“The Chair”: A miniseries about academia

September 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Matthew was recently watching the new Netflix series “The Chair“, whose first season comprises six 30-minute episodes.  It’s basically “ER” set in a college—the fictional Pembroke University in New England.

Sandra Oh—the one character who’s very well acted plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of Pembroke’s English department, and has to face the usual travails of a chair: how to choose a distinguished speaker, dealing with faculty who don’t teach well, schmoozing the dean, listening to a colleague kvetch about poor office space, and so on. The plot is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband (Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass) is a professor in her department, is acting erratically since his second wife died, and he wants to reunite with Kim.

They’ve inserted some woke stuff to create drama, the main trope being Dobson’s quick Hitler salute when he mentions Hitler in a class. That, of course sets off a huge fracas.

I’ve watched the first three episodes (I guess there will be a second season), and I’ve pretty much had it. While Oh’s acting is good, much of the other actors overdo it, and the drama—sustaining a Hitler salute over the entire series (don’t read the Wikipedia summary if you want to watch it), is boring. I’m giving up. Matthew thought it was okay, but he’s recommended that I watch “The Wire” instead, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a much bigger investment—60 one-hour episodes—but it’s received universal critical acclaim.

In the meantime, you can see the official trailer for the “The Chair” below:

 

Are your letters of recommendation gender-biased?

September 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

It was pointed out to me that Lehigh University in Pennsylvania has a website from 2016 that discusses the content of letters of recommendation written by academics. Part of our job is to write recommendations for our students or technicians—letters to go to graduate school, to medical school, for industry, for jobs as technicians, and so on. These are quite hard to write, especially if the applicant isn’t a star but is decent.

My policy has been that if a student is hopeless, I tell them that I simply cannot write a letter (without saying, “because I don’t want to ruin your career if others feel differently”). For borderline students who have both virtues and problems, I will agree to write a letter, and try to be as honest as possible. For uniformly excellent people who I really want to get the position, I’m famous for my long letters of recommendation that go into great detail about the person’s accomplishments, figuring that the length demonstrates how well I know the person. (It’s not unusual for such a letter to run six single-spaced pages, and of course nobody reads them in their entirety because there are always many applicants.) I think many faculty have a policy like mine.

Until now, I never worried about the specific words I used in my letters, but then I saw this website (click on it):

It says, and there’s research to show this, that some adjectives are associated with letters written females, and others for males. As you’ll see, adjectives about “competence” or “diligence” are female-associated words, while indications of “excellence” or “intelligence” are associated with letters for male applicants. This much we know. The Lehigh site says this:

Have you wondered if the letter you are READING- or the letters you are WRITING – are inadvertently perpetuating implicit biases that could reduce the likelihood of the candidate getting a fair chance at the new opportunity?  This one pager summarizes some facts and ideas about letters of recommendation. You can also put your own letters through this online gender bias calculator.The calculator was inspired by presentations on research organized by AWIS; several articles and blog posts share personal reactions to learning of this phenomenon as well as the tool.

It’s worth taking this into account, with three caveats. But it does helps to know what words are perceived in what way by recipients, so the “one pager” is useful to read.

The problems are these. First, given that academia is now preferentially looking for female applicants (this will change as the proportion of male students in college keeps shrinking), a letter with female-biased words may not “perpetuate implicit bias”.  More important, suppose you run one of your letters thorough the linked “gender bias calculator”,  which you can find at the link above or by clicking on the screenshot below. It was made by Tom Force:

As a test, I ran through it a long letter I wrote a while back for one of my female undergraduate research assistants, who wanted to go to medical school. I got this result:

Here you can see the kind of words associated with female letters of recommendation (left column), emphasizing diligence and reliability. On the right are the words associated with letters for male applicants, and they’re about smarts and curiosity and high ranking. This bespeaks sexism, as far as I’m concerned. But I was happy to see that in this letter, for a women, I had roughly equal numbers in each column, with slightly more of the male words. (They don’t say whether letters with more female-associated words reduce the applicant’s chance of getting the position.)

And here’s from a letter in which I recommended a female technician for medical school (again an acceptance); most of the words are male-associated.

Again, what is the recommendation? Is this what you want for a letter for a female, or should I have added some more words about diligence which, after all, is an important characteristic for a future doctor? I don’t know, but she’s now an excellent doctor as well.

The second caveat is this: What are you supposed to do if the letter is imbalanced? For example, in the above letter, should I have cut out some of the female-associated words? (It turns out that the undergrad did get into medical school and is now a fine oncologist.) Are you supposed to ensure that the male-associated words are the predominant ones for either sex?  They don’t tell you.

That leads to the third issue: what if you’re writing for a male whose prime virtues are diligence, reliability, and responsibility. There are some science jobs, like a technician, where some of the most important qualities are showing up, following orders properly, and doing the job diligently and well. Initiative is desirable, too, but that’s a bonus. In fact, one of my colleagues wrote a letter for a guy applying for a technician position, ran the letter through the calculator, and found out that it was imbalanced in favor of female-associated words. (This was after the fact, just like my letter.) What was my colleagues supposed to do: insert more “male associated” words? At any rate, this guy got the job, turned out to be a great technician, and improved in the “male associated” traits.

The main issue is this: what are we supposed to do about “balance” in such a letter? Is imbalance bad? Are “male-associated” words good? That’s the implication. But here we have a woman applicant with male-associated words.

I realize that these lists are based on data, and that one has to be cognizant of how adjectives are perceived with respect to sex. But I think there are some problems with this method that weren’t explicated.

If you write letters of recommendation yourself, you may try running one of them through the calculator, and letting us know how the result came out (the letters of course should not be shown).

A U of C prof and his colleague damn DEI initiatives in Newsweek, comparing such initiatives to the race obsession of Nazi Germany

August 13, 2021 • 9:15 am

This is a sad tale, because academics with an argument to make about diversity have scuppered themselves by comparing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) in American universities to the “race obsession” of Nazis, which led to the gutting and degradation of German universities before and during World War II. They argue that we are in danger of the same thing because, like Nazis, we’re “obsessed with race”. You can already see the fallacy of that comparison, but I’ll discuss this below.

But let’s back up. Last year one of the big fracases at the University of Chicago was the case of Dorian Abbot, a tenured associate professor in Geophysical Sciences, which I described on November 29. It’s also been recounted by Pamela Paresky in her article for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): “‘Moral pollution’ at the University of Chicago: The case of Dorian Abbott.”  As I wrote at the time,

. . . . this is a pretty serious conflict between, on the one hand, a professor who takes issue with his department’s policies about diversity and inclusion, and, on the other, students and alumni, who, outraged by the professor’s opinion, have taken steps, in a letter/petition, to get the professor severely punished for expressing his views on YouTube.

