A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech & Universities I: Invitations & Exclusions

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2017


While the right to free speech is considered fundamental in classical liberalism, contemporary liberals have been accused of being an enemy of this right. Some recent examples include incidents at Berkeley and Middlebury. As always, the matter of free speech is philosophically interesting, especially when it involves higher education.

One important distinction in regards to rights is that of the negative versus the positive. A negative right is not an evil right; rather it is a freedom such that the possessor is not entitled to be provided with the means to exercise the right. It is, roughly put, a right to not be interfered with. A positive right, in contrast, is an entitlement to the means needed to exercise the right. For example, the United States currently grants citizens a right to public K-12 education—in addition to having the liberty to seek this education, it is also provided to students. In contrast, college education is currently a negative right: students have the liberty to attend college, but are (generally) not provided with free education.

The right to free speech is generally taken to be a negative right; it is intended as a protection from impediment rather than an entitlement to the means to communicate. To use an obvious example, while I have the right to express my views no one is obligated to provide me with free radio or TV time in which to do so.

While university personnel have no right to unjustly interfere with free speech, they are also under no obligation to provide people with speaking opportunities on campus. Decisions about who to invite and who to allow to speak in official venues are often made on pragmatic grounds, such as which speakers will boost the reputation of the school or who happens to be friends with top administrators. There are also practical concerns about the cost of the speaker, the likelihood of trouble arising, and the extent of the interest in the speaker. While these practical concerns are important, decisions about who to invite (and who to exclude) should certainly be made on principled grounds.

One reasonable principle is that decisions should be made based on the educational value of having the speaker on campus. Since universities are supposed to educate students, it makes excellent sense for them to operate on this principle. Speakers who would offer little or nothing in the way of educational value could thus be justly denied invitations. Of course, education is not the only concern of a university in terms of what it offers to the students and the community. Speakers/presenters that offer things of artistic value or even mere entertainment value should also be given due consideration.

One obvious concern about deciding based on such factors is that there can be considerable debate about which speakers have adequate merit to warrant their invitation to campus. For example, the incident at Middlebury arose because some regard Charles Murray’s co-authored controversial book The Bell Curve as being based on pseudoscience and bad methodology. While these matters can be clouded with ideology, there are already clearly established standards regarding educational merit in regards to such things as methodology and legitimacy. The main problem lies in their application—but this is not a problem unique to picking speakers. It extends across the entire academy. Fortunately, the basic principle of educational merit is reasonable clear—but the real fights take place over the particulars.

Another seemingly sensible principle is a moral one—that those invited should reflect the values of the institution and perhaps the broader society. At the very least, those invited should not be evil and should not be espousing evil.

This principle does have some obvious problems. One is the challenge of deciding what conflicts with the values of the institution. Another is the problem that it is problematic to speak of the values of the broader society, given the considerable diversity of opinions on moral issues. When people use this approach, they are often simply referring to their own values and assuming that they are shared by society as a while. There is the enduring problem in ethics of sorting out what exactly is evil. And then there is the classic concern about whether academic or artistic merit can offset moral concerns. For example, a Catholic university might regard a pro-choice philosopher as endorsing a morally wrong position, yet also hold that having this philosopher engage a pro-life advocate in a campus debate to have educational merit. As another example, a liberal institution might regard an extreme libertarian as having morally problematic views, yet see educational merit in having them present their arguments as part of a series on American political philosophy.  As with the matter of merit, there are rational and principled ways to approach ethical concerns—but this area is far more fraught with controversy than questions of assessing educational merit.

While I do agree that speech can cause harm, I hold to a presumption in favor of free expression. As a principle, this means that if there is reasonable doubt as to whether to merit of a speech outweighs moral concerns about the speaker or content, then the decision should favor free expression. This is based on the view that it is better to run the risk of tolerating possible evil than to risk silencing someone who has something worth saying. As such, I generally favor a liberal (in the classic sense) approach to inviting speakers to universities.

