I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?
How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.
Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.
A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.
It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.
The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.
For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.
House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.
Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.
Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.
The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.
The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.
Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.
So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?
Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.
Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.
Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.
Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.
Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.
David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
The most recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents illustrates a disconnect between what presidents believe is occurring at their institutions and what is actually happening just below the surface among our student populations. Despite presidents’ impressions of the day-to-day experiences, all is not rosy, and student affairs administrators can provide presidents with a reality check when it comes to the good and the not-so-good circumstances and events that are transpiring.
Some of the issues that concern presidents most -- and those that we who work in student affairs believe should, in fact, concern presidents the most -- are often related to student behaviors and experiences outside of the classroom. Those are the areas of knowledge and responsibility housed in student affairs offices, and we can assist with the topics most associated with our field -- including equity and diversity initiatives, promoting anti-bias on campus, student engagement, and issues tied to student success, recruitment and retention.
The key to mining our expertise, however, is to have a realistic understanding of our areas of responsibility, and a plan for best accessing our expertise and our close connections throughout the institution. This allows presidents to make the strongest and best-informed decisions possible for their campus communities.
For example, the Inside Higher Ed survey found that “the vast majority of presidents describe the state of race relations at their college as either excellent (20 percent) or good (63 percent). More than three-fifths of presidents describe race relations at American colleges in general as fair.”
I’ve used the analogous data points from last year’s presidential survey when speaking to members of NASPA, the leading association for student affairs professionals, over the past year -- data that, the survey notes, are relatively unchanged from last year to this year. Not surprisingly, I’ve received a mix of gasps and chuckles, with many student affairs professionals hoping their presidents can realistically assess the status of race relations on their own campuses. NASPA’s survey of senior student affairs officers has consistently shown that diversity and race relations are among the top issues and concerns. It would be fascinating to see how students -- especially students from diverse backgrounds -- would rate their institutions, but I can safely bet that the “vast majority” would not rate them as “excellent” or “good.”
It is important to note that a lack of protest on a campus does not mean students and other community members are satisfied about race relations there. We shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that we are meeting students’ needs solely because we haven’t faced protests. The absence of activism may simply mean those students aren’t activated yet. Student affairs administrators can help their presidents proactively engage with all students so that they have an accurate picture of the true state of the student body and its general satisfaction with the current campus climate.
The ways in which student affairs professionals can contribute counsel to a president are not limited to race relations or underlying diversity unrest. The survey shows that presidents are also worried about attracting and retaining all students, including underrepresented ones, and making dollars from tuition and state appropriations stretch farther than ever before. With only 52 percent of presidents “confident about their institution’s financial health over the next 10 years,” higher education will likely face additional cuts in the future.
If presidents are considering reducing support for student affairs functions, they do so at the potential peril of their retention efforts and to the detriment of their student satisfaction and graduation rates. When cutting costs, presidents should prioritize efficiencies and preserve the core opportunities and experiences associated with a college degree. They should turn to data to determine which experiences are contributing to students’ success and refrain from wholesale elimination of the programs and services that keep students moving toward graduation. Presidents should make changes to increase impact and maintain personal contact and engagement, which are key parts of the institutional experience.
A Gallup survey found that students were 1.6 times more likely to strongly agree their education was worth the cost if they were “extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations,” 1.9 times more likely if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their “goals and dreams” and 1.4 times more likely if they had a “leadership position in a club or organization such as student government, a fraternity or sorority, or an athletic team.” Student affairs professionals can make a difference in keeping our students on the path toward graduation and satisfied with their investment.
This weekend, the American Council on Education and NASPA kick off their respective annual meetings. With a preponderance of attendees of the ACE meeting holding the title of president or chancellor, I encourage them to think through how they can better tap the expertise housed in student affairs and make use of the experiences of their senior student affairs officer. The survey results from Inside Higher Ed aren’t surprising, but they tell me that student affairs officers need a seat at the table to provide perspective and advice as presidents tackle myriad difficult topics on behalf of today’s students.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Finding himself in prison following the beer-hall fiasco in Munich in 1923, Adolf Hitler had time to put his thoughts about politics and destiny into order, at least as much as that was possible. The United States was part of his grand vision, and not as someplace to conquer.
