was black, and thus an unattractive target for politically correct protest. (The 2006 Duke stripper case, by contrast, seemingly provided the ideal and, for the industry, sadly rare configuration: white rapists and a black victim.)

Stranger rapes also provide less opportunity for bureaucratic expansion. After the spate of "date rapes," William and Mary's vice president for student affairs announced that the school would hire a full-time sexual-assault educator, in addition to its existing sexual-assault services and counseling staff and numerous sexual-assault awareness organizations. Freshmen would now have to attend a gender-specific sexual-assault awareness program. None of this new apparatus--for instance, the "Equality Wheel," which explains the "dynamics of a healthy relationship"--has the slightest relevance to stranger rapes.

However, the cross-currents of campus political correctness are so intense that they produce some surprising twists. William and Mary's sexual-assault resources webpage invites visitors to "listen to what people affected by sexual assault are sharing." It then offers ten audio accounts of sexual assaults, exactly half of which are male. "My experience came very close to killing me," one man reports. One would need the skills of a Kremlinologist to interpret this gender lineup, and the site doesn't explain who exactly these voices are--but it's hard to escape the impression that William and Mary has admitted either a huge gay community or some very beefy women. Diversity politics, gay politics, and the sexual-assault movement produce strange bedfellows.


MacDonald is in many ways reprising--with more research and more restraint--many of the things Katie Roiphe had to say in her 1997 The Morning After. Roiphe was vilified for that book--and I would expect MacDonald to receive similar treatment from certain predictable quarters. That doesn't make her message any less important, though. It only says that the past ten years have seen the patterns Roiphe described a decade ago become even more damagingly entrenched.

Erin O'Connor, 9:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)




February 22, 2008 [feather]
Hooray for UCLA

Yesterday UCLA won round one in its lawsuit against terrorists targeting animal researchers:


UCLA has sued extremists to stop a campaign of terrorism, vandalism and menacing threats directed at faculty and administrators who conduct or support research involving laboratory animals.

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 21 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. After a hearing, Judge Gerald Rosenberg granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the defendants from harassing UCLA personnel or coming within 50 feet of them during a demonstration. The restraining order also requires that personal information about UCLA personnel be removed from Web sites maintained by extremists. Those failing to comply with the terms of the restraining order are subject to contempt of court.


The bit about the posting of personal information on web sites is major. These groups engage in open incitement against scientists whose research they revile, and there is just no way this sort of behavior can be regarded as free speech. I'd like to see more such actions taken against these groups. It may all seem like an abstraction if you don't know people who have been the subject of such behavior, but it shouldn't. And if you do know people who have been so targeted, the threat is all too real.

Erin O'Connor, 8:56 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




February 21, 2008 [feather]
Leaving legacies

I am so glad to see Reason running a piece on the elephant in the living room of debates about preferences in college admissions: legacy admissions for the children of alums, major donors, faculty, celebrities, politicians, and others whose pockets look nice to the admissions people. Such admits are bad form, and it's worse form to see the folks who oppose affirmative action let legacy preferences slide.

A good excerpt:


Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, told Golden that at one Ivy League school only 40 percent of the seats are open to candidates competing on pure educational merit. According to a 2005 study by the Princeton sociologists Tom Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, in 1997 nearly two-thirds of all these non-race-based preferences at elite universities benefited whites, even though whites comprised less than half of all applicants that year.

We have a vigorous national movement to eradicate racial or minority preferences, at least in public universities. In 2006 Michigan became the third state in the country after California and Washington to approve a ballot measure imposing a constitutional ban on the use of race in admissions at state-run schools and in government hiring decisions. And this year the author of all those bans—Ward Connerly, a black California businessman—is stepping up his crusade. He has launched petition drives in Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, and Arizona to put similar measures before voters in November.

But there's no comparable effort to get rid of legacy preferences. Even more troubling, many prominent opponents of racial preferences greet suggestions to get rid of legacies, the mother of all preferences, with a perfunctory nod--or a gaping yawn.

It shouldn't be that way. Legacy preferences are the original sin of admissions, the policy that fundamentally compromises fair, merit-based standards. Universities can't in good conscience tip the admission scales for the more privileged and then ask the less privileged to compete solely on merit. What's more, eliminating race while keeping legacies will make the admissions process less fair, not more fair, because it will open up minority slots to competition by whites but not vice versa.

Legacy preferences are an especially terrible idea for tax-supported public universities, since they make it possible for rich, white, and less qualified kids to take seats that are at least in part supported by the tax dollars of poor, minority families. Private schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want, and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept. And setting public policy aside: Just as a matter of propriety, should there be room for legacies at institutions that market themselves as bastions of meritocracy? The use of legacies by the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons of the world dilutes the standards of excellence they pretend not merely to uphold, but to embody.


The attraction of legacy applicants is financial--but at the same time, the schools most likely to engage in legacy admissions are those least in need of financial help. See endowment data for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc. These schools are setting a standard right now in offering tuition forgiveness to the children of middle-class and, in some cases, solidly upper middle-class families. Perhaps they should set another standard in doing away with legacy admissions. That would be a really big deal -- the article notes that legacy donations account for about 30% of private donations to most elite colleges and universities.

Erin O'Connor, 3:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)




Pride goeth...

For followers of Brandeis University's crazed and policy-violating persecution of political science professor Donald Hindley (who last fall committed the unconscionable crime of explaining, in a course on Latin American politics, that "wetback" is a pejorative term applied to Mexican immigrants), the question is: How much longer can the Brandeis administration maintain the charade that it has done nothing wrong?

Brandeis students think the actions taken against Hindley--who was found guilty, without due process, of harassment, on the basis of anonymous complaints; who was sentenced to sensitivity training; who had a monitor placed in his classroom; and who was threatened with termination--is nuts.

The faculty thinks the Brandeis administration is way out of line, too.

FIRE has gotten involved. And last week ACTA wrote to Brandeis' board, urging it to step in and settle this mess once and for all.

