Will college students turn out to vote on Nov. 8? That’s a question we hear often, as stewards of the largest study on college student voting in the United States. Today, 18 million students attend American colleges and universities, and while quite a bit can happen over the next week, here’s what we know so far, as well as some advice for what we think should be happening on campuses now and, as importantly, after Election Day.
If 2012 and 2014 offer foreshadowing, college students may not turn out to vote at the same rates as older voters. Of the 8.5 million college and university students in our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, only 45 percent voted in 2012. Less so younger students: only 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-old students voted in 2012. In 2014, the proportion dropped by more than half -- to 13 percent. Our Tisch College of Civic Life colleagues, CIRCLE, reported that 2014 had the lowest turnout of both college and noncollege youth in 40 years. This dip may reflect a downward trend.
But this year could be different. In 2015, almost 60 percent of first-year students surveyed by the Higher Education Research Institute said there is a “very good chance” that they will vote while in college. This fall, the Harvard Institute of Politics released polling results indicating that 63 percent of young people polled would vote. Last week, CIRCLE released data from its pre-election poll of millennials. Of the 288 college students (ages 18 to 34) surveyed, 76 percent identified themselves as “very or extremely likely to vote.” This is reminiscent of the primaries, when college students turned out for Bernie Sanders. And young people are paying “a lot” or “some” attention to the election.
Technical barriers to voting -- misunderstanding of laws allowing students to vote locally, hostility or reticence on the part of local election officials, restrictive voter identification laws, long lines at the polls and transportation concerns -- affect turnout. Students also face motivational barriers. Candidates, parties or partisan organizations are not contacting young people at levels commensurate with other age groups. Research suggests that this kind of contact informs and motivates voters. Indeed, Donald Trump’s message that the system is “rigged,” that Clinton is corrupt and that voting would be a tacit acceptance of an illegitimate system may deter some student voters.
At Furman University, students were upset by low turnout reflected in their NSLVE voting report, so they did some investigating. They discovered that local election officials were requiring Furman students living in dormitories to complete a questionnaire asking them for evidence of ties to the local community (such as where they socialize or attend church). Several students sued the local election officials and obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting the use of such screening.
Despite such signs, we worry that registered students won’t show up to vote. While other research based on survey responses suggests that more than 80 percent of Americans who register to vote actually do vote, our study, which is based on merged enrollment and publicly available voting records, tells a different story for college students. In 2012, only 63 percent of students aged 18 to 24 who registered to vote actually voted. This suggests a drop-off of interest or commitment in the weeks before, or even the day of, the election.
Elections offer opportunities for students to establish habits of productive political discourse and enthusiasm for political activism and engagement, behaviors that should continue year-round, beyond an election season. While colleges and universities cannot endorse one candidate over another, they can offer learning experiences that examine the candidates’ policy proposals and perspectives.
Colleges and universities should not be impartial about student learning for and participation in democracy. Cultivating students for responsible stewardship of public affairs is a critical and longstanding part of higher education’s academic mission. A broken system with unpopular candidates will only be reformed by increased public participation, particularly for young people who may be disaffected but who have the most at stake.
Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. NSLVE is both a service to colleges and universities -- providing more than 900 institutions nationally with tailored reports containing their students’ voter registration and voting rates -- and a database of 8.5 million student records, which is used to study college student political learning and engagement in democracy. If you have a story to share about how your institution is fostering political learning and engagement in the democracy, please share it at email@example.com. IDHE may feature it in an upcoming publication. You can also follow IDHE on Twitter @TuftsIDHE.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics. While he wasn’t speaking specifically about governing boards, his quotation is apt. How well prepared is your board for the future, predictable or not?
Boards must work concurrently across three points of time: past, present and future. The oversight work of boards by definition is historical. Boards look to the past to understand how well the college, university or state system is performing against plans and goals. Events happen in the past that the board reviews. Did we meet our institutional objectives this past year? How accurate was the budget projection, or were there shortfalls or overages? Did the institution hit its enrollment goals?
