Monday, February 22, 2010

Peer review isn't flawless 

Scientists have been forced to withdraw a study on projected sea level rise due to global warming after finding mistakes that undermined the findings.

The study, published in 2009 in Nature Geoscience, one of the top journals in its field, confirmed the conclusions of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It used data over the last 22,000 years to predict that sea level would rise by between 7cm and 82cm by the end of the century.

At the time, Mark Siddall, from the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Bristol, said the study "strengthens the confidence with which one may interpret the IPCC results". The IPCC said that sea level would probably rise by 18cm-59cm by 2100, though stressed this was based on incomplete information about ice sheet melting and that the true rise could be higher.
Nature Geoscience says it committed to publishing significant, high-quality research in the Earth Sciences through a fair, rapid and rigorous peer review process that is overseen by a team of full-time professional editors.
One slipped past the goalie here. It would be easy to laugh and say this is proof global warming is a crock and the peer review process is flawed. But of course it is. What's important about this piece is to say that in this particular case the system actually worked. A piece of bad science got through the peer review process -- which is bound to happen -- and that when technical mistakes were found, they retracted the article. Does peer review fail more with articles that support AGW than oppose it? I don't know. That is a question worth researching, if anyone has the time.

(h/t: Eric Fruits)

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Friday, February 12, 2010

By their royal powers 

I've been mildly amused by a discussion on our campus list about student attendance. There are several trains of thought traveling around the list. One is the number of students who claim they cannot come to class because of a tummy ache or some other minor ailment. I had a student write the other day "I will not be in attendance on Tuesday. What will I miss?" I answered, in full: "Class." I told the class this story, and most of them thought it wasn't too rude. Of course the ones who do, probably weren't there.

Another part of the discussion pertains to faculty who assign outside activities with mandatory attendance, part of that "voluntyrrany" I mentioned the other day. Faculty who assign these activities are bucky over other faculty not cutting their mutual students any slack from a stated policy about attendance or make-up exams. I wonder if the subtext is that, because the goal of the outside activity is noble, the other faculty member should make exceptions for the activity. Everyone thinks their own class is the most important class a student takes; I watch the piano instructor practically terrorize a student over her taking part in sports, or the Scoutmaster unhappy that a scout will attend a Bible camp instead of camping with his troop. Happens in lots of places. The biggest problem, to me, is that the professor who expects students to attend outside activities does not notify students of the intention until after students have started taking the class. Advanced notice would help.

But then I get the faculty who have to declare those of us who hold fast to rules antipathetic. Our students have lives, they have real problems, and we should try to balance our hidebound regulations on a case by case basis. If so, then why print any rule other than this?
Making up exams and deductions for missing class will be determined by your ability to provide me a way to feel better about myself through my magnanimity. I will appear on Atwood Mall promptly at noon each Wednesday, on a litter carried by four GAs dressed as Egyptian slaves. Students wanting dispensation of the rules will come to me at this time with their cases. Offerings such as burnt incense will not be needed, only your persuasive powers. My decisions are final, unless you can find the litter of the Grade Appeal Committee chair, to whom you can plead your case.
Discretion is the denial of rules. It is a use of a professor's powers to build up the ego, to allow cheap expressions of one's goodness. I do not validate a student or professor's judgment of my humanity based on whether a student can get a set of notes from me after missing my class, and I don't understand those who do.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Move away from the nuisance 

Ashley Thorne writes about about a mandatory environmental course at Florida Gulf Coast University. It's worth a read -- this type of thing happens in many universities. Two things I learned:
She writes:
Students take field trips to places such as the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and they must participate in ten hours of mandatory service projects. Upon completion of the Colloquium, students take an assessment to measure how well they learned �an ecological perspective� and �community awareness and involvement� for the university�s student learning outcomes (SLO) records.

FGCU thus teaches the highly contested idea of anthropogenic global warming; engages in voluntyranny; mandates student action on behalf of the �imperative for ecological sustainability�; and buys in to the self-justifying mediocrity of the outcomes movement. The University is forthright in its efforts to provide across-the-board sustainability education; students who choose to attend FGCU doubtless know what they�re signing up for.
Which to me is the point. The students there knew what they were getting into. I appreciate the effort of students who want to make this course optional rather than mandatory, but I would suggest instead simply getting away from a school that thinks that is 2/9 of its student learning objectives.

Before choosing your university, read something to help pick places where intellectual freedom is respected. ISI's College Guide or Thomas Sowell's Choosing a College (older, but still helpful.)


Monday, February 01, 2010

You knew what I meant 

Next time I visit Normandale, I have to meet this Jack Miller. I have talked about remedial classes at SCSU, but at Normandale, Prof. Miller points out, they are the courses that keep many of his colleagues employed. In an English class, he should be considered a saint for dealing with problems of grammar, punctuation and a complete unawareness of the rules of plagiarism. But these parts are teachable. What on earth do you do with this problem:
While there are some, especially older students, who carry around excess anxiety and who sell themselves short academically, the more common affliction is overconfidence: �I expected to do a lot better.� The bump in the road that is the developmental class is seen as an aberration, largely lacking the sobering effect it would have had 30 years ago. No one is going to flunk out of school. Plenty of warning is given if you are in danger of failure. Most developmental courses can be taken on a pass/no pass basis. One�s GPA remains intact in any case, including a withdrawal. A system is in place to cushion failure, and students who have always been praised for just showing up need it. They have been told time and again, �You can be anything you want.� All that is needed is �passion.� So when the academic path contains a detour, explanations to yourself and to others can come easily. Scholastic problems don�t emanate from within but from without. So determined is the college to offer �support� and so long is the list of reasons to receive that support that almost anything can be explained by or blamed on an external cause�poor time management, attention deficit disorder, you name it.
Not much to be done. We could get all tough love-y and just whack their self-esteem into place. But the drill instructor part hurts "retention", which means those classes that keep Prof. Miller's and my colleagues in subscriptions to Granta. So we throw money at the problem through academic services that give us students who ... are now more overconfident. And narcissistic. Why should they have to know grammar? You knew what they meant.

And we encourage that narcissism too.
As the college Web site says, the goal is �the development of persons as well as intellects.� Oblivious to signals of topic fatigue, some professors continue to assign readings highlighting racial or gender oppression, closed-minded fundamentalist Christians, wise elders �of color,� and any reading that focuses a spotlight on the warts of U.S. policy, history, or culture. Some professors operate on the mistaken assumption that students will be struck by �Aha!� moments as they are enlightened. So slight do we feel our influence to be that we take undue delight in satisfying our reformer�s instinct. Ah well, students must sigh, what else can be expected from college English professors?

Furthermore, students are asked to spend yet more time (as if they hadn�t spent enough in high school) dwelling on themselves, the ever-fascinating �I,� their own lives, their own �feelings,� their own variations on the endless quest for self-discovery. ...
And it's not just community colleges. Here at SCSU the "freshman English" class is numbered English 191. Its course guidelines say that all sections will have as "focal points" "Strategies for critically engaging information and developing it in writing as evidence for arguments" and "Study of writing in relation to articulating human values, cultural perspectives, or interdisciplinary understanding." Things like "copy editing" (where I think you might try grammar or vocabulary) or "revision strategies" and "research strategies" are "secondary points."

I am reading senior papers this term (one reason my blogging tends to be a little spotty lately.) I would like to spend my time working on developing how their education here allows them to see economic theory work on their topic. I would like to play with the results of their statistical work, refine it, be sure we used the right technique and had the right data. But I spend an enormous amount of time having them write and re-write their papers. And at this point I should not have to keep finding each mistake they make -- they should be able to find some. If they don't and I find it on re-write, they wonder why I didn't find it for them the first time. And it's all I can do sometimes not to say, "I'm not the one who let you down."

