Tag: SeeThruEdu

Academics’ Freedom vs. Everyone Else’s

A significant interest of mine is how public elementary and secondary schools—government schools—force diverse people into conflict rather than, as the gauzy mythology tells us, bringing them together. After all, unless people are prepared to ditch deeply held values and opinions about what’s best for their kids, they have no choice but to engage in political (and sometimes actual) combat. And whether it’s over evolution or “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” engage they do.

There is a corollary to this in higher education. All taxpayers are compelled to support colleges and universities, whether through direct aid to institutions or to students. As a result, either taxpayers are forced to support all academic speech—including speech they may find abhorrent—or government must deem some academic speech unacceptable. Either way, government impinges on individual liberty.

The negative consequences of this are not nearly as apparent as in K-12, where values-based conflicts make headlines almost every day. The reason such headlines aren’t nearly as prevalent in higher ed may be because far fewer people have strong connections to the ivory tower.

This is not to say that collisions of taxpayer funding and academic freedom never make a loud bang. When the Ward Churchill “little Eichmanns” situation blew up in 2005, Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately seized on the compelled-support angle, stating that “no one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself. But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado.”

Colorado taxpayers, however, were technically required to pay for Churchill’s “pro-terrorist views.” While academic impropriety—not his 9/11 essay—officially got Churchill canned, the academic accusations were almost certainly brought to the fore by Churchill’s essay-delivered infamy. Indeed, in 2009 a Colorado court concluded that Churchill had, de facto, been improperly let go due to his 9/11 essay, and awarded him $1 in damages. Just this past April, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that Churchill was neither entitled to back pay nor reinstatement.

Did you follow the clear principles guiding all those decisions, by the way? Me neither, but such is the malodorous hash you get when you try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

It is not individual cases, though, through which the death match between taxpayers’ and professors’ rights is most readily revealed. No, it is manifested most concretely in the seemingly endless war between conservatives and the politically correct academy.

There is little question that academia is a battleship of the left. Indeed, as the Higher Education Research Institute just found, its port-side tilt has recently gotten even worse. Conservatives, reasonably, find having to pay for their intellectual enemies disquieting. But the solution often proffered for this—achieving intellectual “balance” or “diversity”—is little better than the status quo.

For one thing, who would be the arbiter of proper balance, especially understanding that peoples’ views are not monolithically liberal or conservative? And even if brilliantly proportioned ideological representation could be achieved, on what grounds could the apolitical be compelled to subsidize it?

The only fully satisfactory solution to the compelled-support problem is to, well, end compelled support of higher education. But there are good, better, and best options for reducing the problem short of complete government withdrawal.

Good: End government subsidies that go directly to schools. These are pure compulsion, with no individual choice involved. It’s basically how we fund elementary and secondary education, the hottest of all culture-war battlefields.

Better: Connect all money to students, though in the form of loans, not grants. That would add a heck of a lot more choice—students would freely choose where to attend—and the decision would ultimately be paid for by the consumer. Of course, taxpayers would have no ability to choose recipients of the loans, so appreciable compulsion would remain.

Best: Move entirely to tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate to organizations providing scholarships—or perhaps even loans—to students at all levels. Donors would choose to donate and students would choose schools. There would still be government influence—your only choices would be to donate or pay taxes—but taxpayers would have the option not to subsidize higher ed at all.

Academic freedom is fantastic if it means academics have freedom from government coercion. But freedom for all is even better, and that requires ending subsidies for higher ed.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Hooray for the Rankings!

The following is cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com, a new blog analyzing higher education:

Heaven knows there are oodles of problems with American higher education – and you’ll get them all thoroughly dissected, diagnosed, and wellness plans delivered at SeeThruEdu – but I want to start my blogging here on a positive note. At least, a relatively positive note: American higher education is way closer to a free market than our moribund elementary and secondary system, and there’s no better sign of that than the oft-maligned U.S. News and World Report college rankings released last week.

Just like higher education generally, the U.S. News rankings have huge problems. Heck, Emory University admitted to having sent inflated SAT and ACT scores, as well as class ranks, to the publication for years. As a result, in the latest rankings Emory moved…not one bit. The school stayed as number 20 among “national universities,” and U.S. News apparently just accepted the data Emory submitted this time based on the school having “confirmed” them. More broadly, the rankings are based far more on inputs such as endowment funds, and dubious academic reputation surveys, than measures of what students actually learn.

But the good news isn’t the perfection of the U.S. News rankings. It’s what their very existence signifies: Higher ed consumers have real power, and institutions are sufficiently independent that they can both compete with one another and specialize in the needs of different students. It’s why not only do the U.S. News rankings exist, they are essentially the magazine’s flagship publication.

And college rankings are hardly restricted to U.S. News. Countless rankings and reviews are out there, giving prospective students and their parents myriad ways to slice and dice their options. No doubt the best of these – because of who’s in charge of them – comes from fellow SeeThruEdu blogger, and higher ed gadfly extraordinaire, Richard Vedder, whose Forbes.com rankings assess schools using alumni success and costs. The Princeton Review will tell you where students have their noses most to the grindstone, or most obscured by beer-filled Solo cups. And the Associated Press just profiled two new entrants, one which ranks schools based on “revealed preference” – which schools students choose when accepted to multiple institutions – and one based on alumni satisfaction. And there are many, many more!

Unfortunately, part of the reason rankings are in such incredible abundance is that there is way too much consumer power in higher ed, if by power we mean money. Basically, students can demand all sorts of extravagant things (I need my massages and water park!) because third-parties –  most notably the federal government – give them wads of cash to do so. Indeed, higher education is massively inefficient as a result of humongous subsidies both directly to schools and to students. But that will be the subject of many, far less giddy posts from me in the future. For now, a bit of a happy note: Hooray for the college rankings! Things in higher education could actually be worse!