Supreme Court

Nomination seen as pushing Supreme Court to the right

Amy Coney Barrett, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, could have a sweeping impact on colleges and universities.

Ginsburg was advocate for equity

The justice, who died Friday, wrote decisions that upheld rights of women, racial minorities and gay people in higher education.

The Supreme Court confirmation hearings showed that yearbooks can be documents for research as well as nostalgia (opinion)

Campus yearbooks are in the news. This unlikely attention came about with recent media coverage of Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court nomination. For several days, The New York Times provided readers with front-page articles featuring clinical dissections of the biographical profiles of graduating seniors. Reporters analyzed yearbook inscriptions with the care usually reserved for decoding the Dead Sea scrolls.

The spotlight was surprising because higher education usually relies on databases such as the National Center for Education Statistics’ IPEDS, which lead to projections on enrollments, percentage returns on endowments, scorecards on institutional compliance or rankings of federal research funding. One of my colleagues, who is a statistician, exclaimed, “Yearbooks? Is this some kind of a joke?”

It was no joke. Yearbooks from high school and college are an American tradition, familiar to alumni whose photographs and captions lead them to say, “Thanks for the memories!” They also are documents that can go beyond casual nostalgia. Yearbooks have potential for serious research, but only if handled with care in analyzing their scripts of stilted, ritualized images and selective coverage of student life. Reliability, consistency, validity and significance -- the concepts that shape statistical analysis -- are equally pertinent in the content analysis of yearbooks.

These dusty, heavy bound volumes that end up in used bookstores, garage sales and library storage centers can be thoughtfully mined to reconstruct campus life and student cultures. They are simultaneously a source about the biography of an individual as well as a key to understanding the statistics of group patterns and dynamics of a college or high school class.

From Personal History to Prosopography and Social Network Analysis

Yearbooks kindle a temptation to look first at your own profile. The challenge is to go beyond reminiscing about your autobiography and ask others -- classmates, friends, colleagues -- for their varied impressions as you leaf through the pages of activities and accolades that were part of a college’s record.

A second temptation is to scour yearbooks for pictures and profiles of famous figures, to see how they looked and what they did in high school and college. A counter to is to figure out who were big men (and women) on campus whose achievements in adult life did not match their being voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Many colleges used to publish 25th-reunion albums in which alumni updated their yearbook profiles, providing an excellent source of comparative biography over time.

Although a yearbook’s photographs may be idealized depictions, they gain analytic energy when connected to detailed student memoirs. The late Philip Roth’s memorable early novella Goodbye, Columbus had little to do with explorations of 1492. Rather, he used the record album packaged with Ohio State University’s yearbook to trigger the protagonist’s response to the intense events of his own senior year that endures for its insights on social class tracking and dating within campus life.

The records that constitute an individual’s biography or autobiography (a category called “personal history” by archivists) often were presented with a head-and-shoulders photograph in a student’s profile. You can collate the individual entries to create a collective profile of, for example, college teammates or even an entire graduating class -- what historians call “prosopography.” An added touch ultimately is to subject the various biographical profiles to systematic coding and social network analysis. This algorithm gains in credibility if you make estimates on the “context of the text” -- in other words, track down what you can find out about the publisher, the editors, the faculty adviser and the administrative censors.

Yearbooks have been a staple in academic life, both at high schools and colleges, for over a century. In the early 1900s, yearbook publication surged as a lucrative industry in which a handful of commercial publishers dominated the national market. That consolidation led to standardization of yearbooks across colleges and over time. The publisher’s representative would provide the campus editor a template of formats. A further influence on the standardization and conformity was the tradition and inertia of school-year events, all of which had been staked out in previous editions. Certain activities and groups were routinely included, whereas new, upstart or rebellious activities were ignored or censored.

That led to a predictable, enduring formula used by schools and colleges nationwide over decades. Perhaps the best interpretation of a yearbook appeared in 1975, when the editors of The National Lampoon published a detailed parody of a fictional school: the 1964 yearbook for Estes Kefauver High School of Dacron, Ohio (home of the “Fightin’ Kangaroos”). Some of the same staff members later collaborated to create fictional Faber University and write the script for the classic campus movie Animal House.

Yearbooks can be a source of what social scientists call “unobtrusive measures.” Whereas in the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, the demand was for information that provided “corroboration,” sociologists refer to “triangulation,” in which multiple sources confirm information presented in the yearbook. Sometime that involves internal consistency. If Gretchen Scott has listed “varsity volleyball 1,2,3,4” by her senior picture and profile, then you can check that out by going to the sports section of the yearbook and looking at the volleyball team picture to see if, in fact, Gretchen Scott is featured alongside teammates.