As narcissistic as they can be, they aren't entirely the ones letting themselves down either.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An object lesson for health care 

Last week Ed Morrissey commented on another "public option" stalking a market: the college loan market. In order to get more students into colleges -- driving up demand and thus raising tuition above the rate of inflation -- the government wanted to encourage private lenders to give credit to teens and 20-somethings, a group that tends to be quite risky to lend to. So government decided it would share the risk with banks and other creditors by covering interest rate risk (subsidizing lower interest rates) while taking back some money if interest rates drop too low. Most of you educated in the 1970s and on know these as Stafford Loans.

The Clinton Administration had government directly enter the marketplace through direct lending -- skipping the banks. That in effect was the public option, and for about 15 years its had between a fifth and a fourth of the market. Both co-existed but, since the private market lenders were subsidized by the state, the government had both sides of the market. And along with that you had asset-backed securities backed by student loans (with great ratings, naturally -- example) to encourage even more lending. Unsurprisingly that part of the market was not spared in the credit crunch of 2008-09.

Now as the credit crunch subsides, some lenders are trying to get back in the market, some say, the Obama Administration intends in tonight's State of the Union Address to turn student loans even further into a plan to create a larger public sector.

As part of the White House�s �middle-class� aid initiatives unveiled today, President Obama proposed that students making payments under federal college loan programs would have monthly payments capped at 10% of income exceeding a �basic living allowance.�

That would lower the payment cap for qualified borrowers from the current maximum of 15% of income. The 15% maximum took effect in July under the government�s income-based repayment program, although some very-low-income borrowers are making no payments at all under that program.

As an example, the White House said, the 10% cap would mean that the maximum monthly payment for a borrower earning $30,000 a year who owes $20,000 in loans would be $115 a month, instead of $228 under the standard 10-year loan repayment plan.

The administration also proposed expanding the government�s debt-forgiveness program for student borrowers. Under current rules, all remaining federal student debt can be forgiven after 25 years. The White House wants to cut that to 20 years.

Already, borrowers who take public-service jobs can have their remaining debt canceled after 10 years. The administration would retain that cutoff for public-service workers.
Andrew Clark lists many things wrong with the legislation, including the possibility of having AFSCME getting into the student loan processing business, while Neal McCluskey shows how the bill includes billions in new dollars to colleges and university supposedly for retention and graduation of students, but with fairly easy guidelines to get the money. Ed points out that this should be instructive:
This is a perfect example of what the government will wind up doing to health care, either in the near term or somewhat down the road. [Obviously more down the road now that last week when Ed wrote this --kb] They intervene to promote a social agenda, and eventually decide that total government control is �more efficient� than the private sector. We need to stop the nationalization of student loans, but more importantly, we need to learn the right lesson of what happens when we allow the federal government to compete with the private sector. Eventually, the private sector gets eliminated, and we�re seeing that unfold in real time with student loans.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The balance of trade in academic economists 

This article on the training of European economists in the U.S. is vital reading for several reasons. Its author, Guy Sorman, argues that the U.S. is the only place to go.
�When one wants to become a real economist, to accumulate knowledge and recognition, one has no choice but the United States,� says Chicago�s Luigi Zingales, an Italian who is a leader in the hot field of financial regulation. ...

Many of the Europeans first came to the U.S. as graduate students, frustrated by the limited options offered by European universities. �I was initially trained at Brussels Free University,� says Zingales�s colleague Marianne Bertrand, who has been at the Booth School since 2000. �But when I decided to go for a Ph.D. in the 1990s��she earned hers from Harvard in 1998��the U.S. was the only sensible destination.� Getting a doctorate in her native Belgium was unappealing, she explains, because students were left on their own, with little academic support or oversight; many Ph.D. candidates she knew became discouraged after a few years and gave up. In the U.S., by contrast, the university was geared toward the student. Professors were approachable; research facilities, including libraries, were first-rate; and financial and other assistance was readily available.
I think this point is true; my own experience years ago was one where the faculty members knew me, inquired if I had what I needed to succeed (including enough money to live on!) and included me in their study. Joint papers with faculty and graduate students were not uncommon, and after interviewing hundreds of new PhDs during my time as chair (filling seven positions in the last eight years) I think that story is quite common. But there's more to it than just good customer service:
Nor did Europe offer much appeal once the doctorate was in hand. Zingales tried to return to Italy in 1984, after completing his degree at MIT, but the best job offer he could get was a mediocre research assistantship at a second-rate university. Twenty years later, he might have won tenure at the school, he says, but only if he had the right connections. Even the best Italian universities�and this was true of European schools in general�were dominated by autocratic and hierarchical traditions. Without belonging to the right academic network and having the right sponsors, career progress was difficult, if not impossible.

Obsolete and disproved Marxist and socialist thinking also remained strong within European universities, including in economics departments. Many young economists, scientifically oriented and so recognizing the superiority of free markets, found the climate intellectually stultifying. It remains the case that most French and Italian universities teach economics as a philosophical subject�with opinions mattering as much as facts�not a scientific subject. A Keynesian, statist perspective still dominates most European curricula: free-market professors are an embattled minority.

American economic departments were�and are�much more rigorous and nonpartisan by comparison. Yet isn�t there an ideological opposition between, say, the University of Chicago, known as a cradle of free-market theory, and Harvard, a supposedly liberal campus? �This perception hasn�t much to do with reality,� Bertrand responds. �We are scientists, above all; ideologies do not dictate our research or our teaching.� Alesina, a strong proponent of markets, agrees: �The notion of Harvard being liberal and Chicago free-market doesn�t coincide with academic reality.�
In almost any department you might find people who supported Republican candidates as well as Democratic candidates, and for the most part they are quite able to work together, even write together.

Sorman argues that some European schools are now making a comeback, including Toulouse, Bonn and Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Salaries that were once meager in Europe are now being boosted and research grants are getting larger too. But it is hard to wrest away leadership once it is established.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Opportunistic drive-by smearing of political opponents 

The local media have reported on the posting of a cartoon in front of a shop run by a Somali family and near a local Islamic center in St. Cloud. Based on discussions with people in a position to know, the drawing was reprehensible to any decent human. If we had laws about p*rnography based on community standards for decency, this drawing would have been a violation. (I have had it described to me by multiple people who have seen it; I have not personally viewed it.) Because we have a First Amendment, however, the scribbler of this cartoon (artist? no, sorry, you don't get that title) is not going to be charged for anything more than trespassing on a public utility pole, a rule that if enforced will lead to the arrest of hundreds of garage sale operators.

Somalis are upset, and rightly so. When the campus announced that its Somali student organization wanted to hold a speak-out, that seemed a very reasonable thing to do. The best way to deal with hateful acts is by speaking about them. But the news report this morning about this event contains two statements that I found deviated from speaking against the cartoon. And, unfortunately not a surprise, it comes from two faculty. First,
Luke Tripp, a professor of community studies, said the same "conservative white" mind-set led to the election of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater.
This is an outrageous accusation. It says that anyone who voted for Rep. Bachmann has the same mind-set as the scribbler, is capable of being the scribbler, and is a reprobate. By what perverted analysis do you determine the moral principles of tens of thousands of area citizens that voted for this woman, many of them twice? What inspires a man to take a speak out against hateful speech of his students as an opportunity to engage in the worst stereotyping of political opponents?

