An organization known as the LaRouche Youth Movement has become a fixture on many college campuses over the past few years. Many of its adherents are undergraduates, though members are eventually urged to quit school to work full-time for the organization. "We are in a complete breakdown of the financial system and we know that," one member told a student newspaper in California. "We can use our time in a more appropriate manner than going to school." Recruits have been tireless in distributing tracts that bear such lurid titles as “Children of Satan” (about members of the Bush administration) and “How the 'The Sexual Congress of Cultural Fascism' Ruined the U.S.A.” (an allusion to the Cold War-era Congress for Cultural Freedom).
While LYMers do support the perennial American presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, it is somewhat misleading to think of these texts as mere campaign literature – or the movement itself as essentially political. Members are recruited in part around the claim that the movement will give them a real education in classical culture, with a particular emphasis on mastering Plato and Leibnitz.
His adherents regard Lyndon LaRouche as the greatest mind of the past 300 years, at very least. "I'm probably the best economist in the world today," as LaRouche told The Washington Post in 1985. But a list of the areas of expertise behind that claim of eminence is even more astounding.Members of his youth group now publish a scholarly journal, of sorts, called Dynamis, devoted to their studies of his mathematical and scientific doctrines.
LaRouche has also determined the correct pitch for tuning musical instruments. Any other tuning bothers him, besides being incompatible with the structure of the universe. In the best of all possible worlds, people found in possession of “incorrect” tuning forks and pitch-pipes would be fined. His followers in Italy once proposed legislation to that effect. It failed. That campaign seems to be at a standstill, but it once drew close attention in the pages of Opera Fanatic magazine.
In one of his autobiographies, LaRouche explains that his mission is to create what Plato called “golden souls” – fit to rule those of us of a more silver or even bronze hue. His quest to do so began among students on college campuses 40 years ago. Members of the inner core of his organization have long since qualified to join the AARP. LaRouche himself is now 85 years old. And yet it is clear that he remains ready, willing, and able to serve as philosopher-king for the entire planet, given half a chance.
And so a few years back LaRouche's followers began recruiting new support among university students. In 2002, organizers for the movement, one of them carrying a megaphone, rushed into classrooms at Santa Monica College to spread the good word, according to the campus newspaper. By 2003, recruitment was successful enough to receive LaRouche's own enthusiastic approval."Give me 1,000 youth leaders like these," he announced that year, "and I'll take over the country."
That goal may have been a little optimistic. The figure of 1,000 new members has not been mentioned in a while. But the movement’s Web site now lists contact information for 21 cities.
Members of the LaRouche Youth Movement also make themselves visible, if no means welcome, at Democratic Party events. Perhaps “visible” is not really the right word. The LaRouchies are prone to heckle and to sing – often, in fact, at the same time. One central doctrine of the movement is that certain classical compositions (sung at the proper pitch) can transform both singer and listener in a golden-soulful way. Here, for example, is a video of Joseph Lieberman being subjected to LaRouchian bel canto yodeling
LaRouche supporters claim to be a wing of the Democratic Party -- something the party itself strenuously denies. His following has the LaRouche Political Action Committee as its electoral arm. LPAC raised more than $7.4 million in 2006, according to statements filed with the Federal Election Commission. It dispersed a grand total of $1,565 to a Democratic candidate for president.(Guess which one?) A review of expenditures (also available at the FEC site) shows a total of $462,850 going to the LaRouche Youth Movement. Another $6,223 went to Bruce Director, a longtime supporter of LaRouche who teaches the candidate’s mathematical theories to the youth group.
When they are not busy studying geometry or learning to sing properly, youth organizers are expected to meet a daily fund-raising quota. In an open letter to the father of a Youth Movement member, a former long-time supporter of the LaRouche organization described the life of a full-timer organizer as "dreary."
But one might never know that from LaRouche's speeches to the movement, which often end, "Have fun!"
The emergence of the group is all the more surprising, given that LaRouche himself has long since become the walking punchline to a very strange joke. He is known for some of the most baroque conspiracy theories ever put into circulation. Members of the LYM now deny that he ever accused the Queen of England of drug trafficking – though in fact, he did exactly that throughout the 1980s. At the time, he won admirers on the extreme right wing by denouncing Henry Kissinger as an agent of the KGB and calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined. A good roundup of LaRouche's positions and conspiracy theories is available from PublicEye.org, the website of Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank.
The movement lost even more credibility when LaRouche and several of his top associates were convicted of mail fraud in 1988. He even ended up sharing a prison cell with Jim Bakker, the disgraced televangelist. (Now there's a Platonic dialogue one would like to read.)
But most of the students joining his movement now were barely learning to read when LaRouche was paroled in 1994. He has managed to repackage himself as a former “political prisoner.” Actually LaRouche was prosecuted for making a million dollars’ worth of unauthorized charges to credit cards, which would not ordinarily count as a manifestation of high idealism. Be that as it may, LaRouche has displayed a certain knack, over the years, for pitching his message to young people. The new focus on student recruitment is, in fact, a return to the movement's origins.
In the mid-1960s, LaRouche gave rather spellbinding lectures at Columbia, Temple, Swarthmore, and other campuses – never as a professor, but rather as a guest speaker invited by radical students. His career up to that point had certainly been unusual.
Although a member of various small Marxist organizations, LaRouche was also employed as a management consultant to the shoe industry. According to some of his later statements, he was involved in early efforts to apply computer technology to bookkeeping practices.Meanwhile, he published radical tracts under the pseudonym Lyn Marcus. (He describes his early years as a revolutionary, his use of the pen name, and his pioneering role in creating accounting software in The Power of Reason, an autobiography published in 1979.)
It is often said by LaRouche's critics that his pseudonym, Lyn Marcus, was meant as a reference to Lenin and Marx – a colorful detail, though, alas, one not really supported by an evidence. A more parsimonious explanation for “Lyn” is that it is just a contraction of “Lyndon.” As for "Marcus," he claims that his nickname as a young man was Marco Polo.
But my friend James Weinstein -- a radical historian who knew LaRouche briefly during the mid-1960s -- had a different perspective. "A lot of Jews in the radical movement took WASP-seeming party names," he told me. "So here you had this guy who looked and sounded like a Boston Brahmin taking a Jewish name. He was very strange. He would show up at meetings of his own organization to hand out leaflets denouncing it."
He was, in any case, a man of numerous theories. And as protests against the Vietnam war grew, he found a ready audience for them. Lyn Marcus developed a following among radical students at Columbia University in the months just before the campus upheaval there in 1968. Several of his young disciples were part of the student strike committee. His following won occasional passing references in James Simon Kunen’s once-famous book The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, published the following year.
Kunen describes a meeting at Columbia during which a shaggy-bearded radical orator, obviously is somewhat older than his audience, lectures on the impending global depression. Although he is not identified by name, this was almost certainly LaRouche. The beard is documented in a photograph from the period. He later cut it off – but kept the lecture about impending global depression, which has always been a staple of his ideology.
