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AAUP calls for faculty participation in financial exigency declarations

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Review of Alasdair Roberts, 'Can Government Do Anything Right?'

In 1952, a graduate student in sociology from the University of Chicago named Erving Goffman published a paper in the journal Psychiatry that I reread every few years with deepening respect. It analyzes one seemingly marginal and highly specific kind of person-to-person interaction, then pulls back, like a movie camera, to take in more and more of the terrain of everyday life.

The title, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” uses two pieces of criminal argot resonant of a David Mamet play. A “mark,” in the lexicon of con artists at midcentury, was the target of a swindle. See also: dupe, chump, patsy. No synonyms come to mind for “cooling out,” which is a very specific operation sometimes necessary after the mark has been relieved of money. In a smoothly run con, the mark will accept both the sure-thing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, later, the explanation for why it failed. (The overseas company he invested in was shut down by corrupt officials who confiscated all the funds, for example.) “The mark is expected to go on his way,” as Goffman puts it, “a little wiser and a lot poorer.”

But, on occasion, the victim is left not just unhappy or angry but inclined to involve the police or other authorities. In that case, it becomes necessary to “cool the mark out,” which sounds like a very delicate kind of psychological intervention. For the mark has staked, and lost, not only his money but a good part of his self-image. The con flatters and emboldens the mark’s sense of being shrewd, canny -- able to spot an opportunity and to judge risks. But circumstances have proven otherwise, and left the mark feeling humiliated and vengeful. The cooler is adept at defining “the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home,” says Goffman. He “exercises upon the mark the art of consolation.” Then on to the next con.

Goffman’s paper deftly shifts perspective to reveal the mark as someone in a basic human predicament, facing a bitter fact of social life that nobody, I suppose, escapes entirely. To wit: the experience of finding a gap between what someone believes about themselves and expects others to acknowledge, on the one hand, and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. That happens in an endless variety of ways, from the trivial to the catastrophic; rather than give examples, let me recommend you consult the paper itself. Goffman’s point is many of the jobs, rituals and routines necessary to keep institutions running and personal drama within reasonable limits amount to just so many variations on the theme of “cooling the mark out.”

Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, Goffman’s paper also implies that quite a lot of social life amounts to a series of bunco schemes. It is a perspective once associated with film noir and currently applicable to much of the breaking news from day to day.

But I’ve just come across an unexpected variant of it in Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity) by Alasdair Roberts, who is director of the school of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The overall drift of his answer to the titular question seems to be “Yes, within limits, although admittedly not many people seem to think so, because they either expect too much from it or spend all their time obsessing about the failures.”

There are occasional expressions of cautious optimism: European integration and intra-European peace can continue despite E.U. wobbles; “judged by the number of attacks or the number of deaths, the current wave of terrorism in North America and Western Europe is less severe than that of the 1970s”; the U.S. dedicates “a smaller share of national income to defense than at any point in the Cold War.” For the sake of balance, perhaps, the author also expresses cautious pessimism about economic inequality, climate change and geopolitical rivalries. The search is on for a “new paradigm” in public policy to overcome the excesses of neoliberalism, just as neoliberalism overcame the excesses of the welfare state. In the meantime, things may get unpleasant, but “pragmatism, empiricism and open-mindedness” can and should win in the long term.

Here, then, is centrism at its most anodyne. So it’s a bit startling when, near the end of the book, the author calls government “a sort of confidence trick.” What sort? He explains:

Confidence artists know two kinds of tricks: the “short con,” a quick deception that yields a small reward, and the “long con,” an elaborate ruse that involves many people and plays out over a long time. Government is a long con. The aim is to persuade people that the state is durable and its authority unassailable … If the confidence trick works, leaders benefit, because it discourages resistance to their authority. But the rest of us benefit too. If we do not believe that there is stability and predictability, we are reluctant to make plans and undertake new projects.

So it's an altruistic racket? A con for the marks’ own good? The analogy is offered in an almost bizarrely uncynical tone, and without the critical implications that show around the edges of Goffman's analysis. I'm not sure what to make of it. But one implication comes to mind: it may be a bad idea to put a short-term con artist in charge of a long-term con. For the latter, a cooler is sometimes required. Even the most trusted fixer just won't do.

