October 12, 2021
A draft of this paper is now available, which will be presented at Georgetown next month. It picks up on some ideas first mentioned in an earlier blog post and presentation in Turin, which generated a lot of interest: finally there is a shareable paper. Here is the abstract:
September 29, 2020
March 02, 2019
President Trump uses scuffle at Berkeley as pretext to pressure universities into promoting views he endorses (Michael Simkovic)
A recruiter for a far-right group that maintains a "Professor Watchlist" was recently punched in the face while using slogans about "hate crime hoaxes" to recruit (or perhaps to intentionally provoke an incident) at the University of California Berkeley.
The FBI and Department of Education have both found that serious (at times deadly) hate crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities on campus have increased since President Trump took office and a group of conservative billionaires began funding efforts to depict universities as hostile to racially charged "free speech."
The New York Times has reported that neither the recruiter for the conservative organization nor the alleged perpetrator are students or employees of the University of California.
In spite of the minimal connection to the University--which responded professionally, condemned the attack, and worked with the police to arrest a suspect--President Trump and other conservative activists have expressed intent to use the incident as a pretext to threaten universities with cuts to federal funding unless universities do more to promote conservative views on campus.
UPDATE 3/4/2019: An advocacy group that works to protect academic freedom from efforts to politicize universities has prepared an online form to help those who wish to email their Senators to ask them to block President Trump's Executive Order.
UPDATE 3/6/2019: The AAUP opposes the executive order and has prepared an open letter that interested parties can sign here.
UPDATE 3/7/2019: The President of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmmer, the former dean of Yale law school, Robert Post, and Professors Geoffrey R. Stone, Catherine J. Ross, and Noah Feldman have all spoken out against the proposed executive order. Teri Kanefield has published an interesting analysis of the proposal at CNN, linking it to Global Warming Denial and White Supremacy.
A Washington Post Editorial warns that the proposal violates conservative values, undermines conservatives' credibility and, if enacted, would create a bureaucracy that could be turned against religious institutions when Democrats retake the White House. And editorial in the conservative Washington Examiner makes a similar point about the relationship between academic freedom and religious freedom from government interference.
FIRE, a conservative advocacy organization which defends controversial speakers, is waiting for more details before expressing an official view on the proposal. However, individuals affiliated with FIRE have endorsed it.
Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in Forbes, is strongly in favor of the proposal, arguing that federal funding for scientific research through the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation should be subjected to ideological litmus tests as a form of "quality control." AEI does not explain the connection between the quality of university research teams working on better treatments for cancer or technologies to keep U.S. military personnel and civilians safe and the extent to which undergraduate student groups on campus choose to provide a platform for Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter's views on sex. Nor does he express any of conservatives' usual skepticism of top down government control.
In an essay defending Trump's proposed executive order in Inside Higher Education, Hess misunderstands a survey by FIRE of "self-censorship" by students on campus, which found that 54% of students say they sometimes pause before speaking every thought that occurs to them. The leading reasons students "self-censor," according to the survey, are because they believe they might be wrong and are concerned about their peers judging them. Students were not concerned about any formal sanction from the university for deviating from an approved ideology, but rather were worried that if they appeared foolish in public, they might lose social status with their peers. Some students also point to tact, empathy, and basic norms of decency as reasons to choose their words wisely. The same survey found that "Almost all students (92%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are exposed to the ideas and opinions of other students" and that "(87%) feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms." This is not strong evidence of problems on campus. Hess also incongruously cites the AAUP, which (as noted above and below) unequivocally opposes federal regulation such as Trump's proposed executive order that would strip universities of autonomy.
Adam Kissel, formerly at the Koch Foundation, FIRE, and the the Department of Education, is only slightly less enthusiastic in his support for Trump's proposed executive order. Writing in the National Review, Kissel argues that although in an ideal world the federal government would spend nothing funding scientific research, conservatives would be justified politicizing federal research funding as retaliation for liberal efforts to deny federal research funding to principal investigators who engage in sexual harassment, inadequate due process for those accused of sexual harassment on campus, overly burdensome internal review boards that are established to ensure that scientific research does not unethically harm human test subjects, and campus speech codes meant to prevent harassment and emotional abuse. Kissel argues that conservative control of universities should be enforced through courts rather than an administrative agency to ensure that conservative advocacy groups continue to have influence even if Democrats take control of the White House.
February 23, 2019
A fascinating, albeit intemperate and sensationalist, perspective on the history of conservative activism on college campuses is available here.