At this point, the board should not only be looking at exonerating Hindley and sanctioning the administrators who hung him out to dry, but should also be launching a wider investigation into how Brandeis administrators have been applying the policy that was (mis)used to convict Hindley. It should also be thinking about abolishing its speech codes and finding a way to avoid the lawsuit that its overzealous administrators have invited.

Erin O'Connor, 11:30 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




Three cheers

... to University of Illinois English professor Gerald Graff--who has famously advocated "teaching the conflicts"--for coming out in favor of outcomes assessment in higher education:


I've become a believer in the potential of learning outcomes assessment, which challenges the elitism of the Best-Student Fetish by asking us to articulate what we expect our students to learn--all of them, not just the high-achieving few--and then holds us accountable for helping them learn it. Whereas the Best-Student Fetish asks who the great students are before we see them, outcomes assessment changes the question to what students can do as a result of seeing us.

Furthermore, once we start asking whether our students are learning what we want them to learn, we realize pretty quickly that making this happen is necessarily a team effort, requiring us to think about our teaching not in isolation but in relation to that of our colleagues.

[...]

For all its obvious value, excellent teaching in itself doesn't guarantee good education. The courses taken in a semester by a high school or college student may all be wonderfully well taught by whatever criterion we want to use, but if the content of the courses is unrelated or contradictory, the educational effect can be incoherence and confusion. As students in todays intellectually diverse university go from course to course, they are inevitably exposed to starkly mixed messages. Though this exposure is often energizing for the high achievers who possess some already developed skill at synthesizing clashing ideas and turning them into coherent conversations, the struggling majority typically resort to giving successive instructors whatever they seem to want even if it is contradictory. Giving instructors what they want (assuming students can figure out what that is) replaces internalizing the norms of the intellectual community--that is, education.

The freedom that is granted us in higher education (at least at high-end and middle-rank institutions) to teach our courses as we please should have always carried an obligation to correlate and align our courses to prevent students from being bombarded with confusing disjunctions and mixed messages. Outcomes assessment holds us to that obligation by making us operate not as classroom divas and prima donnas but as team players who collaborate with our colleagues to produce a genuine program. We all use the P-word glibly, as in "our writing program" or "our literature program," but we have not earned the right to the word if it denotes only a collection of isolated courses, however individually excellent each may be.

By bringing us out from behind the walls of our classrooms, outcomes assessment deprivatizes teaching, making it not only less of a solo performance but more of a public activity. To be sure, with such increased public visibility may come greater vulnerability: Though it is students whose learning is evaluated in outcomes assessment, it is ultimately the faculty whose performance is put in the spotlight. If we have nothing to hide, however, then less secrecy and greater transparency in our classroom practices should work in our favor. At a time when attracting greater financial support for higher education increasingly depends on our ability to demonstrate the value of our work to wider publics, anything that makes teaching more visible and less of a black box figures to be in our interest. Giving teaching a more public face should help humanists doing cutting-edge work refute the widespread stereotype of them as tenured radicals who rule over their classes with iron fists. But it should also help humanists more generally to clarify to a wider public the critical reading and thinking competencies we stand for and to show that those competencies are indispensable enough to the workplace and democratic citizenship to merit greater investment.


The debate about outcomes assessment really should be nonpartisan--because seeing our colleges and universities do the best they can by their students should be a goal we all share. But it has, sadly, split down partisan lines and discussion about it has, as a result, gotten distorted in truly unfortunate ways.

What's needed at this point is respected academics like Graff openly advocating for learning assessment, and urging their colleagues to understand the genuine importance it has for their work as educators. As Graff himself points out, articulating what you think students should know and holding yourself accountable for doing all you can to make sure they know it is a matter of simple professional ethics. Academics should be undertaking this work--which is admittedly complex, which takes time, and which requires imagination and ingenuity to do well--voluntarily. They waste everyone's time, and squander their own credibility, when they get their backs up in response to legitimate calls for accountability that come from beyond the academy.

Here's a great quote from the comments to Graff's article:


A little anecdotal evidence to back up Graff's argument. In our history department at a large Western land-grant university, we were dragged kicking and screaming into doing outcomes assessment. We started as simply as possible, assessing just two learning outcomes using two essay-exam responses as our instruments. What we found surprised us. No, it didn't surprise us that our students performed rather badly at some of our outcomes. It did surprise us that the entire assessment process (especially the measuring) led us to the richest, most intellectually engaging, and most useful faculty discussions we’ve ever had about teaching and student learning. I actually look forward to our assessment measurement day (it takes six of us faculty about 5 hours) each semester and the talk about what we might do to improve. Each of us has changed the way she/he teaches, and we will probably change our major in response to what we've found in assessment. And overall the frequency and quality of our talk about teaching and learning is enormously enhanced; there's a buzz on about teaching and learning. We thought we were great teachers before (and we were), but assessment has helped us teach together. Three years ago I never thought I would have said this, but our "culture of teaching and assessment" is much improved. I am certain this wouldn't have happened without assessment.

This really can be an opportunity. To view it as a punishment--or a political vendetta of some kind--is to engage in genuinely self-destructive bad faith.

Erin O'Connor, 11:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




February 20, 2008 [feather]
One small step for Dartmouth

Dartmouth has been locked in a major power struggle regarding its mission and future for some time--as evidenced by the series of contentious alumni trustee elections that have taken place over the years. Since the late ninteenth century, Dartmouth has maintained a small board, half of whom are charter trustees appointed by existing board members and half of whom are elected by alumni. The alumni elections always contain the possibility of surprise, as anyone who satisfies some basic criteria can add themselves to the ballot as a petition candidate. Lately, petition candidates have been running on strong reform platforms -- and in four straight elections, they have been winning. This, in turn, has sent Dartmouth establishment-types into spirals of worry and outrage about their power to control the institution and secure their own interests. And, not surprisingly, they have responded with efforts to make it harder for reform-minded alumni with lots of popular support to find their democratic way onto the board of trustees.

