Commentary Magazine


Topic: higher education

The Problem Isn’t Salaita; It’s Tenure

Jonathan Marks has written well on the current controversy over whether the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was within its rights to revoke an offer of tenure—an offer which was not formally finalized—to Steven Salaita, an academic whose says he supposedly specializes in indigenous Native American and Palestinian studies.

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Jonathan Marks has written well on the current controversy over whether the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was within its rights to revoke an offer of tenure—an offer which was not formally finalized—to Steven Salaita, an academic whose says he supposedly specializes in indigenous Native American and Palestinian studies.

But let me chime in with a modest proposal. Whether the controversy is Salaita; Joseph Massad; or Ward Churchill, who famously called the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmanns,” is beside the point. Rather, the question policymakers should ask is why give tenure to anyone?

Today’s academic system is the last vestige of the medieval guild system, and reflects that system’s strict hierarchy. Tenure was initially implemented in order to protect free speech and prevent administrations from arbitrarily firing those who might challenge the status quo, or ask tough but unsettling questions.

Nothing has done more to undercut free speech than tenure, however. Junior professors self-censor so as not to upset senior colleagues ahead of tenure decisions. The nature of scholarship often involves utilizing new or more complete sources to reconsider problems or revise current understandings. That means, in some cases, revising the work of those who have become petty dictators in their fields who would prefer to seek unquestioned affirmation rather than revision of their own work.

At the same time, tenure has undercut productivity. Too many senior faculty look at tenure as retirement in all but name: Rather than provide them the safety to really dig deep into problems in their field, they do the bare minimum required. They will show up for class, but put little effort into it. Forget any path-breaking research; that’s too much trouble. There are exceptions to that, of course: Bernard Lewis, Paul Kennedy, Michael Mandelbaum, or the late Fouad Ajami. But for every productive faculty member out there are scores who contribute little to anything post-tenure. The idea that anyone, at age 40, should receive a free ride is noxious, especially if their free ride prevents younger scholars willing to work harder and outperform from having a chance to do so.

Certainly, professors deserve job security; but lifelong tenure is a bit much. Perhaps it would be more productive to create a series of contracts which increase in length so long as the requirements for each are met. Professors might start out with a two-year contract replete with teaching and article publishing requirements, to be replaced upon completion with a four-year-contract during which they must complete their book if in the humanities or social sciences, or corollary papers if in the sciences. Perhaps then they might receive a series of eight- or ten-year contracts that will continue until their retirement so long as they continue to teach and pursue relevant research.

A side note about freedom of speech: There was a joke that circulated in Iraq soon after liberation in which a looter, asked to explain himself, said he was embracing democracy which he interpreted as doing whatever the heck he pleased. Too often, professors have a juvenile understanding of freedom of speech. While I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech and would agree that every professor should enjoy it without qualification, freedom of speech was never meant to supplant or substitute for quality of work or accountability for actions beyond the scope of their research.

Do professors want to pontificate on politics? No problem. Should they be worried about offending? No. Should campuses have speech codes? Absolutely not.

But does that mean that any political polemic should count as academic work? Or that professors should use for their political whims the time for which they are paid to pursue work outside the field for which they are hired? If a neurologist decided to dispense with the work for which he was hired and instead dedicated himself to alchemy, administrations should be free to fire, even if his lengthy blog posts or 140-character tweets about alchemy were just manifestations of his free speech.

Now make no mistake, within their fields, professors should have absolute freedom to pursue the unpopular regardless of the complaints of donors. But they should also have to adhere to rigorous standards of scholarship. Professors can whine all they want that they cannot do what they want 24 hours per day on the public dime, but let’s hope those whines fall on deaf ears: the academy was never meant to be a free ride.

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Trigger Warnings

Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

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Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

Jonah Goldberg also points out a contradiction:

And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling “The Iliad” makes sense?

It is a madness that will pass, I’m sure, as the academy undergoes the wrenching changes that will undoubtedly come in the next 20 years, for the 20th-century model for higher education is in terminal collapse. But meanwhile, this latest idiocy reminds me of a long-ago joke when movies were first being rated: “To some, it is the simple story of a boy and his dog. For others it is something more. Rated G for those who think it is a story of a boy and his dog. Rated X for those who think it is something more.”