Boards also live in the present. How is the university responding to a crisis, such as student protests, or how well is it addressing pressing issues, such as the employment conditions of adjunct faculty? What are the financial costs of a new tuition and aid policy?
Finally, boards must work in the future. They approve a five-year strategic plan, for example. But they also are stewards of the university and long-term guardians of its mission, looking well into the future. It is this third area that is most difficult, given the flux in which most colleges, universities and state systems find themselves.
While it is impossible to “futureproof” a board, assessing its strengths and potential vulnerabilities can go a long way toward ensuring that it is prepared for what’s ahead. Such assessments give board leaders and the administrators a sense of the board’s strengths and the areas where it is potentially vulnerable, and can provide a road map for improvement.
We know that boards vary in their level of functioning, in the scope of their work and in their level of sophistication. Governance is rarely uniform, and different boards will find some approaches resonate more with them than others. But here are some general ideas you might consider to help your board be prepared for the future.
Certain key fundamentals support governance, and most boards should already have these in place. But some boards lack these elements and, without a firm foundation, will struggle to address future challenges.
The board chair and institutional president should easily answer the following questions, which are intended to help a board determine a baseline of its effectiveness.
Are there written expectations for trustees?
Are there mechanisms for orienting new board members?
Are board members asked to prepare for board meetings so they can contribute to the discourse? (For example, are key documents sent out 10 to 14 days in advance?) Do board members actually prepare for meetings?
Do board members physically attend all meetings, with rare exceptions? How many join by phone? And how many simply don’t show up?
Is it possible to tell what is most important for the institution by looking at the board agenda?
Does the board have a set agenda, and is it designed to promote discussion and debate about the most pressing issues?
Has the board (or a board subcommittee) reviewed the board bylaws within the last five years?
Boards need to know where they are performing well, where they have blind spots and where they might need to improve. As they discuss their ability to navigate the whitewater ahead, boards may wish to consider the following:
Time spent on meaningful issues. There are many complex issues to address and time is limited, so a board must spend it effectively and efficiently. Does the board have clear goals and objectives for each meeting? To what extent do discussions allow it to explore complicated topics? Is the meeting efficient? Does the board take the necessary time to deliberate important issues? Does it have the information it needs to govern well?
The use of board member talent and knowledge. Board members should be intentionally selected or invited to participate based on their talents, skill sets, knowledge and ability to work well together. To what extent is the board composed of diverse thinkers? Are the areas of expertise that the institution needs reflected in the various members of the board? How well does the board tap into the collective wisdom of its members? Does the board work together as a high-performing team? Does the board add value?
The relationship between the board and the president. The board-president relationship is complex, in part because of the multiple roles involved: the board oversees the president as boss, serves as a strategic thought partner and is also a coach. Does the board play these three roles well, or is it predisposed to one type of work over the others? Does the board regularly and effectively evaluate the president? Does the board listen to the president? Is there mutual trust, respect and accountability? Is there open, two-way communication and transparency?
Board integrity. The board should evaluate its sense of integrity as well as that of the president and college, university or system. Does the board have the capacity to ensure that both it and the institution or system it oversees are operating within the boundaries of applicable laws? Does the board have and uphold a conflict-of-interest policy? How transparent is the board in its decision making? Does the board maintain confidentiality?
Board member satisfaction. It is important to understand the extent to which board members believe their work has a positive impact, their level of overall satisfaction with the board, and the degree to which they find the experience rewarding. After all, these roles are voluntary. And boards want to ensure they are getting the most from their volunteers.
Other categories of possible assessment include the participation and engagement of board members, the effectiveness of board education, and the depth of board knowledge.
Furthermore, boards can assess performance in a number of ways. One approach is to look at simple yet potentially powerful questions as presented in a two-by-two matrix defined by frequency and value or impact.
Finally, to understand how well it is prepared for the future, the board should assess its culture. While it is important to understand if the board carries out its functions effectively, it is equally important to ask how the board does what it does. Its beliefs and ways of working and engaging are passed on to new trustees and can become deeply engrained, often without examination. The group itself becomes the “invisible director,” as Clayton Alderfer astutely noted 30 years ago (Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1986) of the influence it can exert.