The whole issue is concisely summarized by my law-school colleague Brian Leiter on his website Leiter Reports (click on the screenshot):

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences, who posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice. Unfortunately, although I watched the videos earlier, Abbot has taken them down, though his slides are still online [see here,  herehere, and here].

Abbott believes, and still believes (see his Newsweek article below), contra the Zeitgeist, that merit should trump everything in hiring, and one shouldn’t give extra preference to candidates based on sex, gender, or ethnicity.  I disagree with him to some extent in that I think we should give some advantage to groups previously handicapped by these factors—not because there is an inherent academic quality conferred by diversity itself (i.e., different “ways of knowing”), but as a form of reparations for previous bigoted behavior. That is, I accept a limited form of affirmative action. Abbott did not and does not. Ultimately, though, we need deep and expensive and laborious social intervention to give everyone equal opportunity from birth. That is the only long-term solution to assuring equality.

One can disagree on this (for example, how long should affirmative action last?), but that doesn’t matter. The point is that one should be able to debate these issues, particularly on the University of Chicago campus where freedom of speech trumps just about everything.

Sadly, Abbott didn’t get his debate, which he wanted, but rather outrage from his department and calls for punishment.  Here’s more from what I wrote:

Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified), and measures like this:

[The department should] Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.

This being the University of Chicago, the President, Bob Zimmer, refused to countenance any of these punishments, as Abbott was merely exercising his right to give a public opinion. So Abbott wasn’t officially punished, though he may have been shunned by faculty and students in his department.  And even this resolution leaves something wanting, for, as Paresky says in her FIRE piece:

President Robert J. Zimmer is peerless in his staunch advocacy for a culture “where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated.” The Chicago Principles (also referred to as the Chicago Statement) have been adopted in some form by more than 75 colleges and universities, largely with the help of FIRE. But if students and newly minted PhDs even at the University of Chicago ask the administration to sanction a professor whose ideas they believe “undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives,” and even feel unsafe because his views run contrary to the prevailing view on campus, it demonstrates that even the most robust protections offered by a university administration are not enough. It takes more than just administrative leadership to create what Zimmer calls “an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered.”

Abbot’s own account of the controversy can be found here. Note that he isn’t completely opposed to all DEI efforts, feeling that if there is implicit bias (something almost impossible to ascertain), it should be rooted out, and also supports expanding applicant pools, as do I—not because different groups have different “ways of knowing,” but because the bigger the applicant pool, the greater the chance of getting more talent and letting people know their applications are welcome. However, he also damned himself to the woke by adding this (from his statement):

I also strongly support expanding applicant pools as much as possible. I believe that diversity is healthy and good for a university because it tends to lead to more perspectives and debate that fully explores intellectual issues. That said, I would tend to emphasize a larger variety of types of diversity, including political, religious, and viewpoint diversity, than are currently being emphasized in most DEI efforts. What I am against is setting up systems where group membership is a primary aspect of a candidate’s evaluation.

Abbot, along with co-author Ivan Marinovic (an associate professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business) are courting further disapprobation by publishing a piece in yesterday’s Newsweek that basically says that merit must always trump diversity and inclusion. (Newsweek, of course, is on the Right; no left-wing venue would publish a piece like this. Click on screenshot to read:

Here’s a short summary of their point:

DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. It requires being willing to tell an applicant “I will ignore your merits and qualifications and deny you admission because you belong to the wrong group, and I have defined a more important social objective that justifies doing so.” It treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.

DEI compromises the university’s mission. The core business of the university is the search for truth. A university’s intellectual environment depends fundamentally on its commitment to hiring the most talented and best trained minds: any departure from this commitment must come at the expense of academic excellence, and ultimately will compromise the university’s contribution to society. This point is particularly urgent given that DEI considerations often reduce the pool of truly eligible candidates by a factor of two or more.

It’s certainly true that if one hews to traditional considerations of merit, then yes, taking non-meritocratic factors into account will mean hiring candidates that are less academically “meritorious”. But, as I’ve emphasized, if there was a history of non-hiring based on sex and ethnicity, then there will be an underrepresentation of some groups, and, in my “reparations” view, one can start opening the door to more people by a bit of affirmative action, ensuring, of course, that hired faculty and accepted students are qualified for the position. (You would not, for example, hire at the expense of a serious reduction of merit.) Although we still have few blacks in evolutionary biology and ecology, the trend to hire women has been salubrious, for the performance of women faculty, a large and important part of our own department, shows that previous biases against them were misguided, and some preferential hiring to get the ball rolling was a good thing. It was such a good thing that we’re now at the point where the ball is rolling on its own.

Abbot and Marinovic also cite a recent Pew Poll showing that most Americans, while favoring diversity and its promotion, don’t think it should be taken into account in hiring and promotion. That is, most Americans seem to favor meritocracy, even if it erodes diversity. Here are the data from Pew:

But an issue like this is not one that should depend on the results of polls; it is an ethical issue, and a complicated one.

At any rate, the authors propose an alternative strategy:

We propose an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone. Crucially, this would mean an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants, in addition to those based on group membership. Simultaneously, MFE would involve universities investing in education projects in neighborhoods where public education is failing to help children from those areas compete. These projects would be evidence-based and non-ideological, testing a variety of different options such as increased public school funding, charter schools and voucher programs.

I of course am also against legacy and athletic admissions, which are done for pecuniary rather than academic reasons, but I still retain a tentative hold on some forms of preferential hiring based on group membership. That is not a “quota” system, but gives some weight to group membership. It simply does not redound to academia or its history to have all-white departments, or departments in which people from Spain are forced to count as “people of color” to maintain the fiction of diversity.

Sadly, at the end, Abbot and Marinkovic sabotage their entire program by comparing American DEI initiatives and their “obsession with race” with another regime, also “obsessed with race”, whose obsession destroyed academia in that country. Yes, it was the Nazis. The authors play the Hitler card! That is a really bad move, and one that undercuts their thesis, since the comparison is not at all valid, if for no other reason that the “obsession with race” went in the opposite direction in Germany: they wanted less diversity. By getting rid of a previously oppressed group (Jewish professors), they lost a huge amount of talent. But DEI initiatives in the U.S. are not trying to get rid of oppressed groups; they’re trying to include them. Whether that will affect academic quality is debatable, but the histories are not at all comparable.

