LIBOR for the universities?

by Daniel on May 26, 2015

This is a post I’ve been planning to write for a while, with various other CT members alternately encouraging me to do so, and sternly reminding me that the consequences will be entirely on my own head ;-). It’s based on a point I’ve been making over the last few years to all sorts of friends when they’ve been trying to bait me on the subject of LIBOR, forex and the various scandals of the financial profession.

The point is quite simple. Bankers have had their day under scrutiny. But so have Members of Parliament (expenses scandal). So have journalists (phone hacking). So has the Church (paedophilia cover-ups). So has the BBC (ditto). This isn’t a specific issue about financial sector corruption. It’s a general trend, one of gradual social re-assessment of whether the fiddles and skeletons of the past are going to be tolerated in the future. It’s not that these sectors are especially dirty and the rest are especially clean – it’s just that politics, finance, religion, journalism and broadcasting have, so far, had their day under the microscope. One day, it’s going to point somewhere else. Particularly (because a lot of my friends are academics), one day it’s going to point at the universities. How confident are we that when it does, that they’ll be found pure?

At this point I tend to get either nervous laughter or outrage. Comments boxes don’t do nervous laughter very well, so readers of a ragey disposition might as well skip the details…

There are now a number of issues which might form the basis of a LIBOR/ expenses/ hacking/ noncegate type scandal. The number keeps growing, so I’ll just list them below rather than try to make any predictions about what will eventually trip the trap. The things that all these kind of scandals have in common are a) common knowledge – they tend to be practices that everyone in the sector in question knows about, but nobody has really considered what they might look like to an outsider, and b) because of this, ubiquity – there is always a mass of evidence, because nobody in the past has seen it as something worth covering up. They also tend to have one characteristic defence, which never works, which I’ll discuss at the end. Some of them are more typically American, some more typically British, but as far as I can see, they all have rough equivalents on the opposite side of the pond from the most egregious examples discussed below. I’ve tried to make a prosecutor’s case in each of them – I don’t think anyone can dispute the facts, but the interpretations I’ve put on the facts might shock a bit. Note that of course I’m not an academic myself and never have been, but that’s the point – when these things blow up (like LIBOR) they get judged according to the standards of the uninformed general public, not the standards of people who know all the exonerating background and detail.

1. Kiting of research assessment exercises and rankings.

One didn’t have to be more than a casual reader of the educational trade press to know that the UK’s recent Research Assessment Exercise Excellence Framework ffs was gamed to a fare-thee-well. To take only the most blatant example, it was not unknown for university departments to “hire” foreign scholars on one-day-a-week contracts, with small real work requirement, because under this arrangement their publication record would be credited to the department. And there were plenty of other manipulations, many relating to publication dates of journal articles. The REF wasn’t a small thing, by the way – these “optimisations” of the reporting metrics were intended to redirect amounts of taxpayers’ money which went into the tens of millions of pounds.

2. Kiting of post-graduation employment rates.

This is an ongoing scandal of American law schools, particularly. Again, one doesn’t have to search far or hard to find examples of recent graduates being given economically meaningless short-term contracts with university libraries or the like, to inflate the employment statistics. And this can hardly be seen as a victimless crime. Based on these manipulated statistics, plenty of people make the decision to take on tens of thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt.

3. Senior academics falsely claiming authorship

In a variety of fields across the social and natural sciences, it’s common for senior academics to have themselves recorded as authors on papers which they did not write. They take it as a kind of payment-in-kind for providing advice to younger and less senior academics, or to boost the profile of the paper and get it a better publication. It, apparently, doesn’t mean that they take any responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the data which goes out under their name, or that they see themselves as being accountable in any way if it should prove fraudulent. Don’t expect the general public to take a particularly forgiving view of any of this if they one day decide to look at these practices with a sceptical eye.

4. The US News & World Report rankings and their epigones

It’s a pretty open secret that the USNWR rankings have a level of objectivity and transparency which would not compare favourably with the Reuters WM benchmark rates, shall we say. Trade press have been writing stories for at least five years about how they are manipulated. Again, this data is used by people to make decisions about the commitment of more than three years of their lives, and significant financial expense.

5. (there are plenty of others, some of which I hope might be discussed in comments)

Just to be clear, and for the benefit of any excitable libel types here, I haven’t named anyone. And the reason I haven’t is that it wouldn’t be fair to do so. As I say, these practices are not – currently – regarded as beyond the pale or criminal among the relevant community. All I’m saying is that well, one shouldn’t count on this being the case forever.

To get back to a promise I made earlier in the article, there is a characteristic defence made on these kind of charges. After seeing the LIBOR, expenses, phone-hacking and similar scandals unfold, I’ve noticed that English has another irregular verb.

I am the victim of a perversely designed set of incentives
You game the system
He is a crook.

The characteristic defence is that “in the system as it is designed[1], we are forced to take these measures”. Often because “everyone works the system, so if we don’t do so ourselves, then …” … well, then what? Then we will slip down the rankings. Then other people will get our grants and funding and students. After having spent a couple of years of my life covering the financial sector scandals, I can report back and tell you that “If I did what I know to be the right thing, then I would have got less money and prestige than if I did what I know to be the wrong thing, so I did something I knew to be wrong” is not generally regarded as a brilliant excuse.

I think it’s inevitable that, one day, one of these things is going to blow up. Nothing can stop it. Even if everyone went straight today, there is the archive of past dealings. All that CT readers can do is to practice decent email hygiene themselves and avoid the creation of a paper trail. I had a recent article in the FT, which in its original draft was significantly more explicit in pointing out that email and chat archives are really easy to search and that for this reason, anyone sensible will do anything they’re ashamed of in person or over the telephone. Make sure that it’s your name in the records attached to the lone voice of complaint saying “we shouldn’t do this, vice-Chancellor”.

[1] As Chris has noted in past discussions on this point, this excuse is terribly often made by people who had a fairly major role in setting up the perverse incentives in question.

{ 407 comments }

1

alkali 05.26.15 at 7:17 pm

The recent scandal with the law schools is pretty remarkable. There were a number of lawsuits against low-ranked law schools by recent alumni that courts shut down at very early stages on the theory that the students must have known what they were getting into (or similarly, to the same effect). That kind of defense almost never works for corporate defendants, and one suspects that in each case the court was loath to proceed down a path that would almost certainly force the bankruptcy of a low-ranked but venerable local law school.

2

MPAVictoria 05.26.15 at 7:24 pm

Paul Campos is excellent on law school shenanigans alkali.

3

AcademicLurker 05.26.15 at 7:36 pm

Has the UK had any major research funding scandals in recent memory? Here in the US we had the Stanford “luxury yacht paid for with federal grant money” scandal that resulted in audits all over the country. Lot’s of places ended up owing the government money although none got slammed as bad as Stanford, where the president was ultimately forced to resign.

4

dm 05.26.15 at 7:42 pm

Well, yeah to be sure, but so far as I know academic scandals have not 1) enriched a very few at expense of many, 2) crashed the world economy, 3) been perpetuated by people who have learned nothing, shown no signs of remorse, introspection or modified behavior, 4) promoted ever greater wealth inequality, 5) been associated with a self-absorbed culture that has taken much and produced very little discernible benefit to broader society. (Our self-absorbed culture has been of some benefit to society.)

Anyway, I think you missed the biggest scandal in US academia: funding of semi-privatized state universities by saddling students with debt. Which leads us back to the financial industry.

5

Luke 05.26.15 at 7:54 pm

I’m not sure UK legal billing would stand up too well to scrutiny. It’s probably got a loss less dodgy over the past few years, but still.

6

Z 05.26.15 at 7:54 pm

Do you really believe anybody care about these manipulated statistics (honest question)?

For instance, you write that manipulating the REF was “intended” to “redirect tax payer money,” but did it succeed, i.e did anybody really care about the results and took them into account in the allocation process?

Ditto with the USNWR and its clones: department do their best to game the system, sure, but do people really base any decision on them? It seems to me that people with little access to the inside of academia overwhelmingly choose their higher-education institution either by geographical or emotional proximity and insider don’t need USNWR.

In my experience, these metrics are almost pure kabuki justified by everyone because they are supposedly important to someone else, so academics say “of course, they’re bunk, but the board requires them”, boards say “of course, they’re bunk but politicians require them”, politicians say “of course, they’re bunk but the general public/the taxpayers require them” and the general public says “I don’t care about them myself, but apparently it’s important to people in academia.” So I guess I’m skeptical that anything will “blow-up.” People just don’t care (and that’s a big difference with your other examples: there at least one hot button-money, sex, crimes, power…-seemed to be involved).

I should say that this is my rational evaluation, I would oh so dearly wished to see this system being subject to such a scandal.

7

Stuart Ingham 05.26.15 at 7:55 pm

I’m surprised you get any push back on this at all Daniel.

There is a story for an enterprising economic journalist about the salary premium for being on a REF panel.

8

Robert Halford 05.26.15 at 8:03 pm

Aren’t all of these scandals that are well-known by, and roundly condemned by, people in the academy and people outside the academy who are reasonably well-informed? That’s certainly the case for the law schools. In general, the “these are real, bad problems in the academy” point is fine, the “hey, my friends in finance are GOOD PEOPLE because, look, other people in other areas ALSO game the system and do bad things” is not only blatant trolling, but about as convincing as that argument normally is.

9

nvalvo 05.26.15 at 8:04 pm

It’s interesting to me that you don’t think people within academia think these sorts of malfeasance are bad. I am a (very junior, American) academic, and all of these scandals have arisen in conversations with friends and colleagues *as scandals.*

I suspect therefore that these behaviors *are* seen as beyond the pale by meaningful numbers of faculty — although it is not at all clear that faculty are the “relevant community.” I wouldn’t be able to speak to attitudes among administration.

10

geo 05.26.15 at 8:08 pm

Corruption everywhere, but dm@4 seems convincing on the unique iniquity of finance. And impunity: https://medium.com/bull-market/organized-crime-on-wall-street-2df24e632088.

Could you remind us briefly about the “exonerating background and detail” in the case of, e.g., the subprime mortgage industry?

11

Neville Morley 05.26.15 at 8:13 pm

I entirely agree that these *ought* to be scandals, and there are undoubtedly others: influence of industry funding on research findings (including quietly burying inconvenient results in bottom draw), donor influence, and the particularly perverse effects of the fact that postgraduate students in the UK are now an income stream, hence pressure to pass at all costs. But I am inclined to agree with Z: who is likely to care? There are stories about grade inflation more or less every year, which never seem to have much effect, and that’s a fairly easy scandal to understand; is it really likely that the national media is suddenly going to get worked up over the practice of grant holders getting listed as lead authors regardless of whether they’ve done any of the research? What unites the other scandals you mention is that they could be boiled down to a very simple (if misleading) story that presented behaviour which was obviously wrong; I fear these misdemeanours are too recondite.

12

John Quiggin 05.26.15 at 8:16 pm

I hope they don’t dig back to the time Bill Tozier and I tried to sell our Erdös numbers.

http://crookedtimber.org/2004/04/21/second-mover-advantage/

13

Lynne 05.26.15 at 8:30 pm

dm and geo said what I would like to have said, so much better than I could have.

14

Postgrad 05.26.15 at 8:38 pm

Worth noting that UK universities are particularly susceptible given that they are covered by FOI.

The only thing working in their favour is that it’s hard to find the smoking gun when the whole building is on fire.

15

christian_h 05.26.15 at 8:42 pm

Yeah what dm said. I think most academics agree that the things on your list are scandalous – I know I do, and yes one could add more – for example the way major universities have made themselves subject to the influence of financial firms (e.g. the University of California promising a continuing revenue stream from tuition to back construction bonds). In fact, much of this has been pointed out, usually by academics by the way, for a long time. But despite its role in the reproduction of the dominant ideology academia is not nearly as central to the functioning and organization of modern capitalism as financial capital, or governments.

16

Moby Hick 05.26.15 at 8:42 pm

In a variety of fields across the social and natural sciences, it’s common for senior academics to have themselves recorded as authors on papers which they did not write. They take it as a kind of payment-in-kind for providing advice to younger and less senior academics, or to boost the profile of the paper and get it a better publication. It, apparently, doesn’t mean that they take any responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the data which goes out under their name, or that they see themselves as being accountable in any way if it should prove fraudulent.

I don’t think that is common at all. The senior people I see do the planning and most of the interpretation. It’s an very real contribution. Also, that’s where the money to collect the data is. Plus, depending on the rules of that specific journal, often junior people who made important contributions to the data collection will be listed as authors despite relatively minimal writing.

Certainly the senior people don’t handle the data directly in many cases. On larger studies, it’s a full-time job for several people. To make high quality paper in the more complex portions of the natural sciences would be impossible for any single person. There is supervision, of course, but aside from the current system (which, if you look at the Green case for an example, does involve senior people checking into things after their suspicion is aroused), the only check would be to have somebody else independent duplicate the work. That’s what pharma does. The cost would be very large if it were done for all research.

17

Danila 05.26.15 at 8:43 pm

It is an interesting theory, and you are right that the academic world has its share of sins, but I do not agree with it. A few remarks, from a non-US, non-UK perspective:

1. Kiting of research assessment exercises and rankings.

This is proper to each country and its system of assessment but it is doubtless it happens more or less everywhere. If there ever is a public scandal about it I expect it to be drown in short order in another furious debate between the academics who will argue that this shows the uselessness of research assessments and that researchers should be left to do their job without spending time “playing the game” and the administrators that will answer that, for all these millions, academic research should have measurable results, damn it.

2. Kiting of post-graduation employment rates.

I suppose this is an American particularity, as I have never heard of it. It doesn’t surprise me that the fire has started at law-schools because 1.they cost really quite a lot and 2. the promise of a near-guarantee of a good paying job afterwards is their main selling point. There aren’t many academic institutions that share those characteristics (maybe med-schools) so I don’t see this scandal spreading very far.

3. Senior academics falsely claiming authorship

This has been true since the dawn of time but apart from for some absurd cases (try searching “E. Ceaușescu” on Google Scholar) it has never been a major scandal, except, of course, amongst the academics themselves. After all, the added name is usually well-known in the field of the paper, paper which probably also cites liberally his previous works, so he could have written it even if he hasn’t. Adding your name to a fraudulent work is definitely a bigger problem and it might end some careers, but I don’t think there are that many cases of this.

4. The US News & World Report rankings and their epigones

I actually hope for a scandal that would send these silly lists to the bin, but I neither expect it very soon nor do I see how this would be the academics’ fault.

In the end, however, I do not think there will be any scandal on the LIBOR order of magnitude (not to speak of the paedophile priests one) for the simple reason that the general public doesn’t care much about academics, in contrast to politicians, “News of the World” or even rich and sleazy bankers.

18

Robert Halford 05.26.15 at 8:49 pm

[deleted -dd]

19

Moby Hick 05.26.15 at 8:52 pm

I don’t speak Latin, because universities are frauds and didn’t even check if I knew Latin or Greek.

20

politicalfootball 05.26.15 at 9:00 pm

USNWR isn’t going to make the the cut as a scandal, because the locus of the scandal really isn’t in the schools, but at the publication. Shitty journalism is just a fact of life in the US – protected by the Constitution, even.

Sure, the schools are gaming a corrupt system in fairly egregious ways, but (as far as I know) nobody is breaking the law.

21

Mary 05.26.15 at 9:06 pm

How about the perpetual scandal that is big time college athletics?

22

Trader Joe 05.26.15 at 9:06 pm

@10 geo

As Daniel noted, its difficult to give much more than a half-hearted, half-assed defense, but for example – in the LIBOR manipulation scandal – the thing to object to is that the market was being rigged rather than that it being allowed to clear in a transparent process, finding actual harm is far more difficult.

Market prices are a two sided game and no one is forced to play – for every seller there is a buyer. Imagine today the ‘bad guys’ set LIBOR a little higher than where it should clear on its own – that means every saver got more than they deserved and every debtor paid more than they should…should we ask the savers to pay the borrowers?

In subprime its easy and right to focus on the thousands that were evicted from their homes and damaged their credit by buying homes they couldn’t afford on terms they didn’t understand….there are thousands of others however, that are in a house that they love, making their payments and realizing the goals they had hoped for in homeownership – these folks make poor copy but far more people bought homes than had them foreclosed so its not impossible to infer that successes outweigh the failures.

23

Zamfir 05.26.15 at 9:09 pm

In this post, DD appears to say that all these scandals were widely known in the financial world and accepted as acceptable ways of doing business. So, it’s only fair if we blame the entire sector instead of just specific individuals?

24

Moby Hick 05.26.15 at 9:16 pm

20.3 is just nuts. The reason nobody focused so much on those people in a house they loved is because the resulting collapse of the housing market caused the median household net worth in the U.S. to fall by tens of thousands of dollars. It was in the papers.

25

Zamfir 05.26.15 at 9:22 pm

I am somewhat amused by a Trader arguing that the right price is not of great consequence,because there’s winners and losers either way.

26

Trader Joe 05.26.15 at 9:28 pm

@22 mh
How is the subsequent fall of value relevant to subprime financing. If a guy paid for his house in cash or borrowed subprime has no bearing on the future price of real estate. The reason subprime is important is that its a fair case that many borrowers didn’t understand the potential ramifications of the paper they were signing and/or should never have been approved to borrow in the first place – that’s to be punished. The bank didn’t tell any borrower to pay $500k for a house that subsequently was worth $350k….the borrower made the decision to buy on their own and then the lenders became involved.

27

Moby Hick 05.26.15 at 9:33 pm

If only there were some theory of economics that could explain how adding more buyers with more money to the market could boost the price.

28

ajay 05.26.15 at 9:40 pm

Oh, that’s just crazy talk.

29

Robert Halford 05.26.15 at 9:49 pm

Not to derail the thread, but (and, I suppose, this is vaguely on-topic for the original post)

[DD sez : well, I suppose otherwise. This isn’t a post about defending bankers and if you think it is you’re wrong. So any post which goes “well actually this isn’t a good defence of bankers and furthermore blah blah blah bankers” is off topic. I’m picking on you to delete because I’ve asked you not to comment on my threads in the past, but anyone else on the same theme is also off topic and is hereby requested to knock it off]

30

TM 05.26.15 at 9:50 pm

“How confident are we that when it does, that they’ll be found pure?”

I don’t think many around here think of academia as “pure” (morally? intellectually? legally?). It all depends of course on your standards of comparison. See dm 4.

31

Daniel 05.26.15 at 9:51 pm

Could you remind us briefly about the “exonerating background and detail” in the case of, e.g., the subprime mortgage industry?

Could we perhaps stay on topic, instead? At this late date, I don’t think there’s much danger of the financial services industry being insufficiently condemned. But academia is a scandal of the near future, and therefore more interesting. I wrote a post on exactly that topic a few years ago and don’t have much to add, to be honest.

I am, to be honest, rather disappointed at all the people whose only response is to scream “FINANCE BANKERS!”, as if student debt didn’t ruin people’s lives just as much as mortgage debt, and even to claim that there’s no problem about the academic scandals because everyone in academia knows that they’re disgraceful (kind of the point of the post is that this is the opposite of the truth).

Also not really very hospitable to “Well, everybody knows this benchmark is a bit dodgy, so nobody sensible would use it”, which is a version of the “everyone in the market is a professional so caveat emptor” defence which didn’t work in LIBOR.

And “It would be impractical to check the data properly” is just another version of “we can’t be expected not to cut corners, because it is so much more convenient to cut corners”. I don’t mind it if people want to split the work up among their teams, but this has to be done on the basis of joint and several liability. If the authors are not prepared to stake their reputations on a paper, that seems to me to be a big problem.

The amount of student debt isn’t small in the USA compared to the subprime market, and the reason why it has grown is that universities keep putting the prices up. It’s quite some chutzpah for people like the author of comment #4 to claim that student debt is a problem caused by the financial services industry, unrelated to the universities who set the fees!

32

ajay 05.26.15 at 9:52 pm

“People just don’t care (and that’s a big difference with your other examples: there at least one hot button-money, sex, crimes, power…-seemed to be involved).”

I think Z has it here. People are just not going to get very upset about “a bunch of academics did some obscure and arguably slightly deceptive but not actually illegal things in an attempt to ensure that a few hundred grand for studying Byzantine potsherds went to the Loughborough Department of Archaeology, when really the Winchester Department of Archaeology should probably have got it”. And saying that they’re going to react to it like they reacted to the news of millions of pounds in fraud for personal gain by the same MPs who were telling us all to tighten our belts* is, well, trolling, and admirable for its ambition, but not nearly up to the standard of “Budweiser What A Great Beer” or “Richard Dawkins Is Worse Than The Ayatollah Khomeini”.
Academics just don’t have enough power (or enough money) to be really interesting in this respect. Not unless they were doing it for personal gain, which they weren’t.

*I guess it might be nice to live in a world where the public takes the integrity of research assessment metrics a little more seriously than they presently do. But I am pretty sure it would be horrible to live in a world where the public looked at the news of a five-decade conspiracy of silence surrounding the abominable abuse of children, and said to themselves “shit, this is nearly as bad as that stuff Paul Campos was blogging about”.

33

harry b 05.26.15 at 9:52 pm

Here’s some to add to Daniel’s

6. The widespread use in American public research universities of funds intended for undergraduate tuition, to pay for research, especially in the Humanities (but to a lesser extent throughout the schools with undergraduate programs, including in STEM).

In defense of this practice you could argue:

i) privately paid tuition dollars (paid by parents and students themselves) can be used however we want, because there’s a market, and our using the revenue to fund research is the equivalent of dividends to the shareholders (us, the faculty) . But most of us like to think of our institutions as more like non-profits than like corporations, and anyway we have no ownership rights.

OR

ii) if the States and the Feds which provide funds (directly, or indirectly through the voucher-like Pell Grants, tax-deductions, tax-credits, etc) should create better oversight systems to ensure this doesn’t happen. But I don’t see much enthusiasm for this from colleagues, for some reason .

OR

iii) that high quality undergraduate instruction depends on being research–active (so in fact the research we do is essential for undergraduate teaching). But this is a claim for which there is no evidence base, and is belied by practices such as widespread hiring of adjuncts and, for example, the use of non-research-active teachers to do almost all the teaching in departments which teach Languages and Literature (in which research-active faculty reserve themselves for teaching literature to small numbers of students, leaving the large numbers who learn languages to non-research-active staff).

7) Relatedly, esp to iii) above, and again American public research universities are the target here, the pretty much total absence of any sort of training or continuing professional development in instruction, either of undergraduates or of graduate students.

The internal structure of the university is sufficiently complex and the financial models sufficiently opaque that even insiders can go their entire lives without noticing 6). But hundreds of thousands of students every year are aware of 7), subsequently become citizens, and do not exert any pressure for change. Nor do their parents. Nor do legislators.

Daniel’s point is not that academics complicit in these things are as bad, or do as much damage, as bankers or pedophile protectors; just that there are practices that, when brought to light, look scandalous to outsiders, and that lots of us on the inside who want to proclaim our innocence look complicit (because…. we are).

34

Daniel 05.26.15 at 9:56 pm

arguably slightly deceptive but not actually illegal

Definitely deceptive and also arguably illegal, in my view. And the amounts of money at stake are certainly bigger than in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

35

Robert Halford 05.26.15 at 9:58 pm

Daniel’s point is not that academics complicit in these things are as bad, or do as much damage, as bankers or pedophile protectors; just that there are practices that, when brought to light, look scandalous to outsiders, and that lots of us on the inside who want to proclaim our innocence look complicit (because…. we are).

Put that way, I don’t think anyone could (or, at least, certainly in my opinion should) disagree. That obviously isn’t the framing of the actual post, however, so it’s unsurprising that people are having a somewhat different response.

36

ajay 05.26.15 at 10:03 pm

The point about the MP expenses business was that it was so obviously done for personal gain, though. This is more like (I can do analogies here) MPs pulling strings to get a grant in their constituency rather than someone else’s. Yes, it’s for their own good in the sense that it’ll help them keep their jobs. But I don’t think you’d find many people who’d say it’s on the same moral level as the Duck House.

37

AB 05.26.15 at 10:04 pm

@trader

I think there has been some suggestion that a few of the people/businesses/charities/European countries whose money was invested in these loans may not have been fully appraised of all the details. But what do I know. I just read the papers.

38

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:07 pm

I dunno. Combine it with a few other things – particularly if UK universities have been anywhere near as lax about compiling employment statistics as US ones definitely have – and there’s definitely the makings of a scandal there. The simple fact of there being a load of sinecure jobs looks pretty bad.

39

Robert Halford 05.26.15 at 10:08 pm

’m picking on you to delete because I’ve asked you not to comment on my threads in the past, but anyone else on the same theme is also off topic and is hereby requested to knock it off

I didn’t remember this and will happily leave, but, in parting, I will say that if you are in fact genuinely as opposed to mock surprised and annoyed by the fact that people are reading your post as an explicit (or implicit) defense of the finance industry, you may want to re-read it, and re-think the point of making the LIBOR comparsion at all.

40

ajay 05.26.15 at 10:10 pm

You want something in academia that would really reach the level of the Libor scandal (or for that matter the PPI-misselling scandal, the laundering-Mexican-drug-money scandal, the Iranian-sanctions-busting scandal, the subprime-mortgage scandal, the forex-rigging scandal, the packaged-account scandal, the rate-hedge-misselling scandal, the dodgy-audit scandal, the dodgy-credit-rating scandal or the tax-evasion scandal)? I’d say institutionalised rape, and the covering-up thereof by university authorities. This research-fiddling business may be arguably illegal but I’d like to see someone else argue it. That it goes on is no secret (unlike all the scandals listed above) and you’d think someone would have paid attention by now.

41

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:14 pm

Also, of course, given the position of academia, a scandal doesn’t need to be as much of a media circus as phone-hacking or as big a financial deal as LIBOR to be worth thinking about for people in the industry. If a Select Committee decided to take an interest in the integrity of the REF or employment statistics, or various other things that I’ve just found out about, mainly via Twitter, it might never make the front pages of anything other than the THES but could take out a couple of dozen careers (and, the way things are, probably not the right couple of dozen).

One thing I didn’t put in the post, although possibly I should have done, is that one might think that “one of these scandals is not like the others” and that BBC/Savile doesn’t belong in the list of examples. But … well, academia had the same Swinging Sixties that the BBC did. I’ve no reason to believe that there is a monstrous serial predator hanging around on the Emeritus list of one or more of our famous seats of learning but … well, I would allow someone else to write that particular piece of insurance at the going premium rate.

42

Russell L. Carter 05.26.15 at 10:22 pm

When my daughter enquired of the bursers office on the details of how to pay for summer session, they[1] signed her up for a student loan in excess of the amount w/o her knowledge (zeroing out the bill), and she had to jump through hoops to get the loan cancelled. For her, it was efficiently educational. After a few semesters she caught on to the basic scam underlying the purpose of the “Honors” “School”. Funny how there are interestingly large fees for that. The scammers are everywhere, we agree. I’m quite proud of her. FUCK YOU giant/”respected” university which shall not be named. 8 semesters + 1 summer session and zero debt. As a family we’re a week out of that maw, cautiously examining the next sets of reeking jaws.

[1] I remain puzzled about who “they” was. There’s some implied underlying connections in the mix that have a bit of a smell to them.

43

ajay 05.26.15 at 10:22 pm

I thought the REF only existed because the Select Committee took an interest in the RAE.

44

christian_h 05.26.15 at 10:25 pm

Can I repeat something? Every scandalous thing mentioned in the OP or in comments has been publicly discussed, often by academics themselves, for a long time, in major media as well as on blogs, in local media based in college towns, etc. Every time a RAE or REF happens in the UK, there articles and blog posts about how the system is being gamed, for example. All these scandals are the most public scandals imaginable, and that is good – this stuff needs to be addressed! But this means they are simply not comparable to, say, the uncovering of criminal behaviour in the financial sector, or a cover-up of a child abuse scandal, or widespread illegal hacking by the press – even if the wrong doing in question was comparable. In all those cases bad behavior that was previously hidden and actively covered up became public quite suddenly. The only comparison in the OP that holds any water is to the expenses scandal, where something that was already public information developed into outrage.

45

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:26 pm

That it goes on is no secret (unlike all the scandals listed above) and you’d think someone would have paid attention by now.

I disagree with the bit in brackets there. All the scandals you mention were well known in the financial industry – I wrote about LIBOR, PPI, rate hedges and Iran sanctions while they were going on, and about the general problems of the building subprime crisis (which, as the linked post suggests, wasn’t really driven by the fraudulent practices – it was caused by the legal ones). But they weren’t considered “scandals” – they were considered to be minor regulatory breaches. In the case of both LIBOR and FX, the practice had the tacit approval of the Bank of England, and in the case of Iran sanctions there was – and still is – widespread belief that the only scandal was the extent to which the USA was prepared to assert extraterritorial jurisdiction. PPI and rate hedge misselling were just goddamn stupid behaviour by that peculiar generation of UK bankers who thought that the way to success was by pretending to be a retailer (specifically Tesco).

To be clear, that doesn’t mean any of them were legitimate (except maybe Iranian OFAC). But the point is that they were all well known and considered to be the sort of thing describable as “regulatory breach, probably result in a fine”. They blew up at a later date when they a) were exposed to a wider audience who didn’t really understand the issues – I would confidently assert that not one person in ten on this thread could explain to me what actually happened in the forex case, and b) they were exposed in the context of a general climate of extreme unpopularity for the subjects.

After all, everyone knew about phone-hacking too. Piers Morgan wrote about it in his autobiography! The process by which it turned into a scandal that put people in jail, did for the News of the World and stopped NewsCorp being allowed to buy BSkyB … that’s a process that I don’t fully understand at all.

46

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:31 pm

In all those cases bad behavior that was previously hidden and actively covered up became public quite suddenly.

Definitely not true. As I say, Piers Morgan wrote about phone hacking in his autobiography. Nick Davies had been working on the story for years, publishing regularly, before he got the scoop over the specific Milly Dowler case. I knew about LIBOR manipulation in 2008 (because it was so blatant in the aftermath of Lehman, how could you not know?). I even wrote a research note in 2011, where I blotted out the data on LIBOR for a three month period because I knew it was “hypothetical”.

This is an empirical question of social science. These things don’t turn into scandals because they’re suddenly discovered. They’re discovered, and then at a later date, by a not very well understood seemingly self-organising process, they turn into scandals. That’s my point here – there is so much dry tinder piled up around academia that it’s bound to have a fire one day.

47

ajay 05.26.15 at 10:33 pm

I disagree with the bit in brackets there. All the scandals you mention were well known in the financial industry

I would like to ask for the comment above to be deleted, as it is completely off-topic – this is not a discussion of the wrongdoing of the financial industry.

48

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:36 pm

Ajay, yellow card. Don’t be a dick.

49

ajay 05.26.15 at 10:37 pm

But if we’re talking about LIBOR now, you need to be careful to make the distinction between
“everyone knew that LIBOR submissions were guesses rather than actual available borrowing rates, especially during the liquidity crunch in 2008 because no one was borrowing” which, yes, and that’s what you said in your note,
“everyone knew that LIBOR submissions were shaded upwards by banks, with the tacit approval of the BOE, in order to make the banks look healthier” which, also, maybe, and
“everyone knew that individual traders were conspiring to rig LIBOR for the benefit of their own desks” which is what Tom Hayes was in the dock in Southwark today for.

