Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Obama trades college-ranking plan for a data clearinghouse

President Obama on Saturday abandoned his two-year effort to have the government create a system that rates the quality of the nation’s colleges and universities, a plan that was bitterly opposed by presidents at many of those institutions.

Under the original idea, announced by Obama in 2013, all of the nation’s 7,000 institutions of higher education would have been assigned a ranking by the government, with the aim of publicly shaming low-rated schools that saddle students with high debt and poor earning potential.

Instead, the White House on Saturday unveiled a website that does not attempt to rate schools with any kind of grade, but provides information to prospective students and their parents about annual costs, graduation rates, and salaries after graduation.

Obama praised the new website in his weekly address, saying that by using the new College Scorecard, “Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education.”

But the new website falls far short of what the president had hoped for. When he announced the plan at the State University of New York in Buffalo in 2013, Obama put colleges on notice that schools performing poorly on his rating system would eventually lose access to billions of dollars in federal student aid money.

“I’m proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system,” Obama said at the time. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren’t graduating.”

Aides to Obama had described him as privately demanding from his staff bold action that would hold schools accountable, especially those that had low graduation rates and poor postgraduate income potential — even as they continued charging students tens of thousands of dollars each year to attend. Administration officials said at the time that the rating system would be in place by 2015.

But the plan quickly ran into opposition. Critics, including many of the presidents at elite private colleges, lobbied against the idea of a government rating system, saying it could force schools to prioritize moneymaking majors like accounting over those like English, history, or philosophy.

Officials at many schools said the government had no business competing with college rating services like those offered by US News and World Report. Many chose blunt language to describe what they said was a misguided effort by Obama and his administration.

Charles L. Flynn Jr., president of the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York, called the president’s idea “uncharacteristically clueless.”

Adam F. Falk, president of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., predicted that it would be “oversimplified to the point that it actually misleads.” And Kenneth W. Starr, who is the president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and who, as a prosecutor, led the investigations of President Bill Clinton, called it “quite wrongheaded.”

For months, administration officials dismissed the criticism, saying that the status quo was unacceptable and that the president was determined to make a rating system work.

In 2014, Cecilia Muñoz, the president’s chief domestic policy adviser, responded in an interview to the complaints from college presidents by saying: “There is an element to this conversation which is, ‘We hope to God you don’t do this.’ Our answer to that is: ‘This is happening.’”

But more than a year later, the new scorecard unveiled Saturday does not attempt to rank colleges. And a fact sheet distributed by the White House makes no mention of linking the availability of federal student aid to a government ranking of a specific college.

David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which strongly opposed the president’s rating plan, said Saturday that he supported providing more information to students and families.

“This is a step in that direction,” Warren said. “It also appears that the tool will allow colleges and universities to tailor their profiles, which allows for showcasing the diversity of institutions nationwide.”

White House officials said the scorecard — which can be found at collegescorecard.ed.gov — will allow students and parents to compare schools based on measurements that are important to them.

Using the website, for example, a student might search for schools with average annual costs of under $10,000, a graduation rate higher than 75 percent, and average salaries after graduation of more than $50,000 per year.


No, Britain's schools are not full of tiny sex offenders

The criminalisation of children has reached terrifying heights

Want a perfect example of the rape-culture panic? On Friday, the BBC published figures suggesting that, over the past three years, 5,500 alleged sex crimes in UK schools were reported to the police. Of these, 4,000 were allegations of physical sexual assault and more than 600 were allegations of rape. At least one fifth of the alleged offences reported were said to be perpetrated by children, while the details of the rest were unknown.

It wasn’t long before the figures were being used to justify the inclusion of consent classes in schools. Children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, called for ‘a relationships and sex component to be part of the national curriculum’. This comes after the Department for Education published guidance earlier this year on teaching children as young as 11 about sexual consent. Despite the lack of detail in determining the age of alleged abusers, the findings were taken as proof that children are becoming sexual abusers at a younger and younger age.