Effective governance demands that board members ask two questions: To what extent do we have the right board culture, given: 1) the work we have to do, and 2) the context in which we are working?
A board must also confront two challenges when assessing group culture. The first is to make something that is often invisible to those people immersed in it observable (“fish don’t know they’re in water”). The second is to find a shared language to describe culture in ways that can become actionable. This is difficult work and something with which boards and other groups have long struggled. We have designed a board culture self-assessment that accomplishes both of these. For more information, see the Penn AHEAD or Trower & Trower websites. Organizational culture is a complex phenomenon and difficult to describe succinctly and consistently. Without agreement about what one is seeking and a strategy to do that, boards will struggle on this dimension.
While it is important to assess the dimensions described here at the board level, board leaders should also identify variances within a board, because understanding the differences that exist across board members may be even more telling. How cohesive is the board and its culture? Do people have vastly different assessments of their experience, the board culture or how well the board is working? Do those differences vary by a trustee’s length of service, gender, race/ethnicity or membership on a specific committee?
Finally, boards can conduct the assessments themselves, but they may be better served by having outside experts help craft questions and make sense of the results. People with fresh eyes who are able to call things as they see them can help surface assumptions and keep blind spots in check. (Remember that reference to the fish and water?)
“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said Yogi Berra. Ensuring that your board is ready for that future begins with an understanding of where it is today.
Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Matt Hartley, associate dean and professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at Widener University, also contributed to the ideas in this article.
Assessing students’ learning against desired outcomes in their degree programs -- that is, determining what students can actually do at the end of their studies -- is a controversial but established practice at most, if not all, colleges and universities today. Armed with such data, faculty members and administrators can work together to make changes they hope will improve student success.
Given how universities thus operate today, it makes sense that intercollegiate athletics programs, which are only justifiable on our campuses if they can offer significant learning experiences, should also be assessed for their educational impact beyond students’ grade point averages, academic progress rates and graduation success rates. Doing so would be consistent with the written mission statements of our institutions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. As in the rest of academe, it seems important to discover where athletics programs are successful, or not, in order to identify problems and implement possible solutions.
How would colleges and universities go about this? Well, first, of course, they would need to clearly specify the intended learning outcomes resulting from students participating in intercollegiate athletics. To do this, an institution might begin by looking for performance improvements on outcome variables traditionally cited as reasons for offering students participation opportunities in sports. For example, an institution might choose to measure the extent that athletics builds and teaches character; good sportsmanship; teamwork; health, physical fitness and safety; social skills; the necessity of hard work and perseverance to achieve success; and so on. All of these should be guided, in principle, by the university’s educational mission, as embodied in its formal mission statement.
Once the institution identifies the best possible student learning outcomes, faculty members and administrators could then devise the soundest possible methods to measure how student-athletes perform vis-à-vis the specified learning outcomes. They would also, of course, have to make decisions about how often to measure students’ performance other than at the beginning and end of the program.
After the students’ learning outcomes have been measured, the institution should then implement any necessary changes to the program to generate higher achievement. For example, if the outcomes data signal that students’ performance against intentions is poor, it would then need to devise and implement changes to increase students’ success.
Now, to help make the point here, and just for discussion purposes, let’s imagine that a sampling of the final learning outcomes data for student-athletes at your university indicate that:
A significant number of them were recruited having a strong sense of exaggerated entitlement that was reinforced and perhaps strengthened during the time they were athletes at the university. An example of how this possible learning outcome has been measured is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s survey research on student-athlete social environments.
A large and possibly systemic graduation gap exists between certain demographic groups of student-athletes. Outcomes on this issue have been measured and widely reported, in summary and by university, in a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Student-athletes have maintained completely unrealistic expectations about a possible future professional athletic career. An example of how data on this outcome variable have been collected would be the NCAA’s sponsored GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience.
Coaches have taught them by example that a “my way or the highway” style of leadership is the best way to work with, manage and control people. To measure this imagined outcome, personal interviews with athletes, coaches and administrators or surveys might provide insight into what participants have learned about leadership and leading from their coaches. Surveys that might be used or adapted for these purposes already exist in the social sciences.
