A Philosopher's Blog

The Hands that Serve

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2017

My grandparents made shoes, but I was guided on a path towards college that ultimately ended up with me being a philosophy professor—an abstract profession that is, perhaps, as far from shoe making as one can get. While most are not destined to become philosophers, the push towards college education persists to this day. In contrast, skilled trades and manual labor are typically looked down upon—even though a skilled trade can be very financially rewarding.

Looking down on skilled trades might seem unusual for the United States, a country that arose out of skilled trades and one that still purports to value an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. However, as noted above, there has been a switch from valuing skilled trades in favor of college education and the associated jobs. Oddly, skilled trades are even considered by some to be, if not exactly shameful, nothing to be proud of. Instead, the respected professions typically require a college degree. Although, since inconsistency is the way of humanity, financial success without a degree is often lauded.

At this point one must be careful to not confuse the obsession with college degrees and associated jobs as a sign that Americans value intellectualism. While there are cultural icons such as Einstein, the United States has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of this is fueled by religion, some by the remnants of blue-collar practicality, and some by the knowledge of the elites that intellectuals can be a danger to the established order. What is at play here could be called “educationalism” to contrast it with “intellectualism.” In neutral terms, this can be taken as the valuing of education for its financial value in terms of the payoff in the workplace. In more negative terms, it can be taken as a prejudice or bias in favor of those with formal education. Because of the success of this sort of educationalism, people are encouraged to get an education primarily based on the financial returns to themselves and those who will exploit their labors. And part of the motivation is to avoid the stigma of not being in a profession that requires a degree.

While education can be valuable, this sort of educationalism is not without it negative consequences. As many have noted, one result has been an increase in those seeking college degrees. Since college degrees are now often absurdly expensive (thanks, in large part, to the adoption of the business model of exorbitant administrative salaries) this has resulted in a significant surge in college debt. There is also the predatory approaches of the for-profit colleges, which exist primarily to funnel public money to the executives and shareholders.

Another impact of this form of educationalism is that professions that do not require college degrees are cast as inferior to those that do require degrees. In some cases, this characterization is correct: for example, assembling burgers for a fast food chain is certainly inferior to nearly all jobs that require a college degree. However, this contempt for non-degree jobs often extends to skilled trades, such as those of electrician, plumber and carpenter.

In some cases, the looking down is based on the perception that skilled trades pay less than degree trades. While this can be the case, skill trades can pay very well indeed—you can check this yourself by calling a plumber or electrician and inquiring how much they will charge for various tasks.

In other cases, people look down on the skilled trades because they often think that because these trades do not require a college degree those who practice them must be less intelligent or less capable. That is, a common assumption is that people go into these trades because they lack the ability to navigate the rigors of a philosophy, art history or a communications degree. Crudely put, the prejudice is that smart people get degrees, stupid people work in skilled trades or manual labor.

While completing college does require some minimal level of ability, as a professor with decades of experience I can attest to the fact that this ability can be very minimal indeed. Put crudely, stupid people can and do graduate with degrees—and some go on to considerable success. My point here is not, however, to say that college graduates can be just as stupid as those in the skilled trades. Rather, my point is that a college degree is not a reliable indicator of greater ability or intelligence.

Switching to a more positive approach, skilled trades can be just as challenging as professions that require college degrees. While the skilled trades obviously place more emphasis on manual work, such as wiring houses or rebuilding engines, this does not entail that they require less intelligence or ability.

I am in a somewhat uncommon position of holding a doctorate while also having some meaningful experience with various skilled trades. Part of this is because my background is such that to be a man required having a skill set that includes the basics of a variety of trades. To illustrate, I was expected to know how to build a camp, rewire outlets, service firearms, repair simple engines, and not die in the wilds. I used some of these skills to make money to pay for school and still use them today to save money. And not die. While I am obviously not a skilled professional, I have a reasonably good grasp of the skills and abilities needed to work in many skilled professions and I understand they typically require intelligence, critical thinking and creative thinking. Based on my own experience, I can say that addressing a technical problem with wiring or an engine can be just as mentally challenging as addressing a philosophical conundrum about the ethics of driverless cars.  As such, it is mere prejudice to look down upon people in the skilled professions. Interesting, some who would be horrified of being accused of the prejudices of racism or sexism routinely look down their noses at those in skilled professions.

Since I will occasionally do repairs or projects for people, I do get a chance to see the prejudice—I sometimes feel that I am operating “undercover” in such situations. This is analogous to how I feel when, as a white person who teaches at an HBCU, I hear people expressing racist views because they think I am “one of them” because I am white.  For example, on one occasion I was changing the locks for a grad school friend of mine who did not know a screw driver from an instantiated universal. While I was doing this, some of her other friends stopped by. Not knowing who I was, they simply walked past, perhaps assuming I was some sort of peasant laborer. I overheard one of them whispering how glad he was he was in grad school, so he would not have to do such mundane and mindless work. Another whispered, with an odd pride, that she would have no idea how to do such work—presumably because her brain was far too advanced to guide her hands in the operation of a screwdriver. This odd combination is not uncommon: people often hold to the view that skilled labor is beneath them while also believing that they simply cannot do such work. As in the incident just mentioned, it seems common for people to rationalize their lack of ability by telling themselves they are too smart to waste their precious brain space on such abilities. Presumably if one learns to replace a light switch, one must lose the ability to grasp the fundamentals of deconstruction.