50

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:43 pm

To clarify post #46: of course points about the analogies between past financial scandals and (potential) future academic scandals are not off topic. If it were, the actual title of the post would be off topic. What is off topic is people deciding “this post is insufficiently breast beating and condemnatory of bankers, so I’m just going to ignore the subject and express yet another outburst at how very very awful I think bankers are.” When the off topic thing is combined with either a) insults at me or b) being someone I asked to stop commenting on my threads years ago, it gets deleted. In so far as “Don’t be a dick” requires elaboration, that’s it.

51

TM 05.26.15 at 10:44 pm

Here’s a recent NYT story:

“All in all, few University presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous salaries, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/20/opinion/frank-bruni-platinum-pay-in-ivory-towers.html

I totally agree with this and certainly would welcome more scrutiny of Universities in general – preferably by knowledgeable journalists rather than right-wing nuts – but compare those scandalously (I think) inflated salary numbers for academic administrators with the finance industry.

52

Omega Centauri 05.26.15 at 10:51 pm

As a non academic, whose only been a customer of the system, I have to agree with Ajay @30,38. These just aren’t aggregious enough to get my dander up about. The only instances of covering up rape I remember was when I was an undergrad, and it was simply word of mouth about paying off a victim to prtect some football star. I bet that sort of thing is much less common today.

Now I would consider the whole structure of the USA lower tier for profit thing, to be scandalous to the Nth degree. Attracting desperate students with largely false promises, and using the politically corrupted student loan system to collect on what should be written off as bad debt. But, thats not whats being discussed here, and I don’t think anyone here would disagree about the bottom tier in the US.

53

Daniel 05.26.15 at 10:57 pm

#47: fair point with respect to my own research, but the public “LIBOR scandal” blew up in July 2012, a few weeks after the original penalty on Barclays ($200m! eheu fugaces!). Barclays had been under investigation for the previous year; the WSJ reported it in March 2011. The question of whether the manipulators had been doing so for their own profits had been live for years before that – there was an article in it in the BIS Quarterly Bulletin which concluded that they hadn’t (well done guys). This was one of the things that people who closely followed Barclays knew about. What they didn’t know, and couldn’t predict, was that Bob Diamond was going to suddenly act like an arrogant bastard in front of MPs in an amazingly telegenic way, mislead the Select Committee, threaten the Bank of England, back down on his threat and then resign. Suddenly a minor technical/regulatory breach (for the longest time, nobody could tell me if they were sure if it was actually illegal) turned into a cause celebre, by people who could hardly spell LIBOR.

Then the email transcripts came out, and it’s fair to say that nobody knew it was as blatant, as corrupt and as utterly coarse as that. We only knew the broad shape and what turned it into a major scandal were the emails. That’s why I’m advising all CT readers in academia to look through their Sent boxes for the REF period to see if there’s anything in there which would make a good headline.

54

ajay 05.26.15 at 11:00 pm

All the scandals you mention were well known in the financial industry… But they weren’t considered “scandals” – they were considered to be minor regulatory breaches.

That is the entire point. They were well known in the industry but not in public. It was not common knowledge among the public that PPIs were generally worthless, or that people were lying about LIBOR submissions for their own personal gain, etc etc. It wasn’t considered a scandal in the industry because, over the last thirty years, as has been widely documented in the media, in the trade press, by various public inquiries and court cases, and by researchers, the culture of the banking industry diverged radically from the culture of the rest of the UK (and the US), to the point where it became abnormally focussed on the use of deceit and evasion to produce short-term gains for banks and the individuals working at them, at the expense of the customers and the industry at large.

I don’t think there has been such a sharp and dramatic divergence between the culture of academia and the culture of the, for want of a better phrase, general population. That’s why there won’t be a scandal of the same magnitude – there’s nothing that academia thinks is OK, that is widespread within academia, and that the rest of the public is completely unaware of. The dirty linen’s out there already and it’s not really that bad.

55

Daniel 05.26.15 at 11:00 pm

but compare those scandalously (I think) inflated salary numbers for academic administrators with the finance industry.

Make the comparison and you’d be surprised. Senior US academic administrators make good money by the standards of nearly all the finance industry, apart from the very very top.

Now I would consider the whole structure of the USA lower tier for profit thing, to be scandalous to the Nth degree. Attracting desperate students with largely false promises, and using the politically corrupted student loan system to collect on what should be written off as bad debt. But, thats not whats being discussed here, and I don’t think anyone here would disagree about the bottom tier in the US.

God I had even forgotten that one, which I have no excuse for as a lot of my mates have written about it. But really, are we sure that this end of the industry can be totally quarantined from the rest? That’s what finance thought about the subprime originators. Russell’s #40 suggests that plenty of the same practices are in operation higher up the tree, and it’s not like there aren’t plenty of people with crippling debts from much more prestigious institutions.

56

Sebastian H 05.26.15 at 11:00 pm

” At this late date, I don’t think there’s much danger of the financial services industry being insufficiently condemned. “

I suspect the reason you are getting serious pushback on this post is because we disagree with you on this point. So far, even the very most egregious cases and most obvious cases (the LIBOR scandal and the robo-signing/false-notarization scandal) has seen very few of the obviously available fraud prosecutions. (The notary one is especially obvious to me: notaries are required to swear under oath that they personally saw the signature take place. When you hire a bunch of them and put them in a room with no access to outside people, what do you think they are doing?).

The LIBOR scandal looked like it was going to be a chance to really deal with the bank cultures on clear and damaging fraud, but it turned out not to.

So unless ‘condemned’ means “kind of said nasty things about but very little institutional punishment doled out”, I suspect we have a rather noticeable difference of opinion.

On the topic of the academic world, in the US at least, I agree that we have the makings of a major scandal, but I don’t think it is any of the ones you have identified. Government loans have essentially gone straight to raising the price of university–damaging both student loan holders and even the people who can afford the prices. This has all the elements needed for an ugly scandal: greed, betrayal of stated principles, real damage to the injured parties, incentive structures deeply divorced from reality, and actors who are insulated from the damage they cause.

57

Daniel 05.26.15 at 11:05 pm

there’s nothing that academia thinks is OK, that is widespread within academia, and that the rest of the public is completely unaware of

I think my #3 fits that bill exactly (for values of “thinks is OK” which make the analogy with LIBOR work). I’m getting some pretty ugly stories right now about straight up quid pro quo blackmail by senior academics here, and I would guess that there might even be some colourful emails.

58

Daniel 05.26.15 at 11:14 pm

So far, even the very most egregious cases and most obvious cases (the LIBOR scandal and the robo-signing/false-notarization scandal) has seen very few of the obviously available fraud prosecutions.

On LIBOR, we’re now getting them (Tom Hayes), but they were slowed down by the regulatory investigation. TBH, it’s less than five years, which is not actually bad going for a complex fraud case.

On robosigning, the reason you haven’t seen those prosecutions is that nobody in the US justice system wants to open that can of worms. The establishment of MERS was supported by public policy – Congress even debated a law banning it (sponsored by the title insurance industry) and didn’t pass it. Everyone involved knew for ten years that they were creating a system which required and needed robosigning – the alternative was to try and deal with the amazingly corrupt and useless US land title system – and did nothing about it. So if you start prosecuting the notaries, their defence is going to bring in the judges and you set off a chain reaction. So unsatisfactory as it is, this one is going to be dealt with through civil penalties.

And part of the punishment for the LIBOR scandal was the Forex scandal. That one is very debatable indeed whether there’s an offence been committed at all; the whole organising principle of the FX market was caveat emptor. It’s only in the light of the LIBOR scandal that the decision to investigate FX would ever have been taken.

… back on topic, that’s why I’m listing multiple scandals here rather than concentrating on one or two. If there’s ever, say, an investigation into price collusion among elite US universities, and why shouldn’t there be, then any bad decision on that can cascade into a load of other decisions on other issues.

59

AB 05.26.15 at 11:24 pm

I think the LIBOR scandal has only attracted such attention due to the fact that the banking sector is already under scrutiny following the catastrophes of 2007-8. The BBC, the Sun, parliament, and the church are pillars of the establishment in a way that universities (in their research capacity) are not. The area where universities enjoy a comparably visible role (and could thus face a comparable crisis of confidence in the wake of a sufficiently tasty scandal) is the education and care of undergraduates.

So I think that it will either be

1 (following Harry @31) British pubic universities using tution fees to fund research or cross-fund more expensive courses while providing arts/humanities students with far less than nine grand a years worth of instruction. Everybody knows. Everybody is complicit.

2 sex between staff and students. Some very prominent old don, preferably a ‘national treasure’ will be accused of harrasment or worse. Culture warriors of left and right will take up the prosecution and defence before any of the facts are out. The accusations will be proven true, but the perpetrator will not leave the scene quietly. The press will then proceed to dig up hundreds of cases, some real, sometrivial, some spurious, which will cumulatively be established in the public mind as evidenc of pervasive depravity and need for drastic reform. Note that in the cases of the parliamentary expenses and er, what I can only call “the BBC in the 70s”, instances of unambiguously criminal behaviour have been bundled with what *to insiders* seemed no more than a peccadillo, a naughty perk of the job. Sex between lecturers and students is common in many british universities. It is often not against the rules and where it is, enforcement is rather….elliptical, with an emphasis on discretion. If the newspapers one day decide that such behaviour is universally scandalous, and bundle it with a couple of high profile assault or harrassment cases, there will be big trouble.

Of course all of these things have been discussed at length in print and online before. But so had crooked MPs, crooked journalists, pervy priests and pervy DJs, *even Jimmy Saville*. But you need a critical mass for the explosion.

60

Layman 05.26.15 at 11:25 pm

Daniel @ 29

” It’s quite some chutzpah for people like the author of comment #4 to claim that student debt is a problem caused by the financial services industry, unrelated to the universities who set the fees!”

I think it should lead one to ask why the financial services industry is even involved in the transaction. Would this be happening without a system which essentially mines middle-class and poor students, converting them into debtors to the profit of financial services companies? If the loans were interest- and fee-free, or not guaranteed by the government, or dischargable by the debtor, would the financial services sector even be involved? If there wasn’t a free-lowing tap of debt available, would universities and colleges be free to raise their fees to the extent they have? The whole thing is engineered. You can guess by whom.

61

bob mcmanus 05.26.15 at 11:28 pm

Well, cynically, one might presume that an understood underground shifty practice (or one that is profitable to label so) becomes “scandalous” only when there arise those who stand to gain more from the exposing and “scandal” than they lose or gain from the continuation of the practice.

Ain’t many out there anymore being righteous for it’s own sake, or for their purty souls.

Cui bono.

If you want to attack a problem like student loans you have to create a constituency who have dollar signs dancing in their eyes from the prospect of taking down the old system. They will be your scandalized crowd.

62

engels 05.26.15 at 11:33 pm

” At this late date, I don’t think there’s much danger of the financial services industry being insufficiently condemned. “

If you mean ‘condemned’ in a purely verbal sense (‘she wrote a strongly worded letter to the editor condemning his behaviour’) this might be true; if you mean it a legal sense (‘the court condemned the robbers to twenty years in prison’ or ‘the building was condemned, and will thankfully be knocked down and replaced with one which doesn’t endanger the lives of everybody in the neighbourhood’) this seems somewhat less plausible.

63

Sebastian H 05.26.15 at 11:59 pm

“On robosigning, the reason you haven’t seen those prosecutions is that nobody in the US justice system wants to open that can of worms. “

I don’t want to get too bogged down in what you don’t want to talk about, but you’re right in that statement, which makes you wrong about the “insufficiently condemned” statement.

The thing that pisses me off most about the LIBOR scandal is that it continued AFTER the global financial meltdown. Your ‘everybody knew’ explanation makes it worse because it strongly suggests that the general finance culture had already shrugged off the explosion they had just engineered and detonated.

A point of commonality with the academic proto-scandal is the extent to which the actors lionize themselves and think of it as victimless.

64

Witt 05.27.15 at 12:14 am

ajay at 40: I’d say institutionalised rape, and the covering-up thereof by university authorities.

That’s it. I’m shocked it took 40 comments to get to it, frankly. I don’t think every university is harboring a Sandusky, precisely, but the institutional response details of the entire disgusting brouhaha of Penn State* are much more similar to other universities I know than different.

I said at the time, and I still believe, that the only real measure of whether Penn State had cleaned up its act was whether other cases involving other offenders were uncovered and prosecuted. Otherwise it’s just a lot of people being loudly shocked while the screwed-up system quietly keeps on operating.

It beggars belief that there haven’t been any additional cases, given the size of the university alone, and yet there don’t seem to have been any public stories. I have been reduced to hoping that at least the public shaming of Penn State has temporarily empowered the academic insiders with the most integrity, and that they can now wield the case as a liability weapon when pressured to sweep some offense or other under the rug.

But it’s years now since the Clery Act, and universities are still lying about crimes that take place on campus. And I don’t imagine things are much different in the UK.

*For those of you who aren’t in Pennsylvania, it’s still going on, with outraged alumni trying to restore Joe Paterno’s reputation and various lawsuits or threats of lawsuits going on about the Freeh report and other competing narratives of the case.

65

Witt 05.27.15 at 12:19 am

(And right on cue, I click over to the state’s largest news website, and there’s a story about frats at Penn State getting their hands slapped for a case that seems to call for at least criminal investigation, if not actually prosecution. And the university is being praised for being tougher than the student inter-fraternity council recommended–!)

66

protoplasm 05.27.15 at 12:24 am

43: The process by which it turned into a scandal that put people in jail, did for the News of the World and stopped NewsCorp being allowed to buy BSkyB … that’s a process that I don’t fully understand at all.

44: They’re discovered, and then at a later date, by a not very well understood seemingly self-organising process, they turn into scandals. That’s my point here – there is so much dry tinder piled up around academia that it’s bound to have a fire one day.

If the process by which provincial problems become public scandals is not well understood, then why would one believe that some outcome of that obscure process is inevitable? Additionally, maybe the tinder piled up around academia is not dry at all, maybe it’s soggy, not flammable no matter the nature of the scandal-making process. “If it’s not leading, it’s not bleeding”, sure, but there’s a difference between “not bleeding enough (yet)” and “not bleeding the right kind of blood (ever)”.

Like Omega, I’ve only been a customer of higher ed, but it seems intuitive to me that when/if scandal comes to the ivory tower it will be burning some financial- or athletics-related tinder, as dm at post 4 and Mary at post 19 have it.

I’d like to think the spirit of §144 of The Gay Science is relevant here: “The greatest progress of the masses up till now has been the religious war, for it proves that the mass has begun to treat concepts with respect.” Would that Joe Newspaper Reader cared enough about the ivory tower to give a fig about corruption in the academy qua academy! Unless they essentially have to do with money, sports, or sex (rape), I’d wager that, for the public, the problems of the university are too academic to become scandals. I suppose I’m not adding much value, just another voice to the choir of Z at post 6 and ajay at post 30.

67

geo 05.27.15 at 12:25 am

dsquared@31: I don’t think there’s much danger of the financial services industry being insufficiently condemned. But academia is a scandal of the near future, and therefore more interesting.

So far people have been justifiably clobbering dsquared mainly for the first of these two sentences. But the second is also objectionable. “More interesting” just seems the wrong tone to take when millions of lives have been ruined, virtually no one punished, and many of the criminal (or anyway reprehensible) practices unabated. Sounds a little … frivolous.

I know moral indignation kind of bores you, and I’m just as awed by your intellect and amused by your wit as everyone else here. But you do sometimes seem to overdo the tough-mindedness just the slightest bit.

68

Cranky Observer 05.27.15 at 12:31 am

What is the equivalent of the Enron scandal + Sarbanes-Oxley for university operations? That is, a previous large-scale scandal that was addressed with a specific law that was specifically broken less than 5 years later? (US-centric of course).

69

T 05.27.15 at 12:50 am

The real scandal in post-secondary education was in for profit universities. A bunch of these institutions actively recruited low income kids on a commission basis, immediately signed them up for a load of guaranteed gov’t loans, watched them fail, indebted them for life, and kept the cash. This went on for years. The owners of these “institutions” heavily lobbied Congress to keep the gravy train going and stuck it big time to taxpayers. The whole operation was a scam. None of this reached the public outrage of any of the scandals discussed in the original post.

The scandals of law schools are being addressed by plummeting enrollment at lower tier schools (and lawsuits.) I might add that the same exodus has been happening in the humanities. You can caulk that up to the philistinism of our current youth (some might say) or the scam which is now the humanities (others might say.)

To get the same level of scandal as the Church or the banks, you need something that cuts across many or all of the universities and I just don’t see it but I’m interested in what others say. The closest things I see is their treatment of sexual assault (bury it) or their treatment of student’s mental illness (almost all legal ass covering.) (There have been four suicides at William and Mary this year alone.) It’s possible one of these issues will blow up if they cut across a bunch of pretentious institutions at once. Anyway, my two cents.

70

The Temporary Name 05.27.15 at 12:52 am

That’s my point here – there is so much dry tinder piled up around academia that it’s bound to have a fire one day.

The fire is ongoing, is it not? There’s always an excuse to reduce funding.

I can’t see there being some cataclysm in which AHA! FIRE ALL THOSE JERKS! happens (as it didn’t in notable spheres) because people still want to purchase the advantages that the aforementioned jerks are offering. What kind of fire do you envision for the academy? A conflagration of bad things being said?

71

T 05.27.15 at 12:52 am

Hah. That was supposed to be “prestigious” rather than “pretentious” in the my last post.

72

SamInMpls 05.27.15 at 1:15 am

@19 Mary

How about the perpetual scandal that is big time college athletics?

There is some remote possibility that the NCAA itself could go down due to scandal but if that were to happen the schools would simply form a new organization. The big athletic programs receive ample funding from their alumni and other local sources and the consumers have had a few decades now to become accustomed to conference realignments that maximize television revenue.

Collective bargaining laws allow the leagues, with the consent of unions, to exclude amateur players who don’t meet certain criteria like minimum age requirements. This helps to insure that the college programs remain viable as a free talent development system.

The demand for live sporting events is increasing faster than ticket prices. An programming that viewers aren’t likely to time shift like sporting events can be sold to advertisers at a premium. These are a not good times to be in broadcast television but sports is one area that is reliable.

73

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:29 am

#67. George, you’re a socialist. I don’t ask you for a ritualistic pro-forma condemnation of Josef Stalin every time you post here, do I? When you make a comment about egalitarianism, I don’t bring up Pol Pot, do I?

“Millions of people’s lives have been affected by your kind of people, so I think that any points you might want to make should be largely ignored in favour of a blanket condemnation of you and people like you”. Can you, of all people, see how this kind of attitude might get a bit irritating?

“Don’t be a dick”. That was general advice, thanks, not just me having a go at Ajay. I did not make any claim that any of the practices of the financial services industry weren’t reprehensible (apart from the ones related to the USA’s attempts to enforce its sanctions policy extraterritorially). I am even prepared to enter into discussions with people who think that the reason that academia hasn’t had its LIBOR moment yet is just that academics are so much nicer and more sympathetic people than bankers (I think this is wrong as a statement of fact, but it might be true as a sociological statement about public perception).

74

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:30 am

What kind of fire do you envision for the academy?

Similar to LIBOR, without the financial angle. Lots of big high-profile resignations of academics caught up in scandal, significantly more of a shakeout of lower ranks.

75

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:33 am

And, of course, a “fire” would be one in which the prestige and social status of the profession got very quickly tarnished, meaning that people who were totally innocent of the bad practices still got lumped into the same category as the bad offenders. That’s the absolute characteristic of these scandals.

76

Bernard Yomtov 05.27.15 at 1:34 am

anyone sensible will do anything they’re ashamed of in person or over the telephone. Make sure that it’s your name in the records attached to the lone voice of complaint saying “we shouldn’t do this, vice-Chancellor”.

Yes. I’m reminded of the old and sage advice:

“Don’t write if you can talk. Don’t talk if you can whisper. Don’t whisper if you can nod and wink.”

77

js. 05.27.15 at 1:40 am

I’m with Z and ajay. The one thing I’d repeat is that if such a scandal—i.e. a scandal that would significantly affect the reputational capital of universities as institutions—it would have to be something affecting students, i.e. Bachelor’s level students, in a fairly direct way. Senior researchers coopting grad student labor or junior faculty labor—no one’s ever going to care. (Very unfortunately!) Same with gaming the rankings in some otherwise semi-obscure weekly (or monthly or whatever it is now).

78

harry b 05.27.15 at 1:43 am

AB at #59 — good, same thing happens in US (research-focused — I emphasize this not because I believe others are different, just because I mam talking about what I know) universities, except that it is done is a way that is so opaque that understanding it is beyond most people. Unlike LIBOR….!

NCAA is, indeed, an ongoing scandal, recognized as such by many college leaders. But — it is extremely difficult for college presidents to act in concert, because of anti-trust law.

Thought experiment: How much would college football coaches be paid if college football player could be paid at market rates?

79

js. 05.27.15 at 1:43 am

The second sentence in my last should read:

“…if such a scandal ever broke—i.e. a scandal that would significantly affect the reputational capital of universities as institutions—it would have to be something…”

80

The Temporary Name 05.27.15 at 1:52 am

And, of course, a “fire” would be one in which the prestige and social status of the profession got very quickly tarnished, meaning that people who were totally innocent of the bad practices still got lumped into the same category as the bad offenders.

It’s hard to see this happening. There’s a faith in the value of education such that any number of idiotic practices have already been tolerated by those with that faith. Those without are already gutting the system when they can. It’s two churches at war (and both churches have children they want to give advantages to).

81

Bruce Wilder 05.27.15 at 1:58 am

In one sense — that of personal virtue — the potential for scandal is part of the background radiation from the steady decay of human character. The impulses to defraud, to cheat, to neglect, to libel — these must assume as steady and constant a beat in human affairs as any living heart.

Grand Scandal, though, is disease of institutions, not of individual men and women. The archetypal Grand Scandal was the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, that set off the French Revolution. “Mind that miserable affair of the necklace,” said Talleyrand.

And, in that sense, it seems to me that the schadenfreude that wishes for a scandal to engulf complacent and self-satisfied academia, though personal, recognizes astutely that academia is suffering from an institutional sclerosis that makes it vulnerable to a Grand Scandal, an expected unexpected drama to illuminate the imminent liquidation of its eminence.

bob mcmanus asks, “cui bono?” Grand Scandal is an attack on legitimacy. Scandal is more often a tool of the Right than the Left, feeding cannibalistically on resentment and hypocrisy, and as much misdirected as directed. A certain unaccountable lack of self-awareness, more than any particular sin, is the one essential ingredient drawn from human character. “prestigious” rather than “pretentious”? Easy mistake to make.

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:10 am

if such a scandal—i.e. a scandal that would significantly affect the reputational capital of universities as institutions—it would have to be something affecting students, i.e. Bachelor’s level students, in a fairly direct way.

I don’t think so at all. Look at the monstering and pressure that has been brought to bear on climate change academics (the “hockey stick chart”). Or at a smaller scale, the amount of crap that got flung at our own Harry when he was misread by a mate of Rush Limbaugh. Now imagine a version of those beat-ups which, rather than being based on complete made-up bullshit, was in fact more or less completely justified. There are plenty of people out there who really don’t like research academics, and would love to bring them down a peg or two. One day they might find an issue which isn’t incredibly easily defended against.

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stubydoo 05.27.15 at 2:24 am

The banking scandals didn’t cause bankers’ bad reputations – bankers already had a bad reputation. For many people, these scandals just confirmed cultural tropes they had ingrained in their minds all along. This situation helped fuel the metaphorical fire. College professors have at least a somewhat better reputation at large, so the explosive dynamic shouldn’t play out the same way.

When I was a child I would watch children’s movies in which the primary villain was a banker whose only sin (other than dressing over-formally and going bald) was telling people who’ve borrowed money that they really ought to pay it back.

Professors are not among the small number of professions where you can be portrayed as a stereotypical villain just because you basically do your job.

(full disclosure: I am a banker)

———-

And now for my own pet academic proto-scandal:

Many elite colleges, especially the ivies, have figured out that their relevant constituencies really like the idea of providing educational opportunities to the underprivileged – so accordingly they serve up stories about how they totally are all about that, and people fall for it. You get such things as cherry-picking the stats on how many students are on scholarships. A colleague of mine whose son attends an Ivy was convinced that his classmates were mostly from the ghetto – as more than half were on scholarship. I decided to research the matter, and it turns out that the website of the school in question provides a helpful financial aid calculator that indicates that your kid will get at least some scholarship if you make anything less than $250,000.

The few genuinely underprivileged students at the Ivies are pretty damn important to them all right (let’s say for now you’re an underprivileged 18 year old if your parents have never sniffed a combined six-figures). Each one of them could well account for tens of millions of donations received by gullible donors.

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Dave 05.27.15 at 2:36 am

Universities are boring, the people who run them are boring, and the people who work for them are boring. Politically, financially, and (let’s face it) personally, if you’re on campus, you are boring and no one cares except for paranoid right-wing conservatives.

However. I agree we could be coming to a point at which the public acknowledges that universities pose a social problem, now that we’re all over the financial collapse, the church, the BBC, Iraq war, etc.

I think what the public is prepared to be scandalized about probably pertains to adjuncts. People seem to understand this issue now.

It might be a string of ugly, unfortunate adjunct deaths, of starvation or exposure in campus parking lots, say, in the span of a few months.

Or if some adjuncts turned out to be violent criminals hired by departments who haven’t done due diligence.

Or maybe if it were revealed that system-wide, there were long term plans to employ adjuncts and spend less money on teaching, especially at relatively elite institutions, even if it meant taking a hit in national rankings, and if secret memos detailing said plans were full of invective, maybe Universities would get the spotlight like those other institutions.

But what would even come from whatever sustained attention could be mustered, who knows. Probably not much.

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dsquared 05.27.15 at 2:56 am

I’m not sure that adjuncts per se will be the issue that ignites. But universities in both the US and UK have such amazingly toxic and hideous labour relations that if and when (OK, IMO when) the levee breaks, there will be an absolute surfeit of whistleblowers coming forward.

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js. 05.27.15 at 3:06 am

dsquared @82:

Several people have made this point already, but I’ll say it again: the LIBOR scandal has to be understood in the context of the financial meltdown in 2008 (and maybe even earlier events like Enron, etc.). I’m not saying these associations are fair, but in terms of public perception, they were undeniably related. In other words, the banking sector was already really tarnished in the public’s eye when LIBOR broke. In the absence of that, it’s not clear to me that LIBOR becomes such a big scandal. Similarly, in the US and I think the UK at least, public trust in government has steadily over the last few decades—for some good and some not so good reasons. The MP expenses scandal makes sense against that background.

Universities are just not in that position right now: at least in the US, the public perception of universities is not already tarnished in a way that it would have to be for the kind of thing you’re talking about to really catch fire. Yes, the right wing hates them, but the right wing is a large-ish, vocal minority, and very much not the “general public”. This is reaching back a bit, but one can get a good handle on the distinction by recalling the public response to the Clinton impeachment saga.

One other, somewhat unrelated thing. The proper analogy to LIBOR or the MP expenses scandal, it seems to me, is an Ivy and co. scandal, or a for-profit universities scandal, but it’s not a university scandal. The latter class is way too broad (it would be like a scandal that involved the US Congress, every state legislature, and most mayoralties). And the distinction between Fitchburg State and Harvard is pretty damn clear in the public imagination. So—bar rape and sexual assault—I find it impossible to think of a scandal that would indiscriminately affect all subsectors within the university space, so to speak.

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PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 3:10 am

If the well north of 90 Title IX investigations of US universities for failing to deal fairly with rape survivors don’t shock and demoralize us in academia, then we’re beyond hope.

To Witt at 64: Exactly.

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VeeLow 05.27.15 at 3:10 am

74 seems, well, a little too revealing; especially in light of earlier criticisms….

Daniel, you conjure up a scandal that will tarnish the reputations of “individual academics,” leading to mass resignations etc. I’m not saying this is fantasy, but
I’m not sure “sociology” alone can get you there.

The idea that academics, individual university professors/lecturers/teachers, are going to face individual consequences so clearly comparable (except for their greater severity) to those faced by bankers…Here’s an observation. The relationship of the individual university professsor/etc to the considerable ill-gotten gains universities have been getting for the past generation can be characterized as follows, from the point of view of said teacher: we haven’t gotten any. The relationship between bankers and the institutions of finance, I would propose, is, uh, not so straightforward. (At least, according to public perception. We could be getting a distorted picture. Can I blame the media?)

Unless this is all just a failure of my American perspective? But even so: those examples again: the BBC, the Church, MPs, journalists (who presumably overlap with the BBC). I dunno, I think this is all pretty fast and loose sociology. You need comparable institutions, or comparable groups of professionals, if you want scandals that are gonna shake down in such similar ways. Higher education, at least in North America, is hardly even comparable with itself.

I am happy to believe that the Academy is in peril. But I will continue to think nothing so telegenic as you imagine is likely to occur….

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js. 05.27.15 at 3:13 am

Also, it continues to seem bizarre to me that several people think the scandal will be over exploitation of labor, of all things. Is there any example, in the US at least, of this sort of thing being a cause of scandal in the last several decades? And remember, these are the criteria for a scandal in the relevant sense:

Lots of big high-profile resignations of academics caught up in scandal, significantly more of a shakeout of lower ranks.

the prestige and social status of the profession got very quickly tarnished, meaning that people who were totally innocent of the bad practices still got lumped into the same category as the bad offenders. That’s the absolute characteristic of these scandals.

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Aulus Gellius 05.27.15 at 3:13 am

I can think of a couple other academic scandals which are very well known to the public, and I’m not sure how they affect this conversation.

1. Obviously, recently there’s been a lot of news in the US (and maybe elsewhere?) about universities doing a terrible job of dealing with sexual violence on campus. Very widely reported in mainstream (not just academia-focused) press. So far, not much sign of widespread reform (as opposed to changes within a few schools), heads rolling, etc. But the scandal is still pretty fresh, so maybe we should wait and see.

2. On the other hand, there’s the old scandal (entirely unique to the US, I think) of football and basketball players at some schools getting fraudulent grades. This has been going on, and well known to the public, roughly forever (James Thurber joked about it); every year, there’s a particularly egregious case or two and maybe a couple jobs lost; but absolutely no sign of an industry-wide shakeup. I don’t think there’s any trove of secrets that would shock the public – everyone knows it’s going on, everyone knows the scale is huge, they’ve known forever, but nobody cares.

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dsquared 05.27.15 at 3:23 am

The relationship of the individual university professsor/etc to the considerable ill-gotten gains universities have been getting for the past generation can be characterized as follows, from the point of view of said teacher: we haven’t gotten any.

Someone has, because the amount of money going into the sector has gone up and up. Probably university administrators. And the terrible thing is that when something that they did blows up, it affects people who weren’t responsible for it and didn’t benefit from it. It is apparently considered by our comments section to be in some way unserious or self-pitying or whiny to note that it isn’t fair to criticise large groups of people for things they didn’t do, though.

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Map Maker 05.27.15 at 4:11 am

Scandal has to be able to be explained in 5 words or less.

Here is a Philadelphia newspaper article which hits 5 possible scandals and cant reach that conclusion.

1) “My degrees lead to jobs. That attracts people,” Varsalona told me.
2) Wilmington’s faculty, Varsalona says, includes 150 non-tenured full-timers and 600 part-time adjuncts, most paid $1,500 to $3,000 a course.

“Adjuncts are our secret weapons,” he says. “They are people, working, who teach one or two courses a year. Or retired, maybe five courses a year.” Nationally, “everybody is moving toward adjuncts,” he added, saying that there are waiting lists to teach even the popular tech courses.

