Tag Archives: Florida

Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility Index

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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Race & Performance Based Funding

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school in performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: there net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.


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Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy.

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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Should there be a waiting period for abortion?

The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.

One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).

I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.

In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.

I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.

While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.

The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.

It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.

In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.

What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).

In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.


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Better than the Truth

: Fountain of Youth Park.

: Fountain of Youth Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While my adopted state of Florida has many interesting tales, perhaps the most famous is the story of Juan Ponce de León’s quest to find the fountain of youth. As the name suggests, this enchanted fountain was supposed to grant eternal life to those who drank of (or bathed in) its waters.

While the fountain of youth is regarded as a mere myth, it turns out that the story about Juan Ponce de León’s quest is also a fiction. And not just a fiction—a slander.

In 1511, or so the new history goes, Ponce was forced to resign his post as governor of Puerto Rico. King Ferdinand offered Ponce an opportunity: if he could find Bimini, it would be his. That, and not the fountain of youth, was the object of his quest. In support of this, J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida, claims that the documents of the time make no mention of a fountain of youth. According to Francis, a fellow named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, most likely because of the political struggle in Puerto Rico.  Oviedo wrote a tale in his Historia general y natural de las Indias claiming that Ponce was tricked by the natives into searching for the fountain of youth.

This fictional “history” stuck (rather like the arrow that killed Ponce) and has become a world-wide legend. Not surprisingly, my adopted state is happy to cash in on this tale—there is even a well at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park that is rather popular with tourists. There is considerable irony in the fact that a tale intended to slander Ponce as a fool has given him a form of ongoing life—his fame is due mostly to this fiction. Given the success of the story, it might be suspected that this is a case where the fiction is better than the truth. While this is but one example, it does raise a general philosophical matter regarding truth and fiction.

From a moral and historical standpoint, the easy and obvious answer to the general question of whether a good fiction is better than a truth is “no.”  After all, a fiction of this sort is a lie and there are the usual stock moral arguments as to why lying is generally wrong. In this specific case, there is also the fact (if the story is true) that Oviedo slandered Ponce from malice—which certainly seems morally wrong.

In the case of history, the proper end is the truth—as Aristotle said, it is the function of the historian to relate what happened. In contrast, it is the function of the poet to relate what may happen. As such, for the moral philosopher and the honest historian, no fiction is better than the truth. But, of course, these are not the only legitimate perspectives on the matter.

Since the story of Ponce and the fountain of youth is a fiction, it is not unreasonable to also consider it in the context of aesthetics—that is, its value as a story. While Oviedo intended for his story to be taken as true, he can be considered an artist (in this case, a writer of fiction and the father of the myth). Looked at as a work of fiction, the story does relate what may happen—after all, it certainly seems possible for a person to quest for something that does not exist. To use an example from the same time, Orellana and Pizarro went searching for the legendary city of El Dorado (unless, of course, this is just another fiction).

While it might seem a bit odd to take a lie as art, the connection between the untrue and art is well-established. In the Poetics, Aristotle notes how “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully” and he regards such skillful lies as a legitimate part of art. Oscar Wilde, in his “New Aesthetics” presents as his fourth doctrine that “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art.” A little reflection does show that they are correct—at least in the case of fiction. After all, fiction is untrue by definition, yet is clearly a form of art. When an actor plays Hamlet and says the lines, he pours forth lie after lie. The Chronicles of Narnia are also untrue—there is no Narnia, there is no Aslan and the characters are made up. Likewise for even mundane fiction, such as Moby Dick. As such, being untrue—or even a lie in the strict sense of the term, does not disqualify a work from being art.

Looked at as a work of art, the story of the fountain of youth certainly seems better than the truth. While the true story of Ponce is certainly not a bad tale (a journey of exploration ending in death from a wound suffered in battle), the story of a quest for the fountain of youth has certainly proven to be the better tale. This is not to say that the truth of the matter should be ignored, just that the fiction would seem to be quite acceptable as a beautiful, untrue thing.


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Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.


Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.


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Should Confederate Veterans be Honored as Veterans?

Yet another interesting controversy has arisen in my adopted state of Florida. Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor “those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida.”

The three nominees are David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry. Perry was Florida’s governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator. Lang assisted in creating what became the Florida National Guard. As such, they did make significant contributions to Florida. The main legal question is whether or not they qualify as veterans. Since Florida was in rebellion (in defense of slaver) against the United States there is also a moral question of whether or not they should be considered veterans.

The state of Florida and the US federal government have very similar definitions of “veteran.” For Florida, a veteran is a person who served in the active military and received an honorable discharge. The federal definition states that “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” The law also defines “Armed Forces” as the “United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.” The reserves are also included as being in the armed forces.

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America. Interestingly, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam takes the view that “If you’re throwing these guys out on a technicality, that’s just dumb.”

Presumably, Putnam regards the fact that the men served in the Confederate army and took up arms against the United States as a technicality. This seems to be rather more than a mere technicality. After all, the honor seems to be reserved for veterans as defined by the relevant laws. As such, being Confederate veterans would seem to no more qualify the men for the hall than being a veteran of the German or Japanese army in WWII would qualify someone who moved to Florida and did great things for the state. There is also the moral argument about enrolling people who fought against the United States into this hall. Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor.