By the early 1970s, he had a following of nearly 1,000 students on campuses across the country, organized as the National Caucus of Labor Committees. It was the most bookish of far-left groups, and included some very smart people, several of them holding advanced degrees. (Quite a few also had trust funds, at least when they joined.) At least some professors must have taken the movement seriously. Writings by Lyn Marcus and other NCLC members appeared in Institutions, Policies, and Goals: A Reader in American Politics, a college textbook issued by D.C. Heath in 1973.
In 1975, Heath also brought out a curious volume called Dialectical Economics: An Introduction to Marxian Political Economy, which appeared under LaRouche's pseudonym. This was his theoretical magnum opus. It received exactly one notice in an academic publication: a review in The Journal of Political Economy by Martin Bronfenbrenner, a professor of economics at Brown University.
The LaRouche movement has inspired some excellent investigative journalism over the years – in particular the work of Dennis King, who has unearthed many a surprising and unpleasant fact about the candidate. (His book about LaRouche, published by Doubleday in 1989, is now available online.)
But it seems that no reporter has ever noticed Bronfenbrenner's examination of Dialectical Economics -- the one occasion, I believe, when LaRouche's work was discussed by a serious scholar. It is a remarkably interesting item in its own right. As a review-essay, it is sober and judicious, yet suffused with a certain tone of puzzlement, as if Bronfenbrenner had to stop every so often to scratch his head.
“As regards content,” he noted, the book was “perhaps 50 percent dialectical philosophy, with a strong epistemological stress. The remaining 50 percent appears fairly evenly divided between history (including economic history), anthropology-cum-sociology, and economics (including a surprisingly large loading of business administration).....For a 500 page introduction to economics, in sum, the economics is disappointingly thin.”
And yet there was, indeed, some economics in it. The exact kind was worth noting -- for not all of it came from Das Kapital, by any means. Bronfenbrenner discerned that the author “had the advantage of more private-business experience than the great majority of academic economists.” A good deal of that direct knowledge “has been at the exploitive frontier of ‘white-collar crime,’ bordering on fraud both in the inducement and the factum....Marcus’s experience extends to the speculative overcapitalization of capital values, creating ‘fictitious capitals’ which cannot later justify themselves by earning capacity in the normal course of events.”
In short, Dialectical Economics was the work of someone familiar, not just with Marxist theory, but with creative bookkeeping. Bronfenbrenner also wrote that the book left “a distinct impression, redolent of the 1930s, of the one-man-party member with whom the world is out of step.”
That may be one of the more insightful comments ever made by a book reviewer. But at the time, in the mid-1970s, LaRouche's "one-man party" was already a bit larger than that. An account of life in the group appeared in a memoir by two friends, Jeff Durstewitz and Ruth Tuttle, called Younger Than That Now: A Shared Passage from the Sixties (Bantam, 2001). One of the authors, Tuttle, joined the group in the early 1970s.
Members “spent countless hours reading and studying,” she wrote, “getting a better education in Western philosophy and politics than we had gotten [in college]. But that benefit was far outweighed by the brutalized and controlled nature of our day-to-day lives. Even as we were verbally flogged each day to use creative thinking to achieve ‘humanistic relevance’ in the world, the reality was that we and our comrades used most of our time in dehumanizing and mind-deadening activity.”
Not that much has changed in more than three decades, to judge by accounts of life in the LaRouche Youth Movement from people who have left recently. There is something morbidly fascinating about the phenomenon, if also terribly sad. One of LaRouche's longtime followers, the head of his publishing company, recently jumped to his death from a highway overpass after a statement by the leadership praised the dynamic youth organization while suggesting that "Boomer" members might just as well commit suicide.
Charisma is a mysterious thing, and even more so when it has a rather seedy feel -- the claims of universal genius, a la Leibnitz, suffused a quality owing more perhaps to Elmer Gantry. It is hard to imagine what the organization's future may be. Even if LaRouche is Socrates, all men are mortal, and everybody knows how that syllogism works out.
I have just a nip of buyer’s remorse. It’s been two months since graduation, and, stuck in unemployed Purgatory, I’ve had some time to reflect on my four years at Brown University. Most of the ingredients of a great education were present, as advertised: brilliant faculty, bright peers, lovely old campus. The aspiring journalist in me even got to indulge in an unofficial major working at the student paper. I already look back at my new alma mater with fondness.
And yet I have one big disappointment. Brown’s president, Ruth Simmons, simply did not -- with one important exception -- engage my peers and me in any meaningful way. It’s not just that Simmons was a rare presence on our close-knit campus (though she was). It’s that, six years into her term, an eloquent, almost irrationally popular university president has made precious few sallies into the public sphere. I regret that my memories of Simmons will mainly consist of the easy platitudes she delivered each year at “meet the president” receptions. It’s doubly regrettable that my disappointment probably would have been the same at any top American university.
Simmons’ general failure to challenge students -- intellectually, morally, or politically -- is all the more painful in light of the successful University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. This was her one coup. Simmons charged the committee in 2003 with investigating Brown’s historical ties to slavery. She commented for a much-discussed story in The New York Times and followed up with a thoughtful op-ed in The Boston Globe. Thanks to Simmons, people around the country were talking about reparations and forgotten histories of slavery. For me, first through directing coverage of the project as an editor at The Brown Daily Herald, and later through reading and commenting on the committee’s 100-page report, the experience was among the most intellectually fulfilling I had at Brown.
That was all thanks to Simmons’ willingness to wield the power of the presidency. My professors, the good ones, spoke out all the time. In one way or another, they habitually challenged students. But, next to Simmons, and the respect and media coverage she commanded, faculty voices seemed like a chorus of whimpers. Besides quietly sitting on a couple of local panels, however, and co-writing an op-ed about colleges in New Orleans post-Katrina -- neither activities aimed at undergraduates, anyway -- Simmons was not otherwise a presence in the public sphere. The inevitable corollary? She was rarely part of the personal development of students like me.
What could Simmons have done? She might have weighed in on any one of the pressing political questions of the day. (Conventional wisdom has it that she is liberal-minded, but I’m not so sure -- there’s no record to judge by.) She might have offered a fresh insight gained from decades spent in the highest academic offices. Finding time to serve on the boards of Pfizer, Texas Instruments, and Goldman Sachs, she might have pushed for corporate reform, or merely turned our attention to some aspect of capitalism in the 21st century. Above all, by words or actions, Simmons might have challenged us to stray, even a little, from the comfortable, preordained road to an Ivy League diploma. She did not.
In fairness, students bear some blame. A recent Brown Daily Herald article explored the president’s 81 percent approval rating. It conveys the disturbingly shallow nature of Simmons’ on-campus celebrity status. Students professed ignorance of the president’s duties but were full of mush about her persona. One freshman called Simmons “a power woman;” “she makes people feel empowered,” said another; and a third commented, “I feel like if you do meet her, she will hug you and make you cookies.” Students should expect their university president to be more than a wonderfully pleasant grandmotherly figure. It speaks ill of the institutional health of the university presidency that Simmons, on paper, is the model candidate to be an engaged president. Leading Brown probably will be her final job, so caution in the service of career should be irrelevant. And as an African-American women who grew up in poverty, Simmons’ outsider perspective should leave her uniquely positioned for real engagement.