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Should Scott Walker Get His Degree? Should We Care?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

So if he isn’t going to get his degree before running for president, does the debate over his education help or hinder his candidacy? That would depend a great deal on the extent to which the affliction of credentialism has infected the general public. You can sense the conversation shifting as a four-year degree becomes increasingly expensive and the federal government’s loan program continues to inflate the bubble, saddling students with ever more debt even as the job market constricts. But there is still a gulf in earning power between those with and those without a college degree, a fact which understandably causes people to hesitate to discourage Americans from attending college.

There is also a partisan aspect to this. Republicans are aware that the modern American university has become a stultifying atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and so it often confers a degree but not much of an education. (There are exceptions, of course.) Liberals think this actually is an education. Hence you find the strain of anti-elitist populism running stronger on the right than the left.

Last month, Charles Cooke found the liberal website PoliticusUSA using the term “college dropout” as a pejorative description of Walker. After Cooke pointed out just how silly this was, the headline was changed. But this week PoliticusUSA was at it again. On the topic of Walker considering finishing his degree, Sarah Jones wrote that “His lack of a bachelors degree is a selling point among Republican voters,” because “Nothing says winning like hating on education and claiming that you don’t need to know anything to be President.”

Jones was quick to add a caveat to this otherwise fiercely clownish statement by noting that “While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is not required, nor does it determine in any sense the intelligence or lack thereof of the holder, it is important that a President has a solid grasp of history and civics.” In other words, while not everyone needs a college degree, Walker does, because he is in need of a liberal reprogramming. Jones helpfully adds: “This is a the (sic) Republican Party, where the more misinformed and uneducated one is or seems to be, the more they are liked.”

Jones isn’t wrong that Walker might relish the opportunity to portray such attacks as elite condescension. But it also indicates why a productive conversation about the state of American higher education and preparing American students for the modern job market is probably not, alas, in the cards for the next presidential election.

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Re: The Shame of Brandeis

John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

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John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

He describes—with ample evidence and numerous anecdotes—the implication of the 1990s political correctness movement; the rise of campus speech codes; bureaucracies and lack of due process; the transformation of identity politics into a religion and the sacrifice of respect for individual religious choices at the altar of identity politics; the lack of due process in campus judiciaries and their prosecution of ideological crimes; and much, much more. Alas, it’s not just students who suffer: Few professors say they feel free expressing their opinion openly, and administrators who have many opinions but shallow academic background often seek to censor what can be taught so as to insulate students from offense.

Hands down, Unlearning Liberty was the most impressive book I have read in quite some time; that I finished it just two days prior to Brandeis’s decision was an unfortunate coincidence, but one that simply transformed the Brandeis case into the final exclamation point in a far broader problem.

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Conservative Education Reformers Go Beyond School Choice

School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

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School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

At issue are federal student loans, which can only be used to pay for education at federally accredited institutions. Lee argued that this policy makes the federal government a gatekeeper to higher education — and rather than keeping out bad actors, he said, it just protects institutions from competition. And as the government has closed and then subsidized this market, its product (the ubiquitous Bachelor’s degree) has become more expensive and less valuable.

So Lee’s proposed fix would let states set up their own accreditation regimes that would run parallel to the federal government’s.

“College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep their regional accreditor,” he said. “And I mean it, I’m absolutely sincere.”

Lee said the legislation could let states open accreditation for apprenticeships, professional certifications, and competency tests, among other alternative higher-ed modes. Apple and Google, for instance, could work to make accredited computer courses.

In a speech Monday, Rubio appeared receptive to Lee’s proposal, and had a few of his own:

Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also pushed for the passage of the “Know Before You Go Act,” which would provide students with data about potential earning by different fields. But such a proposal would require reversing the ban on a national student unit record system.

“It’s important for students and families to have access to the information they need to make a smart choice,” says Ethan Senack, a higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Sens. Rubio and [Ron] Wyden undertook an important effort … trying to balance the need for transparency and information with institutional burden and privacy concerns. I think it’s certainly an important step in the discussion, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

One of two suggestions Rubio made to tackle the growing mountain of student loan debt is to make income-based repayment the default option for all borrowers. Recent data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows just slightly more than 10 percent of federal loan borrowers are enrolled in some type of income-driven repayment plan.