Experience has taught them to act as though the ends (e.g., athletic directors and coaches who lose enough games will certainly get fired, and winning is thus the only thing that matters) fully justify the means (e.g., performance-enhancing drug use and other forms of breaking and bending the rules are OK, even sometimes necessary for winning, as long as one doesn’t get caught). As in the previous example, carefully designed personal interviews or surveys can offer insight into student-athletes’, coaches’ and administrators’ values and ethics as they prepared for winning intercollegiate athletics competitions.
A significant percentage of students had suffered predictable brain injuries and potential long-term brain damage in the course of their participation in college football. To provide measurement on these outcome variables, there is a great deal of data collection underway, and a number of studies now getting published, that are asking tough questions about the nature and effects of being concussed, as well as the effects of repeated nonconcussive body blows on brain health. The results of this growing body of research are increasingly troublesome.
Obviously, no institution would be happy about receiving such imagined, and in some cases unconscionable, results -- particularly if it is clear, and feels strongly enough about, what educational benefits it intends for the students who are competing as athletes in its name and is committed to its mission.
Perhaps it is thus time that our colleges and universities, concerned about their integrity and responsibilities as educational institutions, begin to formally and transparently assess what students are actually learning and otherwise gaining as participants in the sports programs offered by our athletics departments -- this, of course, within the larger realities of the current intercollegiate athletics system. That system, largely driven by dollars at the all-important business level these days, and the desire to earn or keep an athletic scholarship or develop the abilities to play professionally at the student level, also includes and inspires sports programs for prospective athletes beginning in their youth and continuing through high school.
In this effort, assessing the educational benefits of student participation in intercollegiate athletics should prove to be a natural extension of the assessment policies and procedures already in place to meet the various accreditation and other (e.g., current and potential NCAA) mandates. I would hope that all universities would be willing to take on this additional work because, first, that will correct a significant oversight by assessing what student-athletes learn by participating in their sports and then by “closing the loop” to improve student learning. Second, it will allow institutions to recognize the urgent need to limit or eliminate, to the extent possible, very tangible threats to their integrity. Such threats have been made all too real by the commercial risks and excesses, academic scandals, Title IX issues, and other concerns associated with intercollegiate athletics programs.
It thus seems, at least to me, that as institutionally sponsored avocational educational activities, college sports, within the larger context of student-athletes’ more important nonsports academic work, clearly need to be subject to the same rigorous assessment processes as all of our other academic programs.
We should fully appreciate and consider our students’ participation in intercollegiate athletics as an extracurricular educational activity, and as such an important part of their collegiate learning and growth experiences. If we do so, our institutions, the athletics conferences and the NCAA might then be willing to accept whatever difficult changes faculty members and administrators, working together, decide need to be made to the system to bring our athletics programs into better compliance with our foundational educational missions -- and ultimately the public trust we serve.
Michael G. Bowen is a member of the marketing department faculty at the University of South Florida and serves as chair of the steering committee for the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization representing elected faculty governance bodies in activities related to the administration and governance of intercollegiate athletics.
Submitted by Tom Kalil on October 24, 2016 - 3:00am
Students in Society
Imagine a world in which clean energy is cheaper than coal, safe drinking water is accessible and affordable to everyone on the planet, and no child goes to bed hungry. Imagine a world where we have vaccines for AIDS, TB and malaria, and effective treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Imagine a society where everyone has anytime, anywhere access to the highest-quality learning opportunities. Imagine a future in which astronauts venture out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.
These and other similarly ambitious goals are within reach -- particularly if we inspire and empower the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to imagine and embrace them. Today’s change makers have access to knowledge and resources that would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago, such as access to virtually unlimited computing resources and the ability to use online platforms to crowdsource funding and expertise from around the world. How can our educational institutions offer the learning opportunities that will inspire these change makers?
