“Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” Not at the New York Times

In “Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” Emily Bazelon mostly answers “no.” I would very slightly answer “yes,” but in a way contrary to her reading: We’ve mostly learned that colleges are not set up (and should not be set up) to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. We have police and prosecutors for that. Those systems have their problems, but they exist to balance fairness and justice.

University judicial panels are good for relatively minor issues like plagiarism or smoking weed or being a jerk to a roommate. They’re terrible for serious crimes. Bazelon writes, “As universities scramble to improve their disciplinary processes…” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that they should be adjudicating serious crimes. Universities should improve their disciplinary processes… by referring cases to police, rather than setting up kangaroo courts.

Oddly, the general issue was covered in a round of articles from last year, which I wrote about here; little seems to have changed since. I wonder too how much time and money universities spend on these issues, rather than on, say, education. Maybe it’s time for universities to see their housing functions as too great an institutional liability and to shed them, since much of the controversy appears to be linked to university-owned housing.

Finally! Someone else notices that the best instructors aren’t necessarily the most credentialed

Finally! Someone else notices that a lot of academic practices don’t make any sense: “Pictures from an Institution: Leon Botstein made Bard College what it is, but can he insure that it outlasts him?” makes me like Bard; this in particular stands out: “In the thirty-nine years that Botstein has been president of Bard, the college has served as a kind of petri dish for his many pedagogical hypotheses [. . . including] that public intellectuals are often better teachers than newly minted Ph.D.s are.” Why isn’t anyone else following the Bard model?

The question is partially rhetorical. College presidents and trustees are probably systematically selected for conformity, but I’ve gotta think there are other people out there who are going, “Aping the Ivy League model is not going to work for us. What can we do differently?” The current order of things, driven by bogus ranking systems, discourages this sort of thinking. Colleges love the rhetoric of being different, but very few follow that rhetoric to actually being different. Perhaps rising costs will eventually force them to be differentiate or die. Then again, the article says that Bard may be on its way to death or drastic restructuring because of financial problems. Still I don’t see overspending as being fundamentally and intrinsically linked with other issues. Instead, it seems that being a maverick in one field may simply translate to being a maverick in many, including places one doesn’t want mavericks (like finances).

A few weeks ago I wrote about donating to Clark, my alma mater. Although I still think Clark a good school, I’d love to see it move in a more Bard-ish direction. the current President and trustees, however, appear to have come through the system and do not seem like shake-it-up types, regardless of their rhetoric.

Why I don’t donate to Clark University, and thoughts on the future of college

I went to Clark University, and a couple weeks ago I talked to someone from their “development” department (read: they ask alumni for money) about what I’d been up to, what I thought about Clark, and then, finally, in the “Will-she-sleep-with-me” moment, whether I’d give more than $10 a year. I won’t. Even if I magically made Zuckerbergian billions, I wouldn’t give much more because while Clark is a good school, it isn’t in a position to solve the most pressing problem(s) in higher education: cost and access. Clark can be a wonderful and amazing experience for individual students but it will never be widely accessible due to cost and its model is not replicable for the same reason; the major problems in education are cost and access, which I’ll return to below.

Right now I give a little cash because of bogus rankings like those by U.S. News and World Report; here’s a good piece by Malcolm Gladwell on their bogosity. Nonetheless, despite them being bogus, people love rankings—even very bad rankings. When I was in high school, someone—the villain U.S. News again, maybe—ranked high schools simply by the number of students divided by the number of AP tests (or vice-versa). My high school came out well in that regard and parents and administrators and even the students themselves (to some extent) ran around saying “Oh wow we go to one of the best high schools in America!!” Which was bullshit to anyone who stopped to think for 30 seconds, but the meme propagated anyway and the number of people infected with the counter-meme (“Most school rankings are bullshit”) was and is much smaller than the number with the first meme.*

Maybe nothing short of a cultural change in views on college can alleviate the obsession-with-ranking problem. Some of that cultural change may be in the air: here’s one of the articles about Google’s decreased emphasis on college degrees. Maybe more firms will move in this direction. Certainly I would be more interested in assessing someone’s blog, books, or other material in hiring them than their degree. I’ve met a lot of PhDs who are morons. That is not to deny the value of education—it is easier and more pleasant for most people to learn in the context of someone who can select material, judge material, and accelerate learning. But too few teachers seem able or willing to do that. Alternate signals may emerge.