Income-based repayment plans have their drawbacks, such as the fact that they force the federal government to bear more of the risk and don’t necessarily control costs–a recipe for trouble. But these are essential conversations to be having for the simple reason that, as the NPR story makes clear, you can’t really opt-out of this expensive system. (There are exceptions, such as trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts degree.)

“The result is a growing opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots, those who have advanced education and those who do not,” Rubio said in his Monday speech. Rubio’s language here is correct if he means that those who have an advanced education have achieved their degree. As Andrew Kelly pointed out this afternoon, there is a vast difference between going to college and completing college, and the gap in earning potential between those with who started college but didn’t finish school and those who skipped it entirely has narrowed.

Both NPR and Kelly were discussing a new Pew report on the issue. For its story, NPR did a round of interviews and one student credited past data on income disparity with his decision to go to college, though his first instinct was not to: “In this generation you have to go to college. Like, it isn’t even optional.” That’s becoming more and more the case, and it’s a problem. And it makes the government’s gatekeeper role in higher education all the more troubling just as it makes reformers’ attempts to fix the system all the more important.

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Cancel the Flood: Higher Education Isn’t a Scam

A dispute is emerging in conservative thinking about higher education. On one side are those who embrace “creative destruction.”  Nimble, cheap, online competitors will drive many brick-and-mortar institutions out of business, and good riddance to those bloated, government-backed guilds that care more about indoctrinating students than they do about preparing them to get jobs. Resisting the destruction of the old model is, on this account, both futile and “wicked.”

On the other side are those who acknowledge the defects, even the “decadence,” of much of higher education but worry that the “transformative agenda” is “about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well.” The “disruptive logic of the market” may lead not only to a comeuppance for conservativism’s many enemies in academia but also to the “disappearance of close reading of the ‘real books’ of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth . . . because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.”

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A dispute is emerging in conservative thinking about higher education. On one side are those who embrace “creative destruction.”  Nimble, cheap, online competitors will drive many brick-and-mortar institutions out of business, and good riddance to those bloated, government-backed guilds that care more about indoctrinating students than they do about preparing them to get jobs. Resisting the destruction of the old model is, on this account, both futile and “wicked.”

On the other side are those who acknowledge the defects, even the “decadence,” of much of higher education but worry that the “transformative agenda” is “about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well.” The “disruptive logic of the market” may lead not only to a comeuppance for conservativism’s many enemies in academia but also to the “disappearance of close reading of the ‘real books’ of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth . . . because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.”

A weapon of choice for the creative destruction camp is the claim that college is merely a very expensive screening device that flags not what students have learned in college but attributes they had before they got into college, which got them there. If college signals a student’s preexisting strengths rather than cultivating those strengths, then even those who are eager to preserve the study of great works may have to concede that they are better off finding another home than they are bunking with flim-flam artists.

Higher education is “worth it” for a lot of students because many employers prefer candidates with college degrees. But in a recent Minding the Campus essay, Richard Vedder argues, as he has before, that employers favor degrees only because they are not allowed to use better screening tests. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co.  (1971) the Supreme Court “outlawed testing that had a ‘disparate impact’ on minorities.” Since employers can’t give I.Q. tests to applicants, they use college degrees, whose cost is borne by students, parents, and taxpayers. Vedder explains that college degrees are reasonably good screening devices because degree holders have, on average, stronger cognitive skills and motivation than those without degrees. But they had those before they got into college, where students neither work hard nor learn much.

But this argument is specious. While we should be worried that students are not doing well on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), among other measures of achievement, employers seem to think that students do learn something in college.

First, it’s not true that employers use college degrees to screen job candidates because they have no other means of doing so. According to this Wall Street Journal story, reporting employer interest in the CLA, companies “such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.” have developed “their own job-applicant assessments.” And according to a survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service, more than a quarter of businesses” are already using its Graduate Record Examination “to evaluate job applicants.”  Indeed, if employers can’t get away with using tests to screen candidates, why does Vedder recommend that employers use the CLA, which seems on its face as vulnerable to disparate impact complaints as other aptitude tests are?