The most recent effort was also the most dramatic. Last fall, Dartmouth announced plans to completely restructure its board. Under the new plan, the 16-member board would increase its overall size to 24, adding eight new charter trustees while keeping the same number of alumni trustees. The new structure would radically diminish the power these eight trustees have. Where alumni-elected trustees were once 50% of the board, equal partners in governance, the new structure aims to render them a comparatively disempowered minority.

There was lots of legitimate outrage and uproar when word got out about the proposed changes--and there was also a lawsuit. Filed by Dartmouth's Association of Alumni in October, it sought an opinion on the validity of the changes to the board. A motion to dismiss was denied on February 5--and Dartmouth has responded by agreeing, for the time being, not to make any changes to the College's governance structure without giving alumni substantial notice.

Powerline reproduces an email that explains:


The attorneys for the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees and for the Dartmouth Association of Alumni reached an agreement on Valentine's Day that the College would indefinitely forebear from seating new trustees under the Trustees' September 7 Board-expansion plan.

In light of Judge Vaughan's recent denial of the College's motion to dismiss, and the likelihood that the Judge would follow up his decision with an injunction preventing the Trustees from increasing the size of the Board, the Trustees have accepted not to increase the size of the Board for the time being, and if they change their decision, they will notify the AoA of this decision 45 days prior tool its implementation. Clearly the College has finally understood the strength of the AoA case against it.


Dartmouth's student paper has more.

So ... Dartmouth's board can't go ahead with its plans to reorient its power base in ways that don't speak terribly well for its faith in democratic procedure or its respect for its alumni stakeholders. But that doesn't mean that it can't take on some necessary reforms. ACTA president Anne Neal wrote a very telling memo last summer, pointing out some serious conflicts of interest that are currently built into Dartmouth's governance structure and offering some strong advice on how to resolve them. Perhaps Dartmouth's board could get going on that.

Erin O'Connor, 10:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




February 18, 2008 [feather]
Getting at the past

I'm a real fan of Henry Louis Gates' PBS series, African-American Lives. He's reprising the original series--which did both family history research and DNA analysis with Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and others--with more genealogical research into the pasts of prominent black Americans. And he's continuing his remarkable work reconstructing familial realities that defy contemporary stereotypes about both whites and blacks. Check out this moving segment with Morgan Freeman, and see what you think.

Erin O'Connor, 10:23 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




February 17, 2008 [feather]
Politicizing the padding

We all know the grades on college transcripts are suspect. Between rampant grade inflation and rampant cheating, they don't tell us much. Add to that employers' frustration at not being able to tell much from transcripts -- they are complaining loudly that students don't bring adequate knowledge, essential skills, or disciplined habits with them to work; they also don't reliably bring the humility required to survive--and thrive--in low-paying, less-than-thrilling entry level jobs.

But a solution being considered in Wisconsin--and backed by the AAC&U--sounds like it will only make things worse. University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs explains:


In recent days, the president of the University of Wisconsin system has risen to the occasion by proposing to the Board of Regents that students have two transcripts upon graduation. The first transcript would be the traditional one, which would list the classes the student took, and the grades that he or she received. The second transcript would depict what the Wisconsin State Journal described as "the student's personal development during college, such as whether the student interned for a company, directed a play, or edited the student newspaper." The University of Wisconsin system would be the national pioneer in this movement. This effort is supported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose vice president recently said that companies seek graduates who can work "with diverse groups and have a sense of social responsibility and ethics," according to the State Journal story.

According to Reilly, the university needs to institute this policy because business leaders want "workers who can work with diverse groups and have a sense of social responsibility and ethics," according to the State Journal story. The second transcript would involve more than a typical resume. It would have to be approved by a faculty member, and show how the student's experiences outside the classroom represented a meaningful application of the student's classroom work. "We know when students get to the end of their time with us, employers and graduate school admissions officers want to know what you did besides get and A or B in philosophy," Reilly told the State Journal. "We think this will capture some of the educational experience."

Given the potential importance of extracurricular work, who but a curmudgeon could object to this brave new policy? Well, let this curmudgeon count the ways. First, students already have ample opportunity to make their extra-curricular work known to employers through the use of resumes and interviews. What would be gained by making the engagement in outside activities a formal part of the pedagogical process? Not much.

The first problem is something that all observant faculty members have witnessed in recent years: student padding and building of resumes in order to impress authority figures. To be sure, many - perhaps most - students are sincere about their outside work, and perform it because it is good to do so or because they need the money or experience, not simply because it builds a paper record. But no one should be so naive as to think that insincere inflation of resumes will not occur. And just how is a faculty member supposed to properly evaluate and substantiate this work? Such evaluation presents a fertile opportunity for subjectivity - and, therefore, favoritism - to run amok. And if you think that grade inflation is a problem in higher education today, just wait until you witness the fruits that "second transcripts" would bear.

Another problem is that second transcripts will probably favor those students who enjoy wealth or good connections. Many students today have to work hard outside of class in order to pay for their stunningly expensive educations, and simply do not have the time or the resources to excel in the types of activities second transcripts encourage. The last thing we need in higher education is a policy that exacerbates class advantage.

A third problem is that such transcripts will only further higher education's drift away from its core fiduciary responsibility: to provide knowledge to students, and to make them critical, responsible thinkers. Study after study has shown that college students are ignorant of basic political and historical facts. To pick just one example among many, a 1999 survey of students at 55 elite colleges and universities showed that 40 percent did not know in what half-century the Civil War took place. Why are we encouraging the use of second transcripts when it is evident that we are doing such a poor job of performing our primary duty?

Fourth, a second transcript movement threatens to further politicize the pedagogical process and the university. Recall the Association of American Colleges and Universities' desire to encourage students' "sense of social responsibility and ethics." Given the political orientations of many faculty members today, the "sense of social responsibility" is often a code word for a political or ideological persuasion. Will students feel free to work on activities that challenge the governing political and ideological orthodoxies of the campus? And what about students who are philosophically and ethically opposed to performing works of "social responsibility" in the first place? Will their moral resistance lead to negative and therefore damaging "second transcripts?" Or, more poignantly, what about those who believe in such work, but are opposed to performing it under the gaze of the paternalistic university that has now made such work more or less mandatory?