I'm also moved to say something about the comments of a second faculty member who said "There are perpetrators on this campus who abuse students of color continually." This statement is either true or false. If the faculty member believes it to be true, he has an obligation as a member of this community to use the proper channels to have these allegations investigated and acted upon if they are judged to be factual. If not, or if he is not sure, his behavior should be consistent with the responsibilities that attach to his right of academic freedom. From the AAUP's 1940 Statement:
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Prof. Tadame's statement is not prefaced in this news story as being his own opinion, or an "I have heard that ..." or any such thing. He is an officer of this university as much as any faculty or staff member. To make such a statement without either bringing facts for investigation or expressing them clearly as his own opinion, not that of the university, is a shocking abdication of his responsibilities as an academic.

Sadly, we've been over this ground for many years. Indeed, these slanderous statements were part of why Scholars was created at one time (see our about page for the history.) And even more sadly, the best statement at the speak-out as reported comes from the only Somali quoted.
Mohamed Mohamed, president of the Somali Student Association, said he's encountered discrimination in St. Cloud. But Mohamed added that Wednesday's rally shouldn't be about pitting one race of people against another.

"This issue is not white and black," Mohamed said. "It's human rights."
Emphasis added, in case the professors missed it.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Typecasting academics 

Maybe you've seen this article already, that argues that academics are liberal because of typecasting. It is based on a study by -- surprise! -- academics.

Typecasting, of course, is not the only cause for the liberal tilt. The characteristics that define one�s political orientation are also at the fore of certain jobs, the sociologists reported. Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.

The mismatch between schooling and salary complements a theory that the Harvard professor Louis Menand raises in his new book �The Marketplace of Ideas.� He argues that the way higher education was structured by progressive reformers in the late 19th century is partly responsible for the political uniformity of today. In the view of the early reformers, the only way to ensure that quality, rather than profit, would be rewarded was to protect the profession from outside competition. The tradeoff for lower salaries was control; professors decide who gets to enter their profession and who doesn�t.

As I've noted before, this comes in no small part from the peculiar position of the American academic versus his European counterpart. Ludwig von Mises described it in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality thus:

Access to European society is open to everybody who has distinguished himself in any field. It may be easier to people of noble ancestry and great wealth than to commoners with modest incomes. But neither riches nor titles can give to a member of this set the rank and prestige that is the reward of great personal distinction. The stars of the Parisian salons are not the million�aires, but the members of the Acad�mie Fran�aise. The intellec�tuals prevail and the others feign at least a lively interest in intel�lectual concerns.

Society in this sense is foreign to the American scene. What is called �society� in the United States almost exclusively con�sists of the richest families. There is little social intercourse between the successful businessmen and the nation�s eminent authors, artists and scientists. ...

American authors or scientists are prone to consider the wealthy businessman as a barbarian, as a man exclusively intent upon making money. The professor despises the alumni who are more interested in the university�s football team than in its scholastic achievements. He feels insulted if he learns that the coach gets a higher salary than an eminent profes�sor of philosophy. The men whose research has given rise to new methods of production hate the businessmen who are merely interested in the cash value of their research work. It is very significant that such a large number of American research physicists sympathize with socialism or communism. As they are ignorant of economics and realize that the university teachers of economics are also opposed to what they disparagingly call the profit system, no other attitude can be expected from them.
Because the university system does not depend on profit most professors disparage it, but that dependency was tossed away at the expense of higher wages which would have let them join the ranks of higher society. We get paid less so we can pick who works with us, but rather than recognize the trade we resent the system that produces enough wealth to give us the ability to turn our universities into exclusive clubs.

If Mises' hypothesis is correct we should find more conservatives in the European universities. Is this true? I haven't seen a study to support or refute the hypothesis.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nervous smiles 

According to, an online database of job openings for PhDs in economics, the number of jobs advertised in the last four months of the year, when almost all jobs for newly minted economists are listed, was 1,285 in 2009, down by 21% on 2008�s figure. American economics departments churned out an average of 948 PhDs each year between 2006 and 2008. Add the number of candidates from European universities, which reckons is more than 350, and the supply of economists may exceed demand.
From the Economist, courtesy an anonymous reader. Not all those jobs are for new PhDs. We're one of those jobs for a new one, for now. Many state universities are sitting on offers "subject to budgetary approval", which risk-averse administrators may later choose to pull.

So should new PhD's wait to graduate like my undergrads? My experience is no -- you may see more job openings in future years, but also more candidates who didn't place, or placed in a school that is a poor match, etc. I tried to come out in January 1983, had ten interviews at the ASSAs and two fly-outs ... and no offers. Next year 23 interviews, five fly-outs and only two offers. Competition was fierce.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Being where you hadn't before 

The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective....
Jonah Lehrer, arguing that travel is integral to a healthy mind. I agree, and it's why I want my students to study abroad. If you're a student reading this, read Lehrer, then go!

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Should you come out of college this year? 

My colleague Jim Weber points out an interesting story in Newsweek on earnings of those who enter the labor force during a recession.
Some optimists�pointing to a recent spate of positive economic data, including increases in car sales, upticks in factory production, and a robust stock market, say no: the downturn simply hasn't been bad enough, for long enough, to create the next Depression generation. Yet there is powerful evidence that belies this argument; a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper released this past September looking at data from 1972 to 2006 shows that even one really tough year experienced in early adulthood is enough to fundamentally change people's core values and behaviors. Meanwhile, there's an entire body of research to show that recession babies not only invest more conservatively, they tend to make less money, choose safer jobs, and believe in wealth redistribution and more government intervention.
The research on attitudes comes from Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo, and NBER has a summary of the research. Ungated version is here. They find that a college age student who lives through a severe recession believes more that luck plays a role in lifetime income than hard work. This leads to divergent views on the role of government, believing both that government should do more about income distribution but distrusting government's ability to do so. The effect is most pronounced when the "recession shock" strikes an 18-25 year old, and is much less of a shock to older adults.

Now the question really is whether it's the beliefs that do this, or stickiness of labor markets. A pure neo-classical story says that the shock to one's income in a recession is temporary and it should not matter (much) whether you come out of college in a recession. But if there are long-term contracts and searching for a job is costly, coming out of a school in a recession could depress earnings for years, regardless of what one believes. See this paper for one strand of evidence that the neoclassical model doesn't bear up too well: graduates in a recession earn about 8-10% less than those who come out in a boom, and it may take a decade for the difference in earnings to disappear. Even OMB director Peter Orszag has been reading this research, concluding
The evidence thus suggests that a recession hits young people particularly hard, knocking them off course with effects that last for years to come. As we rebuild a new foundation for economic growth, it�s critical that we keep this in mind.
Yes, keep it in mind, but what's a government to do about it? If it is the result of beliefs, government can't really do much. You could say it should prevent deep recessions, but it does not appear they are capable of preventing these. And if it's all sticky wages and long-term contracts, then the answer is to not sign those and jump jobs frequently. Like the ballplayer who signs a one-year contract in a bad market or jumps to a lesser league overseas, the college graduate can either be sure to take jobs that have easy exits or go to graduate school.

I graduated college in 1979 just as we began the first of two recessions in 1980 and 1981-82. Were it not for that, I probably would have married my high school sweetheart right away, found a job and stayed in my home town. That bad economy might have been the best thing to happen to me. But I am in academia, one of the most risk-averse career choices one can make.

By the way, I write this at the start of a new semester in which we have a record number of seniors in our undergraduate capstone course. Does this support or refute the hypothesis?

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Friday, December 04, 2009

The price of pretty good college 

A report shows a troubling trend continuing: Students are leaving Minnesota colleges with record debt.

Minnesota's 2008 graduate had an average of $25,558 in debt -- the sixth-highest in the nation, according to the Project on Student Debt. (The state ranked fifth last year.) The proportion of graduates with debt -- 72 percent took out loans -- puts the state fourth in the nation (up one spot from last year).

...Students in the District of Columbia, Iowa and Connecticut had the three highest average debt loads in 2008, while those in Utah, Hawaii and Kentucky had the lowest.