When my friend realized what was going on, she hastened to introduce me as a grad student and everyone apologized because they first thought I was “just some maintenance worker” and not “one of them.” Needless to say, their attitude towards me changed dramatically, as did their behavior. As one might suspect, these were the same sort of people who would rail against the patriarchy and racism for their cruel prejudices and biases. And yet they fully embraced the biases of “educationalism” and held me in contempt until they learned I was as educated as they.

I must admit that I also have prejudices and biases. When an adult cannot do basic tasks like replacing a fill valve in a toilet or replace a simple door lock, I do judge them. However, I try not to do this—after all, not everyone has a background in which they could learn such basic skills. But, of course, I expect people to reciprocate: in return they need to not be prejudiced against people who pursue skilled trades instead of college degrees. And, of course, since a person cannot learn everything, everyone has massive gaps and voids in their skill sets.

While those who pursue careers in which they create ever more elaborate financial instruments to ruin the economy are rewarded with great wealth and those who create new frivolous apps are praised, it should be remembered that the infrastructure of civilization that makes all these things possible depend largely on the skilled trades. Someone must wire the towers that make mobile phones possible so that people can Tweet their witty remarks, someone has to put in the plumping and HVAC systems that make buildings livable so that the weasels of Wall Street have a proper place to pee, and so on for the foundation of civilization. As Sean Le Rond D’Alembert so wisely said in 1751, “But while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” Excellent advice then, excellent advice now.

 

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The Liberal Academy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2016

While the high cost of college and the woes of student loans tend to be the main focuses of media coverage of universities, there has also been some attention paid to such things as trigger warnings and safe spaces. A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. In an academic context, a safe space is supposed to be a place free of harassment, intolerance and hate speech. As might be suspected, some consider trigger warnings and safe spaces potential threats to free speech.

The existence of trigger warnings and safe spaces is also taken by some as a sign that the liberal masters of the academy have gotten out of hand and are imposing their agenda upon students and a few unwilling faculty. There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.

Given that the stereotypical liberal accuses the stereotypical conservative of marginalizing others and opposing free expression, there is a certain irony in the claim that the liberal is the alleged oppressor and the conservative is the alleged victim. It is also ironic that some of the defenses offered for the marginalization of conservatives in the academy mirror the defenses offered for the marginalization of minorities by some conservatives. This should not, however, be surprising: those with the upper hand tend to use the same basic playbook—although the vocabulary does change.

While I certainly accept liberal concerns regarding the marginalization of minorities and women in the broader society, consistency requires me to also give due consideration to the marginalization of conservatives in the academy. After all, marginalization anywhere is a threat to inclusion everywhere.

I have considered elsewhere the causal factors behind the general liberal dominance of the academy, but it is certainly worth considering this matter again. One concern is that while conservatives might complain about liberal dominance of the academy, there simply might not be enough conservatives interested in becoming professors. This does make some sense—becoming a professor requires spending years getting a terminal degree, grinding through a brutal job search process that is likely to result in part time employment as an adjunct without any benefits. The same amount of effort applied to other fields, such as business endeavors, law or medicine would result in a vastly better chance of getting a much better paying job with greater benefits. Given that conservatives are often cast as interested in being practical and focused on financial success, it would actually seem odd for them to want to go into academics. The stereotypical liberal character seems to better match this career path. This is not to say that an academic job cannot be financially rewarding; but faculty positions yield far less financially than other positions that require analogous education and effort.

Administrative posts can, however, be gold mines—while they do not quite match the financial rewards of the big corporations, the upper echelons do come close in terms of pay, bonuses and perks. But, of course, conservatives taking administrative posts would still leave the actual teaching in liberal hands. But, back to the main subject.

The above reasoning is, of course, is analogous to a stock reply to claims that other areas are lacking in minorities or women: there is no oppression, it is simply the case that minorities and women are not very interested in those areas. So, while conservatives could become professors just as easily as liberals, they wisely elect to pursue more financially lucrative careers. Likewise, liberals tend to pursue less lucrative careers. For example, while there are liberals in the top echelons of the financial firms and corporations (Apple, which does its best to utilize cheap foreign labor and evade taxes is often presented as ruled by liberals), these positions tend to be dominated by conservative white men.

Conservatives can borrow a stock liberal argument here. Liberals typically argue that women and minorities want to be in the fields where they are marginalized, but there are systematic means of keeping them at the margins. For example, liberals often point to how women are treated to explain the small numbers of women in various fields. These methods include the usual suspects: discouraging women from taking classes relevant to the field, steering women away from careers in those fields, hiring biases against women, and hostility towards women who make it into the field.

Conservatives can use this approach and contend that there are many conservatives who want to be professors, but there are systematic means of keeping them marginalized. These means would include the usual suspects: the discouraging of conservative ideas in the classroom, steering conservatives away from careers in academics, hiring biases against those with known conservative views, and hostility towards conservatives who make it into the academy.