Second transcripts should be viewed as what they are--paperwork designed to sidestep a problem in the name of solving it. The Wisconsin Regents should know better, and so should the AAC&U.

Employers have real concerns about whether a college degree means what it needs to mean in today's work force. But trustees, administrators, and faculty members are going to have to return to the basics if they want to address those concerns. Introducing new, deflecting hoops for students to jump through won't do it--both students and faculty will just game them to serve their own ends. And when they do that, do we really want a third transcript?

Erin O'Connor, 11:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)




Cutting class

It's always interesting to see when faculty members decide to suspend regular teaching operations, either canceling class because of some compelling conflicting event or devoting class time to discussion of material far afield from the syllabus or subject of the course. It's also always intriguing to notice when deans lead the way.

Here's an email sent to the William & Mary faculty by Dean Carl Strikwerda, in the wake of the Board of Visitors' decision not to renew President Nichol's contract:


----- Original Message -----
From: "Carl Strikwerda"
To:
Sent: Tuesday, February 12, 2008 5:34 PM
Subject: [fas-d] Classes in Arts & Sciences on Wednesday and Thursday

Dear Colleagues:

I know that the news we received this morning from President Nichol about his decision to resign was deeply saddening for many of you, as it was for me. President Nichol was a passionate advocate for the values of liberal arts education, diversity, and free inquiry. I respected him as a leader and as a friend. I will miss him greatly. I would be dishonest if I did not also say that I am also very concerned about the future of William and Mary. In this difficult time, and in the months ahead, all of us will need to re-dedicate ourselves to the values that we hold dear in order that William and Mary continues to be the vibrant educational institution and strong campus community that it is.

I can also say that I am committed to doing whatever I can to help Provost Feiss, Interim President Taylor Reveley, and Rector Powell maintain our strengths as a college and an intellectual community.

A number of faculty members have indicated that they plan to not meet classes on Wednesday and Thursday in protest of the decision of the Board of Visitors. This is a difficult time for students and faculty. All of us have to deal with our emotions and our need to share our opinions in the way that we judge best. As it happens, I will be meeting with my students in my class tomorrow morning, but neither I nor my co-instructor will lecture. We will explain the situation on campus to the our students and ask them to share their thoughts, feelings, and questions. I trust that each of you will make the appropriate decision for yourself about whether or not to hold regular classes or allow your students to discuss the situation with you and their classmates.

I realize that the situation on campus may continue to raise questions, some of them troubling ones, for you and your students or some time. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have concerns that you wish to share. More than ever, I appreciate all the good work that you do as teachers, scholars, scientists, artists, and academic leaders. Together with our excellent students, you make the College of William and Mary a community of which I am still proud to be a part.

Best,
Carl J. Strikwerda
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
College of William and Mary
P.O. 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
Phone 757-221-2470
Fax 757-221-2464
cstrik@wm.edu
Campus Location: 134 Ewell Hall
Jamestown Road


The Board of Visitors' decision, and Nichol's subsequent resignation, followers of this story will know, have sparked a great deal of controversy both within the William & Mary community and beyond. What I'd like to do here is just open the thread up to readers for comment.

What do you make of Dean Strikwerda's decision to send this email to the faculty? What are we to make of his decision to devote his own class time to the therapeutic endeavor of helping students express their thoughts and feelings about the change in College leadership? What about his tacit endorsement of those faculty members who decided to cancel classes on two consecutive days so that they could register a protest to the Board?

Comments are open.

Erin O'Connor, 10:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)




February 12, 2008 [feather]
Nichol and dimed

In the four years since Gene Nichol became president of the College of William & Mary, a lot has gone wrong. The Wren Cross controversy is the best known of Nichol's missteps--but there were others, including several episodes that demonstrated his less-than-firm commitment to free speech. These include the College's "bias reporting" website, launched last fall, as well as the banning of Native American symbols from the Homecoming parade, in patent violation of students' First Amendment rights.

Now, after careful consideration and input from William & Mary's constituents, the Board of Visitors has decided not to renew Nichol's contract when it expires this summer. Nichol has responded by resigning and by issuing an intemperate statement that essentially accuses the Board of firing him for ideological reasons and then trying to buy his silence. The Board, which must view Nichol's statement as confirmation that it made the right decision, has responded with a statement refuting Nichol's accusations. It graciously acknowledges Nichol's hard work and his many contributions to the College.

Say what you will about the he said-she said quality of this situation. The bottom line is that Boards are responsible for the well-being of the institutions in their care. It is their job to hold presidents accountable, to review their performance and to make tough calls about whether to keep them on. It's to this board's credit that it assumed that responsibility, and that it did so with an acute awareness of the needs and concerns of the College's constituencies, including alumni--a group toward which Nichol was remarkably unresponsive.

UPDATE: Very interesting op-ed about Nichol's resignation here:


Gene Nichol's resignation letter says more about his aborted presidency at the College of William and Mary than he probably intends. Its tone, its timing, its tenacious grip on the story line that he was run out of town by right-wing crazies — all keep him at the center of a passion play, when maybe what's needed is a pause to consider what's best for the college.

Nichol effectively got the boot when Rector Michael Powell informed him privately on Sunday that the Board of Visitors would not renew his contract in July. Tuesday morning, Nichol pre-empted any orderly announcement with an e-mail to the college community that reads like a spurned hero's farewell.

"Appropriately, serving the college in the wake of such a decision is beyond my imagining," Nichol wrote.

Maybe he was just wounded and exhausted, but is it really unimaginable that the interests of the college might have been better served by graciously remaining in place and assisting with a transition? Unimaginable that stoking political division complicates matters for the college more than eases them?

Nichol only plays into the hands of his political detractors by insisting that he is their victim. The board that fired him had backed him up publicly, from the controversy over the cross in the Wren Chapel, to the expansion of opportunity for lower-income applicants, to the support for free speech and student prerogatives.