Here's the project that studied it. SCSU students leave here with a little less than $25,000 of debt, with about 2/3 of it federally guaranteed.

Is this a good return on investment? It turns out to depend on where you go, at least according to Caroline Hoxby's latest NBER study. Because students are now willing and able to select higher education in a national rather than regional market, colleges and universities compete more intensely for the best students. At the very best schools, that competition actually drives down the cost of an education that is borne by a student (or parents.) The remainder is paid by an endowment; each graduate in turn pays for good students to come after them. Even though the donations to the alumni fund are higher at the best schools, the total investment made on the best student, and the rate of return on the investment, generate both larger alumni funds and more income for those students.

So what happens to the remainder? It turns out the remaining schools are less selective, insofar as the accomplishments of an incoming freshman (based on NAEP scores) are now lower. Students have re-sorted themselves, she says, so that the top schools have a more uniform level of student achievement, and the best students who used to choose the nearby schools now travel further away. From the paper (ungated copy):
Average tuition paid as a share of student-oriented resources falls for every selectivity group, but the patterns differ. The least selective colleges start out with average tuition paid being about 60 percent of resources, and this statistic vacillates, ending up at about 44 percent. Most of these colleges are public colleges whose students have modest incomes. Thus, tuition paid is not a large share of resources because tax dollars make up the difference. Colleges at 51st through 60th percentile of selectivity have tuition paid fall from 88 percent of resources to about 65 percent of resources. This is a substantial decrease but students at such colleges (and other middling selectivity colleges) continue to finance most of their own investments in human capital through the tuition they pay.

In contrast, students at the most selective colleges paid tuition equal to only 46 percent of their human capital investment even in 1967. By 2007, they were financing only 21 percent of their investment through tuition!
Thus, the share you pay to go to the less-selective college is higher, and the difference between the amount of spending done by a very selective college and a not selective college (per student) widened from a ratio of about 4 to 1 to nearly 8 to 1 (even though all schools spend more per student nowadays.) Getting into a 99th percentile school just gets you access to so much more, and it seems to get you access to mostly high-quality classmates, where there may be complementarities.

This means that for our public four-year schools, there are fewer high-quality students around; our students are borrowing more to come here, and relatively speaking getting less of an advantage than they would have thirty years ago. Increasing specialization should lead to better delivery of high-quality education to those who can best use it. The paper is not as clear on whether the person borrowing $25,000 to come to a public four-year school would have been better off putting that money in the stock market (it appears not to be so for the most selective schools.)

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

You don't say! 

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has come under pressure to reject a faculty panel's proposal to require students in its education school to doubt the United States is a meritocracy and to demonstrate an understanding of concepts such as "white privilege."

...Jean K. Quam, dean of the university's College of Education and Human Development, said today in an interview that the proposal was just one of several being offered up by various faculty panels as the college moves to overhaul its teacher-education program to better prepare students to deal with today's classrooms. She characterized the proposal as "a brainstorm of ideas" that the education school had yet to act upon as it develops a sweeping plan to change teacher preparation in the coming academic year.

"We would never impose requirements of how people are required to think or act as part of their teacher education," Ms. Quam said. "We are trying to broaden the way that they think or act and not narrow that view."

From the Chronicle of Higher Education this afternoon. Yet according to that task force's own final report:

...let there be no doubt that we consider cultural competence to be an indispensable characteristic of all beginning teachers and, hence, an obligatory goal of teacher education. In fact, we believe that the following outcomes that we present should serve as an overarching framework from which beginning teachers frame the rest of teacher education courses and practice.

...Future teachers will understand themselves as beings who position themselves and are positioned by others in relation to dimensions of differences (racial, social class, gender), and other hierarchies in school and society.
Emphasis added in both cases. Did the Chronicle author read the report?

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quick followup on dispositions: Preaching to the choir 

While on the air with Ed this afternoon, he posted about FIRE's followup on the University of Minnesota's growing controversy over its attempt to have "cultural competency" as part of its education program. (We discussed it here Monday.) "Growing" because FIRE's investigation found that the education program wanted to use "predictive criteria" to determine which applicants might not be able to fit their social justice profile. FIRE wrote to U of M President Robert Bruininks:
According to documents published by the college (see, it intends to mandate certain beliefs and values-"dispositions"-for future teachers. The college also intends to redesign its admissions process so that it screens out people with the "wrong" beliefs and values-those who either do not have sufficient "cultural competence" or those who the college judges will not be able to be converted to the "correct" beliefs and values even after remedial re-education.
This should truly shock the conscience of any academic. You somehow can prejudge the ability to change the heart of a student? It is nothing short of cowardice. The school wishes to prescreen to be sure that it only credentials those who agree with them. No wonder they are willing to go to such lengths for remediation; they are trying to reclaim a congregant who left their church.

Missed last time, David French at PBC does a nice summary.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You're just trying too hard 

Music departments at public universities naturally want to give concerts at the end of each semester, a culmination of their work and study. Political correctness has made this a headache for them as one cannot possibly make reference to religion of any kind. Our campus this year is using "Celebrations of Peace." First sentence:
�Celebrations of Peace� weaves a diverse musical program featuring SCSU's finest instrumental and choral ensembles into a variety of readings from the pangea of mankind.
Italics added. Pangea? Most commonly that word means a supercontinent; I suppose this avoids upsetting any religion, but who knows? More likely the writer is thinking of Pangea Day. (More on that day.)

So in order to eliminate reference to religion we need a theory of plate tectonics? I think you're just trying too hard.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Dispositions back in the news 

Katherine Kersten brings back an old topic on this blog: dispositions theory in education. There's a new design of teacher education at the University of Minnesota, she says:

The initiative is premised, in part, on the conviction that Minnesota teachers' lack of "cultural competence" contributes to the poor academic performance of the state's minority students. Last spring, it charged the task group with coming up with recommendations to change this. In January, planners will review the recommendations and decide how to proceed.

The report advocates making race, class and gender politics the "overarching framework" for all teaching courses at the U. It calls for evaluating future teachers in both coursework and practice teaching based on their willingness to fall into ideological lockstep.

We were last down this road in 2005 during the KC Johnson controversy at Brooklyn College. Yet it continues unabated. At SCSU students in educational administration or in child and family studies have a form to fill out if they see a disposition that doesn't meet the professional standards. In the former field, if you "express an inability or unwillingness to work with some
people" and "avoid collaboration", you have an area of need to work on. Teachers in graduate studies get courses in which their competencies are assessed to determine if they consider "multiple perspectives and willingness to challenge and analyze one�s own perspectives given alternatives" and "respond to items regarding lens of social justice and dispositions."

Johnson reports, by the way, that these Minnesota criteria are being highlighted at exactly the moment NCATE, the teachers' accrediting body, is turning away from them. So maybe this won't last for much longer around here.

UPDATE: Mitch has a link to the U of M policy.
See also Peter Wood at NAS.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bang for your tuition buck 

This makes me sad: the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has created a website asking "What will they learn?" as a counterweight to all those criteria used by popular lists by U.S. News and Kiplinger's. (See Ashley Thorne's review.) Their seven required core courses are excellent, particularly because they include economics:
To determine whether institutions have a solid core curriculum, we defined success in each of the seven subject areas outlined as follows:
  • Composition.
  • Literature.
  • Foreign Language.
  • U.S. Government or History.
  • Economics.
  • Mathematics.
  • Natural or Physical Science.
Good list; I deleted the explanations of the seven courses, but you should read them. No school they surveyed had all seven, and of those that made their A-list requiring six of seven, only one -- West Point -- requires economics. The agony!