Editors often played pranks on readers, including their classmates. In looking through a Rice University yearbook from the early 1960s one finds under “sports” a page for the swimming team, featuring athletes in swimsuits by the campus indoor pool. But the caption tells a different story, as the editor notes, “The university really did not have a swim team this year, but the yearbook staff decided to pose for a team picture …” At another college, the swimming team’s losing season led yearbook editors to comment, “At least nobody drowned.”

Calendar constraints limited what a yearbook was able to document for posterity. Since publication deadlines were in February or March, leading to publication and distribution in early June, spring activities were not completed when the yearbook went to press. The result is that you never know how the baseball team did for the full season, including the conference championship tournament. The best that yearbook editors could present was a preview: “Coach Armstrong’s horsehiders look forward to a great season on the diamond.” Early publication deadlines also meant that senior biographical profiles often could not include awards and honors presented at the end of the academic year -- including senior election to honor societies such as Phi Beta Kappa.

“Triangulation” encouraged extending the information in a single yearbook to its predecessors. An appealing feature of the yearbooks was that their standardization lent itself to a “run over time.” If you can tally information for a single student in one year, you then can tally comparable data for classmates. You can also compare those to the compilations of graduating seniors in past years. And then you can examine the success or shortfalls of a college’s programs and innovations at access and affordability. Consider assessing a college’s public relations claim that its admissions office is committed to diversity. You might test this through a systematic compilation. Were most classmates from prep schools? What are their geographical origins? The same can be asked about gender, race, ethnicity and religion to gauge changes over time.

In looking at the yearbook of the Harvard College Class of 1924, I found that the entry for each student includes a photograph and then vital statistics of birthplace, college address, home address, secondary school (or, rather, “prepared at …”), activities, concentration and plans after college. By chance, I came across future luminaries such as Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. But what was most significant was to look for patterns and clusters. Today, the affirmative action case at the university involving allegations of discrimination against Asian Americans has led to proposed restrictions on photographs that might reveal nonmeritocratic factors of a student or applicant’s identity. Not so in the old yearbooks. You can make a reasonable estimate to categorize the demographic makeup of a class from photographs in conjunction with the profile texts.

Content analysis also allows you to gauge the relative presence of some activities. In the 1946 edition of the University of Illinois yearbook, The Illio, fraternities and sororities received 64 pages of coverage. It also illustrated that within the American state university of the immediate post-World War II era, racial diversity was characterized by inclusion without integration: that yearbook included group photographs of one black sorority and two black fraternities among the total 57 Greek chapters on campus.

Elsewhere in the yearbook, eight pages were devoted to  photographs portraying “The Illio Beauties,” including group and individual portraits of the campus queen and her court. For the judging competition, the yearbook editors had arranged for legendary Hollywood movie producer Cecil B. DeMille to select “her majesty” from among 26 finalists. Gender representation in intercollegiate sports was markedly different. Typically, the men’s teams were covered in 45 pages of photographs, scoreboards and season summaries. Women as athletes, if represented at all, usually were confined to a page or two describing intramurals and “field days.”

New tools of social network analysis provide prospects for systematic research based on campus yearbooks. In the yearbooks from the early 1960s for the University of Mississippi, one finds a young Trent Lott as a cheerleader and a member of and then president and field representative for Sigma Nu fraternity. Here were the building blocks of affiliations that shaped his path to a career in Congress. The extracurricular life of American colleges and universities was not always academic in emphasis, but it was a powerful force in the socialization of future leaders. You can find, for example, that a particular fraternity at the flagship state university was the incubator for students who were being groomed to be governors and state legislators two decades after graduation.

Yearbooks are, of course, superficial and limited. But once you take those characteristics into account, they provide a lens into the world that students have created for themselves.

John R. Thelin is a historian who is professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. His new book, Going to College in the Sixties, is scheduled for publication by Johns Hopkins University Press in November.

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Colleges should use the recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a teachable moment (opinion)

As I watched all the events surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, I kept reflecting on how this entire episode would be affecting campuses -- students (those who had been sexually abused or accused of abuse most especially), faculty members, staff members and coaches, among others. And I was pondering how to help educational communities process all that happened in ways that do not fracture them, create resentments and exacerbate incivility.

That is obviously not easy. Emotions are running high, whatever one’s political persuasion. With the upcoming elections, along with memories retained by some of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas showdown decades ago, it is hard to picture how we navigate forward.

There is also no single step campuses can take that will enable healing. And healing will surely not be immediate. But some concrete steps can be taken that will produce positive outcomes. Let me offer one here.

