Sunday, May 15, 2016

An elitist university condemns elitism

EARLIER THIS week, Harvard President Drew Faust announced that students who participate in unrecognized single-gender social organizations will be ineligible for official leadership positions, and will not receive college endorsement for fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. The policy is aimed at final clubs, technically unaffiliated groups whose presence plays a large role in shaping undergraduate social life.

Most critiques of the new policy are disingenuous and intellectually lazy. “Free association,” its detractors cry, as though Harvard, too, weren’t an association with a responsibility to its students. In this case, that amounts to not bestowing honors upon adults who choose to associate themselves with groups whose values are indefensible.

Gender discrimination is, of course, precisely that. Faust wrote earlier this year that clubs uphold arcane notions of “gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity,” a premise no one can, in good faith, deny. Privilege and exclusivity are final clubs’ very allure. That they frequently grant men the power to control women’s access to social spaces is part of their draw.

But while Faust was right not to limit her critique to the clubs’ single-sex membership policies, to do so was also, ultimately, disingenuous. The university’s attempt to coerce clubs into going coed only addresses the first two problems on her list. If anything, it threatens to socially insulate club members further, since they will no longer have to look outside of their organizations to develop cross-gender relationships. And much as it’s important that cross-gender socialization occur on an equal playing field, cross-class socialization must happen on similar terms. The latter is uniquely important during college, the first time most students have meaningful exposure to peers whose class background differs from their own.

In some respects, Harvard recognizes the importance, on its face, of class mingling. Freshmen are required to live in on-campus dorms, and upperclass housing is randomized. But in other respects, Harvard’s admissions policies benefit the students whose presence keeps the privately funded clubs alive: wealthy children of alumni. The clubs are not the crux of the problem, but reflective of it — the rich are overrepresented at Harvard.

There are any number of concrete steps Harvard could take that would deliver stronger blows than this sanction. It could cease to limit opportunities for less affluent students who qualify for financial aid with its paternalistic expectations that they make contributions with summer job earnings, expectations which “cannot be waived for students choosing to volunteer or participate in unpaid internships.” It could forgo its need-blind admissions policy and instead commit to one of active class-based affirmative action to supplement its commitment to racial diversity. It could stop privileging the already privileged by instituting a legacy-blind admission policy or doing away with its z-list, a mechanism for offering rich students and legacies deferred admission.

As norms are continuously shifting and evolving in favor of greater inclusivity, Harvard is right to stay ahead of the curve, to demand that its student leaders live up to certain moral standards. But the institution needs to live up to the standards put forth in its own lofty rhetoric as well. If Harvard truly wants to put an end to the toxic campus culture created by final clubs, perhaps it should start not by censuring the clubs’ membership policies, but by reconsidering its own.


BDS: boycotting academic freedom

College leaders need to stand up to this illiberal and bigoted campaign

Virtue-signalling academics are rushing to side with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. At the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, the graduate-students’ union, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), recently voted to adopt a pro-BDS resolution. This means that the GEO calls on UMass to divest from Israeli institutions and boycott Israeli businesses, and on the US government to cease aiding Israel militarily.

Six faculty members opposed the proposal, saying that taking an official position on BDS will impose an ideological ‘loyalty oath’ on all of the GEO’s members, effectively overruling individuals’ rights to their own opinions on political matters.

Of the GEO’s 2,000 members, only 203 voted – 195 for and eight against. Since then, 27 faculty members from 10 departments have endorsed the decision, saying that, ‘As evidenced by the 95 per cent vote in favour of the resolution, the graduate students were not intimidated’.

It would appear from the lopsided vote that at least some students were intimidated, but according to Levi Adelman, a PhD student in social psychology, it is rare for GEO votes ever to have more than 10 per cent participation. Furthermore, the International Executive Board (IEB) overseeing the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, of which the GEO is part, has already ruled that BDS resolutions violate the ethical-practices code of the UAW constitution.

At a GEO general-membership meeting, another measure was put to the members: a resolution to condemn ‘anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism’. This was voted down, according to Adelman, ‘on the grounds that it would inhibit BDS and other criticism of Israel, which I take to be a tacit acknowledgement that BDS is fundamentally discriminatory’.

So far UMass president Marty Meehan has not weighed in, and UMass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, when asked, simply referred journalists to a statement he made in January 2014. In that statement, Subbaswamy confirmed UMass’s opposition to all academic boycotts, including BDS, saying that they ‘undermine the fundamental principles of free expression and inquiry that are central to our mission of teaching, research and service’. By merely referring to his old statement, while the champions of the resolution are touting a misleading ‘95 per cent’ majority, Subbaswamy dodged his responsibility to exercise leadership on this issue. Could he be intimidated?