3) But Poliakoff also cites federal data that show Wilmington spent a relatively high $18 million on administration last year, versus $41 million on instruction, an inefficient ratio compared with other schools

4) Varsalona – who made $800,000 in salary and $700,000 in long-term compensation, comparable to the Ivy League

And my favorite quote:

“This university is different,” counters Wilmington spokeswoman Laurie Bick. “Most of the time, when people try to do statistics and comparatives, we don’t fit.” She said Varsalona’s compensation shows that “the board sees value in him.”

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Belle Waring 05.27.15 at 5:05 am

“I am, to be honest, rather disappointed at all the people whose only response is to scream “FINANCE BANKERS!”, as if student debt didn’t ruin people’s lives just as much as mortgage debt”

dsquared: this seems an ill-thought-out objection given that FINANCE BANKERS were the ones loaning money at profitable rates to students who were only middlingly likely to reap rewards from what education they sought. The FINANCE BANKERS were secure in the knowledge that these debts are written in blood, and cannot be wiped out in any bankruptcy or personal disaster, but will follow the debtor to her grave, and indeed pursue her estate (if any) which will go to the bank rather than her heirs. Putting a noose around your neck and kicking the chair away won’t keep FINANCE BANKERS from coming after you for the money you borrowed to go to a lower-tier law school. And don’t think that wasn’t the main attraction to would-be student lenders! And for a long time it was individual banks offering and servicing these loans, with points above the normal interest rate (despite the fact that the “security” of the loan was higher than a car or home loan–secure in the sense that you keep getting money from the poor bastard forever, even having the government garnish the graduates’ meagre wages.) Control of the actual lending mechanics was re-taken by the state in the Obama presidency, but representatives from New York and other finance centres fought tooth and nail to prevent a “government takeover,” i.e. the government doing something rational and not allowing the financiers to skim off the top when making the loan for which they were receiving so iron-clad a guarantee, with the Federal government as the ultimate backstop answerable to all claimed debts. Bullshit money-grubbing law schools are very much to blame, and their loathsome, squat deans deserve to be clawed down into a pit by unearthly talons, but it seems odd to bring this up at all in a list purported to consist of SHIT FINANCE BANKERS DIDN’T DO.

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Belle Waring 05.27.15 at 5:06 am

I say this with love.

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ragweed 05.27.15 at 5:39 am

(passing the popcorn)

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Adam Hammond 05.27.15 at 5:40 am

Look. The OP is clearly a defense of bankers. Don’t be coy about it. This is a solid example of the writer scoring the critical points in the introduction to a piece that claims to be about something else. We readers are abjured from bringing these gems up, since it isn’t really the topic.

One great thing about the method is that readers frequently don’t go back to introductory statements that they find questionable if the statements don’t get used as premises in the body of the argument. They sneak in to the subconscious while we are looking for the proper argument to refute.

Here are the rhetorical points that I presume are the goal of the essay:

1) “Bankers have had their day under scrutiny.” – We’re done, move along.

2) “It’s not that these sectors are especially dirty and the rest are especially clean – it’s just that politics, finance, religion, journalism and broadcasting have, so far, had their day under the microscope.” – Because they appear in a list together, they are equivalent, as are any other institutions that might be added soon. No one is especially dirty!

3)“There are now a number of issues which might form the basis of a LIBOR/ expenses/ hacking/ noncegate type scandal.” – Hey, another list!

4) “… when these things blow up (like LIBOR) they get judged according to the standards of the uninformed general public, not the standards of people who know all the exonerating background and detail.” – Ah! What a beauty! This one didn’t quite slip by. Readers didn’t entirely fall for the tone (i.e. “I’m talking about YOUR great exonerating details”) and caught a whiff of the rhetorical device. Namely, bankers have exonerating details and, by the equivalence property, they are just as good as all the ones that you are going to bring up here. I am sure that we can all commiserate about those louts of the uninformed general public. Are we not brothers in victimhood?

The rest of the piece is interesting and has lots to chew over. A good honest discussion of a topic of concern to us all … if only we would stay on topic!

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Francis 05.27.15 at 6:08 am

I’m not particularly interested in Finance Bankers. We all have our weak spots. But the following raised an eyebrow:

“the alternative was to try and deal with the amazingly corrupt and useless US land title system”

Now, it’s been more than a decade since I last represented a developer, but where does this come from? Corrupt and useless? If you know how to type and make a few educated guesses, you can look up the value of my house! (which, frankly, is a little creepy.) Yes, the title system is done on a county basis, which is a pain, but the US is a big-ass country compared to bonny Great (more or less) Britain.

cheers.

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SamInMpls 05.27.15 at 6:10 am

Thought experiment: How much would college football coaches be paid if college football players could be paid at market rates?

Pay for head football and basketball coaches would almost certainly increase. As of 2013, football and basketball coaches are already the highest paid public sector employees in 40 states.

If players are paid at market rates, the question of how shoe contracts and other endorsements would have to be addressed. The shoe companies currently sign licensing deals directly with the universities and supply all of the apparel with one of the stipulations being that the players and coaches can wear nothing else to practice or during games. Some of that money flows through the university to the coaches, a few of whom clear more than $1 million annually just from that source.

Once the shoe companies are allowed to market jerseys with the player’s name on the back they willabsolutely do so. That would mean getting the coaches to agree to only sign players who are willing to sign onto the team’s apparel deal. Signing with Ohio State becomes the same thing as signing with Nike. Ohio St. currently receives a 12.5% cut of net sales on its exclusive products, basically all “authentic competition apparel” and 11% on anything else with an OSU logo on it. Removing the restrictions on marketing individual players and featuring them in merchandise would likely be a nice revenue bump for the apparel companies.

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ragweed 05.27.15 at 6:32 am

I think the thing is that some of these things just don’t make for scandals material. Citation gaming is just too obscure and too irrelevant to most people to make for a good scandal. Likewise senior research authorship is too fuzzy and obscure – I could see maybe a seriously egregious offender being the target of some kind of scandal, but I don’t see it likely to get beyond that, in no large part because the victims are other researchers, and it really isn’t relevant beyond academia.

The thing about LIBOR is that there was a shaky practice, in what popular opinion saw as something that should have been straightforward, and it had the appearance of impacting lots of peoples lives. Loans linked to LIBOR were all over the place, as I understand it in the UK, and even if the actual impact was small, it was “”sleezy bankers are messing with my loan.” And the simplicity was important – LIBOR was a single number, that should have applied to everyone equally and fairly, in popular opinion, like, say, the price of oil. The fact is that there is actually a lot of assumptions and adjustments and other forms of alchemy involved, but people think it should be one clear thing.

Something like US News and World Reports rankings don’t have that same perception. They are the product of a particular news company and while people buy into them, the idea that colleges would try to play for those rankings is just not going to get people excited, short of actual overt bribery. I mean, that is what you do with rankings, from sports teams draft picks to your next annual review – you look at the criterion and you try to strategize to meet it. If there is some way that the rankings don’t actually reflect the value of the institution, that is more likely to be seen as US News and World Report’s.

I think the most likely target for a scandal will be either some sort of overt price-fixing and collusion on tuition, or something like what Russell L. Carter describes at 42 – financial aid offices deliberately funneling students into loans when other financial aid is available. Something that directly impacts undergrad students, that loads them with debt, and that is overtly skivy enough to grab peoples attention. Post-grad employment may be part of that, and certainly it is with the for-profits.

The other thing about issues like post-grad employment stats and financial aid gaming and even rankings – they are all the responsibility of the administration, not professors (and yes the difference between the two is sometimes fluid, but the roles are viewed differently). So unless there is some sort of direct collusion with faculty – like professors being told to steer students into high-cost summer programs and either the institution or professor benefitting directly – it isn’t going to primarily hit faculty. (The one exception, maybe, being textbook sales).

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John Quiggin 05.27.15 at 6:44 am

Coming back to the co-authorship issue, the motivations suggested by DD go in both directions, and the initiative can come from either side.

1.Senior academics may get free publications by demanding co-authorship of papers written by their subordinates. In some areas of Big Science I get the impression this is common and used to be considered acceptable. But in the social sciences, it’s always been regarded as bad form, and is now explicitly prohibited in most places (which doesn’t mean it never happens of course).

2. Alternatively, and maybe more commonly, the senior academic’s name is used to get the paper a better chance at publication somewhere with high status, to help the job prospects of the junior author. I’ve been approached with direct requests to add my name to papers that were already pretty much finished (I declined, of course).

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magistra 05.27.15 at 6:55 am

In the UK, a major university scandal would only occur if there was something seriously wrong going on at a) Oxbridge or b) (less likely) a number of the big Russell Group universities. And it would have to directly affect British undergraduates. The British academic class system means that most universities, however good, do not have a national high-profile reputation: if there is a scandal at the University of Poppleton, who cares for long?

Newspapers, meanwhile, are only interested in a scandal for which there are ‘deserving’ victims in their (mostly right-wing) terms. And given how Oxbridge-dominated journalism, even tabloid journalism is becoming, they also have a vested interest in not undermining their own university.

Right-wing attitudes to class are also important. At the moment, it is not much more expensive to go to Oxbridge than Poppleton. Therefore if you are a student from a poor background who goes to the wrong university because you’ve been lied to about your prospects, that will be taken in right-wing thought as just your fault for not being bright enough to go to a ‘proper’ university. And the fact that arts students subsidise science students will equally be regarded as right and proper because science students are taken as the future wealth-creators and arts students as public sector luvvies.

The adjunctification of UK universities is still in its early stages: even now, I doubt you could find many senior academics who weren’t teaching some undergraduates (in more than mass lectures). So the scandal of not getting to see the big names you’ve paid for isn’t very likely. Sexual scandals are possible, but almost all UK students are over the age of consent. You’d have to get very blatant cases of rape being repeatedly covered up for a long-lasting scandal; the Colin McGinn sexual harassment revelations didn’t have wider repercussions on academics as a whole, did they?

I’d argue that the biggest reputational damage in recent years was to LSE from its Gaddafi links, but again, that didn’t go wider. Taking donations from dubious sources is standard practice, but you’d need to have a single focus on something that ‘the universities’ were doing in that respect that no-one else was. So taking “Arab money” or “Chinese money” won’t work when all the rest of Britain is scrambling so heavily to get that as well. The only scandal I could see having tabloid traction is if universities were taking “Russian money” (to teach left-wing subjects), but I don’t think they are.

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Chris Bertram 05.27.15 at 7:25 am

A bit of pushback for @harry b, @AB re the use of teaching funding for research.

If, as Harry sort-of notes, the university in question actually sells itself as providing research-led teaching, as Russell Group universities do, then it is fair enough that some of the teaching funding gets assigned to the reproduction of the capacity to provide research-led teaching. So, if in order to provide that kind of teaching I need time to read and write, I don’t think the students are being ripped off when their fees pay for that. Obviously, there would be some level of diversion that would be egregious, but the mere fact that some of the funding goes to reproduce that capacity seems ok.

Note that the idea that any research time not specifically funded by a research-badged income stream is a fraud on the students, is currently being used by senior managements as a stick to beat academics. This, it seems to me, violates the implicit contract that we entered when we chose our profession, viz, that in return for teaching etc we’d also get some time to read, think and write. Not that managements are disposed to recognize that this was the deal when they get all finger waggy.

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Chris Bertram 05.27.15 at 7:36 am

Number me, by the way, among those who think that (a) these practices are scandalous and immoral but (b) the wider public isn’t going to care enough. I see that FIFAgate is now on this morning’s news. That’s a case where an egregious scandal has been playing out in public, with common knowledge among participants, literally for years, and where millions of people care really deeply about the subject-matter. I bet we still have the World Cup in Qatar though, and that things roll on much as before.

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Emma in Sydney 05.27.15 at 8:28 am

Francis @97, the US land title system is unbelievably useless and non-functional to people from countries with universal, state provided, Torrens title registry systems. There is no ambiguity about land title in my big-ass country. Mortgages must also be registered, which is a big part of why we had no major problem with the kind of mortgage on-selling shenanigans that happened in the US. It makes a difference.

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Dan Butt 05.27.15 at 8:29 am

People may remember the string of plagiarism cases relating to politicians from Germany and Eastern Europe discussed here a couple of years ago: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/a-plague-of-plagiarism-at-the-heart-of-politics/2003781.article
It did occur to me at the time that what might have been going on here wasn’t so much something peculiar to people in Germany and Eastern Europe who do doctorates and go on to become politicians, but a kind of corner-cutting that might have been much more routine in an age prior to the development of anti-plagiarism software. It’s easy to imagine historic cases of plagiarism, whether large or small scale, where it just seemed fantastically unlikely to those responsible that they would ever be caught out. Indeed in many cases I’d bet people would not even now remember they’d done it. So I do wonder about what might happen if an enterprising journalist were to get access to Turnitin, a scanner, and some OCR software – or indeed to an electronic archive of theses by senior academics.

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Organic Cheeseboard 05.27.15 at 8:44 am

one doesn’t have to search far or hard to find examples of recent graduates being given economically meaningless short-term contracts with university libraries or the like, to inflate the employment statistics. And this can hardly be seen as a victimless crime. Based on these manipulated statistics, plenty of people make the decision to take on tens of thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt.

In the UK post-graduation employment gaming tends to happen slightly differently – the national DLHE survey of jobs after 6 months is typically run in-house by Universities, and it allows the University to eventually complete entries on students’ behalfs. This is a very obvious conflict of interest and I’m sure has led to inflated scores – it’s very hard to believe that e.g. 80% of any humanities cohort have a ‘professional/managerial job’ or are in further study, but programmes regularly get scores of those kinds. See:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/is-employability-data-being-manipulated/2018930.article

A job at a library probably wouldn’t cut it over here, because for some reason the ONS definitions of jobs are used, meaning that you essentially need a postgrad qualification or to be on a graduate scheme (and even then it’s dubious) to have one of the all-important ‘professional/managerial jobs’. Jobs that literally require degrees, e.g. graduate teaching assistant who does actually teach schoolkids, are in theory classified as non-graduate.

But as many have said up there, there’s not enough of a story here. Not least because the gaming is only done by Universities with big enough budgets, thus Russell Group, and the media and politicians like the idea that their dominance, based more or less entirely on historical wealth, should be perpetuated, partly because Higher Education Is An Industry We Can Be Proud Of etc. People might generally dislike lazy academics etc, but they’re not Evil Bankers or Evil Politicians.

Just on rankings, too – people put an enormous amount of stock in the Guardian league tables, to the extent of building long-term strategy around them, but they’re so poorly compiled as to be almost meaningless – I think they’re compiled by one person. The methodology is silly too – if an institution fails to submit information for a category, typically they’re given the sector average, meaning that there’s actually an incentive to not submit ‘bad’ stats. At my University, a few years ago one programme shot up around 50 places because we’d not provided a ‘staff-student ratio’ statistic – if we had, we’d have still been near the bottom. Equally, at least one of the stats is preposterous – ‘value added’. It’s meant to demonstrate how much students improve from when they arrive to when they graduate, and thus to incentivise wider participation etc. This year Durham (which wants 524 UCAS points, thus at least A* A A) outperformed Northampton on that (which wants 283 points). The system is rigged, but nobody really cares.

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Collin Street 05.27.15 at 9:09 am

The specific problems with US land registration is that it’s based on the voluntary registration of instruments. “Voluntary” means “unreliable” — what’s the point of a government registry if it’s not actually authoritative? — and “instruments” means “labour-intensive”, and also adds extra unreliability.

In australia and basically everywhere else, lands records are based on the obligatory registration of interests: you don’t need to chase back through a chain of deeds to find out exactly what the rights being conveyed are, and you don’t have to worry about any unrecorded or misfiled easements.

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hix 05.27.15 at 9:34 am

Pretty sure most people dont understand libor at all. One of my felow students got a loan linked to libor (libor+some fixed risk percentage), and i dont think she even know she has a floating rate loan, much less what libor is…. And thats the kind of student that has just As (in a degree that does involves lots of economics). Point, theres about zero chance the libor scandal is non complicated enough for the public at large to understand. The scandals “work” without most people really understanding anything.

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Andrew Fisher 05.27.15 at 9:50 am

Having written many of those ‘we shouldn’t do this, Vice Chancellor’ emails (although these days we usually use the Vice Chancellor’s given name), my perspective on this is a bit different. The question is whether regulators mean and intend to regulate. Writing a ‘ we shouldn’t so this’ email covers my back or makes me feel better: writing a ‘this won’t survive audit’ email changes the VC’s mind.

In the UK the London Met business back in 2007 woke the funding bodies up to the idea that institutions might go beyond well-meaning incompetence to actual deceit. Up to that point there was certainly regulatory forbearance, and even perhaps collusion. Since then audit of our data returns has been pretty robust and there are plenty of examples of institutions being forced to hand money back. I therefore don’t think there’s much scope for LIBOR-style scandal in the UK at this level – which also includes UK graduate employment statistics as these are published by government (well, technically HESA, but HESA is a government agency to all intents and purposes).

A separate set of issues arises with the probity and conduct of senior management and senior managers. These are supposed to be regulated by institutional Boards of Governors so at any one time you can be sure that in some of the institutions the relations between Board and management will be inappropriately cosy. There have been truly epic failures here over many many years (I remember the Capsa affair at Cambridge in the late 90s; Cardiff in the 80s really predates me). My sense is that this is getting worse over time as management and governors become less risk-averse than they used to be but the question is how a specific failure in an individual institution can trigger a national scandal of any kind.

A third issue is research integrity. I think this could matter more than some have suggested: many people give to research charities and therefore have some investment in the value of research. This is not really my area but from outside it seems that regulation is the responsibility of journal editors and researchers’ employers, neither of whom seem to have consistent standards for what they are doing. I have dealt with a lot of plagiarism cases, so I know how an epidemic of not-looking can arise in particular academic communities.

A fourth issue is no more than a cloud the size of a man’s hand at the moment in the UK, namely for-profit institutions. I don’t think that straightforward profit-making entities like BPP need to be an issue in any way, but the last government deliberately created a route for the privatisation of the University of Law and other public/private models are beginning to evolve. These models provide opportunities for senior managers to turn their current control of a public sector organisation into personal profit and again regulation is divided and the identity of the regulators is unclear.

Student sport is not an issue in the UK at all and a university can do nothing at all in a case like sexual assault where the police would be involved, so although UK universities are certainly stuffed full of low-level sexism (and not-so-low-level racism) I don’t believe they are outside the mainstream of British society here. So much the worse for mainstream British society, if I am right about that.

So in the UK we have certainly a high probability of continued scandals at the institutional level, and probably a low probability of contagion from any one institution to the sector at large.

The OP seems to suggest we have rising social conduct standards that bump into old-established practices in various sectors causing scandals. I think this model explains the sexual scandals pretty well but not the financial scandals, where I would say it is more that we have falling standards as a society, but not falling everywhere at a uniform rate. I’m trying to articulate why I think that makes a difference but currently I can’t, so I’ll stop.

110

Guano 05.27.15 at 9:55 am

#45

After all, everyone knew about phone-hacking too. Piers Morgan wrote about it in his autobiography! The process by which it turned into a scandal that put people in jail, did for the News of the World and stopped NewsCorp being allowed to buy BSkyB … that’s a process that I don’t fully understand at all.

Phone-hacking by the press became a scandal because a number of people took the trouble to put together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and present a complete picture, and then to continue to present that complete picture in the face of opposition that tried to break it back again into individual jigsaw pieces. The central issue of concern was too great a linkage between certain sections of the police, politicians and the press; phone-hacking was an entry-point into that concern because the police had evidence that they didn’t use and because Coulson became a central figure in Cameron’s entourage. Phone-hacking might not have become a scandal if those involved had managed to keep the narrative broken up, but their luck ran out; too many people could see that it wasn’t just a bunch of publicity-seeking celebrities moaning about the wrong kind of publicity.

So academia should probably think about the risk of a number of discrete loose practices becoming joined-up in the public mind. Academia should also think whether they are being led into a number of loose practices by others (such as politicians) who will then use those loose practices against them at some future date. I have seen that happen in the non-profit sector, where government grants have been made available on a “flexible” basis but then procedures tightened up without notice; there was clearly an intention of entrapment.

111

Alex 05.27.15 at 10:07 am

An important point here is that, sure, fiddling the RAE isn’t as big a deal as destroying the world economy. But then, academics aren’t as scary a lobby as banks. That you were hit by a rifle bullet, not a 2000lb bomb, isn’t much consolation to you or rather your relatives – you’re just as dead. Someone mentioned the German plagiarists*. Plagiarising their doctoral theses killed zu Guttenberg and Annette Schavan’s careers just as well as running RBS into the ground did Fred Goodwin’s. And Angela Merkel tried for months to save Schavan, spending a good deal of political capital, a degree of cover very few academics can expect. But in the end, Merkel’s string-pulling didn’t work and down she went – even though her scientific sin was relatively minor compared to Guttenberg’s.

The point isn’t that it wouldn’t be a huge scandal, in absolute terms – it’s that it would be a big enough scandal to do you in, or your institution.

*which sounds like a school of thought, doesn’t it? like the German idealists.

112

Nasi Lemak 05.27.15 at 10:25 am

re Andrew Fisher @109: it’s true that university lawyers will tell you (following the Zellick Report of 1994) that it’s settled law that criminal matters incl. sexual assaults are basically for the police, and universities can do nothing, unlike in the US. But that doesn’t mean there’s no potential scandal there & both these two developments seem to indicate somewhat more of a risk:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/08/former-student-legal-challenge-oxfords-handling-of-rape-claims-elizabeth-ramey-university-policy

(an unsuccessful legal challenge to that policy, but unsuccessful because the wrong claimant & the courts didn’t get to the legal issue)

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/may/24/reporting-sexual-assault-at-universities-share-your-stories

(personal testimony would be the basis of any scandal)

113

Chris Bertram 05.27.15 at 10:25 am

A record of trying to extract money from writers by cybersquatting is no barrier to a successful career in British academia it seems:

http://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/html/2000/d2000-0235.html

114

bill benzon 05.27.15 at 10:50 am

The world’s going to hell in a hand basket, no? So go see Mad Max: Fury Road and then go collect your “T” pin at the end of Tomorrowland.

As for academia, when I see that a university president is pulling down $7M a year (Jackson at RPI) I’m thinking that $6M of that could be translated into a meaningful number of faculty lines or TAships or scholarships or library books, etc.

I’m also bothered by various kinds of intellectual misbehavior, including faked data, poor experimental design leading to results that can’t be replicated, and so forth.

And, yeah, permatemping and student loans.

115

Ben 05.27.15 at 10:55 am

“That’s why I’m advising all CT readers in academia to look through their Sent boxes for the REF period to see if there’s anything in there which would make a good headline.”

Before doing that you might want to take legal advice. It’s one thing to have a blanket and consistently applied policy for retention/deletion, and another to specifically seek out and delete things which look like they might be incriminating. At best it might be seen as spoliation of evidence, and at worst as a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Academics advising each other to delete emails has already been a minor scandal, and the only reason it wasn’t a bigger one is because the field of research is in favour politically.

116

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.27.15 at 11:05 am

I will say that some of the “kiting of employment rates” isn’t all that evil, in my experience. At least by law schools. It works like this:

– Law market is so tight that some big-name law schools can’t place all their grads.
– Most of the unplaced grads are perfectly competent lawyerlings.
– Many real law shops (like mine) could use such lawyerlings as free temp labor, although they’re neither willing to pay for them or commit to them.
– Voila–the kite!
– 6-12 months later the law shop may be impressed by the lawyerling, and offer a real job. Or the lawyerling may find a real job, aided by the encomia of the real law shop, which has far more market credibility than the student’s grades.

Yes, this pumps up the school’s employment stats. Yes, only rich schools can do this. But it makes a lot of sense, if you think that the school has some responsibility to the student.

117

Shamash 05.27.15 at 11:05 am

I can think of few from personal experience. The first is the obvious and not-limited-to-academia practice of setting up new job descriptions so that only the pre-anointed applicant can meet them, thus bypassing all those pesky race- and gender-based equality-in-hiring laws. The second is the continual and blatant fudging of grant budgets for dubious purposes. All the primary investigators need new laptops? Let’s just retroactively justify it by repurposing a grad student line item! Or “I’m tenured, you don’t actually expect me to teach? We’ll just mollify the department chair by adding in an extra line item so that some adjunct can do that and we’ll give him an investigator credit that will look good on his resumé.”

I remember one time for back-to-back conferences in Italy and the Netherlands, one attendee had the travel office check if renting a Ferrari would be cheaper than airfare (so he could thrash it over the Alps). And you know, if it had been, the university would have been obligated to allow it as it would be a lower cost option…

118

bos 05.27.15 at 11:30 am

From the OP.
“It’s a general trend, one of gradual social re-assessment of whether the fiddles and skeletons of the past are going to be tolerated in the future.”

Is there gradual social re-assessment? (Note: I don’t work in the satanic mills of Academe, I haunt the groves of Commerce. I do have some family who have been teachers and researchers in universities). In 2007 some of us woke up to having to deal with the issue of whether there were banks that we could deal with. There were pictures of queues outside Northern Rock. Those were short, sharp jolts of reality rather than anything gradual.

Also it is not hard to find press reports from that Financial Sector remuneration was higher than ever – with the implication that this was a success story,which benefited all of us. The financial crash was a jolt of reality and Libor should be understood in that context.

With the phone hacking, was there a re-assessment, or did the phone hackers go to far? I suspect most people were relatively disinterested in tabloids hacking celebrities. But the hacking of Royal phone and of Milly Dowler were just too far. The ascent of Coulson to communications director also put a political wrinkle into it – which meant that Cameron could be impelled toward an inquiry that he probably didn’t want to have.

With the sex abuse scandals such as Savile or the various Churches (or care homes), is it more about a gradual build up of evidence against figures that the public felt they trusted/should be able to trust rather than some process of re-assessment? This was a build up of evidence over many years that the Churches and Savile (and people close to Savile) managed to suppress and ignore. It took Savile’s death for the truth about him to be confirmed and known more widely. Surely this was more about the inability to people to suppress a story that was previously whispered, rather than a process of re-evaluation.
From the posts above it is clear that there are problems in universities. But I don’t that it is clear that you can draw a line through “LIBOR/ expenses/ hacking/ noncegate” and point at universities and say “you’re next”.

119

Andrew Fisher 05.27.15 at 11:30 am

Nasi Lemak@112. I’m not trying to defend the conduct of British universities towards victims of sexual assault, only to say that it is completely consistent with the legal obligations placed on them by the British state, the conduct of other British institutions, and attitudes prevalent in British society. However perhaps you are right, and social attitudes are changing here. It would be good if they did.

120

harry b 05.27.15 at 11:50 am

Belle — I sort of disagree with you about this. The student debt problem (which, I hate to say it, is less serious than people make it seem — if you graduate with an average or somewhat above average amount of debt, you are still much better off than if you hadn’t gone to school) is much more down to schools which i) advise students badly (if at all) about how to finance their education and ii) mis-market themselves, mis-advise students, and fail to get them through to graduation in a timely way (if at all). Taking on debt and NOT graduating is worse than not going to school at all; and that accounts for about half of all students. This is not a problem for highly selective colleges, which typically spend a great deal of money on administration (administration is a catch-all phrase for managers, student services, advising, etc), and therefore have well-developed support systems for getting people through, and tend to enroll relatively advantaged students most of whose parents went to college and therefore are further sources of advising for students. But most of the problematic debt occurs among (the vast majority of) students who attend institutions that are less well designed to get them to graduate. I don’t think finance bankers are central to the problem here. (disclaimer — and this is a response to CB’s comment above — I am only talking about the US, not the UK — I don’t understand the UK system well enough to comment on these kinds of things, and did not mean my comment about subsidizing research to apply to the UK).

121

PaulB 05.27.15 at 12:10 pm

[an ex-banker writes]
There are two LIBOR scandals. One is that, starting in August 2007, banks under-reported the extend to which their borrowing costs had risen. But it really is true that “everyone” knew about it, in just the same sense that “everyone” knows about various academic malpractices: that is, almost no one knows who doesn’t take a close interest in the subject, but anyone who cares can find out. (I gave a a conference presentation in April 2009 in which, as an aside, I demonstrated the extend of LIBOR misreporting by applying arbitrage considerations to publicly quoted prices.) The banks even told the Bank of England what they were doing and why, and the BoE didn’t tell them to stop.

The other scandal is that traders conspired to manipulate fixings to suit their own (derivative) positions. It’s not true that everyone knew about that, any more than everyone knows about individual cases of academic fraud.

The point of talking about this is that the actual facts of the case are largely irrelevant to the public’s perception of it. The public dislikes bankers for having more money than they deserve, and blames them for making everyone else poor. What does boring technical detail matter?

The phone-hacking scandal is similarly illustrative. “Everyone” knew that journalists hacked politicians’ phones, and no one but the politicians cared. Then it was reported that journalists had hacked the phone of an abducted girl, and, wrongly, that that had interfered with police efforts, and caused distress to the girl’s parents by making them think she was listening to her messages. The public cared a lot about that, and the politicians seized the opportunity to put the boot in. The facts that the police had known about the hacking and that it had made no practical difference to anything helped the newspaper not at all.

If the public becomes outraged at some academic malpractice, the “everyone knew” or “no one was hurt” defences will not work.

However, I can’t think what could happen to make the public really care.

122

harry b 05.27.15 at 12:23 pm

CB @ 113 — Jesus — there was a WOMBLES case and, more bizarrely, an Uncle MAC case. Who the hell registered Uncle MAC? A 90-year old?

123

Layman 05.27.15 at 12:28 pm

It doesn’t take a minute to review the stats handily collected on Wikipedia to understand the student debt problem in the U.S. Belle is not overstating the problem, or the extent to which the finance industry can be blamed for it. They’re not alone, of course; the institutions themselves have benefited, as has the right, since the general effect has been to shift some funding for public schools away from the public.

124

dsquared 05.27.15 at 12:36 pm

#93 no I don’t see this. The reason that the debt burden is so high is that the fees keep being increased (by the universities). The reason that people have life-destroying debts is in general because they didn’t get a valuable qualification, generally because the degree program was missold to them by the university. Surely it ought to be a clue that a major change to increase the state control of the lending side of the program didn’t change things hardly at all?

125

dsquared 05.27.15 at 12:40 pm

They’re not alone, of course; the institutions themselves have benefited

“The institutions themselves have benefited”? From massively increasing their prices and/or misselling degree courses to thousands of people who didn’t benefit from them? Yes indeed they benefited.

126

dsquared 05.27.15 at 12:41 pm

#97 but if the US land title system is not broken, why is there such a thing as “title insurance”?

127

harry b 05.27.15 at 12:52 pm

SamInMpls — I understand all that (well, except that, in fact, if the NCAA lost its grip, I doubt universities would be able to stay in the athletics business for long — we’d most likely get farm leagues instead) — but I don’t understand how it would increase the pay of coaches. (I’m not disagreeing — I can see there’s something I am not getting in your post)… Please elaborate!

128

dsquared 05.27.15 at 12:55 pm

By the way, although it’s mentioned in quite gruesome detail in #93 as a specific iniquity of student loans, it’s in fact true of any form of debt, including utility bills, that it’s taken into account when calculating the value of an estate in bereavement. Standard disclaimers on financial advice apply but this is normal everywhere.

129

harry b 05.27.15 at 12:56 pm

My thought is that, currently, universities get significant revenues from a few sports. Because of title IX A good deal of it goes to subsidize upper middle class women (like my daughter who is an athlete at a college in your vicinity). A good deal more goes to the coaches. Very little goes to the athletes (who are, to add insult to injury, not allowed to get a proper college education). You’re suggesting that endorsements would allow sufficient revenues to flood in that coaches salaries would increase anyway?