But here: see for yourself. Had I seen this op-ed, I would have said, “For crying out loud, take out this damn paragraph!”:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

Oy gewalt!

h/t: Cate

University College London handles political controversy the right way

May 25, 2021 • 9:45 am

I’ve written in detail about one of the Foundational Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago, the one embodied in what we call the “Kalven Report“.

The principle of this report, as summarized yesterday by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter, is that our University should take no official position on any ideological, moral, or political issue except for those issues that directly impinge on our academic mission. The principle grew out of calls from faculty and students for the University to take positions against Communism, against the Vietnam war, and other issues du jour. The principle is there to guarantee that nobody is cowed from speaking their minds by “official” university statements that might chill one’s speech.

In response to several of us seeking clarification, President Bob Zimmer clarified last October that the prohibition against taking such positions applies not just to the University administration, but to its units: departments, schools, and so on. Nevertheless, many departments and statements from administrators continue to blatantly violent this prohibition (see a list of violations here). For reasons beyond my ken, the administration has yet taken no action to remove these statements. That means that the Kalven Principles are unenforced, are eroding, and may disappear. And if they go, so goes academic freedom at our school. What a pity that would be, since freedom of speech and academic freedom are points the University makes to sell our school to prospective students. It would be a shame if students came here under false pretenses.

Brian’s nice post quotes the Kalven report, and I think all universities should adhere to these words. I’ve put the crucial bit in bold:

A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university and defined too by the distinctive characteristics of the university as a  community. It is a role for the long term.

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

One school that has just adhered to this principle is University College London, which of course probably isn’t even aware of Chicago’s avowed policy. During the recent fights between Israel and Palestine, UCL’s Provost has rightly decried bigotry of students against each other, but refuses to take a stand on the matter of the war. Click on the screenshot to read Provost Michael Spence’s take:

What he should have said and did say:

The first question concerns why my message of earlier this week called out antisemitic activity when issues of prejudice remain a problem for so many in our community, not least our Palestinian students. The answer to that question is that we had had several incidents involving direct threats of serious physical violence against Jewish students. That was a situation to which the University needed urgently to respond, and for which there was no immediate parallel.

However, it goes without saying that the University takes every form of discrimination with the utmost seriousness. In the last few days, I have been made aware of reports of Islamophobia, of prejudice against Palestinian students, and of some feeling unsafe. I want to be clear again that we unreservedly condemn abuse, harassment or bullying directed at any member of our community. There can never be a justification for this behaviour, and we will take action where necessary.

That’s very good: internecine bigotry of one group of students against another affects the University’s mission and can be properly criticized.

But what makes Spence’s position almost unique is what he says about any University position about the war itself:

The second question that has been raised with me is whether the University should adopt an institutional stance in relation to the current situation. Given that so many of our staff and students feel deeply about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and some have personal experience of its effects, I understand the desire that we should. But it is my strong conviction that to do so would be incompatible with the purpose of a university in a liberal democracy.

. . .It follows from this conception of the university, which I share, that it is not a participant in public debate, but a forum in which that debate takes place. While our staff and students should loudly argue for their conceptions of truth and value, the university, as an institution, should refrain from doing so lest it chill the exercise of the ethical individualism of its staff and students. This does not mean that we have no strongly held normative positions about our own collective life; we must, and we should, do so. But it does mean that the University, as an institution, ought not to become an advocate in public debate. I believe this to be the case even, perhaps especially, where a majority of UCL staff and students are of one mind on a given issue.

For this reason, I do not think it would be appropriate for UCL to comment on the rights and wrongs of the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. That is a task for our staff and students. It is the University’s role to ensure that we remain a community of respectful debate in which it is possible for them to do so. And on that front, I remain deeply committed.

This is pretty much UCL’s version of the Kalven Principles, and I believe wholeheartedly that Spence is right. I’d recommend reading the rest of Leiter’s take on how the University of Chicago has dealt with the Kalven Principles lately; it’s a short read and you can find it here. I am not aware of any school other than ours that has an official policy of not taking institutional positions on ideological, political or moral issues that don’t affect the mission of the University: to teach, to learn, and to learn to think. If you know of such schools, do let me know.

h/t: Coel

Gender studies professor has freedom of speech chilled for “transphobia”

March 26, 2021 • 10:15 am

This instance of free-speech suppression has a twist, as the victim is an endowed professor of gender and women’s studies at a public university. She’s Donna M. Hughes, who holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Endowed Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI).  She’s known for her work on human trafficking and sex work, but has now ventured into the minefield of transgender analysis. As Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reports, her university has, while grudgingly affirming her freedom of speech (always guaranteed at state schools), nevertheless done everything it can to demonize her and distance itself from her. Why? Because she feels—as do I—that there are some limits to the rights and privileges of transgender women considered as “women”. That makes Hughes, of course, a “transphobe”.

Click the screenshot to read the piece by Coleen Flaherty.

Hughes was somewhat out of mainstream feminist ideology when she wrote in the past that “there’s a fine line between sex work and sex trafficking and that legalizing prostitution helps only pimps and johns, not sex workers.” But that didn’t get her in nearly as much trouble as her February essay in 4W (a “fourth wave feminist” site), in which she not only called out QAnon, but made an analogy with that group and some of the proponents of the “transsexual women are fully women” view:

The political left is quick to denounce the campaign of disinformation that led to the Capitol riot on January 6. But fake news and harmful politicized beliefs leading to real harm are not solely a right-wing phenomenon. The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims.

The trans-sex fantasy, the belief that a person can change his or her sex, either from male to female or from female to male, is spreading largely unquestioned among the political left.

The trans-sex fantasy returns us to the question: “What is a woman?”. . .

. . .The trans-sex/“gender identity” ideology challenges same-sex rights, particularly those of women and girls. Interestingly, men and boys have had no attack on their rights. The biological category of sex, particularly women’s sex, is being smashed. Women and girls are expected to give up their places of privacy such as restrooms, locker rooms, and even prison cells. When biological males identify as trans-women, they can compete in women’s and girls’ sports. There are now cases of women being injured, some severely, by biologically larger and stronger biological men competing as “transwomen.” In the most well-known case in 2014, a transgender competitor broke the skull (linked video is graphic) of a female during a mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. In Fall 2020, World Rugby banned the participation of transwomen (biological males) in rugby citing the high risk of injury. Even Title IX, which granted women equal access to educational opportunities, such as those provided by sports and scholarships, are being taken away. It used to be when someone took unfair advantage, we’d call it cheating, but that is no longer recognized in this fantasy world.

