Today in collegiate dystopia: the triumph of Goodhart’s Law

June 11, 2021 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

In a wide-ranging speech at a conference on academic freedom, Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, has diagnosed the ills of the university in the western democracies. Unlike Bill Maher, who correctly senses that something is rotten in the state of higher education, but, as Jerry noted, has been unable to come up with a coherent critique, President Higgins hits the nail on the head. He decries the neoliberal consensus on higher education, the “market forces and the inexorable drive towards a utilitarian reductionism that is now so pervasive.”

A prime symptom of what Higgins describes as “the increasingly market orientation of the modern university” is that “student success” has become a term of art among college administrators, a metric to be increased, but which is not closely related to the acquisition of knowledge or skills. Higgins gets this precisely right (emphasis added):

Academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them.

This is a textbook example of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” or the closely related Campbell’s Law: “[O]nce a metric has been identified as a primary indicator for success, its ability to accurately measure success tends to be compromised.” Since “student success” is defined as “output of graduates”, anything that slows down graduation (such as academic requirements or low grades) is a barrier to success, which must be eliminated. Higgins nails this, too:

The quality of university degrees, too, continues to be a source of great concern, with evidence of grade inflation that, alas, does not reflect improved standards of scholarship, but rather an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure, sourced internally and external to the university, to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’.

In a delightfully allusive comment, Higgins suggests that students need to be taught what universities are for:

May I conclude with a very modest proposal that could be easily implemented: teach a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom, to every incoming university student, raising awareness of the importance of such freedom and the critical, now precarious, position of the university in contemporary society

I commend his proposal, and would add that university leaders should be required to undergo similar training; they, too, seem no longer to know what they are for. As Higgins puts it

[U]niversity provosts, presidents and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multi-million euro enterprises rather than as academics first and foremost whose main responsibility might be to defend and cultivate the intellectual life of their academic institutions, facilitating an enriching learning environment for staff and students alike.

I don’t know much about Higgins. His office is largely ceremonial, like the Queen’s. He’s had a long career in politics, but he seems to have picked up some academic chops along the way. As I mentioned, the talk is wide-ranging, and I’ve only highlighted a couple of worthy points here; there are many others. The full text of his talk is available here.

h/t Brian Leiter

20 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: the triumph of Goodhart’s Law

  1. Goodhart’s Law has run rampant in UK Universities since the Thatcher government imposed the Research Assessment Exercise et al.

  2. Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,”

    I’m rather fond of this type of ‘Law’, although calling it a maxim (a saying that is widely accepted on its own merits) might be more appropriate.

    I can think of Parkinson’s Law, Pareto’s Law, and Sturgeon’s Law… all of which capture a general truth rather than an absolute truth.

    Does anyone know of a list of ‘laws’ like this? I fancy that the value of such things is that they prepare the mind for partial truths.

      1. Thanks for the reference, Jez. I see that the list includes one of my favorites, the Peter Principle, and I’m taking this as a sign that the list is pretty comprehensive.🙂

  3. Excellent! And don’t get me started on “student success”, a term the principal threw at me when my 12th grade Data Management students were not mostly awarded As for often sub-standard work. Some certainly deserved their As, but I wasn’t going to give them to the slackers just to make the principal (who wouldn’t have known a datum from a hole in the ground) look good.

  4. These two laws seem related to the principle noted by Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” It’s already a basic human failing/tendency, and then when you throw in the (what I think of as) perverse economic incentives, things go quite badly.

  5. The reasons for the evolution toward this state is pretty clear and those reasons will never be fixed, I think. Central to the problem is the spiraling costs of universities, with lofty administrator salaries, more and more specialized administrators, salaries and other costs of maintaining nation-sized sports programs (that one is sooo strange!), and competition with other area campuses that have sprung up for students. I don’t think we used to see commercials or billboards pimping for students to enroll on campuses, but now that is common. Add to that the near-starvation funds from states, and the regular significant worries whenever populations of young people fall because of various demographic changes. Of course the result of all these factors is palpable pressure to admit them if they have a pulse, steer those that need it into remedial courses, and pass them if at all possible.

