Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Diversity and academic open mindedness

 I had an interesting recent conversation with a fellow academic that I think worth a blog post. It started with my commenting that I thought support for "diversity" in the sense in which the term is usually used in the academic context—having students or faculty from particular groups, in particular blacks but also, in some contexts, gays, perhaps hispanics, perhaps women—in practice anticorrelated with support for the sort of diversity, diversity of ideas, that ought to matter to a university.

I offered my standard example. Imagine that a university department has an opening and is down to two or three well qualified candidates. They learn that one of them is an articulate supporter of South African Apartheid. Does the chance of hiring him go up or down? If the university is actually committed to intellectual diversity, the chance should go up—it is, after all, a position that neither faculty nor students are likely to have been exposed to. In fact, in any university I am familiar with, it would go sharply down.

The response was that that he considered himself very open minded, getting along with people across the political spectrum, but that that position was so obviously beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse that refusing to hire the candidate was the correct response.

The question I should have asked and didn't was whether he had ever been exposed to an intelligent and articulate defense of apartheid. Having spent my life in the same general environment—American academia—as he spent his, I think the odds are pretty high that he had not been. If so, he was in the position of a judge who, having heard the case for the prosecution, convicted the defendant without bothering to hear the defense.

Worse still, he was not only concluding that the position was wrong—we all have limited time and energy, and so must often reach such conclusions on an inadequate basis—he was concluding it with a level of certainty so high that he was willing to rule out the possibility that the argument on the other side might be worth listening to.

An alternative question I might have put to him was whether he could make the argument for apartheid about as well as a competent defender of that system could. That, I think, is a pretty good test of whether one has an adequate basis to reject a position—if you don't know the arguments for it, you probably don't know whether those arguments are wrong, although there might be exceptions. I doubt that he could have. At least, in the case of political controversies where I have been a supporter of the less popular side, my experience is that those on the other side considerably overestimate their knowledge of the arguments they reject.

Which reminds me of something that happened to me almost fifty years ago—in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for President. I got into a friendly conversation with a stranger, probably set off by my wearing a Goldwater pin and his curiosity as to how someone could possibly support that position.

We ran through a series of issues. In each case, it was clear that he had never heard the arguments I was offering in defense of Goldwater's position and had no immediate rebuttal. At the end he asked me, in a don't-want-to-offend-you tone of voice, whether I was taking all of these positions as a joke.

I interpreted it, and still do, as the intellectual equivalent of "what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How could I be intelligent enough to make what seemed like convincing arguments for positions he knew were wrong, and yet stupid enough to believe them?


Denial of promotion on the grounds of political beliefs challenged

I underwent something like this myself.  I was denied upgrading even though I had more publications each year than the rest of the  Department put together -- JR

Mike Adams

After six years of litigation, I am pleased to report that I have finally won the right to present my case against UNC-Wilmington to a jury of my peers here in North Carolina. My case began in September of 2006 when I was denied promotion to full professor. At the time, I had multiple teaching awards and outstanding reviews from students for my teaching. I had published more peer-reviewed articles than the vast majority of my colleagues. In fact, my department had never denied promotion to full professor to anyone with as many peer reviewed publications as I had accumulated. My service activity could only be minimized by suggesting that it did not “count” due to the views it advanced. It was voluminous but unpopular with my peers.

The promotion process was replete with procedural irregularities and with direct criticism of my columns and my beliefs. I immediately tried to appeal the decision internally but was denied a chance to do so. With no other recourse, I filed suit because it is unconstitutional for public officials to retaliate against an employee for expressing his views on critical social and political topics. It is especially hypocritical when such retaliation occurs at a public university that holds itself out as a free and open marketplace of ideas.

The journey has been long and there have been dark moments. In March of 2010, my case was thrown out when the district court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect my columns. Instead the federal court ruled that because I mentioned them on my promotion application they were a part of my official duties as a public employee. That ruling was based on an interpretation of a Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which dealt with employee speech. That controversial case ruled that public employee speech – even if on matters of public concern – could be restricted if it was a part of the employee’s “official duties.”

We appealed and the Fourth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s ruling. In a unanimous opinion, they ruled that my columns qualified as protected, private speech. Regarding that central issue, the Fourth Circuit said the following:

“Put simply, Adams' speech was not tied to any more specific or direct employee duty than the general concept that professors will engage in writing, public appearances, and service within their respective fields. For all the reasons discussed above, that thin thread is insufficient to render Adams' speech ‘pursuant to [his] official duties’ … Applying Garcetti to the academic work of a public university faculty member under the facts of this case could place beyond the reach of First Amendment protection many forms of public speech or service a professor engaged in during his employment. That would not appear to be what Garcetti intended, nor is it consistent with our long-standing recognition that no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.”