The essay discusses strategies such as top-down national campaigns funded by wealthy donors, programming crafted by national organizations staffed by well compensated and experienced political operatives with ties to the Republican party, and executed on particular campuses by (sometimes less than fully autonomous) local campus chapters with substantial assistance from national organizations. Many of the campaigns featured subtle exploitation of racial anxieties, appeals to anger, and intentional efforts to upset political opponents so that their reactions can be recorded and used for propaganda purposes.
As previously reported, and confirmed by numerous press stories and leaked documents (see e.g., here and here) many of these strategies continue to be used on campus by many of the same or similar conservative organizations today.
Unfortunately, the essay counter-productively uses militant language to encourage students to "combat" these "threats." Physical violence is both morally wrong and strategically ineffective: it only affirms conservative activists' narrative of victimization. Indeed, a conservative activist group recently scored a major public relations victory after a campus recruiter from a national organization tabling at Berkeley was struck in the face by a passerby who may have been offended by the organization's racially charged slogans about "hate crime hoaxes." This particular conservative group has been accused by rival conservatives of allegedly condoning racism and sexual assault, and criticized for maintaining a McCarthyist Professor Watchlist.
December 19, 2018
Samuel Moyn (Yale): Law schools are too focused on public law to serve the public interest (Michael Simkovic)
In a thought provoking essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Samuel Moyn argues that law schools' focus on judge made law in general, and the Supreme Court in particular, is counterproductive especially when justified on ostensibly progressive grounds. Offline, Professor Moyn suggested that, to better help students understand how the legal system influences the distribution of economic and political power, progressives should focus more on teaching business law subjects like taxation and anti-trust.
Samuel Moyn, Law Schools Are Bad for Democracy: They whitewash the grubby scramble for power, Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 16, 2018.
December 12, 2018
LSAC is rolling out several initiatives to make the LSAT more accessible, including a tablet-based version of the test that will increase the number and type of facilities that can serve as test administration centers, and will pave the way for more frequent test administration. LSAT takers will also be able to take the essay portion of the exam from home through "remote proctoring."
LSAC is also offering free online LSAT test preparation and practice questions.
A competing standardized test that is less universally accepted for law school admission, the GRE, is available at administration centers on an almost continuous basis.
Bar examiners might want to consider investing in technology to increase the frequency with which the bar is administered and reduce the amount of time it takes to grade.
October 07, 2018
Financial Times: White House Considered Blanket Ban on Student Visas for Chinese Nationals, partly with goal of hurting Universities (Michael Simkovic)
From the Financial Times:
"White House hawks earlier this year encouraged President Donald Trump to stop providing student visas to Chinese nationals, but the proposal was shelved over concerns about its economic and diplomatic impact. . . .
Stephen Miller, a White House aide who has been pivotal in developing the administration’s hardline immigration policies, pushed the president and other officials to make it impossible for Chinese citizens to study in the US, according to four people familiar with internal discussions. . . .
While the debate was largely focused on spying, Mr. Miller argued his plan would also hurt elite universities whose staff and students have been highly critical of Mr Trump, according to the three people with knowledge of the debate.
The issue came to a head in an Oval Office meeting in the spring during which Mr Miller squared off with administration opponents, including Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor who is US ambassador to China.
According to the four people familiar with the discussions, ahead of the Oval Office meeting Mr Branstad argued that Mr Miller’s plan would take a much bigger toll on smaller colleges, including in Iowa, than on wealthy Ivy League universities. US embassy officials in Beijing also made a broader economic argument that most American states enjoy service-sector trade surpluses with China, in part because of spending by Chinese students.
Mr Branstad succeeded in convincing the president that Mr Miller’s proposal was too draconian, according to one person familiar with the White House showdown. At one point, Mr Trump looked at his ambassador and quipped: “Not everyone can go to Harvard or Princeton, right Terry?”
One person familiar with the debate said Mr Miller’s opponents were worried the president might return to the issue, particularly as he takes an increasingly tough line on China over everything from trade to cyber security.
August 08, 2018
The ABA recently voted to permit a dramatic expansion of online legal education.
Online education is controversial in higher education. It is even more controversial in legal education, which relies more on classroom interaction and less on lectures than most forms of higher education.
Widespread perceptions that online education is lower quality than live instruction in general—and may be particularly disadvantageous in legal education—are backed by numerous peer-reviewed empirical studies.