Have you heard of pop-up courses? A growing number of campuses, including Bennington College and Pomona College, are offering such courses, where hot topics become an intensive weekend class for students. They literally pop up, like pop-up stores in malls; they are not on the list of courses for which one can preregister. The offerings change all the time and can provide course credit -- usually one or two credits depending on the seat time.

Current faculty members volunteer to teach these pop-ups, as commonly structured, recognizing that they will not necessarily have deep expertise in the subject. In fact, now is not the time to bring in outsiders to teach these pop-ups, however skilled or knowledgeable they may be. Students and teachers will all be learners, but in a way that is somewhat structured -- with readings, discussions and activities.

The whole idea of pop-ups makes sense to me. We need to make all education responsive to current trends and events and use the opportunities that present themselves -- good and bad -- to foster understanding in our students. After all, we want to educate students who will be the leaders of the future -- in their homes, their workplaces, their communities.

Sure, professors can adapt current semester-long courses to respond to a current event, but not all professors will do that, and not all who do it will do it well. The point of a pop-up is not to close out other institutional opportunities to examine particular issues but rather to serve as a vehicle for reflection.

Many themes would emerge, and many issues would bubble to the top of the top of students’ hearts and minds, if an institution were to flesh out a pop-up course on the Kavanaugh confirmation process. Emotions already are high, and this would not be a risk-free course for obvious reasons. But that’s one of the key reasons for a pop-up approach: to capture energy and guide that power to good ends, not destruction or hate. And one of the benefits of such a course is that it will be short -- which motivates openness without the fear of creating lasting negative impressions.

Suppose a college or university offered a pop-up course titled “The Lessons We Can Learn from the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings.” The idea here is to provide a pathway toward hope. Isn’t that at least one of the purposes of education -- to not allow students to wallow in despair with no tools with which to move forward but to make a difference and help them find a personal comfort zone? Moreover, here’s an important observation: the pop-ups I am suggesting are overtly nonpartisan, geared to developing facts, probing issues and exploring ideas and themes raised by the Kavanaugh hearings.

The lessons are many, including many that are not political. And there might be ways to think about prioritizing the lessons, both big and small.

Consider the lesson about how we ferret out truth, and, even more profoundly, does such a thing as truth exist? No small issue there. Here’s another possible set of lessons:

  • How well do we listen to the stories and experiences of others, whether related to sexual abuse or views on the environment?
  • In our tripartite government of checks and balances, how significant is the Supreme Court in actuality?
  • How have we used rhetorical devices to further our positions in government, in industry, within the academy, within the public sphere?
  • What are the roles of facial expression, tone and gestures on the perceptions of listeners?
  • What psychologically motivates us to diminish the views of others?
  • How does memory work in terms of brain science (that all-important hippocampus), and how does trauma impact memory and attachment?
  • How do we create dialogue on emotionally charged issues -- not just in the context of a Supreme Court appointment but more generally as well, assuming the skills are transportable?

Need I go on?

When it comes to relevant readings, anyone interested in developing a pop-up course can certainly find articles in newspapers of all sorts from different parts of the country as well as op-eds, including one by Anita Hill. They could also show videos of speeches and protests from the actual events. They could refer to the opening statements of Christine Blasey Ford and then Judge (now Justice) Kavanaugh and compare them to opening statements of other Supreme Court nominees. They could look into “Borking” and what occurred with Merrick Garland during his Supreme Court nomination in 2016. Poems and art could be shared, whether created recently or in the past about justice, freedom and trust.

I’m sure readers can picture their own version of a pop-up course. There can be several on a single campus can organize several different ones. Or they could develop courses that combine students and faculty members from neighboring campuses.

My point is that the moment for these courses is now -- while the fires are still burning and the embers still hot. Time is a-wastin’. A teachable moment is a-wastin’. We have hardly a better opportunity than now to help our students, faculty members, staff members, coaches and others in our community to reflect on the world in which we live -- and the world in which we want to our children and children’s children to live.

Karen Gross is a former college president and senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, she is senior counsel at Finn Partners and the author of both adult and children’s books, including Breakaway Learners, published by Columbia Teachers College Press and Lady Lucy’s Quest series, published by Shires Press.

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How Brett Kavanaugh performs in the classroom isn't relevant to how he'd serve on the Supreme Court (opinion)

By all accounts, Brett Kavanaugh has been a great law school professor: hardworking, even-handed and deeply committed to his students’ intellectual and professional growth. So would these same attributes make him a great U.S. Supreme Court justice, as well?

Not if you think the court should protect abortion rights, affirmative action and other liberal ideals. As a professor, Kavanaugh sought to help his students develop their own opinions about controversial issues in law and society. But as a lawyer and a judge, Kavanaugh has argued consistently and powerfully for his opinions on those issues.