While it might be tempting for liberals to respond using analogies to the arguments employed by some conservatives in the face of claims that women and minorities are marginalized, that would be unjust. If being a liberal involves being opposed to marginalization, then moral consistency would require addressing all warranted concerns about the marginalization of conservatives in academics. As noted above, marginalization anywhere is a threat to diversity everywhere.

Making the academy more diverse would thus require approaches analogous to making other fields more diverse. These methods would include tolerance of conservative ideas in the classroom, encouraging conservatives to pursue careers in academics, addressing hiring biases against conservatives (perhaps with some affirmative action hires), and sensitivity training to mitigate hostility against conservatives in the academy.

 

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Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2015

Once upon a time, the animals gathered together to decide which of them was the very best. After some deliberation and braying, barking and squawking of opinions, the wisest of the animals realized that they would need a set of standards to decide the best.

All the animals readily agreed, even the grumpy wolverine. A horse raised the question of what standards to use and each animal rushed to answer. The wisest animal quickly restored order and said that each animal should speak in order as selected by drawing lots. The animals recognized this as fair, though the lion did make some noises about the prerogatives of royalty.

Cheetah went first and stated that the only sensible standard was speed in a sprint. The bat went next, insisting that the ability to fly in the dark and hang upside down were the only sensible measures. And so each animal proposed standards that suited them best. Each was enraged when its standard was not accepted and this is why, to this day, that animals no longer speak to each other.

 

Rankings are very important to academic institutes—and not just in regards to their sports teams. Colleges and universities battle in the academic rankings for the prestige, to impress parents into sending their kids to schools befitting their rank, and to justify those sweet administrative salaries. Some schools are also forced to engage in the blood sport that is performance based funding. My university, Florida A&M University, is one of these schools.

As I have noted in previous essays on performance based funding, Florida A&M University (FAMU) has fared poorly under the standards imposed by the state legislature. To be specific, FAMU has been ranked last since 2013. The punishment is, of course, a reduction in funding. In contrast, the University of Florida has been winning this contest by a significant margin, thus enjoying the fruits (and cash) of victory. The University of South Florida placed second and the University of Central Florida placed third.

The standards used for performance based funding are, I have argued previously, unfair. I will not argue this point here, but will note that the standards used are obviously not the only ones that can be used to rank a university.

One interesting way to rank colleges and universities is to consider one of their historical purposes: to enable social mobility through education. As many others have argued, education has long served as a key means of social mobility. The idea that people can rise from humble (that is economically disadvantaged) beginnings through a college degree has long been a part of the mythology of the American Dream.  It is certainly a part of my family story. The rhetoric of politicians is also heavily laden with words praising and calling for upward mobility and success. Given the importance of social mobility in traditional American values, mythology and rhetoric, it seems reasonable to consider that an important measure of a university’s success.

Conveniently enough, CollegeNET has created a Social Mobility Index that ranks schools in terms of weighted assessment of tuition, the economic background of students, the graduation rate, early career salary and the endowment of the institution. Roughly put, the better a school does in regards to social mobility (enabling people to move upwards via education) the better its SMI.

While FAMU is ranked last by the state’s performance based funding standards, it ranks 19th in the United States in terms of its SMI. FAMU ranks well because 52.8% of the students are low income, the tuition is relatively affordable ($5,785), and the median early career salary is a respectable $45,900.  68% of the freshmen have Pell Grants and 77.8% of them are lower income students. On the minus side, FAMU has a graduation rate of 40.9% and an endowment of only $80 million.

As I argued in previous essays, the low graduation rate can be accounted for by social factors, especially economic ones. Somewhat ironically, FAMU is regarded as a poor performer by the state for the same reason it does exceptionally well at social mobility: it has a majority of low income students and does a good job assisting them upwards—and this is in despite of the tremendous obstacles presented by economic factors and the impact of past and current racism. Since the state standards do not account for the challenges faced by low income and minority students, pursuing a mission that aids social mobility condemns FAMU to the bottom of the state ranking. To use an analogy, if you are trying to help people up from a deep cave with a rope that is being steadily weakened, then it would hardly be a shock if not everyone made it into the golden light of the sun. Yes, I just used a metaphor I stole from Plato.

Interesting enough, the undisputed winner of the state’s performance based funding, the University of Florida (UF), is ranked #260 in terms of its SMI. This is not because it is a bad school—quite the contrary, it is a very good school (unlike my Florida State brethren I have little football animosity against the Gators and can give them their due praise).

UF has an exceptionally good 86.5% graduation rate, reasonable tuition ($6,263), a good median early career salary ($49,500) and an impressive endowment (over a billion dollars). These facts might lead one to wonder why UF is ranked so far behind FAMU. The main reason is that only 11.2% of UF students are low income. Only 29% of UF students are Pell Grant recipients, but 60.8% of them are not lower income students. As such, UF excels at assisting upper income students to become upper income graduates. It does however, very little in regards to social mobility.

The success of UF is hardly surprising—just as economic disadvantage decreases a student’s chance of graduating and likely income, an economic advantage increases a student’s chance of graduating and the likelihood of a good income. To use an analogy, UF is pulling people along a level ground with an ever stronger rope—this is ever so much easier than pulling people out of a deep cave.