What was she spending large chunks of time doing instead? Arguably the least bold option available: stumping around in service of the university’s so-called “Boldly Brown” capital campaign. Here, the problem is systemic. Simmons is a victim. This system favors the easy currency of “prestige” -- fundraising, rapid expansion, etc. -- over what a favorite professor of mine used to call the life of the mind. As a result, presidents are caught in a cycle which will sound familiar to anyone in academia: draft blueprints for the next big project; develop a pitch; glad-hand the right parents and alums; eschew serious public engagement for fear of controversy; cut the ribbon or accept the oversized check; discover a new “need”; repeat until retirement.
There are, of course, exceptions here and there. Larry Summers, it must be said, had a knack for public engagement. When he denounced academic critics of Israel as “effectively” anti-Semitic, when he suggested that top humanities students don’t pay enough attention to the sciences and, later, when he mused on gender and scientific aptitude, at least he gave Harvard students something to think about, and in some cases, to protest. It’s too bad Summers became a victim of his own success in engagement. He challenged the university with a new perspective, they considered it -- and quickly reconsidered him. Here’s hoping his successor, Drew Gilpin Faust, does not hold back.
But by and large, Summers aside, quietism has afflicted most of our university presidents. Consider the war in Iraq. The United States invaded when I was a senior in high school and the war was a constant backdrop during my four years at Brown. But no prominent university president I can think of has uttered a critical word -- or any word, really -- about the war. Where do university presidents stand on this most important issue?
It was not always this way. The modern archetype of the engaged university president is the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame. During the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s, a group of undergraduates approached Father Hesburgh and asked him to pass along a peace petition to President Nixon, a personal acquaintance. But instead of delegating the matter or releasing a tepid public statement, Hesburgh responded with a counter-offer, as related by presidential scholar Stephen Nelson: the petition would be typical student protest fare, Father Hesburgh reasoned, and thus ineffective in Washington. The Notre Dame undergraduates should instead canvass the blue collar citizens of South Bend and seek 40,000 petition supporters, or roughly 80 percent of the town. Recognizing the wise counsel of a president they respected, the students accepted the challenge. Soon, they won more than 40,000 South Bend signatures and Father Hesburgh passed the petitions on to Nixon.
Father Hesburgh’s example could not be more relevant today. My own model college president is Alexander Meiklejohn. Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher of Freedom, an introduction to the philosophy professor, First Amendment scholar, and university president should be required reading for every sitting university president in the country. After serving as a dean at Brown, Meiklejohn became president of Amherst College in 1912. A student favorite who made a point of teaching philosophy classes himself (he excelled as a seminar leader), Meiklejohn’s tenure was marked by innovation and controversy. He angered alumni by urging amateur, not professional, coaching in college athletics. He established courses, taught by both faculty and students, for workers at local mills. He made it known he wouldn’t mind having a Bolshevik on the faculty, providing that the man could teach. And before America entered World War I, Meiklejohn opposed “preparedness training” on campus.
Where are the Meiklejohns and Hesburghs today? Meiklejohn himself warned that college administrators “if they can have their way will make of life a smooth, well-lubricated meaninglessness.” That phrase pretty well sums up the state of the university presidency today. Standing atop the most prominent bully pulpits in the country, university presidents too often retreat into a safe passivity. They spend too much time stooping down, hands outstretched, wooing the next big-ticket donor. Until they learn to prod and provoke again, to truly employ their good offices, not just students will lose -- the country will too.
Justin Elliott graduated in May from Brown University, where he concentrated in history and classics and served as executive editor and vice president of The Brown Daily Herald.
I walked eagerly last year into the picturesque and historic building that housed the Finance and Administration Office. As I sat down in the plush lair of one of the senior finance vice presidents, I was immediately hit with a nine-page, single spaced memo outlining new and innovative committees by which certain university services could be financially stabilized and told that I needed to sign on. After all, “You’re here to make the university a better place right?” asked my new administrator chum. I began to think to myself, “What have I gotten into?”
I had been elected only two weeks earlier as the student body president of my rather large research SEC, sports-loving university. The basic idea behind the job, as it is widely known, is to be the students’ voice to the administration, a man of the people! Well, at least I thought that was what I was supposed to be, that is, until I met my newly found and oh so eager group of new best friends: administrators.
Sure, every new head of student government gets the usual treatment: a round of university visits, regular access to the president, and even a free meal every once in awhile, but I had a lot more coming to me. Soon I was getting jetted off to big fund raisers in New York City, brought up to the suites at football games, and being placed on more podiums and platforms than I care to remember. Accompanying all of these outings, I was being brought into closed-door meetings where I was presented with business plans, budget sheets, and financial projections. Evidently, mostly through no fault of their own, administrators had allowed certain units on campus to go too long without a fee increase while cost of operations went up and now these units were about to, if not already, run into the red. “No need to worry” my vice chancellor blood brothers told me, they had a plan to getting these “much needed and long overdue” fee increases through: me. I was supposed to endorse the plans.
These strategies were soon followed by a new plan to have all freshmen live on campus their first year. I of course knew the students would not want this but, when I attempted to raise concerns, I was placed on a university task force to create the proposal for submission to our governing board. Before long I found myself, rather than voicing students' opposition to being forced to buy meal plans and move into rather run down dormitories, helping formulate new ways to craft the proposal so that it would be most politically palatable to the members of the board and external groups. This was shortly followed by the need for more fees for new construction projects and renovations, all of which were coupled with angry student opposition and protestations from the campus media. One late night I sat in my office in the Student Union, looked out the window and came to the realization as I shouted out, “Oh my God, they’ve turned me into one of them! I’m an administrator!”
Lo and behold it had become my reality: I was no longer an independent, elected representative of the students; I had become a Blackberry-wielding student rubber stamp to the administration. Although I understood the upper administration’s reasoning and the need for certain controversial decisions to be made, the truth of the matter was it just wasn’t my job. I was merely being used -- harsh a phrase as it may be -- to provide for the much sought after administrative Holy Grail: student input.
I brought this up with other student body presidents across the state and sure enough they too, albeit to a lesser degree because of the size and scope of resources on their campuses, had been slowly morphed from their once righteous place amongst the student constituents to a budget analyzing, policy crafting administrator-groupie. We had becomeless a part of a student democracy and more a part of a university oligarchy.
As my year in office ended I walked slowly away from the new student body president and the crowd of hopeful students surrounding him at inauguration. He stood eager-eyed and bushy-tailed, shaking hands with the university president, provost and vice presidents. I placed my hope in the fact that perhaps the next generation of up-and-coming student politicians would remember to keep a clear focus on the job description of being “SG Pres” and not be pulled into administrative orbit without a fight. I’m sure that he too thought, “I will be a man of the people, always speaking up as the voice of the students: no more fees, no more pushing students around.” Little did he know that the all too powerful lure of “doing what it takes to make the university a better place” and all the perks that come along with it would turn this student leader into a mini-administrator before you could say, “Vote for me!”
Chris Odinet graduated from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in May, and begins law school there this fall.