Second, a recent survey of human resources professionals shows that employers discriminate among different kinds of education, and not merely on the basis of prestige. Most strikingly, when asked to choose between a candidate bearing a degree from an average school, completed entirely in the classroom, and a candidate with an online-only degree from a top school, 56 percent opted for the average but traditional degree. Only 17 percent went the other way. That finding holds even though 45 percent of the HR professionals surveyed thought that online degrees required more discipline than traditional degrees, compared to just 23 percent who thought online degrees required less discipline.

Perhaps employers think a traditional degree signals a candidate’s social skills, or that students learn more in traditional programs (43 percent think so, 49 percent think they learn about the same amount, and 4 percent think online students learn more). Or maybe they think that traditional programs are tougher (39 percent say online only programs are easier, 41 percent think they are about as difficult, and 13 percent think they are more difficult). Whether some or all these reasons are in play, hiring professionals think that college is not merely a measure of the talents students possessed before they enrolled but a measure of something they gain there, which programs can be more or less successful at providing.

While I am reporting the results of only one survey, there is little evidence that employers think students learn nothing in college. Employers unquestionably wish colleges were doing much better, but that is a far cry from the thesis Vedder and the partisans of creative destruction defend. Perhaps, then, those who care about the education of our young should identify and support the outposts of excellence in American higher education, rather than summoning a flood to wash the good away with the bad.

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On the MOOC Challenge to Traditional Higher Education

In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Ginsberg is no softy about higher education. He has written a hard-hitting book on “administrative bloat,” the result of colleges and universities putting resources into management at the expense of instruction and research. But he is worried about MOOCs, which permit “one professor [to] lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction.”

In case you haven’t heard, MOOCs are online courses that enroll, typically free of charge, students who listen to lectures, do interactive, graded exercises, and engage in discussion forums. MOOCs are hailed as disruptors of a self-satisfied, overpriced higher education system and denounced as overhyped, poor substitutes for genuine education, which requires face-to-face teaching, mentoring, and discussion.

Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. He does not fear for his job‒senior Hopkins faculty will be fine come the revolution. But he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.” I share Ginsberg’s distaste for the future he thinks administrators dream about. But I doubt his advice on how best to resist.

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In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Ginsberg is no softy about higher education. He has written a hard-hitting book on “administrative bloat,” the result of colleges and universities putting resources into management at the expense of instruction and research. But he is worried about MOOCs, which permit “one professor [to] lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction.”

In case you haven’t heard, MOOCs are online courses that enroll, typically free of charge, students who listen to lectures, do interactive, graded exercises, and engage in discussion forums. MOOCs are hailed as disruptors of a self-satisfied, overpriced higher education system and denounced as overhyped, poor substitutes for genuine education, which requires face-to-face teaching, mentoring, and discussion.

Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. He does not fear for his job‒senior Hopkins faculty will be fine come the revolution. But he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.” I share Ginsberg’s distaste for the future he thinks administrators dream about. But I doubt his advice on how best to resist.

First, Ginsberg recommends, those “willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured.” Second, professional associations should “challenge the accreditation of schools whose curricula are essentially MOOCified.” Third, colleges should deny credit “for classes taken away from the campus that are adjudged to be all-MOOC.”

Members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University have tried out a mild version of the first recommendation, taking Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel publicly to task for offering his course through Edx, a MOOC provider. Their open letter to Sandel explains why they refused to pilot a “blended” version of the course, in which face-to-face, instructor-facilitated discussions supplement online work.

But the San Jose professors make some unsupported, perhaps insupportable, claims about the limits of Sandel’s course. For example, they assert that “quality online courses and blended courses … do not save money.” But they have no evidence for that assertion. Must lowering costs always compromise quality? They also insist that their students cannot learn about justice “by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard.” But those students would also have participated in on-campus discussions, and it’s not obvious that they get more from courses in “social justice,” taught by their privilege-conscious professors, than they might have from Sandel’s course.

The letter concludes that professors “who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors.” But since there is no moral law forbidding the replacement of professors, any more than there is a moral law forbidding the replacement of travel agents, professors need to show that they are irreplaceable. As Cathy Davidson of Duke University, with whom I rarely agree, says, “if we profs can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.”

That challenge touches Ginsberg as much as it does San Jose State’s philosophers. Before we name and shame, or oppose accreditation, or refuse to grant course credit, we need to think more seriously about the merits and limits of MOOCs.