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The gap between rhetoric and action when it comes to support of diversity in higher ed (opinion)

In 1978, when the Supreme Court heard the landmark Bakke case that permitted race to be considered as one of several factors in higher education admissions, several colleges and universities filed amicus briefs in support of the University of California’s race-conscious policies. The central argument of those briefs was that such policies were needed to correct, in part, the cumulative impact of past discrimination against minority applicants.

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. offered a different perspective. Race-conscious admission policies (though not quotas), he wrote, were a defensible and useful way to achieve racial and cultural diversity on university campuses. All students, not just minority students, stood to benefit from living and learning within diverse communities.

Forty years after Bakke, the consensus around the educational value of diversity is very strong. Colleges and universities, whether large or small, private or public, promote campus diversity as an important part of their mission. Quite a few institutions, especially elite liberal arts colleges in rural areas, try hard to create educationally diverse environments for their students.

Words and images on the websites of hundreds of institutions and of higher education associations attest to the strength of the consensus. The shared message? Students who are educated on diverse campuses, taught by diverse faculties and introduced to culturally diverse curricula will be well prepared to thrive in our multiethnic country and to understand what goes on in the rest of the world.

The message is convincing. In a society segregated de facto by income, race and ethnicity, higher education indeed should provide opportunities for students to trespass the psychological and physical boundaries of their communities and high schools. And it is surely a fine idea to introduce our young people to the history, values and aspirations of the 95 percent of human beings who do not live in the United States. Remarkably, however, the consensus around the educational value of diversity has had little impact on the influential rankings of colleges and universities and on the flow of resources to higher education. There is a wide gap between our proclamations about the educational value of diversity and what we actually do when we counsel college applicants, appropriate public funds for higher education or make private donations.

If our individual and collective actions matched our rhetoric, those institutions that are organically and authentically diverse would move up significantly on our list of preferred destinations for talented students and for public and private funds. Think of public institutions like the City University of New York, both California university systems, the University of Houston and Arizona State University. Think of private universities like Northeastern University in Boston or St. John’s University in New York.

The gap between rhetoric and action remains wide for many reasons. One reason is that we higher education leaders and our supporters subscribe to a scarcity model of higher education. For decades, authors of college rankings, and the high school counselors who follow their lead, have convinced prospective students and their families that there is only so much room at the top of the academic pecking order, the key to social and economic advancement.

Rankings are based on several indicators of institutional vitality and success. Campus diversity usually does make the list of indicators. Yet it trails behind conventional academic indicators, such as enrolled students’ high school grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores, and well behind indicators of institutional wealth, such as endowment dollars per student, faculty salaries and state-of the-art facilities.

At this point in our history, we should celebrate the unprecedented abundance of choices in American higher education, including opportunities to be educated at diverse campuses surrounded by diverse communities. Instead, our attention and resources remain focused on institutions whose high rankings depend in good measure on how many applicants they can afford to reject.

Those selective colleges and universities that benefit from the scarcity model have little incentive to change perceptions and priorities about what matters most in higher education. But leaders of institutions that offer diverse learning environments and are embedded in large and diverse communities should ask three questions.

What happened to the broad consensus reached decades ago about the educational value of diversity? Why, in most rankings, does campus diversity fall well below other indicators? And why the reluctance of legislators and private philanthropists to invest more generously in this country’s most organically and authentic diverse institutions?

Clara M. Lovett is president emerita of Northern Arizona University.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018
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A presidential spouse muses about the current environment for higher education (opinion)

The expanse of prairie stretching beyond our breakfast room window turned out to be an unexpected bonus. A decade ago, when my wife and I bought our house in the Chicago suburbs, curb appeal, room layout and proximity to the university were its major attractions. Sure, the calm, subdued beauty of nature struck me, essentially a city guy, as a pleasant novelty. But I regarded it offhandedly as “nice.” I had no idea how that superficial reaction would change.

My wife, Elaine, president of Governors State University, identifies the location of her campus as “where the prairie meets the city,” which aptly describes the setting of our home, too. At first, I occasionally surveyed the casual opulence spread before me with fleeting appreciation. I did enjoy glimpses of color change accompanying spring rebirth and autumnal retreat. I particularly liked being surprised by the infrequent appearance of a few deer, white tails flicking and heads jerking at any suggestion of danger. Rarely, I’d even spot a coyote slinking through tall grass, a reminder of sorts that generally benign nature contains elements that coexist uneasily. That realization foreshadowed what I came to feel about the culture now enveloping us.

