Category Archives: academia

values of a university

Leszek Kolakowski wrote “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” in 1978. His short essay is a model of pluralism, in the sense that he intentionally combines values that are necessarily in tension.

Institutions can also be pluralist in that sense. Indeed, the best universities may be conservative liberal socialistic republican democratic anarchistic utilitarian communities. Yet they can also fall short on each or all of these criteria. Here is a framework for assessment:

Values espoused by a universityCharacteristic failures
Conservative: Preserving wisdom and excellence from the past and conveying it to young people.Arbitrary adherence to the past–or faddish novelty.
Liberal: Developing people’s capacity to be free individuals by allowing them to speak and think on their own.Group-think; social pressure to conform. Or irresponsible individualism.
Republican: Preventing individuals from dominating others by using arbitrary power.Domination, especially by senior faculty and administrators.
Democratic: Making decisions collectively and teaching that skill.Bureaucracy and hierarchy–or incoherent decisions by individuals.
Utilitarian: Producing knowledge and applications that increase human (or animal) welfare.Outcomes distorted by money or fame–or useless work.
Socialistic: Adjusting costs by income, pooling resources and distributing them equitably, and belonging–as a corporate body–to the state (in the case of public institutions).Social stratification; competition for admission and employment; specifically bourgeois values.
Communitarian: Serving as a supportive, affective groupLeaving some students and employees out of the community–or becoming an exclusive community that sees itself as superior to outsiders.
Anarchistic: The knowledge created by free people within the university is unowned and belongs to a global commons.Corporate enclosure and/or close affiliation with governments.

why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?

You would think that when a college or university gets a financial windfall, it would spend as much of its new funds as possible to make itself more accessible. It could cut tuition prices, increase financial aid, and/or expand the number of students. But George Bulman finds that none of these things happen.*

Bulman investigates the results when institutions see highly varied returns on their investments, from a 19% increase in an endowment in a single year to a 19% loss. Even in a given year, different comparable institutions can see disparate returns. Bulman finds that when their investments do well, colleges and universities spend more money on their programs, become more selective, allow their tuitions to rise, but allocate no additional money to financial aid, and actually admit and fund fewer students of color. The overall decrease in racial diversity is statistically significant.

Bulman doesn’t really speculate about the reasons. One could model institutions as decision-makers that are trying to maximize their own selectivity and rankings and use windfall money for that purpose. That model fits the data, but I would offer a different explanation that reflects my informal observations better.

I think that a host of groups within any given institution have needs. They make arguments for spending money on everything from student housing to research administration. Often these arguments have merit and an idealistic ring. For instance, students at several universities that I know are advocating more campus housing to relieve rent pressure on nearby neighborhoods that are subject to gentrification. They get this idea from their genuine engagement with those neighborhoods. They don’t want housing for themselves in a narrow way.

However, as a result of many such claims, all available revenues are quickly used up. The new expenditures tend to make the institution look more impressive, increasing applications and allowing the admissions office to become more selective. In essence, it’s a problem of actual internal constituencies trumping the interests of an abstract constituency: potential students.

What should we think when we read this kind of announcement?

Princeton University will enhance its groundbreaking financial aid program, providing even more generous support to undergraduates and their families as it works to attract talented students from all backgrounds.Most families earning up to $100,000 a year will pay nothing, and many families with income above $100,000 will receive additional aid, including those at higher income levels with multiple children in college.

To put this in context, I would note that Princeton’s endowment of $4.5 million per student should generate an average payout of about $225,000 per student per year. Princeton could double or triple its student body and offer full scholarships to all the additional students. Instead, it spends its funds on a range of activities, many of them meritorious, and many of which increase its luster, thereby allowing it to reject 94.4% of its applicants—all the while soliciting its alumni to support financial aid. Again, I would interpret Princeton’s priorities not as an intentional choice to buy selectivity, but as a result of many internal constituencies making valid claims on resources.

(Tufts’ endowment is about $200k per student, which should generate about $10k per student in an average year: a different story.)

See G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 See also Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; etc.

Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness

  1. Radical: Debt is the linchpin of a predatory global political-economic system (Graeber 2011). Canceling a portion of one form of debt strikes a blow at this whole structure. It demonstrates that victories can be won—particularly because the president was reluctant to take this step and did so under pressure. The victory will encourage people to think of themselves as debtors with political power, which is a potent identity. If canceling debt weakens the existing economic system (for instance, by encouraging individuals to borrow in the hope of having their loans canceled), that is a feature, not a bug. Another blow will be struck when other groups demand the cancellation of their debts as a matter of fairness. (“Biden helped the college kids—what about those of us with medical bills?”) This policy will look successful in retrospect if it turns out to be merely the first of many cancellations.
  2. Social democratic: The measure of a policy is how much it helps the least advantaged. However, it is wise to design programs to benefit relatively large and empowered populations as well as the neediest, so that such policies are enacted and survive. For instance, European welfare states rely heavily on value-added taxes, which are regressive, and they provide cheap or free college for all (including those who could have afforded college by themselves). Such policies have proven durable. Similarly, in the USA, Medicare and Social Security have been sustained, while means-tested welfare programs have been cut because they have poor constituencies. Forgiving student debt has the same kind of structure. According to a Penn Wharton analysis, people between age 25 and 35 who are in the bottom income quintile will get 13.5% of the benefits of the forgiveness, while people in the top 40% of income will get about 24% of it. The Penn Wharton analysis does not consider race, but NCES reports that Black people with any college debt owe a median $1,810, which is almost three times as high as White people’s median debt ($630). Thus the Biden policy should have progressive effects with respect to race (while also benefiting many White people and omitting Black people who didn’t attend college). This doesn’t sound impressively equitable; boosting financial aid would be a better policy. However, the constituency for financial aid consists of current or prospective college students who demonstrate need, and that group is too politically weak. Besides, the White House decided that Biden could forgive debt by executive order, while Congress would have to pass other reforms; but Congress hardly ever passes a controversial bill.
  3. Interest-group pluralist (Lowi 1979): Biden was elected with a coalition that included a disproportionate number of younger people with college degrees, and he performed best in the $50,000-$100,000 income range. Biden voters have diverse interests, but college graduates (and their parents) are more concentrated, better led, and more culturally and economically potent than other Democratic interest groups. As part of the governing coalition, they successfully demanded a benefit. Biden complied. Interest-group pluralism predicts that they will next seek other benefits for themselves, without supporting a radical economic restructuring or any serious attention to other groups, such as older people with medical debt or farmworkers. If colleges and universities capture some of the benefits of the debt-cancellation (by raising tuition in the expectation of another cancellation later), so be it: their faculty and staff are core to the Democratic coalition. This is what interest-group pluralism predicts. As Lowi notes, it does not judge, because it considers judgment unscientific. Politics is nothing but the clash of interests. Last week, people with college debt won a round.
  4. Market-utilitarian: Markets produce wealth; governments may use taxes and regulations to encourage, discourage, or subsidize behaviors when necessary for the aggregate good. Forgiving debt after it has been incurred cannot incentivize education, but it can create moral hazard, which distorts markets. Colleges will grab most of the benefits. We know, for example, that when the stock market boosts college endowments, those institutions spend the money to increase their own selectivity and do not offer more financial aid (Bulman 2022). Debt-cancellation may be inflationary, yet the biggest problem facing the economy right now is inflation. For these reasons, the policy is foolish.

I must admit I don’t foresee radical results following from Biden’s debt cancellation (per #1). David Graeber endorsed forgiving student loans (p. 544), but he expected a global movement against debt to take centuries. On that time scale, I am confident that our current system will change. But between now and 2024 or 2050–I don’t think the conditions are in place.

I am not equipped to assess mainstream economists’ arguments against the new policy (#4), and I doubt that we will know—even in hindsight—whether debt forgiveness increased inflation or tuition prices or created moral hazard (for good or ill). For one thing, the policy is relatively modest compared to other recent interventions.

I think the difference between #2 or #3 is important. A lot depends on how people—a wide array of people—describe and interpret the new policy.

If many Americans decide that the Democrats now represent college kids (#3), that interpretation will reinforce a class inversion that is one of the most serious threats to democracy. When the center-left party that is willing to employ government as an instrument for social welfare looks elitist, the right wing will offer chauvinistic nationalism to pick up workers’ votes. Meanwhile, a center-left party that depends on the votes of more educated people will drift toward elitist policies.

I know that many people with college debt are not “elite” by any measure. Nevertheless, favoring college education looks elitist when about 55% of adults do not hold a BA, and 38% never enrolled in college, yet almost all of the nation’s leaders all hold college degrees.

On the other hand, if Americans conclude from this experiment that their government can help people, and therefore it should do something for those without any college experience (#2), that would be a positive step. Americans will be more likely to reach this conclusion if, indeed, the government next does something tangible for working-class people without college debt.

The Fall of Robespierre changed history because of how French people reinterpreted it about a year after he met the guillotine. So too, Biden’s debt cancellation will matter because of the story that American tell themselves about it in 2024 and later.

Sources: David Graeber, Debt: The first five thousand years (New York: Melville House, 2011); Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States (Norton 1979); Bulman, George, The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition, NBER working paper 30404. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; a conversation with Farah Stockman about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplacethe new elite is like the old elite; etc..

bootstrapping value commitments

On the third day of the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research), I am thinking about the normative commitments of engaged scholars–their theories of justice or social ethics.

All research requires and reflects normative commitments. Even a highly positivistic study addresses specific topics and questions for a reason, whether or not that reason is acknowledged. We should be accountable for these normative commitments, willing to defend them in public, respond to criticisms of them, and modify them when the criticisms seem valid.