Proponents of online education argue that it is more convenient because students and faculty do not have to commute, or because students can learn at their own pace. They argue that it is potentially more cost effective, either because physical facilities need not be used, or because it is scalable, or because an artisanal model of teaching through knowledgeable faculty can be replaced with a less expensive, industrial model of low-skill specialized workers who each handle particular aspects of course development and teaching. Some argue that technology can be used to closely monitor and track students, and that the information gathered can be used to improve the quality of education.
Critics of online education argue that it is lower quality, that most students learn and absorb less, and that the social dynamic of the classroom and learning from one’s peers and interacting with alumni is a critical part of education. (In addition to multiple peer-reviewed studies, they point to recent examples of “online education” such as self-paced workplace training modules as examples of the low quality that can be expected.)
Critics point to the failure of MOOCS—which have extremely low completion rates (see also here)—as evidence of the limits of scalability. They point to the pricing and cost experience of most universities, which have seen high costs of developing and maintaining online courses and additional software licensing fees which have prevented them from charging much less for online classes than for those taught in person. And they point to a rash of cheating and distracted learning, which anecdotally seem to be more prevalent online than in person.
Perhaps the most empirically rigorous (and recent) study of online education to date—which relied on an experimental design with random assignment of students to different versions of the same introductory economics course—found evidence that “live-only instruction dominates internet instruction . . . particularly . . . for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students.” An earlier study which also used a quasi-experimental approach, found similar results, especially for complex conceptual learning:
“We find that the students in the virtual classes, while having better characteristics, performed significantly worse on the examinations than the live students. This difference was most pronounced for exam questions that tapped the students' ability to apply basic concepts in more sophisticated ways, and least pronounced for basic learning tasks such as knowing definitions or recognizing important concepts . . .
Choosing a completely online course carries a penalty that would need to be offset by significant advantages in convenience or other factors important to the student. . . . Doing as well in an online course as in the live alternative seems to require extra work or discipline beyond that demonstrated by our students, especially when it comes to learning the more difficult concepts.”
June 11, 2018
Have education advocates sold out students' and educators' privacy for money from technology firms? (Michael Simkovic)
The Department of Education's failures to safeguard student data against leaks have led to repeated Congressional hearings over the last few years. (see here, here, and here). Even some of the best state education agencies have also suffered data breaches.
Privacy advocates, student and parent groups, and educators are therefore understandably concerned about sharing even more detailed and personal student information with government agencies that cannot adequately safeguard the information they already have.
A network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and media organizations with links to technology firms have been pushing for extremely intrusive and detailed collection of information about individual students. Disclosures would no longer be limited to aggregated, anonymized data, but rather would include information about individual students. Extant disclosures have already undermined student privacy far more than was anticipated. Student contact lists are commercially available for purchase on the basis of ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness, and even a perceived or predicted need for family planning services. Disclosure of disciplinary records -- which occurs in spite of legal assurances that such data will remain confidential -- can put students at a disadvantage in the job market for a lifetime. (See also here).1
As one expert on technology explained:
"The bill proposes a new system to collect student-level data . . . . And that's where we all should feel a little queasy. Despite the obvious benefits of having access to data . . . the inherent security and privacy concerns of such a system are significant.
The definition of "data in scope" might change over time. And once the data is collected, there it sits, ready to be leaked, breached or worse. Without getting too deep into Big Brother conspiracy theory, there are so many ways for the system to go wrong."
Tech-backed groups want even more data collection mandated by the federal government. Many of these groups are funded by the Gates Foundation and related groups with links to technology firms.
Technology firms have a tendency to have faith in data-driven solutions to problems. But technology firms would also benefit financially from more onerous reporting obligations because technology firms provide compliance and reporting services to education institutions. Rising technology and compliance costs are among important reasons that higher education has become more expensive.
The American Council on Education (ACE) has stopped defending student privacy against these demands after ACE received grants from the Gates Foundation (including one to promote online education) and after ACE was viciously attacked2 by Gates-funded journalists3 for opposing Gates-backed policies.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities also received a substantial grant from the Gates Foundation around the time it ceased defending student privacy (see also here). So did the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (see also here, here, here, here, here) and the American Association of Community Colleges (here, here, here, here, here). (While there may be innocent explanations, the optics are not great).
One of the few remaining defenders of student privacy is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private non-for-profit universities. However, even NAICU appears increasingly likely to compromise and give the Gates-backed group much of what it wants.
Technology firms might obtain access to extremely sensitive data through a revolving door between the Gates Foundation, the Department of Education, and Edu-Tech firms. Such data could be advantageous when technology firms negotiate the price of technology servicing contracts or compete with education institutions through online offerings.