Privately the board expressed concerns over the past several years, but it didn't hang Nichol out to dry. In late fall, the board even attempted to stem the escalating calls for Nichol's removal by establishing a deliberate and extended formal review of his performance as president. Perhaps that was a delusion, given the uncompromising climate, but it was a course designed with the interests of the college in mind.

In a hastily arranged reply on Tuesday, Powell said the board — as it should — will carry on Nichol's initiatives for diversity and inclusion, and has no intention of even entertaining a reversal of the compromise on the cross. Powell said the board was repulsed by the personal attacks on Nichol — rightly, for they have been repulsive.

The board was clearly (and inexplicably) unprepared for Nichol's pre-emptive action. In the quick appointment of law school dean W. Taylor Reveley III as interim president, perhaps they hope for a cooling-off period. Before the search for the next president can sensibly begin, the college surely needs a pause in the action.

In his e-mail, Nichol instead indulges in some parting shots. On becoming president, he says, he found a deficient institution. The college was unwelcoming to minority faiths. Kids from the lower end of the economic ladder were insufficiently represented. The place was only casually committed to social diversity. And it was wobbly on the U.S. Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular.

The indictment is unfair and insulting to many who came before Nichol. It takes only a little perspective to see that Nichol was building on a standard of excellence and a march of progress that others had established. But Nichol's oratorical power and his appealing passion as an advocate play best against an adversary on a grand scale, so that's the way it comes out.

But there's more to running a state-supported college than being a charismatic champion of liberal arts or a bulldog for progressive politics. The position takes executive leadership in planning, administration, fundraising, cultivating influence on behalf of the institution. There are many puzzle pieces — students, faculty, parents, alumni, legislators, governors — and it takes considerable skill to knit them together and keep the peace. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" can be monumentally problematic when steering the course of a complex college community.

Was Nichol unjustly vilified in what he characterizes as a "committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign"? Yes. Did members of the Virginia House of Delegates inappropriately seek to intimidate board appointees during a hearing in Richmond last week? Yes. Will his ideological opponents now dance in the streets and claim victory? Yes.

But Nichol also needs to go back and read his own resignation statement one more time, when he writes, "Mine, to be sure, has not been a perfect presidency. I have sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university. A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise."

That is, in fact, a fair self-assessment. A wiser leader might not have written this e-mail at all. A wiser leader might still be president of William and Mary.


You have to wonder whether, when Nichol cools off, he will regret what he has said and done over the past few days. And you have to wonder, too, whether he will be able to connect his poor judgment in this instance with a broader pattern of precipitous and divisive behavior during his presidency. Most people don't make those connections about themselves. But you never know who will.

Erin O'Connor, 12:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




Only some truths

At Stanford, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Pope (before he was the Pope) have been rejected as potential speakers in deference to certain campus groups' misplaced sensibilities. But the law school is giving a platform to a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. The point--which I hope it isn't necessary to make, but which I suspect I had better--is not that I disagree about which views are endorsed and censored at Stanford. The point is that Stanford should not be censoring views, creating double standards, committing viewpoint discrimination, and generally polluting the intellectual atmosphere so badly that free inquiry just isn't a viable possibility on campus.

Worth noting: the law school faculty itself is a bit challenged on this point.

Erin O'Connor, 10:15 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




February 11, 2008 [feather]
Wanna review Indoctrinate U?


If you care about higher ed, you should consider reviewing this film--and helping to build the discussion it was meant to inspire. Go here to find out more about how you can download your free review copy. The Indoctrinate U online store will be opening in a matter of days--but a limited number of bloggers can get the film ahead of time.

Full disclosure: I helped with the fact checking for the film, and have already written about it plenty here, here, and here. I recommend it wholeheartedly. So do the folks at Duke--who know a doctrinaire institution when they see one.


Erin O'Connor, 6:41 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




February 8, 2008 [feather]
Wolves in green clothing

There's a stealth ideological movement in higher ed. Now that we are all highly attuned to how certain marked categories--race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.--are amenable to ideological manipulation on campuses, we have become a little bit complacent about the broader phenomenon of ideological manipulation. And we've let a lot slip in under the radar.

The animal rights movement is one of these. It may seem all warm and fuzzy to support this one--but when researchers' homes are being firebombed, things have gone a bit far. And yes, there is a line that can be drawn connecting the seemingly harmless PETA people to terrorist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. They are not as separate or distinct as they may appear.

The green movement is another stealth ideological movement. As I've said before on this blog, I'm all for clean air, pure water, recycling, and reduced footprints. But at the same time, I am wary of the people who try to peddle anthropogenic global warming as a settled truth--it's not. And I'm wary, too, of folks who think it's okay to turn campuses and classrooms into environmental crusades, particularly when those crusades are predicated on questionable science or unproven but costly panaceas.

Focus the Nation, the recent global warming "teach in" aimed at getting campuses across the country to devote class time to promoting environmental awareness and activism, was a scary thing. So was the way 1500 campuses across the country just bought in, and willingly agreed to suspend regular operations to advocate for an openly political cause. So was the way the higher ed media didn't seem to pick up on the problem. I love Inside Higher Ed, and read it every day. But those guys missed the boat on this one.

Brown philosophy professor Felicia Ackerman explains what was wrong with the teach-in--and why she declined to participate, in today's Providence Journal:


A FEW MONTHS AGO, I received an e-mail offering me a "very exciting" opportunity. Unlike most such e-mails, it was not after my money. It was after what I guard much more carefully: my time and my ideological commitment. It asked Brown University's philosophy professors to participate in a national movement called "Focus the Nation" and to "devote a portion of class time" on Jan. 31 or during that week "to teach about climate change as it relates to your discipline."

This prospect enticed me about as much as the frequent e-mails offering Viagra at a reduced price. So I did not use class time to teach about climate change. Here are four reasons why not.

Reason 1: Climate change is not what students signed up to study in my courses.