William G. Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age is an excellent starting point. While Bowen’s book is not primarily about MOOCs, it begins to address the paucity of hard evidence we possess about online education. Bowen, a social scientist and former president of Princeton University, led a careful study comparing a blended online (but not massive) introductory statistics course to comparable face-to-face courses. The study, which involved “more than six hundred participants across six public university campuses,” found “no statistically significant difference in standard measures of learning outcomes” between the blended and face-to-face courses. The finding held even for first-generation college students, rebutting the “proposition that only exceptionally well-prepared” students succeed in online courses.

Yet Bowen is cautious. Introductory statistics may be unusually well suited to online learning. And while Bowen has added to our scant knowledge of online courses, MOOCs have hardly been studied. Bowen concedes that there are intellectual virtues, like judgment, and subjects, especially those in which there is no formula for generating right answers, that may not lend themselves “especially well to being taught in a MOOC format.” His is a valuable beginning to a discussion of what brick-and-mortar colleges are for, a discussion that cannot usefully begin with the naming and shaming of those who, like Bowen, think high-quality MOOCs may sometimes be “real courses.”

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Fancy Dining, Dorms Not What’s Ailing Higher Education

I love stories like this one from the New York Times, about the ever more luxurious facilities certain college students enjoy. The story focuses on private complexes, like the Grove, in which residents enjoy “Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.” Perhaps more troubling than the amenities themselves is the comment of one 19-year-old who was mulling a stay at the Grove: “It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Such stories have been making the rounds since at least 1996 when Mark Edmunson, in an excellent article for Harpers, complained that the University of Virginia was beginning to resemble a “retirement spread for the young.” More recently, Jeffrey Selingo has drawn attention to the lazy rivers and climbing walls that are increasingly part of the elite and even not-so-elite college experience. To be sure, the Times story focuses on private developers, rather than campus dorms, but it is part of a narrative that has something to it: colleges competing for good students, and especially good students who can pay full tuition, often sell themselves on bases quite apart from the rigor of their academic programs.

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I love stories like this one from the New York Times, about the ever more luxurious facilities certain college students enjoy. The story focuses on private complexes, like the Grove, in which residents enjoy “Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.” Perhaps more troubling than the amenities themselves is the comment of one 19-year-old who was mulling a stay at the Grove: “It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Such stories have been making the rounds since at least 1996 when Mark Edmunson, in an excellent article for Harpers, complained that the University of Virginia was beginning to resemble a “retirement spread for the young.” More recently, Jeffrey Selingo has drawn attention to the lazy rivers and climbing walls that are increasingly part of the elite and even not-so-elite college experience. To be sure, the Times story focuses on private developers, rather than campus dorms, but it is part of a narrative that has something to it: colleges competing for good students, and especially good students who can pay full tuition, often sell themselves on bases quite apart from the rigor of their academic programs.

Still, one can get carried away, as Walter Russell Mead does in the wonderfully titled “College Students Live Like Kings, College Grads Like Paupers.” Mead observes that “private developers aren’t simply competing with one another. Public colleges, fueled by readily available student loan money, have built luxurious dorms to attract students from across the country.”

Mead singles out the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where students in one dorm can enjoy “salmon filet, lamb, or even shark.” He also describes high living at the less-well-known University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State. He concludes this way: “College students today live a bit like Cinderella, though. With a little government fairy dust, they land in the lap of luxury, enjoying a four year ball. But once the clock strikes graduation, they’re immediately chained to a pumpkin of debt.” Mead implies that public universities are now spending irresponsibly and billings their students, who, when they graduate, are saddled with unsustainable loan debt. How well does this claim hold up?

With respect to Mead’s examples, the answer is not at all well. Neither the University of Michigan nor the University of Cincinnati are typical publics. The University of Michigan has the highest endowment among public universities, in the top ten of all colleges and universities. University of Cincinnati comes in at 75th. While one might wish these two universities did not spend their money on Disney dorms, they can well afford to do so without saddling their students with excessive debt. Of the three schools named, only the University of Michigan leaves its graduates with higher than average debt ($22,000 according to the College Scorecard). But it also leaves its students with much higher than average salaries ($51,300 according to payscale.com). A rule of thumb is that one should not borrow more than one will make in the first year out of college. None of the three colleges in question comes close to breaking it.