130

Nasi Lemak 05.27.15 at 1:21 pm

Andrew Fisher @119 – I agree! But i think, if you were looking for something that might turn into a scandal, it might be there, particularly in the case where attitudes and law are not in sync.

131

faustusnotes 05.27.15 at 1:27 pm

I think these things won’t become the scandals dsquared predicts because of the problem of nuance. Most people can easily envisage a system in which priests aren’t child-fuckers and journalists don’t hack the phones of dead girls; but it’s harder for most people (indeed even academics) to envisage a system in which research quality is rewarded in a way that can’t be gamed. This is also why LIBOR and expenses shouldn’t be lumped in with kiddy-fiddling and hacking: most people understand that an expenses system is needed, and an ungamable one is difficult to design. Which isn’t to say that the existing systems are adequate, or anything.

Also, academic funding systems are rejigged on a regular 5 or 10 year schedule precisely to address these problems, while priests have been sticking it to altar boys in the time honoured fashion for 1000 years and until very recently no one has tried to do anything about it.

The reason for this difference is, of course, that priests hold a lot more power than academics, and have used it wisely.

Despite these reservations I would like to see some of these issues become real scandals, especially the fake authorship one. I’ll add a few more …

1) Plagiarism. This is especially a problem in Australia where overseas students are a huge source of university funds, and in Asia where universities need English-language publications in journals with impact factor, but are still developing the language skills. It’s direct misconduct but tacitly condoned or at least overlooked, and once you get to a certain level past plagiarism is protected. It’s part of the same family of academic misconduct as the authorship issue.

2) The adjunct system. This is a big issue in America and (in my experience) private universities in Japan, and it’s pernicious. Adjuncts are paid nothing resembling a decent wage and are shamelessly exploited on the promise of a real job that never comes. In Japan they do seem to ultimately get real jobs but it seems to be a big problem in America. An extension of this is the use of students as unpaid labour (I think many PhDs are basically this), which is rife in Japan where university departments are often like families and one progresses through decreasingly demeaning jobs as one gains superiority as a student; it’s not limited to Asia though and the shameless exploitation of (especially) PhD students is an embarrassment to academia. In my Aussie academic life I saw fragrant breaches of basic workplace standards, which PhD students tolerated but in a real job your boss would be in so much trouble for …

3) Sex with students. I don’t see this as a sexual assault problem (though there is this too!) but as a huge corruption problem. I think the adjunct system will just make it worse: young, nothing to lose and feeling exploited, attractive students willing to have sex for better marks are about the only good part of the job. But this practice is obviously deeply corrupt.

4) Major journals that do favours. Many big journals are interested in impact and bend a lot of their own rules in order to get high profile papers or high profile academics. In general this doesn’t necessarily lead to terrible outcomes but when it does the fallout is catastrophic.

I don’t think these things will ever get to be real scandals though because the consequences just aren’t the same, or the moral flagrancy isn’t. Screwing children is not the same as screwing grant assessors.

132

mdc 05.27.15 at 1:27 pm

Many people don’t realize that tuition, at least at private schools, is very redistributive. Since most private schools don’t cover their operating costs with tuition revenue anyway, the ‘sticker price’ has almost nothing to do with costs, but with market position, and with the wealth of the students and their families. Setting aside the rise of ‘merit aid’, which has made tuition more regressive, it really is a sort of ‘from each according to his ability’ arrangement. I sometimes worry that people would freak out if they realized how tuition works, under the hood.

133

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:36 pm

Just writing down a few points about student loans …

1. The root of the problem, of course, is the decision to have a loan-based rather than grant-based system of higher education funding. I have always thought that the allegedly-egalitarian argument for doing it this way is pretty much bullshit, but it’s been public policy in the USA since nineteen dickety.

2. If you’re going to have a loan-based system, the loans are going to have to be a little bit different from the run of the mill of banking business in some way or another. In the ordinary course of business, banks don’t make $20,000+ loans to eighteen year olds with no qualifications. Particularly if they know that said eighteen year olds are planning two or three changes of address in the near future (it is this characteristic of students, and their general lackadaisical attitude to keeping the lenders updated, which makes them so expensive to administer apparently).

3. The most obvious way to overcome this problem would be to do what the UK does and just simply subsidise the heck out of the loan products (and/or, have them made by a state owned Student Loan Company). But this isn’t the cheap way of doing it, and gets you back to the allegedly-egalitarian argument alluded to in 1 – why are we subsidising people to make an investment which they will be the main beneficiaries of?

4. So the USA went down the route of trying to do it on the cheap, by making the loans non-dischargeable. And subsidising them a bit, and creating Sallie Mae to allow the massive structural advantage of the domestic US bond market to be brought in to help.

So, at this stage, I think it’s kind of an amazingly stupid corner-cutting policy but you can see how it got made.

5. Credit underwriting on student loans is an amazingly tricky business. As Harry says, the only question which makes any difference is “will this student graduate?”

6. We could have had a system under which banks stood there second-guessing the admissions office of every university in the land, but I’m guessing that people wouldn’t like it.

7. Particularly the banks themselves, which would have found themselves in all sorts of trouble when it turned out that the credit scoring algorithms systematically discriminated against exactly the kinds of people who public policy wants to help into university education (although, doesn’t want it enough to subsidise it sufficiently, apparently).

8. So the lending decision has effectively been outsourced to the admissions office.

134

Trader Joe 05.27.15 at 1:36 pm

Seems like the main difference between scandalizing banks and scandalizing universities is that on balance – the sins of one bank are happily viewed as replicating to all of the other banks whereas the sins of one university are more commonly presumed to be sins of that school alone.

Within these posts a good dozen or so University “scandals” have been noted ranging from Penn State and North Carolina to LSE (U Chicago could be another). Corinthian, a for profit even bankrupted after a Federal investigation, yet none of these has metastastized into a wider indictment of the University system. I think DD is correct that there is plenty of good kindling, but it might really require a clever set of circumstances to get a good firestorm since there are so many organizations involved that are already highly skilled at closing ranks and hiding behind the proverbial ivy walls.

Separate on Student Loans: There’s plenty of blame to go around the link below is my favorite ever representation of the “problem” in 9 easy data laden charts. Im sure some of the data might be crap, but the story is so obvious that not much precision is really required in the telling:

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/06/student-loan-debt-charts

135

Barry 05.27.15 at 1:39 pm

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:29 am
“#67. George, you’re a socialist. I don’t ask you for a ritualistic pro-forma condemnation of Josef Stalin every time you post here, do I? When you make a comment about egalitarianism, I don’t bring up Pol Pot, do I?”

IMHO, this is an amazingly poor analogy. Wall St and The City *got away with it*, pure and simple. The fines were trivial, the new regulations are having some impact, but only some, and they are working hard on eroding them.

136

AcademicLurker 05.27.15 at 1:43 pm

@101: the Colin McGinn sexual harassment revelations didn’t have wider repercussions on academics as a whole, did they?

I think that if the response to the scandal from academics was to shrug and say – “Everybody knows that professors sexually harass their students, where’s the scandal?” – followed by telling general public to just shut up already, the case would indeed have had wider repercussions for academics as a whole.

137

Barry 05.27.15 at 1:45 pm

PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 3:10 am

“If the well north of 90 Title IX investigations of US universities for failing to deal fairly with rape survivors don’t shock and demoralize us in academia, then we’re beyond hope.”

Now, if it came to light that there was an Ivy League Sandusky-style rape cult targeting Ivy League co-eds, that *might* do it. It would still depend on the balance between protecting criminal Ivy League sons vs. keeping Ivy League daughters from being raped…..

138

Barry 05.27.15 at 1:48 pm

Daniel: “And the terrible thing is that when something that they did blows up, it affects people who weren’t responsible for it and didn’t benefit from it.”

I can understand your anger over such injustice.

139

Barry 05.27.15 at 1:51 pm

Daniel: “Everyone involved knew for ten years that they were creating a system which required and needed robosigning – the alternative was to try and deal with the amazingly corrupt and useless US land title system – and did nothing about it.”

I’m seconding Francis, and asking what evidence you have that this was the only alternative.

A Thatcherite declaration of TINA holds no water.

140

Layman 05.27.15 at 1:52 pm

@133

Points 1-4 are the core of the problem, but I really do think you’re missing what drives this description of the problem and the solution. There is a reason that it isn’t basically done with grants – no private company can profit from grants. There is a reason that it is done with private finance, rather than a state agency and public funds – no private company can profit from such a solution. The original reason for making the loans non-dischargable goes back many decade to a time before private finance got involved, and the loans were actually being made by the schools themselves and backed by government funds. When private finance got involved, of course they used campaign funding and other lobbying efforts to extend those protections to themselves.

Of course, if it was a grant system, or a publicly-funds low-cost loan system, not of these points would really apply.

To a great extent it mirrors the health care debacle in this country, where no sensible public solution is possible because any sensible public solutions destroys the profit opportunity for private companies. Health care in the U.S. must be structured in a way that funnels profits to insurance companies, and education finance must be structured in a way that funnels profits to finance companies. Because markets and freedom.

141

harry b 05.27.15 at 1:52 pm

mdc — not at most private schools! Just at most private schools that have a national reputation (which is a small proportion of private schools). But, for those schools, point taken. More generally (as someone said above), there is a huge amount of cross-subsidizing, some of which (done through Gen Ed requirements) would be very hard to make transparent, but some of which (humanities students paying the same tuition as engineering students, who cost much more to teach; in public universities, non-residents subsidizing resdients) is obvious. If parents and students didn’t bear the main burden of the cost this wouldn’t be potentially incendiary, but they do.

Thanks, Daniel, for making that so clear about student loans. I agree.

Pell Grants were designed to support poor 18-22 year olds going to college. Most recipients of Pell Grants are older workers, essentially doing job training, at institutions which have considerable incentives to get those students to take cheaper-to-provide and less-valuable-as-job-training courses, and there’s lots of mis-advising. Pell Grants receiving institutions are not regulated re graduation rates, so have little incentive to graduate students. Many for-profits depend entirely (technically almost entirely, but it is possible to get around the technical requirements) on Pell Grants.

I’m sorry it took so many posts for people to focus more systematically on the actual point of the OP, but… keep it up!!

142

Daniel 05.27.15 at 1:54 pm

Postus interruptus above …

9. And admissions offices are now in a position where they know that they can provide guaranteed financing to prospective customers, and that the amount of subsidy they get increases the more expensive the tuition gets. And there is next to no supervision of their decisions. This has had predictable consequences, but see the irregular verb in the post. For-profit diploma mills exploited the system most obviously and egregiously, but I’d be suprised indeed if the problem stopped there.

10. All the banks really did here was “not refuse to participate in a program that had been set up based on their participation”. They were the ones administering the loans, but that’s what banks do. They made an attempt to lobby when it looked like a profitable business line was being taken away from them, true, but in this specific case they’re the junior partners. The story of the student debt explosion is one of universities aggressively marketing expensive university degrees to people who don’t need them, not one of banks marketing loans to students who then go out and look for a university to go to.

11. It is obviously a public policy scandal that private sector lenders picked up any profit at all from federally guaranteed assets – the extra cost of servicing student loans wasn’t anything like large enough to explain the premium pricing. But I don’t think it can be called a scandal that an industry managed to get an economically unjustifiable subsidy out of the public pot, and having got it, lobbied hard to keep it. That’s what happens in a political system with a big government sector and private industries and it’s not a problem that anyone has been able to solve (or at least anyone except Pol Pot and Stalin).

143

Barry 05.27.15 at 1:58 pm

Guano: “Phone-hacking by the press became a scandal because a number of people took the trouble to put together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and present a complete picture, and then to continue to present that complete picture in the face of opposition that tried to break it back again into individual jigsaw pieces. “

That perhaps is important for Daniel’s original post idea – what makes a major scandal a major scandal?

144

Barry 05.27.15 at 2:01 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.27.15 at 11:05 am
“I will say that some of the “kiting of employment rates” isn’t all that evil, in my experience. At least by law schools. It works like this:”

Read Paul Campos’ work and get back to us.

TL;dr: For most law schools, only a small minority of graduates will obtain jobs which offer a chance of paying off their loans. In addition, a JD is a handicap in trying to get a non-lawyer job. Law schools quite deliberately posted fraudulent statistics, to hide this. People spent well over $100K believing that it was a reasonable investment.

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:03 pm

There is a reason that it isn’t basically done with grants – no private company can profit from grants.

I think this is a kind of excessively Chomskyan view of how American society works. The issue with grants is that you’re taking taxation from a cross-section of society, and handing it over as a present to people who, ex hypothesi, are going to be richer than the average. IMO this argument is tremendous bullshit, because it doesn’t make sense to analyse progressivity at any level less aggregated than the whole tax and benefit system, but it has an astonishing amount of currency which I don’t think can credibly be attributed to corporate propaganda.

Once you create a system under which there’s a subsidy to a private corporation, then you create a lobby for the maintenance of that subsidy. I think that’s very true and a very unfortunate part of US politics – I don’t think such a totally generic fact about public choice economics can be called a scandal though.

Totally agree on healthcare. I could have written the same post about doctors, but it would be much more US-focused. Via their licensing cartel, the AMA, American doctors extract roughly a TARP’s worth of public money every couple of years, causing avoidable pain and death to tens of thousands of poor people in the process. Obamacare has helped, but the amount of lobbying that doctors did to preserve their subsidies and cartel would make the biggest banks look like amateurs. I’d love to have a scan of the email archive there …

146

Barry 05.27.15 at 2:06 pm

harry b 05.27.15 at 11:50 am
“Belle — I sort of disagree with you about this. The student debt problem (which, I hate to say it, is less serious than people make it seem — if you graduate with an average or somewhat above average amount of debt, you are still much better off than if you hadn’t gone to school)”

Is that true? And more importantly, are there large, identifiable sectors for which that’s clearly not true? Referring back to Paul Campos’ work, for example, it’s not true for at least 75% of US law schools. It’s also generally not been true for large swathes of the for-profit trade schools in the USA.

147

Belle Waring 05.27.15 at 2:09 pm

Yeah fair, but student loans are uniquely awful. And while asshole deans of shitty law schools are obviously to blame, I just feel it’s an odd choice in a way given that bankers were active participants. Ebenezer Scrooge: it’s fine for grads from top schools who need a semester’s worth of unpaid employment while servicing $250,000 worth of loans. I mean, sort of fine, if we hope they have a lot of money and no dependents. But that’s not really the problem. It’s people getting tricked into taking on so much in debt in order to graduate from a law school that doesn’t place very many of its graduates at all, and actually resorts to hiring graduates in janitorial positions and counting them as well as graduates employed at minimum wage jobs like Starbucks in their fake job statistics.

148

Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:15 pm

Is that true?

Of undergraduate degrees in the USA, definitely. Graduate school (including law school), much more difficult to say.

Belle: really, it’s a government-run program operating through the banks, not a bank-run program operating through the universities. It’s like blaming arms manufacturers for the Iraq War – only makes sense as part of a much more comprehensive Chomskyite[1] theory which is IMO pretty hard to defend. Not just shitty law school deans, by the way – as Harry intimates, the real scandal is admissions offices at lower-tier universities marketing their degrees to low-income students who aren’t likely to graduate. The private sector diploma mills are the worst at doing it, but they’re by no means the only people in the game.

[1] because “Chomskyan” kind of suggests structural linguistics, I find myself using this term for NC’s political theories. Worried that it sounds kind of ridicule-pejorative though which isn’t the intention.

149

Z 05.27.15 at 2:20 pm

It seems that we are implicitly discussing at least two different set of malpractices.

The first is the gaming of research and education evaluation metrics in order to get such or such grant. Everyone does it, to some extent, but in my dealings with various funding agencies (6 different funding agencies from 5 different countries on 3 continents by now), I have never seen anyone care for them except as rhetorical point. When they are cited at all, it is always as ex post justification for what was decided based on totally different reasons (sometimes even good ones): this department has a stellar/mediocre performance on metric X so we increase/decrease its funding because it needs reward/encouragement/austerity/punishment. This could never morphed in “lots of big high-profile resignations of academics caught up in scandal, significantly more of a shakeout of lower ranks” because the defense of anyone moderately involved will be: “look at all the available records, from personal e-mails to transcripts of meeting to official files, and show us one single place where fraudulent metric X played any role. You can’t. Done.” Of course, this reflects only my anecdotal (though extensive) experience and I’m open to the idea that things are different in the UK.

The other is very peculiar to the US higher education system and involves a vicious circle of insanely high tuition justified by overpaid star academics and star athletics team, paid for by student debt, administered by overpaid administrators and ultimately delivering less than stellar education. This is much more serious, but is not about academia. It is about American academia, American financial system, American relations to professional sports and to administration.

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:20 pm

By the way (and this is kind of the last time I am going to be drawn on this) re #96, really no. This is (as I said on Twitter when pubicising it) a John 8:7 situation, not Matthew 7:3. The point that everyone is a sinner isn’t a defence of sin! Every industry has things about it which look bad to outsiders. Every industry has reasons and justifications for those things, and the interesting issue (to me right now anyway) is the process by which outsiders decide , suddenly, that they are no longer going to accept those reasons and justifications. It isn’t a specific issue about bankers – it’s just that I know most about the financial scandals because I covered them professionally. I could have written the same post about expenses fraud, paeodophilia coverups or phone hacking, and wouldn’t have been defending those practices either.

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:23 pm

This is much more serious, but is not about academia.

It totes is. Where the rubber meets the road of this particular scandal is in college admissions offices, where young Americans are persuaded to sign up to overpriced and/or worthless degree courses, based on false prospectuses which misrepresent the value of the qualification, their own likelihood of graduation, or both.

152

Belle Waring 05.27.15 at 2:23 pm

I would also push back quite strongly on the notion that someone who has gotten a quarter of a million dollars in debt for a degree that turns out to be useless in getting a job is odds-on having a “better” outcome. Because that’s the real problem. It might have been true fifteen or even ten years ago that we assessed that person’s lifetime earnings as making up for the debt, but no one can make that claim with a straight face today. The villians here are for the most part university administrators, I think, and it was a straight money grab–setting up law-accreditation at your fourth-tier place, paying the administrators tons of money, and then leaving the students (and the lenders, technically) holding the bag. If university professors object to this characterization, I think it’s fair to note that administrators and some few super-star legal faculty members doing it as a side-gig have gotten paid tons of money, while the average professor??? But I confess ignorance on this point; are the law-professors at the “we take anyone now–no seriously” university of “some of our graduates get jobs as paralegals after an unpaid internship” getting paid well? I don’t know anyone who has such a job, and I must say I’d look askance at it…but I wouldn’t be very surprised if they were getting hosed too when payday comes around. Should the university professors teaching students with scores of thousands of dollars in debt subjects like Classics feel personally that they are doing that person a disservice? At this point we start to talk about the life of the mind and such, but maybe it’s just not a fair or kind thing to do at all, I don’t know.

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Belle Waring 05.27.15 at 2:31 pm

OK dsquared, that is a not uncompelling defense. People hate the landlord, and often get the feeling that simply because the people at the bank are hassling you for money, they are bastards. Such ideas do not always jibe with the desire to borrow money in advance to pay for something expensive. I agree that there is a larger problem that only evil deans. There is a knotty problem where you don’t want lower-income or minority or returning students to be tricked into assuming masses of debt they can never pay. But you also know that these are precisely the people who have been, historically, shut out of the college game altogether, and drawing the line at “you’re not a good enough student for it to make sense for you to take on debt” could be patronising or inadvertently racist and sexist, or intentionally racist and sexist, if undertaken at a large scale. Requirements that schools truthfully report graduate’s jobs, and broken down into actual job-type, seems a prerequisite for allowing people to take on debt in an informed way. At the very least we probably shouldn’t be actively lying to them.

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Z 05.27.15 at 2:33 pm

This is much more serious, but is not about academia.

It totes is.

Hey, my very next sentence started with “It is about US academia.” I don’t think it is accurate nor fair at all to conflate US academia with academia at large. Your next sentence, in which young Americans feature prominently, suggests we are in furious agreement.

155

Russell L. Carter 05.27.15 at 2:34 pm

It’s not just law. Campos has done a fine job illustrating the problem by specifically examining law schools, but I believe it applies even to STEM programs. A significant fraction of the people who start a STEM program don’t graduate in the top 20%.

156

Barry 05.27.15 at 2:36 pm

dsquared 05.27.15 at 12:41 pm
“#97 but if the US land title system is not broken, why is there such a thing as “title insurance”?”

First, that doesn’t prove that the system was broken, and second, it doesn’t prove that mass-produced systematic fraud was justified.

I’m quite amazed at your belief here. ‘Robosigning’ in the end involves fraudulent transactions, where the seller’s, buyer’s and/or notary’s signatures were forged.

That strikes at the heart of business.

157

Ronan(rf) 05.27.15 at 2:47 pm

Even if the student loans situation isn’t primarily the fault of the banks (and 133/42 looks convincing enough to my unexpert eyes) isn’t it still more likely that if it develops into a national scandal, it will still be *blamed* on the banks. People really dont pay that close attention to such complicated policy, and there’s a huge appetite out there (fairly, imo) to insitinctively mistrust everything the banks say/are involved in.
As a scandal in the real world, I could still imagine most heat falling on the banks.

158

bianca steele 05.27.15 at 2:53 pm

Harry: humanities students paying the same tuition as engineering students, who cost much more to teach;

This is true, and a trivial point, but on the other hand: (1) engineering students almost never have small classes taught by full-time faculty members–though this is increasingly true also of humanities students; (2) engineering students need labs and so on, but not the kind of labs their professors need for research, and although engineering students need computers, humanities students increasingly use nearly as much in terms of resources; (3) engineering students don’t need libraries nearly so extensive as humanities students do–if a comparison of journal costs, for example were done, I wonder how that comparison would come out (in fact, and I don’t begrudge them their existence because I free-ride on the amounts of money involved, undergraduate tuitions are arguably subsidizing poets and short-story writers who publish in small journals, though the prices for these are small change compared to the academic ones).

And with all the hype about STEM, it’s worth pointing out that even at the top universities, many or even most engineering graduates won’t get jobs in their field. Some will get jobs on the fringes, like corporate recruiter or PR flack, some will go to law school or medical school, and many will be as underemployed as any English major might be. (I have a cousin who was compelled by her parents to major in a computer field, had no aptitude for it at all, and after a longish search is now working as a bank teller. Well, you might say, the degree proved she could do basic arithmetic.)

159

mdc 05.27.15 at 2:53 pm

Belle: “Requirements that schools truthfully report graduate’s jobs, and broken down into actual job-type, seems a prerequisite for allowing people to take on debt in an informed way.”

This sounds like a good idea to me, but it’s not cheap to find and keep those stats, which adds to administrative costs, which puts upward pressure on tuition. Could be worth it, anyway.

Harry b: “Not most schools!”

Really? Are there private, non-profit 4-year colleges that fund operations with tuition alone? Not asking facetiously– I’d really like to know. Even schools that are largely tuition-dependent tend to need some outside public funding, or their own endowment.

160

Ronan(rf) 05.27.15 at 2:54 pm

I mean take the Catholic Church example. There has been significant sexual abuse in state run care homes (and more than likely within a lot of elite insititutions and groups) There was also widespread societal and govt complicity in the abuse by the Catholic Church. But most of the scandal attached itself to the Church specifically , because its power was waning and this was the story people wanted to tell at that time.
This is where the financial sector stands now. Any scandal will blow back on them as they basically represent the root of all thats wrong with this moment in history.

161

Barry 05.27.15 at 2:59 pm

Daniel 05.27.15 at 2:03 pm

“I think this is a kind of excessively Chomskyan view of how American society works. The issue with grants is that you’re taking taxation from a cross-section of society, and handing it over as a present to people who, ex hypothesi, are going to be richer than the average. “

Note that this was the system in the USA, from the end of WWII to the 1970’s. And this was at a time when it was close to a 100% certainty that college graduates would have massive income jumps, and to have incomes well over the average.

The change seems to have coincided with skyrocketing tuition and worse prospects.

162

AcademicLurker 05.27.15 at 3:02 pm

I’m going to be cranky and point out that STEM is not a field or an area of study, it’s a magic word that administrators like to chant back and forth to each other.

The career and earning prospects of someone majoring in ecology are very different from those of someone majoring in electrical engineering or being a pre-med. A term that conflates these is next to meaningless.

163

Layman 05.27.15 at 3:04 pm

“I’m quite amazed at your belief here. ‘Robosigning’ in the end involves fraudulent transactions, where the seller’s, buyer’s and/or notary’s signatures were forged.”

Even more, there’s not an ounce of plausible deniability here. As someone pointed out earlier (was it you?), anyone who hired notaries to sit in a closed room and notarize documents knew that it was a fraud; as did anyone who supervised then, who authorized the budget for it, who used their work product, etc. Some company lawyer somewhere approved the practice. Some management team members adopted the strategy.

Apparently the DOJ is more interested in chasing corrupt sports officials.

164

SamChevre 05.27.15 at 3:17 pm

‘Robosigning’ in the end involves fraudulent transactions, where the seller’s, buyer’s and/or notary’s signatures were forged.

Fraudulent documents, maybe–but not in any case I have seen in the newspapers fraudulent transactions. Most of the “robosigning” was creating paper copies of electronic records-records of real transactions.

165

Layman 05.27.15 at 3:30 pm

I can’t see the point of that quibble, SamChevre. In any event, in my world, a contract is certainly a ‘transaction’, and if one party signs a false name to it, and then an associated party blindly notarizes it, it’s a fraudulent transaction.

166

TM 05.27.15 at 3:35 pm

Witt 65: I don’t wish to defend the practices of Penn State in this matter but I hope you realize that conducting a criminal investigation is up to the criminal justice system, not the university. The article states that a police investigation is going on and that its status was “not available”.

167

Jerry Vinokurov 05.27.15 at 3:55 pm

This is an admittedly US-centric perspective, but I just don’t understand how any of the things in the OP are supposed to flare up into major scandals, especially given that pretty much all of them are already extensively reported-upon in the mainstream press. There’s a missing step here that needs outlining.

168

Phil 05.27.15 at 4:09 pm

I think what gives all these scandals traction is the sight of a small minority of people either doing ridiculously well or gaining ridiculous amounts of power, or both. We don’t really like that – we may like the spectacle, but the inequality always rankles. So there was already a smouldering bank of resentment towards Bankers, Politicians, Celebs and the Press before we knew that any of them had done anything wrong.

Who’s the hate figure here – professors? Not sure that works. University administrators and VCs might qualify, except that nobody outside the sector knows they exist. See also this comment. If it takes you ten or twenty years of desk work to get to a position of power, and at the end of that time you’re still not breaking six figures, nobody’s going to care enough to hate you, no matter what colour your braces are.

169

AcademicLurker 05.27.15 at 4:22 pm

168: Right. It wasn’t just a case of routinely bending/ignoring the rules, it was a case of doing so in way that just happened to enable a small number of insiders to get fantastically rich (while trashing the net worth of tons of ordinary people).

The only aspect of higher education that is predatory in a similar way is the student loan industry, so if there’s going to be scandal that really inflames the public, it will need to be something connected to that.

But if you’re envisioning angry mobs storming the university with torches and pitchforks because…professor Jones sabotaged professor Smith’s chances of publishing in Nature by writing a biased review…I think you’re going to be disappointed.

170

geo 05.27.15 at 4:26 pm

Daniel@145: excessively Chomskyan view of how American society works

My understanding of the Chomskyan view is that it’s fairly broad and tendential: private control of capital translates into control over investment and employment levels, which translates into generally decisive leverage over policy, though it can be constrained by public mobilization. Of course this sounds obvious and unoriginal, but it has remarkably little (close to zero) purchase in mainstream American political discourse, so Chomsky has spent his career propounding (as he would be the first to acknowledge) truisms, thereby incurring the contempt and indignation of nearly all respectable American pundits and academics.

handing it over as a present to people who, ex hypothesi, are going to be richer than the average

“Present”? Is Head Start a “present” to poor children? Doesn’t it have more to do with wanting to foster a productive economy and harmonious society?

it doesn’t make sense to analyse progressivity at any level less aggregated than the whole tax and benefit system

Assuming this is true (though in the US, just being part of the “benefit system” is often a stigmatizing and soul-destroying experience), does it significantly change the inequality profile of the US?

I don’t think such a totally generic fact about public choice economics can be called a scandal though.

If “scandal” means something new, unsuspected, “interesting,” then I suppose not. But if corporate lobbying isn’t scandalous any more, it’s something worse.

A final annoying thought about people’s exasperating tendency to cry FINANCE BANKERS: wouldn’t the repeal of the carried interest deduction, perhaps along with some actual regulation of offshore banking, be enough to finance universal free higher education?

171

bianca steele 05.27.15 at 4:26 pm

I thought of a way this could blow up! A law professor at a major school could write a memo authorizing torture using theories with no constitutional basis! No, it’s hopeless.

172

Metatone 05.27.15 at 4:30 pm

FWIW, I despise the university apparatchik class even more than I despise bankers. Probably because while I loathe what bankers have done to the economy that I work in, I actually part of the time work directly with universities… As such, I can more often be found condemning Uni Vice Chancellors even more often than lashing out on D2 posts about banking. Some of these scandals send me into a frothing rage – particularly the research abuses – I have 2 friends whose lives were seriously set back when a senior figure stole their research. Yet I can’t see these things “going large.”

I think it’s interesting and instructive in the UK context to compare universities with the NHS. Both are insulated at some level by the level of government control.
Really, beyond the generic dislike of “NHS managers” the gaming of targets etc. (analogous to many of the gaming issues mentioned in the OP) mostly rebounds on the politicians. Sociologically (and this blowup from fringe to mainstream is my area) you’d really expect the REF and the jobs figures to be in the same category.

Part of the problem is “imagined impact” – every “ordinary family” felt for Milly Dowler’s parents. Every “ordinary person” grew up with Jimmy Savile on the TV. (Not to mention the grim resonance of “Jim fixed it for you…”) Every ordinary person has a lifetime of mistreatment by the banks (c.f. the overdraft letters) – a wellspring of bile amplified by the financial crisis, etc.

Even an Oxbridge scandal seems kind of remote – although you can imagine a Savile-esque setup certainly being able to break into the headlines. Really hard to see a non-Oxbridge scandal getting significant airtime. Really hard in the UK to see a widespread financial scandal landing more on the universities than the politicians. (Although the politicians may quite likely make an example of a particular institution – much as happened with London Met over visas.)

173

Bloix 05.27.15 at 4:39 pm

#152 – “But I confess ignorance on this point; are the law-professors at the “we take anyone now–no seriously” university of “some of our graduates get jobs as paralegals after an unpaid internship” getting paid well?”

Yes.

Full professors at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School (until last year, Thomas M. Cooley College of Law, and generally acknowledged as the worst law school in the history of the world) make, on average, $159,396. Assistant professors make $101,856.
http://www.american-school-search.com/faculty/thomas-m-cooley-law-school

Average faculty salary, New York Law School (NOT New York University Law School, for the non-lawyers among us): $172,677.
http://www.educationdive.com/news/10-universities-with-the-highest-faculty-salaries/82288/

South Texas Law School, average faculty salary: $155,098
http://www.educationdive.com/news/10-universities-with-the-highest-faculty-salaries/82288/

Suffolk University School of Law, average faculty salary: $128,000
http://www.american-school-search.com/faculty/suffolk-university

Etc.

