In late August, residents of Greenville, S.C., began reporting to police that one or more clowns had been observed attempting to lure children into a wooded area. It was an odd moment in a year that had already seen more than its share.
Since then, reports of sinister-clown activity (e.g., threats, assaults, the brandishing of knives and standing in place while waving slowly in a menacing manner) have gone viral throughout the United States, with a few now coming in from elsewhere in the world. Professional clowns are distressed by the damage to their reputation, and Ronald McDonald has gone on sabbatical for an indefinite period.
Like many anomalous phenomena -- UFOs, for example, or appearances by Elvis or Bigfoot -- clown sightings tend to come in waves. The recent spate of them has been unusual in both its geographical range and its emotional intensity -- although I suspect that coulrophobia is in fact the normal, even default, emotional response to clowns in any context. A study of children’s response to hospital decorations conducted by researchers from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield in England found that “clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” And over the past 30 years or so, a strain of pop-culture iconography has tapped into that basic anxiety and amplified it with a series of overtly horrific clowns.
Some of the recently reported incidents involved people wearing commercially produced horror-clown masks. Whatever deep psychological wellsprings may have driven the clown sightings of previous years, the current cycle is, at least in part, a performance of mass hysteria -- an acting out of uncanniness and anxiety, with some individuals playing the menacing part in an almost standardized way.
Trying to make sense of this funny business, I did a search of my digital archive of journal articles, conference papers and whatnot in hopes of finding a paper -- by a folklorist, maybe, or possibly a psychoanalyst -- that might help elucidate the clown question. The most interesting material to turn up was by the late Orrin E. Klapp (1915-1997), a sociologist, whose first book was Heroes, Villains and Fools: The Changing American Character (1962).
Sections of it originally appeared as journal articles; a few of them made passing reference to clowns and clowning. But in these pieces, Klapp is interested in something more general: the range of fairly informal labels or categories we use to characterize people in the course of ordinary life. Examples he gives are “underdog,” “champ,” “bully,” “Robin Hood,” “simpleton,” “crackpot,” “cheat,” “liar” and “big shot.” (“Clown” is one of them, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
What intrigues Klapp about such labels is that they reflect, but also enforce, prevailing values and social norms. Some express a severe judgment (“traitor”) while others are relatively inconsequential (“butterfingers”). New labels or epithets emerge from time to time as others fall out of use; they are part of the flux of everyday life. But Klapp argues that the labels implying particularly strong judgments fall into three general categories that do not change much with time: the hero, the villain and the fool.
“The most perfect examples of heroes,” Klapp writes in one paper, “are to be found in legendary or mythical personages who represent in a superhumanly exaggerated way the things the group admires most.” Villains are “idealized figures of evil, who tend to countermoral actions as a result of an inherently malicious will,” prone to “creating a crisis from which society is saved by a hero, who arrives to restore order to the world.”
The contrast between hero and villain is clear and sharp, but not exhaustive. “If the villain opposes the hero by exaggerated evil traits,” writes Klapp, “the fool does so by his weaknesses, his métier being failure and fiasco rather than success. Though an offender against decorum and good taste, he is too stupid or ineffectual to be taken seriously. His pranks are ridiculed rather than severely punished.”
These three almost archetypal figures are seldom encountered in their purest form outside of fairy tales or superhero comic books. But most of the labels applied to people in the course of ordinary life can, in Klapp’s view, be subsumed under them. (The underdog is a kind of hero; the traitor a form of villain; the fanatic a variety of fool.) The symbolic figures and the everyday labels alike “help in the preservation of values” and “nourish and maintain certain socially necessary sentiments” -- such as “admiration of courage and self-sacrifice, hatred of vice, contempt for folly” and so forth.
Preservation of consensual values and the proper nourishment of socially necessary sentiments were major concerns of American sociologists of the Eisenhower era -- and Klapp’s framework was, in that respect, both normative and normal. But there’s more to his argument than that. He worried that mass media and propaganda techniques could exploit or corrupt those sentiments: Klapp’s papers on villainy and vilification in American culture concern, in part, the then recent success of Joseph McCarthy. He also deserves credit for paying attention to the significant ideological baggage carried by ordinary language.
The clown, in his schema, definitely falls under the heading of the fool -- but with a difference. As someone deliberately accepting the role, inducing ridicule rather than just succumbing to it, the clown exemplifies what Klapp calls the paradoxical status of the fool as “both depreciated and valued: it is at the same time despised and tolerated, ridiculed and enjoyed, degraded and privileged … He also acts as a cathartic symbol for aggressions in the form of wit. He takes liberties with rank; and as butt or scapegoat receives indignities which in real life would be mortal insult or conflict creating.”
Klapp draws close to an insight into a type of clown he doesn’t seem to have recognized: the menacing kind, in Greenville or elsewhere. For the clown, on these terms, has reason to want revenge, to wreak havoc as much as the villain does. (Here one also thinks of a certain political figure with an orange face, unnatural hair and a strange combination of extreme self-centeredness with no discernable self-awareness.) The stock of widely accepted heroic figures may be at an all-time minimum, while neither clowns nor villains are in short supply, and it’s getting harder to tell them apart.
As many grad students approach the end of their academic programs, they realize they’ve forgotten how to talk about their strengths and skills to different types of employers. Joseph Barber provides advice.
There is no holy book in which God tells us what libraries should be. Over the centuries, the contours of library services and collections have instead been mediated by humans, including founders, funders, managers and -- surprise, surprise -- users. That’s the conclusion I came to after researching and writing Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. In it, I trace the history of this ubiquitous institution, largely by listening to the voices of those who have used libraries since the mid-19th century, to identify reasons why it has been loved for generations.
As I analyzed the data, I was surprised at how quickly those reasons organized into three broad categories. People have loved their libraries for: (1) the useful information they made accessible, (2) the transformative potential of commonplace reading they circulated and (3) the public spaces they provided. Examples abound.
While sitting at a Cincinnati public library desk in 1867, Thomas Edison compiled a bibliography on electricity. “Many times Edison would get excused from duty under pretense of being too sick to work,” a colleague later recalled, “and invariably strike a beeline for the library, where he would spend the entire day and evening reading … such works on electricity as were to be had.”
In 1971, 10-year-old Barack Obama returned to Honolulu from Jakarta. “The first place I wanted to be was in a library,” he said years later. “One Saturday … with the help of a raspy-voiced old librarian who appreciated my seriousness, I found a book on East Africa.” Obama wanted information about Kenya, birthplace of his father, a Luo tribe member. “The Luo raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate cornmeal and yams and something called millet,” the book noted. “Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch.” Shocked by what he read, Obama “left the book open-faced on a table and walked out.”
The Transformative Potential of Reading
After her father died in 1963, 9-year-old Sonia Sotomayor buried herself in reading at her Bronx library and the apartment she shared with her mother and brother. “Nancy Drew had a powerful hold on my imagination,” she remembered. “Every night, when I’d finished reading and got into bed and closed my eyes, I would continue the story, with me in Nancy’s shoes, until I fell asleep.” Her mind, she noted, “worked in ways very similar” to Nancy’s. “I was a keen observer and listener. I picked up on clues. I figured things out logically, and I enjoyed puzzles. I loved the clear, focused feeling that came when I concentrated on solving a problem and everything else faded out.”