If you like that list and have a child close to deciding where to go to school, you'll see one school that surprises you: University of Arkansas. At $15,338 for out-of-state tuition, it appears to be a bargain compared to the others. If you're reading from UArk, send me some info -- Littlest is a sophomore.

SCSU would get a D as I read the criteria. Sounds terrible ... but Carleton gets a D too. The University of Minnesota does better than I thought it would.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

D.C. index vanity 

You know, Washington isn't the only place where checking the index is commonplace.
As a delightful insider's joke on the inbred Washington political establishment, the [Sarah Palin] book has no index. So they can't find mention of themselves while browsing in the store. Buy it or lump it.
Academics do this all the time. Someone writes a paper in your research area? You immediately go to the bibliography to see if your paper was included in the review of previous literature on the topic. There's a very well-known economist who wrote me once a rather angry note (back before the internet was commonplace) complaining not that I had not cited his paper -- I had cited one -- but that he had a second paper I should have also included. I've heard others say "well, this paper is no good, she didn't cite me."

If only I could get people to read my papers first without looking at the bibliography. There was a time where we used footnotes with full citations and no bibliographies. But with the internet we now can just scan Google Scholar and other online indexes for who quoted us. Indeed, there's even a program for that. And it's free!

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Part of the job 

So now some station discovered that -- shock! horror! -- faculty at state universities get sabbatical. It's true! And it's in ... the contract we signed when we agreed to our job. Article 19, Section C.
The purpose of a sabbatical leave is to enhance professional development, support department/unit goals, and/or meet the instructional, service, or research.
Subd. 1. The President/designee may grant a sabbatical leave to an eligible faculty member who proposes to undertake a scholarly research project, additional study, or other endeavor related to the purpose described above.
I'm in my 26th year of service at SCSU, and so far have had one year (back when it was 2/3 pay for a year-long sabbatical rather than 80%.) My work that year and two more years, during which the university did not pay me but expected me to return to repay my sabbatical -- more on this below -- lead eventually to a third year away to work as an adviser at the National Bank of Ukraine and to my first book. I'd vehemently disagree with the idea that I 'took time off'. Indeed, the KSTP report cannot deny that these faculty members on sabbatical were in fact improving themselves. Sabbatical is not vacation. In 2007-08, throughout our system, here's what the sabbaticals were used for:
Sabbaticals are a relatively recent phenomenon: Ivy League schools started their sabbatical programs towards the end of the 19th Century. They were designed not as an increase in vacation time but as "an investment of college funds designed to increase the efficiency of the teaching force." (Dartmouth, 1922.) MnSCU summarizes its sabbatical results:
...sabbatical leaves are an investment of the college/university in its academic future and reputation. Sabbatical leaves granted under the provisions of the collective bargaining agreements have permitted faculty to revitalize their teaching, improve their research skills, and maintain a vibrant, engaged, and up-to-date outlook on their profession.

One will recognize that sabbatical contains and derives from the word Sabbath, which holds two separate implications. One, it is intended to happen every seven years. As the report indicates, sometimes you cannot take sabbatical during the seventh year, or eighth, because your department would lose too many faculty and could not offer the courses needed to your students. So you wait. We are only guaranteed that we can go every ten years. Between seven and ten, your application gets scored, and you must have a minimum of 60% of the points scored or else you're out. Everyone knows the scoring rubric, and the applications typically are accepted. At the end of your sabbatical you complete a report on what you did.

But the other part of the sabbath that gets used in sabbatical is that it is a time of rest. Just as the Bible asks for land to recharge itself every seventh year (thanks to Jill Schneiderman for that observation) so too do faculty need to let the mind go wander once in a while. My own field changes from time to time. My next sabbatical -- I am one of those people who is asking to go away next year, seventeen years since my previous one -- will be my transition year to a post-chair life, one in which I start trying to teach economics more to people off this campus. But I need to figure out how to be effective in that teaching. I would like the inspiration to come during those thinking times in my day, but to actually build the course takes much longer. Should we have time to do that outside of the classroom?

So here's the real point, if you want to get to the dollars. If you tell me I have to do this job and never take a sabbatical, I would like to be compensated for giving up that right. Suppose my union and the state negotiate a 10% wage increase in return for the lost right. If I'm only guaranteed sabbatical every ten years, I only get one reassigned semester a decade. The state pays someone to replace me for that semester, and probably will not pay 50% of my salary, since that person is likely to be a lower-paid instructor (a young person just out of graduate school.) Are you better off or worse off, taxpayer-dollar-wise? And in the long-run, am I a better or worse instructor for having that time of rest, reflection and retraining?

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A request 

A faculty member and a student group on our campus has acquired a domain name for the purpose of advertising a film series attacking Israel. This behavior is common on campuses around the country; this is but the latest example. My request is for two things: Any links to items that provide balance to this series that one could circulate; and a program that could be run here to provide balance that might be run by other groups on campus besides the one running this one. I see John Palmer suggested an Israeli Democracy Week.

No discussion of the new Days of Rage appears on the schedule. Hmmm.

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Friday, October 09, 2009


Sorry to have been so busy today. Still working on details for radio tomorrow -- looks iffy at this point, but we will know more shortly. Meanwhile, please see my first post at the new National Association of Scholars blog. Bookmark that blog for commentary on higher education from at least 22 academics.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Translation needed 

From an advertisement for a women's studies series:
Blatant forms of racism continue to exist, but more subtle, equally destructive forms continue to have a significant impact in every corner of U.S. society. A new discourse on racism draws attention to continuing problems such as �color-blindness� and tokenism, and newer perspectives such as intersectionality. This more contemporary framework explores the way that other forms of oppression, such as sexism, heterosexism, and classism, sustain injustice and further inequality.
So if you pay no attention to race, you're a racist? And help me out here: What is "intersectionality"? Wikipedia says:
A standard textbook definition of intersectionality theory might be "the view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity".
Did that help you? What standard textbook is that talking about? What field? Who's learning from that textbook and what are they learning?

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Monday, September 21, 2009

S.A.T. a better predictor than you may think 

There is a common argument that SAT scores don't tell you much about whether students will succeed in college. Catherine Rampell recently showed the correlation between income and SAT score, which caused a bit of a stir over whether it told us anything about the quality of the student.

Now we have a new piece of evidence (h/t: reader jw):
It�s commonly said that the SAT, taken in a senior year of high school, has only about a 40% correlation with a student�s freshman year college GPA.

...I�ve always had a skeptical feeling about the 40% correlation statistic, and so I�ve never relied on it or used it in print. There are two self-selection problems that make it really hard to control the data. First, high schoolers of diverging abilities apply to different schools�the strongest students apply to one tier of colleges, and the average students apply to a less ambitious tier, with some overlap. Second, once students get to a college, they enroll in classes they believe they can do well in. Many of the strongest students try their hand at Organic Chemistry, while more of the less-confident students take Marketing 101. At each of these colleges and courses, students might average a B grade, but the degree of difficulty in achieving that B is not comparable.

Many scholars have attempted to control for these issues, looking at data from a single college or a single required course that all freshman have to take, and their work has suggested the 40% correlation is a significant underestimate. I�ve long wondered what would happen if an economist really took on this massive mathematical mess, on a large scale, harvesting data from a wide selection of universities.

Finally this has been done, by Christopher Berry of Wayne State University and Paul Sackett of the University of Minnesota. They pulled 5.1 million grades, from 167,000 students, spread out over 41 colleges. They also got the students� SAT scores from the College Board, as well as the list of schools each student asked the College Board to send their SAT scores to, an indicator of which colleges they applied to. By isolating the overlaps�where students had applied to the same colleges, and taken the same courses at the same time with the same instructor�they extracted a genuine apples-to-apples subset of data.

