Another blow at the meritocracy: California to eliminate all standardized tests for college admissions

January 14, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Part of the Woke Program is dispelling meritocracy, as demonstrations of “merit” are often seen as byproducts of “privilege”, while lower assessments of merit, especially when instantiated by minority groups, are seen as instantiations of bigotry. It’s well known, for example, that the standard ACT and SAT tests show dramatically different average scores among racial groups. Below is a table of 2018 scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, with data drawn from the U.S. Department of Education. The standard deviations in the U.S. overall are about 200; this figure would be lower for separate groups because that estimate comes from combined data of groups having different means.

As is well known, there are big differences between groups—on the order of half to a full standard deviation, with Asians at the top followed by whites, mixed-race students, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and then Native Americans and blacks nearly tied on the lowest rung.

The ordering is seen as reflecting racism, and that may well be true if you take “racism” as meaning “the historical oppression of minority groups which had created at present an impoverished cultural environment with bad schools.” And that would be my own explanation for the differences. A culture of pushing for achievement and high grades would then account for Asians getting the highest scores on average.

Some people, however, attribute racism more directly, arguing that the questions themselves are racially biased, favoring white and Asian “knowledge” over the knowledge held by other groups.  I don’t think such an explanation holds much water, especially for math; and the SAT company has made efforts to examine the possibility of bias and eliminate those questions that smack of it.

Because of the racial disparities, people have argued successfully to eliminate SATs and ACTs (another standardized test) as requirements for college admission. I can’t see a good reason for that. SATs, in particular, are just as correlated with success in college as are high-school grade point averages, but the latter are specific to schools. Why would you not want to put all students on the same scale, evaluated by the same test, when you’re judging students? The best thing to do, as I’ve argued, is use a multivariate index, combining grades and standardized-test scores.

The reason schools are eliminating tests, of course, is largely because racial disparities in scores don’t look good on their face (I’d argue that they highlight a problem of inequality), and, if used as one criterion for college admission, would reduce the chances of minorities like blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans getting into selective colleges, exacerbating inequities (inequality of representation). But there’s a solution: colleges wanting more racial balance can use various legal affirmative-action strategies, strategies that, in general, I approve of. Also, there’s a benefit for minorities taking standardized tests: it enables colleges to pick out those students who are likely to do well (remember the correlation between SAT scores and college success) but didn’t have high grade-point averages, perhaps because they were bored or not turned on by the curriculum.

But you can only push affirmative action so far before unequal admissions treatment starts getting people upset. That’s why a group of Asian students sued Harvard (and lost, at least for the time being), claiming that Harvard deliberately downgraded their assessments to avoid having too many Asians on campus. If you have standardized-test numbers to attach to different groups, the disparities are glaring and not only can incite resentment, but can lead to lawsuits arguing that schools are using a “quota system,” a strategy ruled out in the Bakke case.

Recently, the University of California decided to eliminate tests like SATs as requirements for in-state applicants, making them optional for the next two years. Then, in 2023, students will not be allowed to even submit those scores. This happened despite the recommendation of both its own Chancellor and a panel convened by the University system itself, both of which recommended that SAT-like tests be retained as mandatory for applicants. The only reason that the University could possibly have for overriding its own panel’s recommendation is that test scores highlight racial disparities and could exacerbate at the U of C if considered in a largely meritocratic admissions system.

For reasons I can’t fathom, the University of California, after ditching the SATs and ACTs, recommended that the system devise its own standardized test, to be implemented in 2025. But according to this article from the Los Angeles Times (click on screenshot, and inquire for a copy if paywalled), they’ve decided they can’t do that in a timely fashion, and so the U of C is likely to ditch all standardized tests—for good.  This has already happened in over 1,000 other colleges and universities (roughly a quarter of higher-education institutions in the U.S.), a wholesale dismantling of the meritocracy. (n.b.: I don’t think that test-scores or grades should be the sole criterion for college admissions, as there are other criteria of achievement that aren’t measured by these statistics.)

See if you can open this, and ask if you can’t:

Because the proposed UC-specific test isn’t practicable, they’ve explored another alternative:

The UC Board of Regents unanimously voted last year to eliminate the SAT and ACT — as more than 1,000 other colleges and universities have done — amid decades of research showing test performance is heavily influenced by race, income and parent education levels.

But the regents accepted a faculty recommendation to explore whether a new UC test without those biases could be developed, saying it would have to be ready in time for fall 2025 applicants.