The dystopian trans-sex/“gender identity” world claims that female mammalian characteristics should be redefined and disappeared from the female body to satisfy the feelings of biological males who identify as women. Basic biological words like breast and vagina are replaced by misogynistic, trans-sex/trans-gender language so that a female has a “front hole” instead of a vagina; females “chest feed” instead of breastfeed. All references to women disappear into terms such: “people who menstruate,” “people with uteruses,” “a pregnant person,” or “a birthing parent.” No such changes in terms are proposed for men’s bodies and anatomy. These redefinitions are hatred targeted at women’s bodies and their rights.

Strong stuff, but not irrational or hateful stuff. Nevertheless, that can’t be allowed to stand in a liberal university! And so, as IHE reports, the University of Rhode Island has issued the usual statement that criticizes the views of a faculty member while at the same time saying that it “honors and respects” her right of freedom of speech. That’s a form of hypocrisy. A good free-speech university, like the University of Chicago is at present, affirms that it will make no official statement supporting political, ideological, or moral views, and in response to the mob that’s descending on Hughes, would have said something like “Professor Hughes has the right to say whatever she wants, and the University supports that right.”

But URI has to flaunt its virtue, and so issued the statement below:

I find this statement weaselly to the extreme. While it’s entirely proper for the URI to have a page of resources and policies for supporting transgender students, faculty, or staff, it should not issue statements criticizing individual faculty members’ political views. (They even name Hughes!). What that does, as Hughes claims in the article, is to chill the speech of those who hold similar views, and it’s not at all “transphobic” to want a rational discussion about the extent to which transgender women (or men) are identical to biological women (or men). In other words, URI’s statement acts to squelch the speech of others—and they are many—who want a public discussion of the issue, and a discussion without being demonized as a “transphobe.”  This is why the University of Chicago enshrined in the Kalven Report the principle of not officially endorsing political/ideological/moral views. (Faculty members and others, of course, are free to issue their own personal statements on the issue.) Imagine how brave you’d have to be to risk being named as a public enemy by your own university!

It’s no wonder that Hughes takes this as an affront. It’s a blatant attempt to stifle the speech of URI members who have views different from those of extreme pro-trans-rights people.  The statement below says, in effect, that “Hughes can say what she wants, but she really shouldn’t have said this stuff”:

A faculty member’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights are not boundless, however, and should be exercised responsibly with due regard for the faculty member’s other obligations, including their obligations to the University’s students and the University community. As stated in the above referenced documents, faculty have a special obligation to show due respect for the opinions of others and to “exercise critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint” in transmitting their personal opinions.

In other words, her own University is calling Hughes irresponsible and disrespectful of the opinions of others, lacking “critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint”. If that’s not an attempt to stifle speech that’s not ideologically approved, I don’t know what is.

I could go on, but you can read the articles for yourself. Let me just add that Hughes has a lawyer, which means that a free-speech/academic freedom lawsuit may be in the offing. While the University may have had the right to publicly criticize Hughes’s views, and even name her, any respectable institution wouldn’t have done that, nor implied in the statement that there are limitations to freedom of speech and academic freedom. I have no respect for what URI has done to Hughes.

And here’s a statement she gave to IHE:

Via email, Hughes said it’s “just sad that we have reached a point in society where difficult issues cannot be freely and openly discussed without resort to personal attacks and calls for censorship.”

The marketplace of ideas, she added, “has broken down and increasingly, university faculty are terrified to speak out on a wide range of important issues for fear that — as seems to be happening here — they will draw criticism from their students and their institution will throw them under the bus.”

Bingo. No academic institution should make its members afraid to express views on political issues, nor try to enforce a political orthodoxy, no matter what it is. They can affirm that they won’t discriminate against various targeted groups (after all, that creates a climate for free discussion), but that’s as far as it should go.

h/t: William

How to ensure academic freedom

March 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

The article below, from Quillette, is by Eric Kaufmann, a professor of Politics at Birkbeck College of the University of London, who works with the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI).  Kaufmann’s paper reports on a study of attitudes towards free expression in the U.K. and U.S. His U.K. work led to  a CSPI report that apparently became the basis of an official UK government policy paper on Academic Freedom and Free Speech that will likely become U.K. law.

You can click on the screenshot to read the piece for free; below I’ll just list Kaurfmann’s major findings and then his conclusions, which involve government intervention to ensure the freedoms he wants preserved. Note that the sample size was not large.

Kaufmann’s findings:

a.)  Few academics have been subject to threats or disciplinary actions over their speech, but it’s been far more frequent in the U.S. than in the UK.

b.) Right-wing academics, especially if they are Ph.D. students, experience threats and disciplinary actions far more often than do left-wing academics.

c.) While most academics would not support campaigns to oust other academics who take unpopular possessions (Kaufmann gives a list of five hypotheticals, of which I put two below), a substantial proportion (around 40%) would remain neutral, not opposing campaigns to fire professors. This is a “silent moiety” that, says Kauffmann, are enablers of those who censor others.

Here are two of his five examples of unpopular positions that were used to query his subjects; these are based on real episodes on campuses:

  1. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]
  2. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that the British Empire did more good than harm, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]

d). Roughly half of academics, and a large majority of Ph.D. students, support “diversity quotas” for reading lists.

e). Support for dismissing academics who hold unpopular positions decreases significantly with age (5 classes from 35 to 65 years old). It’s the young folk who are the authoritarians.

f). Self-reporting by academics on whether they find themselves in a hostile climate for their beliefs was much higher for right-wing academics than for far-left, fairly-left, or centrist academics. This is true in both the U.S. and U.K.

Not much of this surprised me—with the exception of high support for diversity quotas on reading lists.

Because Kaufmann’s UK research actually translated into government action, he sees using the government as a way to ensure academic freedom. I’m not completely convinced of using that route, though. Here are what he recommended for the UK, with the first what the government is apparently going to do:

Importantly, most of our recommendations were adopted in the government’s new Academic Freedom white paper, which is likely to become law later this year. Foremost among these is the creation of the new position of Academic Freedom Champion on the Office for Students (OfS), the sector regulator. This individual will be tasked with proactively auditing universities for compliance with their free speech duty to not only defend, but promote, academic freedom. In addition, this office will act as an ombudsman to hear cases from individuals whose rights have been abridged by their universities. The new bill gives the regulator teeth to fine universities, which is vital. Only if the cost is high will administrators be able to face down activists and tell them that they cannot restrict the freedom of dissenting academics, no matter how much they wish to do so.