One of the scholars that President Obama met with was Michaela Rikard, a biomedical engineering student at North Carolina State University. She’s interested in developing new medical therapies that are personalized, affordable and readily available worldwide. She’s already conducted research to use nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer, and has worked with the military to help soldiers suffering from amputation complications.
This interest in Grand Challenges is not limited to the STEM disciplines. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to address major societal challenges such as ending homelessness and family violence.
Given the growing interest among colleges and universities in addressing real-world problems, the time is right to identify the elements of an all-hands-on-deck effort to motivate, prepare and empower young people to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, at home and abroad. For example:
Colleges and universities could provide students with more opportunities for course work and experiential learning that is focused on problems, drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines. This fall, Stanford University is offering a Hacking for Diplomacy course that allows students to work on global problems such as the Syrian refugee crisis, countering violent extremism and fighting illegal fishing. Many other universities are interested in replicating this course and a similar course called Hacking for Defense. Government agencies can support these efforts by providing funding and identifying important problems.
Colleges and universities could target some of their federal work-study funds to allow students to work on real-world problems that they and their institutions care about. Students could be challenged to write their own job description and find a company or nonprofit organization that would be interested in hosting them.
Researchers and practitioners could collaborate on the design and dissemination of online courses and open educational resources that are problem focused and help students develop and hone some of the skills they will need to be effective change makers in the public or private sectors. For example, the World Bank has created a set of online short courses that help learners understand a particular problem (for example, understanding the impact of climate change in developing countries) or a problem-solving methodology (using public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure or involving citizens in the formulation of public policy).
Foundations and philanthropists could provide scholarships so that these opportunities are available to low-income students and underrepresented minorities.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy would like to hear from you about what your institution is doing to inspire and empower the next generation of change makers. What new actions is it taking to encourage college and university students to solve important real-world problems? What other actions should the public and private sectors take to prepare future change makers? Please share your views at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Kalil is deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
This past summer, members of the Organization of American Historians received an email titled “An easy way to protect yourself and your job.” A targeted advertisement, the email offered OAH members the chance to join K-12 teachers and affiliates of other academic associations in applying for professional liability insurance at a discounted rate.
As a news article published by Inside Higher Ed described, this type of solicitation raises a number of important questions. Is such coverage necessary? Are policies like the ones advertised a good investment? Why do organizations like the OAH sponsor these plans?
Those are important questions, but as historians of insurance, risk, labor and capitalism, we believe we must also think critically about the risks that professional liability plans are designed to manage and the political dimensions associated with the sale of such policies. In particular, we have found that private liability coverage shifts the burden of managing risk from the institution to individuals. Moreover, the privatization of on-the-job protections can threaten collective organizing and shared governance in higher education.
The Problem of Precarity
The state of faculty members at colleges and universities is clearly precarious. At best, tenure-track positions offer the possibility of long-term job security, a reasonable teaching load and contracts that guarantee certain rights and benefits. For adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, however, where the next paycheck will come from is an uncertainty that must be navigated on a term-to-term or year-to-year basis.
As temporary employees, faculty members have good reason to be afraid. Their jobs are insecure, they have access to limited resources and they cannot trust the institutions they work for to protect them. Nor can they trust their own students -- at least according to insurance marketing -- since each one is a potential legal adversary. Regardless of whether or not a hyperlitigious environment prevails in higher education, private insurance sold on an individual basis is a palliative to such concerns.
If faculty members do indeed face systematic liability problems, then these problems deserve a systematic response. Taking out insurance policies as individuals will not eradicate precarity in higher education. In fact, the expansion of privatized security mechanisms might even make such problems worse. Professional liability insurance implicitly asserts that individual instructors should be treated as isolated defendants in workplace matters.
The Politics of Private Insurance
We must assert a basic premise: all insurance is political. Insurance redistributes resources, dictates responsibility and creates and determines the collective bodies through which risk is managed. Americans have become accustomed to thinking about Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as programs that have social impacts and are thus worthy of public discussion and debate. Private insurance should demand similar political attention.