To look at one alternative to the present education system consider Western Governors University. This is one article on WGU, though there are many others. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the major problems in contemporary higher ed emerge from rising costs, Baumol’s Cost Disease, weird cross subsidies, and related factors. Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation is good on these subjects. I obviously like and generally support Clark but I don’t think the school is the answer to the biggest problems in higher ed today. There may not be one single answer. We may be seeing the researcher-teacher hybrid model splitting back into their constituent pats as well, since, as has long been observed, someone very good at one may not be good at the other.

The “teacher” point is important too, because teaching well is expensive and difficult. It’s not clear to me that the current structure of higher education is sustainable regarding teaching. Here is one well-written and half-right, half-wrong piece about how “Teaching Is Not a Business.” In some sense everything is a business whether we want it to be or not.

Saying that teaching is not a business is another way of saying, “We can pour an infinite amount of money into this endeavor without asking what we’re getting it.” There is a magic to teaching and I’m susceptible to that feeling, but teaching is also a system and set of institutions and many other things as well. Not surprisingly most members of the guild want to retain the mystique and a lot of outsiders appalled at rising costs want to de-mystify and improve. The overall trajectory of the last two or three hundred years makes me think the latter are eventually going to win, even if the definition of winning changes and the win takes decades to play out.

This is getting far afield from the point about donating to Clark, but the biggest issue is that I don’t see how most of the current version of higher ed is rewarding teaching adequately. Some like “The Minerva Project” may be the answer. It and Western Governors University are both very consciously doing a lot of things very differently than the standard college model, which Clark follows in important ways. Clark has a high cost structure and can’t avoid that. As I said above it is a good school. If I had a kid and could afford to send them I would.

But how much does Clark cost?

Somewhere within Clark, someone has the minimum number of dollars per student the school must take in in order to stay afloat. If I had to guess, I’d guess that number is between $25,000 and $30,000, and Clark must hit it whether Joe pays $15,000 and Jane pays $40,000 or vice-versa. Every college has this number somewhere. For a few schools it’s probably zero, counting endowments. Until we get more clarity about that number, however, it’s hard to get a meaningful value for it.

This began life as an e-mail to the Clark development person. Most of the answers she gets are probably more emotional than my somewhat cerebral / systems-based thinking, but part of my dissertation is about academia and I’ve now worked in, around, and for a lot of colleges, as a student, instructor, and consultant. The inside of the sausage factory is not a pretty place and the romantic notions I may have once had regarding the college experience are now dashed. I still retain hope and even optimism—I would be teaching as an adjunct this semester if I didn’t—but the ugly reality is that relatively few existing institutions have the structure or infrastructure, literally or intellectually or politically, necessary to make real changes. Whatever spare cash I might have one day—ha!—is unlikely to go to existing providers. It’ll go to whoever is trying to augment or replace them. Right now I don’t know who that is.

It’s not you, Clark. It’s it.**


* These sorts of idiocies persist. When I was in grad school, some girl in the University of Arizona’s Rhet Comp (or “Rhetoric and Composition”) program claimed that they were “number two in the country.” Being the obnoxious person I am I asked, “As ranked by who?” She didn’t know. “As measured how?” She didn’t know and didn’t like me. To be fair I thought she was dumb and didn’t see her manifesting evidence to the contrary while I was around.

** See also “Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over;” I doubt any individuals at Clark approve of the competitive college race, but they are also relatively powerless to stop it.

If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan)

Caitlin Flanagan’s well-researched and -argued “The Dark Power of Fraternities: A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame” does everything an article of its nature should do except for one important thing: talk to the women who go to frats.

The minute women stop going to frat parties, frats are going to either disappear or shrink to irrelevance.