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan wrote the daughter-in-law of Harold Bell Wright, whose best-selling 1920s religious novel That Printer of Udell’s Reagan read as an adolescent in Dixon, Ill. Shortly after reading the book, he declared himself saved and was baptized. The novel’s protagonist, Reagan wrote Wright’s daughter-in-law 60 years later, served as a role model that shaped his life. It’s likely the copy of That Printer of Udell’s Reagan read came from the Dixon Public Library, which he visited twice weekly in the early 1920s, often reading on the library’s front steps.
Library as Place
In the 1930s at the Atlanta Public Library’s African-American branch, one of the few public places where blacks felt safe and welcome, 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. came to the library several times weekly. Director Annie Watters later recalled their interactions. “He would walk up to the desk and … look me straight in the eye.” “Hello, Martin Luther,” she would say, always calling him by his first and middle names. “What’s on your mind?” “Oh, nothing, particularly.” For Watters, that was the cue King had learned a new “big word,” and between them they had a conversation in which King used the word repeatedly. Another game involved poetry. Again, King would stand by the desk, waiting. “What’s on your mind, Martin Luther?” Watters asked. “For I dipped into the future, far as the human eye could see,” he responded. Watters recognized the Tennyson poem, and finished the verse: “Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.”
In 2005, The Washington Post carried an article by Eric Wee on a District of Columbia branch library in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. In it, Wee reported that every Tuesday night a homeless man named Conrad Cheek entered the library and set up his chessboard on a table in the children’s room. Wee immediately noticed a transformation. “No more ignored pleas” for this homeless man, “no averted glances. During the next hour, people will look him in the eye. They’ll listen to his words. In this down-at-the-heels library he’s the teacher.” Among his students was 9-year-old Ali Osman, whose mother explained that her son’s confidence had soared after playing with Conrad, that he was now bragging to friends about being a chess player. “We owe it all to Mr. Conrad,” she said.
Information access, the transformative power of commonplace reading, library as place -- all three combine to explain why people have valued their public libraries for the past 160 years. By harnessing the literatures on information access, commonplace reading and public spaces to analyze the historical roles of American public libraries, Part of Our Lives shows that from their origins they have contributed to their host communities in multiple ways.
They have been places of performance where users displayed moral progress and achievement. They have functioned as centripetal forces to craft a sense of community among disparate populations and evolve community trust among its multicultural elements. They have acted as key players not only to increase literacy (tens of thousands of immigrants learned English by reading printed materials from their public libraries) but also to construct group identity through the stories and places they provided. And public libraries have also started neighborhood conversations, welcomed the recently arrived into their midst, and served as community anchors.
A Limited Focus
I could only come to those conclusions, however, by tapping deeply into non-library and information studies literature that addresses reading and place. For most of its history, LIS has focused instead on what in the 18th century was called “useful knowledge,” in the 19th and 20th was called “best reading,” and in the late 20th morphed into “information.” That focused term has given particular meaning to phrases like “information access,” “information literacy” and “information community” that not only tend to exaggerate the role of LIS in the larger world of “information” (see, for example, how much attention LIS gets in James W. Cortada’s All The Facts: A History of Information in the United States Since 1870), but also dominate -- and limit -- the profession’s thinking.
Take library education, for example. As professional education programs evolved from “library schools” into “schools of information” in the last 30 years, most have focused on “information” as defined by the professional discourse they inherited, and then incorporated into that discourse analysis of the storage and retrieval properties of developing communications technologies. In the process, however, they decentered the library as a subject for instruction and research. Thus, when the 17 “I-schools” (12 ALA-accredited) met for the first time in 2005, none had core courses analyzing reading and place from the “library in the life of the user” perspective that I took in Part of Our Lives.
That’s unfortunate, because my historical research suggests that not knowing more about the reading and places libraries of all types provide greatly limits our ability to understand more deeply what libraries actually mean to their host communities. My research has demonstrated that generations of users have valued the public library as a place by voluntarily visiting it again and again for multiple reasons, many of which had nothing to do with information access.
Although I-school curricula emphasize services leading to the kinds of information Thomas Edison and Barack Obama found useful, they undervalue the impacts of information products that guided the lives of Ronald Reagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and they overlook the importance of library as place so evident in the experiences of Martin Luther King Jr., Conrad Cheek and Ali Osman.
If Part of Our Lives proves that reading and place have been as important to the American public library (and other types of libraries) as information access, then not having a core course in either at ALA-accredited programs is the equivalent of an American Bar Association-accredited law school without a core course on the Constitution or civil procedure. Unless organizations like the Association for Library and Information Science Education and the American Library Association, as well as the ALA Committee on Accreditation, insist that reading and place are essential parts of librarianship’s “domain” that must be taught at the core level, LIS education programs will continue to manifest limitations.
Such limitations are also evident in prognostications. In BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, John Palfrey rightfully contends that library digitization can equalize access to education, jobs and information, but he worries that “bad nostalgia” for services like commonplace reading and traditional library programs will interfere with future planning. In a January 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Steve Barker lamented that because of emerging technologies “the role for librarians and public libraries is shrinking.” “Don’t mourn the loss of libraries,” John McTernan argued in a March 2016 Telegraph article. “The internet has made them obsolete.”
Ironically, unlike LIS educators and researchers, library practitioners intuitively seem to recognize the value of reading and place. The American library press abounds in reports of popular programs. Kathleen de la Peña McCook devotes much attention to library as place in her two editions (2004 and 2011) of Introduction to Public Librarianship. ALA initiated a “Libraries Transform” campaign last year to increase awareness of the multiple roles America’s academic, school and public libraries play in their host communities. Then there’s the “Project Outcome” initiative ALA’s Public Library Association (PLA) recently crafted to measure public library impacts, the report Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement released in August by the Harvard Family Research Project and the PLA that calls on libraries to increase efforts to engage families in children’s learning, and the three-year study entitled “Bringing Home Early Literacy: Determining the Impact of Library Programming on Parent Behavior” that the Institute of Museum and Library Services is funding.
And regarding “library as place,” academic librarians especially have shown leadership in recent years by renovating spaces rescued from print collections now digitized and accessible online into group study areas that students use for a variety of class-related purposes. The sociability that reading has fostered for generations among students is much in evidence in these places. Many college and university libraries also installed coffee bars. The collective effect of these actions (sometimes referred to as the “information commons” movement) is obvious at my home institution, Florida State University, where students now call the main Robert M. Strozier Library “Club Stroz.” In recent years, turnstile counts have spiked.
For all of those efforts, however, researchers outside the profession and already overworked library practitioners have taken the initiative. Where is the LIS research community? Why aren’t members of that community conducting longitudinal studies evaluating library activities like the impact of summer reading programs on student reading levels as they move from one grade to another? Where’s the LIS research that identifies the community effects of programs like film festivals, book clubs, children’s story hours, English as a second language classes, literacy tutoring, art exhibits and musical presentations that thousands of public libraries have routinely been hosting for generations? Where are the LIS researchers to perform similar evaluation studies on the multiple community effects of library reading and library as place in all types of libraries across the country and over time that take into account demographic variables like race, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.?