The UC panels, in their reports released Monday, said it was not feasible for UC to develop its own test because it would take too long and recommended that the university instead explore using a modified version of the state’s high school assessment — but only as an optional “data point” in comprehensive applicant reviews.

The new replacement:

The group of UC faculty, admissions directors, testing experts and other educational and community representatives focused on whether Smarter Balanced, the California assessment given annually to 11th graders, could be retooled for UC use. Any use of a modified state test, however, should be optional and limited so as not to create the inequities and high-stakes pressures associated with the SAT and ACT, according to the recommendation to UC President Michael V. Drake from a second panel.

This is just replacing one standardized test with another, and one that can’t be used to compare in-state applicants with out-of-state applicants who don’t take “Smarter Balanced.” Note the concern with “inequities and high-stakes pressures”.  Well, you’re still going to get those, because Smarter Balanced testing produces the same disparities as does the SAT:

But members from both groups also expressed concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in state test results. For instance, about 70% of students classified as Asian meet or exceed the 11th-grade standard for math compared with 45% of whites and 20% of Black and Latino students, the work group said.

So you’ve still got those substantial inequities in exactly the same direction. Proponents of the California-specific test, however, argue that it has a few advantages over SATs. For one thing, it’s free, while I believe it costs a lot to take the standardized SAT and ACT tests. Also, proponents argue that a California-specific test will somehow “better align [the University of California] with the K-12 system, leading to better educational preparation for university work.”

But do you really want California-wide uniformity of educational desiderata, especially when assessed with a test not available to those outside California? It all sounds too cumbersome to me. 

And, in the end, the committees assessing this issue decided that, for the time being, the University system should not use Smarter Balanced as an admission criterion, instead using the test scores “for related purposes, such as validating GPA [JAC: that is a criterion by the way], providing context about the school’s educational environment or helping determine placement in freshman courses and summer preparation programs.”

In the end, I think that a mandatory standardized test for all applicants, including those from outside the state, is useful, and I can’t see any good arguments against it save the cost, which can be obviated. As I wrote last year, concurring with Scott Aaronson that standardized tests have real value in singling out smart kids who didn’t get good grades (Aaronson was one of those):

If you want greater racial equity, though, it seems to me best not to eliminate test scores, but to calculate a multivariate index of “academic achievement,” and then use other criteria, like “diversity points” to increase racial balance. This is, in effect, what is being done now by schools like Harvard. The reason, as I’ve said before, is as a form of reparations for those held back by their sociopolitical history in America.

You can have greater equity and some meritocratic criteria at the same time. What you cannot have is greater equity and purely meritocratic admissions, assuming that you base the merit on grades, test scores, and criteria like achievements not measured by grades and scores. (I don’t recommend using Harvard’s “personality index”!) Eventually, when equality of opportunity is achieved for all groups—and that is the real goal, but one that will take decades to achieve—there will be no good arguments against using standardized tests as criteria for college admission.

h/t: Luana

Why are old white men so much worse than young white men?

November 13, 2020 • 9:30 am

When I open the latest issue of our student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, I often get similar feelings as when I read HuffPost: “This rag is way too woke.” It’s especially depressing here because of the big gap between the students’ wokeness and the University’s ideals, which are to promulgate nearly complete free speech and to refrain from the University making any official statement about politics, morality, or ideology beyond those necessary to ensure that the University functions as an equal-opportunity venue for learning and exploring ideas. (See our list of “Foundational Principles”.) Both of these principles are meant to promote free discussion, in hopes that the clash of ideas brings knowledge, awareness, and learning how to learn.

Here’s an example from the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Protest and Dissent:

In our view, dissent and protest are integral to the life of the University. Dissent and protest should be affirmatively welcomed, not merely tolerated, by the University. Especially in a university community, the absence of dissent and protest—not its presence—is a cause for concern. The passionate expression of non-conforming ideas is 2 both a cause and an effect of the intellectual climate that defines this University in particular. In addition, dissent and protest—and public demonstrations by groups and individuals—play a role in the University’s educational mission: being a member of an educational community that values dissent and protest is, in part, how people develop as citizens of a democracy.