Kennesaw State, with its 40.6 percent six-year graduation rate, is a hard case, and their take on dorms could hardly be more out of touch with the times: “The old-fashioned dorm experience is not something students ever had to experience at KSU,” says Michael Sanseviro, university dean of student success (university dean of student success?). But spending on the dorms has not prevented Kennesaw from keeping its tuition and student loan indebtedness below average.

Lavish dorms make a good story and in a new era of price sensitivity, some colleges may do well to sell themselves, with apologies to Michigan State, as spartan enterprises, in which students accept fewer premium cable channels in return for a rigorous education. But such dorms do nothing to explain loan indebtedness. Indeed, as the Delta Cost Project argues, they do not explain rising tuition, especially at state universities, which have gone through a long period of defunding. The typical public university is expected to serve more and more first generation students with fewer state dollars. Perhaps they should be expected to do more with less, but (sorry sharks) if we are concerned about the future of higher education we cannot afford to pretend that high student loan indebtedness has much of anything to do with shark being served at the University of Michigan.

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Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities)

Don’t cry for humanities professors at Harvard. True, their share of concentrators (majors) is down from 21 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2012. And more worrying, the share of “would be” humanities concentrators has diminished, from 27 percent entering the class of 2006 to 18 percent entering the class of 2016. But Harvard’s numbers are much better than the national numbers; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities nationwide made up only 7.6 percent of the total. It is therefore striking that Harvard’s Division of Arts and Humanities has produced a serious document like The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, compiled by a committee of faculty this academic year and released at the end of May.

I have argued here before that the challenges now confronting higher education, from skepticism about the value of degrees to enthusiasm for massive open online courses, present an opening for proponents of liberal education to reassert themselves. When parents demand rigor, one can do worse than offer the cultivation of judgment through close examination of and reflection upon great works of philosophy, literature, and art that offer conflicting answers to complex, high-stakes questions. When students ask what residential colleges have to offer that they cannot get online, one can do worse than offer a community of inquiry into such works and questions, in which teachers and students meet face to face scrutinize each other’s arguments and interpretations, and through that experience learn how to address difficult, potentially divisive, questions with the aid of others. But I did not foresee that Harvard, which need not worry about how people perceive the value of its degree, and which seems to have positioned itself reasonably well with respect to online education, would make those arguments.

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Don’t cry for humanities professors at Harvard. True, their share of concentrators (majors) is down from 21 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2012. And more worrying, the share of “would be” humanities concentrators has diminished, from 27 percent entering the class of 2006 to 18 percent entering the class of 2016. But Harvard’s numbers are much better than the national numbers; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities nationwide made up only 7.6 percent of the total. It is therefore striking that Harvard’s Division of Arts and Humanities has produced a serious document like The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, compiled by a committee of faculty this academic year and released at the end of May.

I have argued here before that the challenges now confronting higher education, from skepticism about the value of degrees to enthusiasm for massive open online courses, present an opening for proponents of liberal education to reassert themselves. When parents demand rigor, one can do worse than offer the cultivation of judgment through close examination of and reflection upon great works of philosophy, literature, and art that offer conflicting answers to complex, high-stakes questions. When students ask what residential colleges have to offer that they cannot get online, one can do worse than offer a community of inquiry into such works and questions, in which teachers and students meet face to face scrutinize each other’s arguments and interpretations, and through that experience learn how to address difficult, potentially divisive, questions with the aid of others. But I did not foresee that Harvard, which need not worry about how people perceive the value of its degree, and which seems to have positioned itself reasonably well with respect to online education, would make those arguments.

Mapping the Future has several virtues. First, the humanists who put it together are hard on themselves. One of the most damaging statistics in the report, and the one which its writers most emphasize, is that students who come to Harvard intending to study the humanities often change their minds. Eighty-one percent of students who come to Harvard meaning to study the social sciences stick to them, but only 43 percent of Harvard’s would be humanists stick it out. It would have been tempting to blame “philistines” or “pragmatic parents” for the inability of Harvard humanists to keep hold of their young. But in the year of reflection that produced the report, the committee found little reason to place the blame there. “[W]e might do otherwise than blame someone else” and “instead engage in self-scrutiny.” Perhaps one is hearing “the footfall of undergraduate feet away from Humanities concentrations” because humanities professors do not address questions of interest to most undergraduates.

