May 14, 2018
- Universities face serious threats to academic freedom from outside pressure groups
- Some Donors have made demands that can undermine university provision of unbiased, high-quality research
- Accommodating ethically questionable Donor demands can undermine public confidence not only in individual researchers, but in entire institutions and even in the broader academic enterprise
- Stronger, more secure, and more stable funding for universities—without strings attached—would help insulate universities from undue pressure by outside groups
- Universities should work together to secure their financial and intellectual independence, articulate clear ethical standards, and enforce those standards
I recently documented efforts by a well-organized network of libertarian and conservative academics, advocacy groups, and media organizations to foster resentment toward universities and then gain control over them, under the pretense of supporting free speech. These efforts continue a decades-long assault on higher education, and have been remarkably effective at tarnishing universities’ reputations. This has paved the way for legislation that further undermines universities’ intellectual and financial independence.
A complementary threat to academic integrity comes from powerful outsiders exploiting universities’ financial needs to leverage relatively small donations into enduring influence over faculty, curriculum and student life. Such money-for-influence arrangements could alter what research gets produced, and by whom.
Outside funding can increase research output and impact in media and policy circles. It can fund great research that might not have been produced otherwise. But funding under inappropriate terms risks undermining the central and unique role that universities play in society as providers of high quality, reliable, and unbiased information. This could quickly destroy the goodwill and trust that universities painstakingly cultivated over decades (in some cases, for centuries).
This issue has come to a head recently with press coverage of some financial relationships and recently disclosed contracts between conservative and libertarian donors (including foundations and re-granting organizations funded by the prominent Koch family) and George Mason University. Much of the controversy relates to a libertarian / free-market embedded think tank at George Mason, The Mercatus Center, which provides supplemental compensation and resources to GMU’s economics faculty and some law faculty members, as well as opportunities to produce commissioned research on timely policy issues. Through Mercatus, the university has received tens of millions of dollars in donations.
GMU faculty members’ chances of obtaining funding and resources apparently did not depend exclusively on an unbiased assessment of their intellectual rigor and academic contributions, but rather appear to have depended at least in part on the political implications of their research. In contravention of academic ethical norms, donors had substantial influence over which faculty members would receive compensation supplements known as “chairs” or “professorships.” Donors maintained control through representation on selection committees, evaluation committees, rights to recommend removal of chair holders, gift rescission rights, and key-man clauses for senior executives, including the dean of the law school.
“The objective of the Professorship is to advance the . . . acceptance and practice of . . . free market processes and principles [as] promot[ing] individual freedom, opportunity, and prosperity . . . The occupant of the Professorship (“Professor”) shall . . . be qualified and committed to the forgoing principles.”
Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors said “When you start getting into a study of free enterprise then you’re really, I think, stepping into a territory where you’re promoting a political agenda.” Donors may specify a topic of study or type of expertise for a holder of a chair; but they should not specify the chair-holder’s politics.
Critics say Mercatus’s ideologically based funding tips the playing field at GMU in favor of the production of economically right-wing scholarship and the retention of economically right-wing scholars and instructors. Neither Mercatus nor GMU appear to have imposed any limits on the fraction of a faculty member’s total annual compensation that could come from non-state sources such as Mercatus. This is unusual—many funders and universities worry that too much outside funding creates the appearance of impropriety. At least one prominent member of the GMU faculty with a Mercatus affiliation derived over 40 percent of his compensation in 2016 from “non-state” sources, according to public records.
Without supplemental compensation from Mercatus, GMU faculty compensation appears to be uncompetitive with comparable institutions. Thus, working at GMU may not have made sense financially for economists or law professors who were unlikely to obtain Mercatus compensation supplements—i.e., those whose scholarship might support increases in taxes, an expansion of public investment or social insurance, or more stringent regulations of business. At least one moderate economics faculty member says that she “carefully chose [her] research so it wouldn’t be objectionable” to her more conservative colleagues.
April 30, 2018
A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public (Michael Simkovic)
- Many lectures about “free speech” are not really about “free speech,” but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities.
- When such reactions occur, many news stories about them are created, shaped, and disseminated by a well-funded network that wants to transform and take over universities.
- Students, professors, administrators should not take the bait; nor should journalists.