Data generated by such research would not only benefit librarians struggling to define mission statements and justify budgets to city managers, council members and school and college administrators (many of whom are convinced the internet has made libraries “obsolete”), it would also help librarians identify which programs and services are providing greatest benefit to their communities and thus deserve additional resources.
Part of Our Lives shows that, over the generations, library users learned many things in multiple ways through the useful information libraries made accessible, the commonplace reading materials they circulated and the public spaces they provided. But until LIS educators teach library reading and library as place in their professional programs at the core level, and until LIS researchers ask questions about what users learn from their interaction with libraries and determine how that learning fits into their everyday lives, both are addressing only a fraction of what libraries actually do for their patrons. And both are falling short of their profession’s needs.
Wayne A. Wiegand is F. William Summers Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University and author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015). Between January and May 2017, he will be Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.
Interested in working for a university in the 21st century? Forget the Ph.D. -- work for an investment bank for a few years and you may just earn close to $14 million in 18 months for your “mediocre” performance, according to a recent Bloomberg article detailing the salary Harvard University paid its endowment chief.
This is only the latest provocation for the rising chorus of doubt about whether it still makes sense to think of America’s elite private universities as nonprofit institutions. Even in our polarized political climate, Democrats and Republicans increasingly agree that this is now a reasonable question. Elite universities are becoming targets of the same populist anger evident in our politics. We hear increasing calls for them to explain their relentlessly rising tuition, relatively small percentage of low-income students and low spending rates on endowment returns -- as well as for reviewing their tax-exempt status.
In Connecticut, the state Legislature is about to debate a bill that would tax properties owned by Yale University. Princeton University is currently embroiled in a lawsuit threatening to revoke its property-tax exemption. Even congressional Republicans, normally tax averse, have requested detailed financial information from private universities with endowments over $1 billion and have floated the idea of taxing some portion of their endowments’ revenue.
My alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, is among the leading universities facing pressure from its local community. In thinking about the continuing transformation of universities from nonprofits into sites for stockpiling capital, Penn is a particularly instructive. It likes to remind people that it was founded by Benjamin Franklin. An entrepreneur turned scientist and statesman, Franklin stands as a kind of prophet and preview of the practical, scientific and -- Penn would say -- philanthropic character of the institution he founded.
Although Franklin himself never attended college, he, like many tech entrepreneurs today, was an educational reformer. He first outlined his ideas in a 1749 pamphlet modestly titled “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.” Until that time, colleges -- led by Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- were established mainly to train ministers. Their curricula centered on scriptural commentaries as well as the secular classics. But Franklin believed colleges should also train students in the “useful arts” of commerce, mechanics and agriculture. On its website, Penn lauds Franklin's “innovative” and “radical” approach to education, citing the pamphlet as one of its founding documents.
But there is more to the story. By this time in his career, Franklin was actively distancing himself from his lowly origins as a printer and was intent on becoming a “person of Leisure and publick Spirit.” He wanted to see Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America, become a modern metropolis. Though we associate Franklin with Philadelphia, he had spent the first 17 years of his life in Boston, where what might be called his neo-Puritan upbringing left an indelible mark on his thinking.
In his autobiography, he mentions the college along with other civic projects, such as raising a city militia and building defensive fortifications. What each of those projects had in common is their design to protect and unify colonists against external dangers (such as Indian attacks and foreign invasions) and internal ones (like idleness and insurrection). John Winthrop, the spiritual founder of Boston, had imagined it as a “model of Christian charity” and a “city upon a hill,” by which he did not mean to suggest that class divisions of the sort he had experienced in Britain could be swept away in a flood of communal love. But he did believe that the strife, bitterness and social divisions of early modern London could be mitigated in Boston if the hearts of its citizens were properly framed and its civic institutions well designed.
Franklin wanted to Bostonize Philadelphia but with an important difference: Philadelphia’s civic institutions would not be focused around the church but the college. That a major city should have its own college was perhaps the most radical and innovative idea in the pamphlet. Unlike Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the College of Philadelphia -- Penn’s original name -- came into existence explicitly to serve the needs of a city rather than a religious community. That was one reason it made sense for Franklin to design a more practical curriculum for the new college. Although technically a private institution, the College of Philadelphia was, in its civic orientation, arguably a forerunner of the modern idea of a public university as an institution dedicated to serve the local citizenry. Indeed, in addition to the college, the institution also operated a tuition-free “charitable school” that educated young Philadelphians who could not afford to pay for its preparatory school, the Academy of Philadelphia.
Today, relations between Penn and Philadelphia are not as amicable as Franklin had hoped they would be. About a year ago, Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution calling upon Michael Nutter, then the mayor, to demand payments in lieu of property taxes (PILOTs). And last November, the city elected Jim Kenney on a platform that included demanding payments from Penn. The university owns 299 acres in West Philadelphia, across the river from one of the nation’s most densely populated areas outside New York City. Kenney has yet to follow up on this promise. With the exception of Columbia University, Penn is the only Ivy League institution that does not such make payments (although Harvard has received criticism for paying less than the city of Cambridge requested).
What is most striking about the ongoing PILOT debate is that Franklin’s idea of the civic role of higher education has been all but lost in the discussion. The popular discourse surrounding PILOTs revolves around whether Penn is “paying its fair share” or not. Penn defends itself primarily by emphasizing the economic benefits it confers to the city. In addition to adding jobs to the local economy, the university also cites its $2 million annual contribution to the University City District, a nonprofit co-founded by Penn that provides services like street cleaning and trash removal to the neighborhood. Penn also runs the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the main purpose of which is to give Penn students an opportunity to volunteer in West Philadelphia.
Rarely, however do either PILOT proponents or university administrators invoke Penn’s original civic mission, despite the fact that this is the only reason it is tax-exempt in the first place.
The Pennsylvania Constitution states that only “institutions of purely public charity” are exempt from paying state and local taxes. A 1985 ruling (Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) by the state’s Supreme Court established criteria known as the HUP Test for qualifying as a purely public charity, and the language of the test threatened the tax-exempt status of many nonprofits in the state. Facing legal pressure from City Hall, Penn agreed to a five-year PILOT program and contributed $1.93 million annually to Philadelphia. The PILOT program was not renewed, however, partly because of a 1997 state law that listed postsecondary education as an eligible “charitable purpose” and said that offering need-based financial aid counts as “donating or rendering gratuitously a substantial portion of its services.” Penn was no longer in danger of losing its tax-exempt status.
More recently, the state’s Supreme Court has againchallenged the legislature, arguing that judicial branch, not the legislative, should decide tax-exempt status. This case has jeopardized the tax-exemptstatus of many nonprofits in Pennsylvania, including Penn. The state Senate proposed a constitutional amendment in 2013 that would have granted the legislature authority over defining an institution of purely public charity. Amending the Pennsylvania constitution requires a majority vote in both chambers during successive legislative sessions, followed by a statewide referendum. Although the state Senate approved the bill twice, the state House of Representatives did not vote a second time on the bill.