“The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent,” he wrote in Mein Kampf, “and he will remain the master, as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” He was encouraged on the latter score by what he had learned of American immigration policy. With its stated preference for Northern Europeans, its restrictions on those from Southern and Eastern Europe, and its outright exclusion of everyone else, the Immigration Act of 1924 impressed Hitler as exemplary. It manifested, “at least in tentative first steps,” what he and his associates saw as “the characteristic völkisch conception of the state,” as defined in some detail by the Nazi Party Program of 1920.
Revulsion is an understandable response to this little traipse through the ideological sewer, but it is wholly inadequate for assessing the full measure of the facts or their implications. The admiration for American immigration policy expressed in Mein Kampf was not a passing thought on the day’s news (Hitler had been in prison for about two months when Calvin Coolidge signed the act into law) nor a one-off remark. Its place in the full context of Nazi theory and practice comes into view in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press) by James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School.
Many people will take the very title as an affront. But it’s the historical reality the book discloses that proves much harder to digest. The author does not seem prone to sensationalism. The argument is made in two succinct, cogent and copiously documented chapters, prefaced and followed with remarks that remain within the cooler temperatures of expressed opinion (e.g.: “American contract law, for example, is, in my opinion, exemplary in its innovativeness”).
Hitler’s American Model is scholarship and not an editorial traveling incognito. Its pages contain many really offensive statements about American history and its social legacy. But those statements are all from primary sources -- statements about America, made by Nazis, usually in the form of compliments.
“The most important event in the history of the states of the Second Millennium -- up until the [First World] War -- was the founding of the United States of America,” wrote a Nazi historian in 1934. “The struggle of the Aryans for world domination thereby received its strongest prop.” Another German author developed the point two years later, saying that “a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged” without American leadership on the global stage following the war.
Examples could be multiplied. The idea of the United States as a sort of alt-Reich was a Nazi commonplace, at least in the regime’s early years. But it was not just a matter of following Hitler’s lead. The white-supremacist and eugenicist writings of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard -- among the best-selling American authors of a 100 years ago -- circulated in translation in the milieu that spawned Hitler. (I don’t recall Hannah Arendt mentioning Grant or Stoddard in Origins of Totalitarianism, oddly enough.) A popular Nazi magazine praised lynching as “the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand.” European visitors noted the similarity between the Ku Klux Klan and fascist paramilitary groups like the Brownshirts, and they compared the post-Reconstruction order in the South to the Nazi system.
But the journalistic analogies and propaganda talking points of the day, while blatant enough, don’t convey the depth of American influence on Nazi race law. The claim of influence runs against the current of much recent scholarship arguing that Nazi references to the Jim Crow system were “few and fleeting” and that American segregation laws had little or no impact on the Nuremberg Laws. (At the Nuremberg rally of 1935, the Nazis proclaimed citizenship limited to those “of German blood, or racially related blood” and outlawed marriage or sexual relations between Jews and German citizens.)
While the Nazis did call attention to segregation in the United States -- so the argument goes -- it was to deflect criticism of German policy. The error here, as Whitman sees it, comes from treating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson as the primary or quintessential legal component of racial oppression in the United States, and presumably the one Nazi jurists would have looked to in reshaping German policy. But, according to Whitman, “American race law” in the 19th and much of the 20th century:
sprawled over a wide range of technically distinct legal areas … [including] Indian law, anti-Chinese and -Japanese legislation, and disabilities in civil procedure and election law …. Anti-miscegenation laws on the state level featured especially prominently … [as] did immigration and naturalization law on the federal level ….
Even before the outbreak of World War I, German scholars were fascinated by this teeming mass of American racist law -- with a particular interest in what one of them identified as a new category of “subjects without citizenship rights” (or second-class citizens, to put it another way) defined by race or country of ancestry. By the 1930s, the anti-miscegenation laws in most American states were another topic of great concern. While many countries regarded interracial marriage as undesirable, Nazi jurists “had a hard time uncovering non-American examples” of statutes prohibiting it.
A stenographic transcript from 1934 provides Whitman’s most impressive evidence of how closely Nazi lawyers and functionaries had studied American racial jurisprudence. A meeting of the Commission on Criminal Law Reform “involved repeated and detailed discussion of the American example, from its very opening moments,” Whitman writes, including debate between Nazi radicals and what we’d have to call, by default, Nazi moderates.
The moderates argued that legal tradition required consistency. Any new statute forbidding mixed-race marriages had to be constructed in accord with the one existing precedent for treating a marriage as criminal: the law against bigamy. This would have been a bit of a stretch, and the moderates preferred letting the propaganda experts discourage interracial romance rather than making it a police matter.