After a violent attack on civil rights protestors that left three dead and more than a dozen injured at the University of Virginia, students and administrators at Vassar became concerned when they learned that William Jacobson was coming to defend racism. Jacobson’s libertarian hosts advertised his lecture as “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville.” Jacobson’s previous racially charged comments and dubious assertions earned Jacobson the admiration of White-nationalist websites such as V-Dare (see also here), the John Birch Society’s New American, and Breitbart news.
But Jacobson’s much-hyped lecture turned out to be a superficial and innocuous discussion of free speech, at the level of a high school civics class. Jacobson’s prosaic lecture was not news worthy. Instead, the press focused on student and university officials’ purported over-reactions to a talk about “free speech.”
Similar stories abound. Recently, the Federalist Society invited Josh Blackman, a tenured professor at South Texas College of Law Houston’s, to lecture at CUNY law school. Professor Blackman’s sparsely attended lecture drew protestors because of Blackman’s previous criticism of an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants and his use of language the protestors interpreted as racial dog whistling.
A university official asked the students to be respectful, defended Blackman’s right to speak, and admonished the students “please don’t take the bait.” One student noticed Blackman recording himself and asked Blackman, “You chose CUNY didn't you? Because you knew what would happen if you came here." (CUNY, like Vassar, has a reputation for left-wing student activism). Blackman deflected the question. One protestor used an expletive, which Blackman repeated.
According to both Blackman and CUNY, the protestors were non-violent. Security was present to maintain order. Blackman—tall and muscular—towered over the students and appeared calm throughout the exchange.
Right-wing journalists hyped up the incident, labelling the largely minority protestors a “mob” and “hoodlums.” A law professor writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at Reason Magazine argued that the CUNY Dean should be fired. White Nationalist websites such as Breitbart, New American (the John Birch Society), and VDare lionized Blackman as a hero. Blackman seized the opportunities that resulted, scoring an Op Ed in the New York Daily News.
Professor Blackman’s claim that student protestors at CUNY denied him a platform is ironic. It is precisely because of Blackman’s right-wing connections and the brief protests they engendered that Blackman was given a platform at the National Review, Fox News, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Reason, Inside Higher Ed, FIRE, Campus Reform, Cato.org, Commentary, First Amendment Watch, The College Fix, and The Global Dispatch, SeeThruEdu (The Texas Public Policy Foundation) among others. Many of these organizations are part of the Koch Brothers’ backed State Policy Network.
The purpose of media exaggeration of incidents at universities appears to be to discredit universities in the eyes of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates.
April 24, 2018
In today's New York Times, Professor Krugman writes about the war on education. Krugman's generally smart post overlooks an important part of the story. Many wealthy Democratic Donors also want low taxes and are therefore also hostile toward teachers unions and increases in public funding for education. Republicans are not the only ones's responsible for the current state of K-12 education, in which high preforming college graduates are fleeing teaching for better opportunities. Krugman writes:
"State and local governments . . . are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for much of the rest.
. . . [W]hen hard-line conservatives take over a state. . . they almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy. . . . This promise is, however, never — and I mean never — fulfilled; the right’s continuing belief in the magical payoff from tax cuts represents the triumph of ideology over overwhelming negative evidence.
What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. This means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level — simply let the budget deficit balloon. Instead, they have to cut spending.
And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.
How, after all, can governments save money on education? They can reduce the number of teachers, but that means larger class sizes, which will outrage parents. They can and have cut programs for students with special needs, but cruelty aside, that can only save a bit of money at the margin. The same is true of cost-saving measures like neglecting school maintenance and scrimping on school supplies to the point that many teachers end up supplementing inadequate school budgets out of their own pockets.
So what conservative state governments have mainly done is squeeze teachers themselves.
Now, teaching kids was never a way to get rich. However, being a schoolteacher used to put you solidly in the middle class, with a decent income and benefits. In much of the country, however, that is no longer true.
At the national level, earnings of public-school teachers have fallen behind inflation since the mid-1990s, and have fallen even more behind the earnings of comparable workers. At this point, teachers earn 23 percent less than other college graduates. But this national average is a bit deceptive: Teacher pay is actually up in some big states like New York and California, but it’s way down in a number of right-leaning states.
Meanwhile, teachers’ benefits are also getting worse. In particular, teachers are having to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums, a severe burden when their real earnings are declining at the same time.