In contrast, many (but by no means all) of our students want repression of “hate speech”, deplatforming of speakers, the right to avoid punishment for disrupting speech, and, of course, defunding and eliminating the campus police. A major editorial in the new Maroon, for instance, bemoans the possibility that after our current President—Robert Zimmer—steps down at the end of this academic year, the committee chosen to select his replacement consists of uniformly wealthy and overwhelmingly white males. (That isn’t true: there are two women, one Hispanic man, and one black man on the committee of 12, in addition to Zimmer himself). The students are afraid that Zimmer’s replacement will be just like him, and want “faculty, staff, students, and community members” to be on the search committee lest the policies of Zimmer (including retaining the campus cops) be continued.  With a committee like that, we’d wind up getting somebody like George “Can I Pee Now?” Bridges, the invertebrate president of The Evergreen State College. In fact, the committee should strive to get someone like Zimmer, as he’s fought hard to keep the University of Chicago a bastion of free speech and unrestricted inquiry (he’s also been hugely successful in the President’s other job: raising money for the University).

It’s not the disparity of age, sex, and color between students and trustees or President that worries me (our Provost, by the way, is an Asian woman)—it’s the disparity between these two groups in what they think a university is for and how it should be run. The students want the purpose of our University to be social engineering, and preparing students to be social engineers; the faculty and administration want the students to learn and learn how to think; to bathe in and ponder rarified ideas. We don’t see the university as a way to inculcate students with certain societal values, but as a way to get them to think about and arrive at their own values.

Contrast the Founding Principles above, for example, with a booklet produced by our Leftier students, the Dis-Orientation Guide for 2020: 59 pages of wokeness that begins by repudiating our principles of free speech as inconsistently applied (they’re not) and rejecting the Kalven Report’s admonition for the University to avoid taking official political stands. In my view, if our President is replaced by pliable, woke, and invertebrate Presidents like those of Evergreen State, Yale, and Smith, the unique aspects of the University of Chicago will be gone. Every class would begin with a land acknowledgment, and the faculty would have to “get in the canoe”. (Do watch that video for a horrifying dose of faculty and administrative self-abasement.)

Zimmer and some of the trustees are, of course Old White Males, a trope that appears in the same issue with an editorial with the customary critique of “core curricula” everywhere:

Placing readings in relation to current world events would not only deepen students’ understanding of content, but it would widen the context under which we could apply it later on. Untangling the pages of dense theory written in the 17th century generally does not do wonders for student engagement—it is when what we read is made relatable that it becomes interesting to us, and it is then that we become motivated to push our reading further.

The solution could be as easy as including more authors of different races and backgrounds: namely, less [sic] old white men.

I’d have some sympathy with this—after all, diverse voices emit diverse ideas and viewpoints—if the core hadn’t already been revamped to be diverse in many ways. Check out some of the courses offered, and I’ve put part of a pdf below.  You can explore more sample courses and sample texts by starting here (the “general education requirement” of 15 courses that constitutes the Core), and clicking around. Check out “Civilization Studies” for a panoply of courses that will appeal to those who want more ethnic and gender diversity. The Core is superb, and is one reason many students come here.

So I absolutely reject the idea that the core, which comprises considerable and diverse courses, is heavily conditioned with too many “old white males.” Of course if you’re interested in Western Civ or Western Literature, you’re going to find it OWM-heavy, for Western civilization developed at a time when women and minorities were shoved to the margin. Come back in 200 years.

But what I don’t understand is why the denigration of OLD white males? Are YOUNG white males better? Shakespeare had already produced some of his finest work by age 40, and I could name many pillars of literature and art, who, even though white, made their contributions when young.  Is the underlying idea that old white males are more conservative than young ones? Well, maybe now, but if you go back a few hundred years, even young white males would be seen through modern eyes as not only conservative, but often bigoted.

What we have here is again a conflict between two ideals of liberalism: diversity and anti-ageism. If it’s racist and sexist to denigrate authors because they’re white and male, then it’s triply pernicious by being ageist and adding that they’re bad because they’re old.

And to those who dismiss white men because they’re old, I have two words in response: Bernie Sanders.

Weekend reading: three easy pieces

September 5, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I commend three items to your attention for weekend reading, assuming that you’re not gallivanting about this Labor Day weekend, mingling with crowds and spreading viruses. You can access each article by clicking on the screenshot of its title.

First up we have an attack on science, seen as “scientism”, from Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who works at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. I’ve written a few times about Feser, most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven. (Yes, someone gets paid to think about that kind of stuff!) Feser was furious at my critique and issued a bunch of ad hominems, including the usual claim that I’m theologically unsophisticated and need to read more Feser—the usual riposte to an attack on Sophisticated Theology®. (Feser is a nasty piece of work, and lets no attack go unrebutted, usually with lots of nasty counterattacks that tout his own superior wisdom.)

That aside, he’s now written an attack on scientism in The American Mind, the organ of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.  From reading it, you’d gather (well, I gathered) that Feser really knows very little about how science is actually done, adopting most of his criticisms from the rather erratic Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science.