I don’t believe we have a right to “outsource” that process to other people. For instance, it’s not acceptable to say that the community you study has certain values and that you simply report them without influencing them. Whether you are right to study this particular community in this way is a question about you, and you are responsible for answering it to the best of your ability.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge our frailties and limitations as individuals. We have cognitive and moral limitations–in fact, we are foolish and selfish. It can therefore be wise to consider questions of justice in the company of others and to make oneself open to their views.

That raises the question: Which others? In the projects I briefly described yesterday, the community is the border region of metropolitan San Diego/Tijuana. Making oneself part of that community, and accountable to it, directs one’s normative reasoning in particular ways. That choice is debatable: some people would say that employees of California’s state university system should make themselves accountable to that state, whose southern border runs between San Diego and Tijuana.

Reflection on justice is a bootstrapping process. We begin in communities; we refine our sense of which communities we belong to; we explore what is right with other members of those communities; and then we reflect on whether we want to remain fully engaged with those communities or redefine our memberships again.

This process reminds me of a Reformation debate. In contrast to the Catholic view that the church mediates between the individual soul and the divine, Protestants said that each sinner stands alone before the Maker. Why then should people belong to churches at all? The canonical Protestant answer is that we are individually accountable yet we should also be humble. We need other people to help us see, or remember, what is right.

Perhaps this Protestant heritage biases my thinking (even though I am not of that faith). Although the moral individualism inherent in what I have written here is not accurately described as “Western”–it contradicts Western Catholicism–it does have a specific European heritage. Still, this combination of individual accountability with humility seems about right to me. And perhaps it roughly resembles the combination of dharma and sangha and other hybrids of truth and community from around the world.

academic freedom for individuals and for groups

One type of academic freedom belongs to individuals. A teacher, researcher, or student either has freedom or not. The question is whether academics may say what they wish to say.

This form of freedom is very important, and I am an avid defender of it, although it has some limits. First, academics shouldn’t be able to say literally anything as part of their jobs, including making demonstrably false statements. Second, it is not always clear when this right should become a positive one. Although I shouldn’t be fired for adopting a controversial position, do I have a right to be hired, published, or invited to speak after I’ve done so? (If I have a positive right to speak, then I want my invitation to the University of Hawaii right now.)

Although academic freedom in the individual sense is important, it is not the only kind. I have worked at universities for 29 years. Only for the last three have I had individual academic freedom, safeguarded by tenure and a right to earn my salary primarily by teaching. Before that, I was always involved in collective efforts–team projects–that had funders, staff, and partners. These projects involved communication and advocacy as well as research. I always had to be careful what I said because that could affect my colleagues and allies. On occasion, I said things that had negative consequences for our fundraising or other goals. Much more often, I held my tongue.

Only very rarely did I experience this situation as a lack of freedom. Generally, I thought of myself and my colleagues as being free in the political sense of the word. We could collaboratively develop and implement strategies to influence society. People who opposed us weren’t violating our freedom; they were freely acting at odds with us. Much more common than actual opposition were decisions not to support us for various reasons. If (for instance) someone chose not to approve a grant proposal that we had submitted, that was not a violation of our rights. The alternative would have been to fund us and reject someone else. We operated in a controversial space with numerous decision-makers and finite resources. To the extent that I complained about limitations on our liberty or rights, it was only when arbitrary–from my perspective–bureaucratic rules interfered. I suppose I would have cried foul if administrators within our own institution had blocked us because of their beliefs, but then I would have been complaining about their overstepping their specific responsibilities. More generally, I expected opposition and competition and didn’t think of those as threats to our freedom.

If you want a classic framework for this distinction, Benjamin Constant’s will serve. Normal academic freedom is an example of what Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” The freedom to collaborate in a contested space is the “liberty of the ancients.”

I think there are epistemological as well as ethical reasons to enhance collaborative, applied forms of research as complements to individual scholarship.* These approaches come under such headings as “transdisciplinary research,” “civically engaged research,” “community-based participatory research” (CPBR), and “participant-action research” (PAR). For such efforts, we need a robust account of academic freedom as the ability to build things together, often in the face of opposition that is legitimate. The question cannot be whether an individual is permitted to say what is in that person’s mind. It should become a question about the resources and rewards available to groups of people who seek to co-create knowledge and thereby change the world.

According to this theory, when the NIH, the Ford Foundation, or the American Political Science Association increases its support for engaged research, freedom is enhanced. (Support can mean money, training–like ICER–or recognition.) However, there will never be enough resources to allow every group to undertake every project it wants to do. Many applicants will be rejected; in fact, competition is desirable. Freedom of this kind is not a yes-or-no matter but an outcome of wise institutional design and allocation of resources.

*See civically engaged research in political science; how to keep political science in touch with politicsmethods for engaged researchwhat must we believe?civically engaged research in political sciencewhat gives some research methods legitimacy?; etc.