So we’re left with a nation in which teachers, the people we count on to prepare our children for the future, are starting to feel like members of the working poor, unable to make ends meet unless they take second jobs. And they can’t take it anymore.
. . . [E]xtreme right-wing ideologues . . . really believed that they could usher in a low-tax, small-government, libertarian utopia.
Predictably, they couldn’t. For a while they were able to evade some of the consequences of their failure by pushing the costs off onto public sector employees, especially schoolteachers. But that strategy has reached its limits. Now what?
Well, some Republicans have actually proved willing to learn from experience, reverse tax cuts and restore education funding. But all too many are . . . lashing out, in increasingly unhinged ways, at the victims of their policies."
April 16, 2018
Privatization scheme highlights rifts in Democratic party between donors and educators (Michael Simkovic)
Democrats in Colorado recently voted overwhelmingly to reject public school privatization and deregulation efforts (charter schools). Chalkbeat reports:
"Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.
After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform. . . .
The platform amendment reads:
“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”
Vanessa Quintana, a political activist . . . said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.
“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”
Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. . . .
In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.
“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”
She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”
This move highlights a major rift within the Democratic Party on education policy. Charter school advocacy, expansion and evaluation has been heavily funded by foundations affiliated with technology companies--most famously the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--billionaire philanthropists traditionally viewed as Democratic-leaning such as the Broads, as well as conservative and libertarian billionaire philanthropists such as the Kochs and Waltons. By contrast, teachers’ unions have fought for higher wages, stable employment, smaller class sizes, and better textbooks and equipment for students in public schools, as well as nationwide efforts to ameliorate poverty, which teachers say undermines students’ ability to focus on their studies.
There is a serious empirical dispute over the quality of charter schools. The foundations say that charters, often staffed by young, inexperienced, and low-paid teachers with frequent turnover are the future of education. But peer reviewed empirical studies have not consistently found evidence that charter schools improve student performance, compared to public schools, after properly controlling for student characteristics and expenditures per student. Although some studies get positive results (see here and here ), these studies may have suffered from methodological problems that caused them to underestimate differences in student characteristics or to focus only on the best charter schools rather than a representative sample. Many studies find that charter schools perform worse than public schools. (See here, here, here, here). Experiments with K-12 privatization in Sweden produced similarly unimpressive results decades ago.
April 15, 2018
Edward Kleinbard in the Los Angeles Times: Tax policy is a bore, until they take your Social Security and Medicare away (Michael Simkovic)
Edward Kleinbard (USC; former head of the Joint Committee on Taxation) writes in the Los Angeles Time
"[B]udget deficits — how much spending exceeds revenues — are extremely large and growing at a disturbing rate. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2019 deficit will be just shy of $1 trillion. That is a roughly 50% jump in the deficit from its 2017 level — extraordinary, considering we're in good economic times.
Tax cuts do not pay for themselves — not the Trump tax cuts, nor in any other case in modern U.S. practice. So we face only two possible courses of action: Either we tax ourselves more, or we dismantle the social safety net (in particular, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) that protects Americans from destitution or disability. Which is the right direction for our country to pursue?
One political movement has its answer at the ready: Slash the safety net.
Five fellows at the conservative Hoover Institution recently laid bare in a Washington Post opinion piece how the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 was just the first step in a two-step dance. The full tango goes like this: Note that our deficits are unsustainable. Blame "entitlement spending" (code for Social Security and Medicare) rather than tax cuts. Demand cuts to social spending on the pretext that some imaginary iron laws of reduced tax collections and deficit concerns require it.
This agenda aims to asphyxiate the working class through the dismantling of the social insurance programs on which most Americans rely. But the tax tourniquet is a political creation, not an economic necessity. When compared with wealthy peer economies, the United States today already is the lowest-taxed country as a percentage of GDP. The tax cuts going into effect this year will reduce federal tax collections still further, to levels substantially below the 50-year average of federal tax revenues as a percentage of GDP.
There is no law of economics that says record-low tax revenues are the prerequisite to a thriving economy. What we actually need, like it or not, are more tax revenues to fulfill our promises to support our fellow citizens. To do so does not require any radical ideas or bankrupting the middle class. We can raise several trillion dollars of new revenue over the next decade with some straightforward moves. . . .