Here’s one sign that Feser is scientifically unsophisticated (my way of a tu quoque response):

There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.

Never in my life did I make a mathematical model, though many scientists do. Darwin didn’t make a mathematical model, either about natural or sexual selection, and many scientists either make verbal models or simply describe phenomena and hypothesize about them or simply let them become part of our knowledge about nature. People like Feser don’t seem to realize that an important part of science is simply describing stuff.  Mathematics, while immensely useful in science, isn’t always necessary if you don’t need a mathematical model, though statistics is essential for reaching sound conclusions about quantitative data.

But you can read the piece for yourself; after all, that’s the point of this post. When I read it last week, I found myself saying over and over again, “Wait! That’s not a good description of science.” And if you don’t understand enough about science to describe it properly, and especially if you rely on Paul Feyerabend as your go-to expert, you’re going to produce an attack that will be embraced only by those who already despise science—like Feser. (Feser also seems to think that the pandemic is overblown.) It’s ironic that Feser, a Catholic, disparages science by saying it’s our “state religion.”  “See! You’re as bad as we are!”

Here’s Graeme Wood in The Atlantic going after Vicky Osterweil’s new book meant to justify looting as a positive social force.  It’s a humorous and well written piece, and it’s clear Wood doesn’t much like the book:

My view wasn’t that Osterweil’s interview with NPR shouldn’t have been published, but that the interviewer didn’t ask her any hard questions about her ridiculous thesis. NPR finally agreed, and walked the article back a bit.  Wood argues—and I agree—that we need to hear the best case possible for excusing looting, but also that NPR wasn’t critical enough. An excerpt:

Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.

In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.

Finally, we have this provocatively titled article from Inside Higher Ed, and the answer to the title question is “yes.” Well, it’s a bit misleading—the title is apparently chosen to make the article look more au courant in the George Floyd era. Lecturing isn’t exactly racist, but it does, say the authors, discriminate against minorities, who learn better using other methods.

Before you dismiss the piece entirely, read it (it’s short). There are apparently data showing that some minorities don’t learn as well in lectures as they do under a method called “active learning”. I haven’t looked that method up, but, if the purpose of lectures is to help students learn, and if the authors’ studies really show that active learning is better for everyone than are lectures, then we need to rethink how we teach. Of course there’s considerable inertia here, as that’s the way we’ve always done stuff, and there’s a pleasurable frisson of showmanship involved in lecturing. Remember, though that the evidence seems to come largely from the authors’ own research:

An excerpt:

Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.

Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.

Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.

Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.

But for a one-off, like a visiting talk or a short series of talks on board a ship, I still think lectures are the way to go.

Have a good weekend!


New troubles for college-bound British students

August 17, 2020 • 9:00 am

Matthew informed me of the mess in England about school exams, which is causing huge difficulties there and leaving a lot of students at their wit’s end.  I asked him to tell us a bit about it, as reading online only confused me. So here’s Matthew’s explanation.

by Matthew Cobb

The future of a generation of English school-leavers is being blighted by the pandemic and by government incompetence. Their end-of-school exams—A-levels—did not take place, so the government devised an algorithm to determine their marks (used for university entry, but also by future employers). The algorithm took into account the teachers’ predictions of the grades (teachers do this every year for the weird UK university entrance system, whereby students are made offers partly on the basis of these predictions), but then moderated them on the basis of the school’s bad performance. They checked the algorithm against last year’s results, and found that it made mistakes in over 2/3 of cases, and that state school pupils were systematically downgraded while private school pupils were not, but they went ahead with it anyway.

As you might expect, there has been a massive outcry and a huge sense of injustice as many teenagers have been deemed to fail exams they did not even take, and promised university futures have evaporated through no fault of the students. A new slogan has emerged on demonstrations that we will undoubtedly hear more of as the 21st century progresses: ‘Fuck the algorithm’. The government said students would be able to appeal against the grading, starting today, but over the weekend that option was removed without explanation. The grisly details of all this—in particular the incompetent and unqualified cronies who are in charge of various decisions—are even more grisly than I have set out here, but maybe UK-based readers would like to add to this in the comments.

Later this week the malfunctioning algorithm will be used to determine the marks of 16 year olds, for their GCSE exams. Already Northern Ireland (which has control over its education system) has said it will ignore the algorithm and will simply use teacher’s predicted grades for the GSCEs. Exactly the same thing happened in Scotland (which has an entirely separate education system and local control over it) a couple of weeks ago with their Highers. Faced with massive protest, the Scottish government had to backtrack and use teacher’s predictions. It seems probable that the English government will do the same, but slacker Johnson is on holiday, and anyway isn’t interested in anything resembling responsibility. For the moment, the algorithm results stand.