The second:

. . . our recommendations also include an explicit mention of political discrimination as grounds for bringing a complaint against a university. I recommend that university officers, when speaking in an official administrative capacity, be governed by a duty to remain politically neutral on any issue not directly concerned with the university’s narrow sectoral self-interest.

And the third:

Finally, I’ve argued for a requirement that universities show equivalent action between policies to promote traditional forms of diversity and equality, and moves to promote viewpoint diversity and equality. Institutions would be free to dial down all forms of equity and diversity, but should not be permitted to privilege identity-based diversity over political diversity.

This is all contingent, of course, on the first recommendation: that there be a government body to ensure academic freedom, headed by one individual (a Big Brother?). That seems dangerous, for that individual has enormous power to shape academia via fining universities. There’s a danger that that individual, rather than being neutral, might help bend academic discourse towards what’s acceptable to the current government. As Hitchens used to say, “Who would you entrust to do that job?” I prefer the alternative of private-sector pressuring, as is done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and similar organizations like the AFA, which has the power to bring lawsuits against universities.

As for the second, I’m heartily in favor of it, for it is the embodiment of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principle that the University take no official ideological, moral, or political positions—with a few rare exceptions.

As for the third, I’m not sure. While viewpoint diversity is desirable as well as ethnic diversity, there’s a rationale for promoting ethnic diversity that doesn’t hold for other forms. And that rationale is to increase ethnic diversity as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past. That is affirmative action, and I’m in favor of a limited form of it.

Social-justice turbulence at Haverford, self-abasing administrators, and some lessons

December 5, 2020 • 1:00 pm

I see that Quillette is now being demonized by many Leftists as some sort of “alt-right” or conservative website. And although some of their articles are indeed too Right-wing for me, most of the articles seem to be doing what I do—calling out the excesses of the Left, the same excesses that, I suspect, held back the predicted Blue Wave in November’s election. Further, it’s not a good idea to denigrate an entire website as a way of avoiding—or urging others to avoid—reading anything published there. Regardless of what you see as Quillette‘s overall ideology, you will benefit from reading some of its pieces, if for no other reason than some of the follies of the Left, which threaten a liberal government, simply can’t be found in mainstream media.

Here is one piece that will repay reading, although it’s long (my printout, in 9-point type, occupies 14 pages). This should keep you occupied on a cold December Saturday:

In some ways it’s nothing really new: the piece describes a meltdown at Haverford College, a posh and expensive school near Philadelphia. What’s unusual about this is that the students went on strike for several weeks, refusing to go to classes or, indeed, do anything college-related. What’s not new is that they issued a set of demands to the administration: the usual mix of the ridiculous to the tame. And the administration, to placate the outraged students, accepted nearly every one of those demands.

To me it’s a scary harbinger of my own school which, despite holding the line on some aspects of free speech, is showing worrying signs of encroaching wokeness. I’m worried that the University of Chicago will go the way of Yale, Middlebury College, Harvard, and now Haverford. But more on that in weeks to come.

The author of the piece, Jonathan Kay, is the Canadian editor of Quillette, and has cobbled together a thorough and engrossing summary of Haverford’s meltdown.  I’ll try to be brief, as I want to discuss his views on the future of fulminating college wokeness.

Earlier this year, before the death of George Floyd on May 25, Haverford was pretty much a school of comity. While there was discussion about various issues, there was not much about race, and a college committee in 2019 noted that there was, as Kay says, “little indication of mass discontent or ideological conflict.” This contrasts markedly with the many statements in the next few months, including some by administrators admitting that Haverford had long been a bastion of systemic racism.

All that changed with the death of Floyd and then the police shooting in Philadelphia on October 26 of another black man, Walter Wallace, Jr., who was bipolar and carrying a knife.  Because it wasn’t clear that the cops had a good reason to fire on Wallace, this predictably led to rioting in Philadelphia. Earlier, the racial unrest of the summer had led the College’s President, Wendy Raymond, to issue a statement of support for the black protestors, and the students began protesting the alleged racism of Haverford and issuing lists of demands.

After Wallace’s death, President Raymond and Interim Dean Joyce Bylander (the latter a black woman) issued a joint letter of anti-racism, but made the mistake of saying that students shouldn’t go to Philadelphia to protest because they could get infected with Covid-19 or “play into the hands of those who might seek to sow division and conflict especially in vulnerable communities.” (It’s not clear whom they meant.)

This statement (like others, reproduced in the article), urging students not to put themselves in “harm’s way”, enraged those students, who saw in it a line drawn between the poor black residents of Philadelphia and the entitled bubble of Haverford students.  A Zoom call ensued on November 5 in which the President, the black Interim Dean, and the black Provost, Linda Strong-Lee, talked to many of Haverford’s 1350 students. The students proceeded to revile the administrators in the call, as usual, but did so anonymously.

And the administrators proceeded to abase themselves:

The President:

Raymond presented herself as solemnly apologetic for a litany of offenses. She also effusively praised and thanked the striking students for educating her about their pain, while “recognizing that I will never understand what it means to be a person of color or be black or indigenous in the United States. I am a white woman with considerable unearned privilege.”

Not only did Raymond announce that she would be acceding to many of the students’ previously listed demands, she also reacted positively to the new requests that students put forward during the call. “All of the recommendations you’ve made here sound spot on and are excellent,” she said. “We can do those—and go beyond them.”

The Provost:

“I’ll just share that I hear your pain, and I know that this is something that rings hollow for you, but I am a black woman who has lived in a black body for 56 years,” responded Strong-Leek, in carefully measured tones that, among all the responses from administrators, seemed closest to escalating into something approaching candor. “My husband is black. My children are black. Every day, I worry about them and myself. Every day, I confront racism. [I’m] Looking forward to working with you and looking forward to making Haverford a better place.” She seemed to be fighting back her own emotions, but ultimately kept her composure.

The Interim Dean:

“I continue to listen and learn, and try to understand the ways in which the college has failed you and how I have failed you,” Dean Bylander calmly responds, ticking off seemingly well-rehearsed talking points. “[I] continue to be committed to trying to work to change and improve the experience of BIPOC students at Haverford.” Her face is a mask of deadpan professionalism. Or maybe she’d simply gone numb.