Neither of the courses I am teaching this term has anything to do with climate change. I would not pay my veterinarian if he talked about climate change instead of examining my cat. I would not pay a piano teacher for a full hour's lesson if she spent part of that time teaching me about climate change instead of teaching me piano. My students are entitled to the same respect from me that I expect from service providers. This means providing the service my students signed up for rather than whatever I decide is most important. I could avoid the problem by changing my course titles to "Whatever Professor Ackerman Decides Is Most Important," but that might leave me with no students to teach at all.

Reason 2: I am unqualified to teach about climate change.

I am not an expert on climate change. I am not an expert on how climate change might relate to philosophy. Rather than taking the time to become an expert on these topics, I prefer to pursue the intellectual interests I already have.

Reason 3: My students can have better opportunities to learn about climate change.

Brown University has physicists, geologists, chemists, biologists and engineers. Brown probably also has non-scientists who are interested in becoming experts on climate change as it relates to their disciplines. Experts can offer courses and teach-ins on climate change. Why not leave the teaching about climate change to them? One possible answer is that while many students may not be interested enough to take such courses or attend such teach-ins, these students are unlikely to get up and leave if climate change comes up in a course they are already taking on some other topic. In other words, professors should take advantage of a semi-captive audience. Is this any way to respect students?

Reason 4: I do not think climate change is the most important social problem in the world.

I am not disputing the scientific consensus about the technical aspects of climate change. As a non-scientist, I would have to be a crackpot to think that I know more than scientists about scientific matters. But I can have my own views about priorities. Climate change holds danger of future catastrophes. But other catastrophes are happening right now. They are what I would focus on if I were willing to take class time away from my courses’ subject matter. The life expectancy in most African countries is under 60 right now. In America, millions of people lack health insurance right now. Are you prepared to tell an African, or an American with cancer and no health insurance, that climate change is the most important social problem in the world? I am not.

I would rather tell students that my classes are not designed to address the most important social problems in the world, and that's okay. My classes are not my students' whole lives. Students can use their ample time outside my classes to address whatever social problems they find most important, which may or may not include climate change.


Ackerman nails it. And she does so in terms very closely tied to the AAUP's foundational conception of academic freedom, which reminds professors to stick to their areas of expertise and orders them not to impose on students by haranguing them about politics or wasting their time with inappropriate digressions. The wonder is that she seems to be pretty much alone in speaking up. Where are the other professionally responsible professors? Where is the AAUP?

Focus the Nation is not the only green agenda that's having its way with campuses. There is also the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which enjoins college presidents to pledge to make their campuses climate neutral within two years while integrating "sustainability education" into the curriculum (read: environmental sensitivity training). Inside Higher Ed missed the boat on this one, too, giving it the subtle endorsement of blinkered and uncritical reporting.

To its credit, the Chronicle of Higher Education did a piece on schools that declined to sign the commitment, citing some genuinely intelligent reasoning from the presidents of Reed, Colorado College, U Minnesota - Twin Cities, and Williams. Reed's president noted that the College is committed to political neutrality in its institutional decision making. Officials at Minnesota noted that the president does not have the authority to make unilateral decisions about curricular content (academic freedom, remember?). Others noted that it's irresponsible to commit to something like "climate neutrality in two years" without any sense of what that would entail or how much it would cost. All of this is immensely sensible.

What's not sensible, and what is scary, is that hundreds of presidents did not have these thoughts, and did sign the commitment--thus putting ideology (and the cred that comes with being on the "right" side) ahead of fiduciary responsibility and respect for academic freedom. And the faculties (who should be more protective of their academic freedom) and the trustees (who have ultimate fiduciary and fiscal responsibility) appear to be fine with it.

Erin O'Connor, 11:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)




February 7, 2008 [feather]
Cut on the bias

When William & Mary launched its bias reporting website last fall, commentators across the country denounced it for the intolerant, censorious endeavor that it was. Of particular note was William & Mary law professor William Van Alstyne's condemnation of the system:


The irony of the rule is that it is NOT a rule that (simply) disallows acts of intimidation (whether of a particular faculty member, of an identified student, or of an identified employee at the College). Rather, it is a purely "touchy-feely" "political correctness" rule. If, but only if, the individual is "harassing" another person or "intimidating" another person FROM SOMETHING THE COLLEGE REGARDS AS AN UNACCEPTABLE KIND OF "BIAS," THEN they are subject to be reported, placed on some kind of "list," and referred to some other body for possible suspension or worse.

[...]

These politically-"skewed" codes of conduct are seriously misguided (and, I think, frankly embarrassing to universities which endlessly contrive to take the "correct" stance on all sorts of matters.....)


In response, William & Mary equivocated. The college made some cosmetic alterations to the bias reporting system, but did not do away with it entirely--it's live and ready to receive reports. And why should it? Plenty of other public schools maintain similarly unconstitutional systems of surveillance--UVa, Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and others--and no one's going after them. In higher ed, as any cursory study of the history of speech codes shows, obeying the law is a lot less important than conforming to the group.

And, of course, such conformity sends exactly the wrong message.

Consider the University of Mary Washington. Having correctly understood what it takes to be a cutting edge campus when it comes to combatting the dire and ubiquitous problem of "bias," Mary Washington is implementing a bias reporting website (download the draft policy here).

How does the university do the doublethink required to justify such an endeavor? A simple two-step does the trick.

Step One: Misread the William & Mary debacle, and then cast your own institution as learning from the other's mistakes. The local newspaper played right into this one when it noted that "If adopted, UMW's plan would parallel anti-bias rules recently put in place at the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary. And by requiring complainants to identify themselves, it would avoid one goof that William & Mary made when it initially let students tattle anonymously, inviting false reports."

But the problem with the program at William & Mary isn't that it was initially open to anonymous reports--the problem is the program itself. Public colleges and universities can't legally get into the business of investigating protected speech. But that's what these sites are all about.

