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May 28, 2010 [feather]
Bee blogging

Obviously that's not me in the video above! But if you watch, you'll see pretty much what we saw when we opened the hive for our first real inspection this week.

To recap (that's a pun in beespeak): We hived our nuc colony two weeks ago. We didn't get a great look at the frames at the time, as the priority was simply to move the frames (which were even more crowded with bees than the ones in the video, because it was early in the morning and everybody was still home) into the hive, get the feeder situated on top so that they would have sugar water supplements to help them settle in, and then close up the hive and leave the girls to themselves to adjust.

One thing was quite clear, though: In the middle of the five nuc frames was a queen cage. When queens are introduced to a colony, they have to be protected in a cage so that their pheromones have time to reach the workers and they can decide to accept her. During this time, workers begin feeding her and attending her through the wires of the cage, and other workers nibble on a candy plug closing up one end of the cage. By the time they eat all the candy, the queen will have taken pheromonal control of the hive, and she will be free to walk out of the cage and take up residence. Without the cage and the adjustment period, the workers would kill the queen. But the presence of the queen cage in the hive is itself an issue, as it interferes with the spacing between frames, and bees build up burr comb around it.

All of which is to say that ten days ago, we opened the hive very briefly to make sure the queen had been released (sometimes you have to unplug the cage yourself with an unwound paper clip) and to get the queen cage out. We were delighted with what we found--Victoria was out and about, the cage was empty, and the bees had drawn out lots of burr comb around the cage. I stuck my hand into the heart of the nest (yes, gloved), lifted out the queen cage, and gently tore out the burr comb. Then I pushed the frames back together, and again we got out of there fast. Later, inspecting the burr comb (pure gorgeous beeswax drawn out in perfect hexagons), we saw tiny bee eggs deep in the cells: proof that our queen was in good shape and had already begun laying.

But we were still in the dark about what was really happening in the hive, and had to wait a week before going in again. Bees don't love having their nests disrupted, and they lose time with their gathering and breeding when you inspect them, so blocks of time have to pass between entries. So we were patient. And Wednesday afternoon, we went in.

The bees were plentiful and calm, unlike the day we hived them, when they were understandably annoyed at multiple recent disruptions--being put into a cardboard box, with a strange new queen, and transported to a field overnight to wait for pickup; then getting picked up and driven to a new location; then getting hived by us. We took our time, and drew out each frame, one by one, looked them over, and took pictures. Photos are invaluable, because it is very hard to see in real time what you need to see when inspecting a hive: you need to find the queen to make sure she's alive, but she's hidden among thousands of bees that look a lot like her; you need to check for consistency of brood pattern and look for eggs, which are practically microscopic; you need to look for signs of trouble, like patchy brood pattern, or mites. And you have to do it all fast, but also in slow motion to keep the bees calm. And even when they are being gentle, they do get curious about you and they fly all around you and land on you and it can make you worry just a little bit.

At one point, I was positive one had flown up the leg of my pants. I had my hands full of a frame filled with brood and honey and thousands of bees and I could not just drop it and dance around in a panic. So I had to pretty much let that bee keep traveling and take my chances. I did not get stung, and in shaking my leg out after replacing the frame, I did not see a bee exit. So maybe it was all imagined. I will never know!

Anyway. While the frames were crowded and busy, we couldn't see well at all. We couldn't find the queen. We could not see eggs because the bees were covering over the cells and moving so much. We struggled! But when we got inside and looked at the pictures, all was revealed. In one shot of a frame that looks very much like the one in the video above, we saw a long, lean bee with a blue marker on her back. Long live the queen! In others, we spotted cells filled with larvae--hatched eggs on their way to becoming capped brood. So we had good confirmation that the queen is alive and well, that she's laying like crazy, and that all looks well in the hive. We also saw some capped honey stores just like in the video above.

So far so good. Next inspection: middle of next week.

Erin O'Connor, 7:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

May 24, 2010 [feather]
Corrupting climate science

Der Spiegel tells the story of how political machination--from left and right--has warped climate science into a mockery of dispassionate knowledge creation. Any analysis of the climate debate that apportions blame by pointing fingers solely at the right or at the left is part of the problem. Any defense of climate scientists that rests on facile evocations of academic freedom is part of the problem. We need to see this fiasco for the massive global clusterfuck that it is, recognize its implications--not just for how we understand climate change, but also for the credibility of scientific research across the board--and take action on at least two fronts.