Whether a college was a charity or not would have been an unusual question 200 or even 100 years ago. Until relatively recently, even those universities that became known as “elite” were small and modest institutions as measured by their budgets and investments. Until Penn moved to West Philadelphia in the late 1800s, it never consisted of more than a couple of buildings, a handful of instructors and a few hundred students.
Since state-funded colleges were scarce until after the Civil War, institutions like Penn fulfilled a vital role in educating the young residents of the surrounding city. Penn did not build any student dormitories until 1895 partly because its trustees believed the university should cater primarily to Philadelphians. An anonymous letter published in The Nation in 1885 noted that it was university “policy” to instill its students with “Philadelphia doctrines, ideas, atmosphere and surroundings.” Even after dorms were constructed, Penn drew mostly from Philadelphia and the surrounding region.
The advent of the modern research university significantly altered the relationship between cities and higher education, and Penn was no exception. Rather than acting as transmitters of knowledge, institutions like Penn began to style themselves primarily as producers of knowledge during the course of the 20th century. The trend intensified during World War II when the federal government began pouring money into universities for military research. In 1946, Penn researchers brought the university into the international spotlight when they developed ENIAC, a computer designed to aid artillery calculations for the U.S. Army now regarded as the first modern electronic computer.
Universities across the country prioritized projects like ENIAC, often at the expense of undergraduate education. As one 1957 report frankly admitted, Penn needed to “eliminate or assign lower-priority status to educational functions which lie outside areas of strategic importance.” Penn no longer existed merely to educate young Philadelphians, and indeed, the city came to be seen increasingly as a liability. Unlike a university such as Stanford, Penn lacked open space and was surrounded by dense urban development. Projects like ENIAC required space, but West Philadelphia was no longer a sleepy, streetcar suburb. Worse, as Penn expanded in the 20th century, Philadelphia began to crumble under the pressure of deindustrialization and white flight.
Some trustees and donors contemplated moving all or at least part of the campus outside the city to the nearby suburb of Valley Forge, but the university opted instead to make the best of its urban location. Penn and other local universities joined together to form the West Philadelphia Corporation, aimed at gentrifying the neighborhood now known, tellingly, as University City. Besides improving local schools, the WPC also took more controversial actions, such as helping coordinate the razing of Black Bottom, a predominantly black neighborhood adjacent to campus. The incident significantly damaged the university’s reputation in West Philadelphia, and the tension continues today. (Locals refer to the gentrification of West Philadelphia as “Penntrification”).
Universities have changed from within, too. In the Victorian era, colleges were thought of as refuges from the worldly commercialism of cities. Urban universities tended to relocate to the outskirts of their rapidly expanding cities, as Columbia did in the 1890s with its removal to Morningside Heights, where, it was thought, the pastoral and insular character of universities could be better maintained. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Harvard professor, contrasted the “sweet serenity of books” with the “market-place” and its “eager love of gain … whose end is pain.”
Today, the realities of the marketplace seem to be sweeping away the sweet serenity. At elite universities in particular, numbers of humanities majors have been declining. Students understandably gravitate toward majors like economics and computer science, which many employers prefer, despite their often-stated preference for “well-rounded” and “creative” applicants. As colleges shift their attention away from general education and toward career preparation, the cloistered environment that the university once provided is becoming less attractive. Urban campuses provide students with networking and internship opportunities that are beyond the reach of rural colleges, especially those below the elite level.
The relationship between universities and their home cities has increasingly become interdependent as the economies of Rust Belt cities have shifted from a manufacturing economy to “eds and meds.” (Pittsburgh is a leading example.) Deindustrialization, along with increasing privatization, has transformed the image of universities not just into producers of knowledge, but most importantly, producers of wealth.
Today, universities provide private companies not only with new, profitable technologies, but also with a carefully vetted pool of laborers tailored to the needs of a global knowledge economy. The rest of the city exists mainly to cater to the consumer needs of this new professional class. In May 2014, the Brookings Institution released a report on “innovation districts,” using University City as one successful case study. The authors argued that innovation districts, which are mixed-use, urban areas anchored by large research institutions, will play an increasing role in generating economic growth in the years to come.
But the wealth generated by universities like Penn is distributed more asymmetrically than the manufacturing base it replaced. Innovation districts tend to be self-contained spaces where technocrats can work and then mingle with other technocrats over craft beer or pour-over coffee. As every Philadelphian knows, the divide between University City and the neighborhoods that make up the majority of the city is stark. Of course, universities were never designed to anchor an entire city’s economy. Many in Philadelphia find themselves both reliant on the economic benefits that Penn confers and aware that its interests do not always align with the city’s.
In this context, the PILOT debate in Philadelphia, along with calls for compulsory endowment spending and ending university tax exemptions elsewhere, should come as no surprise. They reflect a cultural transformation by which all aspects of American life seem to be increasingly, if not exclusively, assessed in terms of their economic value. Even critics of this transformation often frame their critique only in economic terms. Those on either side of these debates would do well to remember that Franklin, our first educational entrepreneur, imagined American higher education as a civic enterprise designed to promote citizenship, not economic growth.
Matthew Fernandez is a Ph.D. student in American literature at Columbia University and received his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
Across almost a century of American social and political change, W. E. B. Du Bois was the pre-eminent African-American author and thinker, bar none. He was born three years after the end of the Civil War and died just one day before the March on Washington in 1963. He was the first black scholar to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. The German sociologist Max Weber admired his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and tried to arrange its translation. And his place as founding editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine, The Crisis, gave him not just an agenda-setting role in the history of the civil rights movement but also an international influence.
W. E. B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line by Bill V. Mullen (published by Pluto Press, with distribution in the United States by the University of Chicago Press) serves as a timely introduction to this impressive and somewhat imposing figure, while also reframing Du Bois’s life and work beyond the boundaries of the American context. Mullen is a professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and the author of two previous studies of Du Bois: Afro-Orientalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and Un-American: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Temple University Press, 2015). I interviewed him by email about his most recent book.
Q: Du Bois said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. We heard a lot about the United States becoming a “postracial” society when President Obama was first elected on the assumption that the problem had been solved, which is not a perspective often championed these days. What do you think counts as the most pertinent aspect of Du Bois’s legacy now, after eight years of an African-American president and several of civic unrest on a scale we haven't seen for decades?
A: I think the most pertinent aspect of Du Bois’s legacy to today’s protest movements -- against police violence, for Black Lives Matter and the movement for Palestinian civil rights, for example -- was his insistence that only mass protest could bring about meaningful social change. Du Bois was eventually weaned away from the idea that capitalism and racism could be reformed from above. His view of democracy was that it was a living thing animated by ordinary people engaged in self-activity for equality.
All of the major social justice organizations he was involved with -- the Pan-African movement, the Socialist Party, the NAACP, the Peace Information Center against atomic weapons, the Communist Party -- were interracial or international movements that challenged institutions of power and authority. An especially relevant example to our time is the work Du Bois did to create the “We Charge Genocide” petition delivered to the United Nations in 1951. He wrote the first drafts of that petition, which charged the U.S. state with disproportionately causing black death through poverty, poor schooling, social and police violence. After Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, a group of young Chicago activists formed the group We Charge Genocide to document police shootings of African-Americans in Chicago and to honor that earlier effort. Du Bois’s legacy to our time was made very real and direct in that moment.