It turns out that an SAT score is a far better predictor than everyone has said. When properly accounting for the self-selection bias, SAT scores correlate with college GPA around 67%. In the social sciences, that�s considered a great predictor.
Here's a (gated) link to the paper. It appears that both Berry and Sackett are psychologists, not economists. Does income and selectivity of universities have a significant correlation? Casually I would think yes, but what I've read of this literature tells me not to be casual.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Faculty union forgets forgotten man 

The faculty union on our campus voted to send a letter to the City of St. Cloud that asks for it to re-staff a Human Rights Office. A letter to Mayor Dave Kleis was sent:
Many of us (including me) are City residents. All of us have a stake in building a just and welcoming community for ourselves, our students and our neighbors.

At its September 8, 2009 meeting, the Faculty Senate passed the attached resolution regarding the preservation of a Human Rights Office in the City of St. Cloud. On behalf of our members I ask you to find a way to restore staffing to the Human Rights Office.
Now the last time I looked, over 20% of our faculty drive from a seven-county metro area to us. The basic reason given for support is to join other groups on campus, and because "all of us spend significant time here and we and our students are deeply affected by the human rights climate of the city."

We have a state human rights department. One can argue that we need more local enforcement, but let's look at the city's department. Its last meeting minutes from March 2007 (yes, 2007) included a concern over how many minority children are in youth soccer (a private organization) and whether to try to put "local dolls" into schoolchildren's hands.

The Human Rights Office was budgeted $98,100 for FY 2007. Question to my union: Where would you find this money? What expenditures would you cut to free up that amount? If you say you would tax it, who would you choose to make to pay for YOUR choice? Is part of being a good neighbor asking your neighbor to pay for your preferences?

(Title explanation)

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dummies caught the hiney 

If you're an academic department chair, meetings are part of your life. The Deans Advisory Council (still known to old-timers as "deans and dummies") gathers the chairmen and chairwomen of the college's departments. This is seen more and more these days as an opportunity for various and sundry administrators to make a presentation, which they can report to their supervisors as having "delivered to the faculty", when in fact they just made me into their messenger.

Yesterday's deans and dummies brought forth the local campus health service to discuss the H1N1 virus. Given it hits 5-24 year olds more than the rest of the population, we are a flashpoint for the "hiney flu" (we have lots of pork producers 'round here, so the other popular name for this flu is banned from this blog.) The school has turned its emergency page into a flu info location, asking students to develop a "personal flu plan."

It's actually a serious matter, since 2,500 of Washington State's 18,000 students are suspected to have H1N1. "Suspected" since it's been decided by most health care officials that if you aren't hospitalized you don't get tested for which flu you have. (Also, no sick slips for students to be excused from classes -- we are being told to "let 'em go" even if we think someone is using the flu as a dodge to get out of mandatory attendance.) And the advice is to have them "self-isolate". Most students are more than happy to isolate themselves from a classroom, but from each other is another matter.

I talked about this in class today, about the norms for behavior. Would you call people you were in contact with 24 hours earlier to let them know you have hiney flu? Do students more try to come to school when sick or dodge classes for any old reason? There are norms of behavior, and they differ from school to school.

So imagine my surprise when I discover in the middle of this article:
California's Pomona College has a new mandatory course for freshmen: the proper way to sneeze and cough (the answer: into one's sleeve).

"I share a bathroom with seven other guys," said Alex Efron, a Pomona student. "That's a bit of a concern for me."
Let me remind you that Pomona is a rather elite institution. At which we need to teach students to sneeze? What other element of higher education does this course replace?

If they're like us, they're a university where you have to have hot air blowers in lieu of paper towels in the bathrooms to "save the planet" (and where they put the trash bin just below the blower)? Where part of my deans-and-dummies treat yesterday was a discussion of whether we could use state funds to purchase hand sanitizers? (I kid you not: that was 3.5 minutes.)

Thanks to Charles Johnson and Matt Reynolds for parts of this story.

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The National Education Service 

Gerald Prante notices the comparison President Obama made last night in comparing the competitive advantage of public option health insurance to that of public universities.
Public colleges and universities not only rely on billions of dollars in government subsidies (which he says the public option would not receive), public colleges and universities do indeed crowd out private colleges, largely because of these subsidies. For a California resident, UC-Berkeley (probably the best public university in the nation) is indeed a lower-priced substitute for Harvard University. To say otherwise would show ignorance of basic economics.
But of course not every state has a Berkeley (and, I'd argue, there are other universities that are good substitutes for an Ivy, such as Virginia, Michigan, or North Carolina.) Those students go to Tier 3 or Tier 4 schools. They get less-good higher education. So will we equalize health care across the states? Will every state get a Mayo Clinic, with equal access?

And how will innovation occur? In higher education, even with the ubiquity of state universities, costs are enough that private concerns are competing and dwindling enrollments for public institutions at a time when we have fewer students graduating high school. There are demands for more. And so how do public schools respond?
The Education Department is making plans to create free, online courses for the nation's 1,200 community colleges � which teach nearly half of undergrads � to make it easier for students to learn basic skills for jobs. The courses would be offered as part of a "national skills college" managed by the department.
One of my lectures in public finance (when I taught it years ago) was that we could separate the public role in allocation to public provision of goods and services and financing of those goods and services. Trash collection can be public financed through taxes yet a private hauler hired to provide the service. Private prisons and defense armaments were other examples I used in class. But I have wondered aloud whether financing eventually leads to provision? Is the box where you have private provision, public financed goods stable, or is there a tendency to have those goods drift into the public-public box (in some 2x2 grid)?

I don't think I have to worry that Blue Cross is going to operate its own hospitals some day. Firms find their specialization and stay on it until technology changes and their comparative advantage with it. But government can vertically integrate anywhere it wants -- it can be both in the insurance and the hospital administration businesses.

I particularly concern myself over non-profit hospitals like the St. Cloud Hospital. Their mission derives from the social concerns of the Catholic church. If you perceive the government will fill that need, does the hospital have a mission? Will it withdraw? This is what I think of when I hear Dennis Prager say "the bigger the government becomes, the smaller the individual citizen becomes."

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Daily effects of indoctrination, Part V 

We have done a long series on bulletin boards on this campus, most famously one in which we had a student react poorly to a display and thus we got a response. This bulletin board which is our most frequent source of blog material is from a stairwell in my office building which is traveled by many students and faculty during the day.
The latest incarnation, above, is a series of messages exhorting us to be "building an antiracist SCSU together" along with a series of small notes in pen. Gone is the art; only slogans remain. Here are a few:
This one in the upper left -- "Cooperate, DON'T Compete" -- caught my eye, and I discussed it in class. One of the lessons economics teaches is that cooperation is the result of competition. When sellers compete with other sellers (not buyers) the result is that people who want the good get it at a lower price, delivered to their door, fresh. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest," Adam Smith wrote. It is utterly remarkable how economically illiterate that comment was. I need to figure out how to do a Wordle of this board. The two most common words (says he with only casual empiricism in this, so feel free to verify) are love and hate. Hate is something we need to stop, love is something we need to start. At which point I ask: To what extent is this love and hate something that an institution of higher education is able to provide? I have no evidence that this is something we do well. We can create a love of learning, or a hate of falseness, perhaps ... but these are not the types of things we do well, and certainly not recently. The curriculum provided here fits not even that envisioned by Peter Wood as "have it your way": No, we say you will have it our way, a way we call "anti-racist" without an examination of whether or not racism exists. After all, an "appreciation" of "institutional racism" is considered by US to be our highest priority. So we will pass on a "legacy of love" and not a legacy of knowledge. That's what's more important here. It takes "all Colors" to make our world, without understanding the utter poverty of that world 400 years ago. Was this in a dorm, on a student's door, I'd smile and think this is a very nice student. As the goal of education, in a classroom building, I worry about what kinds of students we are creating.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Out of the ivory tower 

Mark Bauerlein reads the new Chronicle of Higher Education's Almanac and finds a few disturbing signs. And I don't mean the paucity of conservatives on campus -- that's a foregone conclusion by now that barely bears repeating. No, this is the observation that caught my eye:
The heading is "Issues believed to be of high or highest priority at own institution," and the last item is "To develop an appreciation of multiculturalism." To that query, 54.5 percent of respondents answered "Yes." In other words, when asked about whether their campus promoted a particular ideology and wanted students to embrace it, they agreed. Note that the statement doesn't say "study multiculturalism." It says "appreciate multiculturalism." It sets a particular belief in front of students and urges them to value it.
To marvel at this you need only imagine that the Economics Department of your local state university (say, mine) were to have as "our highest priority" to be "an appreciation of free markets." (We say in fact "understanding of economics for decision-making", in case you were wondering.) What would the howling be of the department's indoctrination as "corporate apologists"?