The radicals were working from a different conceptual tool kit. Juristic tradition counted for less than what Hitler had called the “völkisch conception of the state,” which demanded Aryan supremacy and racial purity. It made more sense to them to follow an example that had been tried and tested. One of the hard-core Nazis on the commission knew where to turn:
Now as far as the delineation of the race concept goes, it is interesting to take a look at the list of American states. Thirty of the states of the union have race legislation, which, it seems clear to me, is crafted from the point of view of race protection. … I believe that apart from the desire to exclude if possible a foreign political influence that is becoming too powerful, which I can imagine is the case with regard to the Japanese, this is all from the point of race protection.
The lawyers whom Whitman identifies as Nazi radicals seemed to appreciate how indifferent the American states were to German standards of rigor. True, the U.S. laws showed a lamentable indifference to Jews and Gentiles marrying. But otherwise they were as racist as anything the führer could want. “The image of America as seen through Nazi eyes in the early 1930s is not the image we cherish,” Whitman writes, “but it is hardly unrecognizable.”
A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed on Calvin College by Susan Resneck Pierce was disappointing to me on numerous levels. It characterizes Calvin as an academic community indifferent to teaching traditional academic skills such as critical thinking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Unfortunately, Resneck Pierce selectively pulled one element without context from our Expanded Statement of Mission but failed to even reference the actual Calvin mission statement, which is to “equip students to think deeply, act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” This selective cherry-picking was not present as she described the mission statements of other institutions in her piece.
In addition, while it is certainly true that Calvin seeks to ensure that the values that guide our teaching and scholarship will be Christian, at Calvin we also contend that it is possible to be simultaneously grounded in a Christian worldview and capable of critical thinking. A recent example might serve to illustrate my point.
In a March 1, 2017, piece on Calvin on The Atlantic, Jane Zwart, a Calvin English professor, said, “When you hear a phrase like ‘the kingdom of God’ around here, the point is that the world belongs to God -- which is not the same thing as the world belonging to those of us who believe in God, to those of us who are Christians … the kingdom of God does not thrive on exclusion; it chokes on exclusion … It thrives when we remember that Jesus wanted to make every last one of us a sibling and that, in consequence, we need to treat every person as a sister or a brother.” Calvin is not perfect, but Zwart gives a passionate account of our aspirations.
Baylor historian Thomas S. Kidd believes that “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.” In the midst of a season of tremendous uncertainty and considerable political polarization, this is more important than ever, and at Calvin we believe we possess an opportunity in our teaching, scholarship and service to model civic and public discourse that meets arrogance with humility, hatred with love, bluster with wisdom, falsehood with truth, injustice with justice, ignorance with learning.
That none of the depth and nuance of Calvin came out in the recent Inside Higher Ed piece is unfortunate, so we think it’s important to try to create a fuller picture of the college. You are also welcome to visit Calvin anytime to learn even more.
Before we can understand why those concepts are so routinely abused in public discussion of campus protest, we must define what they mean. The First Amendment forbids Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” As many people have repeatedly pointed out, the Constitution does not guarantee you a respectful audience for your ideas, whether those ideas are odious or not. Murray is co-author of The Bell Curve, which argues that racial inequality is largely shaped by nonwhite people’s genetic inferiority, and the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies him a white nationalist who peddles “racist pseudoscience.”
As for academic freedom, it generally refers to institutional intrusion upon faculty’s freedom of teaching and research. According to the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties …. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.”
Charles Murray is employed by the American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy think tank. If the AEI believes in the principle of academic freedom for its researchers, then all inquiries about Murray’s academic freedom should be directed to the AEI. Middlebury undergraduates couldn’t deny Murray’s institutional academic freedom even if they tried.
Middlebury’s students do, however, have every right to shout him down, and by all accounts they accomplished this end. Murray’s address in a campus auditorium was disrupted by students chanting and turning their backs to the lectern; he was compelled to give a live-streamed discussion from another location on the campus. He left campus under protests so heavy that a professor with him, political scientist Allison Stanger, injured her neck in the scrum outside. Comparing the tumult after Murray’s address to a scene from the foreign-espionage thriller Homeland, Stanger said in a statement that she was deliberately attacked by protesters in the crowd -- something that never should have happened.