Tax policy is a bore, until they come to take your Social Security and Medicare away. Yes, our federal budget deficit trajectory is unsustainable, but the reason is not profligate or unexpected social spending. Tax Day is as good as any other to reflect soberly on the price our country will pay for systematically undertaxing itself."
It should be noted that Larry Summers and other critics of the 2017 tax reforms predicted these large deficits.
April 13, 2018
New study finds that Texas lawyers generally remain satisfied with careers even after the recession (Michael Simkovic)
A new survey study by Milan Markovic and Gabriel Plicket finds that Texas lawyers generally remain fairly satisfied after the 2008 recession. However, satisfaction varies by income, practice setting and status.
"In this article we used data from a large cross-sectional sample of Texas lawyers to examine lawyers’ career dissatisfaction in the post-recession period. Our results show that most practicing lawyers regard their careers as satisfying and that factors such as income, practice setting, class rank, and remaining law school debt affect career dissatisfaction whereas attorneys’ demographic characteristics, practice areas, and firms’ size do not. The economic recession may have impacted the legal profession, but the overall incidence of dissatisfaction remains low, and many of the factors that impacted lawyers’ assessments of their careers prior to the recession continue to be salient."
The study is interesting as a purely descriptive analysis, and consistent with studies using After the JD data such as Ronit Dinovitzer, Bryant G. Garth & Joyce S. Sterling, Buyers’ Remorse; An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career, 63 J. Legal Educ. 211 (2013).
One of the more interesting findings is that satisfaction seems to increase with experience, although this raises questions about attrition from the sample (i.e., who leaves the practice of law?).
I think more caution is generally advisable when interpreting cross-sectional data about satisfaction and would have preferred less causal language. I think a longitudinal study with fixed effects would have supported stronger inferences about what drives lawyer satisfaction.
For example, the study notes that law firm partners are more satisfied than law firm associates and suggests that this is because partners have more autonomy. That's plausible, but it's also possible that law firm partners are on average more satisfied than associates because the associates who are the least satisfied leave the law firm, while those that are the most satisfied are better suited to law firm work and therefore are more likely to be offered an opportunity to join the partnership. With a cross-sectional analysis, it's hard to know which (or how much of each) of these factors could be driving differences in satisfaction.
April 11, 2018
In the Guardian, Fordham's Zephyr Teachout argues that members of Congress let the CEO of Facebook off easily and essentially treated his hearing as an opportunity to curry favor with him. Teachout writes:
"It was designed to fail. It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook after only a few hours in Washington DC. It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing. It was designed to deflect and confuse.
Each senator was given less than five minutes for questions. That meant that there was no room for follow-ups, no chance for big discoveries and many frustratingly half-developed ideas. Compare that to Bill Gates’ hearing on Microsoft, where he faced lawyers and staff for several days . . . By design, you can’t do a hearing of this magnitude in just a couple of hours.
The worst moments of the hearing for us, as citizens, were when senators asked if Zuckerberg would support legislation that would regulate Facebook. . . . By asking him if he would support legislation, the senators elevated him to a kind of co-equal philosopher king . . .
Teachout goes on to argue that Facebook's wealth, power, disregard for individual privacy, ability to manipulate public perceptions and refusal to take responsibility for accuracy of the content it presents makes it a "danger to democracy."
"Facebook is a known behemoth corporate monopoly. It has exposed at least 87 million people’s data, enabled foreign propaganda and perpetuated discrimination. We shouldn’t be begging for Facebook’s endorsement of laws, or for Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of self-regulation. We should treat him as a danger to democracy and demand our senators get a real hearing. . . .
Zuckerberg strikes me as reliably self-serving. That doesn’t make him that interesting as the CEO of a corporate monopoly; it makes him a run-of-the-mill robber baron. . . [Senators should not] treat him as a good-hearted actor with limited resources, instead of someone who is making monopoly margins and billions in profits."
In fairness to Mr. Zuckerberg, traditional media organizations also often exhibit a disregard for privacy, manipulate public perceptions and refuse to take responsibility for the [in]accuracy of the information they publish and the harm it causes. Too many journalists and and editors invest the bare minimum in fact checking (often nothing), and prioritize entertainment value and "virality" over economic or political significance. The established press too often write preconceived stories full of selective quotes or facts while disregarding contradictory information, refuse to print corrections, elevate the status of those willing to supply "helpful" quotes, and retaliate against those who point out their errors.