Recent campus incidents have highlighted the importance of effective communication among administrators, faculty, and staff, as well as between campus representatives and students, families, and surrounding communities. Some commentators have argued that these incidents prove the need to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal statute known as FERPA that protects student privacy, in order to permit greater disclosure of information about troubled students. Actually, the current law works well, but colleges and universities need to better understand what that law really provides -- and each institution needs to develop an internal consensus on how to approach the policy choices FERPA allows it to make.
Colleges have worked hard to educate their employees on the importance of protecting student privacy. This effort has been motivated in large part by the need to comply with FERPA. For example, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many campuses had to remind their personnel to protect the privacy of students against illegal disclosures of information motivated not by rational concern but by prejudice and bias many outside academe had against certain international students.
Legitimate interests in student development have also motivated concerns for privacy. Under ordinary circumstances, according college students a measure of privacy -- even (or perhaps especially) from their own parents -- can without question help their development into independent, autonomous adults. FERPA itself actually reflects this period of transition by shifting primary legal control of the student’s records from parents to the student once the student attends a college or university.
In some circumstances, FERPA has been invoked as the reason not to share student information, when in reality the law would permit disclosure but the interests of student development and autonomy weigh against it. For example, FERPA permits but does not require colleges and universities to notify a student’s parents of certain drug and alcohol violations of the institution’s disciplinary code. Many institutions do not notify parents of every incident involving a minor illegally in possession of alcohol, choosing instead to begin with an educational intervention to assist the student in making better choices, and only notify parents in cases of repeated, serious, or dangerous violations.
The decision not to disclose less serious violations is a policy decision, and should be understood and described as such. It should not be held out as a decision required by FERPA. Unintended and potentially dangerous consequences can arise if legitimate policy goals are confused with legal mandates because institutions may then forget that FERPA grants them discretion. It is especially important to remember that FERPA expressly permits appropriate disclosures in times of actual or potential emergency, as well as in various less drastic circumstances in which an individual seeks to communicate sincere concerns for a student’s well-being or the public welfare.
Although FERPA restricts disclosures of information obtained from a student’s records, it was never intended to act as a complete prohibition on all communications. One threshold point that is often overlooked is that FERPA limits only the disclosure of records and information from records about a student. It does not limit disclosure or discussion of personal observations.
In other words, if a college or university employee develops a concern about a student based on the employee’s observations of or personal interactions with the student, the employee may disclose that concern to anyone without violating, or even implicating, FERPA. (Of course, there may be other reasons an institution would not want to, or could not, disclose that concern, and, in most cases, the initial disclosure should be made to professionals trained to evaluate and handle such concerns, such as campus mental health or law enforcement personnel, who can then determine whether further and broader disclosures are appropriate).
Even when information is part of a student’s records and therefore covered by FERPA, the law provides several exceptions that permit appropriate communications under circumstances in which the student or others may be at risk of harm. For example, FERPA expressly permits the disclosure of information from a student’s records “…to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”
This exception doesn’t permit indiscriminate disclosures of personal information, but it does set a fairly low threshold of good faith for determining when disclosures are needed to protect health or safety, what disclosures are appropriate, and to whom they may be made. FERPA also permits disclosures, among others, of any information about a student to other college officials with legitimate interests in the information or to the parents of that student if he or she is their dependent for tax purposes; of information regarding the results of certain student conduct proceedings involving violence to the general public; and of any relevant information to other schools where a student seeks or intends to enroll.
The National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) has just published a “FERPA and Campus Safety” Q & A to provide accurate information about FERPA to campus administrators and others. This document answers frequently asked questions about FERPA and suggests important elements to consider in setting institutional policies. And while advocating compliance with FERPA, it also puts into perspective the critical importance of campus and public safety in today's world.
This is not to suggest that colleges and universities that have dealt with complicated situations and made difficult decisions have done so in anything less than good faith. Nor, certainly, is it to say that concerns for student development and autonomy have no place in the analysis when determining what, when, and to whom to disclose. But institutions should recognize these concerns for what they are -- self-imposed policy constraints, not legal mandates -- and balance them accordingly, and responsibly, against other equally relevant policy considerations such as safety. If we don't, others may well make the choice for us, quite likely without full consideration of the factors that are important to us and in ways that we won't like. It is thus critical that colleges and universities evaluate in advance both their understanding of FERPA and how they will exercise their discretion under it in response to campus incidents.
Nancy E. Tribbensee and Steven J. McDonald
Nancy E. Tribbensee is general counsel for the Arizona University System. Steven J. McDonald is general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Everyone knows that rock and roll is all about kicking out the jams: ditching uptight squares, taking long rides in the dark of night, and being a street fightin' man -- or woman. As The Who put it, it's about hoping to die before you get old.
But what does rock mean to a new generation of uptight (if updated and wired) squares, afraid of the open road, who have little fight in them? What does rock mean for a generation that has never been allowed to be young -- let alone hope to die before they get old?
For my students, the answer is simple. Rock and roll is about family happiness.
I discovered this disturbing undercurrent of rock-as-the-soundtrack-of-familial-bliss when I began teaching a college writing class this semester. The undergraduates' first assignment was to assess the personal meaning of any song of any genre. I was willing to wade bravely through the melancholy emo, the raging gangsta rap, the whiny indie rock, or even contemporary pop schlock in order to achieve my real agenda: a glimpse into the soul of my students, the inner world of their desire locked in their shiny iPods.
What I read in those papers was as unsettling and unfamiliar as the day Elvis shook it on the Ed Sullivan show -- but hardly as exciting. For my students, rock and roll is not the aural fuel of rebellion but soundtrack of familial love and safety. The essays were not about chillin' with the crew but hangin' with mom and dad; and they were not about cruising into the mystery of the night, but heading off to Cape Cod in the mini van. Rock is no longer about alienation but connection; not about escape but home; not about rebellion but reconciliation. Even bands like Led Zeppelin and The Stones emerged from my students papers in an un-purple haze of family nostalgia.
Turns out that for my elite students -- en route to becoming sharp suits and clever corporate cogs -- rock and roll is simply one more element in the finishing process of becoming just like the folks. Roll over Bob Dylan and tell Norman Rockwell the news. Jack Black's character in School of Rock had to teach his anxious and repressed grade schoolers what he knew viscerally: that the purpose of rock and roll is "Sticking it to The Man." Given that most of my students want to become "the man" (in whatever gender the icon of power might come in today), it's certainly not about sticking it to 'em.
Truth be told, many of these essays pulled at my fatherly heart strings, but I am mostly disturbed by them. I am haunted by the fact that perhaps their parents are so scarred by their own years of boomer alienation that they now feel compelled to crush any sense of rebellion with the weight of a generation's love, coddling friendship, and smothering safety. I could be wrong, but it seems that there ought to be at least an edge of disdain for the SUV-driving, suburban-dwelling, vanilla affluence of their parents, but instead, students remain hopelessly connected to them, not just by their ubiquitous cell phones but also by their parents' record collections.
The collateral damage here has little to do with contemporary debates about politics in the classroom and everything to do with students' ability to live life freely and creatively. There are glimmers of hope, but they're only glimmers. One particularly sharp student trailed me back to the office after an intense discussion about the "authentic" in Bob Dylan’s work. "Why," he asked longingly, "don’t we learn more about this in college?" Honoring the sincerity of his quest, I resisted the retort, "Because you're supposed to be talking about this with your buddies in the dorm."