Here are a few others in our university:
"The Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education provides education in self-awareness and skills essential for living and working in a democratic, socially just society. Specifically, the issues addressed by the department include the study of oppression and social justice related to race, gender, age, class, religion, disability, physical appearance, sexual orientation and nationality/culture. Human Relations and Multicultural Education is an interdisciplinary applied field which is committed to addressing the serious questions of survival, equity and quality of life facing people around the world. The departmental curriculum represents the voices and perspectives of groups which have historically been excluded from the western canon. Human Relations is also dedicated to teaching investigative and critical thinking skills whereby participants examine mainstream and alternative viewpoints for values and veracity. Critical thinking, in the context of this program, must go beyond ordinary problem solving "techniques" to questioning and challenging ideas, policies and institutions."

"The General Education Program at SCSU is committed to the ideal of liberal education that provides knowledge, skills and experience and promotes critical thinking and ethical values for a lifetime of integrated learning in a diverse and changing society." [Approved by Faculty Senate on 1/24/2006.]

Assessment (of Racial Issues Courses) ... "will demonstrate knowledge of key concepts such as: ... "examples of privileges and benefits based on racial identity", "...identify forms of institutional discrimination in education, housing, politics, economics and the legal system" and "will critique societal attempts at assimilation and exclusion of under represented groups of color in the U.S."
Bauerlein notes the activist agenda of many faculties surveyed in the Almanac. While SCSU's latest attempts at activism are not much more than a farmers' market, there is little doubt we're in the majority found in the Almanac. The question one should ask is whether the new sustainability push differs from these diversity goals. One might even ask during freshman orientation, but beware.
Learning to see what is ideological about an ideology is difficult but it is part of a college education. Unfortunately your college is far more likely to want to reinforce the diversity ideology than to help you consider it critically. You may have already seen this reinforcement in your application if you were invited to write a �diversity essay.� You will see it again in course requirements, the organization of student groups, and the singling out of some groups for special treatment.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Rent-a-text now straight from the publisher 

My only question is, why did this take so long?

Stamford, Conn.-based Cengage Learning on Thursday announced plans to rent titles directly to students for 40 percent to 70 percent off the suggested retail price.

Also Thursday, McGraw-Hill Higher Education announced a partnership with web site � one of numerous Web sites that have popped up selling and renting secondhand books. Under the arrangement, McGraw-Hill will provide new textbooks to Chegg, offering the company a bigger inventory of books to lend out, and McGraw-Hill will get a share of the rental revenue.

...Students renting a Cengage title would get immediate access to an electronic version of the first chapter, and then be shipped the book, the company said. At the end of the rental term, students can return the books or purchase them.

The announcements come as the industry tries to adjust to modern technologies that have upended what students and teachers expect from supplementary classroom materials and also the traditional models for selling and delivering them.

Among other experiments, a group that manages several hundred college bookstores is currently running a trial rental program. Meanwhile, Inc. is aiming the new, bigger version of its Kindle electronic reading device at the college market, with six universities running Kindle pilots this fall.

I was able to use my Kindle 2 exclusively for books for my money and banking course last summer but that was because I didn't have a traditional textbook required. I just got a personal look at a friend's DX, and the only real advantage I saw was a program to make .pdf files more readable. (Does that come for my 2? Dunno.)

Given what I see as a high rate of time preference for my students, I will bet this is a success.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Strings attached 

Several months ago Brandeis University announced that, to help close a $10 million deficit in its budget, it would close a museum on campus and sell the art within. It has since said it would keep the museum open, but would still sell much of the art within. Now they are being sued by three overseers of the museum to try to prevent the sale. The museum, despite the university's intentions, remains open, and its website even says mockingly "To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

In the WSJ's Political Diary today, Naomi Schaefer Riley takes aim at Brandeis, wondering how it can claim that it needs the money for core educational agenda when it spends much money on athletic programs and on dorms that include "a large community space with a big-screen TV and billiards and foosball tables." But if you don't have those things, how do you attract students to attend Brandeis and see the art?

Brandeis is located in Waltham, Massachusetts, less than a thirty minute drive from most of the very fine art museums of Boston. Students have many wonderful opportunities, therefore, to see good art. I wonder instead why the plaintiffs of this lawsuit gave the art to Brandeis.

This is a very old debate among universities and their endowment and alumni boards: To what extent does acceptance of a gift bind the university to cede some of their management rights? Usually these gifts, to the extent there is an obligation on the university, come with an agreement that spells those obligations out. In a moment of stress for any organization that solicits donations -- be it university, symphony, or your local Little League foundation -- there are attempts to move monies to meet existential threats. If the donors didn't spell out that the gifts could not be converted for the university's benefit, then we'd assume that the gifts were meant to benefit the university as they see fit.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

I don't negotiate with the uninformed 

They say never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. But I'm a teacher, so let me help a student out for a moment.
Yet, the real racket is math. Yes, I failed the placement exam and am in Math 70 this summer. I realize that math is important, but looking in my book at the chapters ahead I realized that Math 70 is sufficient for college students and anything beyond this is just nonsense and a waste of money for students not majoring in the sciences, economics or engineering.
Now if you've read this blog for any length of time you know my opinion on this: To be considered a college-educated student, college algebra is as basic to your education as English, philosophy or physical education. (And we could have a discussion about PE, if you like, but I'd defend it.) Math 70 is our remedial class called Basic Mathematical Skills. The placement exam this student failed was the one that makes it possible for you to take a finite math course that is our university's math requirement. That's right, we don't require the algebra here at SCSU. (It is now required of our majors, after many years of debate, even though a plurality of undergrad economics programs require some level of calculus.)

I've discussed Math 70 before. A student who takes it has already had a low score on his ACT, and either failed or didn't take the placement test. But somehow this student thinks that by "looking in my book at the chapters ahead" he knows what is sufficient for someone to know who's not going into a math-intensive field.

He'd probably do well as a government-single-payer health insurance administrator.
Why on earth would I need to know how to do the following in the world of journalism: 9+-3{(2)x=-14-13x}; what is x? Will I ask this to a police officer or a musician or a politician or an athlete? Will such an equation come up when trying to crunch numbers in investigating racketeering stories? Perhaps, but most people would probably use a good old calculator.
First off, I'm pretty sure you wrote that equation wrong given the unbalanced parentheses or {}. Second, it's basic to not only getting in to a good college but to surviving an ever-changing world and job market. You simply don't know enough to hold any job in which you have to manipulate symbols or values by a set of logical rules. You would really want me to believe you can be a writer without control of logic?