Private insurance in the United States has always coexisted with other sources of security. These have included extended kinship networks, mutual aid organizations, fraternal societies, unions and, more recently, federal and state governments. While private insurance can work in partnership with those institutions, insurance companies’ pursuit of profit means that the issuers of private policies have different motives than those of more representative, noncommercial security providers.
Many Americans imagine insurance as a highly technical industry that deals rationally with objective facts and statistical data. When it comes to marketing, however, insurers regularly appeal to our subjective selves. They invoke fear and depict the world as uncertain and unsafe. For the past half century, insurance companies in America have sold their product as a means to self-sufficiency and independence, and an option that responsible individuals choose in order to demonstrate foresight.
In that context, it should come as no surprise that the uninsured and those covered by public security programs are depicted as dependent and irresponsible. Those who are capable of purchasing private insurance are seen as deserving of security, while those who cannot afford such luxuries (those most in need of security) are not.
Advertisements like the one in question sell an easy route to “peace of mind.” But they also sell a vision of a prudent self who takes control of an uncertain environment by capably managing her own risks. The individualization of risk -- the notion that we are each responsible for ourselves and not to each other -- is a central tenet of neoliberal cost-cutting. In respect to preserving academic freedom, shared governance and the right to collective organization, academics have understandably resisted policies that would isolate them as employees. Private liability insurance that encourages educators to go it alone should be viewed with like-minded suspicion.
Our point here is not to accuse the OAH and other professional academic associations that offer members similar plans of perpetrating a scam. But questions of intention and transparency should accompany any solicitation that bears what appears to be the tacit endorsement of a private, commercial product.
The OAH, in numerous other forums, has rightfully endeavored to facilitate discussions among faculty members, graduate students and adjuncts concerning what can be done to better the situation of historians who are the most vulnerable workers. Participants in those conversations have emphasized the role that self-governance can play, whether through unions or other means, in allowing faculty members to determine what protections and rights they need and deserve.
Whether or not the OAH is heartened by the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are indeed workers, and therefore allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining, is unclear. No email was sent to members articulating this one way or the other. That is in line with the OAH’s general stance that it is an association dedicated to professionalization, access to resources and advocacy for history as a discipline and field of inquiry. If OAH members want to take this stance they can vote to do so as a body, or issue such a statement on the level of committee.
But that is the very point about which we hope to raise critical awareness. Personal liability insurance is political, even if it comes in a commercial guise. It conditions educators to identify risk as something that needs to be managed individually. It encourages employees, consonant with other trends, to accept that “employment at will” means they cannot rely on colleges and universities to stand by them in circumstances where they are held liable for performing their jobs.
Finally, there is something ironic about an association like the OAH sponsoring insurance for supplemental purchase, as a service to be potentially rendered, in order to contend with problems that stem from the increased tendency of students to view their education as coming with consumer rights. One of the instances that Forrest T. Jones and Company, the policy provider, cites as an example of a paid-out claim involves a civil suit that a student brought against a professor after being placed on academic probation, resulting in the student’s dismissal. All parties involved might have been better served by an arrangement where such disputes are governed first and foremost by review boards comprised of students, faculty members, administrators and other stakeholders. If contractualism must prevail, let it be on the level of arbitration clauses that operate as preconditions of enrollment and employment. Let both plaintiffs and defendants be responsible to their peers.
Better Paths to Security
All instructors should feel entitled to seek out protections from the institutions that employ them, and, in the language of the advertisement in question, aim to obtain a “relaxed” state of mind. But we would certainly advocate for a path to security that travels through collective measures like unions and other efforts to achieve shared governance. Even in the absence of union representation, employers should take the lead in managing liability, if for no other reason than to ensure that their instructors do not sacrifice critical teaching practices out of fear of being sued. Asking individual faculty members to go it alone, and to assess their own professional liability on a case-by-case basis, is at best a Band-Aid to the current state of precarity. No educator should have to purchase from a private company protections that they should be guaranteed through employment.
Caley Horan is an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.
This is a story about a story. A story that might be worth millions of dollars. It’s also a cautionary tale for academics who dream of writing best-selling books.