In the next essay I will consider the matter of the “heckler’s veto”, which occurs when the crowd silences a speaker.

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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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Mount St. Mary’s University II: Business Leaders

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 11, 2016

As so many schools now do, Mount St. Mary’s University decided to look to the business world to find a president and selected Simon Newman. While Newman does have a graduate education, he had no previous professional academic experience. He, however, has thirty years of experience in the realm of finance and business. His plan for the school was to “raise a lot of capital and start a lot of programs and start the university on a more aggressive growth trajectory.” It was hoped that he would capitalize on the “incredible brand” of the school in raising said capital.

Rather ironically, Newman has damaged that “incredible brand” by  embroiling Mount St. Mary’s University in a public relations disaster through his plan to cull students and his culling of faculty.  This is presumably not what the university hoped would happen—the plan was hiring Newman would improve the geographic diversity of the students and boost both the school’s endowment and its reputation.

This incident is not the only one that has occurred because of the common practice of hiring business leaders to fill administrative posts at schools.  There is also a similar trend in politics, with business people with no political experience being lauded as good choices for political offices (including the presidency). As such, it is well worth considering this matter.

One approach to justifying the choice to hire business people into academic administration (or elect them to office) is to argue that being a business person qualifies one for such positions. For example, that managing a private equity firm makes a person qualified to be a university president. Or president of the United States.

One obvious problem with this is revealed by consideration of the fallacious appeal to authority. This occurs when the expert/authority used to support a claim is not a legitimate expert relative to the claim. This commonly occurs when the alleged expert is an expert in one area, but not in the area of concern—expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. Likewise, a person could be great at business, but this does not confer expertise in academic administration.

Another problem with this is revealed by Socrates’ battle with Ion in the Ion. Socrates makes the point that a person who is the master of a field becomes a master by mastering that field rather than mastering some other field. For example, a doctor of medicine masters medicine by mastering medicine, not mechanical engineering. Obviously enough, a person who has mastered one field has not automatically mastered another. For example, one who has mastered running a hedge fund has not mastered being a university president.

Interestingly, these problems are recognized in almost all cases except those involving business persons seeking to be university administrators or office holders. If a person who worked assembling cars claimed to have thus mastered assembling code, they would not be believed. And rightly so. While both involve assembling, they are very different. If an athlete who mastered basketball (such as Michael Jordan) claimed to have thus mastered baseball, then they would be doubted. While both are sports involving balls, the skill sets are rather different.

One reply to these sort of objections is to argue that the skill set of a business person does apply to academic administration (and holding political office). For example, leadership skill could be seen as suitably “generic” so that a person who can lead a company as a CEO is thus qualified to lead as a university president (or president of the United States).

One problem is that even those who think that business people are qualified and even ideal for academic administration (or political office) do not usually think the reverse holds. For example, if a philosophy or engineering professor who became an administrator claimed he was thus qualified to run a hedge fund without any business experience, he would be mocked. As another example, if a state senator without any business experience claimed that he should be hired as the CEO of a firm, she would almost certainly not get the job (except as a payback for years of political favors, of course). This is a point well made by Socrates in the Ion: Ion claims that being a rhapsode also makes him a general; Socrates points out that this would make a general a rhapsode. Ion, as should be expected, did not like that idea.

Another problem is that while it is true that there are general skills, there is still the very reasonable concern that the general skills might not enough to properly do the job. To use an obvious example, I have over two decades of experience teaching philosophy classes. As such, I have a range of general teaching skills. However, this would not qualify me to teach biology classes—I would need to have knowledge of biology. I could, of course, learn enough biology to be competent to teach it. Likewise, a business person could learn to apply her general skills to a job as an administrator—but this would require learning the job. But, just as it would be unwise to hire me as a biology professor just because I could learn to do it, it would be unwise to hire (or elect) a business person to a position just because they could learn to do it eventually.

While the above arguments seem reasonable, there is still a way to argue in favor of hiring (or electing) business people into positions in academics (or politics). If it could be shown that an administrative position (or elected office) is, in fact, the same as a business position, then a business person would be a reasonable choice.