One, we need to start from scratch with climate research, and suspend major policy and spending initiatives until reasoned, reliable data are available. Then we might be able to have an actual debate grounded in actual logic and measured argument, and we might be able to end the current pattern of panicked and self-serving action based on skewed agenda-driven claims.

Two, we need to read the climate science fiasco as a sign of how badly academic peer review has been broken--and to rethink, from the ground up, whether and how academia can repair its integrity. If it can't or won't, we no longer have a justification for academic freedom. And if we don't have that, higher education and academic research as we know it (or as we like to think we know it) will simply cease to be. This last is not a prediction, but a description of a process that is already in motion.

Erin O'Connor, 6:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

May 20, 2010 [feather]
Conundrum of the day

Writing at the Atlantic, Megan McArdle wonders why academics--whose political demographics suggest they ought to be sensitive to matters of workplace exploitation--are among the most exploitative employers around. Quoting an Inside Higher Ed piece about how 73 percent of college teachers are now non-tenure-track, and how these teach over half of all courses at public colleges and universities, McArdle lays out a problem and a paradox:

Academia has bifurcated into two classes: tenured professors who are decently paid, have lifetime job security, and get to work on whatever strikes their fancy; and adjuncts who are paid at the poverty level and may labor for years in the desperate and often futile hope of landing a tenure track position. And, of course, graduate students, the number of whom may paradoxically increase as the number of tenure track jobs decreases--because someone has to teach all those intro classes.

I have long theorized that at least some of the leftward drift in academia can be explained by the fact that it has one of the most abusive labor markets in the world. I theorize this because in interacting with many professors, I am bewildered by their beliefs about labor markets more generally; many seem to think of private labor markets as an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses. Yet this does not describe the low wage jobs in which I've worked--there were of course individuals who had to hold onto that particular job for idiosyncratic reasons, but as a class, low wage workers do not face the kind of monolithic employer power that a surprising number of academics seem to believe is common.

It is common, of course--in academia. Until they have tenure, faculty are virtual prisoners of their institution. Those on the tenure track work alongside a vast class of have-nots who are some of the worst-paid high school graduates in the country. So it's not surprising to me that this is how academics come to view labor markets--nor that they naturally assume that it must be even worse on the outside. And that's before we start talking about the marriages strained, the personal lives stunted, because those lucky enough to get a tenure-track job have to move to a random location, often one not particularly suited to their spouses' work ambitions or their own personal preferences . . . a location which, barring another job offer, they will have to spend the rest of their life in.

What puzzles me is how this job market persists, and is even worsening, in one of the most left-wing institutions in the country. I implore my conservative commenters not to jump straight into the generalizations about how this always happens in socialist countries; I'm genuinely curious. Almost every academic I know is committed to a pretty strongly left-wing vision of labor market institutions. Even if it's not their very first concern, one would assume that the collective preference should result in something much more egalitarian. So what's overriding that preference?

McArdle has attracted lots of comments beneath her post--and she also inspired professor and academic labor activist Marc Bousquet to respond at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Bousquet grudgingly agrees with McArdle that academics have behaved shamefully--but takes issue with her characterization of them as left-wing hypocrites, suggesting that they are better described as typical clueless liberals who harbor standard confusions about work, power, and class.

The strong suggestion seems to be that if academics really were more radical, the labor problem would not exist--because academics would organize to fight the power. Bousquet concludes with two questions:

Maybe we should ask ourselves, "What obligations do professionals have to the profession, to other professionals, and the society we serve?"

And: "Where are we obliged to act collectively and draw the line with management on these issues? Did we cross that line about 30 years ago?"

The first question is a great one--very important in all kinds of ways, and one that needs to be taken up much more broadly by a professoriate that has gotten awfully far away from the notion that it does have definite professional responsibilities and has just about forgotten entirely that it serves the public at the public's pleasure (that's absolutely true at public schools, and arguably still true at private ones that accept federal funds).