And, lo and behold, he has almost always opined on the conservative side. That’s why President Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is stepping down. Kavanaugh wasn’t chosen for the fair-minded way he conducted his classroom but rather for single-minded way he has interpreted the law.

Don’t tell that to Kavanaugh’s handlers, who have made a big deal about his stellar teaching record. His confirmation team at the White House recently released Kavanaugh’s student evaluations for the law classes he has taught at Yale, Georgetown and Harvard Universities. It's an effort to burnish his image as the kind of guy who is open to different points of view rather than as an ideologue bent on imposing his own.

And as a professor, that’s exactly what Brett Kavanaugh was. I’m researching a book on the history of teaching at American universities, so I’ve read thousands of student evaluations -- good, bad and lots in between. But I’ve rarely encountered comments as uniformly glowing as the ones Kavanaugh received.

He was rigorous but kind. He was always prepared for class and available to meet outside it. He often took students to dinner to discuss their legal ideas as well as their professional trajectories.

And while almost everyone knew he was a conservative player, Kavanaugh didn’t seek to recruit students to his team. Instead, he elicited different points of view and gave all of them a fair hearing. “He wasn’t in class to lecture us on Judge Kavanaugh’s policy preferences,” said one of his former students at Harvard, where Kavanaugh taught for a decade. “He was there to talk about the law.”

But is any of that really relevant to how he’d perform on the Supreme Court?

As a lawyer -- and, yes, as a judge -- Kavanaugh has worked to propagate and defend his own preferences. A courtroom isn’t an intellectual salon where ideas are deliberated for their own sake. It’s a field of battle where one side typically wins.

And if you don’t think Brett Kavanaugh wants his side to win, well, you just haven’t been watching him. Over the past quarter century, Kavanaugh has been close to -- or part of -- almost every important conservative cause in the United States. As Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, once quipped, Kavanaugh is the “Forrest Gump of Republican politics.”

Kavanaugh was a key aide to Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr during the investigation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which culminated in Clinton’s impeachment. In a memo to Starr, two days before Clinton testified to a grand jury, Kavanaugh urged Starr’s interviewers to confront the president with all the salacious details that the probe had unearthed.

“The idea of going easy on him at the questioning is … abhorrent to me,” Kavanaugh told Starr. “The President has disgraced his Office, the legal system, and the American people by having sex with a 22-year-old intern.”

Kavanaugh later worked on George W. Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount, which resulted in a Supreme Court decision allowing Bush to assume the presidency. He served as associate White House counsel when the Bush administration was formulating its policies on detainees accused of terrorism, although Kavanaugh insisted at his confirmation hearing for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that he wasn’t involved with the infamous memos justifying torture.

And once Kavanaugh joined the D.C. Circuit, in 2006, he became a reliable vote for nearly every conservative judicial position. He ruled in favor of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance of phone records. He claimed that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional. And, most recently, he argued that a detained immigrant minor did not have a right to receive an abortion.

All of these positions are defensible, and Brett Kavanaugh has proved himself an able defender of them. And surely the skills and practices that Kavanaugh displayed in his law school classroom -- civility, decency and generosity -- have also helped him in deliberations with colleagues, interactions with witnesses and the other activities of a judge. And when it comes to his important judicial duty -- the rendering of legal opinions -- he has obviously been well served by his ability to explore multiple perspectives on every question, just as he did as a professor. But he has used that ability as a judge to further his perspective, over and over again.

Kavanaugh’s advocates would like you think that his legal decisions will be “free of political partisanship,” as a group of his fellow Yale Law School alumni -- joined by several current students and faculty members -- wrote in an open letter earlier this month. That echoes the myth of judicial impartiality promoted by recent Supreme Court nominees across the ideological spectrum, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Neil Gorsuch.

And it’s simply not true. If the justices were truly impartial, they wouldn’t align so routinely in conservative and liberal camps. Justice Kennedy was a welcome exception: although a Republican appointee, he sometimes joined the liberal side. And that’s precisely what Republicans don’t want from his replacement, which is why President Trump selected a predictable conservative like Kavanaugh.

My daughter is planning to go to law school, where I hope she encounters professors as skilled and dedicated as Brett Kavanaugh. But I also hope that he is not confirmed for the Supreme Court, where his skills would likely be dedicated to rolling back abortion rights, affirmative action and many other causes that I hold dear. He is impartial in the classroom, not in the courtroom. And there's a world of difference between the two.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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Labor board says recess appointment ruling won't affect review of pending cases

With two high-profile higher education cases under consideration, labor board says it will carry on as usual despite an appeals court's ruling that calls into question the legitimacy of its appointees.

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