There is, obviously enough, nothing wrong with UF helping the relatively well-off remain relatively well-off. In fact, this is laudable. There is, however, something wrong with basing funding on performance standards that ensure schools with low percentages of low income students will excel and thus garner the rewards while schools that contribute to social mobility (and thus face lower graduation rates) will have what little they receive reduced.

As might be suspected, the second place school in the state ranking (the University of South Florida) is ranked #72 by SMI. It has 33% low income students and a 63.2% graduation rate. The state’s third ranked school (University of Central Florida) is ranked 53 by SMI. It has 27% low income students and a graduation rate of 67.2%.

A look at the data for the schools shows a not surprising correlation between the percentage of lower income students and the graduation rate. As such, the relatively low graduation rate of FAMU and the relatively high graduation rate at UF are not aberrations. They are exactly what should be expected due to the impact of economic class on student success.

As discussed in a previous essay, it has been suggested by some that FAMU can improve its ranking by changing its approach to admission. If FAMU lowered the percentage of low income students, it could increase its graduation rate. This would also impact other standards—people who are already from the higher economic classes are more likely to get jobs and more likely to get better paying jobs. This would, however, negatively impact FAMU’s rank in terms of social mobility—instead of assisting people out of the lower economic classes, FAMU would simply be engaged in keeping students in the higher economic classes, thus condemning lower income students to remain in the lower income class.

Someone more cynical than I might claim that the state ranking system is intentionally designed to punish schools that assist in upward mobility and reward schools for maintaining the economic status quo. This, some might say, is part of a broader economic ideology that favors abandoning the less-well off and maintaining a rigid class system and whose words about opportunity are but empty sounds. The less cynical might say that the state system is merely pragmatic—in the face of intentional cuts by the state to the education budget, the remaining funds must be spent wisely on those likely to succeed. These just happen to be those who are already well off, rather than those who are in the lower income classes. Helping the successful stay successful makes good sense and helping those who need help is too much of a risk. After all, if we are pulling people along level ground, then they will almost all make it. If we are pulling people out of a cave, they might not all reach the light of day. Better to just leave them in the darkness, right?

 

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Education & Gainful Employment

Posted in Business, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2015
English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO r...

English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO report. Randomly sampled For-Profit college tuition compared to Public and Private counterparts for similar degrees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years I have written various critical pieces about for-profit schools. As I have emphasized before, I have nothing against the idea of a for-profit school. As such, my criticisms have not been that such schools make money. Rather, I have been critical of the performance of such schools as schools, with their often predatory practices, and the fact that they rely so very heavily on federal funding for their profits. This article is, shockingly enough, also critical of these schools.

Assessment in and of higher education has become the new normal. Some of the assessment standards are set by the federal government, some by the states and some by the schools. At the federal level, one key standard is in the Higher Education Act and it states that career education programs “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” If a school fails to meet this standard, then it can lose out on federal funds such as Pell Grants and federal loans. Since schools are rather fond of federal dollars, they are rather intent on qualifying under this standard.

One way to qualify is to see to it that students are suitably prepared. Another approach, one taken primarily by the for-profit schools (which rely extremely heavily on federal money for their profits) has been to lobby in order to get the standard set to their liking.  As it now stands, schools are ranked in three categories: passing, probationary, and failing. A passing program is such that its graduates’ annual loan payments are below 8% of their total earnings or below 20% of their discretionary incomes. A program is put on probation when the loan payments are in the 8-12% range of their total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary incomes. A program is failing when the loan payments are more than 12% of their total income or over 30% of their discretionary incomes. Students who do not graduate, which happens more often at for-profit schools than at private and public schools, are not counted in this calculation.

A program is disqualified from receiving federal funds if it fails two out of any three consecutive years or it gets a ranking less than passing for four years in a row. This goes into effect in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Interestingly enough, it is matter of common ideology in America that the for-profit, private sector is inherently superior to the public sector. As with many ideologies, this one falls victim to facts. While the assessment of schools in terms of how well they prepare students for gainful employment does not go into effect until 2015, data is already available (the 2012 data seems to be the latest available). Public higher education, which is routinely bashed in some quarters, is amazingly successful in this regard: 99.72% of the programs were rated as passing, 0.18% were rated as being on probation and 0.09% were ranked as failing. Private nonprofit schools also performed admirably with 95.65% of their programs passing, 3.16% being ranked as being on probation and  1.19% rated as failing. So, “A” level work for these schools. In stark contrast, the for-profit schools had 65.87% of their programs ranked as passing, 21.89 ranked as being on probation and 12.23% evaluated as failing. So, these schools would have a grade of “D” if they were students. It is certainly worth keeping in mind that the standards used are the ones that the private, for-profit school lobby pushed for—it seems likely they would do even worse if the more comprehensive standards favored by the AFT were used.

This data certainly seems to indicate that the for-profit schools are not as good a choice for students and for federal funding as the public and non-profit private schools. After all, using the pragmatic measure of student income relative to debt incurred for education, the public and private non-profits are the clear winners. One easy and obvious explanation for this is, of course, that the for-profit schools make a profit—as such, they typically charge considerably more (as I have discussed in other essays) than comparable public and non-profit private schools. Another explanation is that (as discussed in other essays) is that such schools generally do a worse job preparing students for careers and with placing students in jobs. So, a higher cost combined with inferior ability to get students into jobs translates into that “D” grade. So much for the inherent superiority of the for-profit private sector.