Eventually, the College acceded to virtually all the students’ demands. But by then the students had gone on strike, refusing to attend classes or extracurricular activities, with the intent being to disrupt the college, make them see how valuable people of color were in running the College, and to spend their time doing teach-ins and reading anti-racist literature. The strike lasted three weeks.

It wasn’t enough that there was a strike, for the striking students tried to punish those “scab” professors who insisted on holding classes during the strike as well as those students who opposed the strike, the latter keeping quiet lest they be forever demonized. Alumni banded together threatening to withhold donations to Haverford unless the students’ demands were met (this is a particularly effective way to effect college change: smack them in the pocketbook).

Social-media statements like this circulated (“Peanuts” is President Raymond’s dog, for crying out loud, and the poor mutt was threatened multiple times with death):

They threatened the President’s dog, for chrissake!

All of a sudden, where comity had reigned, the students, administration, and alumni discovered that all along the school had been a bastion of racism and bigotry:

The students appeared on Zoom under pseudonyms plucked from a list of past Haverford presidents and benefactors. The idea, a strike organizer self-identifying as “Henry Drinker” is heard to say at the 12:20 mark, was to co-opt the names “of the old white men who have made Haverford the racist institution that it is today.”

. . . These details help contextualize the mass email that Dean Bylander and President Raymond sent to the school community on October 28th, a six-paragraph message that student strikers would cite in the days that followed as proof of the “long tradition of anti-Blackness and the erasure of marginalized voices that have come to characterize the experiences of students of color at Haverford.”

From an article in the college newspaper by a student named Soha Saghir:

This campus has failed its Black students (especially Black women and Black nonbinary people), its students of color, and its FGLI [first-generation low-income] students—the very people whose labor is the backbone of this campus. These emails [from the administration] were just one more way in which you and this institution neither feel nor understand how tired, angry, and ready for change we are… In this pandemic, that labor has intensified in unimaginable ways… We are no longer asking for inclusion or diversity since that gives more power to the institution. Instead, we will disrupt that order. We will be going on a strike from our classes, our jobs (which we need), and any extracurricular activities. This campus can’t run without BIPOC. This is not just a reminder that we are valuable to you on campus, but that our lives, minds, and bodies matter.

There’s more, but what’s clear is that all of a sudden students discovered that the school, once peaceful and inclusive, was really a hotbed of racism. Did the school change in such a short period of time, or did outraged students confect a “structural racism” that didn’t exist.

I opt for the latter, having long lived on a liberal campus where such recent accusations fly in the face of the facts.

What bothers me about Kay’s piece is what looks like a correct diagnosis of why the administration caved completely to the students, abasing themselves, losing their dignity, and admitting to an institutional bigotry which didn’t exist. It’s because the administration has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by standing up to the students. If true, that doesn’t give me much hope:

When campus meltdowns of this type occur, you often see conservative culture warriors demand that administrators take a hard line, demonstrate backbone, “grow a spine,” and so forth. But what is their incentive for doing so? It was once the case that a university president was able to balance different constituencies against one another as a means to achieve some kind of policy equilibrium—liberal students versus more conservative professors, administrators against alumni, this department versus that. But that doesn’t happen anymore: Thanks to the homogenizing effects of social media, all of these constituencies tend to be drinking the same bathwater from the same troughs, and so get caught up in the same social panics at the same time.

And Kay’s solution seems lame: “eventually the trend will reverse itself, and that will be prompted by the students themselves.”  Dream on, Mr. Kay: I don’t see this happening:

The process of sifting through these events at Haverford has convinced me that the ideological crisis on American campuses can’t be solved by administrators—not because they are beholden to critical race theory, intersectionality, gender ideology, postmodernism, or any of the other bugbears of conservative culture critics, but because they simply have no practical inducements for doing so. Ultimately, this is a crisis that is going to have to be addressed, if at all, by students themselves. And in this regard, I do see some green shoots of hope. Nick Lasinsky, a white undergraduate student at Haverford, wrote a beautiful and thoughtful piece called Why I’ve Chosen Not to Strike. And a black student named Khalil Walker wrote an amazing series of comments in which he demolishes the idea that Haverford is a hive of systematic racism. Our culture moves in cycles, and I predict that you will see more of these brave voices in months to come.

I predict otherwise. These woke and outraged students will, since they come from elite colleges, get positions of leadership in the media as well as in other colleges, for many of them will go on to become academics and administrators. And that will make colleges even more woke, and so on. There’s nothing on the horizon to break that cycle.

As I worry about this fate for my own university (our hard-line President, Bob Zimmer, will resign at the end of this academic year), I spend too much time—especially for an emeritus professor—fretting about the University of Chicago. For decades, we were the beacon of freedom of speech and academic freedom among American colleges. This uniqueness was in fact a selling point of the University, who advertised it to potential students and their parents. But it’s crumbling.

Now we stand on an equipoise that could easily turn us into Haverford, especially because many of our students are just as woke as theirs. While I still fight for freedom of speech here, it’s getting harder and harder, and the opposition gets louder and louder. What’s freedom of speech compared to the “harm” you cause by speaking your mind?

Before too long, we may see the time when the University of Chicago is no longer the model for colleges that want to encourage all sorts of discussion and discourage none. And I find that prospect discouraging.

The Kalven Report of 1967, supposedly ensuring the political neutrality of the University of Chicago

June 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

In 1967, President George Beadle of the University of Chicago (a Nobel-winning geneticist and also an avowed atheist) convened a committee whose charge was to “prepare a statement on the University’s role in social and political action.” This was the result of many people calling for the University to take positions on political issues like the Vietnam War, security hearings in the U.S Congress, and so on. The Committee was convened in February and produced its report, remarkably, by November. The report took its name from Harry Kalven Jr., the Committee chair, a famous legal scholar, and a professor of law at the University’s law school.

The document is only a bit more than two pages long, and you can get a pdf by clicking on the screenshot below. You should read it whether or not you think that universities should take official political positions.

The basic conclusion of the Kalven Report was that the University as a whole comprises scholars who are supposed to provide the opinions, but the University itself should not—with two exceptions (see below). This was a landmark document that the University has basically adhered to for over half a century—though I suspect those days are ending.