In some cases, this is obviously true. There are administrative posts that are functionally identical to business posts in companies and someone who has done the job in a company would thus be as qualified to do the job at a university. Where it becomes a matter of concern is in regards to positions that are not analogous to business positions. Addressing this properly would require considering each job, which goes far beyond the intended scope of this essay. However, I will briefly address the position of university president.

While the traditional university president is an academic who has transitioned into the leadership role after a distinguished career in the academy, some schools have redefined the role of president in terms of being a fundraiser and business leader. That is, the president is not primarily guiding the academy as an institute of higher learning, but running it as a business in order to increase capital and enhance the brand. If this is the proper role of the university president, then a business person would nicely fit this role. After all, this is reshaping the university from an academy to a business and a business leader should lead a business.

While mostly or completely transforming a university into a business would make business people suitable for positions in the university business, there is still the question of whether or not this is a good idea. To use an analogy, transforming a cruise ship into a pirate ship would make it so a pirate would be a suitable captain, but this might not be a good idea—especially for the passengers.  Likewise, transforming a university into a business might not be a good idea-especially for the students.

 

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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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Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2015

Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.

Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.

In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.

My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.

This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).

Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.

To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.

It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.

The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:

 

…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…

 

As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.

To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.

 

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The Value of Public Universities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2015

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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The Challenge of Attendance

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 18, 2015

I recently attended a meeting discussing the use of Blackboard analytics as a tool for student retention and improving graduation rates. Last year I had attended multiple meetings on the subject of classes with high failure rates and this had motivated me to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes. While my university is still implementing Blackboard analytics, I have gathered information from my classes and my students which has enabled me to get a reasonable picture of the failure rates, attendance rates and the reasons for failure and absences.

Not surprisingly, the new data still supports the old data in regards to correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade. Students who do fail (D or F) tend to have very poor attendance.  I have also found that attendance has grown dramatically worse in my classes over the years. This is not based on the usual complaints of the old about the youth of today—I have stacks of rumpled attendance sheets that provide actual evidence. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes.

Interestingly, while students who have good (A or B) grades tend to have good attendance, relatively large numbers of students are able to pass (C) despite poor attendance (missing more often than not). Perhaps they would have done better if they had attended more, but perhaps not.

Reviewing my gradebooks has shown that the main cause of failure is a combination of not completing work and getting failing grades on much of the work that is completed. The most common pattern is that a student does not complete 2-3 of the five exams, and fails some or all of the exams he does take. Somewhat less common is a student having passing grades on completed work, but not completing enough work to pass the course. This most commonly involves students who pass the exams and quizzes, but simply never turn in a paper. In some cases, students do pass the exams they take, but fail to take 2-3 of them. Interestingly, I have not had a student fail by completing and failing everything—the students who fail always leave some of the work undone.

In the days before Blackboard, students faced the challenge of coming to campus to take exams and turn in papers or assignments at specific times. In those days, I routinely had make-up exams and took papers late (when accompanied by appropriate documentation, of course). When Blackboard became available and reliable, I thought that I could address this problem by using Blackboard: students could take exams and quizzes and turn in papers and assignments at any time of day from anywhere they could get an internet connection. I also offered (and offer) very generous deadlines for the work so that students who faced difficulties or challenges could easily work around them.

While this did eliminate make-up exams and many problems with the papers, the impact on completion of work was less than I expected. In fact, class performance remained approximately the same as in the days before Blackboard. On the plus side, this showed that cheating had effectively been countered. On the minus side, I had hoped to significantly reduce the D and F grades resulting from people not doing the work.

While it is certainly tempting to regard the use of Blackboard as a failure in this regard, I do have some indirect reasons to think that it helped. As noted above, the attendance in my class (and those of others) has crashed. Despite this, the averages in my classes are remaining constant. One possible explanation is that the students would be doing worse, but for their ability to do the work in a very flexible manner. An alternative is, of course, that they are missing class because they can do the work on Blackboard. However, faculty who do not use Blackboard also consistently report attendance issues and generally have higher failure rates (based on general data regarding classes). So, I suspect that my use of Blackboard is doing some good, at least in terms of retention and graduation.

