Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Tyranny of "Good Intentions" at U.S. Colleges

In 1902, journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote a book called "The Shame of the Cities." At the time, Americans took pride in big cities, with their towering skyscrapers, productive factories and prominent cultural institutions.

Steffens showed there were some rotten things underneath the gleaming veneers -- corrupt local governments and political machines, aided and abetted by business leaders.

In recent weeks, two books have appeared about another of America's gleaming institutions, our colleges and universities, either of which could be subtitled "The Shame of the Universities."

In "Mismatch," law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor expose, in the words of their subtitle, "How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It." In "Unlearning Liberty," Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, describes how university speech codes create, as his subtitle puts it, "Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate."

"Mismatch" is a story of good intentions gone terribly awry. Sander and Taylor document beyond disagreement how university admissions offices' racial quotas and preferences systematically put black and Hispanic students in schools where they are far less well prepared than others.

As a result, they tend to get low grades, withdraw from science and math courses, and drop out without graduating. The effect is particularly notable in law schools, where large numbers of blacks and Hispanics either drop out or fail to pass the bar exam.

This happens, Sander and Taylor argue, not because these students lack ability but because they've been thrown in with students of exceptional ability -- the mismatch of the authors' title. At schools where everyone has similar levels of test scores and preparation, these students do much better. And they don't suffer the heartache of failure.

That was shown when California's state universities temporarily obeyed a 1996 referendum banning racial quotas and preferences. UCLA law school had fewer black students but just as many black graduates. The university system as a whole produced more black and Hispanic graduates.

Similarly, black students interested in math and science tend to get degrees in those subjects in historically black colleges, while those in schools with a mismatch switch to easier majors because math instruction is pitched to classmates with better preparation.

University admissions officers nevertheless maintain what Taylor calls "an enormous, pervasive and carefully concealed system of racial preferences," even while claiming they aren't actually doing so. The willingness to lie systematically seems to be a requirement for such jobs.

The willingness to lie systematically is also a requirement for administrators who profess a love of free speech while imposing speech codes and penalizing students for violations.

All of which provides plenty of business for Lukianoff's FIRE, which opposes speech codes and brings lawsuits on behalf of students -- usually, but not always, conservatives -- who are penalized.

Those who graduated from college before the late 1980s may not realize that speech codes have become, in Lukianoff's words, "the rule rather than the exception" on American campuses.

They are typically vague and all-encompassing. One school prohibits "actions or attitudes that threaten the welfare" of others. Another bans emails that "harass, annoy or otherwise inconvenience others." Others ban "insensitive" communication, "inappropriate jokes" and "patronizing remarks."

"Speech codes can only survive," Lukianoff writes, "through selective enforcement." Conservatives and religious students are typically targeted. But so are critics of administrators, like the student expelled for a Facebook posting critical of a proposed $30 million parking garage.

Students get the message: Keep your mouth shut. An Association of American Colleges and Universities survey of 24,000 students found that only 40 percent of freshmen thought it was "safe to hold unpopular views on campus." An even lower 30 percent of seniors agreed.

So institutions that once prided themselves as arenas for free exchange of ideas -- and still advertise themselves as such -- have become the least free part of our society.

How? One answer is that university personnel almost all share the same liberal-left beliefs. Many feel that contrary views and criticism are evil and should be stamped out.

It also helps to follow the money. Government student loan programs have pumped huge sums into colleges and universities that have been raising tuition and fees far faster than inflation.

The result is administrative bloat. Since 2005, universities have employed more administrators than teachers.

There are signs that what's Glenn Reynolds calls the higher education bubble is about to burst. And perhaps people are waking up to the rottenness beneath the universities' gleaming veneer.


'Real School Employees of Buffalo': Taxpayers Pick Up Tab for Plastic Surgeries, 5-Star Hotels and Limousines

Check out this jaw-dropping story from

Just call them the “Real School Employees of Buffalo.”

Like the rich folks in the famous television show with the similar name, employees of Buffalo Public Schools routinely spend a great deal of money on extravagant things like plastic surgery, airline travel, expensive hotels and limousines.

The only difference is that the wealthy people in “Real Housewives” are spending their own money. In Buffalo they’re throwing around taxpayer dollars.

EAGnews recently completed an inspection of credit card records and the check registry for the City of Buffalo School District in 2011. We also filed a freedom of information request to measure the latest cost of the district’s infamous employee cosmetic surgery program.

The dollar figures we found were breathtaking, and not in a good way.

The amount spent on cosmetic surgery for teachers came to $2.7 million. The total cost for hotels, airline tickets, limousines and the like came to $196,986. You read it correctly. A struggling public school district with a budget deficit of nearly $50 million spent almost $3 million in one year on plastic surgery and travel. District officials declined an invitation to explain these expenses before publication of this story.