174

TM 05.27.15 at 4:58 pm

While reading this thread, I realized that there just has been a major, earthquake-like scandal in US education, albeit not in higher ed but in the public schools: a bunch of school teachers in Atlanta were convicted and sentenced to actual, multi-year jail time, under an organized crime statute, for tampering with standardized tests – a practice that zealous prosecutors and judges have claimed harmed the students greatly although no logical reasoning for this was ever offered. I’m actually surprised that this hasn’t been brought up earlier (and it took me this long to even remember it – it has been very recently in the headlines). Yes it is a local issue but it is an apt comment on the question as to whether the financial sector has been “condemned enough”. AFAIK, during the whole of the financial crisis, fewer bankers have been criminally prosecuted for wrecking the world economy than have been teachers in Atlanta for trying to game the thoroughly dysfunctional and ineffective standardized test system. If you want a direct comparison, robosigning would be it – robosigning is perjury, a felony offense, and prosecutors needed only arrest the signers and have them rat out the senior executive es who gave the orders. I think the case provides some useful perspective on how scandals are made.

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Layman 05.27.15 at 5:03 pm

“I think this is a kind of excessively Chomskyan view of how American society works. The issue with grants is that you’re taking taxation from a cross-section of society, and handing it over as a present to people who, ex hypothesi, are going to be richer than the average. IMO this argument is tremendous bullshit, because it doesn’t make sense to analyse progressivity at any level less aggregated than the whole tax and benefit system, but it has an astonishing amount of currency which I don’t think can credibly be attributed to corporate propaganda.”

First, I think you understate the situation with language like ‘corporate propaganda’. It is far more than propaganda; the corporations both underwrite the campaign finance system, and openly write the laws.

Second, and I’m guessing this might be my last post, if it irritates you when people respond to your views by saying they’re invalid because they’re too bankerish, you can probably guess that I would be irritated by your response that mine are invalid because they’re too Chomskayan.

176

ragweed 05.27.15 at 5:03 pm

The student loan debacle is the ultimate neo-liberal solution to higher education funding. It puts all the risk on the student and makes it an individual-choice/individual-suffers scenario. At the same time, because it is a loan, funneled through students, it does not constitute “government funding” which would come with certain requirements and accountability.

If universities were funded by big federal grants in the US, those grants would have strings – the government isn’t going to fund X many billions directly to institutions and then have those institutions turn around and hike tuition without some oversight. But by funneling it all through loans it becomes the students responsibility, and like healthcare, the information asymmetries are large enough to eliminate any sort of price accountability.

It also means that any attempt to restrict loan loads and the like then ends up being an attack on the individual student, rather than on the institution. Instead of saying – “you are charging students too much for a worthless degree,” the conversation becomes a value judgment on the students chance of success et al., with all the flaws that kind of conversation entails.

177

TM 05.27.15 at 5:04 pm

And it brings me back to higher education. At the time of the Atlanta convictions, I joked that prosecutors ought to start looking into grade inflation at Harvard (where the median grade famously now is an A-) as an organized crime racket. Grade inflation in US academia really in my views is a genuine scandal in that a whole generation of students is given a vastly unrealistic evaluation of their actual capabilities and accomplishments, and deprived the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. It is a serious, systemic issue and one very difficult to address because of the ways the various incentives are aligned throughout the system. It’s not alas the kind of scandal that is likely to produce an actual media scandal.

178

TM 05.27.15 at 5:05 pm

(Referring back to 173)

179

Layman 05.27.15 at 5:06 pm

TM @ 173, this is a great example, as is today’s news about indictments of FIFA officials. The people who do these things are surely wrong to do them, because they lack the basic immunity from prosecution we apparently afford to the captains of industry and state.

180

Russell L. Carter 05.27.15 at 5:10 pm

“The career and earning prospects of someone majoring in ecology are very different from those of someone majoring in electrical engineering or being a pre-med. A term that conflates these is next to meaningless.”

I think you’re over complicating the situation. I think of STEM as *not* liberal arts. Within that set, of course there are going to be a wide variety of income patterns for successful graduates. So I made an effort not to overstate the fraction. Yet the point still stands, because the more difficult and usually remunerative majors (such as my undergrad major, ChE), have more transfers and dropouts. What looks like a good ROI for a degree leading to a high paid job probably doesn’t hold for something that ends up shifted quite a bit to the left of the compensation distribution.

An 18 yo undergraduate calculating, or even holding a naive understanding of the ROI, is a preposterous assumption on my part, of course. I didn’t learn how to do it until my senior year at Ga Tech.

And this is part of my huge gripe. Society is (seems to be?) expecting undergraduates to make large scale investments based on their personal judgements about their future earnings potentials when they have essentially no tools available to perform that assessment. It’s a situation ripe for exploitation by scammers, boy howdy are they scamming.

181

Trader Joe 05.27.15 at 5:41 pm

@176
“Grade inflation in US academia really in my views is a genuine scandal in that a whole generation of students is given a vastly unrealistic evaluation of their actual capabilities and accomplishments, and deprived the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. It is a serious, systemic issue and one very difficult to address because of the ways the various incentives are aligned throughout the system. “

Grade inflation is actually a pretty good one and might get more traction than you think. Imagine some professor at a high-value university – say Harvard, but most would do, spilling the beans on a lifetime spent awarding “A” for crap work and maybe showing e-mail directives about the topic, data on the pattern etc….it would cast doubt on years worth of earned degrees and potentially cause professors at other universities to similarly lift the kimono on the practice – which, to a person, all educators hate but few dare break ranks. If a scandal gave some of them the extra moral courage to do so, there could be a whole rethinking about how grades are given, for what and why….

It has the right hallmarks in asmuch as its known, widespread and only seems harmful when someone calls out the fact that it harms the students who legitimately earned the grade and also harms the free-loader who then proves unqualified for jobs and can’t pay his eggregious school debts.

182

Seeds 05.27.15 at 5:49 pm

Personally, I’d be surprised by any really major media scandals coming out of the universities, particularly those in the UK – of the examples listed, the individuals and/or institutions are very much in the public eye (politicians, celebs, journalists, the BBC) and/or have done something especially awful (child abuse, blowing up the world economy). I think universities as a sector fail on both counts, and individual universities fail on the first count, but abuse scandals (eg Penn State) may pass on the second. So the campus rape epidemic in the US and the colleges’ bizarre way of covering it up in-house is the only scandal I can see really gaining traction, and that may have fatally lost momentum thanks to Rolling Stone, as well as the he-said she-said nature of rape accusations and the whole patriarchy thing (I think it’s obvious that child abuse gets a much stronger response – and sells more papers – than rape).

That said, if I’m wrong, I agree that it’s an interesting sociological question as to how these things suddenly explode, albeit perhaps not one with an answer – you never know which fruit seller will cause an Arab Spring, which Nick Davies article will finally register, which butterfly flapping its wings, etc.

183

politicalfootball 05.27.15 at 5:52 pm

I think the original post errs in equating the financial scandals with the other prospective scandals. And part of the reason that it makes that mistake is that it equates Libor and forex with the scandals that led to the crash.

It’s based on a point I’ve been making over the last few years to all sorts of friends when they’ve been trying to bait me on the subject of LIBOR, forex and the various scandals of the financial profession.

LIBOR, as a scandal, has all of the attributes that Daniel attributes to it. It was well-known among the cognoscenti, and the eruption of the scandal was abrupt – a change in how people viewed the behavior, rather than the discovery of new behavior.

But (as others have noted) I don’t think you would have had Libor without what Daniel calls “the various scandals of the financial profession.” Libor didn’t bring down the economy, but the scandals that did bring down the economy led people to rethink standard operating corruption.

The real scandal of the financial profession – the derivative stuff – was not, in fact, well understood a priori, even among the cognoscenti (unless we’re going to define that as a very tiny group). Yes, everyone understood that implicit government backing of Fannie and Freddie was a corrupt subsidy. Pretty much nobody understood that about AIG. When the reasons behind the crash were revealed, a lot changed.

So to get the kind of scandal Daniel predicts, you need something to change in the overall social climate. The economy has to be brought down. People en masse have to start being willing to critically examine organized religion, and be willing to publicly discuss grotesque sex crimes. People have to find out that journalists are interfering with the investigation of a young girl’s death by hacking her phone.

The academic stuff isn’t even close to qualifying. People are exploited by American institutions in a variety of ways, and nobody is going to care without a fundamental and universal rethinking of the relationship of individuals to institutions. There is no sign that is on the horizon.

This is a smart observation about perspective:

I am the victim of a perversely designed set of incentives

You game the system

He is a crook.

But in fact, rationalizations of this sort are what makes the world go ’round. I can believe six ridiculously self-justifying things before breakfast – a breakfast that, likely as not, will consist partly of pieces of an animal that was tortured to death.

Change the culture, and suddenly the failure to allow gays to marry becomes appalling and small-minded – a scandal, of a sort. You need to look for that cultural shift if you want to find a scandal that is obvious but nonetheless comes from out of nowhere.

184

Seeds 05.27.15 at 5:52 pm

Oh and to comment on the meta-thread, I think it’s 1) quite an interesting question, without needing to address the implicit defence of bankers which may or may not exist and 2) can’t be dismissed as ineffective trolling – if that’s what was intended – since it’s already on course to reach a couple of hundred comments, many of which involve words in all-caps.

185

Seeds 05.27.15 at 5:59 pm

182: I agree about the cultural change, and had been thinking of drawing a parallel with Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” in the sciences, but I never finished The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and felt like I’d be on shaky ground.

186

TM 05.27.15 at 6:03 pm

TJ 180: the data on grade inflation is already out there (http://www.gradeinflation.com/). I would love to see the e-mail directives but they may not exist. It would be rather amateurish for chairs and deans to leave that kind of paper trail. It seems clear that the incentives of most players are aligned. What isn’t clear to me is what has changed over the last few generations to bring about the marked upward shift in the grade distribution. Perspectives?

187

Jonathan 05.27.15 at 6:15 pm

188

Trader Joe 05.27.15 at 6:19 pm

@185
Only my view, and I can’t begin to prove it with data, but when kids are paying +$40K per year for their eductation – they “expect” to get an A for their work if its even moderately literate and handed in on time. Likewise the modern millenial has been trained to ask for “extra credit” to raise grades that fall a little short and is far less afraid to enlist parents, mentors or others to lobby on their behalf if they think a grade isn’t where “it should be.” To be fair with the blame, I also think there are a lot of educators, who specifically test in ways that lends to work having objective answers (i.e. multiple choice) rather than subjective simply so they don’t have to make judgement calls that will then be second guessed.

Perhaps a partial OT, so I’ll not comment further on this unless others give it traction…again, educators know all of this, none of its completely new (as you note) what will change is whether its perceived as a “unfair” or “wrong.”

A mentor once told me “Education is the only commodity that anyone ever asks for less than they pay for.” If that axiom ever changes – that’s where the firestorm begins.

189

Matt 05.27.15 at 6:23 pm

It seems clear that the incentives of most players are aligned. What isn’t clear to me is what has changed over the last few generations to bring about the marked upward shift in the grade distribution. Perspectives?

I don’t really believe this hypothesis but I have to advance it anyway: it happened with the end of the military draft.

My father recently died and I was sorting through his old papers. He started school in 1968 at Cal Poly but got poor grades, spending more time racing motorcycles and fishing than he did studying. A D in Chemistry II, Dad?? He ended up losing his academic deferment and was sent to Vietnam. He got out of the Army after he was wounded in combat and re-enrolled, achieved much better grades, and graduated with an engineering degree. As he put it he “had learned there were much worse things in life than studying.”

While the draft still operated the government was interested in making sure that students were “really” learning and that poorer-performing ones got returned to the draft pool. That was a powerful player with incentives not-aligned to just give everyone high marks. After the draft ended the government’s interest in limiting academic deferment for men in that age range also ended. The government no longer had an interest in showing that some men enrolled in college aren’t really making good progress, and no other involved group ever had an interest in showing lack of progress.

190

Brett Dunbar 05.27.15 at 6:58 pm

The MP expenses scandal was a direct consequence of various governments avoiding bad tabloid headlines about MPs pay and attempting to get good headlines by having either a pay freeze or an increase lower than the pay commission recommended. In order to actually pay enough for people without independent means to be MPs they were quietly informed that expenses claims wouldn’t be too closely scrutinised. Most MPs have to maintain two homes, one in central London and another in their constituency. While being paid about the same as the deputy head of a school.

191

Chris 05.27.15 at 7:03 pm

Some of these ‘Scandals’ seem a little weak to me, more like redirections of bigger issues that have allowed to take over so the bigger issues don’t get addressed instead.

So we have focus on PM’s expenses, which are a pittance and hardly affect anything, rather than lobbying, post parliament jobs and party donations in an attempt to influence laws.

And we have phone hacking by a limited number of people in limited publications (culminating in the sacrifice of a newspaper the replacement for which had already been planned), rather than the ways journalists can ignore laws, publish stories about murders and suicides in ways known to cause more, make people fear for their lives, lie and control discourse and get away with it. [ Sidetrack – A couple of years back there was a mining disaster, many people trapped underground. As I was listening to the coverage on the news, they mentioned that the partners of those underground, waiting to hear if they were about to be widowed, had to be placed in a hall surrounded by the police to protect them from journalists and photographers, as they weren’t safe in their homes. How many seconds before I’d be arrested for harrassment if I tried that? And rightly so]

There were certainly crazy things that happened when I was at University, but it seemed mostly incompetence rather than the making of a great scandal.

192

Daniel 05.27.15 at 8:01 pm

Should the university professors teaching students with scores of thousands of dollars in debt subjects like Classics feel personally that they are doing that person a disservice?

Well … I would think

a) if that person is concentrating on his research and graduate students, and farming out the undergraduate teaching to TAs, with the result that his students keep dropping out, then he/she is doing a very bad thing – much worse than the LIBOR fraudsters in terms of its direct effect on causing avoidable misery.

but

b) if he/she is being reasonably conscientious in undergraduate teaching, then he/she shouldn’t worry too much, as even a classics undergraduate degree, per Harry’s stats, is going to carry enough of a premium for them to service that debt.

but

c) nevertheless, if that professor has a high dropout rate (possibly because the admissions department keep letting in undergraduates who have no realistic hope of completing the degree), he/she ought to be aware that he/she will make an attractive scapegoat if the balloon ever goes up.

With respect to graduate students

a) in general ethical terms, there has to be an element of caveat emptor. Someone doing a postgraduate degree in classics has to be aware of the financial odds; the period during which people were claiming that there was a demographic argument that professorial hiring prospects would turn up is well in the past.

but

b) in some specific cases, a student who had been specifically told by the professor that they were the special one who was going to buck the overall trend because they were so talented might see it otherwise if it turned out otherwise

so

c) if I was such a professor, and I had an email lurking around in my Sent folder saying something like “finally persuaded Miss Bennett to stay on and do a postgrad. Got to get some more warm bodies into the grad class or our funding is in danger”, then I might be nervous that a future investigation might not understand the ironic or humorous context.

d) particularly if it went on to say “and it doesn’t hurt that she’s easy on the eye LOL hur hur”.

193

Daniel 05.27.15 at 8:03 pm

Second, and I’m guessing this might be my last post, if it irritates you when people respond to your views by saying they’re invalid because they’re too bankerish, you can probably guess that I would be irritated by your response that mine are invalid because they’re too Chomskayan.

Fair point, sorry. I don’t think your views are invalid – I just happen not to agree with them in this case. In many ways NC is right to say that the whole of corporate involvement in society is a scandal, but in this case I’m using “scandal” in a sense closer to the ordinary meaning.

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 8:09 pm

First, that doesn’t prove that the system was broken, and second, it doesn’t prove that mass-produced systematic fraud was justified.

It does prove that the system is broken. In working systems, you don’t have to buy special insurance to protect you against the possibility that a land sale hasn’t involved a valid transfer of title, because in a non-broken system, it is easy and certain to effect such transfers.

I never said anything was justified – I was just explaining to Sebastian why it’s never going to be prosecuted. There are not very many real victims here though – as SamChevre correctly points out, these were fradulent documents recording genuine transactions for the most part. So the “victims” were the court system and its right to have their processes observed, even when it’s not doing its job competently. You’re correct to say that it is fundamental to business that these things should be respected and that there’s a public interest in chasing down notaries who signed false documents, but the public interest isn’t that huge, so I can understand why they haven’t bothered with it even though it is, definitely a systematic fraud.

195

Bloix 05.27.15 at 8:56 pm

#192- “in general ethical terms, there has to be an element of caveat emptor.”

Caveat emptor is not an ethical maxim. It is a rule of law with limited application. The premise is that individuals engaging in purely commercial relations conducted wholly at arms length are permitted to take advantage of one another by withholding information. Why is this allowed? Because (a) in a capitalist system we generally have no obligation to behave well to strangers and (b) in a system based on competition it makes sense to allow people to withhold information because this gives them an incentive to work or pay to obtain it.

Therefore, in purely commercial arms-length relationships, we allow people to walk right up to the line of fraud without providing their counterparties a legal remedy.

Caveat emptor is not the rule of law in any relationship based on trust and reliance. It is not the rule as between doctor and patient, or lawyer and client, or trustee and beneficiary, or guardian and ward, or employee and employer, or building contractor and homeowner, or engineer and project owner, or insurance agent and driver, or even as between business partners.

In the very famous and widely-taught case of Salmon v Meinhard, the manager of a partnership business took advantage of a lucrative opportunity without sharing it with his partner. The court found that the opportunity belonged to both, and had to be shared. Failure to share the information was a breach of the duty of loyalty:

“Joint adventurers, like copartners, owe to one another, while the enterprise continues, the duty of the finest loyalty. Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm’s length, are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties. A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior. As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate.” Salmon v. Meinhard, N.Y. Court of Appeals, 1928 (Cardozo, J.)

As a teacher of students, what is your relationship to them? Do you adopt the standard of behavior of a used car salesman? Or do you recognize, when you take on the obligation to teach diligently and to evaluate fairly in exchange for their money and effort and time, that you have assumed at least some degree of a duty of loyalty? Whether the law recognizes it or not, do you have an ethical duty to act in their best interests?

Here’s a question: When a department decides who and how many to admit to a graduate program, what is the most important consideration:

– can these students do the work, and do we expect them to finish? and if they do, will the market absorb this many newly minted PhD’s from our institution in, say, seven years? or
– how many TA’s do we need in two years, and how many students do we need to keep our seminars full?

If the first, then the professors are honoring their ethical duty to their students. If the second, then they have the ethics of used car salesmen, and their students should treat them as such.

196

PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 9:06 pm

@137: “Now, if it came to light that there was an Ivy League Sandusky-style rape cult targeting Ivy League co-eds, that *might* do it. It would still depend on the balance between protecting criminal Ivy League sons vs. keeping Ivy League daughters from being raped…..”

Barry, since I teach at the university, I had a moment when I thought you were satirically alluding to the fraternity system. However, I’m not sure. Here’s an example. I am purposefully linking to a story on the topic written by the conservative defenders of the notion that banning a fraternity from chanting, in public, “No means yes; yes means anal,” is a violation of their free speech rights.

https://www.thefire.org/cases/yale-university-fraternity-suspended-five-years-for-intimidating-satirical-chant/

As I say, if that’s not a scandal…

197

PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 9:22 pm

Trader Joe at 180:

“Imagine some professor at a high-value university – say Harvard, but most would do, spilling the beans on a lifetime spent awarding “A” for crap work and maybe showing e-mail directives about the topic, data on the pattern etc….it would cast doubt on years worth of earned degrees and potentially cause professors at other universities to similarly lift the kimono on the practice – which, to a person, all educators hate but few dare break ranks. If a scandal gave some of them the extra moral courage to do so, there could be a whole rethinking about how grades are given, for what and why….”

The professor you’re referring to is–really–Harvey Mansfield from Harvard, who started on this in 2000 with an article in the Chronicle of higher education. (http://nersp.nerdc.ufl.edu/~lombardi/edudocs/mansfield_gradeharvard_chron_2001.html)

There were some problems:

1. He explicitly said that he had no data to support his claims, but that everybody knew what he was saying was true.
2. When someone actually ran the data at Harvard, it turned out that Mansfield’s claims about when grades began rising were entirely wrong.
3. The reason he offered for the rise in grades at Harvard was, I shit you not, affirmative action. He claimed that when black people began being admitted to Harvard, professors, faced with obviously inferior students, relaxed their standards. And, because they didn’t want to be unfair to the obviously superior white students, they relaxed their standards on them too.

The whole thing is driven by a truly bad metaphor: “inflation” suggests that there is a real value, objectively determinable that is a grade for a course, and that current practices vary from the truth. If you know anything about educational statistics, you know this doesn’t work. (Think about inter rater reliability for writing evaluation.)

And the notion that higher education was more rigorous in the days when George W. Bush was admitted to Yale and graduated, and Edward Kennedy was admitted to Harvard is pretty much the funniest thing I think about on the days I think about it.

Have grades risen? Yes. But they’ve risen at different rates in different departments at different institutions. The statistics simply describing the rise are mind boggling complex. Explaining it–unless you really want to go with, “These kids today, they’re so coddled,” will be no less so.

Here’s an rare example of an intellectually honest take on the topic: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/dangerous-myth-grade-inflation/.

198

PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 9:27 pm

Now that I think about it, the fact that Harvey Mansfield has named professorship at Harvard and a named fellowship at Stanford at the same time, is itself pretty scandalous.

199

kidneystones 05.27.15 at 9:58 pm

@195 You’re clearly bright enough to know that grade inflation is not a myth, but that there are many very sloppy discussions on the topic. The very term causes problems. Are institutions awarding grades that cannot be justified in terms of academic achievement? Without doubt. I won’t provide specifics other than to state that I lost an adjunct position at a major university last year for complaining about the practice. The practice is widespread and varies in degree at different institutions, and with different educators, ahem. The question whether the practice has become more widespread in recent years is a different, but interesting question. Given the variables, the answer to that question must be yes and no, until we have better data.

Daniel deserves a lot of credit simply for providing space for discussion.

200

dm 05.27.15 at 10:01 pm

@31 “It’s quite some chutzpah for people like the author of comment #4 to claim that student debt is a problem caused by the financial services industry, unrelated to the universities who set the fees!”

I guess #4 would be me. Of course, I made no such claim. Pointing out that the financial services industry is all over it like flies on a bloated carcass just speaks to the character of the industry.

201

T 05.27.15 at 10:01 pm

“a) in general ethical terms, there has to be an element of caveat emptor. Someone doing a postgraduate degree in classics has to be aware of the financial odds; the period during which people were claiming that there was a demographic argument that professorial hiring prospects would turn up is well in the past.”

Please. Caveat emptor? The biggest scandal is the continued existence of PhD granting departments where the students have little chance of finding a tenure track job. Maybe try telling prospective students in no uncertain terms that the chances of getting a job in their field is terrible and that they may be lucky to get an adjunct job at $2K a course. The odds of getting a tenure track job in the humanities is much worse than getting a legal job coming out of a crappy law school. While the law student is out 3 years and 200K, the humanities grad is out 8 years.

Of course, then you’d have no one to grade the papers and teach the sections. And faculty salaries would fall from research institution levels to teaching school levels. But hey, cavat emptor. This is an old issue and will never be a “scandal.” And the folks doing it seem to have no trouble looking at themselves in the mirror each morning or keeping a straight face to the 8th year student finishing up their PhD.

202

T 05.27.15 at 10:02 pm

“a) in general ethical terms, there has to be an element of caveat emptor. Someone doing a postgraduate degree in classics has to be aware of the financial odds; the period during which people were claiming that there was a demographic argument that professorial hiring prospects would turn up is well in the past.”

Please. Caveat emptor? The biggest scandal is the continued existence of PhD granting departments where the students have little chance of finding a tenure track job. Maybe try telling prospective students in no uncertain terms that the chances of getting a job in their field is terrible and that they may be lucky to get an adjunct job at $2K a course. The odds of getting a tenure track job in the humanities is much worse than getting a legal job coming out of a crappy law school. While the law student is out 3 years and 200K, the humanities grad is out 8 years.

Of course, then you’d have no one to grade the papers and teach the sections. And faculty salaries would fall from research institution levels to teaching school levels. But hey, cavat emptor. This is an old issue and will never be a “scandal.” And the folks doing it seem to have no trouble looking at themselves in the mirror each morning or keeping a straight face to the 8th year student finishing up their PhD.

203

John Quiggin 05.27.15 at 10:06 pm

Given that we are discussing financial scandals as a template for academic scandals, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Inside Job. That was a real scandal, which certainly contributed to a decline in the public prestige of academic economics (though the comprehensive failure of the profession to respond in any serious way to the events of the last decade is probably more important). It did produce some reforms in terms of required declarations of interest.

204

politicalfootball 05.27.15 at 10:14 pm

Insider trading in securities is well known to be routine. I haven’t looked at the recent cases, but I’m pretty shocked at the authorities’ inability to get convictions – and less shocked at the public’s indifference.

205

T 05.27.15 at 10:18 pm

@195

Am I missing something? Are these sources wrong?

“After a Boston Globe analysis in 2001 found that an astonishing 91 percent of Harvard College students were graduating with honors, officials released data showing that 48.5 percent of grades were A’s and A-minuses, compared to 33.2 percent who received those marks in 1985.

In response to the uproar that followed, the faculty capped honors — summa, magna, and cum laude — at 60 percent. They also pledged to award more B’s, a largely self-policing policy, but deans said they would notify department chairman when professors were unusually lenient or stringent. For several years, Harvard officials published annual grade statistics showing that grades were creeping upward.”

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/12/05/with-its-most-common-grade-harvard-earns-disapproval-but-has-company/kCeheDYfuDjSRcM1sVljfK/story.html

“For May degrees, the total number of degrees summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude in field sum to 50 percent of all May degree candidates.”

http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k79903&pageid=icb.page418749

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Daniel 05.27.15 at 10:20 pm

I haven’t looked at the recent cases, but I’m pretty shocked at the authorities’ inability to get convictions

The authorities are very good at getting convictions in insider trading cases. It’s one of the few things they are good at. There’s a new one every couple of weeks – Matt Levine blogs about them.

207

Daniel 05.27.15 at 10:25 pm

The premise is that individuals engaging in purely commercial relations conducted wholly at arms length are permitted to take advantage of one another by withholding information.

I think this is a bit harsh. The premis of caveat emptor is that individuals are primarily responsible for their own welfare, and that they have the responsibility to find out for themselves about massive, obvious issues like the employment prospects of people with postgraduate degrees in fine arts subjects.

I actually agree with your “used car salesmen” example, but I wouldn’t be that hard on the professors – the people they’re dealing with are adults, and the starting point ought to be that as adults, they are allowed to make dumb decisions about their lives if they want to. Of course, the whole point of the post is that under not-very-well-understood conditions, the standard of judgement can shift rapidly from caveat emptor to duty of care without warning (this was massively the case with respect to the forex scandal).

208

AB 05.27.15 at 10:41 pm

Y’all can breathe easy for another year anyway. It’s clearly football’s turn.

209

T 05.27.15 at 10:44 pm

@206

A ot less than before unless something has hanged since December: (NYTs)

“The convictions had racked up in recent years, 85 people all told, as Manhattan prosecutors swept through Wall Street with what they described as clear-cut evidence of insider trading.

But on Wednesday, a federal appeals court upended the government’s campaign. And in the process, the court rewrote the insider trading playbook, imposing the greatest limits on prosecutors in a generation.”

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/appeals-court-overturns-2-insider-trading-convictions/

210

TM 05.27.15 at 10:53 pm

kidney 199: You have my full sympathy. Did you try doing anything about it? I wish these stories would come out and be public. Whether that will be considered a scandal… well we’ll see.

211

Bloix 05.27.15 at 11:07 pm

207- “The premise of caveat emptor is that individuals are primarily responsible for their own welfare, and that they have the responsibility to find out for themselves about massive, obvious issues like the employment prospects of people with postgraduate degrees in fine arts subjects…. the people they’re dealing with are adults, and the starting point ought to be that as adults, they are allowed to make dumb decisions about their lives if they want to.”

“Flounder, you fucked up, you trusted us!”

You really do not understand the principle of caveat emptor. It applies ONLY to arms-length commercial transactions. In any transaction dealing with a relationship of trust and responsibility, caveat emptor does not apply.

Are professors members of a learned profession clothed with a public trust? Are they the equals of accountants, podiatrists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and psychologists? Obviously you think you are – you claim the special privileges of academic freedom and tenure, which do not apply to the rest of us. But when you’re asked to act like a member of a learned profession, you say, oh no! I’m just a barrow boy selling fruit and vegetables! Let my customer decide for herself if the fruit is ripe!

But if you are a member of a learned profession, then caveat emptor does not apply to your dealings. You are not a salesman. You are not a carny barker. At the very least, as an ethical matter you have a duty of loyalty that you to share information that you know is material to your student’s decisions.

Your doctor, before performing a procedure, must obtain your informed consent after providing detailed information. Your lawyer must obtain your signature on a retainer agreement that provides detailed information. Those professionals cannot say, my patient is an adult, he could have checked Web MD. My client is an adult, he could researched the law on LegalZoom.

It is not good enough for a professor to say, “My student is an adult, it’s his look-out to determine whether I’m ripping him off. As long as I don’t actually lie, I’ve fulfilled my duty.”

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PatrickinIowa 05.27.15 at 11:08 pm

@ 205

Am I missing something? Are these sources wrong?

Yes, you are. For example, are the students at Harvard in the 21st century “the same as” in the relevant senses as those that were there in the 20th? (Mansfield would say they’re obviously worse, because more are black and more are women. He is not untypical of many grade inflation people.) Take a look at the percentage of applicants Harvard took in 2014 compared to the percentage in 1970. (Or Princeton or Michigan or Berkeley or any of the prestigious liberal arts schools.)
What you’re really have to do is take a look at the work the students do and compare it with the work they did in the past, which in my experience no–no–critic of grade “inflation” has ever done, or ever proposed to do.
Let me put it out there this way: in 1970, if you applied for admission to the Ivy League, you were competing against the pampered scions of the comfortable, complacent elite. In 2010, you were competing against a much larger pool of much cannier applicants in a much more competitive atmosphere. In some ways, I have no doubt that 2010 students code as better–they have been relentlessly trained to do so.

One of the things that’s hilarious about this is that whenever my grades are questioned, it’s usually by someone who not only doesn’t know the work my students did, it’s by people who haven’t taught the course, or who never taught at all. One example: I supervise TA’s. One of my TAs gave 12 As in a class of 20 students. And administrator who had never taught the course (first year comp) looked at the list and said, “12 As is too many. Tell your TA to lower some of those grades.” I looked at the list and noted the following:
1. It was an Honors section.
2. 17 of the 20 students were nursing students admitted at matriculation into the nursing school. Both the ACT and high school gpa requirements for a nursing pre-admit are higher than admission to the Honors program.
3. In general, compared to the general student population, nursing students work their asses off.
4. Several of the students had won highly competitive one year scholarships. At least one was on a four year full ride academic scholarship.
My response to the administrator was a polite form of “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I got to say it to a dean later. It took an hour, but I convinced her. Neither of them has read a single student paper from that class yet, now or in the past.

The sources aren’t wrong, unless you think that focusing on a laughably tiny sector of the data is a form of wrongness. In which case, yes they’re incredibly wrong. (Americans must be healthier! On average they weigh more!)

The point is this: in my experience the people who are exercised about grade inflation are looking at the numbers. Those who take a more nuanced view are looking at the students. I know who I think are likely to have a better grip on what’s actually happening.