One counter to the legal argument is that Confederate soldiers were granted (mostly symbolic) pensions about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Confederate veterans can also be buried in a special Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery. These facts do push the door to a legal and moral argument open a crack. In regards to the legal argument, it could be contended that Confederate veterans have been treated, in some ways, as veterans. As such, one might argue, this should be extended to the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

The obvious response is that these concessions to the Confederate veterans do not suffice to classify Confederate veterans as veterans of the United States. As such, they would not be qualified for the hall. There is also the moral counter that soldiers who fought against the United States should not be honored as veterans of the United States. After all, one would not honor veterans of other militaries that have fought against the United States.

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States’ veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning. Perhaps this could be countered by contending that the south left and then rejoined, so it is not becoming part of the United States that has the desired effect but rejoining after a rebellion.

Another possible argument is to contend that the Veterans’ Hall of Fame is a Florida hall and, as such, just requires that the veterans be Florida veterans. In the Civil War units were, in general, connected to a specific state (such the 1st Maine). As such, if the men in question served in a Florida unit that fought against the United States, they would be Florida veterans but not United States veterans. Using this option would, of course, require that the requirements for the hall not include that a nominee be a veteran of the United States military and presumably it could not be connected to the United States VA since that agency is only responsible for veterans of the United States armed forces and not veterans who served other nations.

In regards to the moral concerns of honoring, as veterans, men who fought against the United States and in defense of slavery, it could be claimed that the war was not about slavery. The obvious problem with this is that the war was, in fact, fought to preserve slavery. The southern states made this abundantly clear. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech and made this quite clear when he said “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It could, of course, be argued that not every soldier fighting for the South was fighting to defend slavery. After all, just like today, most of the people fighting in wars are not the people who set policy or benefit from these policies. These men could have gone to war not to protect the institution of slavery, but because they were duped by the slave holders. Or because they wanted to defend their state from “northern aggression.” Or some other morally acceptable reason. That is, it could be claimed that these men were fighting for something other than the explicit purpose of the Confederacy, namely the preservation of slavery. Since this is not impossible, it could be claimed that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt and be honored for fighting against the United States and then doing significant things for Florida.

In any case, this matter is rather interesting and I am looking forward to seeing my adopted state mocked once again on the Daily Show. And, just maybe, Al Sharpton will show up to say some things.


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Gun Violence & Mental Illness, Again

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 20, 2014 Myron May allegedly shot three people on the FSU campus in Tallahassee, Florida. He was shot to death after allegedly firing at the police. I did not know May, but I do know people who did—that is the sort of place Tallahassee is: if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does.

While the wounding of the three people was terrible, May can be seen as the fourth victim. I did know that May had been a cross-country runner, that he had graduated from FSU and then had gone on to law school. During most of his life, May seemed to be the last person who would hurt anyone else—he was well regarded and interested in doing good for the community. But, at some point, his mind apparently spiraled down into the darkness—he showed signs of mental illness that culminated in his death on the campus he loved.

Due to the terrible regularity of gun violence in the United States, I have nothing new to say about the usual issues relating to guns. However, I will address some important issues relating to mental illness in the United States.

As I learned many shootings ago, a person can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when he presents an imminent danger. One practical impact of this high threshold is that authorities often cannot act until someone has actually acted and then it can be too late.

It can be argued that the threshold should be lower so that a person can be helped before he engages in violence. The practical challenge is determining the extent to which a person presents a danger to himself or others. The moral challenge is justifying lowering the threshold.

A plausible way to justify this is by use of a utilitarian argument: helping someone with mental issues before he commits violence will help prevent such acts of violence. That said, there is a moral concern with allowing authorities to use its compulsive power on someone because he might do something despite a lack of adequate evidence that he intends to take a harmful actions.

It could be countered that certain mental issues are adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in harmful behavior, even though she has done nothing to reach the imminent danger threshold.

This is certainly appealing. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of an illness arising, then it is sensible to treat that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

An obvious objection is that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. A reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is usually only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this. To use another analogy, some forms of mental illness can be seen as analogous to highly infectious diseases. The analogy would not be to claim that mental illness can be caught, but that an infected person presents a serious risk to others and, likewise, a person with a certain sort of mental illness can also present a serious risk to others. Provided that there is adequate evidence of the danger, then the state can be warranted in acting against the individual’s will. The practical challenge is determining what conditions warrant acting.

One practical concern is that mental health science is behind the physical health sciences and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. Because of this, predictions made using mental health science will tend to be of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state on such a tenuous foundation would be morally problematic. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

A counter to this is to argue that preventing another mass shooting is worth the price of denying people their freedom. An obvious worry is that without clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have a certain sort of mental issue. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people would have reason to worry. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression). There is also the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in people being subject to coercion without real justification.

In light of these considerations, I do recommend that we reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. However, this reconsideration needs to involve carefully considered guidelines and should be focused on helping people rather than merely locking them away in the hopes of protecting others.