Ah, you say, but this is the hip hop generation, so why should I worry about rock and roll? Despite explicitly opening the assignment up to any genre, few of my students chose to write about rap, which I found astonishing. Their commitment to most hip hop (except for the lonely black student from Detroit) was very thin and interwoven with ambivalence. Rap simply seems to be what's out there. They know the genre's prime has passed, that the heart has been taken out of it by the record industry.
At the same time, white indie rock has been devoid of soul and blues influences -- drained of the alchemical lifeblood created in the synthesis of white and black musical traditions. Indie is left with a whiny, trebly, irresolute sound that seems to fit the dull green glow of a computer screen in darkened suburban bedrooms. Music today is just another part of the price of America's re-segregation.
My own kids' strange connection to Dylan and the Clash at the tender ages of 7 and 10 suggest that I may be well on my way toward being part of the problem. Am I screwing them up by not adequately screwing them up, softly indoctrinating them into the glory days of rock and roll over family brunch on Sunday? Will they learn about the backbeat of power and rebellion at the displays of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of the more illicit places they ought to be receiving such education?
Of course, the most famous momma's boy of them all was the king of rock n roll himself, Elvis Presley, and in that fact there is home for the youth of America. But that was before cool had become one of the official anchors of consumer capitalism, before the commercialization of dissent had extended into every crevice of American culture. If the reason "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," as Tom Frank put it, is the commodification of resistance, maybe it's also why Johnny doesn't know his rock from his rebellion.
Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor at Cornell University.
At three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, the voice of a lone chorister will rise from a small college chapel in the Ouse Valley of England, and from there it will encircle the globe. It will climb into the foothills of the Himalayas, skim across islands in the far South Seas, enter the equatorial villages of Africa, and emerge in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States.
I have a special interest in the King's Festival because I am an advocate for decentralized residential college systems like those at Oxford and Cambridge. Collegiate systems of the Oxbridge kind provide students and faculty alike with a wealth of opportunities for learning and service, and they can multiply the strengths that already exist within any university. The creation of residential college systems within larger institutions is a growing international trend.
But independent of its origins in a Cambridge residential college, the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King's is an example of the kind of rich cultural tradition that any college or university can aspire to develop and maintain, not only for its own members, but also for its city, its country, and the world. And it is young people in their teens and 20s who are especially strengthened by traditions, because traditions give them not only something to stand upon but also something to push against as they seek to define their own lives.
Do successful traditions require lots of money? They do not. It's true that few of us will have the resources of King's College available to us -- their chapel did take more than 100 years to build, after all. But successful traditions are about people and about social cohesion, they are not about money. If you begin by asking how you can use a tradition to make money, you'll never establish a great tradition.
Think first about what you can do for the members of your college or university in themselves, and forget about the outside world. If you do a good job, the outside world will eventually notice.
But how to do a good job? If we anatomize the King's College Festival, we can identify a number of structural features that can be replicated anywhere by people seeking to develop and maintain strong traditions within an educational environment.
First and foremost, a successful tradition must be regular and must never fail. If it follows the full moon, it must always follow the full moon. If it settles into Sundays at three, like tea in the college master's house, it must always settle into Sundays at three, even when people are few, the weather is bad, or the usual host is away. And if it's on Christmas Eve it must always be on Christmas Eve, at the same time, year after year.
The regularity of the King's Festival and its Christmas Eve broadcast was not even interrupted, the college tells us, "during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King's could not be broadcast for security reasons." Regularity inspires confidence and strengthens the desire of people to participate.
A successful tradition must also exhibit structural stability, and within that stability, variety. Stability gives comfort, variety gives delight. Something that is continually reinvented cannot, by definition, be a tradition -- a thing handed down. But if a tradition is to remain vital it cannot be wholly static either: it must adapt, like a gradually changing species, to its local environment.
The overall structure of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has remained stable for more than eighty years now, and people who heard it as children would recognize it today. In particular, it always begins in exactly the same way, with a solitary chorister singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City."
But within this pattern of stability the Festival exhibits annual variety. Most of the elements are carried over from year to year, but not all are, and original hymns and anthems are often commissioned specially for a given year's service. Each year we know how it will begin, and how it will proceed, but each year we also know there will be a few surprises in store for us to make the experience ever green.
Finally, a successful tradition must bind the members of the community together in all their diversity, and link them to other groups with which they have historical connections. This is the most important function of every tradition, and it deserves particular attention in educational environments today, environments that are often subject to terrible social fragmentation. One of our central obligations to the young people in our care should be to connect them with those who came before and those who will come after, and well-crafted traditions like the Festival of Lessons and Carols can do just that.
The scriptural lessons in the King's Festival are read by a range of people of different ages who are purposely chosen each year to bring the college and the local community together: a member of the choir, an undergraduate, a fellow of the college, a member of the college staff, the dean, the provost, a representative of the city of Cambridge, a representative of King's sister society at Eton, and several others. This conscious structure not only ties the college itself together, but links the college with its neighbors and its educational relatives as well. Through the act of participation, these many individual groups become one.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a Christian religious service, of course, and the older colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were all originally Christian religious foundations. But the general social principles that are manifest here -- the regularity of the service, its stability and variety, and the way it binds the community together -- apply with great generality. And they apply not only to Oxbridge-style colleges founded within other religious traditions (Shalom College at the University of New South Wales and Mandelbaum House at the University of Sydney are Jewish foundations, and the colleges of the Universiti Putra Malaysia follow Islamic traditions), but also to fully secular colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.
So please join me in tracking down a local radio station to listen to on Christmas Eve, and we can all spend an hour together as virtual members of that ancient collegiate society along the Cam. As we listen we will have to concede that the chapel's magnificent stained glass windows are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, and that its soaring Gothic architecture may never be surpassed. But we should also hold fast to the most important lesson the King's Festival teaches: that a college is built of men and women, and that the glory of every college resides not in its material fabric, but in the way it brings its members together and illuminates their lives.
The 2008 elections have created some bizarre situations, particularly in Iowa, home of the first votes during the caucuses on January 3. After years of struggles to get more college students to vote and engage in politics, it is strange (and disappointing) to watch Democratic candidates suddenly declaring that students shouldn’t vote.
The debate over student voting was sparked when Barack Obama’s campaign gave out 50,000 fliers on college campuses declaring, "If you are not from Iowa, you can come back for the Iowa caucus and caucus in your college neighborhood." Since Obama has the strongest support of any candidate among college students, and many out-of-state students in Iowa come from his home state of Illinois, this was no surprise. But the reaction may have startled Obama, who worked in the field of voting rights as a lawyer and a law professor at the University of Chicago.
Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "This is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.” Apparently that doesn’t include the out-of-state students who pay higher tuition in Iowa, not to mention the various taxes on their books, supplies, and pizza, and the income taxes on their salaries.
A Clinton spokeswoman went even further, “We are not systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people. We don't have literature recruiting out-of-state college students.”