It might be objected that there are other factors that explain the poor performance of the for-profit schools in a way that makes them look better. For example, perhaps students who enroll in such programs differ significantly from students in public and non-profit private schools and this helps explain the difference in a way that partially absolves the for-profit schools. As another example, perhaps the for-profit schools suffered from bad luck in terms of the programs they offered. Maybe salaries were unusually bad in these jobs or hiring was very weak. These and other factors are well worth considering. After all, to fail to consider alternative explanations would be poor reasoning indeed. If the for-profits can explain away their poor performance in this area in legitimate ways, then perhaps the standards would need to be adjusted to take into account these factors.

It is also worth considering that schools, public and private, do not have control over the economy. Given that short-term (1-4 year) vagaries of the market could result in programs falling into probation or failure by these standards when such programs are actually “good” in the longer term, it would seem that some additional considerations should be brought into play. Naturally, it can be countered that 3-4 years of probation or failure would not really be short term (especially for folks who think in terms of immediate profit) and that such programs would fully merit their rating.

That said, the latest economic meltdown was somewhat long term and the next one (our bubble based economy makes it almost inevitable) could be even worse. As such, it would seem sensible to consider the broader economy when holding programs accountable. After all, even a great program cannot make companies hire nor compel them to pay better wages.

 

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Colleges, Rape & Justice

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2014
Justice

Justice (Photo credit: donsutherland1)

A thoughtful and well-reasoned article on the college rape crisis by Michelle Goldberg was recently published by the Nation. Reading through the article caused me to reflect on the various issues, most especially the matter of the role of colleges in handling sexual assault and rape cases.

When a student is alleged to have assaulted or raped another student, the purported victim can report the matter to the police or bring the matter to the attention of the college (or both). For legal (and moral) reasons, colleges should not ignore such reports and so a college has to take some action.

While colleges vary, it is common practice for colleges to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape internally in a manner rather similar to academic misconduct hearings: a hearing is held with a panel composed of faculty members and administrators. Since the panel is not a court of law, it (presumably) does not have the authority to impose criminal or civil penalties as an actual court could. Rather, the panel typically decides whether or not the accused student should be subject to disciplinary action, with the highest penalty usually being expulsion. As might be imagined, there are some obvious problems with this approach.

The first is a practical problem: while many schools do have their own police forces, faculty and administrators are generally not trained to properly investigate and judge such matters. To use myself as an example, while I can teach classes, serve on committees and so on, the skills needed to conduct a detailed and proper forensic investigation of an alleged assault/rape is not in my professional toolkit. I am a philosophy professor, not a detective or CSI professional. I would, if I was assigned to such a panel, do my best—just as a detective somehow assigned to teach my class would presumably do her best.

There seem to be two main solutions to this problem. One, which seems the most sensible, would be for colleges to cede authority over these crimes to the actual legal system. That is, the role of the college would be to assist the purported victim in reporting the alleged crime to the police. Naturally, the college can also have an important role in providing support to the purported victim. There is, however, the concern that such crimes are not always properly addressed by the authorities.

The other would be for the college to ensure that those handling the incidents would be properly trained professionals. This could be done by hiring such professionals or by training existing faculty and administrators in how to handle such cases. This would run into the practical concern regarding cost (schools would, in effect, have to support their own “CSI” staff and detectives).

The second is also a practical problem with a moral component. A college has a vested interest in protecting its reputation and protecting itself legally and financially. In a practical sense, this leads to a conflict of interest that can influence the rulings of a panel. In a moral sense, this can lead to justice not being done in regards to finding the truth and ensuring that wrongdoers are punished and the innocents are not.

As before, there seem to be two solutions to the problem. One is to remove the handling of such cases from colleges. The other is to take steps to ensure that such internal panels act for the sake of justice rather than trying to protect the reputation of the college. I would say that the former option is the better choice.

The third is a moral problem with two aspects. One aspect is that purported victims sometimes report that a college’s handling of the situation is yet another violation—a traumatic and harmful experience rather than a professionally conducted act of justice. Obviously enough, subjecting someone to such an awful experience is morally incorrect. The second aspect is that alleged perpetrators sometimes report that the college’s handling of the situation is a kangaroo court devoid of due process. If such charges are true, they would certainly be cases of wrongdoing.

Once again, there would seem to be two solutions. One is to have such cases handled by the actual legal system. There is, however, the problem that it is not uncommon for purported victims to report poor handling of such cases—which is yet another matter of moral concern and a very serious problem. Some have even argued that colleges should continue to handle such cases because the actual legal system has failed the purported victims so badly. That is, colleges might be bad at this, but they are sometimes better than the legal system. This certainly points to a clear need to address the legal system—there is little sense in handing off the handling of such cases to a system that is no better.

The second is to rework the college system to try to ensure that the purported victims are treated with proper respect while also ensuring that the alleged perpetrators are given a fair hearing in accord with due process. This, needless to say, would prove challenging—but it is a challenge that must be met if colleges are to continue in this role. If the legal system is doing a poor job, then it would be even more important for colleges to revamp their systems.