[EDIT: As expected, the English government has backed down and agreed that students in England will have their exam results based on their teachers’ predictions (‘centre assessment grades’). Ofqual, the body in charge of this utter fiasco, has said:

We understand this has been a distressing time for students, who were awarded exam results last week for exams they never took. The pandemic has created circumstances no one could have ever imagined or wished for. We want to now take steps to remove as much stress and uncertainty for young people as possible – and to free up heads and teachers to work towards the important task of getting all schools open in two weeks. After reflection, we have decided that the best way to do this is to award grades on the basis of what teachers submitted. The switch to centre assessment grades will apply to both AS and A-levels and to the GCSE results which students will receive later this week.

Good. Now comes a few more days of chaos as students, schools and universities try to sort out the mess and, in some cases, find places for all the extra students who they will now have to take on board.]


Today in collegiate dystopia: ex-governor to take over the University of Wisconsin

June 20, 2020 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

The University of Wisconsin has been having a bad time for more than a decade. The latest episode is an utterly incompetent and unsuccessful search for a new President of the UW System. The search for the President, who oversees all 13 campuses (flagship Madison, runner-up Milwaukee, and 11 comprehensives), was shambolic from the start. The Board of Regents, handpicked by former Governor Scott Walker, had changed the rules so that faculty, staff, and students were excluded from having any meaningful input into the search process—the search committee consisted solely of a handful of Regents and administrators. This was billed as a way of overcoming the sloth and inefficiency of committees with a broadly representative membership. Things would get done fast with a committee controlled by prosperous businessmen (i.e., Regents), because prosperous businessmen know how to get things done.

But as Theodore Roosevelt so astutely observed about prosperous businessmen,

It tires me to talk to rich men. You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing; but as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own business.

Choosing to forge ahead during the pandemic, and laboring in secret, the committee, with the assistance of a search firm charging $200k plus expenses, brought forth a single candidate for the full Board of Regents, rather than the 3-5 candidates expected from such a search. For anybody else in academia this would be considered a failed search, but the Regents pushed on in the face of widespread criticism. Just hours before the search committee was to finalize the choice of its only candidate, the candidate, James Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska, withdrew from consideration. In a brief statement, even he realized that things were not right:

[I]t’s clear they [the search committee] have important process issues to work out.

In addition to the process issues, there were substantive concerns about Johnsen. He’d been the recipient of no confidence votes by both faculty and students in Alaska, and had no evident experience in the actual work of universities, having apparently been an administrator for his entire career. (I don’t know why regents and trustees seem to think someone with no experience in teaching or research would be good at running a university. The captain of an aircraft carrier is always a naval aviator, not someone who is good at refurbishing the flight deck or organizing meals for 5000. Although an aircraft carrier needs such people, they are not in command.)

Johnsen’s withdrawal was a bright day for the University of Wisconsin, but the question then became: who would be the president now that the search failed? The current president, Ray Cross, who is retiring at the end of the month, had been chosen for his fealty to the leadership of the state Republican party. Over the years he had proven to be powerless—doing whatever he was ordered to do; clueless—unaware of what his masters wanted until they ordered him to do it; but effective— slashing budgets, instituting top down command, merging the two-year campuses into the four-years. (The latter was to insure that campus chancellors, rather than the Regents or the Legislature, would take the blame when the struggling two-years took their hits.) His latest exploit was using the pandemic as motivation for a grandiose plan to change the mission of the university. (It’s not yet clear whether he was strategically using the crisis, Rahm Emmanuel-style, or just panicking. The latter is indicated by his backtracking, and simultaneous advocacy of moving online and maintaining in person classes in the fall of 2020.) Would Cross be asked to stay on?

On Friday, the Regents announced that they had selected former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson as interim President, and, furthermore, that they did not intend to conduct a search for a permanent President anytime soon. This was a surprising choice, and has drawn mixed reactions. My own view is that he might not be a disaster. I’m not optimistic, but it’s not clear the sky is falling. A little explanation is in order.