For many, the past year has tested our sense of national direction as well as our expectations for responsible political conduct. Its initial surrealism has largely ceased to shock. The unthinkable has lost its prefix as the plummet from rationality continues.

At first, I kept my growing disaffection to myself, considering it perhaps an overreaction. I’m not, after all, someone generally uncritical about the machinations of government. Soon, however, I found my morose responses to a new normal replicated among many friends and colleagues. Adapting to this incomprehensible new world has required most of us to devise strategies that ease dismay and agitation, at least to some extent.

Mine often involves truly seeing what at first I only looked at: the prairie. Because each part generally contributes to an organized whole, it provides an antidote to encroaching disarray. Almost daily, finishing my coffee before driving to the campus with Elaine, I concentrate on elements like islands of wildflowers, to which category I’ve promoted that maligned “weed,” the dandelion. What I’ve seen helps sustain me when parts of the day scrape against the whole.

I’m glad I have so many visual inspirations, because contributors to my dis-ease exist both nationally and in Illinois. When national politics become temporarily unthinkable, follies of my state fill the angst void, particularly its lamentable policy toward public higher education. Recently, our public institutions endured more than two years without a budget. Somehow, the relationship between funding allocations and achieved value seemed not to occur to many policy makers, who were concerned primarily with enhancing reputations as tightfisted “guardians” of state revenue.

That posturing has ended, at least temporarily. Now we deal with various impacts of their “economies.” At many Illinois public universities, enrollment has dropped as prospective students opt for universities in fiscally responsible states. Some faculty members and key administrators, weary of repetitive financial uncertainties, have sought stability elsewhere. Not to be minimized, deferred maintenance has been deferred and deferred.

Perhaps worst of all, many low-income students have been discouraged entirely from seeking higher education. For the last three years, according to the National Educational Clearing House, 34 percent of prospective freshmen who met qualifications for admission to Governors State University enrolled nowhere -- not out of state, not at private institutions, not at community colleges -- nowhere. The state budget impasse and threats preceding it closed on-ramps to the middle class for those students. Long-term consequences of squandering this potential can’t be calculated.

As a veteran educator myself, I have always believed that the health of the eye does, indeed, require a horizon. Currently, that horizon grows more distant. To endure the agita accompanying this dour situation, I welcome new sources of comfort and perspective renewal.

One recent morning, taking my last look at the prairie, I noticed something I hadn’t observed before. Fastened to a reed that swayed violently in a strong morning wind was a small black-and-yellow bird. It clung tenaciously to its perch despite being buffeted in various directions. Captivated by the minidrama, I delayed leaving. After a minute or so, when gusts abated, the little creature flew off, leaving me to reflect on what I’d just seen.

Knowing virtually nothing about ornithology, I chose to mythologize the episode. I admired what I saw as strength, courage, resilience, balance and, yes, sheer stubbornness in a struggle against adversity. Some deep impulse, I projected, powered the bird to hang on until it could choose the next moment of its life rather than have it imposed by an outside force. Fantasy? So what! Why waste an insight whose time has arrived?

In our political climate, living constructively requires determination not to capitulate to multiple adversities. Surrendering to dejection, and, therefore, retreating morosely to inactivity cedes society to various idiocracies vying to seize control. Resistance to this aggressive takeover doesn’t require melodrama. It can be mustered effectively in the too-often neglected power of voting, which should be exercised without fail nationally, statewide and locally. And that includes in primaries. Numbers of votes, not irrefutable logic and thoughtful vision, command attention from some career-focused lawmakers.

And in social venues, we must rationally but with restraint (a difficult but attainable mix) counter the persistent onslaught of propaganda posing as ideas. Maybe we can help resuscitate the meaning of “news” and help demolish the science-fiction concept of “alternative facts.”

Working to correct our course will be arduous. Recovery from the blindsiding of common sense demands the determination of that bird I chose to imagine willfully resisting the winds. In our particular moment, regular outages of reason threaten an illuminated future. Still, we must actively resolve that good sense, for the most part, will ultimately be restored.

And “nowhere” cannot be accepted as an educational option. With the restoration of a regular state budget, applications for Governors State University’s next fall freshman class have increased by 15 percent. Like my avian model, we must, in all ways imaginable, actively help shape our destinies and make sure that universities remain places of hope.

Mort Maimon is a retired educator, a writer and a dedicated campus volunteer. His wife, Elaine P. Maimon, is president of Governors State University.

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