But Bousquet's second question does not follow from the first. Surely unions are not the only answer? And surely unions can cause their own intractable and damaging problems--particularly in a delicate setting like a university, where there are fluid governance relationships and where something a lot more vulnerable and non-quantifiable than widgets is being made? It's quite a piece of prestidigitation to culminate a rousing plea for a better academic workplace with a single, one-size-fits-all "solution" that may be no solution at all.

After all, as Neil Hamilton and others have argued, one of the reasons why the tenure track is disappearing is that for the last forty years, academics have adopted a collective bargaining mentality that focusses almost exclusively on securing rights, perks, and job security. This mentality has colonized the concept of academic freedom--which has historically described academics' responsibilities to the truth and to the public--so that today many academics think of academic freedom almost entirely in terms of what is owed to them. Meanwhile, ethical lapses such as cheating, plagiarism, and research misconduct are running rampant in an academy that does not police itself.

Bousquet is clever like a fox: With his two questions, he raises the issue of professional responsibility in order to argue that the most responsible professional path is to "act collectively and draw the line with management;" i.e., to unionize.

But if the union mentality is a big part of what is wrong with academic culture right now--and a big reason why academics have lost credibility with "management"--then it's not likely to be much of a solution at all, and could well exacerbate the problem. After all, "management" as Bousquet uses it is a weasel word for deans (who answer to presidents and provosts), presidents and provosts (who answer to trustees), and trustees (who answer to the public, as the AAUP notes in its 1915 Declaration of Principles). Management isn't some evil Gordon Gecko-like guy exploiting workers from the swank comfort of his glass high rise office. Management is us! And we just might say that unionization is not the answer.

UPDATE: As long as we are on the subject, this Peter Berkowitz piece on academics' abdication of ethics is worth a read. Academe's labor problem, which, as Bousquet notes, is also an ethical problem, can't be studied in a vacuum. Unionizing will just make the problems Berkowitz describes worse--because the union mentality is one of advocating for rights, defending turf, and extracting resources, rather than of vigilant self-regulation centered on accepting and fulfilling core responsibilities.

Erin O'Connor, 6:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

May 18, 2010 [feather]
This sucks

Or should I say, "This blows"?

This is one of those cases where mockery is the best medicine--and where I would fully support the release of the accuser's name.

UPDATE 5/19: A reader generously sends links to flesh out the picture.

First, it would appear that the shrinking accusing violet in question is none other than Rossana Salerno Kennedy, a nutritionist who lectures on medical education at University College Cork--and happens to be married to UCC's president of research, Peter Kennedy. If the facts really are as reported, she's not just any prude--she's a prude with connections! And perhaps also with special knowledge. Perhaps bat fellatio has dire nutritional consequences--and perhaps this was what offended Salerno Kennedy so deeply.

Second, UCC is shocked--shocked--that Evans did not quietly collude with its efforts to punish him for seemingly nonsensical reasons. It's now moving ahead with plans to discipline him again, this time for making his case public. Everyone knows that when you are falsely accused of harassment in a campus setting, you are supposed to go right along with it, hang your head in shame, waive any claims you might be tempted to make for things like due process, and glory in the punitive creativity of your bureaucratic captors, who will certainly sentence you to public humiliations that damage not only your career, but your psyche. Dr. Evans apparently didn't get the memo on that (or perhaps he was too absorbed in his examinations of fellating fruit bats to read it). For shame!

FIRE obviously needs to open a branch office in Ireland. Here's FIRE president Greg Lukianoff on what's gone wrong in Cork--and on what should happen now. There's also a petition you can sign to support Dr. Evans.

Erin O'Connor, 6:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 17, 2010 [feather]
New threats to freedom

New Threats to Freedom from FIRE on Vimeo.

How confused and bass ackwards is the concept of free speech on campus? The video above from FIRE will give you an inkling. It tells the story of how a Washington State student wrote and staged a musical parodying The Passion of the Christ--and how administrators, campus groups, and students reacted. In a nutshell: the campus bureaucracy (including security) coordinated with offended students to hijack the musical via heckler's veto--and then proudly defended their actions as a responsible exercise of free speech.

The case is recounted in more detail in FIRE president Greg Lukianoff's chapter in New Threats to Freedom, a new book from Templeton Press that includes essays from Christopher Hitchens, David Mamet, Anne Applebaum, Shelby Steele, and more.

Erin O'Connor, 6:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 13, 2010 [feather]
Bee blogging

I get my bees this weekend!