Q: You write that biographers and scholars have neglected or underestimated the significance of Du Bois’s long-term political development, and at one point, you suggest there’s a tendency to overemphasize his early book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) almost as if that’s his single major work. David Levering Lewis’s two-volume biography of Du Bois seems very broad in scope and deep in detail, so I’m wondering if there are particular discussions of Du Bois, or perspectives on him, that you’re challenging.
A: There are two parts to this exclusion tendency. Levering Lewis’s biography of Du Bois is magnificent. But he dedicates only 16 out of almost 1,400 pages to the last eight years of Du Bois’s life. In that time, Du Bois traveled to the Soviet Union and China, joined the Communist Party, published his autobiography in the Soviet Union, and moved to Ghana. The effect of downplaying those events is to diminish them as late-in-life mistakes of someone who has taken a bad political turn or has simply lost his bearings in old age. I argue instead that that those culminating events of Du Bois’s life can only be explained by tracing them back to points of origins far earlier. I dedicate a whole chapter to Du Bois’s writings on Asia, for example, which begin in 1905, because they explain why he later supported Maoism so strongly and why he said in the 1940s that the future of the world depended upon events in Asia.
Second, there is still a tendency to ignore Du Bois’s lifelong interest in Marxism so that he remains an avuncular “race man” figure for scholars in the academy. To give an example, Du Bois wrote a 300-page manuscript called “Russia and America” in 1950. His publisher, Henry Giroux, wouldn’t bring it out during the Cold War, saying it was too pro-Soviet and anti-American. To this day, it has never been published. I spend a good deal of time talking about the book because it explains better than any other single Du Bois text why he sympathized with the Russian revolution. The book is also important for showing how Du Bois saw the Russian revolution as a sequel to African-American self-emancipation from slavery, an event he called an “experiment of Marxism.” My tendency then is to show that Marxism was always central to Du Bois’s political development -- not a detour, diversion or mistake.
Q: Arguably Du Bois’s life and work are too large, too far-flung, even for Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “Black Atlantic,” since the Indian independence struggle (among other Asian developments) was so important for him. You discuss him as a “transnational” figure. Please say more on that.
A: Du Bois was most accurately described as an internationalist. His worldview was framed by 19th-century nationalisms, the Pan-Africanist movement, Communist internationalism and the anticolonial movement of the 20th century. His political orientation was to see in all directions simultaneously the interdependence of the advanced and underdeveloped worlds, as well as the historical movements of people between nations and territories. He called Japan’s defeat of Russia in their 1905 war the first “crossing of the color line” in world history, and India’s independence in 1947 the greatest event of the 20th century. He first used his famous coinage “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” in the 1900 Pan-African Congress address to refer to the relationship of nonwhite peoples across the world to their colonial masters.
Intellectually, his influences ran from Hegel to Alexander Crummell, Bismarck to Nehru. His 1928 anticolonial novel, Dark Princess, is a rewriting of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For me, communism and socialism provided the intellectual synthesis of this global perspective: he understood what the Communist International called “world revolution” as the drawing together of modern humanity into a single project, or totality, of global unity and emancipation. That is the main theme of my book, and the through line for my account of his lifelong political development.
Q: Would publishing the manuscript of Du Bois’s “Russia and America” be worthwhile now? It's certainly odd to think of a book-length work by a figure of such significance languishing in the archives.
A: “Russia and America” should absolutely be published. Vaughn Rasberry’s important new book, Race and the Totalitarian Century,also puts “Russia and America” at the center of Du Bois’s Cold War writing. The problem is the Du Bois scholarship industry. Most Du Bois scholars haven’t read the manuscript and therefore don’t understand its importance. Others who have read it dismiss it because Du Bois is full throated in his praise of the Soviet Union at a time when many of Stalinism’s worst errors were becoming well-known.
In other words, the manuscript still lives in the shadow of Cold War thinking that should be long past by now. Too many scholars would prefer to preserve a hagiographic image of Du Bois as a benign humanist or saint rather than comprehend both the depth of his commitment to Communism and the reasons he oftentimes looked past problems with Stalin’s Russia. It’s a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to scholarship, which does a disservice to students and scholars who want to comprehend Du Bois and socialism in the 20th century -- problems and all.
Q: Your book follows a difficult line with respect to some of Du Bois’s political commitments. You seem understanding, or at least nonpolemical, with regard to his support for the regimes of Stalin and Mao, but a number of remarks make clear you reject those politics. How do you manage to balance those perspectives?
A: Du Bois’s political evaluations of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were consistent with those of many of the people whom we consider to be the most important radicals of the 20th century, including the majority of anticolonial leaders from Asia and Africa. His strong desire for decolonization led him to trust the Soviet Union and China and their promises of aid to that project well past the time their revolutions had become corrupted. To be for world revolution and decolonization in the 20th century, in other words, was to sign up for Communist internationalism with all of its faults. Du Bois signed up early and never fully recanted.
On the other hand, he misapprehended the meaning of Marxism and socialism in ways that we should not forgive or forget. He confused state capitalism -- Stalin’s system of socialism in one country and bureaucratic rule from above -- with the real meaning of socialism as working-class self-emancipation. His thin understanding of Japanese and Chinese history caused him to perceive Japanese imperialism and expansionism in China as a viable alternative to capitalism for nonwhite workers of the world. Du Bois was both brilliant and fallible.
But he was always, as I try to make clear, vying to find a way that ordinary people could fashion their own liberation and self-emancipation. He found this match of political will and human self-activity in his most brilliant book, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). If he had written nothing else in his life, Black Reconstruction would have cemented his place as one of the most original scholars and political theorists of human freedom. So his life and his work demand a judicious and balanced approach that is well grounded in the theories of revolution and human liberation he was trying to advance. I try to provide that approach, and as you say, walk that line, in my book.
Q: Du Bois’s early worldview reflects a belief in elite leadership -- “the talented tenth.” Your book stresses his move toward a more democratic perspective, an emphasis on agency and power from below. But isn’t there a lot of continuity in his thinking? Aren’t traces of the young Du Bois who admired Bismarck still discernable in the octogenarian who wrote a glowing tribute following Stalin’s death in 1953?
A: There are two kinds of continuity in Du Bois’s political thought across the course of his long life. One is the quest cited above for human emancipation carried out by ordinary people. In 1956, only seven years before his death, Du Bois wrote an essay in tribute to one of his heroes, the socialist militant labor leader Eugene Debs. At a time in which he was well aware of problems in the socialist models of both Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, Du Bois wrote, “A state socialism planned by the rich for their own survival is quite possible, but it is far from the state where the rule rests in the hands of those who produce wealth and services and whose aim is the welfare of the mass of the people.” That is the Du Bois who fought for what we can call “socialism from below.”
On the other hand, Du Bois never quite gave up the idea that a “great man” -- a Bismarck or a Stalin -- could redirect human history. The socialist William Gorman put this very well in an essay in the 1950s. About Du Bois’s defense of Stalinism, Gorman wrote, “There he can find embodied … in his life work in regard to the negroes: the conception of the talented tenth and the urge toward international revolt. Stalinism … approaches and manipulates the masses like an elite convinced of their backwardness and incapacity; hence the necessity to dictate, plan and administer for them from the heights of superior knowledge and wisdom.”