This is bonkers. Firstly, the BBC’s reporting of the numbers was full of bald assertions. Jon Brown, head of sexual-abuse programmes at the NSPCC, was quoted in the BBC report, saying that ‘accessing hardcore pornography is warping [children’s] view of what is acceptable behaviour’. This claim was made in spite of the fact that decades of research has failed to demonstrate any link whatsoever between exposure to pornography and sexual-assault prevalence.

Children have not transformed in recent years into a marauding gang of sexual offenders; nor are they any more sexually aggressive today than in the past. In fact, these stats say less about our children’s newfound tendencies towards sexual perversion and more about our own warped idea of what constitutes sexual criminality.

The criminalisation of children in recent years, especially around sex, is startling. In 2013/14 the UK prosecuted over 1,600 young people for rape and sexual violence. And yet, many of the reported cases amount to little more than the cack-handed and unthinking application of the law to innocent, childlike behaviour. In 2010, the nation was shocked when two boys, aged 10 and 11, were found guilty of rape for – in their lawyers’ words – ‘playing doctors and nurses’ with an eight-year-old girl. Other cases have involved slightly older children ‘sexually touching’ younger complainants in what, again, amounted to little more than childish games. Today, we are increasingly recasting harmless events, and other ambiguous moments in young people’s sexual development, as sexual violence.

The recent spike in allegations only shows that parents, teachers and students are becoming all too willing to report these incidents to the police rather than deal with them themselves. This is a problem. It’s a problem if children are beginning to read otherwise innocent or merely awkward sexual contact with one another through the prism of criminal abuse. But it’s an even bigger problem if adults involved in these cases feel incapable of dealing with young people’s behaviour without the intervention of the authorities.

Involving the police in these incidents has huge consequences. A criminal trial is extremely demanding and has the potential utterly to disrupt a child’s schooling; the whole process is likely to be hugely embarrassing for everyone involved; and many of the accused are likely to be advised to plead guilty as quickly as possible in order to minimise punishment. Children who are found guilty are given criminal records that stay with them for life. They can even be put on the sex offenders’ register for lengthy periods. Having to disclose their past as part of applying for employment or a place at university may seriously put these young people off doing either.

So, no, our schools are not filled with young sex offenders – nor are young people being warped by online pornography. These figures expose a problem not with the kids, but with us adults, who apparently feel unable to deal with young people’s behaviour without recourse to the criminal law. This is being driven by the panic around rape and sexual violence, which encourages us to see more and more innocent behaviour as criminal. It’s time to kick rape law out of our schools. As adults, we have a responsibility to manage the behaviour of young people without immediately running to the cops.


Divesting from free speech

How environmentalists shut down debate on campus

Students campaigning to get universities to divest from fossil fuels are in two minds about free speech. They want it for themselves, but don’t seem keen on free speech for their opponents.

The divestment movement didn’t invent free-speech hypocrisy, but divestment activists offer a range of old and new reasons as to why opposing views should not be tolerated.

The debate is over

The divestment movement claims to like debate. It is convinced that anyone with an open mind can’t help but agree that divesting is a good thing to do.

‘Colleges would already be divesting if it were just about the arguments, because there are plenty out there’, says full-time campaigner Jess Grady-Benson, leader of an ardent student divestment campaign at Pitzer College in California. Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group 350.org and the international divestment movement, declared at a recent rally: ‘We won the argument. Twenty years ago we lost the fight and that’s because the fight was never about data.’

If, in your own mind, you have won the substantive argument, but your opponent continues to persuade the audience to his side, what can you do? Declare the debate to be over? Yank the microphone away from the moderator? Refuse to share a platform with anyone who so wrongheadedly persists in thinking the debate is not over? These might sound like exaggerated metaphors, but they are actual examples of what divestarians have done in the past. The commandeering of the microphone, for example, took place when a group of divestment activists, calling themselves Mountain Justice, took over a debate on divestment with Swarthmore College’s board of trustees. The rowdy group then went on a 90-minute screed about the need for ‘radical emancipatory action’ and cancelled the question-and-answer section where students and faculty could weigh in. When two students in the audience dared to ask if the meeting could be returned to order, divestment activists clapped them down in unison and told them to leave.