This irresponsible behavior is made possible by defamation laws that make it virtually impossible for the press to incur liability unless it can be proved that they knowingly and intentionally lied with the specific goal of destroying an individual's reputation--which is virtually impossible.
Facebook may have contributed to the unexpected outcome of the last election, but so did other media organizations. Mainstream media organizations gave one candidate billions of dollars of free publicity (hundreds of millions more than his rivals) mainly because his provocative statements--delivered with the practiced timing of a "reality" TV star--were entertaining and boosted their readership, and therefore their revenues.
This is what happens when competitive market pressures encourage media organizations to see their role as packaging advertising rather than as supplying accurate information. Facebook may play the same game, only with better technology.
This does not mean that Facebook should get a free pass. But we should not use Facebook as a scapegoat to avoid talking about problems with the media landscape that are systemic and that would persist even if Facebook disappeared tomorrow.
UPDATE: This article was corrected on 4/15/2018 to note that media organizations provided billions worth of free coverage, not just tens of millions.
April 10, 2018
Jake Brooks in NY Times: Direct Federal Student Lending Should Provide Insurance to Students and Public Investment in Education (Michael Simkovic)
John Brooks of Georgetown's excellent Op Ed is available here.
Brooks calls to task some of the questionable and alarmist narratives that have been coming out of nominally liberal think tanks (which are funded by foundations linked to the private student loan industry and purveyors of ed-tech of dubious value), noting that Direct Lending, IBR and debt forgiveness can benefit both students and taxpayers. He also notes the dangers of the new PROSPER act and graciously linked to Friday's post about how small the direct budgetary impact of student loans is when viewed in context.
Brooks notes that some Democrats have been advancing a traditionally Republican privatization agenda. Jeff Sachs has similarly taken Obama and Clinton to task for underinvestment in basic and essential public services and infrastructure, noting that by the numbers they invest only marginally more than Republicans. Brooks argues that because of IBR, Obama deserves more credit, and that this important legacy of his presidency should be preserved.
April 09, 2018
Pepperdine’s law school recently made an error when submitting enrollment data to U.S. News.com. Pepperdine contacted U.S. News promptly after uncovering the error and submitted corrected data in time for U.S. News to use the corrected data in its ranking. Although the erroneous data was more positive than the corrected data, no reasons have been given to believe that Pepperdine intentionally sought to deceive U.S. News.
I know and respect Paul Caron, the current Dean of Pepperdine. While we don’t always agree on technical or political issues, the notion that he would intentionally commit fraud—and then immediately correct his error—is outlandish. (In the interest of disclosure, Leiter Reports joined a network of legal education blogs that Paul organized, but Leiter Reports and Caron’s blog, TaxProf, often compete and advance different perspectives. I have vocally criticized some of the research covered on TaxProf blog.).
Nevertheless, U.S. News punished Pepperdine by making it an “unranked” law school this year. Those who are not familiar with the reasons for this move in the rankings might mistakenly believe that Pepperdine fell outside the top 100. According to analyses by Bill Henderson and Andy Morriss, if not for the penalty imposed by U.S. News, in all likelihood Pepperdine’s rank this year would have risen from 72 to between 64 and 62.
Unranked status could have an adverse impact on Pepperdine’s enrollments and finances. It is punitive, unnecessary, and perhaps even counter-productive in that it might discourage honest self-reporting of mistakes. A more reasonable and compassionate approach would be to let Pepperdine off with a warning, and report the incident without changing the rankings, for example by including a footnote in the ranking explaining the misreporting. U.S. News is a private business, but because of its virtual monopoly on rankings, enjoys quasi-regulatory authority.
Some of Pepperdine’s competitors might rejoice at Pepperdine’s misfortune, believing that admissions and enrollment are a zero-sum game. They are making a mistake.
The lesson of the last decade is that law schools rise and fall together far more than they benefit from each other’s hardship. What U.S. News does to Pepperdine this year, it could one day do to any law school that makes a mistake, even if it honestly and reasonably attempts to correct it.
Healthy competition between law schools can promote innovation and efficiency, and be good for students and research productivity. But we should be careful that competition does not erode our ability to act cooperatively in pursuit of shared beliefs and shared values of fairness and due process.