The third problem is also a moral problem with legal aspects as well. As many critics of the current system have noted, there is the moral and legal concern with the basis for the college’s authority to handle such cases. As the usual example goes, colleges do not handle cases in which a student murders another student—that is a matter for the police. By analogy, the same should apply to sexual assault and rape—those are actual crimes. While a college does have academic authority over students as well as a degree of disciplinary authority, a college would certainly seem to lack the legal and moral sovereignty needed to claim authority over serious crimes (even if it had the resource and competence to run its own legal system). As such, it would seem that a college would overreach its authority in attempting to handle criminal cases such as sexual assault and rape. That said, there can still be a legitimate role for colleges to play in such matters.

While a college certainly should not have the authority to impose criminal (or even civil) punishments on students (that is, a college should not be able to maintain jails or conduct executions), a college does have some legitimate authority over students. To be specific, a college has a (hopefully) clearly defined sphere of authority based on the agreement between the student and the institution, as spelled out in the rules and policies of the college. The college does also have the legitimate authority to impose certain penalties within a fairly limited sphere. The outer limit of these penalties is, of course, expulsion from the university.

Such authority is intended to allow colleges to have some degree of control over student behavior—after all, without the capacity to punish, authority does not amount to much. There is also presumably the purpose of maintaining a safe and non-threatening learning environment. This is what justifies punishing students who disrupt this environment. In some cases, maintaining this environment can require expelling students.

Because of this legitimate function, a college can justly claim the right to hold a hearing for a student accused of sexual assault or rape. However, this should not be in place of a criminal trial. Rather, it should be in addition to the criminal trial. The purpose of the college hearing would be to determine whether the alleged perpetrator should be, in addition to whatever punishment imposed by the legal system, subject to discipline by the college.

While it might be tempting to insist that an alleged perpetrator who is found innocent by a court of law should also be exempt from college discipline, it must be remembered that the requirements of a criminal court are supposed to be very rigorous, with an assumption of innocence and a standard of proof set at beyond a reasonable doubt.

It can be argued that the standard of proof for a college disciplinary hearing should be lower than that of a criminal court (as civil courts have a lower standard of proof). After all, the standard should be higher when a person might spend years in jail as opposed to being disciplined by a college. For example, an incident might be such that it seems reasonable to believe that something wrong occurred, yet the evidence is simply not enough to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In such a case, an alleged perpetrator might avoid jail yet perhaps be justly expelled from college.

If this view is accepted, then there are the practical and moral problems of determining the standards of evidence and the appropriate punishments. At this time, many colleges accept a very weak standard—that of “more likely than not.” That is, if the panel members (who are, as noted above, usually not trained in such matters) believe that it is more likely that the alleged perpetrator committed the misdeed than did not, then the person is guilty. As might be imagined, some critics of this standard regard it as far too weak and in stark contrast with the usual principle that it is better for the guilty to go unpunished than for the innocent to be unjustly punished.

In regards to the punishments, there is also considerable controversy. It could be argued that even the worst punishment that a college can offer (most likely expulsion) would still not be enough. While this might be true, it would not be a good reason to grant colleges more power to punish—after all, if the punishments were sufficiently severe, then the standards would need to be equally high. It can also be contended that some punishments, such as expulsion, would be too harsh given the weak standard.

It must be noted that sorting out the standard and the punishments is distinct from the issue of whether or not a college has legitimate authority to discipline students accused of sexual assault or rape. I certainly hold that a college has the authority to impose disciplinary action even on a student found not guilty by a criminal court—much as a civil court can impose a penalty on someone found not guilty by a criminal court. However, I have not given sufficient thought to the standard to be used and the punishments that would be just. It might be the case that the punishment should be linked to the standard—that is, the weaker the standard, the weaker the punishment.

It can also be argued that there is behavior that is not covered by the law but can be justly covered by a college’s policies. For example, cheating on tests is usually not a criminal offense, but it does provide grounds for discipline in a college setting. Likewise, some sexual or sex-related behavior might not be considered criminal, yet still be legitimately regarded as problematic enough to warrant discipline from a college. That is, the behavior is perhaps not technically illegal, but not tolerable behavior for a student. To use an analogy, some colleges have dress-codes that forbid attire that would not violate the usual laws relating to public indecency.

To close, my considered position is that colleges should obviously not be handling criminal cases—these should be turned over to the police and the actual legal system. However, colleges can legitimately hold hearings on allegations of sexual assault or rape and subject students to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. There are, however, important practical and moral considerations that must be addressed and these include:

 

  • Ensuring the competence and impartiality of the college panel members conducting the investigation and hearing.
  • Ensuring that the standard of proof adopted (such as “more likely than not”) is just.
  • Ensuring that the punishments are just.
  • Ensuring that the applications of the standards and punishments are just.
  • Ensuring that both the alleged perpetrator and purported victim are treated with respect and get due process.

 

If these considerations can be properly addressed, then such a system can be legitimately regarded as just—at least within the specific context.

 

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The Rewards of Teaching

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2013

While finals week is probably not the best time to think about the rewards of teaching, I would be remiss to leave my end-of-the-semester discussion with only a look at the challenges of cheating and other such academic ills.

While teaching philosophy has its challenges, it also has its rewards. One reward is knowing that I have made a small contribution to my students’ education. While it might be a mere 3 credit hours out of 120, at least I have helped them on the way towards graduation and, hopefully, to a life better than it would have been without a college education.

A second reward is seeing a student’s ability in critical thinking and reasoning skills improve over the course of the semester. Students have told me how, for example, they recognized real life examples of fallacies they learned in class. As another example, students have told me that the skills they learned in class helped them on the standardized tests that attempted to stand between them and their dreams of professional school.

A third reward is seeing a student develop a philosophical outlook. This involves being critical of their own beliefs and those of others, while avoiding the trap of prejudice and bickering for the sake of bickering.

A fourth reward is hearing from students after they have graduated and learning that my class or classes were useful or valuable in their chosen life path, be it law school, graduate school or some other option. Past students have gone on the become lawyers, doctors, engineers and some even became professors. It is very rewarding to learn that I had some small role.

A fifth reward is the process of teaching itself-interacting with students and learning from them. While I do not buy into the idea that diversity is intrinsically valuable, I have found that each student can bring their own unique perspective to philosophy. When students participate in class or stop by during my office hours to discuss philosophy, I often gain a new perspective or new idea. While it might be a bit hackneyed, it is true that to be a good teacher one must never stop learning from others.

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A New Semester

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2010
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Tomorrow is the start of Fall classes for 2010. I started teaching at Florida A&M University back in the fall of 1993, so I have been doing this a long time. However, the start of a new semester is always (mostly) fun and exciting.

While my freshman days are long over, I try to remember the enthusiasm and sense of newness I felt all those years ago. I do this in the hopes of infusing my classes with that spirit. I dread the prospect of becoming a zombie professor who merely goes through the motions of education lifelessly and who has been left behind by the currents of time.

This can be a hard thing to do. After all, college life is no longer new to me and I now have so many years behind me. However, I seem to be able to call up those old feelings when I get in front of a class. True, I don’t always deliver educational gold. After all expecting gold when a person is teaching four overloaded classes and has many other responsibilities is like expecting a peak performance from a runner at every workout and race decade after decade.

Though I am rather tired from a rather tough end of the last semester and the pre-semester adventures in moving, preparation and chairing a search committee, I am gearing up for the new year.

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Parking Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2009

On Friday I bought my employee parking decal. Back in 1994 I think I paid $26 for my decal. Now, the price is $201 (includes tax). That is certainly some impressive inflation, especially considering that I get now exactly what I was getting then.

Naturally, I do wonder why the decal is so costly. Actually, I wonder why I don’t just get free parking as part of my job.

Now, I do understand that the traffic and parking folks need to maintain and patrol the lots. Of course, as my truck rumbles over potholes and I drive around and around lo0king at faculty spots occupied by students’ cars, I do wonder a bit more. But, when I see the nice traffic services’ cars (and golf carts) I get some idea of where the money goes.  When I bought my decal, I also noticed how nice the building is compared to my own office and classroom buildings. But, “if you bring in the bucks, you get the nice stuff.” All I do is teach and so on, so I can hardly expect to be considered a “buck bringer.” In fact, some folks might think that universities would be better off without faculty or students. Just imagine a golden age of universities in which only administrators occupied the campuses, untroubled by students and faculty.

To be fair, the traffic folks have been much more aggressive about enforcing the parking rules. I have seen cars towed and ticketed and the person in charge now is said to be very serious about the parking rules.

We are currently in sort of a lawless period-classes started at the end of August and the deadline for decals is this week.  So, things will probably improve quite a bit after this week.

I did try to use my shiny new $200 decal to find a spot close to my office, but no luck. I ended up parking at the stadium (as I have been), in the general lot, and walked the quarter mile or so to my office. No big deal, but for $200 I’d rather like to get something a little closer. Plus, when I was carrying shelving to put up in my office, that was a bit of a walk.

Narcissism & College Students

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2009

Americans have long been  accused of having inflated egos, but it has recently become popular to accuse Americans of being narcissistic. This narcissism is now seen as being primarily an affliction of the young; although baby boomers are often seen as being able to give them a run for their money.

Some of the evidence for this is statistical.

Apparently 10% of folks in their 20s have had symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (compared to 3% of those 65 and older). Of course, it could be the case that youth naturally tend to have this symptoms and then outgrow them. However, if the current generation of kids is actually suffering more from such symptoms, then this would be a matter of concern.

Since many 20 somethings are in school, it is not surprising that much of the alleged evidence of narcissism involved education. As one example,  30% of college students believe that showing up to every class entitles them to a grade of B or better. There are also various bits of anecdotal evidence. For example, it is claimed that students now seem to be more inclined to expect make-up tests for when they miss class for no good reason (such as being too drunk to take a test).

While there are many questions that need to be dealt with in this context, I will address only two of them. The first is whether such behavior is something new. The second is whether such behavior is narcissistic or not.

In regards to the first question, I will rely on my experience as a professor. Overall, I would say that I have seen roughly the same degree and type of allegedly narcissistic behavior over the past eighteen years. For example, when I was a graduate student at Ohio State (1989-1993), students would ask me to arrange make up exams for them at special times and would argue that they should not fail because they did not want to fail.  I’ve seen the same as a professor (1993-now).  Over the years, I’ve also dealt with roughly the name number of incidents in which students have claimed that they deserve a good grade merely for attempting to do the work and showing up. Of course, this evidence is anecdotal and my sample might be biased in some ways.