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TM 05.27.15 at 11:11 pm

194: you are really naive about this. Robosigning happened not because there was no proper, legal way for asserting property claims. The whole title insurance question is a red herring. What happened is that banks decided that the normal legal process for foreclosure was too slow and too onerous (and it is precisely the intention of the law that the process should be onerous) so they circumvented it using criminal means. Criminal, as in systematic, organized law-breaking. The extent of the judicial cover-up can hardly be overstated (Taibbi’s The Divide has a really good chapter on it). None of us would get away with anything remotely like it, regardless of the circumstances. Remember this is a country where you can get serious jail time for ticking the wrong box on a tax declaration or an immigration document. And where, see 174, school teachers can be prosecuted as organized criminals for tampering with student tests. Unambiguous evidence for perjury committed on a massive scale, on the order of senior bank executives, has been totally ignored by the judicial system.

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TM 05.27.15 at 11:18 pm

“What you’re really have to do is take a look at the work the students do and compare it with the work they did in the past, which in my experience no–no–critic of grade “inflation” has ever done, or ever proposed to do.”

It would be interesting but I don’t know how it could be done. All I can say is that I have seen how grading happens in many cases and I am appalled. What I observe is that many students are deprived of a realistic assessment of their academic work. Of course this is just anecdotal and I do not have a comparison to how it was decades ago. It would be great to have that comparison but I don’t know how, apart from anecdotes, it could be gotten. The grades themselves are of course only a proxy, they don’t tell us how the grading was done, but they are the only data we have. The phenomenon is difficult to study objectively but based on my experience I do think it’s real.

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T 05.27.15 at 11:24 pm

@212
Once again:
“After a Boston Globe analysis in 2001 found that an astonishing 91 percent of Harvard College students were graduating with honors, officials released data showing that 48.5 percent of grades were A’s and A-minuses, compared to 33.2 percent who received those marks in 1985.”

So Patrick, by your logic, in 2015 75% of Harvard’s grades should be As and 100% of Harvard students should graduate with honors. No inflation here, just smarter students than in 2001.

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Phil 05.27.15 at 11:28 pm

I wish these stories would come out and be public.

See a couple of recent articles by Marina Warner, here and . The second includes responses to the first, on which Warner comments:

“A different kind of silence holds in its grip the many people who wrote to me in response to my piece in the LRB. With only two exceptions, every single one of the correspondents, terrified that their complaints would come to light and that they would be punished (the term used is ‘disciplined’), made me swear not to reveal their name.”

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Phil 05.27.15 at 11:29 pm

Oops – Marina Warner articles are here and here.

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Matt 05.27.15 at 11:46 pm

Interesting discussion here about grade inflation and whether or not it’s real. Maybe I was wrong to assume grade inflation as a given.

I have noticed from browsing through old digitized library materials that there has definitely been thesis deflation in the sciences (probably other fields too). Theses are expected to be much more expansive and significant now than a century ago.

Here is a chemistry MS thesis from 1913. It is about 8 pages double spaced, only about half of that being original experimental results and discussion.

Here is a physics PhD thesis from 1916. There are 6 pages of real material. Even taking into account that we have much better tools now compared to then, I would say this represents roughly the easy side of effort expected of an undergraduate summer research project.

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Mdc 05.28.15 at 12:22 am

“– can these students do the work, and do we expect them to finish? “

This is an essential question that must be asked.

“and if they do, will the market absorb this many newly minted PhD’s from our institution in, say, seven years? “

But I don’t see how you could practically answer this question. Departments should keep a close eye on their placement stats (and they do) and think about ways they can improve placement (and they do). But how could you make the labor market less competitive by rejecting willing grad students?

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AB 05.28.15 at 12:34 am

People are using “inflation” here to mean different things.

I took it to mean that the more people are getting high grades and that the value of a given grade (in the job/grad school) market is declining over time. This does not necessarily imply the objective grading standards are falling, and can be consistent with standards rising.

The only actual problem is if you run out of grades to differentiate at the top. In which case, you can just do what they recently did with A Levels in the UK, and introduce an extra grade. “Scandal” over.

221

js. 05.28.15 at 12:56 am

Many thanks to PatrickinIowa for pushing back on the “grade inflation” thing.

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T 05.28.15 at 1:07 am

@219
Maybe they wouldn’t be such “willing grad students” if you told them that it would take 7 or 8 years to finish and less than 50% of new PhDs in your field find tenure track jobs. And the ones likely to get those few jobs typically went to top tier universities unlike the one they’re applying to. And if they’re interested in research rather than teaching your school has few placements and even fewer in research institutions. Or is it better to leave someone broke and with few job skills at age 30 or 31?

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PatrickinIowa 05.28.15 at 1:46 am

@215 “So Patrick, by your logic, in 2015 75% of Harvard’s grades should be As and 100% of Harvard students should graduate with honors. No inflation here, just smarter students than in 2001.”

You don’t understand logic. (It’s one of my AB majors.) I don’t know why there’s a difference in grades on the Harvard transcripts between 2001 and 2015. It would require looking at the work the students did, examining how that work was graded, looking at the working conditions of the faculty who did the grading, examining what their incentives were and coming to a set of conclusions about the multitude of causes that condition the awarding of grades. The Boston Globe did nothing of the sort. Virtually none of the people who screech about grade inflation do. As TM at 214 points out they aren’t clever enough to come up with a way to prove what is an empirical claim about the world. (Actually I think it’s laziness, judging by the folks I have to deal with around here, but YMMV.)

The point is also that you don’t know what caused the difference either, and it’s a lot easier to nestle into a pre-written narrative–“These kids today…”–than it is to actually go out and study the issue.

What’s required is empirical investigation of the causes of a real world phenomenon. From Mansfield on, people who have been militant about curbing what they call “inflation” have continually treated empirical investigation with disdain. They already know what caused the grades to go up. (The sixties! Women on campus! Black people! Tenured radicals!) Why screw up a good story with, you know, facts.

The grades I gave were lower in 2001 than they are now. In 2001 I was an new hire, last to pick sections, teaching at the inconvenient times in horrible rooms. Now, with fifteen years in, I teach majors, I’m a better teacher, I teach honors, and I teach students who sign up for classes because I teach them, or because they’re desperately interested in the subject matter. You might conclude, if you only looked at the numbers, that I’m getting softer as I age. And I’m not so self-regarding as to claim that there’s non-zero chance that you’re right. But it’s a very tiny probability and I think the percentages favor the notion that the teaching and the students have changed, rather than my standards.

TM says, “What I observe is that many students are deprived of a realistic assessment of their academic work.” I will remind everybody that George W. Bush graduated from Yale with grades sufficient to get him into grad school at Harvard. I was an undergraduate in the early seventies (before grade inflation started, unless you’re making it up). Every time someone says something that assumes that students were smarter or worked harder then, I think, “Oh, bullshit.”

Grades don’t give students a realistic assessment of their academic work. They can’t. They’re too crude. Most of the time, they’re fairly arbitrary letters plucked out of the air. But we use grades because giving people a realistic assessment of their work requires time, and detail, and nuance, and effort, and directness, and honesty. And the Mansfields of this world are too fucking lazy to do that, the legislatures are too fucking cheap, and the students–frankly–don’t really want to hear it.

I’m done.

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Daniel 05.28.15 at 1:46 am

I’ve just realised, from #96:

2) “It’s not that these sectors are especially dirty and the rest are especially clean – it’s just that politics, finance, religion, journalism and broadcasting have, so far, had their day under the microscope.” – Because they appear in a list together, they are equivalent, as are any other institutions that might be added soon. No one is especially dirty!

This guy is literally claiming that I am trying to exonerate bankers by listing them alongside serial paedophiles, as if the two were equivalent. Adam Hammond, why don’t you get to a phone, dial yourself up and ask yourself what the pigging hell you’re on about?

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PatrickinIowa 05.28.15 at 1:47 am

By “around here” in the above, I mean where I teach, not Crooked Timber. You guys, by and large, aren’t lazy.

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Mdc 05.28.15 at 1:49 am

T: no, share all placement information with prospective students, for sure. (Some depts do this.)

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Daniel 05.28.15 at 1:51 am

#223: In an idle moment, I did once calculate (or possibly Matthew Turner calculated it and I nicked his results, I forget) what the percentage rate of grade inflation was for the UK’s A-level exams (which are well-adapted to the purpose as there’s an agreed table for converting letter grades into points, which the universities all use). I found that the average rate of inflation between 1970 and 2005 was remarkably steady at just under 2% (meaning, of course, that the average grade had nearly doubled over that period). That 2% seemed to me to be overwhelmingly likely to reflect small incremental improvements in “productivity” of teachers every year, and the fact that these improvements are cumulative. Someone saying that grades shouldn’t have got much better since the 1960s is making the claim that you can’t improve teaching quality by even 1% a year.

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js. 05.28.15 at 2:19 am

I want to echo one point that PatrickinIowa made. In my brief-ish teaching career, the highest overall grades I’ve awarded were in the (few) upper-level, major-oriented classes I’ve taught. Why? It should be obvious: the students tended to be more interested, more involved and better prepared; they came to talk to me much more often and worked harder to improve their grades; in one place I taught, there was with several students very marked improvement between the beginning of the semester and the end of it. This kind of thing will get you a good grade, entirely fairly. It is, if anything, extraordinarily more unfair to think, I must have 30% Cs because otherwise, holy shit, grade inflation!!

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Brett Dunbar 05.28.15 at 2:20 am

Robosigning would constitute misfeasance (doing a legal thing in an illegal manner). The courts generally have discretion to overlook defects in paperwork and get on with considering the substantive issues. In this case although the documents were produced incorrectly the content was accurate. There would be little purpose served, and considerable expense incurred, by requiring the re-submission of essentially identical documents.

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Daniel 05.28.15 at 2:28 am

Yes, it’s a red herring. The reason why robosigning happened is that the original mortgage notes weren’t available, having been deposited into MERS when the loans were sold, because this was the only feasible way to have a secondary market in mortgages with a title system that “works” in the way the US one does. The false affidavits were bad things, and I don’t want to sound like I’m claiming it wasn’t a crime, but the actual debts existed and in all but a very small number of screw-up cases, it was clear that the foreclosures were basically valid.

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ragweed 05.28.15 at 3:08 am

@bloix, 211 – I think we are talking about different things here. It would be one thing if a professor doesn’t actually teach the skills needed to become an academic or get a tenured track position. Or if they let students slide and do a crappy thesis that isn’t up to standards (which is probably true of some of the PhD programs at the for-profits). In those cases (which do happen) then the professor is failing in their professional duty to their students. My sense is that most real university programs are more than willing to advise someone that they are not PhD material and either exit them with a terminal masters, or just exit them.

But if the program is providing a rigorous preparation and is honest about the fact that it is an incredibly competitive field where not everyone is going to get a tenure track position, then it is a different question, and where, at a certain point it is up to the grad student to assess the risk and make their career choices. There is an ethical question at this point of whether the universities should have that many graduate openings, but that is an institutional level question (and a collective action problem if every university thinks their grad program is better than the others and the other guys should be the ones to cut).

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T 05.28.15 at 3:10 am

“Grades don’t give students a realistic assessment of their academic work. They can’t. They’re too crude. Most of the time, they’re fairly arbitrary letters plucked out of the air. But we use grades because giving people a realistic assessment of their work requires time, and detail, and nuance, and effort, and directness, and honesty.a realistic assessment of their work requires time, and detail, and nuance, and effort, and directness, and honesty. And the Mansfields of this world are too fucking lazy to do that, the legislatures are too fucking cheap, and the students–frankly–don’t really want to hear it.”

Be sure to let your students, chair, and dean know that’s what you’re up to. I’m sure they’ll all understand that the grades you give are “fairly arbitrary letters plucked out of the air.”

I guess high school grades are the same. Of course, that’s how the kid got into college in the first place and is the best indicator of their success in college. But, hey, just plucked from the air.

So next time I’m sitting in front of 200 job applications from new college graduates I’ll be sure to ignore their grade point average. I won’t keep in mind that every Harvard application has a 3.8 grade point average and they graduated with honors. I’ll screw all the kids from state schools with a 3.5 that actually means something. Because, you know, I’ll have time to interview each one to get “a realistic assessment of their work that requires time and detail and nuance and effort.” I’ll give each a bespoke assessment, curated and artisinal. I’m sure that’s what their college admission officers did as well to the 25,000 applications they examined.

And I didn’t write “by logic,” I wrote “by your logic.” I suggest using your well earned AB major (congratulations!) to figure out the difference.

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T 05.28.15 at 3:55 am

@223 Please disregard my last post. Way over the top.

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kidneystones 05.28.15 at 5:04 am

@ 223 Kudos! You succeeded in spitting the dummy, and in reducing a diverse collection of students, parents, educators, and administrators on at least four continents I can name, and their concerns, into grotesque caricatures.

Anyone familiar with K-12 education can confirm that grade inflation are social progression are endemic in many school systems. Funding and ‘teaching the test’ are key related issues. Some of the latest figures, I believe, put high school history proficiency in US schools at 37%, 18%, and 6%. Guess which ethnic groups are involved. These figures do not arise out of a vacuum. A percentage of these students end up in universities where the travesties documented here, and others, are repeated.

Over the years, we have invested a great deal of our money on education. We’re not paying to have any educator blow smoke up our keisters, or to cough up same lame-ass relativist crap about grades not being a realistic indicator of ability.

Our jobs, in part, demand we devise reliable metrics to measure student progress and proficiency, and to test the efficacy of our pedagogies. If this strikes you as strange or unreasonable, I suggest you spend a bit more time around teachers.

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geo 05.28.15 at 5:11 am

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harry b 05.28.15 at 5:14 am

Further to Patrick in Iowa — even if students in the top end of the distribution were not better prepared now than 45 years ago, and had not had far more invested in them, and were not far more oriented to success — the talent pool is simply twice as large (because women compete for places on an equal basis, and have been as well trained for academic success as the men they compete with). So, basically, the bottom 50% of 1970 Harvard students would not be enrolled. You would therefore expect that grades would have dramatically improved if there were no inflation at all. Which they have.

Personally I suspect grade inflation is real. But there is no evidence for it because there are no databases of old papers and exams with grades attached to them which we can look at to decide whether standards have dropped. I have started archiving papers by my students recently, in order to be able (later) to figure out whether I am using the same standards over time.

Credit goes to Matt at 218 for his delving. To be fair, the idea that there has been grade inflation since 1918 is ludicrous and no sensible person asserts it! College then was finishing school for posh kids, and no academic rigor was demanded (though it was slowly creeping in, due to the efforts of pesky administrators).

Past discussions prompter by me and JQ here, including why we should chill out about grade inflation even if it is real:
http://crookedtimber.org/2005/07/26/is-grade-inflation-real/
http://crookedtimber.org/2008/12/05/grading-medical-students-and-more-on-grade-inflation/
http://crookedtimber.org/2008/08/18/grade-inflation/
http://crookedtimber.org/2008/06/29/marks/

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Harry 05.28.15 at 5:19 am

Oh, and for what it is worth, high school GPA is a better predictor of success in college than SAT/ACT score, and correlates less well with socio-economic background. (I worry more about grade inflation in high school than in college, but in both sectors it is a distraction from the real issue which (in the US) is the absence of an infrastructure that allows us to assess how much learning is taking place, and continuously improve the quality of instruction).

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kidneystones 05.28.15 at 5:38 am

@237 With respect, better teacher training, smaller classes, career-long professional development programs, and peer skills-sharing produce many of the desired results. Yes, we need to be able to assess how much learning is taking place, but many good K12 teachers complain that completing paper work to address your concern means less time serving students.
@TM Thanks for the kind words. The problem arose when I administered several standard unsanctioned proficiency tests to an upper-level class and provided the actual test scores to the students. More than 70% failed. My responsibility was to process the lambs, ensure they and their parents were properly fleeced, and then dispatch the unlucky creatures into the job market to be slaughtered. So, you see, the problem was entirely of my own making. Really.

Sorry about the typos/errors. I’ll work harder to arrest this recurring problem.

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Sebastian H 05.28.15 at 5:41 am

“The false affidavits were bad things, and I don’t want to sound like I’m claiming it wasn’t a crime, but the actual debts existed and in all but a very small number of screw-up cases, it was clear that the foreclosures were basically valid.”

The reason why the signing issue is a big deal is because in the small number of screw-up cases we were taking away people’s houses and throwing them out on the street on the basis of affirmatively fraudulent documents. The reason for the notary rules is that we wanted to make very sure, before throwing people out on the street, that we actually were supposed to be taking away their homes. I’m not sure how the fact that the underlying debt existed in most of the cases excuses the affirmative fraud in the other cases. At the very least we should have seen fraud prosecutions on the cases where the robo-signing did NOT correspond to the underlying debt. If banks wanted to commit fraud because it was convenient to do so, I’m sort of open to the idea that they shouldn’t be punished in the cases where it was victimless. But they should have been slammed directly into the ground on the cases where it wasn’t. They affirmatively committed fraud and caused serious harm. Why was THAT not prosecuted?

The answer is that the fraud was so deep and pervasive that we were worried it would destabilize the system to go after it.

That is an honest answer. But it isn’t an answer that reflects well on banks. The LIBOR scandal is in that context–it was so scandalous because it suggested that the banks learned that it was well to their advantage to engage in deep and pervasive frauds BECAUSE that was how they would avoid punishment. Eventually the common people who are being fleeced might decide that isn’t ok no matter what the financial cost (especially as it becomes more and more obvious that financial gains aren’t every going to trickle down anyway).

This crosses over into the academic sphere. If people ever figure out that the increasing cost is mostly a matter of fucking the students over–instead of a necessary part of funding education–the jig is up. So far the academic world has avoided this by playing the bad apple card (focusing on ‘for-profits’ for example). But it isn’t clear that will continue indefinitely.

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Seeds 05.28.15 at 6:00 am

228: This kind of thing will get you a good grade, entirely fairly.

Two friends of mine at university graduated at the same time, one in economics and one in chemistry. The chemistry graduate had got a first, and the economics graduate a 2:1. I witnessed the following scene.

Economics: [petulantly] Well, they give out more firsts in chemistry.
Chemistry: [exploding] Remember first year? I was going to labs and lectures pretty much 9 – 5. You went to five hours of lectures in the whole year.

I think both of them were telling the truth. There probably were more fairly awarded firsts in chemistry, as the workload made it harder to finish the course, so 1) less-motivated students dropped out, instead of coasting through to a lower grade in the end, which messes with the percentages and 2) having done all that work, been shunned at the cool parties, etc, the amount of extra work required to lift grades to a first was negligible for chemistry undergrads with the ability.

If you’re wondering how the economics graduate got through first year with five hours of lectures, it’s because my uni gave first years exemptions from summer exams if they passed their winter exams with a reasonable grade.

(I promise this is true, including the subjects, and happened at a Russell Group university in the UK.)

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Bruce Wilder 05.28.15 at 6:02 am

“We” ?

242

Andrew Fisher 05.28.15 at 7:37 am

I just wanted to thank PatrickinIowa for post 212, which was great.

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Alex 05.28.15 at 8:27 am

240 makes a good point. If students who might hypothetically have graduated with a C instead struggle and then wash out and end up with nothing except for loans, the average grade will go up just by composition.

244

Pete 05.28.15 at 9:18 am

This seems relevant: http://io9.com/i-fooled-millions-into-thinking-chocolate-helps-weight-1707251800

Documentary maker does p-value hacking, shops article to pay-for-publication journal, then uses that to demonstrate credibility to the press. It helps that the press have a limitless appetite for fad diet kill-or-cure “news”, but fundamentally the “science” industry isn’t stopping him either.

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faustusnotes 05.28.15 at 9:31 am

Perhaps this is the kind of honesty we need in academia if we are to avoid these scandals.

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Pete 05.28.15 at 9:36 am

Oh, and I don’t think robosigning is a red herring. In other fields where traceability of inputs is important, you don’t get to just make up the supporting documentation even if it’s retroactively correct. The wrongful foreclosures should have resulted in prosecutions for fraud for those instances.

On the subject of uneven law enforcement, imagine if HSBC during their drug money laundering period were treated like a person carrying a large amount of cash and subject to civil forfeiture: confiscate first, resolve later.

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Brett Dunbar 05.28.15 at 9:47 am

In England & Wales getting the Land Registery operating has been an astonishing slow and difficult process mainly due to blatant rent seeking by solicitors. The 1925 Act made registration compulsory (the 1867 Act had established a voluntary E&W scheme based on the 1709 one covering Middlesex except the City of London) however it required an order to make it compulsory in any area, the solicitors opposed every extension so it was.finally completed in 1990. The 2002 act made registration on all transfers compulsory. About 12% of E&W is still unregistered. The 2002 act also made acquisition of registered land by adverse possession much more difficult as the registered proprietor must be given two years notice after ten years of unchallenged possession while the old twelve years of unchallenged possession with no notice requirement rule still applies to unregistered land. Many large landowners have registered in order to gain the notice requirement.

Solicitors successfully opposed making the 1867 Act compulsory and national indeed it was almost totally ineffective. They lobbied successfully for county choice in the 1925 Act vastly delaying implementation as they lobbied against counties requesting an extension.

Solicitors opposed change as conducting searches of paper deeds was quite times consuming and conveyancing constituted a large part of most solicitor’s work. Making the system slow cumbersome and expensive suited them at the expense of everyone else involved. It was pure rent seeking.

248

ajay 05.28.15 at 10:00 am

It is deeply comforting, when you are the target of universal disapproval, to be able to tell yourself “this is something that happened to me, something that was imposed on me by outside forces” rather than “this is something I did”. If you can convince yourself that what you were doing wasn’t wrong, or at least not very wrong, certainly not really criminal, and that it’s blown up into this huge storm because of some inexplicable process going on in the minds of your hysterical accusers, it makes you feel a lot better than if you have to force yourself to acknowledge that you were doing things that were in fact very very wrong indeed and that the condemnation you’re hearing is entirely rational and justified.

This is just human psychology. How many of us have heard friends discuss arguments with their spouses using phrases like “I just can’t understand why she/he is taking this so seriously! It’s no big deal! She/he is being completely irrational about this! All my friends do this kind of thing all the time. She/he’s never complained before. Anyway she/he does bad stuff too. At least I bet she/he does.” It’s one of the biggest problems with instituting reform after a scandal, because one of the common features of many scandals is that, in the sheltered subculture in which they originate, the acts involved really were seen as no big deal, and so it’s shocking to the people involved to realise that the rest of the world feels differently.

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kidneystones 05.28.15 at 10:26 am

@248 Agreed, with one caveat. We aren’t frankly going to get very far listing the iniquities of others, as much fun as that may be. The ‘I’ statements carry much more weight in my view. As in, “I knowingly passed, processed, promoted class after class of students unable to meet the grade because that’s what the university paid me to do.” That’s what I did. No longer.

The Atlanta education figures who are now facing jail and/or fines were placed in the unenviable position of falsifying grades, or losing funding. That’s essentially the situation I faced, the difference being that the pretty much everyone top to bottom was perfectly satisfied to call failure success.

I’m fortunate in that I have the experience and skills to choose where I work for the most part. No everyone has that mobility, and I have a great deal of sympathy for those forced to choose between unemployment and playing it ‘safe.’

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SamChevre 05.28.15 at 12:13 pm

Sebastian H @ 239

I’d like one example of someone (a) losing their house in a foreclosure (b)when they did not have a mortgage in arrears, (c) because of MERS/robosigning. (I’ve followed this since 2007, and haven’t seen one.)

Note that none of the following count:
1) Joe Homeowner has a mortgage, hasn’t paid on it, but is arguing that Bank X can’t demonstrate that they own it/have the right to collect it.
2) Joe Homeowner has a mortgage, definitely in default, but Bank X and Bank Y are arguing over who takes the loss.
3) Joe Homeowner has a mortgage with Bank X, and Bank X has thoroughly screwed up it’s internal record keeping and keeps misapplying payments/misstating the payments due.
4) Joe Homeowner had foreclosure papers filed when he didn’t have a mortgage in arrears: he demonstrated that he didn’t have a mortgage in arrears and the foreclosure process ended with him owing the bank nothing.

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TM 05.28.15 at 12:51 pm

Patrick 223: I agree that grades are a crude proxy for what we (at least I) would really want to talk about. I personally would like to tell students that nobody cares about their grades, what matters is whether they have mastered the material. Unfortunately that may not be quite true, at least not in the short run (credentials actually matter more than skills). In any case, your dismissal is not convincing. Grades are part of the feedback that students receive. When almost everybody gets an A, the professor is telling students that they don’t need to improve – they mastered the material. Everybody who teaches challenging subjects knows that this feedback cannot be honest. Most students have plenty of room for improvement. My own anecdotal observations and apparently those of many others suggest that grading practice is often shockingly dishonest. We don’t need to tell stories here (although that might be entertaining) but when poorly written and researched essays based on flawed reasoning get an A – either because the prof has no time to actually read them, or because institutional culture pressures him or her to give high grades, or because they are afraid to be accused of bias – how will the students ever learn to improve their thinking and writing? And perhaps more importantly, how will students ever learn to be self-critical, to question their own work? That is what I am concerned about, not the economic value of credentials.

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Barry 05.28.15 at 12:57 pm

Sebastian H:

“That is an honest answer. But it isn’t an answer that reflects well on banks. The LIBOR scandal is in that context–it was so scandalous because it suggested that the banks learned that it was well to their advantage to engage in deep and pervasive frauds BECAUSE that was how they would avoid punishment. Eventually the common people who are being fleeced might decide that isn’t ok no matter what the financial cost (especially as it becomes more and more obvious that financial gains aren’t every going to trickle down anyway).”

What I call the ‘nuclear bomb’ theory of crime:

If somebody is running around with a grenade in their hand with the pin pulled, shooting them is an option.

If they are running around with a nuclear bomb on a deadman switch, they’ll be given what they want.

I expect that the lesson the money boyz learned here is that trillion-dollar frauds are safe – either you win, or you get bailed out.

253

dsquared 05.28.15 at 1:27 pm

Sam: I think there are a small number of cases falling under your 3) where the homeowner could plausibly argue that if it weren’t for the way that robosigning expedites the foreclosure process, the errors could have been cleared up in time, and therefore there’s a strong sense in which they’d have stayed in their house if not for robosigning.

As I said to begin with though, the reason nothing’s been prosecuted is that the court system and government would have to cough to its own role in creating the screwup and in turning a blind eye to the practice.

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TM 05.28.15 at 1:28 pm

Again the robosigning issue. I understand d2 you are not defending the practice, just claim it didn’t matter. An analogy would be to say that it doesn’t really matter whether the police have a warrant when they knock down the door of a suspect, or whether the warrant was obtained through lying, as long s they do find the drugs. It’s just wrong, procedural fairness is not just a formality, it is at the heart of our legal system. A judicial system that colludes with the banks by allowing them to break the law for expediency is corrupt, let’s face it.
I have said above that the foreclosure process is onerous and is supposed to be onerous, for good reasons. In fact, in many places in the US, the process is shockingly un-onerous. In many states, it doesn’t even require any kind of court approval. A sworn affidavit filed with the county is really all that is required. When those affidavits turn out to be perjurious, and not one or two due to honest error but thousands due to systematic practice, the whole process is not just tainted, it has become a law-free zone. I don’t know how many actual provable screw-ups there were but that too is a red herring. We certainly don’t know how many victims were too stressed an demoralized to try mounting a court challenge. Perhaps most importantly, the foreclosure crisis was in large part caused by the shoddy if not fraudulent practices of the very banks that then engaged in mass foreclosure. To then say to hell with procedures is a cynical joke.

And read Taibbi’s book or the report (link at 235).

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harry b 05.28.15 at 1:44 pm

TM @ 251.

Are you a teacher? Here’s what I do. Almost never do I give an A to a paper or exam. Even if the paper is really good, it could have been better, and even in those few cases where I give an A, I write comments about what the strong and weak points of the paper are, and how to improve it. If I know the student will thrive with some encouragement, or the work is truly outstanding, and has worked hard, I might give an A (so there might be 2 or 3 As out of 25 students), but much more importantly I write encouraging things in my comments. If the paper is as good as I would usually give an AB to but I know the student has dashed it off lazily, I will probably give it a lower grade, and will write in the comments that it seems hurried, or that I am disappointed the student didn’t put more work (while acknowledging the work is pretty good). None of them have ever fully mastered the material, and they all have room to improve. They’re just like me in that respect. At the end of the semester, though, I give more than 3 As out of 25, because more than 3 have done, over the course of the semester, excellent enough work that in any other class they woould have received an A, and work that is superior to the work I did at the same stage of my career (I got a First at an elite UK university — 4 out of 50 students on my course got Firsts that year — how do I know their work is better? — because I have lots of my own college essays in a filing cabinet in my office, and I refer back to them from time to time to check standards). I am also very explicit about my theory of grading so that they understand what I am rewarding and why.

My aim — basically my only aim — is to make them learn. To learn they have to work. Most normal people, given lots of demands on their time, and distractions, and the fact that grades really are pretty low stakes (what effect does a letter grade difference in one course have on your final GPA? Virtually none), need a combination of encouragement, cajoling, pressure, and frankness about their strengths and weakness optimally to motivate them. Mostly, they need to want not to disappoint me. This requires that I get to know them, that they get to think I care about them (the easiest way of getting them to think that, for me, is by actually caring about them), and that they come to see themselves as part of a class to which they can contribute usefully and whom they do not want to let down. Grades play a small (but not non-existent) role in this. What my job is NOT about, is feeling good about myself because I am sorting the wheat and the chaff. My job is to turn them all into wheat, whether they like it or not. It is completely obvious to anyone who reads his rantings about grades that Mansfield feels his job is to gatekeep for an elite. I wouldn’t let a kid anywhere near a teacher like that, if I had a choice, and while Harvard is welcome to waste the money of the wealthy in that way, the voters and taxpayers of my state have a reasonable expectation that I try, instead, to increase the total sum of human capital in the state, and the students I teach have a reasonable expectation that I develop and exercise the skills and strategies that will make them learn.

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SamChevre 05.28.15 at 1:49 pm

dsquared @ 253

In my understanding, robosigning is a MERS problem–it’s creating paper records of transfers originally done electronically; it is completely irrelevant in a case where the issuing bank has the paper records, but has somehow gotten them in its own systems incorrectly.

(Corrections welcome, but I’m pretty certain that there’s no need for robosigning where the issuing bank, the servicing bank, and the bank on the recorded mortgage are the same.)

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SamChevre 05.28.15 at 2:03 pm

harry b @ 255

I’m an advocate for grades (and tests like the SAT) that are sufficiently differentiated to gatekeep for an elite: here’s why.

Assuming that there will be an elite, chosen in some fashion–I’d prefer that the criteria be based on intelligence, willingness to work hard, etc–on willingness to learn and ability to learn–than on the typical alternative bases. If everyone gets an A, it’s much harder for the student who’s not as attractive/well-connected/socially adept/in sync with fashionable ways of thinking–but is very bright and very hard-working – to stand out.

So to me, it doesn’t matter if everyone today is doing work that would have earned an A in 1960; I still want the grades to contribute to an equilibrium where the graduates who get the prestigious jobs and the best graduate admissions are the most capable academically, rather than the wealthiest or prettiest.

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TM 05.28.15 at 2:32 pm

harry 255: “My aim — basically my only aim — is to make them learn. To learn they have to work. Most normal people, given lots of demands on their time, and distractions, and the fact that grades really are pretty low stakes (what effect does a letter grade difference in one course have on your final GPA? Virtually none), need a combination of encouragement, cajoling, pressure, and frankness about their strengths and weakness optimally to motivate them.”