Here's Sylvia Plath's "The Arrival of the Bee Box":

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

Bees come in boxes. They can be light--as in the three-pound packages of bees (queen included) that come through the mail and that agitate the trusty UPS man--or heavy, as in "nuc" colonies. A "nuc" (beespeak for "nuclear") is a mini-hive of five or so fully drawn frames filled with brood, pollen, and honey. Package bees are like cake mixes (you add sugar water, dump everyone in the warm hive, and hope for the best). Nuc colonies are more like plant starts--they are young and small, but they are fully formed and thriving and your job is to help them grow). Plath is talking about a nuc colony here. We're trying a nuc ourselves this year, after a bad experience with package bees last spring.

Plath's bee poems were written just a couple of months before she took her life, and they reek of morbidity. But bees exude a gentleness and a wonder. They are very hard to demonize if you are not a suicidal poet. Hives are not coffins, but living things, vibrant, ordered locuses of sheer, clean, focussed energy.

Erin O'Connor, 7:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

May 10, 2010 [feather]
How not to do it

Something definitely stinks about the conduct of climate scientists. In the past few months, we've seen all sorts of scandals and critiques and investigations and accusations floating around. Has the hockey stick been manipulated into being? Is it enabling further manipulations at the levels of policy and the market? Are climate scientists and peer-review journals shutting down dissenting views and debate? Are governments paying for "science" that will underwrite their expansive, expensive policy agendas? The science is not settled, the machinations are evident, and the aura of corruption surrounding it all should give pause to anyone who isn't already committed in ideologically-driven ways.

Certainly we've seen very poor behavior among climate scientists--who have worked hard to ensure that debate about the reasons for and extent of climate change does not proceed in a thorough, public, transparent way. And we've also seen extremely indefensible behavior by groups such as the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, which has been caught multiple times publishing incendiary scientific "facts" that turn out not to be facts at all.

The public uproar has led to investigations on both sides of the pond--which have led, in turn, to measured exonerations, that have themselves led to more accusations of conflict of interest, bad faith, etc. Now we're entering a new phase: government intrusion.

Here's KC Johnson:

When people outside of higher education hear the phrase "threat to academic freedom," they probably think of government officials (ab)using their power to punish professors with controversial views. The post-World War II Red Scare most immediately comes to mind, along with early 1960s purges of academic leftists. Of course, in the 21st century academy, the primary threat to academic freedom comes from within, as defenders of the status quo pay lip service to principles of "diversity" even as they seek to minimize pedagogical or ideological diversity among the professoriate.

Indeed, the more conventional threat to academic freedom---from government officials---has become so comparatively rare that when a case appears, it seems like a throwback to a bygone era. How else to explain the recent decision of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to demand data from the University of Virginia regarding former professor (and climate change expert) Michael Mann?

Mann was one of the scientists whose name appeared prominently in the "Climate-gate" scandal, the hacked e-mails from a server at the University of East Anglia. Yet an investigation by Penn State determined that he had committed no wrongdoing, and the idea of a government official investigating a university professor because of the professor's research positions is unseemly at best and---as the AAUP's Rachel Levinson put it---filled with "echoes of McCarthyism" at worst.

But Cuccinelli isn't a typical public official. Elected in 2009, he was caught on tape flirting with birtherism. He maintained that the state's public universities couldn't ban discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. He provided pins for his staff that modified the state seal to cover up an exposed breast. In short, he has emerged as something of an embarrassment to the Virginia Republican Party.

Using his authority under a Virginia statute targeting fraud by state employees, Cuccinnelli produced a civil investigative demand to UVA that came across as almost a caricature of a politician's witch hunt. The attorney general demanded all "correspondence, messages, or e-mails" from 1999 onwards between Mann and 39 other scientists, plus all correspondence between Mann and his research assistants. The document called for the university to produce "any or all algorithms, computer source code, or the like created or edited by Dr. Michael Mann." And Cuccinnelli wanted to identify all UVA employees who had any meaningful role in either the procurement or the execution of Mann's climate change grants.

Cuccinnelli's crusade against climate change has won him some support on the right, especially since he's also suing the EPA over the issue. But for those worried about the state of higher education, his action should arouse grave concerns, for three reasons.