Step Two: Expand the definition of potentially aggrieved groups to include those that are normally not a part of such programs. Whereas most schools define bias as something that afflicts historically oppressed groups, Mary Washington has added a significant category to its definition: "The University considers acts of bias on the basis of race, color, religion, disability, national origin, political affiliation, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, or age to be unacceptable and antithetical to its commitments to diversity, inclusiveness and the right of every individual to be treated with dignity and respect." If you are well-versed in the campus culture wars, you will recognize the mention of "political affiliation" as a nod in the direction of conservatives--and hence an attempt to cast the bias policy as something that serves everyone in the campus community.

All in all, the assumption seems to be that the public is too dumb to know a speech code when it sees one. Mary Washington seems to think that it can amaze students, faculty, and staff into accepting and enabling its surveillance system with the reassuring news that the college draws the line at investigating anonymous reports. And, indeed, local news coverage confirms that sorry assumption when it says that Mary Washington is "off to a good start."

The university also seems to think that the public is too crass to condemn a speech code that is more ideologically inclusive than usual--hence the addition of "political affiliation" to the list of categories vulnerable to biased assault.

But speech codes aren't amenable to tinkering and refinement. A speech code is still a speech code even if it presumes to have some standards. And speech codes don't suddenly become okay if they attempt something like a bipartisan approach to campus censorship.

Just look at Mary Washington's proposed Bias Offense Policy and see for yourself:


To ensure an environment that fosters civility and mutual respect for members of the University community, bias offenses are prohibited. A bias offense is any act of bias based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, disability, national origin, political affiliation, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, or age that creates an intimidating and/or hostile educational , living, or working environment by unreasonably or substantially interfering with an individual or group's safety and security OR which unreasonably interferes with the person's work or academic performance. Acts include language and/or behaviors. Bias offenses may result in serious sanctions or disciplinary action.

This is bread and butter censorship. It isn't mitigated by the fact that the university is expanding its definition of who has the right not to be offended.

What I would like to see: Someone filing a bias complaint against the bias reporting system itself.


Erin O'Connor, 9:28 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




February 5, 2008 [feather]
What's wrong with this picture?

At Mercer College, as at many colleges, students are annually treated to a "Tunnel of Oppression," an interactive exhibit that sends you through a series of scenarios that are cast as emblematic of "oppression" and then gives you group therapy at the end. Sometimes you are a spectator--watching, for example, a scene in which a man abuses his girlfriend--and sometimes you are the target, passing through rooms with hostile graffiti or comments piped in through speakers. Both tactics were in play at Mercer, which featured the girlfriend-beating scene along with walls bearing what a journalist grandly described as "epithets of hate" such as "You are useless" and "You are going nowhere."

I've written a fair amount about Tunnels of Oppression (see here, for example), and I want to be clear that as long as these things aren't mandatory, I don't have a problem with them taking place on campus. Not a procedural or legal problem, anyway. I do have issues with the anti-intellectualism of the whole thing, though, the way it sells a superficial emotional thrill as some sort of authentic access to "oppression," which it fetishizes as some kind of purifying, ultimate experience.

Consider this comment from a Mercer student who passed through the tunnel: "You think you know (about oppression) because you hear about it in the news ... but just being in it is a different feeling," she said. "Oppression is a lot more real than most people realize on a daily basis." All that insight, just from spending a few minutes winding through the darkened rooms of the student center, looking at manipulative skits and reading negative commentary so abstracted from a defined, human source that it can hardly be called negative in the first place.

And that's what bothers me about the tunnel of oppression. It is not a real experience of anything (except, perhaps, of being a spectator). And yet when it succeeds, it makes people think that they have somehow gained access to a very important reality, a reality that defines and animates our times. This student now believes she knows something--about oppression, about reality--that she didn't before she went through the tunnel. And she also thinks this makes her superior, in terms of insight, to those who have not also passed through the enlightening tunnel. She should know better than that. But then, the tunnel of oppression is not really about knowing, it's about confusing feeling with knowing.

See a video of the Mercer tunnel here.

Via Peach Pundit.

UPDATE: To get a bead on the very real problems posed by casting staged enactments as authentic experiences, or perhaps, to get a sense of how widespread is the problem of confusing the one for the other, consider this fact: 20% of British teens think Winston Churchill is a fictional character. By contrast, 65% think King Arthur was real, 58% think Sherlock Holmes really lived at 221B Baker Street, 51% think Robin Hood was real, and 47% think Eleanor Rigby lived in some environment other than the lyrics of a Beatles song.

Erin O'Connor, 7:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)




February 4, 2008 [feather]
Stripped of respect

There's something embarrassing--and vaguely pornographic--in the spectacle of a leader who is not at all up to leadership. This is particularly true in higher ed, where the idealism of the enterprise tends to get a bit tarnished when those charged with ensuring it just can't manage to do so.

Duke president Richard Brodhead has been living in a hell of his own making ever since the lacrosse scandal revealed his total incapacity to uphold--or even really grasp--foundational principles such as fairness, due process, and Doing the Right Thing. Brodhead pandered and cowered and skulked his way through the extended tag-team beating administered to the falsely accused lacrosse team by the Durham D.A.'s office, the national media, and the Duke faculty, and wound up shaming himself and his university in ways that can never be undone. (This is all shorthand, I know, and if you are unclear where my statements come from, do read KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor's Until Proven Innocent).

The never-to-be-undoneness of the policy of procedural and political expediency Brodhead adopted during the long, damaging months of the lacrosse scandal were most recently on display during Duke's Sex Workers Art Show. Jay Schalin has the details:


You would think Duke University might be a little cautious about paying strippers to perform on campus. After all, there was that little incident that happened about two years ago -- something to do with a couple of strippers and some lacrosse players.

But inviting strippers to perform does not appear to be a problem as long as the intent is not to titillate men, but to shock a mixed audience with vulgarity and disparage mainstream American values. In the latter case, the university is quite willing to pay, despite a regulation reintroduced into the Bulletin of Information and Regulations after the lacrosse case that explicitly states "strippers may not be invited or paid to perform at events sponsored by individual students, residential living groups, or cohesive units."