I taught at the University of Arizona for four and a half years and unlike Flanagan have talked to lots of college women about frat parties, few of whom harbor illusions about frat parties or their purpose. Many sororities apparently tell women not to get drunk, since being drunk makes them easy victims, and to go in groups. Women would sometimes say—including in class—that they wouldn’t go to frat parties except in groups. Why? To protect themselves (from themselves or from the frat guys is sometimes an open question).

I’d sometimes ask why they’d go places they felt were sufficiently dangerous to require a group. Usually there wouldn’t be a real answer; it was as if I’d broached a new, un-analyzed subject for the first time. One woman did answer, however, and said simply that “It’s where the party’s at.”

(c) Stephanie GA of Flickr

(c) Stephanie GA of Flickr

Ten points for honesty, but I think that if I were a woman I wouldn’t go. Yet college girls keep going, despite apparently being aware of the dangers. Flanagan mentions “the issue of sexual assault of female undergraduates by their male peers” but doesn’t note that most women seem to know someone who had something unfortunate happen to them at frat houses. This doesn’t seem to deter many of them.

Flanagan never writes as much. It’s a huge, obvious blank spot in her otherwise fascinating article. Women are not stupid—at least I don’t think they’re stupid—and most know what they’re doing when they get drunk and/or go to frat parties. I’ve written as much here and here (“It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.”)*

Men are interested in frats because they offer a way of forming a cartel that in turn attracts women. I remember talking to a student in a frat, who was giving me the usual bullshit about frats when I stopped him and said: “Let’s conduct a thought experiment: if instead of increasing the probability of a guy getting laid, joining a frat decreased the probability by 1%, do you think anyone would?” There was a long pause. He wanted to respond but he also knew that his intellectual credibility was on the line (he was a bright guy).

There’s another important flaw in Flanagan’s article: while she does cite a horrific rape of a woman identified only as “Jane Doe,” in Doe’s case justice does happen: the perpetrator is caught, arrested, and convicted. The system worked in this instance! The frat helped the cops get the guy. As such it’s a curious example in an anti-frat article.

She does note one thing that deserves more frequent mention:

Furthermore, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses—an ideal situation for fraternities.

A lot of 18-year-olds like to drink and regardless of whether legislators and/or lobbyists like MADD think they have the capacity to make that decision, many do make it anyway. To my mind their making of the decision indicates that they have the capacity… to make the decision. One way to chip away at the appeal of frats, for both men and women, would be to legalize drinking; based on what I’ve heard a lot of frat boys and sorority girls drift away from their Greek affiliation when they turn 21. Some of that probably comes from the dawning realization that real life is en route but some probably also comes from the opening of different avenues for drinking and mating rituals.

College presidents have realized as much and launched the Amethyst Initiative, which is a plea to drag reality back into law and politics.

Anyway, the minute the Flanagans and college presidents and parents of the world can convince women not to show up at frat parties is the minute we’ll see the end of frats. Based on America’s bipolar feelings about drinking and sexuality in general, however, I doubt we’re going to see it.

EDIT: I should add that I’m not pro-frat, as one of two people suggested; I’m also not anti-frat, although years ago I wrote this snarky letter to the editor of the New York Times (“Although the fraternity system as it exists is flawed, it does serve one important purpose: it voluntarily segregates a large number of drunken fools from the rest of the student population — some of whom may be interested in novel concepts like learning and academics”). Today I mostly think that frats serve an evident need or want, and although I myself wouldn’t want to join one—I don’t have the right personality—I see why many others do.


* A sorority girl once told me that her sorority cohort didn’t want to attend sober events with frats because the other girls didn’t know how to talk to boys, or talk to boys without the aid of booze.

The validity of grades

Marco Arment writes at Marco.org (proving that he was prescient when it comes to domain names) and created the awesome web service Instapaper, which I use solely for its Kindle export feature. One of his favorite posts is “School grades are hopelessly broken.” It’s worth reading, and Marco is probably right: school grades are too high and don’t reflect real knowledge, but like healthcare or the military, there’s no easy way to fix them.