The situation at FSU also illustrated another point of moral concern: while May was apparently justly shot by the police after allegedly firing on them, the officers only viable response was lethal in nature. While police do have some less-than-lethal options like Tasers and nightsticks, these options are usually not viable against a person actively shooting at an officer from a distance. There have been some efforts to produce less-than-lethal options that are as or nearly effective as guns, but these options have not proven successful and police have generally not adopted them.

From a moral perspective, it would clearly be preferable if officers had better less-than-lethal options. In the case of May’s situation, if he had been rendered unable to act rather than shot to death, he might have been able to benefit from medical help and return to a normal life. In the case of criminals who are not suffering from mental illness, it would still seem morally preferable to be able to effective subdue them without shooting them. As such, there is a good moral reason to develop an effective less-than-lethal weapon.

It is also important to note that such a weapon would need to be effective enough to morally justify its use in place of a gun. After all, the police should not be expected to use a weapon that is not adequately effective—this would put them and the public in unjustified danger. Such a weapon could be less effective than a gun and still be acceptable, but there is clearly an important question in regards to how effective the weapon would need to be. In practical terms, of course, there is the question of whether or not such a weapon is even possible. After all, while something like the stun setting on a Star Trek phaser would be ideal, it is likely to always just be science fiction.


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Assessment, Metrics & Rankings

Having been in academics for quite some time, I have seen fads come, go and stick. A recent fad is the obsession with assessment. As with many such things, assessment arrived with various acronyms and buzz words. Those more cynical than I would say that all acronyms of administrative origin (AAO) amount to B.S. But I would not say such a thing. I do, however, have some concern with the obsession with assessment.

One obvious point of concern was succinctly put by a fellow philosopher: “you don’t fatten the pig by weighing it.” The criticism behind this homespun remark is that time spent on assessment is time that is taken away from the actual core function of education, namely education. At the K-12 level, the burden of assessment and evaluation has become quite onerous. At the higher education level, the burden is not as great—but considerable time is spent on such matters.

One reply to this concern is that assessment is valuable and necessary: if the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of education is not assessed, then there would be no way of knowing what is working and what is not. The obvious counter to this is that educators did quite well in assessing their efforts before the rise of modern assessment and it has yet to be shown that these efforts have actually improved education.

Another obvious concern is that in addition to the time spent by faculty on assessment, a bureaucracy of assessment has been created. Some schools have entire offices devoted to assessment complete with staff and administrators. While only the hard-hearted would begrudge someone employment in these tough times, the toughness of the times should dictate that funding is spent on core functions rather than assessing core functions.

The reply to this is to argue that the assessment is more valuable than the alternative. That is, that funding an assessment office is more important to serving the core mission of the university than more faculty or lower tuition would be. This is, of course, something that would need to be proven.

Another common concern is that assessment is part of the micromanagement of public education being imposed by state legislatures (often by the very same people who speak loudly about getting government off peoples’ backs and protecting businesses from government regulation). This, some critics contend, is all part of a campaign to intentionally discredit and damage public education so as to allow the expansion of for-profit education.

The reply to this is that the state legislature has the right to insist that schools provide evidence that the (ever-decreasing) public money is being well spent. If the legislatures did show true concern for the quality of education and were devoted to public education, this reply would have merit.

Predating the current assessment fad is a much older concern with rankings. Recently I heard a piece on NPR about how Florida’s Board of Governors (the folks who run public education) is pushing Florida public universities to become top ranked schools. There are quite a few rankings, ranging from US News & World Report’s rankings to those of Kiplinger’s. Each of these has a different metric. For example, Kiplinger’s rankings are based on financial assessment. While it is certainly desirable to be well ranked, it is rather ironic that Florida’s public universities are being pushed to rise in the ranks at the same time that the state legislature and governor have consistently cut funding and proven generally hostile to public education. One unfortunate aspect of the ranking obsession is that Florida has adopted a performance based funding system in which the top schools get extra funding while the lower ranked schools get funding cut. Since the schools are competing with each other, some of the schools will end up lower ranked no matter how well they do—so some schools will get cuts, no matter what. This seems to be an odd approach: insisting on improvement while systematically making it harder and harder to improve.

This is also a problem with assessment. To return to that in the closing of this essay, a standard feature of assessment is that the results of the previous assessment must be applied to improve each academic program. That is, there is an assumption of perpetual improvement. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, there is typically no money available for faculty salary increases. As such, the result is that faculty are supposed to better each year, but get paid less (since inflation and the cost of living increase reduces the value of the salary). As such, the system is such that perpetual improvement of faculty and schools is demanded, but there are no incentives or rewards—other than not getting fired or being the school to get the most cuts. Interestingly, the folks imposing this system are the same folks who tend to claim that taxation and government impositions kill the success of business. That is, if businesses have less money and are regulated too much by the state, then it will be bad. Apparently this view does not extend to education. But there might be an ironic hope: education is being “businessified” and perhaps once the transformation is complete, the universities will get the love showered on corporations.

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kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

Florida State University College of Motion Pic...

Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:


Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.


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