Naturally, I did wonder why students have been missing class. I have been conducting a study using a basic survey for one year and the results are here.

Over the year, I had 233 responses.  Interestingly 71% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (25.8%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 24.9% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is simply not consistent with my actual attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).

In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is still work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance and completion problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem. I suspect, but cannot prove, that my adoption of a heavily online approach has helped with this problem—students can complete the work around their work schedule, rather than trying to get work done at fixed times that might not match the needs of their workplace.

Of course, I also need to consider that it is this online approach that is contributing to the attendance issue. While 28.8% of students reported work as their primary reason, 15% claimed that the fact that the work is on Blackboard was the primary reason they missed class.  Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Blackboard, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class.  However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Blackboard might not do as well as they could and might get far less from the course—that is, just a grade.

Based on this information and other findings, Blackboard is still a double edged sword. On the one hand, it does seem beneficial precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using it as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What still needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. Given the above discussion, I believe that while the use of Blackboard does lower attendance, it also allows students to complete work around their work schedules. As such, I suspect that it has generally been positive in terms of the purely pragmatic goal of maintaining or even improving retention and graduation. Of course, this claim is counterfactual: if I had not adopted the online approach, then the grades of the students would have worsened.

As noted above, my university is adopting Blackboard Analytics and this will provide the data needed to conduct a proper student (as opposed to an unfunded project using surveys and data from just my classes). Students today are, obviously, different from when I was a student and professors need to adjust to the relevant differences—one key challenge is finding out what they are. I have made some guesses, but better data would allow better decision making.

 

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Getting High for Higher Education

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2014
English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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Committee Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2013

This semester is a rather busy one for me. In addition to my usual four classes, advising, serving as the philosophy & religion facilitator, I have a few more duties. These include the program review and serving on seven (possibly eight now) committees. Two of these committees are hiring committees. I have had plenty of experience on such committees, but they are always a considerable amount of work to do properly.

Serving on a committee and assessing applicants is somewhat like grading papers-the idea is to assess the candidate on the basis of the materials provided. As with student papers, the application material varies considerably. However, there are some fairly easy ways for a candidate to put together a better application package.

One common mistake made by candidates and students alike is to
simply leave out things that are supposed to be turned in. I have seen applications missing a few things (such as transcripts) and others that are missing almost everything. While search committees will often review incomplete applications, some committees will not consider them-especially when they are large numbers of applicants to consider. Even if the incomplete application is reviewed, the fact that it is incomplete will mean that those reviewing it will have less information to go on and this will tend to result in a lower evaluation.

A second mistake common to applicants and students is turning or sending in too much. In some cases, people seem to have thrown anything close at hand into the envelope they send in. There are some good reasons to not send in too much material. One is, obviously enough, the extra cost of mailing all that extraneous material. An important reason is that some unfortunate person probably has to make copies of or scan all the material sent on paper to make it available to the committee. As might be suspected, pushing an entire dissertation through a scanner is not something most people enjoy. People enjoy reading through it even less and, as might be suspected, some committee members will elect to simply skip over all those extras. In most cases this is quite reasonable-after all, the committee is supposed to assess based on what is requested and not based on whatever an applicant decides to send in (apparently in the hopes of increasing his/her chances).

A third mistake is to send in the requested material, but to make it needlessly long, perhaps in the attempt to “pad” the application. While the material should present all that is requested and provide adequate coverage of what should be covered, making committee members plod through needlessly long material will tend to not contribute to the desired result. As with a good paper, the application material should do what must be done, yet remain as concise as possible.

A fourth mistake is have material that is poorly organized or unclearly written. As might be suspected, this sort of material makes it difficult for the committee members and does not create a good impression.

Back to work…

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.