However, a group of Middlebury students argued that the chaotic atmosphere Stanger describes was aggravated by belligerent campus security, and their statement suggested that her injury may have simply been an accident. “Protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation,” the statement read. “We do not know of any students who hurt Professor Stanger; however, we deeply regret that she was injured during the event.”
“So much for safe spaces,” Reason.com quipped. (Believe it or not, others made the same joke.) Others called the protesters a “mob.” In The Washington Post, law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh lamented “another sad day of brown-shirted thuggery,” arguing that it “undermines the opposition to Murray’s claims, rather than reinforcing them.” He elaborated, sort of: “Once it turns out that arguments such as the ones in The Bell Curve can’t even be made without fear of suppression or even violent attack, then we lose any real basis for rejecting those arguments.”
Obviously, one strong basis for rejecting The Bell Curve is that it is racist. But aside from that, Volokh’s strange presumption -- that disruptive opposition strengthens, rather than weakens, one’s opponents, that bad arguments somehow get stronger the less they are heard -- does not bear much scrutiny. Indeed, Murray’s claims have not gotten any better since the weekend.
One might well ask: Are college kids today fragile snowflakes cowering in their “safe spaces,” or are they brown-shirted, left-wing authoritarians? Which caricature will it be?
Dissent, for many critics of campus protest, can be tolerated as long as it is nondisruptive and officially sanctioned. The protests at the University of California, Berkeley, that chased Milo Yiannopoulos off the campus last month were unruly and damaged property, but they also may have hastened the much-deserved disgrace of a racist and sexist demagogue. In 2015, during a free speech controversy at Yale University concerning racist Halloween costumes -- which introduced “safe spaces” into the nation’s anti-student lexicon -- The Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf criticized young activists’ “illiberal streak” and their tendency to “lash out” with intolerance. Such incivility suppressed campus debate and inquiry, he argued. Even as Friedersdorf called out students protesters as intolerant of discomfort, however, he held them responsible for the sin of making others uncomfortable. Discomfort, it seems, is a scholarly virtue for some, but not for all.
Another example came in 2014, when Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, during the suppression of Occupy protests there in 2011, withdrew from his role as commencement speaker at Haverford College’s graduation. He did so after students at the college signaled their intent to disrupt his speech. The students were widely criticized for suppressing free speech and open dialogue -- even though Birgeneau was the one who withdrew, in a pre-emptive strike against a protest that hadn’t even happened yet.
How can we hold simultaneously to a view of free speech as the circulation of disagreement while denouncing communication whose tone is disagreeable? Why are freedom of speech and academic freedom so absolute for Charles Murray yet so conditional for Middlebury students -- who surely have the academic freedom not to be told they are genetically deficient at their own college? Finally, why are higher education institutions so regularly churned through this dull meat grinder of journalistic free-speech sanctimony?
One simple answer may be the alma mater nostalgia of middle-aged journalists and academics who graduated from such institutions and, like many elders in every generation, scorn the passions of the next. The bigger issue, though, has to do with how we think about education -- or more to the point, how we fantasize about it. As Corey Robin has written, in American politics, educational institutions are often treated as laboratories for social transformations we are reluctant to pursue in society at large. “In the United States,” he writes, “we often try to solve political and economic questions through our schools rather than in society.”
College campuses, especially elite ones like Middlebury, are an interesting example of this thesis: they are treated both as laboratories for transforming society, and as leafy sanctuaries from it. Colleges are asked to model a fantasy version of society in which profound social cleavages -- racial, partisan, economic -- exist only as abstract issues that we can have a “conversation” about, rather than material conflicts that may need to be confronted. And most educational leaders and administrators, Robin writes, are basically conflict averse -- they want to “want to change words, not worlds.” Isn’t politics really just the contest of the best ideas, they seem to ask, rather than a conflict of resources and power? If presidential politics tells us anything, the answer is clearly no. But on campuses, this persistent fantasy -- of social change in which no one raises their voice -- is what critics often misidentify as academic freedom.
But what if black or Latino Middlebury students don’t want to have a conversation about their human dignity? What if they prefer to assert it? If they did so, they’d be participating in a long tradition of campus free-speech defense that many critics overlook. They’d only be doing what Mario Savio, leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, famously advised in 1964: putting their “bodies on the gears” of an apparatus they call unjust.
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious -- makes you so sick at heart -- that you can’t take part,” Savio said. “And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
John Patrick Leary is an assistant professor of English at Wayne State University.
