Tag Archives: university

The Liberal Academy

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.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Mount St. Mary’s University III: Drowning Bunnies & Retention

While students have long been concerned about their grade points, colleges and universities have become enthralled by numbers. Many state schools, such as my own Florida A&M University, are being held hostage by numbers—they have been locked into the death match of number driven performance based funding. Even private, non-profit schools have fallen victim to number obsession. One rather unfortunate recent example involves Mount St. Mary’s University.

President Simon Newman devised a plan to improve the school’s retention rate by culling students before the federal reporting deadline. The plan was to get students to complete a survey described as a “valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself.” In reality, the survey was intended to identify the students to be culled. In response to some resistance to the plan, Newman responded by saying “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

While Newman’s proposed solution and its fallout proved to be a disaster for the university, schools do need to address the problem of retention. For all schools, improving retention is important for improving the reputation and status of the school. This applies both to how the school is ranked and how the school is perceived by prospective students and their parents. For many public schools, improving retention is important for maintaining or improving their funding from the state. Many states have adopted punishing performance based funding systems such that schools are forced to fight to avoid being the victims of funding cuts. There is also the matter of the students—retaining students so that they graduate is certainly beneficial to these students. After all, students leaving school and having little to show for it other than debt is not good for anyone.

There are various ways to approach the problem of retention. One approach, which was the general plan of Newman, is to cull the students who are least likely to be retained. If successful, this will improve the school’s numbers. While this approach seems harsh, it can be defended. An obvious defense is that schools already use a culling process, specifically the application process. In this case, the “bunnies” are drowned before they even get to the gates of the school. Another defense is to draw an analogy to sports. Many teams have both a varsity and junior varsity. Athletes compete to be on the varsity team and sometimes even to remain on the team. This, it can be argued, is the nature of competitive activities. Since schools are in competition, they can be looked at as analogous to sports teams: they need to have the best players they can get in order to improve their performance in the competition for status and funds. As such, the numbers are improved because poor performers are removed from the herd.

This approach does raise numerous concerns about having a competition model in education, especially in regards to funding for public institutions. One concern is that such an approach will abandon students from the lower economic classes—there is, after all, a strong causal link between the economic class of students and their retention and graduation rates. One obvious reason is that poorer students have less resources to pay for school and need to spend more time working. Another concern is with the methods that would be used to cull the students after they have been accepted. After all, the goal of such a culling is to be rid of them before they damage the numbers; so the culling process needs to predict performance rather than be based upon it. As such, the culling could easily prove to be unfair.

A second approach is to improve the pre-culling of students. My university has had the traditional role of offering opportunity to students who otherwise would not have such opportunities. This, not surprisingly, results in lower retention and graduation numbers relative to schools that focus on admitting those most likely to succeed (usually people from the middle and upper economic classes). It has been recommended that our approach be replaced with stricter admission requirements, thus abandoning many potential students. While this would have the benefit of improving the school’s numbers, it would have the serious disadvantage of denying many potential students the chance to succeed. These students would generally be from the lower income classes, thus helping to perpetuate poverty.  As such, pre-and post-admission culling have the same sort of problems.

An alternative to culling is to strengthen the students. That is, focus on improving the students’ chances of remaining in school and succeeding. This would bring up the numbers by improving performance. To use a sports analogy, this would be like a team that focused on training its athletes to be better rather than focusing on getting rid of the athletes that did not perform as well. One major downside to this approach is that it would require expending resources: lower income students would need more financial support, students who are less well prepared (who are often lower income) would need extra help, and so on. Since many schools have either embraced the business model or have had state legislatures ram it down their throats (to use one of Marco Rubio’s favorite lines), it is not surprising that this approach is less favored. After all, it is cheaper to pre-cull and cull than it is to provide broad opportunity for success.

A reasonable response to concerns about opportunity is to argue that it is better to use the limited resources for students who are more likely to succeed rather than waste them on students who are likely to fail. While this does have considerable merit, there is still the moral concern regarding denying opportunity in the name of economy. That said, it is certainly reasonable and rational to consider how resources should be best used.

My own view is that in a country as wealthy as the United States, schools should err on the side of opportunity. In addition to the usually “left” arguments about equality and justice, there is also a solid conservative argument: while some money will be “wasted” on students who are not retained, the return on investments in retention should pay off handsomely in terms of improved income, reduced crime, and enhanced opportunities. That is, in the long term the cost of investing in education will be far less than the cost of not doing so.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Mount St. Mary’s University II: Business Leaders

As so many schools now do, Mount St. Mary’s University decided to look to the business world to find a p

resident 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.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

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.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The Value of Public Universities

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.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The Challenge of Attendance

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.

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.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Getting High for Higher Education

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.”

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page