First, the meat of the document (bolding is mine):

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

I agree with that, though I can envision some circumstances that adherence to it would make me a tad uncomfortable (e.g., divesting from harmful causes). But as far as I know, the University has adhered to this pretty scrupulously over the years. And the statements I’ve put in bold show why; it’s hard to argue otherwise. “The University of not a lobby.” The Kalven Report ranks with the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (chaired by Geoff Stone, another law school professor) as the two pillars of academic freedom and freedom of speech that has made me proud to be associated with this university.

The report does cite two exceptions, which seem reasonable. The first are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles.  The second is more mundane:

There is another context in which questions as to the appropriate role of the university may possibly arise, situations involving university ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, its membership in other organizations. Here, of necessity, the university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.

Economist George Stigler, also on the committee (and also a Nobel Laureate some yearslater), took exception to this last bit and added his own coda:

Special Comment by Mr. Stigler:

I agree with the report as drafted, except for the statements in the fifth paragraph from the end as to the role of the university when it is acting in its corporate capacity. As to this matter, I would prefer the statement in the following form: The university when it acts in its corporate capacity as employer and property owner should, of course, conduct its affairs with honor. The university should not use these corporate activities to foster any moral or political values because such use of its facilities will impair its integrity as the home of intellectual freedom.

I think Stigler’s comment is an improvement.

Now, however, I worry that the Kalven Report is being forgotten, or deliberately ignored, as social pressures are applied to the University to make official statements about politics and ideology. Most of these I’ve agreed with in their content, for they are liberal and I am a liberal. I won’t mention the statements, perhaps because I’ve been treated well here, am proud of my school, and don’t want to single individuals out for criticism. Suffice it to say that the increasing wokeness of the University is seeping into its official statements, and this politicizes the University in a way that the Kalven report feared and prohibited.

Will the University of Chicago become, in terms of wokeness, a high-class version of The Evergreen State College or Middlebury College?  I hope not, but I’m worried. Wokeness seems to be a one-way ratchet, for if you oppose it you risk being tarred with all kinds of names and labels.

Well, I’m older and won’t be around forever, but I hope to Ceiling Cat that (as Harvard did do), the University of Chicago won’t start producing “social justice placemats” to put in its dining halls. We seem to be creeping in that direction.

Philosopher: Do not sign petitions

August 13, 2019 • 12:00 pm

Agnes Callard is one of my colleagues: an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. She was recently asked to sign a petition opposing the deplatforming of philosophers who didn’t share ideologically acceptable views of sex and gender. Although I agree with that petition, Callard didn’t sign it—but not because she disagreed with the premise. In fact, she doesn’t sign petitions at all. In this longish New York Times piece, she explains why. I can understand her position, but I think she’s wrong.

Callard’s argument is simple, and I’m mystified why it takes so long—nearly 1400 words—to explain it. In short, she says that petitions are supposed to be persuasive not by the force of their arguments, but by the weight of the number of signatories. And that, she argues, is not how philosophy works: you are supposed to persuade solely by the quality of your argument. Having 100 prominent philosophers sign a petition, she thinks, doesn’t make it one iota more persuasive than if just one philosopher signed it. So what’s the point of accumulating signatories? Here’s what she says:

I refused to sign, because I believe that petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry. Here’s why.

Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position. The petition aims to effect persuasion with respect to what appears in the first part not only by way of any argument contained therein but also by way of the number and respectability of the people who figure in the second part. Such a document tries to persuade you to believe (that it is right to do) something because many people, some of whom are authorities, believe it (is the right thing to do). It is not always wrong to believe things because many people believe them, but it is always intellectually uninquisitive to do so.

The problem here is not that what many believe can be false, though that is a problem. The problem is that even if it’s true, the fact that many believe it doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know. Is this problem mitigated by the fact that the list is not about sheer numbers because authorities appear on it? I think intellectually inquisitive people do gravitate toward those with expertise, because they are in an especially good position to answer our questions. But this goes only for experts taken severally. One expert is a learning opportunity; being confronted with an arsenal of experts is about as conducive to conversation as a firing squad

There is something aggressive about the way in which voices gain strength and volume by being joined together. Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct. Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.

That is 402 words, and the other thousand don’t add much more. She does note that she isn’t asking her colleagues to refrain from political activity, but that a group of philosophers signing a petition “is instead the politicization of philosophy itself.”  She is right about that, and all of us worry about a discipline adopting a uniform stand of ideological purity and demonizing dissenters. But signing petitions doesn’t really politicize philosophy so long as dissenters aren’t ostracized. It merely expresses a unanimity of views.

Here’s why I think Callard is somewhat mistaken.

1.) Often petitions do make arguments in the text. I haven’t seen the one she was asked to sign, but most petitions explain why the signatories are taking their stand. That is an argument that can be considered.

2.) Numbers and, especially, expertise, do matter. This is especially true for petitions which refer to actual data that has been scrutinized, such as ones in which climate scientists underline the danger of global warming. A call for reduced carbon emissions carries more intellectual weight when signed by, say, 100 recognized climatologists than when signed by just one. This is in line with “Coyne’s Fourth Law”, one of my many guides for life: “If someone criticizes something you do or say, examine the argument. If two or more people tell you the same thing, they’re probably right.”

Now philosophy is about how to think and not usually about assessing data, but philosophers can think about issues relevant to their discipline and come to a consensus. And the more well-known thinkers that sign on to that consensus, the more seriously we should take it, regardless of Callard’s claim that the argument is all that counts. Why? Because each philosopher has a slightly different take on the issue, and therefore has slightly different arguments and reasons. But if they all conclude the same thing, then we might think about it more seriously. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should buy it tout court. 

Take an issue that I’ve written about and that has brought me a lot of grief from others. I think that infants born with an incurable disease or deformity that will certainly kill them after a prolonged period of suffering (e.g., anencephaly) should be allowed to be euthanized: with, of course, the parents’ consent, medical concurrence, and a proper way of painlessly ending its life. (Peter Singer has argued the same thing, leading to many people calling for him to be fired.) I can make that argument, and I have, and have been dismissed and sometimes vilified. But if a hundred ethical philosophers—who have expertise in thinking about such issues—agree with me, doesn’t that make you think more seriously about the issue? That is, it’s easy to dismiss one person as an outlier or even a crackpot, but it’s not so easy to dismiss the intellectual cream of an entire field.

To be sure, Callard makes a good point when she argues that philosophers don’t sign petitions about matters that are purely philosophical, just as I’d be unlikely to sign a petition that says, “We believe that evolution happened, and that all species have common ancestors.”

Callard:

We’d never approach questions such as “Are possible worlds real?” or “Is knowledge justified true belief?” by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech? The answer is that the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now — for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it.