When people talk about for-profit colleges, they often do so with disdain. If you are concerned about vulnerable people making expensive educational decisions with little information, then you might disdain the “predatory” for-profit schools. If you think that a strong work ethic can trump all manner of troubles, you might disdain the “weak” people who go to a “predatory” school. What is interesting to me is how much disdain is spread among students and schools and how little disdain there is for labor markets.
More than any other kind of college, for-profit colleges are judged by their ability to get their students jobs. And, given their high dropout rates and poor job-placement rates, we often blame them for what are, in fact, labor market failures.
Today’s lingo to describe how we work is “the new economy.” This new economy has produced a new breed of for-profit colleges that constitute a parallel education universe I have dubbed “Lower Ed.” Unlike the mom-and-pop for-profit colleges of yesteryear, these for-profit colleges are massive corporations and have generated billions of dollars in advertising revenue for broadcast and digital media. From the start, they were quite clear with investors and regulators that their market niche was contingent upon deteriorating labor market conditions. Poor labor market outcomes for their graduates (and nongraduates) are part of their business plan.
Job data has become the grounds on which we not only judge the quality of for-profit colleges, but also wage regulatory battles on behalf of the public (consumer) good. Some of this emphasis is due to how we regulate for-profit colleges. The job-placement data is part of the federal gainful-employment regulation that, to summarize, says programs that advertise as pathways to jobs must actually lead to said jobs and provide job-placement data to help students make good choices about their education.
For-profit colleges spend a lot of money pushing back on gainful-employment regulations. Yet through interviews with for-profit college executives, I have discovered that gainful employment is treated more like an unavoidable cost of doing business than the heated political rhetoric would suggest. As one vice president of a national shareholder chain told me with a sigh, “Well, gainful employment is the cost of dealing with the feds.”
The public fights over job-placement data and gainful-employment regulations keep lots of people in business. Politicians look tough when they issue a statement in favor of gainful employment. Regulators relish press releases of cases filed against predatory for-profit colleges based on job-data manipulation. For-profit colleges look like they’re being led by the U.S. Department of Education to add a layer of expensive regulatory compliance against their will. They write to their investors and financial regulators about the “necessary requirements” of complying.
But does regulating job-placement data and gainful employment protect the public interest amid the turmoil of the new economy? It is hard to see how it does. The premise is simple: data makes for better choices. But this assumes that better choices are available, and I’m not sure that they are.
Consider Janice, a 28-year-old black registered nurse who worked in a hospital and enrolled in a for-profit college bachelor’s program. Janice was caught in the middle of a professionalization shift among nurses. Whereas the field had formerly only required a post-high school certificate in nursing, it was increasingly more common to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
That kind of professionalization and educational inflation falls under the “declining internal labor markets” rubric of the new economy. Unlike in the past, when experience and subsequent licensures might be obtained through an employer -- in this case, a hospital -- the expectation now is that workers will increase their human capital at personal expense to “move up” the professional ladder. Janice’s choices for promotion were limited: she could hope for favorable reviews from a sympathetic management culture (a risky proposition) or earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Janice described her workplace culture to me as one where people formed alliances with people who were similar to them. That meant the white nurses congregated with each other at work and sometimes socially. They attended the same nursing program and shared a common knowledge base, all of which felt like a form of exclusion to Janice.
Janice only indirectly attributed this dynamic to race, a distance that is probably similar to how that exclusion feels: ambivalent and hard to identify, but easy to feel. It could be about race only to the extent that so few black R.N.s had their bachelor’s degrees in nursing or had gone to the same nursing program as the nurses who had more management power. And that dynamic could be about race only to the extent that one might be less likely to have the financial means to enroll in the competitive nursing program. Because the program is one of the only ones in the local area to offer the degree, it is routinely at capacity. That means one could apply and be on a waiting list for a year or longer.
Janice felt that she couldn’t afford that kind of time off from greater earnings or promotability. Her ability to “afford” time could be about race and certainly about class and was likely about how all of those are always interacting at the same time. For Janice, time and access were expensive in ways that the debt she incurred attending a for-profit degree program in nursing was not.
Janice’s “choices” were instructive. In fact, of the 109 students formerly or presently enrolled in for-profit colleges that I interviewed between 2011 and 2015, no one talked about the context of their college choices in ways that would suggest that more accurate or clear job-placement data would have changed their circumstances or decisions.