One wonders if higher education "lobby groups", rather than educating policymakers about the needs of students and universities, have found it more advantageous to lobby higher education institutions on behalf of technology firms.
May 28, 2018
Anti-university “free speech” legislation will divert education funds to demagogues and facilitate monitoring, intimidation, and harassment of academic communities (Michael Simkovic)
Part I: After demagogues hijack higher education funding and disrupt learning and research, Berkeley responds
In the wake of disruptions surrounding the invitation to campus of provocative right wing speakers, the University of California at Berkeley recently released the Report of the Chancellor’s Commission on Free Speech. The members of the commission include the Chief of Police and the Law School Dean and constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky.
The report notes that U.C. Berkeley “spent nearly $4 million—during a time of severe fiscal duress—on security costs for [disruptive speeches by far-right provocateurs in] September 2017 alone. . . . This is not sustainable [given Berkeley’s] $150+ million deficit.”
At current tuition prices, $4 million is the equivalent of more than 280 1-year full-tuition scholarships (or 70 four-year bachelor’s degrees). Given the tone and substance of the talks, it seems unlikely that California taxpayers or the Berkeley community got good value for their money. For example, that money could have been used to train engineers, scientists, and other educated professionals. The report included several sensible recommendations to try to contain costs and limit disruptions.
Unfortunately, many of these recommendations would be difficult—perhaps impossible—to implement if legislation backed by the Koch family, the Goldwater Institute, and some law professors goes into effect. (More on this in Part II below).
Mr. Shapiro is known for comparing “debate” to a “bloodsport.” In “How to Debate a Leftist and Destroy Them,” Shapiro advises conservatives to “Hit first. Hit hard. Hit where it counts . . . convince [the audience] that your opposition is a liar and a hater.” Shapiro advises being even more aggressive when dealing with a liberal family member at family gatherings such as Thanksgiving. Shapiro advises conservatives to call a family member who does not share conservative political views a “jackass,” “ridiculous,” “irrational,” “buffoon,” “loser,” “fascist,” and a would-be baby-killer (for supporting abortion rights). Shaprio’s speech at Berkeley was reportedly similarly “strong on insults . . . and light on [substance].”
The Commission was even less impressed with other speakers:
“Many Commission members are skeptical of [Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter]’s commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency. Speech of this kind is hard to defend, especially in light of the acute distress it caused (and was intended to cause) to staff and students, many of whom felt threatened and targeted by the speakers and by the outside groups financing their appearances.”
The Commission concluded that excessive financial costs were imposed on U.C. Berkeley and the taxpayers of California by “very small groups of students working closely with outside organizations” as “part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.”
The Commission suggested that if the citizens of California are unwilling to pay higher taxes to sponsor events that enrich the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, then U.C. Berkeley should consider capping the amount it will spend on security for speakers:
“[T]he campus should not have to expend scarce resources to protect celebrity provocateurs seeking to promote their brand (and, in some cases, to cast aspersions on higher education) when so many essential needs go unfunded or underfunded.”
The report also recommends centralizing event planning, limiting disruptive events to locations where individuals who would rather focus on their studies or their work can more easily avoid being affected by them, and encouraging “constructive and thoughtful debate between passionate advocates for opposing points of view” on campus including conservatives, rather than “shock jock performance art.”
Part II: Anti-university “free speech” legislation will divert funds to demagogues and will facilitate monitoring, intimidation, and harassment of academic communities
The so-called “Campus Free Speech Act” prohibits universities from charging more for security for events that are likely to incite violence and that lack substance. The Goldwater legislation requires universities to host any speaker, regardless of intellectual rigor or academic merit (even if quality standards are applied in a non-partisan manner), as long as a single student, student group, or faculty member has invited the speaker. It denies universities control over which space is made available to which speakers. The Goldwater Legislation places burdens on public universities that its most ardent supporters would never place on businesses which own other platforms for speech such as newspapers or venues for conferences such as hotels. There is a difference between protecting the academic freedom of highly-trained and carefully vetted faculty and transforming universities into dumping grounds for outside speakers of low-quality and high-cost.
While universities would be denied editorial discretion, student groups could be as discriminatory or exclusionary as they please without losing any privileges. Thus, a neo-Nazi student group could refuse to admit blacks, Jews, gays, Catholics, liberals, moderates, or conservatives who don’t subscribe to White Supremacy—or even those who do but refuse to march around wearing Swastikas—without losing any privileges, such as the right to bring speakers or host a rally on campus.