Second, the report proposes to “reaffirm the generalist tradition of undergraduate teaching.” Harvard’s humanities departments have “possibly become too specialized, allowing the research culture of our faculty and graduate constituencies to dominate the general needs of the undergraduate.” Immersion in a discipline, like history or classics, is an important part of undergraduate education, but teachers should teach “beyond their immediate zones of expertise (as some instructors do already)” and even beyond departmentally defined disciplines. Moreover, humanists should cherish the fact that in their classrooms, where learning cannot be completely disentangled from a personal encounter with the text, “the distance between instructor and student” diminishes; “both are on the spot, risking their hands.”

Third, the authors argue that undergraduate teaching can be reinvigorated by revisiting the so-called canon. They appropriately resist simply coronating the “works considered great by tradition,” but affirm that “great art and philosophy will always resist obsolescence.” Our “sense of what constitutes great art will change, but great art itself . . . does not become, better or worse.” The report invites students, whatever their religion, culture, or sex, into the “long and evergreen” tradition of studying great texts, which make demands on our capacity to live with ambiguity and adjudicate disagreements. The authors intimate that such texts are a model for openness from which humanities professors can benefit. Among “the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in the classroom.” There is at least “a kernel of truth in conservative fears of the left-leaning academy.”

While this concession, and the report as a whole, is not by itself grounds for confidence that the present higher education environment favors the case for liberal education, it is grounds for hope. The authors of the report direct their argument primarily to their colleagues at Harvard; but when Harvard talks, people in higher education listen.

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Laptop U?

Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

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Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

Yet Heller’s article, though it records the promises of MOOCs, also offers some reason for skepticism.

First, some MOOC enthusiasts do not seem to understand how education works. Heller observes that “comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity,” and asks “why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?” After all, “the basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance.” But that isn’t true. Any teacher knows that circumstances matter: the characteristics of a particular generation of students, the qualities of the kinds of students one’s own college or university attracts, what is going on at the moment on campus or off, the chemistry of a particular group, and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in it.

Good teaching calls not only for a grasp of general principles but attentiveness to the particulars. It requires prudence. A professor teaching 100,000 students, much less a recording of a professor teaching 100,000 students, is not in a position to exercise that virtue. Heller, who seems to be playing devil’s advocate early in the article, gestures at the importance of circumstance in teaching later in his piece, describing a face-to-face lecture he sits in on and the “strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room.”

Magic is the wrong word, leaving the user vulnerable to Kevin Carey’s snark: “If the traditional college value-add boils down to intuiting the light in students’ eyes they’re in deep trouble.” But Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is himself naïve if he scoffs at the idea that having a teacher or mentor who knows you is a “value-add.”

Second, MOOC enthusiasts sometimes exaggerate how innovative MOOCs are. For example, Heller reports on Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s reasons for thinking that “multiple-choice questions,” which are forced on him by the constraints of having to grade so many students, “are almost as good as essays.” One reason is that “The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right.” That is what we in the education biz used to call “an answer key.”

One would not expect conservatives to be enthusiastic about MOOCs, which tend to involve more screen time and less reading, more multiple choice tests and fewer, if any essays, and more, not fewer, concessions to a student’s inability to pay attention for long periods of time. But some are excited about MOOCs because they promise, as Roger Kimball says, “to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.”

Colleges and universities, Kimball suggests, have largely been taken over by the left, and so there is no reason to mourn and some reason to celebrate the possibility that online learning will put many of them out of business. Thus a relative traditionalist like William Bennett is on Udacity’s advisory board, embracing Udacity in part because “traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence.”

I am not a proponent of what Kevin Carey calls “MOOC denialism.” But it is a mistake to embrace MOOCs as readily as conservatives have thus far. For one thing, MOOC proponents have absolutely nothing to say about the purpose of education. MOOC companies simply offer menus from which students choose. Conservatives who have in the past allied themselves with proponents of liberal education should be skeptical that MOOCs will advance rather than further weaken liberal education. For another thing, if Thrun is even half right, we can expect the institutions that dominate the future of higher education to be the high-prestige places like Harvard, Berkeley, Wesleyan and others that have a national or international brand. It hardly seems likely that such institutions are going to help turn a false promise of diversity into a true one.