First, Cuccinnelli's behavior will provide ammunition to academic defenders of the status quo---from the AAUP's Cary Nelson on down---in their campaign to portray the sole threat to academic freedom as coming from "right-wing" outsiders.

Second, the inquiry continues a conservative hostility to some types of science professors, which also appeared in efforts of GOP state legislators to use academic bill of rights proposals to mandate the teaching of creationism. Scientists are the natural allies of those contesting groupthink in the humanities and social sciences. Their commitment to the research ideal should be imitated, not scorned.

Finally, and most simply, this type of investigation is wrong. Ther's no credible evidence of wrongdoing by Mann, and there's considerable evidence of bad faith by Cuccinnelli.

No good, alas, will come from this development.

I think KC may be stretching a point about Mann right there--there's quite a bit of doubt accumulating about the legitimacy of the vaunted hockey stick, and Mann is right smack in the middle of the controversy. Where the facts will settle--and what this will tell us about the relative levels of honesty and competence of those involved in both sides of the debate--remains to be seen. But just as one doesn't rush to judgment, neither should one rush to exoneration.

That said, here's what interests me about all of this. Whatever you may think about the realities of global warming, there is no denying that the subject has got a very big public relations problem, and that this problem is also a problem for academia's own ongoing image issues. Academic freedom, after all, is, as the AAUP stated as early as 1915, a public trust. Professors are free to research, teach, and publish as they see fit only insofar as the public agrees that they can and will handle that responsibility with total impeccable integrity. The AAUP warned that if professors could not do that--if they failed to police themselves, and failed to keep the public convinced that they were worth its trust (these are two separate things), then they would forfeit their autonomy. Legislators and others could be counted on to step in and make an even bigger mess of things. And that's what we see happening in this instance.

You don't have to look very hard these days to find professors, professional associations, and unions who will claim that academic freedom is under threat from political operatives beyond academe. But that claim has to be understood within the context of academics' own obligations--insofar as they can't convince the public that they are worthy of its trust, they contribute to the erosion of academic freedom by providing a rationale for external interference.

The debate about climate change is becoming a debate about academic integrity. And as it unfolds, we are witnessing the frightening spectacle of academic freedom's endgame scenario: What is to be done when the public ceases to believe that academics are to be trusted to carry out their work with integrity? If Cuccinelli is wrong to do what he's doing--then what is the right thing to do, and who is the right person to do it?

UPDATE 5/12: The NAS' Peter Wood and FIRE have now weighed in. Wood's positions aligns more or less with mine, while FIRE is defending Mann quite unequivocally. In so doing, I think FIRE may be begging the questions I ask above. And while it's not FIRE's job to answer those questions or even to ask them publicly, I do hope they are actively discussing them in-house and that their discussions are informing their decisions about what cases to take on and how to approach them.

Erin O'Connor, 7:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

May 7, 2010 [feather]
Improving the handshake

One of the most problematic and bumpy parts of our higher ed system has to do with what happens when students move from community college to a four-year school, or when they move from one four-year institution to the next. More and more people are getting their degrees circuitously, by way of two or more schools. But when it comes to transfer credit, the handshake between institutions is often terrible -- and the consequences for students, schools, and the economy are severe. How extensive is the problem, and what does it cost us in terms of dollars and opportunity? No one knows.

That's going to change, though. ACTA wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, urging him to study the problem with an eye to gathering the information needed to find solutions. And he agreed. Read his letter to ACTA president Anne Neal here.


Erin O'Connor, 12:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

May 5, 2010 [feather]
The new segregation

... as instituted by a grade school in Ann Arbor. Our kids are in the very best of hands.

Erin O'Connor, 2:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Much ado

Every year around this time, as the flowers bloom and the birds nest, controversy breaks out on campus. It's graduation season, and part of the tradition is for students to become terribly irate about their school's chosen commencement speaker.

Sometimes, protests and outrage would seem to be part of the plan: When Brigham Young brought in former vice president Dick Cheney (2007), when the University of Georgia brought in Clarence Thomas (2008), or when Evergreen State College brought in death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal (1999), controversy was predictable and was part of the event. At other times, though, there is controversy because the chosen speaker is too bland, too lightweight, too irrelevant, or too apolitical -- in other words, there is controversy because commencement does not offer an occasion for strong controversy: Hence the protests that surrounded actor and student James Franco's commencement speech at UCLA (2009) or Jerry Springer's appearance at Northwestern (2008).