Meanwhile, New York University’s graduate-students’ union last week voted 66.5 per cent in favour of a BDS motion calling on the university to divest from and boycott Israeli institutions, and to shut down its Tel Aviv programme. NYU president Andrew Hamilton’s response was firm: ‘A boycott of Israeli academics and institutions is contrary to our core principles of academic freedom, antithetical to the free exchange of ideas, and at odds with the university’s position on this matter, as well as the position of [the graduate-students’ union’s] parent union. NYU will not be closing its academic programme in Tel Aviv, and divestment from Israeli-related investments is not under consideration. And to be clear: whatever “pledges” union members may or may not have taken does not free them from their responsibilities as employees of NYU, which rejects this boycott.’

It is heartening that Hamilton and Subbaswamy are resisting the political fads of the day – Hamilton stoutly, and Subbaswamy at least in principle.  Adhering to the ideals of intellectual freedom ought to be the first job of a college leader. The University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee report puts it well: ‘[The university] cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who does not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.’

It is inappropriate for a university to play an activist role precisely because doing so takes away individuals’ freedom to advocate for beliefs they personally hold. Again, the Kalven Committee report puts it eloquently: ‘The neutrality of the university as an institution arises, then, not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’

The graduate students and faculty members supporting BDS need to understand this. But understanding is not enough. Many of these academics do not care whether minority views are censured. They care only about enforcing top-down groupthink in accordance with their own views. Certainly if the ideology was on the other side of the political spectrum (a resolution in favour of, say, boycotting gay weddings), faculty would begin to worry about minority views.

When it comes to compelling their institutions to take up causes such as BDS, graduate student unions have little leverage. They do have the power of persistent pressure, to which we’ve seen college presidents bow over and over again when faced with other illiberal demands, such as those of the student protesters at the University of Missouri, Brown and Georgetown, or the fossil-fuel sitters-in at UMass and Yale. The immediate effect of the UMass BDS resolution was to embolden faculty members who are eager to join the bashing of Israel.

For now, NYU and UMass administrators aren’t caving to the pressure on the BDS front. But college presidents everywhere will need a solid foundation of core principles if they are to resist these hurricane winds of self-righteous outrage in the future.


UK: Playground game of football? You’ll have to sign a contract first (and don’t even think about celebrating a goal)

For generations of children a playground kickabout has been the highlight of the school day.

But now teachers at one primary school are clamping down on playtime football – by making pupils sign contracts to try to enforce good behaviour.

Youngsters at Dundee’s Forthill Primary have to agree to an incredible 17 clauses and get the document co-signed by a parent before being allowed to play football at break.

One of the clauses stipulates: ‘I will not chant, use banter or wahoys!’ Others include: ‘I will not, if scorekeeping, be a sore loser,’ ‘I will not hog the ball’ and ‘I will not deliberately chase on the pitch or swipe the ball from people’.

There is also an extensive list of musts, including ‘I will use supportive and encouraging language’.

The contract says that if any of the rules are broken the pupil in question will be banned from playing football for three days. The second time a rule is broken this will be extended to a week, and if the child gets a third strike they will face a ban for the rest of the term.

The contracts adds: ‘If appropriate, work around fair play may be required to be done to demonstrate initiative to be allowed back on the pitch.’

Ryan Finnegan, whose son Jamie, 12, attends the school, described the contract as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

The trained SFA coach said: ‘We couldn’t believe what we were reading. The staff have taken this totally out of proportion. Some children might be a bit over-boisterous but they’re just kids.

‘I showed a friend of mine, who works for Dundee United, and he said it was ludicrous – it basically says that children can’t tackle each other. It also says “don’t hog the ball”. Could you imagine if Messi or Ronaldo had that in their contracts?’

Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of Fundamentally Children and an expert on child development and play, said the contracts could hinder children’s learning.

She said: ‘It is depriving them of the opportunity to learn some really important lessons about team work and getting on with people, social skills, compromise and self-control.’

Dr Gummer was also startled the punishment for breaking the contract would be to ban children from physical activity.

She said: ‘Given the obesity crisis and the fact that children need to be outside and getting as much exercise as they can, the idea of stopping kids playing football seems really silly.’

Scottish Tory young people spokesman Liz Smith said: ‘It seems most parents have already given their verdict which makes plain that they see this ruling as health and safety bureaucracy at its very worst.’

No one from the school was available for comment yesterday.

A Dundee City Council spokesman said: ‘The letter has been issued following a number of issues that have occurred this school year during break and lunchtime football games.

‘These then, at times, have been carried into the general playground or into teaching time. Children were directly involved with staff in suggesting the contents of the agreement.’

