The Highs and Lows of 2013: NAS Picks Higher Ed’s Top Ten Stories

Peter Wood

The New America Foundation website “EdCentral” has posted “The Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013.”  Eight of EdCentral’s top ten stories deal with changes in federal regulations.  The other two are the rise of MOOCs and an OECD report that one in six Americans lacks “basic skills.” 

Those changes in federal regulations are definitely important and I am glad that New America Foundation is drawing attention to them.  I would be tempted, however, to simplify.  All eight can be summarized with one headline:  Obama nudges colleges on costs.  Whether he did this by allowing the University of New Hampshire to award college credit based on student learning rather than the settled standard of “seat time,” or whether he did this by tying the eligibility of colleges to receive student financial aid to a new ratings system, the bigger story is that the Obama administration is risking some of its core support from the professoriate by issuing regulations that, in principle, will benefit the “consumer” of college courses over the producer.

Since the New America Foundation has already combed through the regulatory side of higher education for the year’s delights, I feel licensed to offer a different kind of list.  And since modesty is not a criterion, I’ll start with:

  1. What Does Bowdoin Teach?  How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students was released by the National Association of Scholars. We issued this 400-page study in April and it immediately attracted attention, high and low, from the Wall Street Journal to the Glenn Beck show.  As Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield put it, “There’s nothing like this in literature—a complete, top to bottom treatment of a college.”  What Does Bowdoin Teach? is indeed a meticulous study of a particular college, but it has been correctly understood as shining a light on how contemporary liberal education across the country has been transformed in the direction of social and political activism.
  2. Racial preferences’ rocky year.   Defenders of racial preferences in college admissions sweated as the U.S. Supreme Court neared its decision in June in the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin.  This was another case of a white student suing for admission to a public university after being turned down in favor of less academically qualified minority students.  In the end the Court voted 7 to 1 to return the case to the Fifth Circuit with the instruction that the lower court hold the University of Texas to a stricter version of the “strict scrutiny” standard for allowing racial preferences.  In essence this means that the university has to show that its use of racial preferences follows from a compelling public interest and is narrowly tailored to that end.

    Supporters of racial preferences breathed a sigh of relief and opponents simply sighed, knowing that another opportunity for the Supreme Court to undo the damage of its notorious 2002 Grutter decision had been missed.  Many observers on both sides expect the University of Texas to respond to the decision with more persiflage and bamboozlement, and further expect the Fifth Circuit to embrace whatever story the university concocts.

    Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court ended the year by handing a major victory to opponents of racial preferences.  In a unanimous decision it gave UCLA law professor Richard Sander access to state bar exam scores and other records.  Sander is the originator of the “mismatch hypothesis,” i.e. the idea that the use of racial preferences by elite law schools has resulted in higher rates of failure by minority students than would have been the case if these same students had enrolled in less academically rigorous programs.  For five years Sander has unsuccessfully sought access to California Bar Association data that would bear decisively on the accuracy of his theory.  The ruling potentially opens the door to that data, although the case now returns to Superior Court in San Francisco for more wrangling over the details.
  3. Daniels disses Zinn.  On July 16, the Associated Press broke a story about former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels writing some emails in February 2010 in which he spoke disrespectfully of the late radical political science professor, Howard Zinn.  Within hours, this became a major topic in higher education coast to coast.  Zinn, best known for his book A People’s History of the United States, came under fire from Daniels for having written “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”  But the American left adores Zinn and reveres A People’s History.  Moreover, Daniels is now serving as president of Purdue University and was coming up on a six-month performance review.  The Associated Press was lending a helping hand to a faction of Purdue faculty that wanted Daniels gone.  In the end, the ploy failed, but the controversy lasted long enough to elevate Daniels’ profile with conservatives and make Zinn’s book an even more notorious example of the willingness of the academic left to sacrifice intellectual standards for political leverage.
  4. Woe the Humanities!  In June a special committee of the American Academy of Arts and Science issued a glossy report, The Heart of the Matter, calling on Congress to increase support for the humanities.  It was a sad showing for a vital topic.  The Academy offered a sugar rush of sweetness in lieu of any trenchant reasons for studying the great works of literature and art, let alone history and philosophy.  The report came on top of data showing that only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees in 2010 were awarded to majors in the humanities.

    Harvard thought the decline to be of sufficient gravity to warrant a special 18-month study culminating in a May report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College:  Mapping the Future.  It revealed that bachelor’s degrees in the humanities at Harvard had fallen from 14 percent of all degrees in 1966 to 7 percent in 2010, and that students starting out in the humanities were the most likely to switch to another major.