As governor from 1987-2001, Thompson worked tirelessly for his personal vision for the state: a series of supermax prisons connected by broad, straight, highways. Frank Rich accurately described him “as a Chamber of Commerce glad-hander who doesn’t know his pants are on fire” during his brief tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services. So why am I not gloomy? In those days, the Wisconsin Republican Party had a pro-business wing and a know-nothing wing, and the pro-business wing, which Thompson led, was ascendant. Thompson’s wing of the party saw the University of Wisconsin as useful—in mostly a neoliberal, transactional, sort of way, but even tinged with a touch of genuine affection, since they had all gone to school there. Because the legislature was controlled, at least in part, by Democrats for most of Thompson’s tenure as governor, the two parties actually worked together to do good things for the University.

This modest bipartisanship ended when Democrat Jim Doyle became governor. The Democrats thought they could rely on the votes of most University supporters, and the know-nothing wing became ascendant in the Republican Party. The latter reached its apotheosis under Governor Scott Walker, and this wing is deeply opposed to the University on ideological grounds—disdaining both the notion of education as a public good, and the leftist ideology they see as infesting colleges. (At a meeting with a few Regents several years ago, I was saddened by one Regent—a successful Republican politician of the old school—relating how current, know-nothing, legislators mocked her for her support of the University.)

Tommy Thompson thus comes on to the scene as, what one online wag called him, the last “normal Republican”. A former supporter of the University, but a dyed in the wool Republican, it is an open question as to what he will do as UW System President. Equally important is the question of whether the legislature (gerrymandered into an almost unbeatable Republican majority) or the Regents will allow him the latitude to do anything other than what they want. (If the Regents want Thompson to do their bidding, they must act quickly, because in less than a year a majority of the Board’s members will have been appointed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.)

Does Thompson still support the University of Wisconsin? I don’t know. But at least he’s not a known enemy, and he may have sufficient residual heft to oppose those who are its enemies.

JAC: Here’s a picture of Bascom Hall, the flagship building of the flagship campus at Madison:

Bascom Hall, the main administrative building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Bill Martens/WPR

Today in collegiate dystopia: gazing into the crystal ball

April 28, 2020 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

A writer in The New York Times has taken a rather optimistic view of the implications for higher education of the current shift to remote teaching and learning. It’s not that he thinks things are going well this semester– they’re not. Rather, he thinks that colleges will be able to reopen without that much change in the fall (or whenever things return to normal).

His thesis:
As for predictions that it will trigger a permanent exodus from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual classrooms, all indications are that it probably won’t.
I think he’s too optimistic. While the experience with remote education has not been good, many colleges outside the top tier see remote education as a lifeline to survival, and administrators at these colleges are eager to embrace the tuition-paying students, and cost savings, that remote education brings. To see this, just spend a little time perusing the house organs of education administrators, Inside Higher Ed (open access) and the Chronicle of Higher Education (much of it paywalled).

For years now, the only thing that has mattered to administrators is institutional success. Institutional success means the continued existence of the institution; success in the acquisition of funds from funding sources; and good publicity. For awhile they thought that recruitment (enrolling as many students as possible) and retention (making sure every student who enrolls keeps coming back every semester) were the keys to success. In all of a college’s activities, attracting new students was the point—finding and enrolling these new students was all that mattered.

More recently, administrators (to a great extent under pressure created by the neoliberal initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education) have come to believe that graduating students is more important than getting students. This might seem a laudable redirection, but, in a textbook exemplification of Campbell’s Law, this meant that the entire aim of higher education could be re-imagined—credentialing became the goal.

So, many colleges now seek to recruit, and then rush through to credentialing, as many students as possible. Many new programs have been created in pursuit of this goal. And much of the work of creating and running such programs can be outsourced to companies that, in exchange for a cut of the tuition, promise to find the students. (It’s remote education, so the students can come from anywhere.) Recently, however, one such company, Academic Partners LLC, has run into some difficulty; the president of the University of Texas, Arlington, was forced to resign because of his allegedly shady dealings with the company. But I fear this is just a speed bump on a rush to change the nature and mission of higher education.

Offended 9 year old girl objects to math question about weight

October 17, 2019 • 11:45 am

This is one of those issues where I can sort of see a point, but in general think it’s also overblown. In fact, it was the subject of an NBC Today show post and tv segment. It turns out that a nine year old Utah girl named Rhythm Pacheco was asked to answer a math question in which the weights of various students (females) were compared. In particular, as you see below, it was a simple subtraction question, one that Rhythm answered but then expressed anger, saying she “wont right this its rood” (committing four errors in five words). Here’s her answer.

In the NBC video on the site, the hosts get all upset and see the question as sexist (or otherwise offensive).