The Fourth Circuit also ruled that the UNCW officials could be held personally liable if I ultimately won the case. In other words, all defendants were stripped of their qualified immunity. It was a resounding victory for academic freedom.

When the case was remanded, the Fourth Circuit asked the district court to determine whether there was evidence that I lost that promotion because of my columns and the views expressed in them. In a decision released last month, the district court answered that question with a resounding “yes.” In another victory for free speech, the court reasoned as follows:

"Here, plaintiff has brought forth evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that his speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision to deny [promotion] to plaintiff. The court need not detail the evidence, but plaintiff has produced evidence which . . . shows the following: (1) his internal evaluations declined after he began the speech at issue; (2) faculty attempted to stop or alter his speech; (3) the denial of his application to full professor was in temporal proximity to Adams’ columns openly criticizing the University on certain political and social issues; (4) the written comments of the faculty on the [promotion] decision committee show hostility toward plaintiff’s speech; and, (5) a faculty member who had accused plaintiff of harassment was allowed to participate and vote on the plaintiff’s application for promotion."

I am eager for my day in court and I will keep my readers apprised of any new developments. In the meantime, I hope that many conservatives in academia will reconsider their decision to remain passive in the campus culture wars. Many believe they cannot win. That is certainly true if they refuse to fight.


Top university, a great degree – but as for a job, dream on

Dreaming spires: a degree from a good university such as Oxford opens doors in some places, but it doesn’t seem to secure jobs

Few youngsters had more advantages than Sophie Strang. She attended some of the country’s best schools: first The Mount, an exclusive London day school, and then North London Collegiate, the £15,000-a-year alma mater of Anna Wintour and Esther Rantzen. Like many of her classmates, she achieved straight As at A-level and won a place at Oxford.

Yet, four years later, she is back at the family home in Totteridge. Eight months after she graduated from Keble College, the 21-year-old cannot find work. Her 2:1 in English was not enough to impress employers in her desired field of film and TV production, and she has received nearly 100 rejection letters from a range of job vacancies.

“I have done unpaid internships for more than six months,” Strang says. “I have been rejected from receptionist work and a lot of admin jobs. I don’t feel a sense of entitlement but I am definitely capable of doing that work. Employers are receiving hundreds of applications, even for these jobs that are far from glamorous.”

One in four 21-year-old graduates are unemployed, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. And those lucky university leavers who do manage to find work usually find that their degree is irrelevant, as The Daily Telegraph columnist Allister Heath pointed out last week. Indeed, a fifth of recent graduates are working as waiters, check-out operators, filing clerks or in other retail, catering and secretarial roles. Nor do those leaving the best universities, like Strang, necessarily find highly skilled jobs: in the past three years, Oxford has produced more accounts clerks than management consultants and more bar staff than young economists.

Yet university remains the default option for many British teenagers, even after most institutions nearly tripled their annual fees, to £9,000, last year. In 1982, universities received 171,000 applications, including those from foreign students. Under Labour, the number of places rocketed with the then prime minister Tony Blair’s cherished ambition to send half of our teenagers into higher education. More than 544,000 British students applied last year, a slight decrease on the year before, but tens of thousands more than four years ago.

However, as traditional degrees are failing to provide jobs for all in austerity Britain, a new breed of undergraduate is emerging who combines his or her studies with an apprenticeship. So-called “higher” apprentices split their university years between work and education – in the style of the old "sandwich" courses at polytechnics, but with even more time spent in industry – earning a wage and experience as well as a degree. Some employers will then pay for their apprentices to study for a master’s degree.

The scheme was launched in 2008 by the government’s Learning and Skills Council and, though little publicised, is proving popular with employers. That low profile is set to change. Today, the Department for Business publishes the first evidence of the scheme’s success: a poll of 500 employers showing that they would rather take on a higher apprentice than a conventional graduate. A wide range of companies offers the apprenticeships, from management consultancies and public relations firms to life sciences and engineering outfits. Last year, 3,700 youngsters embarked on a higher apprenticeship, two-thirds more than the year before. An advertising campaign that launches today is seeking to attract at least 25,000 more young people.