One day in early 1999, I found myself awaiting the retrieval of books in the main reading room of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. I was completing the research for my doctorate in history at Georgetown University. Passing the time by strolling through the alcoves circling the giant room, my eye caught the spines of a group of slim volumes resting on a shelf. They were a series of oral histories compiled by the LA84 Foundation, an organization assembled by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee that was tasked with, among other things, providing scholars and students with historical materials related to the Olympic Games. One volume contained an interview with Gordon Adam, a member of the University of Washington’s gold medal-winning crew team in Berlin in 1936. Having been a collegiate oarsman, I started reading Adam’s story.
It was riveting. Adam grew up poor on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. He worked at a salmon-canning factory in Alaska to make enough money for college and then enrolled at the University of Washington in the depths of the Depression. He decided to try rowing -- at the time a major intercollegiate sport -- and in his oral interview, he told a marvelous tale of how he and his teammates topped Eastern Ivy League competition for the right to represent the United States in Berlin. He recalled traveling to Europe, his impressions of Nazi Germany and seeing Hitler at the opening ceremony. He finished by describing his crew’s stirring come-from-behind victory over Italian and German crews in a very tight race.
Although that oral history had nothing to do with my dissertation or research, I knew I’d stumbled upon a great story. Global in scope, cinematic in its drama, this story -- I felt strongly -- would sell. I copied the oral history on the library Xerox machine, tucked it away in a file, and told myself someday I would research and compose a book on it.
Life moved on. I finished the dissertation, accepted a visiting assistant professor position and gained a tenure-track job. I focused on securing tenure by publishing my scholarship on radio and journalism history in top journals. I also worked on improving my teaching and agreed to enough service commitments to fill up my time. All the while, however, I kept gathering material on that 1936 crew team. I “collected string,” as they say in journalism.
The University of Washington put me in touch with surviving members of the crew, some of whom I interviewed, and I discovered the original CBS recording of the race broadcast at the Paley Center for the Media. I contacted Dan Raley, one of the last sports editors of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for more information on the crew, and he generously shared his materials and thoughts.
Then I received tenure, and I started to seriously pursue the book. I wrote a book proposal, a sample chapter, a magazine-length version of the story and even a 750-word op-ed about this incredible Olympic moment. I never considered composing the story as a dry academic or scholarly tome. Nor did I have literary pretension. Rather, I wanted to bring the story alive and engage the public journalistically, reporting the facts interspersed with the words and voices of the Olympians themselves. The story, it appeared to me, required little embellishment.
Crickets. I pitched the material everywhere. I actually had started pitching it as a book proposal and magazine article even before I got tenure, using the news peg of the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games. I tailored my approaches to every kind of outlet as precisely as possible. For example, I pitched the story to the Chronicle Review, emphasizing how impoverished Depression-era college kids used intercollegiate athletics to learn about the world. But my magazine article pitches were either rejected or ignored by Slate, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, the New York TimesMagazine and elsewhere. In fact, my version of the story was continually and consistently turned down as an extended essay, a newspaper column and a book proposal by numerous editors, literary agents and publishers. I got almost no feedback. I stopped counting rejections when they passed 60.
Still, I refused to give up. In 2012, with the London Olympics on the horizon, I again pitched the story everywhere. Josh Levin, an editor at Slate, liked it. He published it as “Six Minutes in Berlin” and made it the centerpiece of their 2012 London Olympic coverage. The article exploded on the web, lasting four days as Slate’s most-read feature, generating a long comment thread and thousands of social media recommendations.
Emails flooded in. Literary agents that had previously rejected the book proposal now inquired whether I would be interested in representation. One major publisher that explicitly prohibits the submission of unsolicited manuscripts wrote and asked me to send the book manuscript.
Then, just as quickly, silence. It turned out that, one year before, Viking Press had inked an enormous deal with an author named Daniel James Brown to write the story of the 1936 crew. That book, titled The Boys in the Boat, came out in 2013 and remains near the top of the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list as of this writing. Brown’s book tells the story of Joe Rantz, one of the rowers, and the significant investment by Brown’s publisher in the success of The Boys in the Boat made others reluctant to take on a competing project.
An important New York literary agent told me as much over the telephone. The publishing industry, he explained, was under enormous economic stress. The book trade was getting slaughtered, he said, and big publishing had essentially evolved into a cartel (my word, not his). Publishers simply could not compete with each other by bidding competitively for the same stories, and once Brown got his contract, any chance I had of publishing “Six Minutes in Berlin” as a book had evaporated. No major publisher would waste their time or resources undercutting another major publisher’s list.
That was bad enough. But then The Boys in the Boat came out, and much to my surprise, my interviews with two oarsmen were cited by Brown. I only shared transcripts with the oarsmen themselves -- coxswain Bob Moch and Jim McMillin -- both of whom had died in 2005, before Brown met Joe Rantz or began his research. Somehow copies -- the only ones I shared -- ended up in Brown’s hands. He and his publishers undoubtedly knew I was working on my own book because of the publication of “Six Minutes in Berlin” in Slate in 2012. The interviews proved remarkably illustrative of occurrences in the boat during both the national championship and the Olympic gold medal races, and it disturbed me greatly to see information I had collected published elsewhere without my permission.
The Boys in the Boat is a good book, but it’s not history. It’s not the book I would have written. It’s peppered with inaccuracies and embellishments. One of the reasons my manuscript took so long to compose was that I possess a doctorate in history, and verifying information by cross-referencing sources requires an enormous amount of time. In other words: accuracy matters. I’m not bothered by the slight copy-editing errors that pop up in The Boys in the Boat that are endemic to any manuscript -- such as when Cornell University, not Columbia University, is inaccurately credited with victory in the first Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta.
But I am disturbed that inaccuracy and embellishment is apparently acceptable when writing history for popular audiences. For example, Brown offers this dramatic opening to the race broadcast: “At 9:15 a.m., the voice of NBC’s commentator, Bill Slater, began to crackle over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle, relayed from Berlin.” But according to NBC’s records in the Library of Congress and numerous other sources, Bill Slater was in London that evening preparing to cover the next day’s White City track meet featuring Jesse Owens. The rowing final in Berlin actually started at 9:02 a.m. Seattle time, and anybody tuning in to NBC would have missed it because the network widely publicized the wrong starting time in newspapers around America. Only those people tuning to CBS would have caught this Olympic exclusive. Yet these facts don’t deter Brown. “NBC’s Bill Slater was screaming over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle,” he informs his audience at a particularly dramatic moment in the race narrative. This did not occur.
A lot of ink has been spilled recently about the need for academics to write for wider audiences. Much of the criticism presumes that academics prefer to write and speak in impenetrable rhetoric designed to limit communication to only people initiated in the cloistered world of scholarly interchange. I don’t doubt that this problem exists. But many critics have no idea how many scholars -- like myself -- have attempted to write for wider audiences but found ourselves blocked by gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Although I’ve published numerous essays and newspaper columns for wide public readership, and I believe my book proposal proved my ability to deliver clear, serviceable -- and even engaging -- prose, no publisher took a gamble on this first-time author coming out of academe.
This story, however, might have a happy ending. Although Daniel James Brown has a best seller and the revenues from his movie deal for The Boys in the Boat, I continued pursuing my project. I reshaped my manuscript to more closely align with academic standards and fit the constraints of scholarly publication. I then sent it out to academic publishers.
Obviously, Brown’s best seller significantly damaged the trade market for “Six Minutes in Berlin.” But the University of Illinois Press responded positively to the parts of my manuscript about Olympic broadcasting. No single volume exists on the birth of global sports broadcasting as developed by Nazi radio authorities. If I were willing to interweave this larger story about global telecommunication history into the narrative of the rowers, who gained brief national celebrity from their victory, they told me they would be interested. But I needed to satisfy peer reviewers and severely limit the word count. The first peer reviews proved encouraging, and a contract was signed. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month.
But I won’t make a million dollars.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Inside Higher Ed reached out to the publisher and author of The Boys in the Boat for a response to this piece, and they had no comment.
Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month by University of Illinois Press.
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.