6 things we’re thankful for in higher education

(Editor’s note: It is Thanksgiving week, and six Pope Center staff members express thanks for some things that happened this year in higher education.)

1. Thanks for the UNC scandal

By George Leef

There are several reasons why higher education reformers should be thankful for the revelations about the athletic/academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill. They show, for example, that a highly esteemed flagship university can pay lip service to academic excellence while letting students get credit for faux courses.

The reason I will focus on, however, concerns what the scandal tells us about college accreditation.

Accreditation is supposed to ensure students, parents, taxpayers and other interested parties that an educational institution meets good academic standards. The federal government relies upon accreditation from “recognized” accrediting bodies to determine whether a school is good enough that students should be allowed to use Title IV student aid funds to attend.

UNC is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Even though we now know that the bogus courses scandal had been growing since 1993, it was never noticed by SACS. Now that the facts are out in the open, SACS is springing into action. As we read in this News & Observer piece, SACS president Belle Wheelan has informed UNC officials that SACS “is launching a second review of the university with the watchwords ‘Trust but verify.’”

Better late than never, but why didn’t SACS previously find out that many UNC students were taking bogus courses? The answer is that accreditation has nothing to do with actual academic quality. It merely takes a superficial overview to see if anything looks wrong.  Obviously, that’s not good enough.

2. Thanks for objective and traditional academic centers

By Jay Schalin

In my seven-plus years as a higher education critic, there has been darn little to be thankful for. That is, if you mean truly thankful in a positive way and not thankful in a cynical journalistic version of “schadenfreude” kind of way, in which I am often thankful that things are so messed up because it gives me a lot to write about (see George Leef’s post above).

But this year I am thankful in a positive sense, because of a growing trend in higher education. That trend is the emergence of independent academic centers that are hard-wired to preserve and promote knowledge in the traditionally objective manner of the past.

Traditional American thought has been under attack for roughly a century, with the Ivory Tower nearly being scrubbed clean of positive perspectives of capitalism, U.S. history, and Western civilization by an aggressive political left. But since 2000, at least 150 such centers have sprung up all across the country that are like intellectual oases in an ideological desert, offering shelter and nourishment and important but ill-favored ideas.

In fact, I spent much of the last year creating a report on such centers that will be released in January. In doing so, I had the good fortune to visit many of these centers firsthand to meet the scholars into whose good graces they have been entrusted. For their contributions to maintaining the free spirit of inquiry and promoting ideas of liberty, I am truly thankful.

3. Thanks for Harvard

By Jane S. Shaw

In many ways, Harvard is the scourge of university reform because its transgressions, copied by thousands of schools, seep through higher education in the form of grade inflation, absence of a core curriculum, excessive faculty veto power, high costs, affirmative action, etc.

But this year, 28 professors at Harvard Law School acted responsibly. I’m thankful that they wrote an open letter, published in the Boston Globe, criticizing Harvard’s administration for kowtowing to the federal government and setting a standard for handling sexual assault that violates due process. Harvard’s recently adopted sexual harassment policy, they wrote, is “inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach.”

Among those inconsistencies are:

  • No chance for the accused to investigate the facts or defend himself
  • One office (a Title IX compliance office, which is likely to be biased) to provide “prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review,”
  • No assurance of legal representation

Sexual assault can be a brutal crime; I would hate to imply otherwise. But that is not a reason to give up traditional due process and follow the dictates of the federal Department of Education, which is unlawfully forcing colleges to favor alleged victims and give short shrift to the rights of the accused.

Now, there are 234 faculty members at the law school, and many more emeritus members. Why did only 28 professors sign the letter?

4. Thanks for free expression and civility

By Jesse Saffron

The feminist website Jezebel called him an “avatar of a particularly vile strain of sniveling, pencil-necked rape denialism.” Indiana University’s student paper said that, “for more than 20 years,” he has “frequently [crossed] the line when it comes to rape and sexual assault.” And after Scripps College chose to rescind his speaking invitation, president Lori Bettison-Varga defended the decision by stating that “[the issue] of sexual assault [is] too important to be…wrapped into a celebrity controversy.”

Those sharp-edged remarks were in reference to George Will, who in a June 6 Washington Post op-ed dared to challenge the alleged “epidemic” of campus sexual assault and the dubious statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.

For his crime of disputing conventional “progressive” wisdom, Will, who had been scheduled to speak at an October event at the all-women’s Scripps College (an event, by the way, aimed at exposing students to a “range of opinions about the world”), was “disinvited,” a term that has entered the mainstream this year.

Fortunately, another school, Miami of Ohio, chose not to allow offended campus constituencies to quell free speech and open debate, and courageously invited Will to speak. As Miami president David C. Hodge said in a statement, “While the urge to suppress the voices with whom we disagree may be great, it is instead our responsibility to engage and challenge those opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.”

On this day, I give thanks to Hodge and others like him who still value free expression and campus civility.

5. Thanks for UNC’s newest transparency effort

By Jenna A. Robinson

I’m thankful for North Carolina’s newest transparency effort, NC Tower, which reports education and workforce data from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. It includes income and employment data for graduates of UNC campuses who remain in North Carolina to live and work, and those data are broken down by university and major.

This means that students (and watchdogs like the Pope Center) can find out how much return on investment UNC and community college graduates can actually expect. 

Here are a few of the questions to which we now have answers: Which majors make the most money? (Nuclear engineers) What percent of UNC system graduates find jobs in North Carolina after graduation? (75 percent) What’s the average starting salary? ($22,322) What’s the starting salary of the mean community college graduates? ($21,122)

And drilling down into the data (as I did here) yields information on which majors and schools are likely to be good investments—and which ones aren’t. Users can even have data broken out by industrial sector to find out that far too many new graduates (17 percent) are employed in retail. And that one year after graduation, those employed in manufacturing make more on average than graduates employed in any other sector.

6. Thanks to UNC-Chapel Hill for taking a positive step on date rape

By Harry Painter

A public crusade taking hold of universities replaces due process for students accused of sexual assault with emotional rights for accusers. The understandable but disproportionate outrage over campus rape has led to policies that will effectively make consensual sex criminal. Such policies range from “affirmative consent”—that is, only continual outward approval is consent—to policies requiring kangaroo courts that hurt both real victims and the falsely accused.

Smart college men will avoid having casual sex or maybe any sex. Unfortunately, less smart men have lives too, and some will be ruined.

None of this is to say that rape victims aren’t devastated; of course they are. But the tribulations of one group of people do not justify denying fair trials to another group.

There is not much to be thankful for when it comes to the war on date rape, though we have found some bright sides (see #3 and #4). UNC-Chapel Hill provides one more.

On the one hand, UNC has enthusiastically complied with federal edicts, pioneered the “affirmative consent” policy, and has gone overboard in hiring staff at taxpayer expense to provide support to victims.

On the other hand, the administration’s genuine concern about sexual assault could result in a practical and bold solution. At risk of rebuke for “blaming victims,” a charge uncharitable critics make whenever someone suggests women can avoid date rape, UNC is forming a committee to reduce binge drinking on campus.

I am thankful the university is considering something that might actually reduce sexual assault, instead of shying away from a real solution for politically correct reasons.

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