Now Rhythm wrote a nice note to her teacher, and the teacher responded nicely (and corrected Rhythm’s writing in brown ink!:

Here’s a television report from a local station, featuring Rhythm’s mother Naomi. You can see where Rhythm gets her ideology:

This is one of the issues where I’m torn. I do see that the comparison of bodies among women has been harmful, leading to things like anorexia and making a lot of women feel bad about themselves because they don’t or can’t look like skinny runway models. I also understand that a lot of this attitude comes from men’s ranking of women that includes weight. But would the question have been okay if they compared boys’ weights?

Nevertheless, this looks like overkill to me, with the mom being overly sensitive and inculcating her daughter with that attitude. Yet at the same time I’m proud of the girl for standing up for herself and having the moxie to write the teacher.

What do you think? Women’s voices would be especially appreciated in the comments.

Today in collegiate dystopia: “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

September 5, 2019 • 8:45 am

by Greg Mayer

Harry Lambert has a very interesting article at New Statesman America on “The great university con: how the British degree lost its value.”  I’m saddened but not surprised to find that the rot in American higher education extends across the Atlantic. The causes and manifestations, show much in common on both sides of the Pond. At its heart is the reconceptualization of higher education not as an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, but as an industry that provides services to private individuals and corporations. This is the essence of the neoliberal consensus on higher education.

Some excerpts from Lambert’s piece:

Over the past 30 years, successive governments, from Thatcher to Blair, to Cameron and May, have imposed a set of perverse incentives on universities. Their effect has been to degrade and devalue the quality of British degrees. Academic standards have collapsed. In many institutions, it is the students who now educate the universities, in what grades they will tolerate and how much work they are willing to do. “We have got to protect ourselves from complaints,” says Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

In 1985, the Thatcher government published the Jarratt Report, which stressed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”. The problem, the report argued, was “the tradition of vice-chancellors being scholars first and acting as a chairman of [an academic] senate carrying out its will”, rather than “leading it strongly”. Scholars should not run universities – business leaders must.

Note that, though begun under Tory Thatcher, Labor’s Blair continued the trend—that is why I refer to the current socially dominant view of higher education as a “consensus”—it is adopted by both left and right. We also see Campbell’s Law rearing its ugly head– the “perverse incentives” that distort the function of the universities. In response to those incentives, universities have been pumping out ever increasing numbers of apparently highly qualified graduates. But how did this “miracle” occur:

This supposed university miracle can only have happened in one of three ways. The first is that schools [in the US, high schools] have, over the past 30 years, supplied universities with students of a far higher calibre than in the recent past. This would be a notable achievement, as the university students of the past were the select few – in the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do. The second is that universities have taken historically indifferent students and turned them into unusually capable graduates. And the third is the reality: the university miracle is a mirage.

The chief theoretical debate within the neoliberal consensus is whether higher education is best seen as a provider of credentials to individuals, or as providing a workforce to corporations. Under the first view, students are customers; under the second, students are the product. Both can be seen in what Lambert reports. For student customers, they are paying for credentials, and academic considerations are a barrier to obtaining what they have paid for: grades that insure the granting of credentials.

Grade inflation is the inevitable outcome of the system universities operate under. There is little reason to suspect that the system is about to change, or is even understood. “The logical conclusion of the current drift is that by 2061, 100 per cent of people [will] get Firsts,” says Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. In fact, if the next 20 years are like the past 20, it won’t take half that time.

The whole is well worth a read; here’s Lambert’s parting excerpt:

Universities are governed by a set of incentives, laid down by successive governments. What they are neither incentivised nor mandated to provide is a baseline of quality education. While a handful of universities demand quality, and some students choose to work hard, the system is not designed to ensure either. As many academics report, statistics suggest and students widely know, it is possible to sail through university with a 2:1 or First without working or learning very much at all.

This is precisely what the government implicitly encourages. It is the rational outcome of the system under which universities operate. Call it the self-perpetuating spiral of shattering standards. It starts with the academic. They are faced with an inadequate student: why do they give them a 2:1? Because they are being pressured to by university management. That pressure is typically implicit; occasionally it is explicit.

h/t Brian Leiter

Today in collegiate dystopia: “Has College Gotten Too Easy?”

July 25, 2019 • 9:00 am

by Greg Mayer

The title of this second post in what I hope will be a continuing series comes from the title of a new article in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker. In the article he discusses an unpublished paper by Jeffrey Denning and colleagues at Brigham Young University. It highlights one of the chief ills of American higher education: that the goal of the system is not education. As noted in my first post in this series, the neoliberal consensus in higher education holds that the goal of higher education is maximization of monetary value. For businesses and legislators, this means colleges should train workers that industry needs in order to maximize profits; for labor advocates, it means training workers for jobs that pay well.