    1. I tend to take it back to 1980 and the Bayh-Dole act letting them keep licensing and patent rights to inventions created with federal grant dollars.

      That was, IMO, the “ka-ching!” moment when University administrators started thinking of not just the sports programs in for-profit terms, but the actual academics in for-profit terms too.

      1. Do I correctly remember that a consequence of this was that any creative insight that a university professor/researcher had while on the university’s clock was, as with corporations, considered owned by the university? Or has that always been so?

        I have a recollection from about twenty years or so ago of a university graduate student sentenced to prison because he tried to independently, entrepreneurialy exploit ideas he had developed while using university facilities and while working for a university. It’s professor and graduate student reserachers who come up with ideas and inventions, not these STEM-ignorant parasitic administrative/politico types. Bring on “Minority Report.”

        Beyond that, why shouldn’t U.S. taxpayers get a crumb or two of recompense from their investment?

  6. With respect to Hitler’s impact on the German universities and academic freedom in the U.S., i recommend Steve Batterson’s (Emeritus mathematics Emory University) 2006 book, “Pursuit of Genius: Flexner, Einstein, and the Early Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study”. The book grew out of the author’s curiosity during his 1980 time as a visiting fellow at the IAS.

  7. The worship of quantitative targets, independent of what they mean, how they are arrived at, and what their real outcome will be, is particularly noticeable among the Diversicrats in academia. Maybe the proliferation of multiple, segregated “affinity groups” reflects this tendency: the more such separate groups there are, the higher the number that the Equity Office can tick off in bureaucratic reports. Here is an example just arrived in my InBox:

    The UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity invites you to join our affinity groups for Black, LatinX, Asian American and Pacific Islander and LGBTQIA+ colleagues. These specific groups evolved out of the ad hoc groups that have been gathering since summer of 2020 and were selected based on requests from colleagues who identify with these groups. Other groups may be formed in the future.
    Affinity groups provide a supportive space to talk, be heard, grieve and celebrate in community within our work environment. They also support our organizational work to advance our equity, diversity, inclusion and health justice goals by giving leaders and staff a place to discuss how to dismantle oppressive systems from within. Each affinity group will meet at least quarterly.

    I particularly liked the throw-away line “Other groups may be formed in the future”. Only a paucity of membership presumably limits the formation of separate Native American, Inuit, Sami, Samoyed, Komi, Assyrian, Kurdish, Yazidi, Buryat, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Tamil, Assamese, and Naga affinity groups, while the LGBTQIA+ group alone offers the possibility of expansion into at least 6 affinity sub-groups.

  8. Higgins’s diagnosis of what’s happening at Irish/British/American universities seems spot on. The “increasingly market orientation of the modern university” means that students are treated like customers who must be appeased by the administrators. So when a few woke idiots make a noise, they get taken seriously, especially at the Ivy League colleges. The module Higgins suggests is a good idea but the deeper solution to this problem will need to be an economic, material one—the rollback of “neoliberalism” and re-taming of capitalism.

  9. President has a bit more power than the Queen. President can refuse to dissolve the Dail while the power has not been used there have been circumstances where the Taoiseach has lost the confidence of the dail but there still could be a viable government.

    President has to convene a presidential council to assess bills and then has the authority to send them to the supreme court to see if they are constitutional.

    Micheal D was a lecturer in Galway, now NUIG

  10. ‘ . . . the increasingly market orientation of the modern university” is that “student success” has become a term of art among college administrators, a metric to be increased, but which is not closely related to the acquisition of knowledge or skills.’

    Am reminded of reading a public school system’s “mission statement,” words-to-the-effect that students will be “challenged” with a “rigorous” and “relevant” education. I’ve never known what is meant by “relevant.” I once substitute taught in an alleged “Honors” high school chemistry class. I myself was “challenged” to get students to pay attention to the occasionally “rigorous” nature of the subject matter. They were much more inclined to genuflect before and bask in the hypnotic, beguiling radiance of their hand-held digital Sirens.

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