It really doesn't matter who the school decides to bring in. Students--who often have a role in the decision--will protest any speaker. Jane Goodall, Barbara Bush, Salman Rushdie, Chris Matthews, Julian Bond, Meg Whitman, John McCain, Jonny Moseley, and, last but not least, President Obama have all sparked opposition, outrage, upset, and ire when they accepted invitations to speak at commencement.

There's a knee-jerk component to all this, one rooted in students' lack of clarity about what the purpose of commencement is and what it means to listen to ideas that challenge one to think in new ways. They tend to confuse an invitation with an endorsement--and can get offended when invitations go to people whose views differ radically from their own. At the same time, though, they also get offended when the commencement speaker is not a political lightning rod. In this sense, commencement tends to crystallize--in sadly ironic ways--some of the operative confusions of campus life. As FIRE has shown us, it's the rare campus that does not have a speech code, and that does not teach students in a thousand little ways that they have a right not to be offended, and that the proper response to unwelcome speech is emote angrily while trying to shut it down.

You have to bear all this in mind when considering individual cases of commencement controversy. They are ritualistic, repetitive, rote enactments -- even though the folks involved tend not to have any sense of how stylized and routine their responses are. That's certainly the case at Brandeis, where Israeli ambassador Michael Oren will be speaking at this year's graduation. Oren was the target of some truly outrageous student-led attempts at heckler-vetoing at UC Irvine this winter, and now certain Brandeis students--and even some faculty--are up in arms about the decision to bring Oren to graduation.

Small wonder, really. Brandeis has a bad record on speech. FIRE gives them a red light rating for its speech codes--and if you follow these sorts of things, you'll remember that a couple of years ago, Brandeis made headlines when students with thin skins and small minds nearly compelled administrators to destroy the career of a professor who had simply explained, as part of a history lesson, how the term "wetback" originated. Brandeis students have good reason to believe that they should not have to listen to ideas, perspectives, or even factual accounts that bother them. Those who would prevent Oren from speaking--who accuse the university of "insensitivity" in its choice--are showing that they have learned their lesson well.

There's a fine point to be made here. Protest is fine--because it stirs debate, and that's healthy. Brandeis is busily arguing the merits of inviting Oren, and while some say it's a shame to see commencement marred by controversy, it's also the case that the decision to invite Oren has become a huge teaching moment--a short course in the free exchange of ideas and the merits of reasoned argument--and that's a fitting thing for commencement to be. After all, in recent years, Brandeis has hosted a range of speakers (at commencement and other events) who hold precisely the critical views on Israel that protesters are finding lacking in Oren: These include, according to Jewish Week, "Jimmy Carter, defending his assertion that Israel was an 'apartheid' state; Justice Richard Goldstone, whose report on the Gaza war singled Israel out, for war crimes; playwright Tony Kushner, who has criticized Israel; and Jordanian Prince Hassan bin Talal." Surely Oren has a place within this debate, too--and surely Brandeis cannot be accused, as one student wrote, of "marginalizing dissenting opinions by bringing a partisan, divisive speaker to commencement."

My favorite commencement speech, by the way, was the one Dr. Seuss delivered--against his own better judgement--at Lake Forest College in 1977.

More on 2010 commencement speakers--who include David Axelrod, Barack Obama, Glenn Beck, and Rachel Maddow--here and here.

Erin O'Connor, 7:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

May 4, 2010 [feather]
Cooking transcripts

Loyola law students are having trouble getting jobs. The economy, it would seem, is bad. So administrators and faculty are on the case. They care about their students. They are going to make everything right. They are going to retroactively raise every grade on every transcript by one third (a "B-" become a "B"; a "B" becomes a "B+"; etc.). Because cooking the transcripts is just the sort of thing that's called for in these tough economic times.