Totally agree. Unfortunately in my experience, it rarely happens that way. I have, in different roles (student, TA, instructor) seen many students get high grades who, I can say with confidence, were not, or only so-so proficient in the subject (again, my point isn’t really the grades but the unrealistic feedback given to students). My experience is similar to kidney’s at 238. Do I have reliable non-anecdotal data to prove any of this? No.

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harry b 05.28.15 at 2:37 pm

Thanks SamChevre. Thing is — not everyone gets an A. At least at my university hardly anyone gets a 4.0 (I think I have known one student in that situation, and she decided, deliberately, to neglect a stupid course where she was learning nothing, in her final semester, and got a C in that one). Employers look at the majors, the courses the students have taken, they interview them, they ask them hard things about their transcripts, they look at letters of recommendation (I get regular phone calls taking up references in which employers find out things they couldn’t possibly have found out through grades — primarily, the speed with which I speak about the student, and whether the impression the student gave at interviews fits with what I say about her), they look at other activities students have done, etc. If students who are now 0.2 apart are in genuine competition for a job, whereas under an older system those same students would have been 0.6 apart, and that margin would have excluded the student with the lower GPA from the competition, that is an improvement, from the point of view of elite formation, because students who are currently 0.2 apart should never be compared in terms of their GPA, but in terms of other information (what courses they took, their work experiences, what their references say, etc).

Plenty of professors still grade on a curve, so they don’t have to apply standards and teach to them — or teach much at all!. From observation, furthermore, I think it is very difficult to maintain the following two thoughts in a good equilibrium:
“My job is to demonstrate to others which of my students is smart and accomplished” and
“My job is to figure out how to make sure all the students learn as much as I can possibly get them to learn”

The second thought requires you constantly to disregard intuitive judgments you make like “she’s not up to this” — and disregarding those thoughts is a good thing because very often (at least at my institution) she is, in fact, up to it, and disregarding that intuition helps you to figure out and fix the problem that makes her seem not up to it.

How many potentially great doctors do not go to Medical School because nobody bothered to actually teach the Org Chem course they had to take, because its a gatekeeping course that has a guaranteed enrollment, and grading on a curve means you don’t really have to think about standards? And how many second-rate doctors do we have because they had a facility for Org Chem when they went into Org Chem, and nobody bothered to teach their potential competitors, or because they were in a weaker Org Chem class, in which work that would have gotten you a C the previous year gets you an AB this year?

My point is not that grades don’t matter at all, but, again, that this is a huge distraction from the real scandal, which is the absence of continuing professional development to improve instruction, and the absence of an infrastructure (which would include actual standards) to support that. It is suboptimal instruction and learning, not grade inflation, that we should be thinking about.

(and — Daniel’s upthread point, which is quite right, is in fact compatible with what I have just said –at least at the selective end of higher ed there has been a vast improvement in the preparedness of students once they arrive in college, so even if our instruction hadn’t improved at all (and it may have) they’d still be doing better.

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praisegod barebones 05.28.15 at 2:40 pm

Right, but in that case you’re not concerned with grade inflation (at least in the sense that suggests a pernicious lowering of standards.) You’re making a case for grade deflation – ie, progressively raising the standard that’s required for getting an A.

And once it’s put like that you can see that the problem you’d have in getting that case accepted might lie with people other than university professors.

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praisegod barebones 05.28.15 at 2:42 pm

Sorry, my 260 was a reply to SamChevre @257, not to Harry.

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bianca steele 05.28.15 at 3:18 pm

Harry @ 137: the absence of an infrastructure that allows us to assess how much learning is taking place, and continuously improve the quality of instruction).

I’ve been stewing about this since last night. I don’t want to be that mom, and if I’m going to be called a right-wing tool I prefer it to be to my face (for that matter if I’m going to be called a right-wing tool for an opinion that IRL would get me called a liberal whiner, just forget it), and I’m going to overlook the B-school, self-help book “continuous improvement” jargon because after all what other language do we have available to us, and I actually don’t know what work the word “infrastructure” is doing in the argument, but:

In this state, we just had a “high stakes” test that had been used for decades, implemented after years of public debate, replaced by a test that is produced for-profit by a group known as P….n, with not only no debate but with almost no publicity. One day the towns were considering switching on an individual basis, and my town decided not to, which I thought was a good thing because frankly, they have so many initiatives going on right now anyway and we really don’t have the ability also to be a pioneer, and the next thing I knew, the school calendar had a new acronym on it, and found about about the state-wide change through the grapevine. But don’t I know that the most pressing problem facing education in this country is that we have no way to figure out who is successfully teaching the right things–we’re so bad that outside people have to come in and implement end-of-year evaluations without even telling us what’s going on!–and don’t I know that the only morally responsible thing is to listen to those outside people, and let them take our time from us, because after all, we couldn’t possibly be doing anything worthwhile, if we don’t even understand that they know best!

Really, we have a ten-month school year, and a month of that at least is given over to the tests. The library is closed down, because that’s where the computers are. (Who knows what they do in schools that don’t have computers.) The state came out with new curriculum standards a few years ago, to align with Common Core–will that be good enough for the new, secret tests? But they should be teaching the right stuff anyway, how could a really decent teacher need to know ahead of time what would be on the test?!

IMHO from what I’ve seen, a more–I don’t know if I’d say “pressing” problem–is that clearly the early-ed teachers and the kindergarten teachers and the pediatricians and the art and music teachers with specializations in early education and the social workers all have different ideas about what should be going on. But we’ll all use our Mom’s Intuition! (Sigh!)

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geo 05.28.15 at 3:34 pm

253: the reason nothing’s been prosecuted is that the court system and government would have to cough to its own role in creating the screwup and in turning a blind eye to the practice

Yes, but … it’s not as though the government is in all cases loath to come down hard on its own employees. In general, whenever some naïve, well-intentioned financial regulator or corporate whistleblower actually tried to alert superiors to large-scale wrongdoing, they were handed their heads. I think you may be underestimating the extent to which the US Congress, Justice Department, and Treasury Department are subservient to — in fact, often staffed by — the financial industry. See Taibbi here, for example, on the latter’s sabotage of Dodd-Frank: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-wall-street-killed-financial-reform-20120510.

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TM 05.28.15 at 3:59 pm

It’s not as if the collusion between financial industry, regulators, and the justice system makes this affair any less ugly, now is it?

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ragweed 05.28.15 at 4:27 pm

The whole discussion of the ethics of producing PhD when only one in ten will get jobs has me thinking of another situation – music conservatories.

I went to a liberal arts college that also had a nationally renowned music conservatory (despite the fact that “college” students outnumbered “con” students 4:1, people tend to ask what instrument I played when I mention the name). Conservatory students were in an incredibly rigorous program to put out primarily top-notch classical performers. But every student knew from day one that only one-in-ten would actually get hired by an orchestra or other professional capacity in their field. There was a substantial discussion of fall-back careers (the music ed program had a substantial element of “you’re not really orchestra quality, maybe you can have a go at teaching” to it), and “how to get by as a starving musician while waiting for your break” as well as some instrument-specific economies (eg. organ students working the church circuit). But a common joke among conservatory students was “you’re in the college, at least you’ll get a job when you graduate.”

So are conservatories of music ethical? Are they preying on students by offering a top-notch education that is likely to be economically useless for the majority of them? I sense the answer to that is no (though there may be some shady practices involved – nepotism and who-you-know is huge in elite music circles), but not sure what makes it different from graduate programs.

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.28.15 at 4:43 pm

The difference between conservatories and graduate programs, from the perspective of someone who knows quite a bit about the latter but nothing about the former, so take it as you will, is that graduate programs, especially in the sciences, are inherently dependent on graduate students and postdocs (who are merely somewhat older graduate students) to do all the work. I was part of a medium-sized astrophysics collaboration in grad school where all the labor was pretty much done entirely by grad students and postdocs; if those people were not around working for the small amount of money they were being paid, it would be more difficult to do the science these people do.

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Barry 05.28.15 at 4:58 pm

Jerry’s point was covered on the defunct blog ‘The invisible adjunct’:

Grad students are paid basically squat. The ‘tuition waivers’ which they get are for classes which are overwhelmingly taken by those grad students. The university puts in some wooden nickels and takes some out.

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dm 05.28.15 at 5:44 pm

Careers are important obviously, but prospects of future income played very little role in my own decision to go to graduate school. Hindsight not with standing, in 1980 with Carter’s malaise and the pending election of Reagan and all, the future was far from clear. Graduate school was the only path to doing what I wanted to do, which was science. That is really the only reason anyone should go to graduate school in any field.
Graduate programs do over-recruit and draw in a lot of students who really don’t belong. Its not just about finding people to do the work, pressure from granting agencies push outreach to cast a broader net, etc. But there will always be some who do it because its what they want to do and they are willing to risk future income to do it. Many end up in long-term postdocs and soft-money faculty positions. A disconcerting number are supporting families. Is that wrong? Anyway, it probably beats the old way of having suck up to some rich patron.

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Matt 05.28.15 at 5:57 pm

I was one of those science grad students during GWB’s first term. I was paid roughly minimum wage after normalizing for hours actually worked. But I got to work on problems that interested me and I had a lot of flexibility to set my own schedule. Those were the happiest years of my life.

I was under no delusion that there would be good academic or industrial research jobs waiting for me once I was done with school. If you followed employment news in the field and/or grad student blogs that was one of the most common themes: extreme job competition for good research and teaching positions, declining research budgets. I just did what I loved for a few years and then moved on to mundane but better paying software development jobs. I have met many other refugees from the sciences among my colleagues. If you were a grant supported grad student who didn’t take out loans, like me, I think you (I) got a pretty sweet deal despite the lack of tenure track positions after graduation. If you went to grad school not because you were passionate about your field but because you thought there were great jobs waiting on the other side of the next credential, I wonder how you got that impression. None of the grad students I knew thought that. Our professors didn’t try to tell us that. And if you read blogs you’d constantly be hearing the opposite: the crisis of advanced degree overproduction.

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LFC 05.28.15 at 6:40 pm

harry b @255
…Mansfield feels his job is to gatekeep for an elite. I wouldn’t let a kid anywhere near a teacher like that, if I had a choice, and while Harvard is welcome to waste the money of the wealthy in that way, the voters and taxpayers of my state have a reasonable expectation that I try, instead, to increase the total sum of human capital in the state

Mansfield has been on the Harvard faculty for many decades and is now in the twilight of his career. As long as he remains capable of teaching his courses, Harvard can’t force him to retire; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits that. So keeping him on the faculty for pretty much as long as he wants to be on the faculty is something the university has to do under federal law, provided he continues to be competent to discharge his basic duties.

However Mansfield conceives of his job, one professor acting alone can’t really be a gatekeeper of anything. In recent years, I gather he has effectively conceded this by giving his students two grades: what he considers the ‘real’ one that he thinks they deserve, and what he would call the ‘grade-inflation-adjusted’ one, which I think is the one that appears on the transcript. This is so students in his courses are not penalized relative to others, or at any rate I gather that’s the justification.

The crusade against ‘grade inflation’, although it has some other adherents, seems to have been largely a decades-long one-person show, and once Mansfield retires I’m not sure whether someone else of his prominence is waiting to pick up the ’cause’.

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hix 05.28.15 at 6:55 pm

In case my comment at 108 has some responsibility for starting the gradeing discussions: Im pretty sure the student in the libor anecdote is genuinly very good.

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TM 05.28.15 at 8:08 pm

FWIW, I wasn’t even aware of and don’t personally care about Mansfield’s opinions regarding grade inflation. My views are based on personal experience. The “grade inflation” statistics are suggestive but I agree not conclusive. Perhaps I should have framed my initial comment differently. The problem that I perceive is really sloppy grading and as such a sub-issue of poor teaching practices.

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.28.15 at 8:32 pm

Matt @269,

With respect, we probably had different experiences. Like you, I am now one of those software engineer refugees from science, but not necessarily of my own free will. I don’t want to get too deep into my personal story, which doesn’t interest anyone, but I will say that I don’t believe I got any sort of “sweet deal.” I traded some key money-making years to obtain some level of expertise in a very narrow field; I’m not at all convinced this was a good trade, and if I’d gone to work at Google or some other similar place circa 2005 instead of going to grad school, there’s a chance I could be retired already.

Perhaps you knew better than me, which is great for you. I still think that the system of graduate education is deeply exploitative of most people, and that it exists primarily to extract high-quality labor from idealistic students in exchange for minimum wage.

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Layman 05.28.15 at 8:40 pm

SamChevre @ 250 asks good questions, but I confess my reaction to them is to reply in kind. My question is, should I decide to withdraw money from my bank by using a gun rather than using my debit card, will someone please later remind everyone that, after all, it was my money, so it’s really just a question of whether I used the right procedure, and no actual harm was done.

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harry b 05.28.15 at 9:14 pm

Bianca

Sorry to have annoyed you. Look, here’s what I do know: the CC is a pretty good set of standards, far superior to what we had any reason to expect; teachers need standards both to guide their own teaching and to gauge their own success — they also need tests which reveal how much and what their students have learned; the vast majority of secondary school teachers and college teachers spend very little time observing other people teaching their material, or being observed, so have very little except their own reflections on their own perceptions of their own experience to go by when trying to improve. I’m a college teacher; the secondary teachers I know have very similar experience to mine.

Here’s what I, and you, don’t know: whether the testing regime that is introduced alongside the CC will be high quality. If it is, great, if it is not, well, we’re screwed. But probably no worse off than before. Lots of state level politicians (and Governors in particular) are very anxious about any measure that would allow us to compare the quality of teaching between states in a rigorous way, because if we could, then 49 Governors would not be #1, and the only the Governor of MA would be #1 (I’m being flip, maybe it would be another State); and everyone knows it is extremely difficult to improve schools.

Our state replaced the test we have been using for years with one that we are using JUST ONCE — in other words, one that cannot possibly give us any useful information at all!! Terrific!

Infrastructure: Systematic and evolving systems through which people can learn how to do what they do better. Routinization of and resources in support of mutual observation, coaching, assessing learning of students, etc. Includes standards and tests, but standards and tests won’t do anything without the rest.

Sorry about using the phrase “continuous improvement”. Get it from my dad probably. Get me a better phrase, I’ll use it. Just to be clear, I work in a profession which pays almost no systematic attention to how to improve the quality of instruction and in which almost nobody has even had initial training in how to do the most important part of their job: teaching.

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Matt 05.28.15 at 9:19 pm

With respect, we probably had different experiences. Like you, I am now one of those software engineer refugees from science, but not necessarily of my own free will. I don’t want to get too deep into my personal story, which doesn’t interest anyone, but I will say that I don’t believe I got any sort of “sweet deal.” I traded some key money-making years to obtain some level of expertise in a very narrow field; I’m not at all convinced this was a good trade, and if I’d gone to work at Google or some other similar place circa 2005 instead of going to grad school, there’s a chance I could be retired already.

I traded money-making years for graduate school also. I went to graduate school because I was excited about research. I got to advance the state of the art in scientific knowledge, albeit in an extremely narrow way. That was its own reward. I would call it roughly a nerdier equivalent of backpacking around Europe for a few years. I’m already so fortunate compared to the vast majority of workers in the USA, much less the world, that I can’t resent missing the road-not-taken that could have made me even more prosperous.

Today I am using some leisure time to continue pursuing research ideas I had back in school. As long as I’m not accumulating debt I will pick increased leisure over increased pay. If I eventually have to go back to living in a two room apartment and bicycling for transportation, that wouldn’t be terrible. I think that was better for my physical and mental health anyway. I’m pretty happy as long as I have love, leisure time, ideas, and my health. I’m sure things would be a lot more complicated and difficult if I’d wanted children.

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Barry 05.28.15 at 9:32 pm

” I’m already so fortunate compared to the vast majority of workers in the USA, much less the world, that I can’t resent missing the road-not-taken that could have made me even more prosperous.”

This is the excuse used to f*ck over most people in the USA (an excuse is not needed for the ones at the bottom, because they have no choice).

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geo 05.28.15 at 9:35 pm

Layman @274: SamChevre @ 250 asks good questions

If you mean this:

I’d like one example of someone (a) losing their house in a foreclosure (b)when they did not have a mortgage in arrears, (c) because of MERS/robosigning. (I’ve followed this since 2007, and haven’t seen one.)

then please do read the Taibbi article linked @235. It gives several examples and strongly suggests that there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more. I wish Sam would read it too and comment.

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.28.15 at 9:51 pm

I traded money-making years for graduate school also. I went to graduate school because I was excited about research. I got to advance the state of the art in scientific knowledge, albeit in an extremely narrow way. That was its own reward. I would call it roughly a nerdier equivalent of backpacking around Europe for a few years. I’m already so fortunate compared to the vast majority of workers in the USA, much less the world, that I can’t resent missing the road-not-taken that could have made me even more prosperous.

I also went to graduate school because I was excited about the possibility of doing research. What I found was a sclerotic bureaucracy that made it impossible for me to do what I wanted to do, and a project on which any initiative was immediately stifled because the PI was resistant to fixing obviously broken instruments designed by a previous generation of graduate students. Eventually, because of someone else’s fuckup, the data that I had planned to use as my dissertation could not be collected, which put me in a depressive state for months.

Let me be clear: I am doing splendidly relative to most people. However, the splediferousness of my life is basically unrelated to my graduate degree. I know a lot about early-universe cosmology now, which is nice, but doesn’t pay the rent like writing code does.

I’m sure there are lots of people who have had good experiences like you, who went into it with eyes wide open, etc. That’s great that it worked for you, I’m genuinely happy that was the case. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s a system which takes in a large number of graduate students, pays them very little, and demands they produce high quality work. Upon the completion of their degree, that system basically throws away all but a chosen few of those people, in the sense that it becomes clear to them that they will never, ever have decent jobs in academia. Not even because they are “bad” candidates but because at this point the supply of “good” candidates is so large that hiring is a complete crapshoot. My partner is currently on the market again this year, and it’s deeply saddening to see a loved one go through this cycle of interviews and rejections again and again.

I realize that the seemingly esoteric concerns of embittered post-academics probably do not qualify as a “scandal.” Nonetheless, to me, the fact that so many scientists (and not just scientists but humanists as well) are forced out of the field in which they received their training, not by virtue of any defect but because there are simply no jobs for them there, represents a disastrous misallocation of talent. These people want to be doing productive research and expanding the frontiers of human knowledge, but they can’t do that, because we don’t give a fuck or a dollar about any of that noise. We’ll just go on ingesting starry-eyed grad students and shitting them out 5 to 10 years later to zero academic job prospects forever.

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SamChevre 05.28.15 at 9:52 pm

geo,

I did read the Taibbi article–when it came out, several times since, and again today.

It strongly implies at least-nearly states–that there are people in the situation I mentioned, but it doesn’t name anyone or give any details. I’ve kept my eyes open for 7 years now, and have never seen an actual report with that set of features.

It gives lots of details about a different problem–if Bank X says “this is a mortgage we have the right to foreclose on,” and Bank Y issued the mortgage, there should be a clear paper trail of “how did Bank X get that right from Bank Y.” Otherwise, there is a huge amount of possible litigation as to “who takes the loss here anyway”–and there has been. Knowing who owns what and has what liabilities is important

This is a real problem, but it’s a problem for Banks X and Y–it should be completely irrelevant to the homeowner, and, so far as I can see, it has been. It’s a question about who takes the losses on loans that aren’t paid, not a question of whether the loan is paid.

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harry b 05.28.15 at 9:55 pm

Bianca — a question about the test that got replaced. Do you know whether it was any good? Eg, did it test all the standards, with questions that varied enough not to be largely predictable (ie, how easy was it to get gains in test scores without actually teaching to the standards?); were the questions valid: how did improvement on the test compare with improvements on NAEP (which is usually used as a comparison because it is low stakes so nobody is teaching to it) and how did those comparisons go with respect to particular demographic subgroups? Its right that legislators make the decisions about what tests to use (because we’re a democracy and we should be) but lamentably few have the knowledge needed to make good judgments about either standards or tests or even know what questions to ask (even if they were inclined to try and get it right, as opposed to scoring ideological points).

There is a sensible conservative view that, however bad the tests we have are, those we replace them with may be worse.

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Matt 05.28.15 at 10:14 pm

Nonetheless, to me, the fact that so many scientists (and not just scientists but humanists as well) are forced out of the field in which they received their training, not by virtue of any defect but because there are simply no jobs for them there, represents a disastrous misallocation of talent. These people want to be doing productive research and expanding the frontiers of human knowledge, but they can’t do that, because we don’t give a fuck or a dollar about any of that noise.

This I can fully agree with. It’s depressing to me that so much talent, deeply trained in research, is being used to sell advertisements, juggle financial instruments, and find “disruptive” opportunities to skirt/violate regulations. That’s why I prefer to talk about my non-work interests, except among hard core nerds who can appreciate the how if not the why of my paid job.

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adam.smith 05.28.15 at 10:33 pm

Harry — always appreciate your thoughts about teaching. I’m married to an early-career teacher and occasionally come to sub at her school, so I have some level of first-hand exposure to this from the educator side of things.

1. One thing about testing that is in bianca’s post and that you (at least here) seem to gloss over is the industry behind it. Pearson is really a horrible company and our first experiences with how they handle CC testing (you’re not allowed to talk about the test, no publishing of old test Qs, etc.) suggest people are justifiably horrified by it.

2. I’m a data person and I do think comparable tests are useful and worthwhile. Heck, I’ve used testing data from international studies in my work, but the fact that they’re so high stakes is a huge problem. That’s not just because of the well-known unintended consequences of high-stakes testing, but also because, to prevent some of those, these tests are incredibly burdensome in terms of time and people. There’s a reason everyone at schools is groaning about the tests.

3. If we’re going to assume we have limited funds and you want to spend them on improving teaching — would you spend them on tests or on facilitating strong peer-observation and teacher improvements programs? I’d like to do both, to some degree at least, but if I have to pick, I’d be firmly in the camp of the former. Not just for the improvement in teacher performance, but also in terms of lowering burn-out/turnover.

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geo 05.28.15 at 10:53 pm

Sam@250: I’d like one example of someone (a) losing their house in a foreclosure (b)when they did not have a mortgage in arrears, (c) because of MERS/robosigning. (I’ve followed this since 2007, and haven’t seen one.) … It’s a question about who takes the losses on loans that aren’t paid, not a question of whether the loan is paid.

Taibbi:

“[The defendants’ attorney] Kowalski’s clients, like most of the homeowners he represents, were actually making their payments on time; in this particular case, a check had been mistakenly refused by GMAC. … “

“… almost no bank currently foreclosing on homeowners has a reliable record of who owns the loan; in some cases, they have even intentionally shredded the actual mortgage notes. That’s where the robo-signers come in. To create the appearance of paperwork where none exists, the banks drag in these pimply entry-level types … and get them to sign thousands of documents a month attesting to the banks’ proper ownership of the mortgages. … This isn’t some rare goof-up by a low-level cubicle slave: Virtually every case of foreclosure in this country involves some form of screwed-up paperwork. “I would say it’s pretty close to 100 percent,” says Kowalski. An attorney for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid tells me that out of the hundreds of cases she has handled, fewer than five involved no phony paperwork. “The fraud is the norm,” she says.”

“Many people who are being foreclosed on have actually paid their bills and followed all the instructions laid down by their banks. In some cases, a homeowner contacts the bank to say that he’s having trouble paying his bill, and the bank offers him loan modification. But the bank tells him that in order to qualify for modification, he must first be delinquent on his mortgage. “They actually tell people to stop paying their bills for three months,” says Parker. … The authorization gets recorded in what’s known as the bank’s “contact data­base,” which records every phone call or other communication with a home­owner. But no mention of it is entered into the bank’s “number history,” which records only the payment record. When the number history notes that the home­owner has missed three payments in a row, it has no way of knowing that the homeowner was given permission to stop making payments. “One computer generates a default letter,” says Kowalski. “Another computer contacts the credit bureaus.” At no time is there a human being looking at the entire picture. … Which means that homeowners can be foreclosed on for all sorts of faulty reasons: misplaced checks, address errors, you name it. This inability of one limb of the foreclosure beast to know what the other limb is doing is responsible for many of the horrific stories befalling homeowners across the country.”

“In a great deal of these cases, in fact, the homeowners would have a pretty good chance of beating the rap, at least temporarily, if only they had lawyers fighting for them in court. But most of them don’t. In fact, more than 90 percent of the cases that go through Florida foreclosure courts are unopposed. Either homeowners don’t know they can fight their foreclosures, or they simply can’t afford an attorney. These unopposed cases are the ones the banks know they’ll win — which is why they don’t sweat it if they take the occasional whipping.”

Unless the defense lawyers Taibbi spoke to were lying, a lot of people not in arrears were in fact foreclosed. And that, as the last few paragraphs of his essay make clear, is only the tip of the iceberg of the fraud of which robosigning was just an amusingly named part.

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harry b 05.28.15 at 10:54 pm

Thanks adam, I really appreciate your kind words. Agreed about Pearson — I didn’t mean to gloss over it at all; there’s an industry that has an interest here, and we should not assume that the interest is entirely benign, and, unfortunately, we have legislators who show little capacity to provide high quality oversight or regulation. I’ll find Jen Jennings’ excellent paper on testing in NYC, and link to it sometime soon.

I agree with 2. and its a huge problem that people want to use the classroom level data to evaluate teachers for pay/promotion purposes (rather than using it as a heuristic for figuring out what that teacher needs to improve, and who to go to to find out how to improve). I wrote a long post about this ages ago….

3. — you meant ‘latter’, not ‘former’ right? I completely agree. And I’d add that using test scores to evaluate individual teachers actually makes it more difficult to create strong peer-observation and teacher improvement programs, for trust reasons.

Getting back to higher ed — if we don’t get our act together on setting up systems for improving instruction, as k-12 didn’t, States and the Feds may end up imposing systems more cack-handed than those that have been used in k-12 (about which I am ambivalent –enthusiastic about CC, unnerved by most of the opposition to it, but unenthusiastic about the way testing has been done). And we’ll all be up in arms saying ‘how dare they tell us how to do our jobs?’. And it’ll be our fault.

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PatrickinIowa 05.28.15 at 11:10 pm

Harry b @ 259. On this, we absolutely agree:

“My point is not that grades don’t matter at all, but, again, that this is a huge distraction from the real scandal, which is the absence of continuing professional development to improve instruction, and the absence of an infrastructure (which would include actual standards) to support that. It is suboptimal instruction and learning, not grade inflation, that we should be thinking about.”

I firmly believe that talking about grade inflation is a brilliant way to distract us all from precisely this. In particular, I believe that our students are desperate for difficult material in classes that fully engage them. (The fact that they rarely get this is depressingly overdetermined.) But that’s hard too. I predict, though, if we made most university classes more difficult–i.e. requiring more work and deeper thinking–many of the problems at the university would subside a bit.

My grades are a nudge higher than most people who teach the courses I teach. But I’ve looked at the syllabi and read the work their students produce. My students work harder and for some versions of the course, way harder. That’s a crude index, but it suggests to me they’ve learned more. (They say they have, but I have to discount that because of they also suck up a little.)

This is a dick move, but I’m going to do it anyway. If someone turned in a paper that had this as its thesis:

“Personally I suspect grade inflation is real. But there is no evidence for it because there are no databases of old papers and exams with grades attached to them which we can look at to decide whether standards have dropped.”

I would fail that person so fast it would make his (I guarantee you it’d be a he, too) head spin, and that’s no lie.

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PatrickinIowa 05.28.15 at 11:12 pm

Substitute “many of the problems plaguing undergraduate education” for “many of the problems of the university.” I should have known better. Sorry.

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bianca steele 05.28.15 at 11:37 pm

Harry, to your two comments in reply to me:

I have no real issue with Common Core in itself. I’ve looked at some of the standards and they seem reasonable, and specify skills (not “cultural literacy”-style content). I’m dubious about the way the slow pace of math in K-1, with very little taught that couldn’t be at least introduced in a good preschool, becomes mastery of multiplication by grade 3 and long division by grade 4–I think that’s setting most kids up for failure–but that’s minor. The quick change in the test used does concern me—I’ve read nothing good about this (one thing that’s been suggested is that it is, in fact, testing content). I was shocked how much time was taken up by the old test, and that was only in four grades—months taken away from regular instruction in grades 10 and 11, to test something different from what many of the kids were studying at the time—and now it’s Every. Single. Year. And every time the state changes its standards, all the teachers have to be retrained. That’s time taken away from other planning, other initiatives, even from the classroom. (At my daughter’s small preschool, I was able to see how much time was taken up with planning for accreditation, checklists, and so on, that they had to be able to prove they were teaching and evaluating on, and that was just accreditation from one agency, and the school only ran for part of the day and didn’t assign homework, which gave them slightly more time to deal with it.)

On your second question: I have no idea what led to the change in testing. Within a space of months, we’d gone from “Mass. is better-placed than other states because everyone thinks highly of MCAS” to districts having a couple of months to decide whether they’d scrap MCAS in 2014-15, earlier than they had to, because the state was eventually moving everyone to it. There’s nothing on the DOE web site like a press release announcing the change. I imagine it might be felt that continually aligning with an external standard might not be worth it, when there’s a corporation ready to do it for us. I don’t know what data there is on that test either. I don’t know what data there is on the effect of making MCAS a high school graduation requirement, or of high-stakes testing in any other state. I’m not opposed in principle to the testing (although, more than a month, even four times in twelve years, seems like a lot). But I haven’t read anything good about these particular tests, only arguments like the ones I angrily satirized in my earlier comment.

(MCAS was a pet project of John Silber, then president or president-emeritus at BU, and was developed by a panel of experts, and imposed on the legislature as a fait accompli, not a popular initiative. But it was well-covered in the press and most people seem to have got on board fairly quickly–except for the pressure being put especially on young students who are told this test, the first of its kind they’ve ever taken, is super, super-important–which is the complaint I’ve heard from parents with older children.)

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bianca steele 05.28.15 at 11:42 pm

On your response to Adam:

It all sounds great. But we’ve had standardized tests forever—I was taking them in 1973, every year. And what’s going to happen when the results are back? The rich schools will score well and the poor schools will score badly. Differences in preschool experiences will most likely still be showing up in grade 3. Anywhere the parents have the resources and knowledge to help their kids at home or get them tutoring, bad teaching will be masked by those who score well anyway. Anyplace the standards are flawed will be masked in the same way. Why the assumption that end-of-term tests, averaged together, are the best way to evaluate teachers?

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SamChevre 05.28.15 at 11:44 pm

geo @ 284

Unless the defense lawyers Taibbi spoke to were lying, a lot of people not in arrears were in fact foreclosed.

Absolutely. The fact that in 7 years of following this, I haven’t seen one such case reported in any newspaper, despite it’s clear newsworthyness–in every case I’ve seen, the “fraud” has been that the bank couldn’t demonstrate its claim, but there was clearly some bank that had one–makes me think that somewhere in the client|lawyer|Taibbi|article chain, the facts were not communicated accurately.

Disclaimer: I worked for a company (Genworth) that had a mortgage insurance subsidiary, which was active in the “the paperwork wasn’t in order, so it’s not OUR loss” set of claims. I didn’t work in mortgage insurance, so don’t have any info that didn’t make it into the newspapers–but I did have reason to pay extra attention.

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JanieM 05.28.15 at 11:44 pm

I was taking them in 1973

I took my first one in third grade in 1958. We were told how important it was…….