The council’s convener of children and families services, Stewart Hunter, said he would be speaking to the education director about the contracts.

‘It’s not a council-wide policy,’ he said. ‘We give head teachers autonomy to make these types of decisions and to run our schools. There may have been a series of events leading up to this.’

The contract says that if any of the rules are broken the pupil in question will be banned from playing football for three days


China’s kids excel at school — at half the cost of an Australian student

Not too surprising.  They study harder and are brighter to start with.  Australia could still do better, though

Chinese students are trouncing their Australian counterparts in literacy and maths but cost half as much to educate, the latest data shows, as schools funding becomes a key election issue.

Australia spends $132,945, on average, to educate a student from primary school to Year 10 — double the $66,463 spent on students in Shanghai and 40 per cent more than the $93,630 cost in South Korea, the latest comparative OECD data shows. More than half the students in Shanghai and nearly a third of Korean students top the class internationally in maths — compared with just one in seven Australian students.

One in five Australian students failed the minimum standard in maths in the OECD’s 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), compared with 3 per cent of Shanghai students and 9 per cent of Korean teenagers.

As Bill Shorten talked up Labor’s $3.8 billion cash splash for schools in 2018-19 yesterday, a new report warned that Australia’s students had fallen behind Asian countries despite record spending on education. The Australian Council for Educational Research criticised a widening gap between the performance of rich and poor students, and a ­“residualisation’’ of struggling students in the poorest government schools.

“Australia has increased spending on schools and seen standards decline,’’ council chief executive Geoff Masters said yesterday. “It is of concern that so many Australian 15-year-olds are failing to achieve minimally ­adequate levels of reading and mathematical literacy.

“We cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect performances to improve. The ­answer is to target resources on effective strategies for arresting the drift in Australia’s schools.’’

Professor Masters said it was too soon to tell if the needs-based schools funding model devised by business leader David Gonski — a long-time friend of Malcolm Turnbull — was making a difference. “It’s possible that if funding is better targeted (through Gonski) to where it will make a difference, performance will improve,’’ he said yesterday.

“High-performing countries are focused on trying to reduce disparity between schools so it matters much less what schools students go to. “In Australia the concern is we can see an increase in disparity ­between schools — we’re ending up with low-achieving disadvantaged students being concentrated in particular types of schools.’’

The previous Labor government signed a six-year Gonski funding deal with most states and territories in 2013, worth an extra $9.4bn in federal funding and $5.1bn in extra state funding. The Abbott government cancelled the last two years of the agreement, worth $4.5bn in federal funding.

Labor is promising to spend the missing $4.5bn, while the Coalition promised $1.2bn in extra funding between 2017 and 2019 in last week’s federal budget.

Disadvantaged schools only began receiving their Gonski funds in 2014 and the results of last year’s PISA exam — which tested half a million 15-year-old students in 70 industrialised countries — will not be known until December.

Labor last night began sending out emails with an in-built calculator for voters to work out “how much Turnbull cut from your school’’, based on the difference between Labor and Coalition spending promises.

The Opposition Leader declared yesterday that Australia’s plummeting performance was “not good enough’’.

“If you look at the success of the emerging nations of our region, they are increasing investment in schools,’’ Mr Shorten said. “If we want to be a smart and successful nation, we need to be an educated nation.”

Opposition education spokeswoman Kate Ellis said a Labor government would spend $4.8m on “targeted teaching’’.

The council report says fewer Australian students are studying advanced maths and science subjects in high school, while 40,000 teenagers failed the minimum international standard for reading at the age of 15. It says teachers are required to teach too much content in a “crowded curriculum”.

The federal and state governments approved a pared-back national curriculum, with a greater focus on phonics-based literacy, for primary school late last year but it has yet to take effect in most classrooms.

The Australian’s analysis of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data shows a strong link between attending preschool and success in high school.

Barely half the Australian teenagers who took the PISA test in 2012 had attended preschool for more than a year, compared to 88 per cent of students in Shanghai, 90 per cent in Singapore, 97 per cent in Japan and 83 per cent in Korea.

The OECD data reveals that a third of Australian teenagers skip classes or wag school — 10 times the rate in Shanghai.

The US spends even more than Australia — $157,270 to educate a child to Year 10 — yet its students performed even worse.

Singapore spends slightly less than Australia — $115,665 per child — yet its students are twice as likely to top the tests in maths and reading.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday said the council report “smacks down’’ Labor’s big-spending approach to education.

“We need to focus on what actually makes a difference for our students because, while spending on Australian schools has increased, the results of our students has gone backwards,’’ he said. Senator Birmingham said the Coalition’s “back to basics’’ education policy would improve outcomes in literacy, numeracy, the STEM.


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