It wasn’t only the Clinton campaign that complained. Chris Dodd’s Iowa director, Julie Andreeff Jensen, said in a statement: “I was deeply disappointed to read today about the Obama campaign's attempt to recruit thousands of out-of-state residents to come to Iowa for the caucuses.... That may be the way politics is played in Chicago, but not in Iowa." Even Dodd’s wife claimed about voters, “They really resent it when candidates try to sign up people who are not really from Iowa.”
But encouraging young people to vote is only something to resent if you think students shouldn’t be voting. Actually, pretty much everything about the Iowa campaigning has a manipulative feel to it, including the Clinton campaign’s efforts to oppose the Obama campaign’s recruiting of students. After all, Hillary Clinton polls badly among college students, so she has few votes to lose. Instead, her campaign is skillfully appealing to the most xenophobic prejudice of older Iowa residents: the fear of people from Illinois.
This Illiniphobia is generated from many sources, from Big Ten rivalries to traditional border state snobbery, accentuated by the fear of big, bad Chicago and all its evil, urban influences. And not coincidentally, this fear goes along nicely with Clinton’s race against the junior senator from Illinois, Chicagoan Barack Obama.
Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote a blog post called “The Illinois Caucus” that denounced Obama’s efforts. According to Yepsen, “While it’s legal for college students to register to vote in Iowa to do that, this raises the question of whether it’s fair, or politically smart” since it “risks offending long-time Iowa residents.” Yepsen proclaimed: “We have to respect the integrity of this caucus system.” But part of the integrity of the process is encouraging everyone who lives in Iowa to vote, even if they’re a college student from out of state.
As Rock the Vote tells students, “As a college student, you have the right to vote from the residence that you consider ‘home,’ including your campus residence.” Here’s the law nationwide: Anyone can register to vote where they live. College students typically “live” in two places, their campus address where they spend most of the year, and the home address of their parents. Students can choose where they wish to register. There’s nothing illegal at all so long as you don’t vote twice in the same election. College students from other states are “outsiders” only in the sense of their hometown. There is no fraud here, nor any danger of fraud.
This is a fundamental issue of voting rights that should be core for all people, even if you think the students in Iowa may not vote for your favored candidate. Ever since 18 year olds have been allowed to vote, in some college towns, officials have worked hard to try to stop students from voting, fearing that these students might, if organized, wield enormous influence. After all, no one would dare to express the fear that “too many” African-Americans or Latinos might vote in the election.
Mike Connery of Future Majority called this opposition to voting by college students "advocating voter disenfranchisement." Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "Barack Obama doesn't believe that we should disenfranchise Iowans who meet all the requirements for caucus participation simply because they're in college... We should be encouraging young people to participate in the political process - not looking for ways to shut them out."
Rock the Vote cites many examples of attempts to attack student voting rights. In 2004 near Prairie View A&M (a historically black university located in a majority white county in Texas), District Attorney Oliver Kitzman publicly declared, “it’s not right for any college student to vote where they do not have permanent residency,” and threatened to prosecute students who tried to register to vote. In 2004, after several students at the College of William & Mary ran for city council in Williamsburg, Virginia, the local register declared four students did not live in town and could not run for office or vote there. In February 2007, a state representative in Maine even proposed a bill to ban students from voting where they go to college.
As a New York Timeseditorial pointed out, “Political campaigns and elected officials have used a variety of tactics over the years to keep students from voting. There are often too few voting machines, so lines stretch for hours. Sometimes, students are falsely told that they will lose financial aid, health care or even car insurance if they vote while attending school.”
I've seen those long lines. On Election Day in November 2004 at Illinois State University, I witnessed enormous lines of students snaking through the student center, waiting for up to three hours after the polls closed for the opportunity to vote. The president of the university issued a statement praising this tremendous outpouring of student civic interest. I saw something much different: a fundamental injustice that threatened voting rights. After all, in the areas where students mixed with non-students, such as my home, the wait to vote was about 15 minutes. In some places with almost no students, the wait was negligible. Yet the Republican county officials hadn’t planned for a large student vote (which happened to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats).
Long lines to vote aren’t merely a terrible inconvenience; they threaten the ability of many people to vote. For students who have to go to class or go to work, a three-hour wait isn’t always possible. And even the most civic-minded person would have to think twice before standing for hours just to cast a vote. Local governments in college towns are rarely responsive to student needs for the simple reason that students usually don’t vote in local elections, and they like to keep it that way. If you encourage students to vote for president, they might get used to the idea of democracy and start to want local representation, too.
College officials could do a lot more to assure the right of students to vote because they have influence in the community. They must work to ensure that adequate supplies and facilities are available for precincts on and near campus, so that students don’t have to wait in longer lines than everybody else. In Iowa, where the caucus will occur during winter break, Grinnell College students coming to caucus will sleep on a gym floor, while the University of Northern Iowa is planning to keep open some of its dormitories to accommodate students.
Of course, civic engagement must mean much more than mere voting. The understanding of democracy among college students must focus on much more than just the first Tuesday in November. For the next year, all colleges should create a civic engagement program to encourage students to participate not merely in elections but in the broader scope of public activity, such as debating what policies are best for the country, and which candidates are the best to elect to federal, state, and local offices.
But the quest to promote civic engagement by college students must begin with access to the ballot box.
Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.
Public Service and Elections
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.
This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.
We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?
Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.
And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.
What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.
Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?
We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.
Making the Most of 2008
Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.
I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:
1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.
2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans, the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.
3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).
4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.
5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.
Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
A week ago today, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) issued what had to be a hugely embarrassing news release acknowledging that an aggressively promoted and widely cited research report commissioned by the MPAA in 2005 significantly overstated the Internet-based peer-to-peer piracy of college students: "The 2005 study had incorrectly concluded that 44 percent of the motion picture industry’s domestic losses were attributable to piracy by college students. The 2007 study will report that number to be approximately 15 percent." The MPAA release attributes the bad data to an “isolated error,” adding that it takes the error seriously and plans to hire an independent reviewer “to validate” the numbers in a forthcoming edition of an updated report.
We should applaud the MPAA for going public with a painful press release about what some have tagged the “200 percent error.” ( Note: Here and elsewhere in this article, this percentage has been fixed from an earlier version -- our own little mathematical error.) Unfortunately, the MPAA has yet to release the actual reports that generated either the 44 percent or 15 percent claims about the role of college students in digital piracy; the public data are limited to PowerPoint graphics in PDF format on the association’s web site. Perhaps as part of its efforts to validate the numbers in the new report the MPAA will also make public the complete document, not just the summary graphics. (Academics do know something about peer review.)
We also have to admire the MPAA’s arrogance. The MPAA now asserts that college students account for 15 percent rather than 44 percent of the P2P piracy affecting the motion picture industry. However the press release says nothing -- not a word -- about the source of the other "85 percent" of the P2P piracy that affects the industry’s revenues, the activities of "civilians" who use consumer broadband services.
Consistent with past practice, the January 22nd MPAA statement continues to blast college students (and by extension campus officials) about the (now much reduced) levels of P2P piracy linked to college students: “Although college students make up three percent of the population, they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of stolen movie products in this country.” Additionally, the news release closes with a terse pledge that the MPAA “will continue to aggressively fight piracy on all fronts including working to forge alliances with other copyright organizations [and] deploying technologies that help combat piracy…”
The new (corrected) MPAA data affirm what many of us who follow this issue have said for several years: P2P piracy is primarily a consumer market issue. The enabling technology is not a campus network but the consumer broadband service provided by cable and telcom firms such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, TimeWarner, and Verizon, among others. Of course you would never know this from last week’s news release.