Although Marco’s essay is mostly right, it also doesn’t propose any real solutions to the problem he describes—because there aren’t any. The incentive for parents in high school is to want their kid to get the highest grade possible; consequently, they will often fight for their kids, leading to an overall negative equilibrium, and one that I benefited from in late middle and early high school when I decided to effectively fail math as an ill-conceived protest against my parents. At the time I didn’t consciously realize this dynamic, or that protesting in ways that chiefly hurt me aren’t terribly wise, but I was also 13 – 15 at the time and didn’t know any better.

For most teachers, the easiest thing to do on an individual level is inflate grades, which reduces complaints from both parents and students. This isn’t optimal on a societal level, which generates posts like Marco’s, but it is on an individual level, and I don’t see an easy way to generate incentives to change this (more on that later). Marco says:

Grades don’t reflect your aptitude, intelligence, or understanding of the subject matter. You don’t need to actually learn much useful material to get good grades. (And many of those who learn exceptionally well don’t get good grades.)

This is probably true. But if grades don’t reflect all this, then imagine what the people with really low GPAs are like. Grades aren’t good at stratifying the high end of the curve, but they at least show some of where the low end is. And I suspect the really high end, especially in hard college majors like engineering, CS, and so forth, are still reasonably good guides to aptitude. Marco says, “You can understand why I don’t trust the validity of grades.” You shouldn’t trust grades fully—but that’s because grades aren’t supposed to be the full measure of man. Nothing is, except maybe life, and what does that really mean?

I see a lot of comments about colleges, high schools, grades, and how to improve those kinds of issues on sites like Hacker News and Slashdot. Most are good at identifying problems; Chris Smeder, for example, tells us how to improve college teaching in three major ways. He’s probably right about all of those, but he misses an important point: most universities are not set up (or, if you like buzzwords, “incentivized”) to reward teaching.

Smeder misses the main point, which isn’t identifying the problem; a gazillion people in the Chronicle of Higher Education have said virtually the same thing at various times. The real problem is solving the problem, which requires changing the incentives that drive professors. At the moment, hiring and tenure decisions at virtually all universities (and all the big ones you’ve heard of) are made mostly on research and publication. Teaching simply doesn’t count for much. Therefore, the people who succeed in getting hired and getting tenured optimize for what they’re being judged on: research and publication. Teaching is secondary. Heroic individuals and people who want to practice better teaching will help somewhat, but they aren’t enough to change the system as a whole.

Once you’ve realized this incentive problem, the question becomes, “How do you change the incentives?” I have no good answers for that, but it’s the real question you should be asking if you’re genuinely interested. And it might keep you from generalizations like this one, which is back to Marco’s essay:

Most people from my generation can’t really do anything else in the real world except bullshit jobs because nobody ever held them to very high standards.

This probably is true of all generations, and the rhetoric of most people during most generations (consider, for example, the New York Times’ Generation Me vs. You Revisited). I suspect that not all the jobs Marco assumes are bullshit are bullshit. And even if all this is true, schools aren’t going to be offering the kind of information he’d presumably like GPAs to show.

I’d get near-zero homework grades because I’d never do it, so I needed (and usually got) near-100% test grades to make up the difference. I’d barely pull through and get a C most of the time.

This works for some people, especially who start their own businesses. Most people don’t and never will. So their grades count. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s comment from “What You’ll Wish You’d Known:”

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

The right thing to do is your homework, because it’s presumably easy, and then do the rest of your work on your own time. And although GPAs are broken, they’re also the best we’ve got. As Joel Spolsky says in his advice to Computer Science majors:

Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.

Marco can be largely right in a micro sense and still be wrong, or at least doesn’t really deal with what should happen in a macro sense. If you’re the principal of a high school, or a college president, or an individual employer, or any number of other positions, what can you do to change the presumed brokenness of grades? How can you transform the system producing said grades? Until you’ve answered that, you’ve done a lot of the work that’s already been done (see, e.g., here for an older view of school problems) without facing the hardest part of the task.

%d bloggers like this: