Government Versus Private

George Leef at NRO Corner is trying to get you to read an article at at the Martin Center.  He starts out with this:

It isn’t easy for any private institution to survive when it has to compete with government-funded institutions. That’s very much the case when it comes to private schools.

We suppose we could give George extra credit for the word easy.  It isn’t easy to compete with other private institutions either.  As we see it, it is easier to compete with government-funded institutions.  Federal Express and UPS seem to be doing fine.  Yale, Stanford, and Hillsdale seem to be doing just fine.

The difference between private institutions and government-funded ones is that the former can go bankrupt while the latter get many more chances to survive.  Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency is a wonderful fictional account of how a government agency survives.  It is easier to compete with government-funded institutions because they don’t have an incentive to change.  Their centralized decision making process also makes it difficult for them to change.

What is true is that a poorly run government-funded school is more likely to survive than a poorly run or underfunded private school.  We think that is the advantage of private institutions.  We think George should appreciate that.


Student Decision Making

We previously discussed Barbara Oakley’s article in the WSJ about attracting students to STEM.  Her discussion ties into our expertise as we spent 40 years teaching and during that time advising was one of our specialities as a faculty member, internship advisor, and department chair.  There is another paragraph that deserves discussion.

Even when a professor isn’t working to recruit Sara to the social sciences or humanities, she might be recruiting herself. Grades mean something; if Sara’s working hard to get a C in calculus, but she earns an A in English with less effort, she’s going to experience a powerful pull toward the humanities.

There are three assertions here.  The first one is that grades are less inflated in math than English.  We agree.  Part of that is because so large a percentage of math student contact hours are requirements for other programs. It might not be true at every university but it has been true where we have been.  We often hear requiring a math course as a way to increase student quality.  It was a big discussion point in our college when we considered eliminating the calculus requirement.

The second point is that students suffer from what accountants and others call functional fixation.   In this case, students don’t know that an A in English is easy to obtain [it isn’t easy for us] and a C in calculus might be a better accomplishment.  We are not convinced.  Students are generally well informed about the relative difficulty of courses.

Sidebar: Finance for accounting majors was often an exception.  The core finance course is fairly difficult for the average student in the business school.  Students hear in the dorm that finance is a bear.  And it often is for the average student.  But accounting majors have different background and interest from the average student.  Thus, they usually do quite well in finance.  End Sidebar

The third implication (and it is tied to the second) is that students like easy courses and especially easy courses with easy grades.  We have heard this often in discussions about student evaluation of instruction or SEI.  We think that interactions overwhelm the main effects here.  Of course, there are all kinds of students.  Some are lazy, some are crazy, and other we can’t understand but we think we understand the tendancies.  Most students want the easy course that will fill the science requirement because they want to focus elsewhere.  Most students are willing to work hard in courses they see as useful to them.  Most major courses are seen as useful.  SEI scores are rarely highly correlated with grades or level of work.  Students don’t like courses they perceive as unfair or faculty members they see a playing favorites.

We are going to change Barbara’s example a little.  We have observed many students that have preferred a hard B in accounting to an easier A in other disciplines in the business school.  When we were chair the accounting faculty give the lowest grades in the college but the accounting students got the highest grades in the college.  We are not sure if it is still true but it provides evidence that students are not turned off by hard work.

Women, STEM, And Accounting

Barbara Oakley in the WSJ asks:

Why do relatively few women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

She is responding to an article by Stuart Reges (here) that she summarizes as:

University of Washington lecturer Stuart Reges —in a provocative essay, “Why Women Don’t Code”—suggests that women’s verbal and analytical skills lead to career choices outside STEM. Mr. Reges’s critics say he is making women feel inferior by implying they aren’t interested in tech. I’m a female engineering professor with decades of experience as well as a background in the humanities and social sciences, so perhaps I can lend some perspective to the controversy.

She thinks there is a missing parameter, professor influence.  Barbara says:

Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.

Barbara is absolutely right but also incomplete.  We were convinced in our first university-wide committee that faculty in the other colleges resented the business college.  If that wasn’t enough, later one dean suggested that if we came into the building that housed his college that a bullet-proof vest was in order.  We suspect that Barbara is just being kind.

Barbara is right that professors influence students against majors.  As department chair we have brought two departmental colleagues on the carpet for negative comments about majors other than accounting.   She forgets, however, that faculty influence students towards majors.  Students often change their majors in college and faculty have a big influence on those changes.

Sidebar: There is also cultural influences.  Everybody is cheering on women in STEM.  We don’t really need to list all those movies and books do we?  On the other hand, from Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters to Elementary (Our Time Is Up), accountants are always presented in a negative light.  End Sidebar.

Barbara has identified a real issue but not completed the picture.  Professors influence and often recruit students.  Some of them use negative messages while other use positive ones.  What she has missed is opportunity.  Opportunity is part of the explanation why women are now a majority of accountants in the United States, Canada, and Europe.  This is an enormous change over our 40 years teaching accounting that has not happened as completely in STEM.  Why did women surmount the barriers in accounting but not as much in STEM?  Part of the reason is because of university rules accounting faculty got more opportunity to spread the word while STEM got less.

Essentially all universities have requirements at the university level, college level, and department level.  We will call university level requirements general education (GE) and department level the major even though there are minors too.  Most GE programs include science and math but but those requirements are often so broad that students don’t get exposed to those fields or take courses that would not count towards those fields.  In our 40 years of advising students we doubt any of our advisees ever took physics.  Early in our career we advised taking chemistry because in our opinion it and accounting take the same skills.  Our success rate approximated zero and eventually we did not persist.  Students take calculus for social science (no trig), science for non-scientists, and other less technical courses to fill those requirements.  On the other hand, almost every student takes English composition, literature, and a diversity course.  STEM faculty don’t get the opportunities to recruit students that humanities faculty get.  They should accept part of the responsibility because of their course offerings in GE.

Accounting faculty get the opportunity to influence because of college requirement that all students in the business school take two accounting courses. In addition, there are major requirements that have a smaller impact.  For example, departments have chemistry and business or language and business.  These required accounting courses are generally taken in the freshmen and sophomore years so accounting professors get an early opportunity to influence students towards a major in accounting and the courses count towards their degree.  We know from our surveys that faculty are a big influence on students deciding to major in accounting.

We are not ready to conclude that the personal impact of accounting faculty is more important than the cultural sway of STEM yet.  What is clear is that professors have a big impact on majors and it is one of the reasons that women have prospered in accounting over the past half century.  We recommend free speech to Barbara.  Faculty need the opportunity to make their case with students.

We Have Met The Enemy …

Syracuse University has joined the NFL and then some.  The NFL in this case is the No Fun League.  They have also opposed free speech.  Gregory Germain, a member of the Orange law faculty has the scoop:

A diverse group of 15 students (white, African American, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, Christian) who were pledging an engineering fraternity were asked to do a roast of the fraternity members for their joint amusement. The skits were crude: masturbation jokes; a politically conservative member was made to be an alt-right bigot who formed a competing fraternity to spread racism; a skit about sexually assaulting a fraternity member who was so controlled by his girlfriend that he could not move (patterned after a viral Brandon Rogers YouTube video). They were making fun of themselves and each other in outlandish ways using very crude language.

It is important that Gregory lets us know Syracuse has a free speech policy, because the Orange is a private university:

Syracuse University has a broad free speech policy that promises protection for offensive speech.

Despite that free speech policy the administration reacted as crudely we have grown to expect:

The university quickly expelled the fraternity, and the chancellor issued videotaped messages to the community promising swift student prosecutions, seeking suspensions or expulsions.

Expelling a student for cheating or violently disrupting a presentation is almost impossible but acting privately in bad taste is a hanging offense.

Sidebar: You do understand that we don’t literally mean hanging, right?  We mean that it is an offense that brings an extreme sanction like expelling the fraternity from the university.  End Sidebar.

The only good news here is that a member of the faculty has spoken up for the students who have had their lives ruined by overzealous administrators.  Here’s hoping that the students and the fraternity take the the university and the administrators individually for all that they are worth.  Good luck Gregory and the fraternity as they seek retribution!

Academic Freedom And …

Jay M. Smith from the University of North Carolina has an interesting article at the WSJ about “How Sports Ate Academic Freedom.”  We agree with Jay that NCAA Division I sports do pressure academic freedom but the battle to maintain academic freedom has many more fronts.

Jay is the co-author, with Mary Willingham, of the book Cheated: The UNC [University of North Carolina] Scandal, The Education Of College Athletes, and The Future Of Big-time College Sports.  Based on his book Jay tells us:

As these events unfolded [an NCAA investigation and the UNC reaction], I co-authored a book that chronicled UNC’s handling of its scandal and placed the story in the context of the relationship between academics and athletics. Later, I developed a history course on big-time college sports. In that course, students learned about the conflicts of interest that had defined intercollegiate athletics from their beginning in the 19th century. They read about how the prime beneficiaries of college sports—coaches, university presidents, alumni and governing boards, the NCAA—had created a system that kept money rolling in but kept athletes always disadvantaged. They learned about the long-term origins of the systematic educational fraud that the UNC case exemplified.

The course Jay had developed did get taught once:

The course had flown under the radar of academic administrators in 2016, but when they discovered that I planned to teach it again in 2017, they intervened to suppress it.

We find it amazing that the course was taught once.  Jay’s book was published in 2015 and, usually, courses are approved by curriculum committees at a variety of levels.  At the university level there would be input from the relevant parties and the Athletics Department would be one.  There would be no surprise is what Jay was teaching on athletics.  Perhaps, this was what we call an umbrella course that can be taught a couple of times before it is approved for the catalogue.

The administrators were able to override faculty objections and remove the course.  Jay concedes that (emphasis added):

Controversial courses will remain vulnerable to suppression.

Jay is right but, as is rarely true, it is more general than the example at hand.  There are several areas of that cause controversies for academic freedom.  Mark Perry reports that the University of California – San Diego now requires all applicants for faculty positions to submit a diversity statement:

All candidates applying for faculty appointments at UC San Diego are required to submit a personal statement on their contributions to diversity. The purpose of the statement is to identify candidates who have the professional skills, experience, and/or willingness to engage in activities that will advance our campus diversity and equity goals.

Departments and search committees should consider a candidate’s statement as part of a comprehensive and transparent evaluation of their qualifications.

The hired faculty will have academic freedom if they really meant what they said in their statement while others won’t be considered if they are honest.  We wonder if Jay would appeal to them.  We were thinking of applying and using an example of educating a student at a Polish university wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt [We are not making this up.]  It might have been fun for us and the search committee.

Faculty have also given away their academic freedom to a variety of other folks on campus by letting them create required activities without faculty oversight.  Faculty have given up academic freedom cheaply and now folks like Jay lament that it is gone.  It is a major reason why universities are in such a precarious position.  If you don’t think so read Instapundit and check out the recurring Higher Education Bubble post like this one:

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE, SELF-DESTRUCTIVE IDEOLOGY EDITION: Montana State’s Faculty Senate narrowly votes down proposed economics research center to be funded by an active Charles Koch Foundation grant.

Balancing the restoration of academic freedom with the becoming a welcoming place for students, faculty, and staff on the right and center too is the challenge of the 21st century.  It is going badly so far.



Faculty Failure

At colleges and universities faculty are responsible for the curriculum.  In the University of Wisconsin System it is the law.  The faculty are still mostly in charge of the curriculum that gives credit but they have turned a blind eye to a second curriculum that has sprung up from other agencies in the university.  Campus Reform has an example:

The Foundation for Success, which is overseen by the UMN Department of Housing & Residential Life,  aims to “help students achieve their personal and academic goals and become well-rounded individuals,” and pledges that “each student will have an inclusive and engaged community experience” in UMN residence halls.

Read the whole thing.  It is a second curriculum.  The university requires the curriculum to be approved by the faculty.  Faculty at UMN and elsewhere should be ashamed but most support such silliness.


Tenure And Academic Freedom

Robert Steinbuch and Joshua Silverstein have a call to arms at the Martin Center to protect academic freedom in Arkansas.  We are unconvinced by their arguments.  It is entirely possible that we should be worried about what is going on in the the Natural Sate [really] but we are not convinced.

Bob and Josh start out with:

That threat, however, is of a type [tenure rules] that normally doesn’t receive public attention. The press typically writes about speech codes and political interference with research on controversial subjects, but as serious as those threats are, they are nothing compared to that posed by central administrators.

We are not convinced.  The ability of central administration to influence decisions on faculty and curriculum varies from school to school but it is almost always limited.  Shortly thereafter they say:

The purpose of academic freedom is to protect freedom of speech, thought, and expression in the university setting so that learning and knowledge can flourish. Tenure is the primary mechanism by which academic freedom is ensured. It prohibits the termination of faculty for any reason that could plausibly be used to stifle academic speech and inquiry. These protections recognize the critical role of professors as truth-finders and truth-tellers.

Well, particularly with respect to the bold part, no.  The tenure decision is largely made by faculty with variations from school to school.  Negative tenure decisions have been made by faculty to stifle academic speech and inquiry.  Such decisions are largely made by the faculty.  Once a faculty member has been tenured they can only be removed for cause.  Incompetence is not a cause.  It is a challenge to write rules that help weed out incompetence without jeopardizing academic freedom but one we need to consider.

Another way to think about it is the last sentence in the second quote.  Are professors regarded as truth-finders and truth-tellers?  Largely no.  Later they say:

Unfortunately, in recent decades some university administrators have engaged in an all-out assault on academic freedom by seeking to (1) replace outspoken full-time faculty with part-time adjuncts, and (2) gut the rules governing academic freedom and tenure.

There are more part-timers [but that might be due to for-profit schools] but we are unconvinced that the full-time faculty is outspoken and the part-timers are not.  It could be that the administration can do something about part-timers and this is why we see more examples of them.

They cite some reasonable issues about the proposed rules.  They also suggest some silly stuff like it will hurt recruiting.  We have been involved in recruiting faculty for decades.  We thought of tenure process as a selling point for our school but nobody was ever convinced by our arguments.  Location, fit, and money are a the driving forces in faculty decisions.  Tenured deadwood is a big problem with fit in recruiting because the deadwood won’t change courses to accommodate new faculty and can’t help them with research.

Tenure as currently constituted is not getting us to faculty who are truth-tellers and truth-finders.  As conservatives we need to be reluctant to change established systems.  But in this case the system is highly ineffective in reaching goals.  Many folks have reminded us that “it” can always get worse and measured change makes sense.  Although Bob and Josh approvingly reference an overwrought article in Slate, Wisconsin is not a bad model.