Holly Broadhurst, from Leek in Staffordshire, is one such student, having turned down offers to study a full-time degree in mechanical engineering at universities such as Loughborough and Sheffield Hallam. At 19, she is two years younger than Sophie Strang but has been working ever since she left school last summer.

“I was worried about the fees at university,” she says. “I would have had £50,000 worth of debt and no guarantee of a job at the end of it. This way, I get a job straight away, get paid well and get a degree on top.”

Her employer, JCB, pays for her to attend Sheffield Hallam one day a week. For the rest of the week she works for them as a troubleshooter, using her academic experience to solve customers’ problems.

Broadhurst says her work experience makes her a better student. “It puts everything in perspective,” she says. “There is not someone there with a textbook saying, 'This works like that for this reason.’ I used to think, 'Hang on a minute, I don’t understand.’ Now I see it in real life and think, 'That’s where this theory comes in.’”

She insists that missing out on full-time university life is a small price to pay

“There are days when I think of my friends having a whale of a time at university,” she admits. “They are out partying all the time. But is that what university is actually for? Here, I’ve got a job, I’m learning at the same time and I’m having fun.”

Broadhurst’s decision is less surprising when one considers her alma mater, the JCB Academy. The school is named after its principal business partner and is based just round the corner from JCB’s headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire. It was the first of what are known as university technical colleges, a new type of technical school for 14- to 18-year-olds championed by Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the architect of the National Curriculum. They represent a challenge to the conventional model of a comprehensive, academic education followed by university, and are gaining ground: five are now open and last month the Department for Education approved proposals for a further 13. An expected 27 are to open within two years.

The schools are supported by a range of local companies and a university, with the aim of helping to meet skills shortages in a particular area of business. So while the JCB Academy focuses on engineering, others target biomedical science, health care, construction, design, digital technology, computer science and sport. GCSEs and

A-levels are integrated in eight-week projects devised by the sponsoring firms, which involve testing technical as well as academic prowess.

The first 16-year-olds who joined the school when it opened in 2010 left last summer (the first intake at age 14 leave in 2014). Jim Wade, the principal of the JCB Academy, is proud that the entire first cohort is now either working or in further education and, remarkably, half of that first year group of 32 has chosen a higher apprenticeship. “We were really surprised by the percentage going down that route,” says Wade. “But when you think of it from their perspective, they’re getting their degree alongside training. They are also providing crucial skills those industries need.”

Holly Broadhurst was head girl at the JCB Academy last year. The head boy, Aidan Rogers, is now an apprentice, too, turning down a full-time university place to work for Rolls-Royce on aircraft engine design, while studying for his degree.

“I think apprenticeships should be seen more widely as an alternative to university and not as a dirty word,” he says. “When I was telling my friends I was applying for one, they didn’t think it led through university to master’s level; they saw it as hands-on work. They couldn’t understand that this was what I wanted to do when I could have got into so many good universities.”

Apprenticeships are growing in appeal, with several of the largest graduate recruiters scrambling to set up their own schemes. PwC, the accountancy firm, hired 31 apprentices last year and plans to more than double the number it takes on this year. It says its scheme is the right route for talented students “who are clear about their career path and want to get straight into work”.

Accenture, the IT consultancy, has established a similar scheme. “We’re not going to stop taking on IT graduates but it [the apprenticeship scheme] is providing an alternative for us,” says Bob Paton, Accenture managing director in Newcastle. “University is great for some people but as a country we need to give young people other options.

“We have got some apprentices now who started a university course and then pulled out of it to join us. I can understand why people might in the past have thought an apprenticeship was something to do with becoming a plumber or a bricklayer, but more and more companies are offering these schemes. They are right for bright people with few qualifications but they are also right for people with great A-levels who are considering the university route.”

Meanwhile, Sophie Strang faces an anxious wait after her latest job interview last Friday. She does not regret going to Oxford, but is under no illusion now that a good degree will automatically lead to employment. “Oxford opens doors in some places – especially in small companies where the MD went there, too – but it doesn’t seem to secure jobs.

“In a lot of industries, people who have gone to less good universities but have studied a vocational subject, say TV production, are much more likely to get jobs in that industry than me with my 2:1 from Oxford.”

Many professions still require a conventional degree, but Strang thinks schools should educate pupils not to assume that university is their only option. “When I’m Googling jobs, these apprenticeships come up but I’m not allowed to apply for them because I have a degree,” she sighs. “There is an assumption among middle-class parents that all their friends’ children are going to university, so we have to go, too. But university isn’t right for everyone.”


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