At least, it was willing on Sunday night, when a variety of university organizations paid for a performance of the Sex Workers Art Show at the campus' Reynolds Theater. The show was sponsored by the following official university departments, centers and student organizations: the Duke Women's Center, the Duke Student Health Center, the Healthy Devils, the Program for the Study of Sexualities, the Campus Council, the Women's Studies Department, the University and Cultural Fund, Students for Choice, Students for Choice and the Sexual Assault Support Services. The Art Show received a total of $3,500 and high-level official sanctioning from the university, according to Kenneth Larrey, president of the Duke Students for an Ethical Duke,

The performers did not just take their clothes off--and the actual nudity part of the show was rather tame. But mere nudity could hardly compare with a show that began with the Art Show's founder and announcer, Annie Oakley, imploring the audience to stand up and shout "I take it up the butt!" Some other highlights, or lowlights if you prefer, included:

--A transvestite, naked except for some strategically placed tape, with the words "F___ Bush" painted on his chest, kneeled on all fours and lit a sparkler protruding out of his rectum with "America the Beautiful" playing.

--A bare-breasted stripper sang a lewd song about Saint Bridget of Ireland, with lyrics mocking the act of ascension as she climbed to the top of a stripper's pole.

--A stripper, in the guise of a U.S. flag-draped Lady Justice, emptied coins out of her scales, pulled dollar bills out of her clothes as she removed them, and yanked a string of dollar bills out of her posterior as the sound system played Dolly Parton's version of "God Bless the U.S.A." She ended her act by saluting and holding up her middle finger to the crowd. The announcer referred to it as her "Infamous Patriot Act." Her most private area was kept covered by a small American flag.

--A porn actress read a series of prose-poems. In one, entitled "Spit," she described how another actress spit into her eye and then licked it out. Another, called "Staph," was about an infection on her genitals.

--A dominatrix donned a large, "strap-on" male sex organ, and pretended to masturbate while the crowd was urged to shout "faster, faster," in Chinese.

The crowd of approximately 300 people, mostly students, roared with raucous laughter throughout the evening.

According to Larrey, Duke president Richard Brodhead "appeared to act as if he didn't want to know" when Larrey tried to bring up the apparent contradiction between the school's actions and the regulations against the hiring of strippers. Larrey said provost Peter Lange spoke to him several days before the show and said that the organizers went through the correct processes for the Sex Workers to appear on campus, and that it would be "censorious" to rescind the school's permission at that point. He also said that there was a big difference between the Sex Workers Art Show and the hiring of strippers by the Duke lacrosse team in 2006. Larrey did not say whether the provost specified what that difference was.

Larrey also contacted the campus police on the day of the event to check on whether the policy would be enforced. He was informed that the show was sanctioned by the college.


To be completely clear: I could care less about the content of shows such as this one. I think it sounds dumb and immature, and I wouldn't have wanted to spend my own Sunday night attending a show like this. But I don't care if others do. The issue has to do with the double standards at work at Duke, both in allocation of funds and in application of policy. The "no strippers" rule was bound to run into a wrinkle like this one--and that shows the stupidity of the rule. But even dumber is the Duke administration's clear expectation that it can enforce this rule selectively ... which is rather the sort of logic that got the university so embroiled in the lacrosse scandal in the first place. Clarity of policy and consistency of application are the first rules in institutional fairness. Duke didn't get that when the non-rape case first unfolded--and it still doesn't.

Erin O'Connor, 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




February 1, 2008 [feather]
Censorious Stanford

We all know the tales of biased speaker schedules on campus. We've seen countless news stories about schools that do invite Ward Churchill, but don't invite, say, David Horowitz or Anne Coulter. We've seen so many of these kinds of stories that these figures have become virtually synonymous with the problem. Remember Hamilton College's Kirkland Project? And how the extreme leftward tilt of its speaker series led to the Ward Churchill scandal? What about DePaul, which invited Churchill after the scandal broke, but prevented conservative student groups from protesting the visit? Or UC Davis, which this fall hosted the defrocked Churchill just weeks after compelling the Regents to disinvite Lawrence Summers from speaking at their annual gathering? We know, too, the stories about right-of-center speakers getting shouted down and even attacked by audience members.

So, when we do see campuses inviting Coulter or Horowitz, we are encouraged to think to ourselves that this is a sign of an improving campus climate in which there is an emergent willingness to allow a range of viewpoints to exist. It's not that any one of the speakers I've mentioned either is or is not worthy of the substantial fees they command--but that campuses that host the ones associated with the right (or allow student groups to host them) earn some cred as tolerant places.

But the picture is far more complex, the ways and means of ensuring that unwelcome viewpoints don't get invited in are subtle and many, and we need to be looking a lot deeper to get a clear picture of how it all works.

Take Stanford. David Horowitz has been an invited speaker there. So that must tell us something good about the intellectual climate there. Or not.

According the Stanford Review, viewpoint discrimination is alive and well when it comes to deciding who can and cannot speak on campus:


A three-month investigation by the Stanford Review has discovered that university organizations declined to invite two high-profile intellectuals--Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before his inauguration as Pope Benedict XVI--after consultation with faculty and students who objected to their views.

The thinkBIG Conference considered inviting Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch feminist critic of Islam, to speak on the subject of "Violence Against Women." Conference organizers sought the advice of the Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN), which advised against the invitation. The conference nixed the invite shortly thereafter.

A conference representative confirmed off the record that thinkBIG was trying to avoid "controversy" by not inviting Hirsi Ali. On the record, thinkBIG denied that pressure from MSAN killed the idea.

This is the second time in as many years that an invitation to Hirsi Ali has been nixed. The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies considered inviting her in 2006, but decided against it, citing security and speaker costs.

During 2000-01, the head of the Stanford Presidential Lectures on the Humanities and Arts suggested inviting Cardinal Ratzinger. Opposition arose from "liberal Catholic quarters," according to one senior faculty member, and the idea was dropped.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the professor said that these were examples "of a speaker who counts as 'conservative' whose invitation was aborted."


Read the whole thing.


Erin O'Connor, 7:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)