Well, is signing a petition really “adopting an unphilosophical attitude towards it”? Especially when the issue is a philosophical one that has practical consequences (assisted suicide, for example), is it really “unphilosophical” to band together to try to persuade society to do something specific? After all, you are using your expertise in a socially useful way.

I know petitions in general aren’t very effective—in fact, I can barely think of one that had any effec. But even if they don’t, I think that at least they can prompt people to think seriously about an issue. And if that’s the case, then it’s maladaptive to adopt Callard’s purist attitude that philosophers should persuade people simply by the force of their arguments. In principle that may be true, but it’s not the sole way to influence people in the real world.

Marxist prof demands an end to grading, a meritocratic ranking that props up a rotten capitalism

August 8, 2019 • 12:00 pm

At hand we have a passionate editorial in Truthout, a left-wing site, written by Richard D. Wolff, described by Wikipedia as ” an American Marxian economist, known for his work on economic methodology and class analysis. He is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York. Wolff has also taught economics at Yale University, City University of New York, University of Utah, University of Paris I (Sorbonne), and The Brecht Forum in New York City.”

Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.

Now four days ago I wrote about Bret Stephens’s thesis that a lot of the student unrest on American campuses comes as a revolt against the meritocracy, which, claims Stephens, is inimical to a “radical egalitarianism” that to many is the basis for social justice. In his piece, Wolff argues that grading is not only an unwanted part of a capitalistic meritocracy, and is inimical to education itself, but is also used to buttress capitalism, keeping people ordered and in their place.

I will let you read his argument for yourself. My own take on grading is that it’s imperfect, slotting students into one of five to a dozen categories, but it’s not useless. (In my grad courses, where I wasn’t required to give grades, everyone got a “pass”—a “P”—unless they required a grade, in which case I gave them a written assignment (my grad courses were all discussion and reading courses).  As I recall, some colleges (Reed College may be one of them) don’t give grades, but provide written evaluations for each student. That would be ideal, though it seems hard for grad schools or employers to use such evaluations since there’s nothing to compare.  And that brings up the issue of what grades are for.

Wolff sees grades as of no benefit to students, but only to employers or graduate schools. He’s largely right, I think, though grades are also a way of self-evaluation, letting you know that you’re not performing up to snuff. A lot of students in elite colleges haven’t ever had to compete with a huge number of equally talented students, and a low grade may be a sign that you’re not working hard enough.

Yes, grades are imperfect evaluations, but I see no alternative to some form of evaluation. But I reject the idea that they’re deliberately used to prop up capitalism, a system that, says Wolff, is rotten to the core, and almost would collapse without grades and the attendant meritocracy they foster. For example:

The capitalist economic system has major failures. It generates extreme, socially divisive inequalities of wealth and income. It consistently fails to achieve full employment. Many of its jobs are boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing. Every four to seven years, it suffers a mysterious downdraft in which millions of people lose jobs and incomes, businesses collapse, falling tax revenues undermine public services, and so on. If these failures were widely perceived as the inherent failures of the capitalist system, the desirability and thus sustainability of capitalism itself might vanish.

How, then, has capitalism survived? Its persistence can best be explained in terms of ideology. The system produces and disseminates interpretations of its failures that blame these problems not on capitalism itself, but on other altogether different “causes.” Institutions have developed mechanisms to anchor such interpretations widely and deeply in the popular consciousness.

One key example is the concept of “meritocracy.” Schools are a key institution that teaches and practices meritocracy via the mechanism of grading.

Presumably Wolff wants a purely socialistic state, but those have always failed, largely because there’s a lack of incentive. Mixed systems, such as those in Scandinavia and, in fact, in much of Europe, are more successful. Even the U.S., with its Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits, is a bit socialistic. But Wolff doesn’t seem to favor that system.

Wolff also raises other problems with grades besides their use as a prop of a failing capitalism. They take excessive time for professors (but not as much time as written evaluations!); a low grade could be the fault of a poor teacher rather than a poor student; grading could measure memorization rather than learning; and students could have not a wrong understanding, but a different understanding. In fact, Wolff shades a bit into postmodernism when he says stuff like this:

Did the student understand the material differently from me in ways not reducible to matters of right and wrong? After all, every piece of verbal or written material is subject to perfectly reasonable multiple interpretations. Education is not well served by insisting on one answer as right and alternatives as wrong. Such insistence is more like indoctrination than education; it undermines creative, critical thinking.

Let a hundred truths blossom! Sometimes, at least in science, one answer is right, and so you can use multiple-choice questions. (I almost never used them; even in large classes I tried to give mostly short essay questions involving “thought.”

What bothers me most about Wolff’s article is that he seems completely opposed to even the idea of a meritocracy. He suggests that any ranking of people is inimical to the socialist society he wants. Yet how can you hire anybody, or achieve excellence, unless you have a way of ranking people? Granted, you can modify a pure meritocracy by adopting other goals (“diversity and inclusion” is the main one in universities), but no college will accept students without some way to rank them. What kind of society can we have if we can’t evaluate people’s skills relative to each other? Yet it seems that’s what Wolff wants:

Within the framework of meritocratic ideology, employers seek to hire the “best” employee and are willing to pay such individual workers more than they pay workers with “less” merit (ranked lower on some scale of productivity). In meritocratic logic, those offered no jobs can only blame themselves: They must assume they have too little merit. Workers learn in school to seek to accumulate merit and achieve higher rankings along the scales that count for employers. Coalitions of educators and employers have inserted the educational system into this merit system as an important place to acquire and accumulate merit that employers will recognize and reward. Better jobs and rising pay reward rising merit acquired through more education as well as “on-the-job” training.

. . . Meritocracy and the educational system’s key place within it are important because capitalism’s survival depends on them. The merit system organizes how individual employees interpret the unemployment they suffer, the job they hate, the wage or salary they find so insufficient, the creativity their job stifles, and so on. It starts as schools train individuals to accept the grades assigned to them as measures of individual academic merit. That prepares them to accept their jobs and incomes as, likewise, measures of their individual productive merit. Under this framework, unequal grades, jobs and income can all be seen as appropriate and fair: Rewards are supposedly proportional to one’s individual merit.

. . . Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims. Schools teach meritocracy, and grading is the method.

But I ask the sweating professor: “What is the alternative?” Do we not rank people at all? And if you want that, what are the implications for society?

Here’s the man himself:

Richard D. Wolff