One local media outlet, WGRZ-TV (NBC 2), already picked up this story and ran a report last night.

We don’t suppose the taxpayers of Buffalo will be too amused the next time they are asked to approve a tax increase for general operations. School officials have already demonstrated they can’t handle large sums of money in any sort of responsible fashion. Who in their right mind would give them any more to waste?

Union negotiated facelifts

What’s more amazing than a struggling public school district paying the total cost of elective cosmetic surgery for employees?

The fact that the program has been public knowledge for a few years now, and nobody has done anything to stop it.

As the Atlantic put it in a 2010 story, “Hair removal. Microdermabrasion. Liposuction. If you name the procedure, it’s probably covered. This is a city where the average teacher makes $52,000 a year. The plastic surgery tab would pay salaries for 100 extra educators.”

The program is the result of a negotiated provision in the Buffalo teacher union collective bargaining agreement, dating back to the 1970s. In later decades cosmetic surgery boomed in America and doctors began advertising to Buffalo teachers in their union newsletter, according to the Atlantic.

By 2009, about 500 employees were taking advantage of this unbelievable perk. The district’s annual tab grew as high as $9 million in 2009.

When the program was exposed to the public a few years ago, Buffalo union boss Philip Rumore said he would be glad to drop the perk in the next round of contract negotiations. But Buffalo hasn’t had a new teachers contract since the last one expired in 2004, according to the Atlantic.

That’s because the state of New York allows teachers to keep working under the terms of expired contracts until a new pact is negotiated. While would the Buffalo union want a new contract when the old one pays out so well?

At one point the school board offered to cancel 100 teacher layoffs if the union would drop the cosmetic surgery program for a year, according to The Atlantic. The union declined the offer.

“The urgency of negotiating a new contract really isn’t there,” Amber Dixon, a recent interim superintendent for the district, told The Atlantic. “You get to keep your benefits. You get to keep your cosmetic rider. You get to keep your 2.5 percent step increase. It makes getting back to the table difficult.”

Of course all of this is old news. The taxpayers of Buffalo long ago accepted the fact that they have to fork over hard earned dollars so teachers can get free nips and tucks.

But just out of curiosity, we decided to get an update on the annual cost of this monstrous waste of money. The school district responded politely to our request:

“Pursuant to your FOIL request dated October 15, 2012, the Buffalo public school district spent $2,728,201 on cosmetic procedures for members of the Buffalo Teachers Federation for the period of June 2011-July 2012.”

Hmm. $2.7 million. At least that’s less than the $5.2 million the district shelled out the year before.

“Please feel free to contact (so and so at some number) should you care to discuss the matter any further,” the school district letter continued.

No thanks. We’ve learned all we care to know about this sickening disposal of taxpayer dollars. Just let us know when somebody finds the courage to end this fiasco.

Big travel costs

Given the crazy cost of the cosmetic surgery program, one might expect Buffalo school officials to economize in other ways.

After all, they’re dealing with a budget deficit of roughly $49 million. No such luck.

We found 199 credit card transactions at various hotels around the nation, totaling $80,784. Then we discovered 24 checks written to various hotels, costing another $47,704.

That brings the district’s one-year lodging tab to nearly $130,000, which might be nearly enough to employ two first-year teachers with benefits – if they don’t have plastic surgery performed.

What were some of the more expensive lodging bills?

Let’s see. The district had nine credit card charges for a total of $7,541 at the Hyatt Hotels Regency in Jersey City on July 11, 2011. Sounds like fun. There were eight charges for a total of $4,011 at Hyatt Hotels San Antonio on Feb. 28, 2011.

Five transactions at Residence Inns Downtown Tampa on Feb. 3, 2011 came to $4,975. There were 11 charges totaling $4,163 at Residence Inns Greenbelt (wherever that is) on May 15, 2011. There were nine charges at the Hilton Saratoga Hotel on May 3, 2011 for $2,465.

It appears that checks were the preferred mode of payment for instate lodging. One check for $1,828 was written to the Darien Lake Theme Park Resort on July 8, 2011. Another for $1,560 was written to Marriott Hotel Corporation in Albany on Sept. 2, 2011, while one for $1,428 went to Hampton Inn and Suites in Poughkeepsie on April 15, 2011.

The largest single hotel transaction was for $36,870 at Buffalo’s own Adams Mark Hotel on July 22, 2011.

Of course school officials had to get to their destinations, which meant a lot of flying. We found 181 transactions with various airlines in 2011, costing the district $60,805.