I must admit that every semester I hear other faculty at my school and other schools talk about how the students get worse every year. However, I think that much of this is due to perception rather than a real difference. Having heard this so often, I’ve gone back and checked my grades over the years. What I found was that the grades tend to be about the same; although there are some individual classes that deviate from the norm (which is exactly what one would expect). I’ve also thought about the incidents that would seem narcissistic and the rate seems to have been fairly constant.

To explain this, people seem to have a natural tendency to “remember” things the way that they were not. For example, people talk about how good things used to be back when they were kids. Likewise, people tend to believe that people have gotten worse. However, that seems to be mostly a matter of selective memory.

Also, people have been talking about how bad the kids are since the time of Socrates-thus showing that this is nothing new.  This does not mean that the kids are fine-it just means that this is nothing new.

Now, to the second question. Is the behavior in question really narcissistic? Obviously, this depends on what is meant by the term. It is tempting to slap labels on things in order to make things seem more dramatic or to sell books, but such labels should be carefully considered.

Many thinkers have argued that people are selfish and desire gain they do not deserve. In the Republic, Glaucon argues that people naturally want undue gain and are focused on their own good. However, such behavior seems to be selfish rather than narcissistic. Hobbes goes even further: he contends that people are psychological hedonists who are motivated only by gain or glory (the boosting of their ego). While such behavior could be described as narcissistic, it makes more sense to just stick with calling it selfish.

Narcissism certainly seems to go beyond merely being selfish or having unrealistic expectations about how people will treat you (such as giving grades or special make-ups). There are, obviously enough, people who are narcissistic, but this is nothing new.

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The Email Gambit

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2009

Because of my surgery, I had to conduct my classes online for two weeks. Thanks to email, I was able to stay in constant contact with my students. Naturally, a few students have tried to use email related excuses in order to gain some advantage. Fortunately, I have already had experience with coping with the email gambits.

One common gambit is for a student to say that they have sent email after email requesting information, asking for a date to make up a test, or in attempts to turn in a paper. Naturally, it is claimed that the professor never replied.  Because of the professors cruel and malicious behavior, the student claims they are entitled to some special treatment. For example, to be allowed to turn in a paper two weeks after the deadline or to be granted a special make up for a missed test.

While email problems can arise, one interesting fact I have learned is that email problems correlate closely with the student’s grade in the class. To be specific, the lower the student’s grade, the more likely it is that there will be such mysterious email problems. Interesting, the last time a student with a passing grade said that I did not reply to an email was in the days when spam filters were first being developed-my ISP had rather overzealous ones for  a while. I’m compulsive about replying-partially because it is my job and partially because a reply now often prevents problems later.As such, I am generally skeptical when someone says that I have not replied.

In some cases, the email gambit is combined with another classic gambit-the claim that a paper was slid under my door (despite the fact that I never find the paper).  For example, a student might claim that I never replied to her emails and that she also turned in her paper by sliding it under my office door. To avoid that gambit, I have a obvious and rather visible large drop envelope beside my office door. Also, papers that have actually been slid under the door (perhaps the envelope is not as visible as I think…) have always turned up. I counter this claim by having the policy that a paper is considered turned in when I actually receive it. Yes, I do look around my office and behind the door when papers are due.

In some cases students make the claim that I never replied to them without realizing that I can check my email outbox and actually show them the reply I sent. This is why it is always good to know the technology before trying to use it as an excuse. True, it is possible that the email shows as being sent and it did not make it, but that is very rare. Further, it is interesting (as noted above) that email only seems to fail in cases involving students who are themselves failing or doing very poorly. Perhaps there is some connection there.

So, how does one counter the gambit?

One way is to reply regularly to emails and thus establish the fact that you are a responsible in replying to student emails. If a student then claims that you are irresponsible about emails, then their claim will not have much credibility. I think that some students might assume that professors do not reply to emails and hence they can simply play the gambit without actually checking to see if you reply or not. Since I always reply, this gambit does not work on me.

Another way is to provide two emails-your college email and another backup email. The odds that both emails would fail over and over for the same student would be rather astronomical. If they actually did, the odds are that the problem would be on the student’s end and hence not your responsibility at all. When I had my surgery, I sent out information to my students using my university email and I also have a backup email that is listed on the syllabus as well. So, for me to never get the email, two completely different email servers would have had to have failed over and over again. That seems unlikely.

The email gambit is similar to the “you are never in your office” gambit. I’ve had students try that one, too. As with the email gambit, the claim is that they made many attempts to find me, but could not.  Because of their efforts and my failure, they think they are entitled to special treatment. Fortunately, I’m compulsive about office hours and always post a sign if I have to cut them short due to a meeting or something. So, this excuse never works with me.

As this discussion indicates, being a responsible professor goes a long way in countering such problems. Students will still claim that you are not responsible, but these claims will have no traction. In contrast, professors who are known for being irresponsible will find that such claims will have more bite.

Fortunately, most of my students are quite good. This is why I love teaching despite the problems I have to face.