Instead, they talked about a credential as insurance against risks they could not continue to bear alone. JJ, a military veteran at a for-profit college, was particularly exasperated by the nonchoices available to him. Community college was infantilizing. Traditional four-year colleges were impractical. Why should people who have served their country have to “start over,” was the gist of his argument.
I’ve led grown men in the battlefield. I’ve managed over $1.5 million of mission-critical assets at any given time. I’ve taken weeks strait [sic] of leadership development courses. I’ve been directly responsible for soldiers’ lives. I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms.
What JJ really needed was to not need a credential at all. It was only when the conditions of the labor market devalued his and Janice’s experiences that they considered college. Job statistics won’t change the conditions of the labor market for people.
A Negative Social Insurance Program
Political wrangling over job statistics looks like action, but it is mostly a distraction. Sociologist David Brown has shown that credentials can be created without jobs to justify them. We produce risky credentials when how we work changes dramatically, and the way we work shapes what kind of credentials we produce. If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market.
To be more precise, we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes more workers vulnerable.
Substantial evidence suggests all of the changes have shifted new risks to workers. Employer tenure for young workers has dropped at the same time that part-time and temporary work has increased, meaning many workers expect to change jobs more frequently. Essentially, their employment is constantly temporary. As the rhetoric goes, the new economy values knowledge workers with cognitive skills, and degrees represent those kinds of skills. If that’s the case, the new economy has shed high-paid but low- to midskilled cognitive work in favor of high-skilled labor and low-wage, low-skilled labor. The best-case scenario proposes that this is a decade-long labor-market correction. The labor market will catch back up and millions will find themselves back in “middle-skill” jobs with middle-class wages and work conditions.
In this best-case scenario, workers have taken on debt waiting for the market to correct itself. Depending on the kind of debt and who took it on, it’s either manageable or crushing. And for the most vulnerable workers, the only way to remediate some of that debt is to accrue more of it by going back to school. If for-profit colleges like ITT are no longer around, then another form of short-term, on-demand credentials will respond to consumer demand by extracting profit from student loans and education savings accounts.
It is not an accident that financialized shareholder for-profit colleges expanded in the 2000s. Changes in how we work created demand for fast credentials. The federal student aid system made those credentials “cheap,” in the sense that students do not pay much for them up front. The new economy, by all accounts, will require all of us to maintain near-constant skills training so as to be employable and put a far greater onus on individuals to extend their education.
So far, our policy has been to rely on the student loan system to finance that onus. To the extent that has fueled for-profit colleges, our government response has positioned them as social insurance against labor-market innovation (or disruption, depending on your perspective). Let me be clear: these are all conditions that are expected to sustain, if not accelerate, individual costs for job retraining repeatedly over the working life course.
Our national response has been to increase public money to private profit-extraction regimes. That is, in effect, a negative social insurance program. Whereas actual social insurance, like Social Security, protects citizens from the vicissitudes of predatory labor-market relationships, negative social insurance does not.
A negative social insurance program positions private-sector goods to profit from predictable systemic social inequalities, ostensibly for the public good. How did for-profit colleges define their market? They said that greater inequalities in secondary schooling produced demand for higher education without a viable means for millions of people to attain it. They said that employers were less interested in providing in-house corporate training and more desiring of credentials to certify work experience. They said that the military and other public-sector employers were shedding jobs. These aren’t secrets.
If the new dominant work arrangement divests employers of the cost for their employees’ training or certification, workers will pursue certification and credentialing schemes. If we know the cost of those schemes is primarily funded through taxpayer-supported federal student aid programs, then we already have a mechanism for providing social insurance. But when we facilitate spending that benefits institutions that maximize cost to extract profit, we have perverted the public-good mission of social insurance.
Early in 2016, I attended a conference where people in education technology offered everything from online platforms for massive open online courses to financing schemes to help people borrow private money for short-term coding boot camp courses. In their presentations, they depicted a future of work where employers couldn’t find enough “on-demand,” “skilled” labor for “the jobs of the future.” They showed earnings gaps between those with credentials and those without. They described how inefficient graduate programs at traditional universities are because they ramp up too slowly, cost too much and take too long to finish.
Yet we know that tech jobs are disproportionately filled with white and Asian men and that the tech industry has demonstrated problems hiring and promoting women and ethnic and racial minorities. Like the early days of for-profit colleges’ Wall Street era, the new credentialism promises credentials in high-wage, high-demand jobs that have statistical discrimination baked into them.