That’s a lot of frequent flier miles. To be fair, the school district appears to have made an effort to fly budget airlines, like Jetblue, on a fairly frequent basis. But there were also plenty of bookings on more expensive airlines like United, Southwest and Delta.

Let’s not forget the limousine costs. District credit cards were used for $669 worth of service from Kings Limo Service, Moon Limo Services, RTC Chauffer Service and VC Limousine Service on various days in 2011. School officials, as mentioned above, failed to respond to our offer to explain these costs. But based on what we’ve heard from other district around the nation, we can almost guess what they would have said:

Some or most of the money spent on travel came from state or federal grants. Some or most of the money was used for professional development trips. Expensive hotels were used because that’s where the conferences were. Some of the money was spent on student travel.


Tax money is tax money, whether it comes from school coffers or the state or federal government. And Buffalo school officials spent a lot of it on questionable transactions in 2011. They may not have offered us an explanation, but we think they owe one to the taxpayers of their city.


One of Britain's unemployed Ph.D.s writes:

His pumped-up Leftist ego is starting to deflate as he faces reality

Passing my viva without corrections was just the latest addition to a spotless educational record. Despite any initial fears, my work was warmly-received and plans were quickly put in motion to transform the thesis into a book. This was the final validation from colleagues and mentors who had long assured me that I would have a bright future as a sociologist.

So how did I end up unemployed?

Understand that I would usually consider it distasteful to list my achievements like this, but am finding that modesty is becoming an obsolete quality in today's labour market. I tell you my achievements only to put my recent experiences in context. Life since the PhD has been hard.

Unlike many of my peers, I did not prioritise my employability when I was still a student. Though I did teach and present at a few conferences, I chose to focus most of my energy on crafting my thesis and getting it finished within the funding period. I am passionate about my work and stick by this decision, but what I am now learning is that while I left my viva exam ready to make a mark on the world, ready to prove that I merited the praise given me, I was still just one candidate in a congested academic job market.

After graduating, I spent two months finishing my leftover teaching and marking before becoming unemployed. I have applied for around twenty jobs and received one interview, which was unsuccessful. I am out in the cold but I try to remain positive. There are undoubtedly merits to my situation as an unemployed academic; it is wonderful to have so much time in which to think and write. I do, however, feel distant from the warmth of the institution that, over the past years, has validated who I am and what I think.

One of the unfortunate things about creative achievements within academia is that they cannot always be expressed in a way that is meaningful to the 'outside world'. Floating free of the university, I encounter few people in my daily life who care about my talents as a writer and researcher. I have been claiming Jobseekers' allowance for the previous three months and my advisors at the Job Centre are certainly not impressed.

One of the problems I am encountering is that most of the activities that young academics need to perform in order to improve their chances of employment – presenting at conferences, networking, writing articles to satisfy the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), or crafting watertight personal statements – are not seen by Job Centre advisors as legitimate uses of time as an 'unemployee'. In a recent review with an advisor, not even my hours spent preparing for a job interview were considered a legitimate use of time. Time spent researching the role was considered time wasted, in which I should have been contacting further prospective employers.

After only three months claiming Jobseekers' Allowance, my advisors are already suggesting that my aspirations to work in academia are unrealistic. They do not understand the nature of my qualifications and call me complacent for failing to respond to listed vacancies for cleaners and checkout operators at Asda and Tesco. It is the unperturbed nature of these tellings-off that I find most distressing; the eerily casual manner in which it is suggested that I turn my back on my vocation, my identity, and eight years worth of learning and training.

I am familiar with the theories that explain the social mechanics and emotional consequences of what I am going through – I used to teach them. This irony has been a source of wry amusement. I make a lot of jokes these days, sometimes telling friends that I am going to draw on my experiences to write a satirical sequel to Harry Potter, whereby, realising his degree from Hogwarts has no value in the labour market, Harry is forced to get a job in a Virgin Media call centre. On gloomier days I flesh out the story: the narrative will move between Harry looking depressed in his headset taking call after call, and flashbacks to the good old days with Ron and the gang, back when a young wizard's skills were worth something. But I do wonder how long my friends will find this joke funny.

Humour is a horribly transparent coping strategy. A more enduring strategy is to take a sort of sociological interest in one's experiences. Following the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I believe that any experience that does not cause significant harm can be interesting, regardless of whether its character is positive or negative. Whilst visiting the job centre has been a particularly disheartening experience, I have certainly valued it as a source of social insight.

Still, as time goes on and I remain out of work, I can feel my sociological curiosity starting to wear off. Perhaps I am worrying too early, but I do feel like I am walking into a trap. In my struggle to find even a part-time academic job, I am forced to wonder how long the welfare system will tolerate me.


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