There are sources on the internet to help you out. Robert Niles, for example, offers a small statistics primer. I clicked through it, and it's a good start. (Many readers here probably think it's too simple -- trust me, dealing with journalists has taught me it's not.) But if you can't do college algebra, will you be able to grasp any of the books he's recommended at the end? I have a copy of Statistical Analysis with Excel -- I doubt this student columnist would have been able to use it. There's a whole collection of where writers have done math badly, including a whole section just devoted to the Harry Potter series. (Example.) JK Rowling may laugh all the way to the bank while being bad at math, but it's not likely she's proud of it, and she isn't successful because she's bad at math.

And if that's not going to work for you, could I suggest some books about math that are more literary in nature? Here's a list someone wrote on Amazon; I've read three of those, and I'd read just about anything Ian Stewart wrote. (Does God Play Dice? is the only book on chaos I liked better than Gleick's.) We teach a version of economics for non-majors, using books that purge the graphs but keep the intuition.

You don't know enough to know that what you don't want to learn is good for your writing.
Of all the classes I have taken at SCSU, none required of me more than the basic use of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
I suspect you're right, and for that I apologize on behalf of the faculty. We have done you an ill service by not expecting more of you.
Now, for the teachers and students who think Math 193 is important for all students, I ask why? Students who appreciate it are probably going to actually utilize such a craft in their job fields and the teachers will say it is important because all students (by that, every student at SCSU) will need these skills (they won�t). Friends of mine who have graduated and have gotten high paying jobs have attested to me that what they learned in Math 193 has never been a part of their jobs.
I doubt you know who to thank for many of your abilities. I know how to tie a bow knot. I don't remember who taught me, maybe it was Boy Scouts, maybe Dad. All I know is I can do it. I know how to think logically. I cannot possibly tell you where I learned that lesson. It's the stock of learning from the flow of many classes, many problems, many teachers. And the one thing about which I have no doubt is that practice sharpens your skills. I haven't done a geography geometry proof in years (or I should say "hadn't" since I had to help Littlest with a few two years ago) but I know that part of how I solve an economics problem builds on connecting thoughts in exactly that same way. Writers do them too, connecting sentences that link one paragraph to the next.

Just because you don't type ax=b doesn't mean you don't use algebra. And just because you don't know you're using it doesn't mean you're not using it.

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Alternative energy in the UK and Midwest 

(In which I am a little more rant-y than usual.)

I am often amused by the blog of James Delingpole, who I first heard on a Dennis Miller podcast some months ago and who wrote the most wonderful depiction of Robert Gibbs and the American media in its reporting on President Obama's trip to England a few months ago. He's piqued me with this story now on building wind farms in national parks, proposed by a group whose mission is to preserve nature. You've seen wind farms, haven't you?
So the best way of conserving natural England, a body calling itself Natural England has decided, is to destroy it. Can anyone come up with a more ludicrous example of the warped, supposedly �progressive� but in fact utterly poisonous, wrong and self-defeating thinking so prevalent in these dark times?
Last week we find out that our neighbor colleges, St. Benedict's and St. John's, have decided to get into the solar farming business.
St. John's soon could become home to the largest solar farm in Minnesota and possibly in the Upper Midwest, providing as much as 20 percent of the campus's electricity on a cloudless day.

St. John's and the Order of St. Benedict are partnering with Westwood Renewables, an Eden Prairie-based company that received a $2 million grant from Xcel Energy for a renewable energy project.

They hope to install about 1,800 solar photovoltaic panels just northwest of the St. John's campus in Avon Township. The panels would produce up to 400 kilowatts an hour or about 575,000 kilowatt hours annually, roughly the same amount of energy that 65 homes consume in a year.

The project is part of St. John's goal to end its contribution to global warming. In 2007, it joined more than 300 colleges and universities nationwide signing a pledge to become "carbon neutral."
Well yes, yes, quite noble.
"It's a nice step forward," said Brother Benedict Leuthner, treasurer for OSB, which is spearheading the project. "It's surely not going to solve all our energy needs."

When nights and cloudy days are factored in, the solar farm would supply about 4 percent of St. John's electricity needs annually, Leuthner said.
Now I'm not a real statistician, just an economist, but I think that means 96% of their electricity needs would still be met with fossil fuels? So this is a small "part of St. John's goal to end its contribution to global warming". As Radar O'Reilly would say on M*A*S*H, "wait for it..."
The project's backers hope it will raise awareness ...
YES! "Raise awareness." Short of a sensitive nose, there is no surer bullsh*t detector than the words "raise awareness". It's your five-year-old saying "Oh yeah? I'll show you!" It's vague and meaningless, as the rest of the sentence makes clear.
...of Minnesota's potential to produce electricity from the sun, one of the cleanest sources of renewable energy. The St. John's site would serve as a research and education tool for students and visitors who want to learn more about solar power.
You know what makes these things very clear? Profits. Perhaps in our Democrat-ruled country that's a bad word. It's most certainly a taxed word. But its usefulness in guiding resources is unparalleled in human history. To wit, from later in this article:
Solar hasn't caught on widely in Minnesota largely because it costs more to produce than other types of renewable energy such as wind.

Electricity in Minnesota comes mainly from coal-fired power plants and is inexpensive compared with other parts of the country, [SJU professor of environmental studies Derek] Larson said. In California, customers pay a higher rate for any electricity they consume above a base level. The state also offers incentives for homeowners who install solar panels.

"It becomes really economically smart," Larson said.

New federal tax credits and rebates from the state and utility companies should make solar energy more appealing for Minnesota homeowners, [Doug] Shoemaker [a renewable energy spokesman] said.
Professor Larson, have you thought about where California gets the money to offer incentives for solar panels? Mr. Shoemaker, where do those federal tax credits come from? They are paid for by taxing other things in lieu. It isn't as if the government reduces its spending dollar-for-dollar with those tax credits and rebates.

But more to the point. if it costs more to produce a kilowatt by coal-fired power plants, and it's inexpensive here versus other parts of the country, why not use the coal? "Oh, but it harms our planet!" you say. Instead, the brothers at St. John's and sisters at St. Ben's decide this is better:
This is a 16 acre solar farm at Florida Gulf Coast University. For four hundred acres, multiply that picture by 25.

400 acres could grow about 16,000 bushels of corn, selling between $3-$4 per bushel normally. They could go organic perhaps and do better on a dollar basis. But they never did that, those nobles of St. John's and St. Ben's. That area has been a nice bit of pasture or wooded land. People hike around there. Now they won't because they'd goof up the mirrors. You'd wreck their "demonstration" to "raise awareness" that solar would be a good idea, if coal just wasn't so damn cheap.

So raise the price, they'll say, through cap-and-trade. Then all those people who drive trucks or, say, work in extraction industries in the Iron Range (not many of them left) will have time to visit the beautiful hills around St. John's.

And see the pretty mirrors.

But hey! They're saving the planet with those things, if you'll just have your awareness raised.

POSTSCRIPT: After crafting this I came across at least one government bureaucrat who understands.
India will continue to use coal to meet its energy demands, says Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

�Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes,� Pachauri told reporters here Monday.

�You cannot, in a democracy, ignore some of these realities and as it happens with the resources of coal that India has we really don�t have any choice but to use coal in the immediate short term,� he said.
He must be some conservative nut, right? No, actually, Mr. Pachauri shares a Nobel Peace Prize ... with Al Gore. So at least raising consciousness comes after lighting one's home. There's still a place called Hope.

Even better, another Indian minister says retreating glaciers in the Himalayans are a natural process.
"We have to get out of the preconceived notion, which is based on western media, and invest our scientific research and other capacities to study Himalayan atmosphere," he said. "Science has its limitation. You cannot substitute the knowledge that has been gained by the people living in cold deserts through everyday experience."
Nurture that common sense, dear Indians. We'll want to import some when we get leaders here who can use it.

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