Though it might seem that achievement of this goal can be measured in dollars earned (by businesses or workers), such economic data can be difficult to gather, and suffer from the fact that it can take many years for the payoff of an investment to be evident. In lieu of this, some measure of success in reaching this goal must be agreed upon, and businessmen, legislators, bureaucrats, and educational think tanks, with the ready assent of college administrators, have settled upon graduation rate as the metric by which to measure the results of higher education.

It is to these rates, and how and why they are changing, that Denning et al. address themselves. Noting that graduation rates have gone up recently, but that there are no demographic or academic reasons to readily explain this, they consider that maybe it’s just easier to graduate. Money quote from Pinsker:

If grades are improving but there’s no reason to think that students have become better students, an interesting possibility is raised: The unassuming, academic way Denning puts it in a recent paper (co-authored with his BYU colleague Eric Eide and Merrill Warnick, an incoming Stanford doctoral student) is that “standards for degree receipt” may have changed. A less measured way of saying what that implies: College may have gotten easier… altering what’s necessary to get a degree is “the lowest cost way to increase graduation rates.”

Now, on the face of it, a high graduation rate would seem to be a good thing, and it is; but when you make a metric the goal, then the metric can be gamed, which is what Denning et al. suggest is being done by colleges. This is a well known phenomenon, nicely summarized by Abhishek Chakraborty:

It has been established that when you measure effectiveness solely based on quantitative indicators, people involved have a high incentive to demonstrate less ethical behaviour, and most likely less effective results as well. This is called Campbell’s Law. [emphasis added]

Donald Campbell was an academic psychologist, who expressed his law this way:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. [paywalled]

Frederick Hess gives a nice example:

The first time I heard of Campbell’s Law was in a college class in public policy. The professor asked, “Can data ever cause problems? Can it ever hurt?” It seemed like a trick question. Pretty much in unison, the class uncertainly mumbled a version of, “I don’t think so.”

The professor then asked, “What if a police department decides to evaluate officers based on the number of traffic tickets they write? Could anything go wrong?” Someone observed that cops would try to write lots of tickets—including for people who might not deserve them.

The professor asked, “Okay, so what if they flip it? What if they reward cops who issue fewer tickets?” Well, duh. Police might turn a blind eye to real problems.

The instructor smiled and said, “See, you can think of lots of ways where data might hurt.”

Another term for essentially the same phenomenon is Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

It seems to me that much of what passes for “reform” in higher education is an instantiation of Campbell’s and Goodhart’s Laws. Under pressure to show results responsive to the neoliberal consensus, measures, which might even have merit, are turned into the purpose of the system, and almost any method may be resorted to to achieve it. It is ironic that use of this measure may pervert even the neoliberal goal: if graduates are required to learn less and have fewer skills, will they really be able to maximize business’s profits, or their own salaries?

Today in collegiate dystopia: “workforce needs”

May 31, 2019 • 2:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

There’s a lot wrong with higher education in the United States (and perhaps the world), but I know of few, if any, public figures who are pointing out the problems and discussing potential solutions. The problem is that all “sides” to the “debate”, whether right or left, agree on the central premises: they all embrace the neoliberal consensus that the goal of the educational system is maximization of lifetime earnings, and that educational attainment and quality can be measured most simply and clearly by dollars earned. The “debate”, such as it is, is about the split of those earnings between workers and business owners– some want more for the workers (the “left”), some want more for the owners (“the right”). (Even casting the debate in terms of class, as I have done here would be anathema to both sides.)

I was moved to begin what I hope to make an occasional series on this subject by yesterday’s front page in the local paper, the Kenosha News.

In the article, the leaders of all three local colleges– a technical college, a 4-year public, and a 4-year private– announce their fealty to the neoliberal dream: efficient production of workers for industry. Among the strategies that they believe will lead to “educational value” are “reducing credits” and “compressing classes”– I don’t even know what they intend these to mean.

My view of education is quite different. I accept the contention of Robert Hutchins in The University of Utopia that

The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.

And, institutions of higher education must be institutions, as James Smithson put it, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge“. I would regard these principles as axiomatic, but it is all too clear that many, especially in educational leadership, do not.

Lord knows we need responsible citizenship, both among the general populace, and as much, if not more so, among our leaders. A cowering obeisance to mammon is not what we need.