The MPAA’s statement is also laden with errors and misrepresentations. Let’s begin with some basic facts and simple math. The MPAA’s release says that “college students make up three percent of the [U.S.] population.” In fact, “college students” ages 16-67, account for almost 6 percent of the US population. The Department of Education reports the projected number of full- and part-time college students in two and four-year degree-granting institutions for the 2007-08 academic year totals some 18 million students; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. population as of December 2007 totals some 303,579,509 individuals. Do the math and you’ll find that 5.9 percent of the nation’s population could be classified as “college students,” a population that includes full-time undergraduate and graduate students, part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs, commuter students in community colleges, and adults enrolled in online degree programs, among others.
But the population of college students that most concerns the MPAA are the undergraduates who live in campus dorms and who have 24/7 access to high speed campus networks: these are typically college freshmen and some sophomores in large public universities and the majority of undergraduates in small, private liberal arts colleges. The dorm residents total some two million students and account for 11 percent of the much larger population of 18 million college students, ages 16-67.
I and others continue to provide evidence that colleges have policies and impose sanctions on students who engage in illegal P2P activity using campus networks. Unfortunately, the MPAA and the Recording Association of America continue to press for costly “technology solutions” that campus IT experts have deemed both expensive and ineffective.
Now let’s turn the MPAA’s claim that college students account for a “disproportionate amount of stolen movie products.” The real metric for assessing “proportionality” should not be college students as a proportion of the total U.S. population, which includes millions of infants and the elderly who don’t go the movies or rent DVDs, but college students as a proportion of the movie-going population. Although the MPAA does not publish separate data for college students as a proportion of the U.S. movie-going audience, it does report that individuals aged 12-24 account for 28 percent of the “movie going” public. (Interestingly, the MPAA data seem to ignore all the “moviegoers” under age 12: this makes you wonder about Hollywood’s infamous accounting practices and suggests that no one under age 12 goes to the movies. But what about millions of kids under age 12 who went to see Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, Ice Age, Happy Feet, and Over the Hedge -- seven of the top 10 grossing films in 2006?)
Extrapolating from the MPAA’s public data on paid admissions (i.e., the number of purchased movie tickets) we see that individuals aged 18-24 accounted for 19 percent of the 1.332 billion movie tickets sold in 2006. Admittedly, a significant number, but not all, of the 18-24 year olds going to movies in 2006 were college students. But without condoning illegal P2P piracy, these numbers suggest that the proportion of downloading that the MPAA now attributes to college students (15 percent) may be roughly proportionate (or possibly even “under-proportionate”) to college students as a segment of the movie going public. (Perhaps the MPAA will offer up a grant for an independent study of the movie-going behaviors of college students, plus additional funds to find the millions of “missing” children under age 12 who are not included in their numbers about movie attendance.)
Then there is the news release’s closing statement about “deploying technologies that will help combat piracy,” which ignores the June 2007 Congressional testimony of both campus information technology officials and an IT industry executive that technology will never provide a comprehensive solution to stem P2P piracy.
At one time seemingly infallible in its continuing efforts to portray college students as digital pirates and campus officials as unengaged and unconcerned about digital piracy on campus networks, the MPAA now seems like the “association that can’t shoot straight,” a reference to Jimmy Breslin’s 1970 mob farce about a bungling Mafia gang. The January 22 press release is the second significant screwup for the MPAA on the P2P front in the past few months: in fall 2007, the MPAA released a software toolkit it said would help monitor illegal P2P activity on campus networks. Unfortunately, as reported by Brian Krebs of The Washington Post, the MPAA’s monitoring application posed a major risk to network security. In sum, it appears that the MPAA can’t count and also can’t do code.
But the MPAA’s press release also raises other interesting questions, some involving the backstory about the press release, some involving public policy questions now before Congress. With regard to the backstory, Inside Higher Ed's coverage of the MPAA press release reveals that members and staff of some key Congressional Committees knew about the errors in the MPAA data almost a week before the press release. Why did it take five days for the MPAA to acknowledge publicly the misleading data?
And then there are the issues involving public policy (and public posturing). Drawing on the MPAA’s widely publicized claims that college students accounted for 44 percent of the industry’s domestic loses due digital piracy, members of Congress have made public statements blasting P2P activity on college networks and by college students. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Internet and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology each convened congressional hearings about P2P piracy on campuses in 2007. These hearings, coupled with the continuing efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA, led to Congressional mandates intended to address illegal P2P piracy as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007.
Provisions of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 intended to address P2P piracy on campus include reporting requirements and an implied mandate to acquire a “technology solution” to stem P2P piracy. Both will involve significant costs for campuses: at the Congressional hearing on P2P convened by Gordon last June, Arizona State University CIO Adrian Sannier testified that his institution had spent approximately $450,000 on P2P technology deterrent software over the past six years; Mr. Sannier also described illegal P2P activity as an “arms race” that neither side will win, an assessment affirmed by other campus CIOs testifying at the June hearing.
Congressional mandates to stem P2P come at an interesting time for nation’s colleges and universities. In the wake of the recent, tragic events at Virginia Tech and at other institutions, colleges and universities have been scrambling to develop emergency notification plans and acquire notification technologies – some that are simple such as alarms and sirens and others that are complex such as notification and messaging systems that send email, text messages, and voice mail. Concurrently, given the downturn in the economy in recent months, many institutions now confront both mid-year budget recissions and impending budget cuts for the coming year. In many cases, colleges and universities had little or no money in their budgets this year for either notification systems or P2P monitoring technology.
Will college leaders receive a formal apology from the MPAA for the consequences of its “200 percent error.” Will Berman and Gordon issue new statements in the coming weeks, toning down their prior criticism and also admonishing the MPAA for providing bad data that led to ill-conceived legislation - the costly P2P reporting and enforcement mandates in the College Opportunity and Affordability Act?
And what about the source of the “other 85 percent” of the P2P piracy that affects the movie industry? Much as the RIAA and MPAA have named the campuses where they allege P2P piracy occurs, will the two associations now go public with (hopefully accurate) data about the level of P2P piracy that occurs on consumer broadband services? (Are AT&T broadband customers more likely to engage in P2P piracy than Earthlink, TimeWarner, or Verizon customers?) Much as the MPAA and RIAA leadership has criticized campus officials for not engaging on P2P issues, will the MPAA and RIAA’s leaders now take cable and telcom industry executives to task for their benign efforts to educate their customers about copyright and to address P2P activity on consumer broadband services?
Let me affirm (yet again) that the campus community does not condone digital piracy and that I am not condoning the behaviors of either college students or “civilians” who engage in digital piracy . As I stated in a November commentary published by Inside Higher Ed, "illegal P2P downloading is a messy issue. But the swiftboating efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to portray college students as the primary source of digital piracy will not resolve this problem, in either the campus or the consumer markets. Neither will federal mandates that ultimately will mean pass-through costs for students."