My final assessment is that Du Bois was a contradictory figure, but one who made the struggle for black freedom central to the 20th-century struggle for human emancipation in all its forms. We should not blame Du Bois that history didn’t solve the problem of the color line. We should celebrate the fact that he was one of the few people in American history to try to use every tool at his disposal to develop a theory and practice of human emancipation. He was a dangerous figure in the very best and most radical sense of that word.
Last month, a Snapchat image circulated on the campus of Quinnipiac University of a white female freshman student in a dorm wearing a dark exfoliating beauty mask. Captioning the image in a collage made by another student were the words “Black Lives Matter.” In the days that followed, members of the university community received a number of emails from the administration, culminating with one that informed everyone that, as a result of an administrative investigation, “the student who took the photo, added the remark and posted it is no longer a member of the university community.”
In the midst of it all, my students and I decided to take time in our English 101 class to discuss both the images and the responses that we’d seen, read and heard up to that point. In our discussions, my students -- all first-semester freshmen -- offered a range of thoughtful and considered perspectives.
A theme of our discussions was the way in which the offending image mocked and trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement -- and, more broadly, concerns about racism, social justice and the calls for a more equitable America. My students pointed out that the words, phrases and images that were hardly offensive in themselves -- that is, the image of a white woman wearing an exfoliating mask as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” generated a problematic message when placed together in a collage. Some students pointed to the impact such images have on students of color struggling to learn, fit in and feel safe at the university.
One thing that didn’t come up for the students was the connection to the history of blackface minstrelsy, another key reason why the Snapchat image was such a problem. It not only mocked and trivialized other people’s misery and criticisms today, but it also did so by referencing and repeating -- unwittingly or otherwise -- a long history of it. As someone first trained in cultural studies, I offered some words about the subject and pointed the students to a few relevant resources.
But much of what piqued my students’ interest was the administration’s response. They quickly raised questions concerning money, liability, potential student recruitment and alumni giving -- all key elements of the conversation, to be sure. One thing we didn’t talk about, however, was genre: the fact that we were dealing with a kind of writing that, while being offered in response to a specific incident here at Quinnipiac, is governed by some rules, reader expectations and history.
Last spring I attended a faculty workshop concerning antiracism led by David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. In that workshop, Shih drew our attention to the ways that such articulations of “community” are increasingly a part of the administrative playbook for dealing with racism on campuses. And, in fact, the response we saw at our university was pretty generic -- although, as we never tire of arguing in English departments, genres do some pretty serious work. Often it seems as if administrative responses to racism sound a lot like the conventional way it gets talked about in the wider world: as something episodic, immediately identifiable and always perpetuated by someone from outside the community. Or, more specifically at work at my institution because of the manner in which the offender was quickly “no longer part of the community,” the implication was that the person was not really part of the community to begin with. Thanks to the administration’s intervention, the “community” could now get back to its normal business of operating in the absence of racism. Case closed.
My students, of course, had not attended David Shih’s workshop, but they raised some strikingly similar points in our discussion. Several also said that racist remarks in the form of jokes, asides and the like happen “all the time” on the campus. The problem, in this case, was that someone got caught. “There’s a big deal about it right now,” one of my students suggested, but what about all the other times these things happen, and they go unchecked?
For the students, the major difference was that it was a public act on social media. And what’s different about social media, they pointed out, is that it opens incidents to the outside world. A number of students were nervous or upset at having to answer to family, friends and others about the image, and some discussed how it had hurt our campus community not only directly but also by damaging the university’s public image. In short, the students seemed to say that the key difference between a “private” utterance and a more “public” image or “speech act” like the one that I’ve been describing is best understood as a degree of risk. “It’s just stupid,” several students agreed. But when pressed, it was clear that, by “stupid,” they meant “really risky.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, our discussions turned into a kind of reading of the administration’s style of risk management. When I asked what they thought should have been done, student suggestions ran the gauntlet from hiding the story from outside news media to expelling the students involved to insisting that this is not a “big deal” in the first place.
But many expressed frustration that the administration’s response was never fully explained in any understandable or transparent way. Almost everyone seemed to agree that something had to be done to take the incident seriously not only because of its hurtful nature but also because it was public. I asked what the campus would be like if the administration intervened every time a racist act of any sort occurred. One of my students immediately answered, with a raised eyebrow, “Things would get pretty out hand around here.”
Whether or not things getting “out of hand” on a campus sounds like a good thing or a bad one probably depends on a number of factors, and certainly this brief essay can’t settle such a question. But I raise this because much of what was at stake for my students -- at least in our initial classroom conversation -- was a response in large part framed and limited by the same terms as the administration’s emails, language and directives.
Most people agreed that such an incident needed serious and swift attention, and I agree with that sentiment. But the implication quickly became, “So if you do this type of thing, we don’t want to see it -- in other words, don’t get caught.” Because the risk is so high for everyone involved, that’s what makes it a problem: visibility and exposure to risk. My students really understand that posting such an image on social media is a risky move and could lead to issues at the institution in one way or another. But just why and in what ways such a racist speech act was a problem was tougher for them to articulate. Rather, the explanation for what the image meant and why it mattered was what we had to learn about in class -- not something the students could glean from the administration’s electronic missives.
Let me be clear: the fact that the administration did not discuss issues of racism or the history of minstrelsy is not why I invited my students to think about such topics in class. But it is striking to me that here, in a moment of crisis, some pretty clear lines between administrators and educators get redrawn. One way that happens is how the administration so directly articulates itself in such emails as something different and other than an agent of education and learning.
In the last administrative email on the subject, directly following the sentences informing us that the student was “no longer a part of the university community,” we were directed to “learn from this experience” and “encouraged” to participate in campus programs that “support our values of diversity and inclusion.” But just what we were supposed to learn here and what kinds of opportunities are available for us to do so was left intentionally unsaid. We were informed about the “existence” of a “racially offensive” image but not invited to ponder why it was offensive or racist, or what, for that matter, we should do about it. Likewise, we were told to seek out related programming and activities, but the fact that a previously scheduled and long-planned teach-in concerning Black Lives Matter was to be held on campus the following week was left out.
The following week, when the administration finally did publicize the teach-in (and with less than 24 hours before it was to start), we were “encouraged” to attend and “welcome to stop by,” but no connection to the Snapchat image was drawn. In other words, the administration seemed to be making a decision to leave the matter of education up to others at the university. Its role, if we judge by such emails, was to conduct investigations and render discipline.
And as a teacher, I would certainly prefer that what counts as education be left up to faculty members and students. Don’t get me wrong: I’m upset about the incident at our institution and wish it had not happened. But let me be clear about something else: as a teacher, I welcome the chance to turn such moments of difficulty into moments of consideration and reflection in my classroom -- all in the service, of course, of equipping my students with skills to make more informed and more thoughtful decisions in the future.