Delaying by debating

The divestment movement is sometimes in favour of debate, but in the same breath it spurns debate as a delaying tactic. Dialogue, it says, is enemy territory occupied by the fossil-fuel industry – debate is the industry’s way to buy time. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science, has convinced activists that the fossil-fuel industry has tainted scientific literature, political processes and the media. Anyone who advocates dialogue is immediately suspect.

Swarthmore activist Kate Aronoff verbalised the movement’s free-speech angst in a post called ‘F*** Your Constructive Dialogue’. She criticised her liberal friends who were mimicking conservatives in ‘deploying identical arguments in defence of tolerant civil discourse’. She found the dialogue suffocating and wanted sheer ‘conflict’.

Declaring debate to be over and deciding that there was no ground for debate in the first place is contradictory, but it all leads to the same conclusion – only the divestarians have a moral claim to free speech. Dissenters are either fools or knaves, and it would be a waste of precious time to give them the opportunity to speak. That time is better spent in preventing them from speaking.

Smear your opponents

McKibben says the divestment movement’s censorious tactics do the whole world a favour by cutting through political posturing and getting back to the facts. Fossil-fuel companies have ‘bought’ the politicians and the media, apparently, and the divestment campaign exposes the soundbite half-truths they are paid to say.

But the divestment movement has itself honed the art of slanting messages and demonising opponents. Indeed, demonisation is its entire purpose.

McKibben says that divestment’s aim is to ‘revoke the social license’ of the fossil-fuel industry and turn companies into ‘pariahs’. Anyone who happens to oppose divestment is up for being labelled a pariah, too. Boards of trustees who vote against divestment learn this immediately – they are accused of climate-change denial, oligarchical behaviour and, in almost every case, money grubbing. Most US colleges promote sustainability and nearly 700 American colleges have taken pledges to go carbon neutral. Nevertheless, if they don’t rush to divest entirely, they still get painted as pawns of the fossil-fuel industry.

Polarising opinion

The divestment movement insists it is taking steps towards political healing. Once corporations quit buying the political system, it says, the people will make the ‘right’ decision about climate change. ‘Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon’, says McKibben, but right now we ‘aren’t left to our own devices’ – you know, because of the Koch brothers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party peppering us with propaganda.

Divestment campaigns intentionally make political divides worse. They want to sidestep real debates about energy policy and carbon taxes and boil them into simple ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ on divestment. Campaigns at Harvard, Middlebury College, Tufts University and more, asked dissenters to get ‘on the right side of history’. According to divestarians, those who disagree with them are not only factually and morally incorrect, but also historically illiterate.

Isolating opposition

This polarisation goes deep. Divestment activists may well open an abbey soon – they don’t mingle with the non-believers. Innumerable activists have refused to speak to myself and others because we oppose divestment. Harvard psychologist James Recht, active in Harvard’s divestment campaign and the nationwide American Faculty/Staff Divestment Network, filled me in on the new speech codes within the divestment movement. ‘We expect our peers to be forthright about their attitudes and their political views. If someone agrees with me, we tend to talk openly about our interests. And if someone disagrees…’ He trailed off. The divestment movement’s motto might well be this: free speech for me, but not for thee.

Of course, none of this would matter if the opposition to the divestment movement was hypothetical – if the debate really was over, or the opponents were merely stooges. But, in fact, the opposition is robust, thoughtful and well-armed with cogent arguments and compelling evidence – a situation that suggests the divestarians’ aversion to debate is based on something other than principle.

Selling off oil stocks in the name of eco-purity does not in fact help the environment. Someone else will simply buy up those divested stocks. What’s more, divestment costs money and those stocks are valuable. And campaigning sucks student time away from studying and channels it into emotionally addictive but pointless activism. It scapegoats an industry, but lets consumers off scot-free.

Divestment, however, is today’s fastest-growing student movement. Beginning at a handful of small colleges in 2011, the drive to persuade colleges to divest is now an organised presence on more than 500 campuses. Thirty-seven universities, including Oxford, Stanford and Georgetown, have acceded to the pressure by divesting or promising to do so in the future.

The breadth of the movement shows that climate demagoguery is a force to be reckoned with. It has done virtually nothing to clean up pollution, but has gone far in scrubbing the free exchange of ideas from the academic environment. 


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