New institutions and new credentials are by definition lacking in prestige, the kind of prestige that lower-status workers and students need for their credential to combat discrimination in the labor market. Opening the federal student aid spigot without paying attention to how this ends for the poorest makes us all vulnerable. And turning on the spigot is precisely where we seem to be going.
In 2015, the Education Department launched a pilot program to help people like those boot camp coders use federal student aid money to pay for their programs. Organizations that participate in the program could apply for a special waiver of regulatory and statutory requirements usually associated with gaining access to federal student aid. They didn’t have to offer a degree or a certificate, usually defined by some standard credit hour of attendance, or be accredited. This program -- the Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) -- is said to encourage and reward “entrepreneurialism” in the higher education sector. The impetus? The jobs of the 21st century need mobile workers with specialized skills that employers will not pay for. It is the same pitch that shareholder for-profit colleges made to investors in the 1990s.
The proposed future of higher education looks a lot like the start of the Wall Street era of for-profit college expansion: occupational credentials in narrow fields, paid for through public financing schemes that start with exemplars of high-status white men in high-pay jobs and offer little hope for anyone else. By 2016, we knew how this ended for shareholders of for-profit colleges, but we’ve not yet fully counted the social cost. Meanwhile, one wonders how high student loan defaults, constrained choices, predictably poor job outcomes and negligible upward social mobility for those trapped in Lower Ed serve the public good.
A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the country found just 6 percent of them able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, right?
It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds [of students] do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”
Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker. (They have to be: asking the current resident of the White House about Jacksonian democracy would surely be taken as an invitation to reminisce about his “good friend,” Michael.)
The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On the average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now. The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some quick thumb typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.
How to judge all this is largely a question of temperament -- of whether you see their minds as half-empty or half-full. Tom Nichols conveys the general drift of his own assessment with the title of his new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, published by Oxford University Press. The author is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School.
He sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect. (It may seem comical that I just linked to Wikipedia to explain the effect, but it’s a good article, and in fact David Dunning himself cites it.)
Nichols knows better than to long for a better time before technology shattered our attention spans. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation from 1835: “In most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” This was basic to Jacksonian democracy’s operating system, in which citizens were, Tocqueville wrote, “constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever.”
The difference between a self-reliant, rugged individualist and a full-throated, belligerent ignoramus, in other words, tends to be one of degree and not of kind. (Often it’s a matter of when you run into him and under what circumstances.) Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in The Twilight of the Elites, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.
But Nichols puts much more emphasis on the mutually reinforcing effects of media saturation, confirmation bias and “a childish rejection of authority in all its forms” -- as well as the corrosive effects of credential inflation and “would-be universities” that “try to punch above their intellectual weight for all the wrong reasons, including marketing, money and faculty ego.” Unable to “support a doctoral program in an established field,” Nichols says, “they construct esoteric interdisciplinary fields that exist only to create new credentials.”
Add the effect of consumerism and entertainment on the academic ethos, and the result is a system “in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right,” creating a citizenry that is “undereducated but overly praised” and convinced that any claim to authoritative knowledge may be effectively disputed in the words of the Dude from The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
As a work of cultural criticism,The Death of Expertise covers a good deal of familiar territory and rounds up the usual suspects to explain the titular homicide. But the process itself is often enjoyable. Nichols is a forceful and sometimes mordant commentator, with an eye for the apt analogy, as when he compares the current state of American public life to “a hockey game with no referees and a standing invitation for spectators to rush onto the ice.”
But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)
“The lack of metacognition sets up a vicious loop, in which people who don’t know much about a subject do not know when they’re in over their head talking with an expert on that subject. An argument ensues, but people who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument …. Even more exasperating is that there is no way to educate or inform people who, when in doubt, will make stuff up.”
The implications are grave. In 2015-16, Donald Trump ran what Nichols calls “a one-man campaign against established knowledge,” and he certainly pounded the expertise of most pollsters into the dirt. He is now in a position to turn the big guns on reality itself; that, more than anything else, seems to be his main concern at present. Nichols writes that research on the Dunning-Kruger effect found that the most uninformed or incompetent people in a given area were not only “the least likely to know they were wrong or to know that the others were right” but also “the most likely to try to fake it, and the least able to learn anything.” That has been shown in the lab, but testing now continues on a much larger scale.