In fact, I’ve found that doing so is a pretty good way to teach writing and might even be thought of as a kind of “educational outcome” of higher education, regardless of discipline. In my English class, all of a sudden, some seemingly abstract questions got really real. It felt as if we were all doing what we ought to do in college: asking tough questions and taking the answers, and their implications, seriously.
My students did not come to consensus. But judging from some follow-up conversations with a number of them, I don’t get the sense that anyone felt that their views were not voiced and explored for what they were: attempts to come to terms with something important happening in their world and to use our class as a chance to hone skills they could apply both now and in their future.
I learned a phrase in walking picket lines alongside the union of clerical workers at the University of Minnesota that I’ve always liked: “The University Works Because We Do.” Since then, I’ve heard this phrase foreground the importance of a wide range of labor unrest that happens on college campuses from many people -- janitors, IT techs, food service workers and others. The phrase, when spoken by those who do a kind of work that the administration does not recognize and value as essential to the university’s mission, attempts to reframe the issue at hand and offer a sight line from a less common, but no less significant, perspective. And probably because, over the last few decades, the focus has been on the struggles of noninstructional university staff for recognition, better wages and respect, I have heard that phrase less often evoked when describing teachers and students.
So here, I’ll take a risk of my own: last month at Quinnipiac, all around the campus, the university was working because we did: that is, because teachers and students stopped their normal, planned activities and discussed racism -- and the administration’s response to it -- in a serious way.
Part of the problem is that what appears to be the administration’s desired outcome -- that what happened would be a short-lived but impactful moment that would quickly go away -- turns out to be not so unlike the way that Snapchat works. Images appear for a short time and then disappear, (hopefully) without a trace. What throws a wrench in the machinery is someone calling attention to it, someone who says, “Wait, this is important. This means something.” And thanks to a Quinnipiac student who reposted the image on Facebook with an impassioned critique concerning the connection between feeling safe on campus and being empowered to learn, we’ve had the chance to do so.
I don’t know who that student is, but I think I could learn something from her or him. And of course, this person wasn’t mentioned in the administration’s emails, either. In fact, I only learned about through my students in our class discussion. Last month, I went to teach class but I got schooled. To me, that’s also an important way that a university works -- and something we should all fight for.
John Conley teaches courses in academic writing, cultural studies and literature at Quinnipiac University and Trinity College.
More than 30 states now provide performance funding for higher education, with several more states seriously considering it. Under PF, state funding for higher education is not based on enrollments and prior-year funding levels. Rather, it is tied directly to institutional performance on such metrics as student retention, credit accrual, degree completion and job placement. The amount of state funding tied to performance indicators ranges from less than 1 percent in Illinois to as much as 80 to 90 percent in Ohio and Tennessee.
Performance funding has received strong endorsements from federal and state elected officials and influential public policy groups and educational foundations. The U.S. Department of Education has urged states to “embrace performance-based funding of higher education based on progress toward completion and other quality goals.” And a report by the National Governors Association declared, “Currently, the prevailing approach for funding public colleges and universities … gives colleges and universities little incentive to focus on retaining and graduating students or meeting state needs …. Performance funding instead provides financial incentives for graduating students and meeting state needs.”
But with all this state activity and national support, does performance funding actually work? As we report in a book being published this week, Performance Funding for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), the answer is both yes and no.
Based on extensive research we conducted in three states with much-discussed performance funding programs -- Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee -- we find evidence for the claims of both those who champion performance funding and those who reject it. In keeping with the arguments of PF champions, we find that performance funding has resulted in institutions making changes to their policies and programs to improve student outcomes -- whether by revamping developmental education or altering advising and counseling services.
Underpinning those changes have been increased institutional efforts to gather data on their performance and to change their institutional practices in response.
But we often cannot clearly determine to what degree performance funding is driving those changes. Many of the colleges we studied stated they were already committed to improving student outcomes before the advent of performance funding. Moreover, in addition to PF, the states often are simultaneously pursuing other policies -- such as initiatives to improve developmental education or establish better student pathways into and through higher education -- that push institutions in the same direction as their PF programs. As a result, it is nearly impossible to determine the distinct contribution of PF to many of those institutional changes.
Meanwhile, supporting the arguments of the PF detractors, we have not found conclusive evidence that performance funding results in significant improvements in student outcomes -- and, in fact, we’ve discovered that it produces substantial negative side effects. In reviewing the research literature on PF impacts, we find that careful multivariate studies -- which compare states with and without performance funding and control for a host of factors besides PF that influence student outcomes -- largely fail to find a significant positive impact of performance funding on student retention and degree attainment. Those studies do find some evidence of effects on four-year college graduation and community college certificates and associate degrees in some states and some years. However, those results are too scattered to allow anyone to conclude that performance funding is having a substantial impact on student outcomes.
Various organizational obstacles may help explain that lack of effect. Many institutions enroll numerous students who are not well prepared for college. In addition, state performance metrics often do not align well with the missions of broad-access institutions such as community colleges, and states do not adequately support institutional efforts to better understand where they are failing and how best to respond.
Even if performance funding ultimately proves to significantly improve student outcomes, the fact remains that it has serious unintended impacts that need to be addressed. Faced both by state financial pressures to improve student outcomes and substantial obstacles to doing so easily, institutions are tempted to game the system. By reducing academic demands and restricting the enrollment of less-prepared students, broad-access colleges can retain and graduate more students, but only at the expense of an essential part of their social mission of helping disadvantaged students attain high-quality college degrees. Policy makers should address such negative side effects, or they could well vitiate any apparent success that performance funding achieves in improving student outcomes.
In the end, performance funding, like so many policies, is complicated and even contradictory. To the question of whether it works, our answer has to be both yes and no. It does prod institutions to better attend to student outcomes and to substantially change their academic and student-service policies and programs. However, performance funding has not yet conclusively produced the student outcomes desired, and it has engendered serious negative side effects. The question is whether, with further research and careful policy making, it is possible for performance funding to emerge as a policy that significantly improves student retention, graduation and job placement without paying a stiff price in reduced academic quality and restricted admission of disadvantaged students. Time will tell.
Kevin Dougherty is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University and an associate professor at Teachers College. Sosanya M. Jones is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University. Hana Lahr is a research associate, Rebecca S. Natow is a senior research associate, Lara Pheatt is a former research associate and Vikash Reddy is a postdoctoral research associate, all with CCRC.
TheWall Street Journal and Times Higher Education have partnered to produce yet another college ranking. Should we applaud, groan, ignore or something else? I choose applause -- with suggestions.
This new project represents a positive step. For starters, any ranking that further challenges the hegemony of what I have termed the“wealth, reputation and rejection” rankings from U.S. News & World Report is welcome. Frank Bruni said much the same thing in his recent New York Times column, “Why College Rankings Are a Joke.”
I traveled the country for two years for the U.S. Department of Education -- I called myself the “listener in chief” -- to hear what students and colleges wanted or worried about in the federal College Scorecard. I explained that one of the most important reasons to develop the College Scorecard was to help shift the focus in evaluating higher education institutions to better questions and to the results and differences that should really matter to students choosing colleges and taxpayers who underwrite student aid. Just this week, the White House put it this way:
By shining light on the value that institutions provide to their students, the College Scorecard aligns incentives for institutions with the goals of their students and community. Although college rankings have traditionally rewarded schools for rejecting students and amassing wealth instead of giving every student a fair chance to succeed in college, more are incorporating information on whether students graduate, find good-paying jobs and repay their loans.