Here's how Loyola law dean Victor Gold spins it:

Last week the faculty approved a proposal to modify the grading system. The change will boost by one step the letter grades assigned at each level of our mandatory curve. For example, what previously was a B- would be a B, what previously was a B would be a B+, and so forth. All other academic standards based on grades, such as the probation and disqualification thresholds, are also adjusted upwards by the same magnitude. For reasons that will be explained below, these changes are retroactive to include all grades that have been earned under the current grading system since it was adopted. This means that all grades already earned by current students will be changed. It also means that all grades going forward will be governed by the new curve. The effect of making the change retroactive will be to increase the GPA of all students by .333. The change will not alter relative class rank since the GPA of all students will be moved up by the same amount.

I asked the faculty to make this change for two reasons. First, grades provide information about our students and our academic program. Employers and external sources of scholarship dollars pay very careful attention to this information. The information conveyed by the old grading curve did not accurately convey the high quality of our students. Over the last several years our students have improved significantly as measured by all the usual standards of academic accomplishment. In 1999, the undergraduate GPA for the 25th/75th percentiles of our first year class was 3.00-3.50 and the LSAT was 154/160. In 2009 the GPA was 3.17-3.61 and the LSAT was 158-163. Just 70% of our 1999 graduates passed the July bar exam on the first attempt. Over 85% of our 2009 graduates passed on the first try.

Second, many other schools already have moved their curves higher than ours to give their students an advantage in this difficult job market. In fact, before this change, only one other accredited California law school had a mean grade for first year classes as low as ours. Without adjusting our curve, we send an inaccurate message to employers about the comparative quality of our students and put them at an unfair competitive disadvantage. Since we are adjusting our curve well after many other schools in our region already moved their curves higher, our faculty decided it was important to make this adjustment retroactive.

The memo is as comprehensively logical as it is unethical ("That's not just inflation; that's a rewriting of history"), noting that "A+" will remain the highest possible grade -- not because it's insane to adopt an A++ notation, but because employers might not recognize what that means. Loyola does plan to award 4.667 points for these non-notable A++ grades, though, as opposed to the 4.333 that goes with the standard A+.

You can't blame them, really. They are just following the example set by their superiors.

Erin O'Connor, 12:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

May 3, 2010 [feather]
How to up your graduation rates

You are a state university. You want to increase your graduation rates -- because reputation and funding are tied to them. So what do you do? Your options are many. You can, for example, increase the quality of your educational offerings along with the support structure that comes with them--thus making sure that those you admit stay in school, learn what they came to learn, and don't fall between the cracks. You could, alternatively, tighten up your admissions requirements, so that you are really certain you aren't admitting people who can't do the work. Then you can make sure that your financial aid offerings enable these qualified, motivated kids to stay in school. You could enact any number of combinations of these basic principles.

Or, you could just dumb it all down and graduate everyone with a pulse.

The University of Arkansas--which has a 58% six-year graduation rate--is grappling with these issues at the moment. Here's what they are doing about it:

The Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences plans to reduce its core curriculum from 66 hours to the state's minimum 35-hour general education requirement. The goal is to ease the transition for students transferring from the state's two-year colleges and raise the number of college graduates, university officials said.

The core curriculum is a set of general education courses that all students within a given college must take, regardless of their majors, to complete their degrees.

The most significant changes are a reduction of science requirements, elimination of a foreign-language requirement and requiring only college algebra, which is "high school-level stuff at this point," said Fulbright College Dean William Schwab.

This is a fascinating example of the law of unintended consequences, as seen in government.

The changes will bring the school into compliance with a new state law that forbids imposing on junior college transfer students any requirements for additional freshman- and sophomore-level general education credits, according to the university .... State Sen. Sue Madison, who voted for the new law when legislators approved it last year, said she'd heard a lot of concern about the measure from faculty and students. But she said "it never entered (legislators') minds to dumb down the curriculum."

There's a lot that doesn't enter the minds of central planners. But that's another rant for another day.

The somewhat good news is that the faculty are taking steps to make sure that the dumbing down of the general curriculum does not automatically translate into a dumbing down of the entire undergraduate experience. Some departments are adding foreign language requirements to their majors; others are adding extra math requirements. But this is still a scattershot approach -- the humanities students aren't going to encounter the math requirements, and the science-types won't have to study a foreign language.

The University of Arkansas was one of the very few schools to get an "A" for its core curriculum when ACTA rated schools at WhatWillTheyLearn.com. I'm guessing that grade is going to have to be adjusted.

Erin O'Connor, 8:10 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)