Next steps? Perhaps the MPAA’s press release acknowledging its “200 percent error” will set the stage for new, less rancorous private and public discussions about P2P piracy. Colleges and universities respect copyright; colleges and universities are engaged in serious efforts to inform and educate students about the importance of copyright. And MPAA and RIAA officials, beginning with MPAA President Dan Glickman and RIAA President Cary Sherman, should acknowledge, respect and strongly support the continuing efforts of campus officials to address copyright issues, in part by ending the public posturing that portrays colleges and universities as dens of digital piracy.
Student disengagement takes many forms and is particularly apparent in academic contexts, when many students avoid rigorous study, when professors and students mutually agree to a “if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” compact, and when students and their families define education in terms of degree attainment -- the cheaper and faster the better. Other patterns of disengagement are perhaps most visible in student behavior and student culture. A variety of national surveys now indicate that over 40 percent of "millennial age" students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, yet students report only occasional faculty awareness of the crises the students see among fellow students or the pain they themselves endure. Over 35 percent of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out -- emotionally and physically disengaging. And for some observers, students’ civic disengagement is so alarming as to question what and who will be preserving key democratic values in the future.
What all this reveals is higher education’s failure to attend to the most fundamental of our responsibilities: the development of the whole person -- intellectual, emotive/behavioral, and civic. All college students should reach deepened levels of learning and understanding, as well as develop a strong sense of self-direction, and self-realization or well-being, and a greater sense of civic identity and responsibility. These are three separable, equally important categories of outcomes, related to the core purposes of liberal education. The integration, the reassertion, and the achievement of these all-important aims and outcomes can and must become the priority of our colleges and universities. And if we are to seek reliable indices of quality and achievement at our institutions, we can and must develop reliable means that get at each of these outcomes and their interrelatedness.
At the source of the expressions of disengagement lies the problem of the disintegration of the purpose and core outcomes of college. All too many institutions of higher education -- and even proponents of liberal education -- are off-course, addressing only narrowly academic means and strategies rather than the integrated goals and ends that matter to our students and to our democracy. As a result, many of our institutions risk becoming complicit in the troubling patterns of student disengagement.
Most institutions, in official handbooks and documents, still attest with eloquence and conviction to the importance of students’ personal and civic development. Regrettably, helping students actually achieve the full range of essential outcomes is much less evident, and only rarely are the institution’s resources, including its faculty and professionals, prepared and aligned to accomplish these ends. What is even more regrettable is that the current national debate about accountability has entirely ignored both the personal and the civic aims of a strong liberal education. As educators, as parents, as a society at large, we simply do not hold ourselves, or hold our institutions, responsible for achieving them or demand and expect such achievement. In fact, few institutions would have in place, or individuals have clearly in mind, what could be examined to determine if the core outcomes of higher education had been, even partially, achieved.
An incomplete step in the direction advocated here is the institutional use of the National Survey of Student Engagement. NSSE studies begin to look at some forms of student engagement. While promising, use of NSSE does not allow the institution to examine outcomes of student well-being (including depression and forms of abusive behaviors). And its use to assess civic outcomes is modest; for example, the affects of volunteerism and other service experiences are not distinguished from experiences involving community-based learning pedagogies.
The failure to acknowledge the practical aspects of disengagement suggests a mix of anxiety over liability (or marketing) concerns by the institution, campus peer pressures by the students, a concern of being too busy or “it’s not my job” by faculty, and a lingering sense among most that we, as individuals and as institutions ought to be, but are not, dealing openly with these problems. What is apparent is that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes.
Even a partial solution to the patterns of disengagement by students, and by institutions, will surely come as a result of at least noticing the linkages among the forms of disengagement and, ideally, some sense of how each of the forms of disengagement could be affected through specific contexts (including mentoring and learning communities) and educational practices (pedagogies and curricula) on campus and beyond. Signature practices that reverse student patterns of disengagement include service learning, residence-based learning communities, joint student and faculty research, and institutional initiatives that model and value active and reciprocal engagement with the community -- near and beyond.
The practices that work to deepen student engagement often take students beyond the classroom to applied contexts, reveal to those who study, and to those who teach, their own presumptions and privileges, and link knowledge with action -- helping all involved appreciate that there are multiple consequences to full engagement in learning. Not only are there learning outcomes from such experiences, there are also documentable outcomes, effects and affects, that influence the well-being and the civic development of those who participate. Different types of institutions have modeled these achievements. For example, Georgetown University’s “curricular infusion” project links faculty from philosophy, mathematics, and theater with the Center for Social Justice, the health and counseling Centers, the nursing program, and the Office of Learning Assessment. As integrated teams, they have developed and now offer as established parts of the undergraduate curriculum, courses using forms of engaged pedagogy, each emphasizing the infusion of topics and methods getting at the related forms of student development: intellectual, emotional, and civic.
St. Lawrence University has established a Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, under which community-based learning pedagogies are developed and then spread. With presidential and provost support, faculty participation is highly valued by the institution, including with faculty rewards. Departments of philosophy, psychology, biology, history, economics, and communications have integrated these offerings for majors and non-majors. Some require them for their major and the institution is moving to establish this coming year a civic engagement minor, which will be linked to multiple major curricula.
Collectively, these and related engaged learning practices can comprise a solution to the most troubling aspects of student disengagement. But these practices will work educationally only when colleges and universities themselves both expect and reward greater student and faculty involvement -- and when faculty who sponsor engaged learning are valued and rewarded within the institution and within the profession.
What gives us confidence that engaged learning practices will work for today’s students? Over the past four years, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP), supported by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, invited campus involvement in testing the hypothesis that engaged practices like these might mitigate patterns of disengagement and begin to address the problem of fractured or dis-integrated purposes and outcomes. In many respects, the rigor in evaluating their programs and initiatives was more extensive and thorough than any examination of learning assessments they had tried previously. To date, over 60 institutions have received grant support from the BTtoP Project in order to initiate or to sustain programs that have been defined to fit their institutional particularities, as they examine the linkages among the several core purposes and outcomes.
In addition to the contributions of the research documenting the relationships among outcomes, the process used in addressing patterns of disengagement makes its own contribution. We have seen that using the opportunities that already exist (from faculty meetings to parent weekends, from board discussions to town hall meetings), the institution that wants successfully to tackle the complexity of the problem of disengagement will involve its multiple constituencies (faculty and students, administrators and boards, researchers and parents, those within the campus, and those in the community beyond the campus) in considering openly and candidly the realities of disengagement on their own campus and their shared, among all of these constituencies, responsibility in both causing and solving them.
Through Bringing Theory to Practice, and through related “engaged learning initiatives” sponsored by AAC&U and other concerned organizations, faculty, administrators and students at many colleges and universities now agree that we must identify and address the patterns of disengagement in higher education and the fractured condition of its attention to core purposes and outcomes, and participate in exploration of the solutions. The beginning of a solution is to be found in recommitting our institutional actions and resources, robustly and creatively, to engaging students -- creating the contexts in which students can claim the full range of outcomes that liberal education promises -- and expecting that, in fact insisting that, such engagement occur.
Donald W. Harward
Donald W. Harward is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, president emeritus at Bates College, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.