Some ratings have already blazed new trails by giving weight to compelling dimensions. Washington Monthly, for example, improved the discourse when it added public service to its criteria. The New York Times ranking high-performing institutions by their enrollment rates for Pell-eligible students was an enormous contribution to rethinking what matters most. The Scorecard in turn contributed by adding some (but admittedly not all) of the central reasons we as a nation underwrite postsecondary education opportunity: completion, affordability, meaningful employment and loan repayment.
The WSJ/THE entrant also offers positive approaches to appreciate. The project shares some sensible choices with the Scorecard, starting with not considering selectivity. That’s good: counting how many students a college or university rejects often tells us more about name recognition and gamesmanship than learning.
The WSJ/THE rankings also incorporate repayment, which is a useful window that reflects such contributing factors as an institution’s sensitivity to affordability, which in turn includes net price and time to degree. It also grows out of whether students are well counseled and realistic about debt and projected income -- and use their flexible repayment options, like income-contingent choices, so they can handle living costs and also their loan obligations, even if they choose work that pays only moderately.
And it was a very smart choice to use value-added outcome measures, drawing on work by the Brookings Institution melding Scorecard information and student characteristics. That approach is designed “to isolate the contribution to the college to student outcomes.” It is also important because value-added metrics help respect the accomplishments of colleges that are taking, or want to increase enrollment of, populations of students that might not graduate or achieve other targets as easily as others.
That said, the WSJ/THE transition to outcomes-based measures is incomplete. A fresh new ranking is a chance to recognize colleges and universities that do a remarkable job in achieving strong results for students at affordable prices. Including a metric for per-student expenditure is an unfortunate relic from old-fashioned input-based rankings. It’s a problem not just because it mixes inputs and outcomes. More significantly, it clouds the focus on results, giving an advantage at the starting gate to incumbents that simply have a lot of money, even if other institutions are achieving better results more economically. That’s counterproductive when the goal should be to identify and reward institutional efficiency and affordability measures that generate good results as quickly as possible.
Even Better Questions
But it’s not too late. The tool already allows sorting by the component pillars, and Times Higher Education plans to work with the data to explore relationships and additional questions. WSJ/THE could rerun their analysis without the wealth measure and its conservative influence to see whether and how that alters the rankings. It will be interesting to see whether publics rise if resources are factored out. I’d like to think that a true results-based version would surface colleges and universities, perhaps a bit lesser known, that outperform their spending and bank accounts. Whether institutions achieve that through innovation, culture, dedication or some other advantages or efficiencies, it’s well worth a look.
These rankings include a new dimension, using a new 100,000-student survey that asks students about the opportunities their colleges and universities provide to engage in high-impact education practices. The survey also asks about students’ satisfaction and how enthusiastically they would recommend their institutions. We definitely need fresh ways to understand such education outcomes as well-being, lifelong learning, competence and satisfaction. How effectively does this survey, or the Gallup-Purdue survey, answer that need?
My first question is whether this really fits the sponsors’ desire to focus on outcome measures. Is it just an input or process measure, albeit an interesting one? I’d also like to know more about the relationship of opportunities to actual engagement in those practices, and I wonder how seriously or consistently students answered the questions. What does it mean to different students to have opportunities to “meet people from other countries,” for example, and does simply meeting them make for a more successful education?
This is also my chance to ask about the strength of the causal links between the opportunity to participate in a particular educational practice (whether an internship or speaking in class) and the outcomes, from learning to job getting and performance, with which they may be associated. This question applies to questions with the WSJ/THE “Did you have an opportunity to …” format, and is most vivid for the Gallup-Purdue study. Maybe the people whose personalities and preferences incline them to choose projects that give them close, long-term connections with faculty members -- or whom faculty members chose for those projects based on characteristics including charm, social capital or prior experiences -- are engaging, optimistic and, yes, privileged in ways that would also make them engaged and healthy later in life. Was the involvement with those practices in college really causal?
To evaluate the WSJ/THE question about recommending the college or university to others, it would be valuable to know more about the basis for the students’ responses: Were they thinking about academic or quality-of-life considerations? Past experience or projections for how their educations would serve them later? I wonder if their replies were colored by an intuition that their answers could affect their institution’s standing, thus kicking in both their loyalty and self-serving desire to promote it. In short, it’s hard to know how much these new measures tell us. But it’s a worthy effort to build new tools beyond the few crude metrics we have now for understanding differences among institutions.
Serious Work to Do
On a broader level, none of the ratings and rankings have made much progress in expressing learning outcomes, although we urgently need more powerful and sensitive ways to articulate them. Whether or not students have developed the knowledge and skills, the capacities and problem-solving abilities, appropriate to their program should be at the heart of any assessment of educational results.
It’s also time to move beyond Washington Monthly’sgood but simple additions to capture intangible and societal outcomes more successfully. By that failure of imagination, not only we ratings designers, but also all of us in higher education, have allowed income to take center stage among outcomes -- and played into the damaging transformation in perception of higher education from a public to a private good.
I said many times in the Scorecard conversation that it’s sensible and understandable for families to want to know if an educational experience would typically generate what they would consider a decent living, including the ability to handle the loans assumed to pay for it, and how employment or income results compare across programs or institutions. But, I went on, that does not mean that income can stand alone as though that’s all that matters. If an affordable housing advocate or journalist is satisfied in her preparation to do that work, or a dancer or teacher got exactly the education he needs to pursue his goals and be a good citizen, how can we measure and reflect that? This is not a news flash but an echo: we need better ways to communicate with families and students about how higher education makes a difference to both the student and society far beyond just economic returns.
There’s other work to be done in the college information enterprise. This month, as the Scorecard celebrated its first anniversary, the Education Department marked the occasion with a data refresh and also wove together new partnerships to expand the Scorecard’s value. One of the big challenges for any useful college information source is to make sure it reaches the students who need it the most: the ones who aren’t sure if, or may already doubt that, they can afford college, who know least about the options available, who are uncertain about the outcomes they can expect from college or at different schools. They’re the ones who suffer from the severe “guidance gap” at far too many high schools and among many adult populations. This intensified collaboration among government, counselor organizations and higher education institutions at every level is a wise strategy.
Ultimately, however, the most transformative role of the well-conceived rankings and scorecards will turn out to lie not in whether every student reads them but in their value in supporting institutional improvement. They are a gold mine for benchmarking and can help institutions choose which outcomes really matter and then work across functions to improve them.
The fact is that for decades colleges have invested far too much energy striving -- or replaying games -- to get better on measures that don’t really matter. Asking smarter questions about genuinely significant priorities can help us graduate more low-income students into rewarding work and find affordable paths to solid learning outcomes for citizens and workers. Better ratings, continuously improved and building on each other’s contributions, give us a chance to put higher education’s intense competitive energies into worthy races.
Jamienne S. Studley, former deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and president of Skidmore College, is national policy adviser with Beyond 12 and consultant to the Aspen Institute, colleges and nonprofits.