The hope that technological innovation will somehow enable conservatives to win a war they have been losing in the field of higher education is really a symptom of despair. If even a bit of a story like this one about Swarthmore is true, this despair is understandable (though Swarthmore is among the institutions least likely to suffer any damage from online competition). But without neglecting the possibility that MOOCs or some other version of online education may really make a decent education more widely and cheaply available, conservatives like Kimball should not act like spurned lovers, crying out that if they can’t have higher education, then nobody will. In cheering for a flood that will sweep away their enemies, they risk sweeping away what remains of liberal education and of intellectual diversity in the academy.

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Academic Ghettoization of Conservatism?

I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?

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I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?

There are undeniably fine conservative scholars in many fields ranging from history to politics to law to economics, but “conservative thought and policy” is hardly a recognized academic specialty. It is hard to even know what it should consist of since there is no officially defined conservative canon. The “conservative” label in modern America covers a wide range of viewpoints ranging from libertarian to social conservative, from isolationist to internationalist. In fact most, but not all, American conservatives would be labeled “liberals” in the European context.

Once upon a time, William F. Buckley and National Review tried to create a common understanding based on reverence for the likes of Edmund Burke, Friedrich von Hayek, Russell Kirk, and other notable thinkers. Some neoconservatives prefer instead to refer to Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Whatever one thinks of these seminal thinkers, their work is far removed from the kind of nuts-and-bolts scholarship produced by conservative scholars in many fields–all of these political thinkers are for the most part irrelevant to someone studying military history, Russian literature, archaeology, Middle East studies, or numerous other disciplines far removed from political theory.

Universities should be seeking ideological as well as racial and ethnic diversity in their hiring, and they should make a point of hiring conservatives with impressive scholarly credentials. Perhaps conservatives, like other under-represented minorities, should even become the beneficiaries of affirmative action in hiring. But conservatives should not be herded into separate professorships of “conservative thought” any more than there should be (at least not formally) professorships of “socialist thought” or “liberal thought.”

The best academic inquiry should break through rigid ideological classifications, not conform to it. Simply because so many professors do in fact teach only from politically correct texts does not mean that conservatives should replicate this mistake on the right.

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Universities: “The Most Authoritarian Institution in America”

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, occasional COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari distills an interview with Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The article really is a must-read. It begins:

At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.

A glance at FIRE’s top current cases shows just how serious the problem has become. Campuses may still teach science, engineering, and humanities, but they do not imbue basic notions of liberty or intellectual tolerance. Too many administrators and professors seek to stifle rather than promote free speech, the tenure process now squelches it as junior faculty members are reticent to speak their mind lest they cross politically or otherwise senior professors.

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In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, occasional COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari distills an interview with Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The article really is a must-read. It begins:

At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.

A glance at FIRE’s top current cases shows just how serious the problem has become. Campuses may still teach science, engineering, and humanities, but they do not imbue basic notions of liberty or intellectual tolerance. Too many administrators and professors seek to stifle rather than promote free speech, the tenure process now squelches it as junior faculty members are reticent to speak their mind lest they cross politically or otherwise senior professors.

The irony is that while some professors explain away the huge discrepancy between left and right among the professorate by simply suggesting that leftwing/progressive positions are more educated, many of the same professors refuse to debate their positions in front of those with alternate viewpoints. Some students affiliated with Alexander Hamilton Society chapters, for example, say that professors refuse to debate mainstream foreign policy experts and right-of-center academics they bring to campus. Sometimes they decline on grounds that they are not expert enough in topics such as Iran, Syria, a rising China, and resurgent Russia. This itself is problematic, as it suggests the theories in which the professors immerse themselves and their students have no basis in reality.

Other times, professors simply tell students that they do not believe debate is the best way to highlight arguments or educate about issues. Perhaps then speech codes and strict litmus tests of campus speakers is a product of this intellectual cowardice. Either way, Lukianoff and FIRE deserve kudos for holding university presidents’ feet to the fire by shining a spotlight on universities abusive of free speech and refusing to let these campuses to hide behind the artificial barriers and reality which they construct.

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