    And the news kept getting worse.  In October, the New York Times reported, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” which spotlighted the situation at Stanford, where 45 percent of the university’s undergraduate division faculty teach—but attract only 15 percent of the students.  In December, the New York Times in an article headlined, “Humanities Studies Under Strain Around the Globe,” emphasized that the United States is not alone in treating the humanities as “nonstrategic.”  Australia, Britain, India, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and France have joined the decline. 
  5. Sustainability on the rocks.  In November 2012, it looked as though a powerful movement of student activism was arriving.  Harvard students voted by an overwhelming majority to ask their college to divest in fossil fuel companies.  The movement, led by Middlebury College’s radical Bill McKibben and his organization, quickly spread to hundreds of colleges—380 by McKibben’s own account. On May 4, a divestment-favoring group called Mountain Justice at Swarthmore College mobbed a meeting of the college trustees and shut down the efforts of anyone else to speak.  This seemed to presage a fall semester in which similar thuggish tactics would unroll across the nation’s campuses.  But a funny thing happened on the way to Son-of-Occupy.  No one showed up.  I reported on a meeting of dispirited divestment activists at New School on October 24.  Part of the problem for the activists is that they are playing a losing hand.  No university of any size is about to cash in its fossil fuel stocks, nor would it make a practical difference if they did.  But even harder on the divestment movement is the cooling off of its basic premise.  The earth simply isn’t warming and while true believers in the “consensus” model are not giving ground, they are rapidly losing their capacity to bully others into deferring to their eccentric beliefs.
  6. Hoax Crime Epidemic.  Top honors in this category go to Oberlin College, whose administration knew that a series of racist and homophobic epithets scrawled around campus were the work of some leftist provocateurs but decided to stage a panic anyway.  In response to what turned out to be a phony report of a Ku Klux Klansman on campus, Oberlin cancelled classes on March 4.  The academic world was not short of credulous observers ready to take the evidence of “hate crimes” at face value.  One student activist asked and answered, “Were the Oberlin Hate Crimes Hoaxes? Sure Doesn’t Look Like It.”  The New York Times was on the same page:  “Racist Incidents Stun Campus and Halt Classes at Oberlin.”  Many months went by before an enterprising reporter for the conservative Daily Caller dug out police records showing that the culprits had been identified early on and the Oberlin administration had simply kept mum.  Never let a good crisis go to waste.  Most of the mainstream press has remained silent on this denouement, with the honorable exception of Inside Higher Ed.

    The Oberlin case is only most flamboyant of a national trend.  Inside Higher Ed published a list in 2012 of campus hoax crimes.  This year’s runners-up include the University of Wyoming feminist who sent fake rape threats to herself; the Vassar member of the Bias Incident Response Team who, apparently starved for actual incidents of bias, left her own “hateful and insensitive messages being scrawled and spray painted on student residences.”   And the UC Santa Barbara student who paid a man she found on Craigslist to beat her up in exchange for sex, after which she filed a false report of rape. 
  7. Culture Wars Camouflage.  It is hard to pick a winner this year.  In June the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado voted to conduct a “climate survey” on campus to determine whether “liberal bias chills the free exchange of ideas.”  CU Boulder also appointed Steven Hayward as inaugural Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy.  Back East, Amherst president Carolyn A. "Biddy" Martin stood up for conservative professor Hadley Arkes when a claque of alumni demanded that the college move against him for his expression of views that they judged to be homophobic and hateful.  The year ended with a startling rush of college and university presidents who want to be on record condemning the boycott of Israeli universities that a large majority of the members of the American Studies Association endorsed.  The appointment in July of Janet Napolitano as president of the University of California turned heads, and she turned them again in November with her announcement of plans to devote $5 million for scholarships for illegal aliens and $5 million more for post-doctoral fellowships designed to flout the state’s constitutional bar on racial preferences. The idea of the nation’s quondam deporter-in-chief becoming California’s first-friend-to-illegals is proof—if any more were needed—that postmodernism is alive and well in higher ed.
  8. Bubble Deflation.  By all accounts, America’s law schools are in a bad way.  Enrollments are imploding.  Over 80 percent of law schools are said to be operating at a loss.  The Law School Admission Council reports that applications are “heading toward a 30-year low.”  Choose whatever metric you like, they all point in the same direction.  We still have too many law schools enrolling too many students.  The shakeout will continue.

    Will the bursting of the law school bubble translate into deflation of the higher education bubble overall?  No one knows for sure, but we do seem to be in the midst of an important generational shift.  The New York Times summarized a College Board and National Journal survey, showing that “more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds...said a college degree was not needed to be successful.”  The New York Times has been mining this theme all year, with articles such as “Saying No to College.”  A large and growing segment of traditional college-age students are opting out.  This, of course, hasn’t prevented efforts to persuade the un-colleged to opt in.  Michelle Obama has recently revived her husband’s campaign to make the United States the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates.  The inflationary forces continue even as deflationary ones point their needles at college enrollment.
  9. Harassment rules.  On May 9, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights joined with the Justice Department to issue a letter to the University of Montana instructing the university on how it should handle complaints about sexual misconduct.  The letter contained the extraordinary pronouncement that the letter itself “will serve as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” Protection, in this case, meant a radical lowering of the standard of evidence.  And “sexual harassment” was redefined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”  Colleges and universities rightly discerned the outlines of a system that would either bury them in lawsuits or force them into systematically unfair treatment of students and others who were subject to false accusations.  The Office of Civil Rights, apparently taken by surprise by the ferocity of the response, backpeddled a bit. Then in a letter to FIRE on November 14, OCR Assistant Secretary Catherine E. Lhamon withdrew the claim that the Montana letter would be a “blueprint for the nation.”

    Whether OCR will stick with that, we have no way of knowing.  Clearly the ideologues in OCR favor pushing harassment regulations as far as they possibly can, but at the moment they are stymied by both the law and by public resistance.
  10. MOOCs unchained.  I agree with the New America Foundation that the rise of massively open online courses was a big story for American higher education in 2013.  So far, however, these ventures have proven more massive in the minds of their promoters than in the lives of students.  I see the potential for MOOCs to play a larger role in American higher education, but it is likely to be the role of providing specialized training to students who have already developed the self-discipline and focus to deal with demanding college material.  MOOCs at the moment are a poor match to the under-educated and indifferently motivated mass of students who slump towards college with high school diplomas trailing behind them in the dust. 

    Image: "10" by Steve Bowbrick // CC BY-SA
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