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harry b 05.29.15 at 12:00 am

PatrickinIowa

“This is a dick move, but I’m going to do it anyway. If someone turned in a paper that had this as its thesis:

“Personally I suspect grade inflation is real. But there is no evidence for it because there are no databases of old papers and exams with grades attached to them which we can look at to decide whether standards have dropped.”

I would fail that person so fast it would make his (I guarantee you it’d be a he, too) head spin, and that’s no lie.”

That worries me about your standards. I wouldn’t fail a paper with that as its thesis, though it would likely be a boring paper. I value intellectual honesty a great deal (something that, actually, I notice more in female than in male students, personally). Its fine for people to believe things that they don’t have reliable evidence for. I was reporting a residual belief and then focusing on the lack of evidence for it, in my comment. Of course, if the point of the paper was to argue for the thesis that grade inflation was real, the person having admitted that they had no evidence, I would be unimpressed. But that is not what I did. Check the posts I link to (which I wrote). Given that I chimed in completely on your side and bolstered your case, and am pleased that you pushed back (if I hadn’t been so busy today I’d have looked for your email address and thanked you for doing something I was too tired to do myself) I’m surprised by your tone.

Bianca — I haven’t followed Mass, and I had no idea that John Silber did something good! I’ll ask around — maybe there are good reasons for the change but MCAS was highly regarded nationally (by experts, for what that is worth), and MA was widely regarded as the one state that had gotten things more or less right. I completely sympathize with your extremely irritated reaction to me, and for what its worth I’ve pretty much uniformly found your comments extremely congenial so was particularly unnerved by that reaction.

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The Lorax 05.29.15 at 12:06 am

Is it generally the case that adjuncts think that they’ll get a TT job if they stay at a school long enough? I know only of my own university, where TT searches are national, and we’ve never intimated to our adjuncts that there may be a TT job with us down the road.

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The Lorax 05.29.15 at 12:11 am

Speaking of grade inflation: I’m a department head. I’ve been asked by my dean why courses x and y have too any students getting lower than a C. (One answer: Because it’s predicate logic, and if you do well (pretty much!) iff you come to class and put in the work.). I guess an alert popped up on the dean’s course spreadsheet or the like.

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dsquared 05.29.15 at 1:08 am

George, Sam – can we be the change we want to see and stop talking about robosigning on this thread please? I promise that I will put up a specific post on robosigning pretty soon (I’m trying to arrange a drink with David Dayen when I get to California, which I confidently expect to turn into a real life argument about robosigning because it’s 75% of all we’ve ever talked about), I might even try and persuade Dave to do a point/counterpoint thing. This comment also serves as notice that when I put up that post, I will be operating a very very draconian policy on people giving me crap about the job I used to do, because I am already at the point where I don’t find writing anything on CT at all to be any fun at all.

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TM 05.29.15 at 1:28 am

Patfick 286: I kind of depends on how the assignment was specified, doesn’t it? Let’s be clear about this: everybody in this debate is drawing on their anecdotal experience. Yours is no more valid than mine. What data exists is suggestive but not conclusive. Nevertheless, it won’t do to say that we should stop talking about this until we somehow come up with an ingenious study design that will allow us to test the null hypothesis once and for all. That’s not gonna happen although it certainly would be splendid if we could come up with some NAEP-like college graduate minimum proficiency test that would give us an unbiased assessment of what our graduates actually have learned. My suspicion is that the results of such a test wouldn’t be pretty.

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TM 05.29.15 at 1:28 am

Oops, Patrick of course.

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geo 05.29.15 at 2:13 am

Sorry, dsquared, will definitely keep it buttoned. And honestly, I’ve never imagined you yourself were within a country (or City) mile of monkeyshines, or that you meant for a minute to minimize them. There’s a long populist tradition in the US of railing at Wall Street, and I’m afraid it’s something of a reflex with me by now.

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faustusnotes 05.29.15 at 3:24 am

SamChevre, possibly the reason you haven’t seen these cases reported in newspapers is that the banks lean on newspapers to shut up? See e.g. the recent HSBC scandal, where at least two British media outlets have been given their reporting orders by HSBC.

harry b, I really appreciate your comments on teaching on this thread, they’re inspiring.

I agree with Jerry @273, the grad student system is designed to be exploitative. Good teachers in a quality university can find ways to make it less exploitative, or to offer non-financial compensation to offset the exploitation, but in general it’s a system that benefits the institution and its most powerful members way more than the grad students. I don’t know much about the American system but it seems particularly pernicious there.

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ZM 05.29.15 at 3:35 am

” This comment also serves as notice that when I put up that post, I will be operating a very very draconian policy on people giving me crap about the job I used to do, because I am already at the point where I don’t find writing anything on CT at all to be any fun at all.”

I should thank you for your CT posts since without your New Zealand post about the Treaty I might not have found out that in other colonial jurisdictions public trust law interacts with indigenous land rights.

I think you are right about universities. One aspect is the curriculum: there are some great improvements since the 19th and early 20th Cs but also relativism is a problem too, especially as a lot of the time post-positivism is the main other alternative epistemology. As I study part time though I can say I have been able to see good changes. This is especially the case where I see professors trying to find a hopeful path forwards, given they are aware of some students feeling hopeless at all the problems.

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Sebastian H 05.29.15 at 9:34 am

If you end up in San Diego, I know an excellent chocolate place.

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bianca steele 05.29.15 at 11:59 am

Harry,

I apologize for sounding like I was personally attacking you. It was not my intention. Apparently we’re even in agreement regarding the idea that testing is a panacea, or even a solution to many of the problems facing schools that need to be addressed yesterday. Probably we’d even agree that it’s had unintended consequences. Maybe a miracle will happen and schools will move on from this craziness without doing too much damage to themselves in the process.

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PaulB 05.29.15 at 12:22 pm

It seems to me that a perception of grade inflation is inevitable, first because we tend to be overgenerous in our recollections of the timeline of our own development (except harry b, who’s kept his college essays), and second because the set of things taught changes over time, and we tend to value the old things we learnt (slide rules, assembly language programming) higher than the new things (spreadsheets, web programming) learnt by students today.

My own impression, comparing my school (I mean high school) experience with my children’s, is that students nowadays are required to work harder and learn more, but to understand less. The grades mean something different from what they used to mean.

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TM 05.29.15 at 2:25 pm

“work harder and learn more, but to understand less”

I partially concur. Students do have to work a lot and many have what seem to be excessive class loads in addition to also having to work for a living at least part time. It’s hard to square the circle: either these students’ learning is superficial at best, or they have close to superhuman abilities. Of course that raises the issue of the economic pressures these students face on the one hand, and the financial interest of the institution on the other. Institutions need the tuition money and students understandably expect something in return. A realistic assessment of actual academic achievement is in neither party’s interest (at least short term – in the long term I am convinced superficial studying is a colossal waste of time).

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harry b 05.29.15 at 2:49 pm

Thanks Bianca. When I said I have found your comments pretty much uniformly congenial, I meant over the whole course of the uncountably many years you’ve been commenting here!

When I compare my own secondary education with my kids’, and I should add I think mine was fine, I am struck by how much more they are expected to understand. I sat in a reading group with my 18 year old the other day and was staggered by her analytic acuity and deep understanding. That said, they’re both smarter and more focused than I was, so who knows. Shouldn’t have read them those bloody bedtime stories…(http://crookedtimber.org/2015/05/11/rush-limbaugh-and-bedtime-stories-definitely-not-the-worst-thing-that-happened-last-week/)

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harry b 05.29.15 at 2:52 pm

I’m also, to be fair after all this university-bashing, stunned by the quality of the care and education the 18 year old is getting from her teachers as a freshman at a large public research university (not UW-Madison). Can’t imagine what could be better, and it is better than what I received (partly because, when it works well, the US model is better than the UK model of undergraduate education). If her teachers are reading, I am SO grateful, and impressed.

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bianca steele 05.29.15 at 3:42 pm

Harry, thanks for the kind words.

I hope it won’t be taken the wrong way if I add that, while above I think I said MCAS and everything (NCLB etc.) that goes along with it was fairly okay, after thinking about it some more I’m not sure. It identifies very poorly performing schools and gets them resources. When comparing fairly similar schools, within a big urban district, or across a big state, it might be helpful. But comparing inner and outer suburbs with one another, not really. Or, as in my town, comparing about a dozen schools with very different demographics and different needs. There is a bit too much “well, we’re not tier 1 but we’re still pretty good, because at least most everyone’s white” (I didn’t choose that school [strains shoulder clapping self on back].)

Maybe a stats expert could weed out from the numbers how much of the difference is directly attributable to the existence of low-income students and English learners, but I couldn’t. Maybe an education expert could tell under what circumstances the average level at intake matters more than the quality of teaching, but I couldn’t do that either. All I could do was decide how much weight to give to school quality differences that had resulted from decades of unequal treatment (probably exacerbated by the way choice was put in place), and decide whether a long bus ride to a possibly snobby school was worth a probably small difference in quality, or whether reputation outweighed a seriously unimpressive principal and actually not-all-that-terrific scores for a school with few special-needs students.

So, okay, I was irritated by that and other things. But I didn’t mean to take it out on you, personally.

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Harold 05.29.15 at 3:50 pm

Harry B, I am curious, why are you “unnerved by the most of the opposition” to CC”?

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.29.15 at 4:10 pm

I think a lot of the discussion about Common Core conflates the set of requirements with the standardized tests, which are not specifically part of CC. The set of concepts encompassed by CC seems pretty sound to me; it’s another question whether the testing regime itself is a good idea.

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harry b 05.29.15 at 4:18 pm

Bianca — no its not taken the wrong way. I regard standards and tests as tools, and like most tools they are not idiot-proof, and like many tools, in the hands of the wrong people they do damage. NCLB has some good features (disaggregating data by demographic subgroups) that I’d want to see in any accountability regime: and the emergence of using value added/growth measures, which, though not part of NCLB, NCLB prompted, has been very good. But there’s also lots of gaming, and narrowing of curriculum, etc. CC is potentially better. Very few schools and remarkably few districts have the expertise needed to mmake optimal use of the data now widely available (about tests, etc), and many decisionmakers (principals, district level people, etc) have entirely misplaced confidence in their own abilities to interpret and then use data. Its all a big mess. Everything should be compared not with some ideal system but with what else we might realistically expect to have. I think there are two reasonable views to have about the Common Core/Tests:
i) on balance it will, if implemented well, spur improvement, and could, if managed well, be a big help
ii) on balance, it is sufficiently likely to be implemented badly that it will make things worse.

I think I believe i) — and, at least at the moment, I don’t believe ii). You, I think, suspect ii) might be true. And I can’t tell you anything that will compel you otherwise.

Raw achievement scores tell you exactly nothing about the quality of a school, and comparing them tell you very little about the relative quality of schools, even if they are quite similar on observable characteristics, and any statistician who tells you otherwise should be discounted. Only growth scores tell you anything, and they need LOTS of interpretation.

All very depressing!

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Harold 05.29.15 at 4:29 pm

Harry b, you say, “the emergence of using value added/growth measures, which, though not part of NCLB, NCLB prompted, has been very good.” Why so?

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TM 05.29.15 at 4:44 pm

There is another view that even if implemented well, the testing regime won’t be likely to “spur improvement” or be “a big help”. Do we really have good reason to believe that data availability spurs educational improvement (even assuming that the data is in fact reliable)? Has this ever happened in the past, or in other countries? I understand that social scientists favor data availability, especially such big population data sets, but it’s easy to delude oneself when it comes to the power of data-driven science to shape public policy.

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TM 05.29.15 at 5:13 pm

Here’s a bit of data I consider relevant to the question whether the high grades of college grads reflect actual learning/understanding.

“A common theme of all ISI civic literacy studies has been the surprising disconnect between formal collegiate schooling and the acquisition of knowledge of America’s fundamental history, key texts, founding principles, and governmental institutions. For instance, in ISI’s survey of 14,000 freshmen and seniors in 2007, ISI discovered that not only did the average college student fail our test of civic literacy, but at Ivy League schools like Yale, Cornell, and Princeton, their freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test, what ISI dubs “negative learning.”

In 2008, ISI conducted a similar civic literacy assessment, but this time of college and non-college educated adults. Again, college graduates failed our exam on average, and there were only marginal gains in civic knowledge as a result of a college versus high school diploma. It is a common assumption among the consumers of higher education that with more expensive schooling comes significantly more learning. The unfortunate conclusion that must be drawn from ISI’s civic literacy research is that this assumption must be dramatically scaled back.”

(http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/2011/major_findings_finding2.html)

One can probably find fault with that survey or find reasons to declare it irrelevant but fact is that civics education IS part of pretty much any college’s curriculum and critical thinking and informed citizenship (which of course cannot be reduced to items on a MC test – but I find it hard to believe there are many students who have acquired superior critical thinking skills yet don’t know the branches of government) are touted as important benefits of higher education. Now, maybe the students haven’t learned much civics but plenty of other things. I would love to see similar surveys on history, science and quantitative literacy.

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TM 05.29.15 at 5:23 pm

To be clear, I’m not assuming that knowledge has declined relative to earlier generations, just that increasing grades do not reflect increasing knowledge/understanding. Also, why doesn’t Americans’ increasing level of educational attainment translate into a more rational, better informed public discourse?

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Sebastian H 05.29.15 at 5:45 pm

One aspect of the bank/academic scandal parallel that should worry academics has really come to the fore in my mind with all the talk of robo-signing and LIBOR pegging. Finance has been deeply enmeshed with writing the laws that let them do what they do. So in some cases, things that strike the naive viewer as clear ‘fraud’, don’t end up counting as fraud because the authors of the statutes have carved the laws in such a way as to exempt or otherwise protect banks and finance firms. Further, banks and finance firms have lots of power. They can credibly say things like “prosecuting this clear fraud may endanger the economy” (I’m not saying they are always correct, but that they can use the scare tactic in a somewhat credible way). Many of the drudge workers end up independently very wealthy compared to other sectors of the economy, not to mention the power of the superstars.

The academic world has essentially none of those advantages. It has a reputational advantage, but that is really it. So when the scandal comes down to mar the reputation, it isn’t at all clear that the fallout will be as contained as it has been for the bankers and finance high-flyers.

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PatrickinIowa 05.29.15 at 7:42 pm

Harry B.

I apologize My tone was too cranky, and I regret it. (I hope I’d have the good grace to say this if we disagreed more.) I was carried away.

My point was that the arguments offered by people who want to “solve” grade “inflation” from above, usually by beating up on adjuncts and grad students, usually embody the laziest intellectual practices imaginable, practices that a professional would not allow in his/her students’ work. (Read the original Mansfield article.) I should have left it at that.

One thing that I kinda sorta disagree with you about is this: I think “interesting” is a legitimate criterion for evaluating student writing. One has to be careful about imposing one’s hobby horses, but I’ve read too many uninteresting papers written by disengaged students that I expected would bore anyone. They do no one any good. I have no problem demanding engaging prose from engaged students. And, by and large, I get it.

I teach Rhetoric, so I know the insistence on concrete evidence comes from that.

Finally, if a student turned in a draft (I always read drafts, which is why I rarely have to fail anyone) that had “It’s a dick more, but I’ll do it anyway” in it, I’d simply write in the margins, “You’re right. It is. Take it out.”

With respect.

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PatrickinIowa 05.29.15 at 7:56 pm

Yes, TM, anecdotal evidence is ok (ish) in a thread on Crooked Timber. Still, I wonder how long we’d put up with “well, I may not be able to prove there are witches, but I sure think there are, so let’s burn a few people.”

At my institution, DEOs call offending instructors, especially in lower level courses, into their offices and tell them to lower their grades. The full professors tell the DEOs to piss up a rope. Everybody else calculates how badly they want to avoid pissing off their DEO and the dean who lies behind the mandate.

Doing this on the basis of largely self-regarding, frequently racist and sexist anecdotal perceptions is scandalous, in my view.

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.29.15 at 8:33 pm

I don’t know whether or not grade inflation is A Thing, but I do know that Mansfield is a crank and no one should take him seriously.

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TM 05.29.15 at 8:33 pm

Look Patrick, there is no question that grades have increased throughout US higher ed. The question is whether these grades somehow reflect actually increased academic success, or whether they constitute, well, inflation. Another question is whether, if it were so, it would be reason for concern. I happen to think the arguments I have provided for my positions are somewhat better supported than medieval witch hunts. Also note that in some of your posts you are arguing against positions nobody here has taken.

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TM 05.29.15 at 8:35 pm

I guess one day I’ll have to read that infamous Mansfield article.

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adam.smith 05.29.15 at 8:41 pm

@Harold — obviously can’t speak for Harry but
1) The most exasperating critiques of Common Core are the parents who post their kids’ homework online, complaining that they don’t understand it because it’s not “real math” (i.e. the way they learned it 20-30 years ago). And that’s a lot of the CC critiques.

2) Value added and growth scores: As Harry says, teachers have almost no way of knowing how well they do. You have a rough sense if things are going OK or terribly, and you know how you’re getting along with a class, but you don’t really know how well your students are learning, especially not in comparative terms. The ability to see how your students’ progress compares to that of similar students (that’s essentially what VAS does) is incredibly useful. It’s even more useful if you can break this down to specific sub-areas of the test, or even look at specific questions (think: my students did really well on trigonometry, but not that well on functional theory). When I taught at the college level, I’d have loved to have better data on my teaching. (E.g., the whole idea of clickers and flipped classroom teaching came partly out of Eric Mazur at Harvard giving his students a standardized test on physics understanding after exams and seeing how poorly they did).

Obviously this all gets ruined when you turn this over to Pearson and they don’t even let you look at the test questions, so you have no way of telling what your students struggle with (in addition all the other issues raised), so I’m a lot closer to Harry’s ii) from above: given the nature of the testing complex in the US, I think no testing would actually be preferable–but I don’t think that’s something I’d generalize. In other circumstances, e.g. in a testing system that’s more thoroughly in public hands, I’d see this differently.

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T 05.29.15 at 8:46 pm

Note that grade inflation is often considered a humanities and, to a lesser degree, a social science phenomenon. If it were the case that the students are getting better, it is plainly in the natural sciences. It is not uncommon for a large percentage of an entering class at a competitive college to have taken calculus and some AP courses in bio, chem, and/or physics as compared to 30 years ago. Further, there is no question that the state of the art in the natural sciences has progressed considerably over the last 20-30 years. Nonetheless, there is much less grade inflation.

Is this meaningful? Very much so. People understand and act on this information. Take a look at very prestigious law firms. A high percentage of the lawyers attended Ivies and similar schools as undergraduates. There is one exception — the patent lawyers at these same firms. Many went to state colleges to get their science or engineering degrees. A 3.7 GPA actually means something in the sciences. The firms use the GPA rather than the school as a indicator of competence. The implication for social mobility are obvious.

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Jerry Vinokurov 05.29.15 at 8:47 pm

With regard to value-added models, I have yet to hear of any rebuttals to this statement (PDF) from the American Statistical Association. It doesn’t seem like the greatest idea to base a large part of a teacher’s evaluation on a method that may have very little validity.

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adam.smith 05.29.15 at 9:04 pm

To be clear — I’m against using VAM/VAS scores for high-stakes assessments of teaching. But the ASA doesn’t say they’re useless. They just say to be careful when using them. I do think it is very interesting to see where your students fall compared to a reasonably well specified regression line.
Like the ASA, I’m very skeptical that you can use it to just churn out quantifiable teacher quality measures.

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TM 05.29.15 at 9:11 pm

321 etc.: A lot of animosity towards the testing regime come from it being inextricably linked to the education reform agenda whose main goal is to stick it to the teachers. “Value added” is one of their mantras. It may not be harry’s intention but touting Value Added as a great educational tool doesn’t sound so great given that context. Again, are there any examples from any countries where VAS are successfully and validly and on a large scale used to improve educational outcomes?

319: “the whole idea of clickers and flipped classroom teaching came partly out of Eric Mazur at Harvard giving his students a standardized test on physics understanding after exams and seeing how poorly they did”

It hasn’t changed, has it? It would be great if they did this test every year and published the results.

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adam.smith 05.29.15 at 9:32 pm

I don’t have time to dig up the details, but Mazur says (in talks) test results on the same test (which assesses general conceptual understanding of physics at a lower technical level than the intro to physics class at Harvard) went up dramatically after he changed his instruction.

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kidneystones 05.29.15 at 10:35 pm

One of my favorite teachers (now 90) began dispensing with what he called the ‘scholarly apparatus’ of footnotes and citations in his own work decades ago. Needless to say, his credibility sank, except among those familiar with his rigour and hid depth of knowledge.
I sympathize very much with teachers working inside systems where they cannot measure the efficacy of their efforts. The issue, for me, isn’t what’s wrong with a warped system, but what I can do for each class of students in my care.

Almost all credit work is done in class in pencil and paper. I begin the term by conducting and digitally recording class and individual student performance using standardized tests This provides me with a permanent record of each student’s ability. We also begin the term with a very frank discussion of the challenges new and upper-class students face. I suggest to them that the only real losers in a rigged game are the students, especially those unwilling to recognize that they alone control what kind of experience university will be.

Each week students stand throughout most of a ninety-minute class in pairs about two meters apart allowing me to monitor all discussions in a 20 student class simply by walking around the room. The classroom is literally a beehive of noise and activity. Students who have not prepared are not punished or made to feel ‘less than.’ Involvement and improvement are the only desired outcomes. Peer=skills exchanges and mentoring inside class are the norm.

I digitally record progress at different points in the term. Student output in each class in a variety of media provides me with clear metrics that allow me to assess individual student performance and progress across 16 classes at 3 different institutions, and to share these videos and other samples of student work with students and peers, who are normally pleased and/or intimidated.

I know what good work looks like and so do most students. I can show upper class students the effort and enthusiasm first year students put into each class. Competition is an essential component inside the class week-to-week, and between classes in the same institution, and between students of different institutions.

I teach language, culture, writing, research skills, communication, and history. I use no text books. Students work with original texts in different media. The first in-class assignment for a first-year critical reading class might be six pages of Hawkins’ account of slave-raiding (1569 and fully available on-line). Students read aloud in pairs which allows me to monitor student ability, fluency etc. Students choose all their own study materials. I offer suggestions and feedback, of course, and some guidelines depending on the project.

I employ no coercive techniques, concentrate only on each student, and still manage to work within departmental guidelines.

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harry b 05.29.15 at 11:32 pm

adam.smith@ 319 does speak for me except the last paragraph — and that last paragraph, only really because I think that handing things over to the public, given the design of american democratic institutions is not better. Nobody sensible thinks that teachers should be evaluated according to value added scores. The sensible thing would be to hire principals who knew nothing about athletics, but a lot about teaching and management, and gave them power to make judgments about quality, and to change the career structure so that it made more sense. People have long blamed teachers’ unions for the absurd design of the career structure. My state is about to get rid of teachers’ unions, and I think within 5 years we will have very good evidence that the teachers’ unions were not to blame, because districts will not introduce sensible changes. (And — why would you think that bunch of former athletic coaches who are now principals and superintendents will suddenly start hiring women who know what they are doing just because you got rid of unions?)

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harry b 05.29.15 at 11:33 pm

btw: Emily Hanford on lecturing and Mazur (lots of references too):

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/lectures/rethinking-teaching.html

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Harold 05.30.15 at 12:29 am

Harry b. @326, I don’t understand how you can say “Nobody sensible thinks that teachers should be evaluated according to value added scores.” when you also maintained previously that “the emergence of using value added/growth measures, which, though not part of NCLB, NCLB prompted, has been very good,” since the whole point and purpose of using value added models was as a method intended to evaluate teachers.

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Val 05.30.15 at 12:52 am

I haven’t read the whole thread so apologies if someone has said this, but one reason for “grade inflation” in humanities might be that it used to be very hard to get high marks in humanities, compared with maths and science subjects. This put humanities at a disadvantage in terms of students qualifying for higher degrees, I imagine?

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Harold 05.30.15 at 1:04 am

To evaluate teachers as to whether they had added monetary value to their product, namely, children, and then to fire them according to rank and yank.

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Cranky Observer 05.30.15 at 1:50 am

= = = harryb @ 11:32: The sensible thing would be to hire principals who knew nothing about athletics, but a lot about teaching and management, and gave them power to make judgments about quality, and to change the career structure so that it made more sense. = = =

As an academic who studies this topic I assume you are familiar with the dusty history of this approach, including how well it worked and how it affected the health, lives, and lifespan of teachers from 1880-1940, the reason for the formation of teachers unions in the 1920s and their expansion in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, the difference between the NEA and the AFT and the reason for the historically stronger militancy of the latter (not to mention the independent UFT: [the world ended when a] “madman named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon”), the influence of Taylorism on this system and its resurgence under the term ‘metrics’ in the 1990s, that the difference between 1935 and 2015 is that today there is a long line of profit-making entities fresh from improving the US prison system seeking to get involved in schools, and that as Brad Delong has noted there is no longer a supply of women holding BA, MA, MS, even Ph.Ds in literature and math who can be engaged for the salary of $3000 per and discharged when they displease the principal or resist his extracurricular advances.

Out of curiosity then, what exactly is the plan to prevent the stack ranking of teachers from degenerating as it did the last time it was used?

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LFC 05.30.15 at 2:05 am

Val @329
one reason for “grade inflation” in humanities might be that it used to be very hard to get high marks in humanities, compared with maths and science subjects.

This may have been the case in Australia, but I’m not at all sure it was ever the case in the U.S.

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Harold 05.30.15 at 2:11 am

So, am I to understand that Harry b. and adam.smith actually use value added assessment in teaching their courses and it has been “incredibly useful” to them? Or are they talking about a hypothetical situation?

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LFC 05.30.15 at 2:34 am

T @320
Note that grade inflation is often considered a humanities and, to a lesser degree, a social science phenomenon. If it were the case that the students are getting better, it is plainly in the natural sciences.

You offer no evidence to show that students are not in fact “getting better” in a range of fields, including those outside the natural sciences.

I do think grade inflation over the last several decades is probably a real phenomenon, but (1) I don’t pretend to know the cause (there may be ‘benign’ and justifiable causes, as has been suggested) and (2) I don’t think, as others have said here, that it’s a very pressing issue compared to other issues about education.

Re law schools and law firms: the latter care above all about where one went to law school and how one did there. My impression is that everything else is secondary. Patent law is very much its own thing, as practitioners tend to have, as you note, science and engineering backgrounds.

If you sit down with a legal directory (Martindale-Hubbell for example) and actually take a close, systematic look at where partners in prestigious law firms have done their undergrad degrees, I bet you’ll find a fairly wide range of undergrad schools — a much wider range than you might think. This probably will especially be the case if you look at all the branch offices of a given firm, rather than limiting your perusal to, say, the NY or DC office.

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adam.smith 05.30.15 at 3:09 am

Harold, at this point I’m not sure if you’re still engaging in good faith discussion but obviously I’m not using VAS (and neither is Harry) because we can’t. The data doesn’t exist, not even close. I rely on horrible data like student evaluations, students exams, and my own observations to assess the quality of my teaching. This inability for instructors in higher education to get even a reasonably good idea about the quality of their teaching is something that Harry has frequently written on this blog. I’d be overjoyed to have access to comparative, standardized achievement data like VAS for my students. (e.g. the availability of such data from the Air Force academy has been used to demonstrate how bad student evaluations at the college level are as measures instructional quality).

Like CO in 331 I was a little surprised by Harry’s emphasis on principals for evaluation given the history of that, of which I’d assume he’s aware. Personally, I’d mostly get rid of the idea of accountability, which I think does a lot more harm than good. I’d want an effective and fair process to lay off grossly incompetent teachers (probably somewhere in the 1% range), something that most unions are on board with, and otherwise focus on improving teaching/teachers. For the US that’s pretty hopeless, politically, so opposing the various union/teacher blaming “school reform” efforts wholesale is a very reasonably strategy.

I think there is enough to the CC that’s not tied to the “school reform” movement that some good can come of the curriculum components, especially since we’d arguably get the testing either way.

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harry b 05.30.15 at 3:10 am

HArold

I’ll find the long post where I explained all this several years ago, and link to it, when I have time. VAMs have proven very useful internally, for professional development purposes. I don’t know about adam.smith, but my discipline has not developed high quality tests at the college level. I know how I would use them if I had them, but I don’t have the expertise to design them and don’t have the money to test them.

Cranky
Read what I said in the parenthesis. In fact, just read what I said altogether, slowly, and not assuming I am a right winger. You’ll find that we don’t disagree much. When I said “the sensible thing” I meant “what other countries that value education and have half-decent education systems do”. I do not have a plan for changing the culture of the principalship (except making being a gym teacher or athletic coach a disqualification). Brad De Long is absolutely right about that (Martin West was the first to make the point I think, and I’ve made it here before)…. but I think if you look carefully you’ll find plenty of less talented men being promoted over more talented women in k-12 schooling, especially in secondary schooling: there is plenty of human capital being wasted because of sexism in our schools.

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Harold 05.30.15 at 4:16 am

@336 I am in good faith, but I wanted to clarify that I think that adam.smith and harry b. are talking about an an aspirational value added assessment exams rather than the ones actually in use.

I can only add parenthetically that no sensible person would oppose testing as a form of feedback in teaching of certain subjects, such as languages and math. Nor would sensible people oppose the use of statistics in research. But it seems like a lot of issues are being conflated here.

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harry b 05.30.15 at 4:27 am

Ok, about principals. Maybe I should be clearer. I’ve said it before here a number of times but no reason you should have read it. The kind of people who become principals are the kind of people who are, by and large, completely unsuited to managing the instructional aspect of the school. Because that is not part of the job. So teachers do not want to be evaluated by principals. (My anti-teacher-union relatives all stop short when I ask how they would feel about having their job performance evaluated by a gym teacher — nobody who cares about being good at their job wants that). Unions resist principals evaluating teachers because they know what principals are like. Because unions resist principals managing teachers, there is no reason to appoint people who would be good at managing teachers as principals. So, we keep the bizarre culture of the principalship.

But do you guys think that NOBODY should manage teachers (or the instructional program in schools)?? My suggestion is, if it were feasible (and I completely understand that it may not be), it would be sensible to design the career so that someone could become a department head (with some evaluation and management responsibility) while remaining a teacher (teaching fewer courses), learn how to lead the instructional program on the job, becoming part of a senior management team, and apply for more senior management positions on the basis of that experience (rather than on the basis of i) having taken a not-very-worthwhile set of courses at a university which nobody who has a teaching job that involves a lot of grading can take while doing their job properly, and ii) having spent a lot of time hanging out at basketball games with the current leadership). This is, amazingly, what the career structure looks like in lots of other rich countries.

Lots of people blame the stupid career structure, and the lack of power principals have over the instructional program, on unions. There is some truth to that. As Cranky’s cranky and unecessarily rude comment implies, unions had excellent reasons for curbing the power of districts and principals, given what they were actually like (and thereby did the profession, but more importantly schools and the country, a service). (And AL Shanker, who led the teachers’ union that actually dared to call itself a union was, in fact, an extremely visionary thinker about American education, and it is a tragedy that nobody made him Secretary of Education — that said, he wouldn’t be on my list of people to give a nuclear weapon to, but that list has nobody on it at all). My state has just got rid of teachers’ unions. My prediction was just that we shall find that whereas there will be plenty of changes in the contracts that will have harmful effects (annd some, sure, might have beneficial effects), what we will not see is a systematic (or even piecemeal) move to establishing a sensible career structure for teachers, and a sensible pathway from being a teacher to being an administrator. This is because, in fact, unions are not to blame for the fundamental problems in the design of the career structure, or the fact that 1/3rd of all public school principals are former gym teachers and athletic coaches; rather, they have reacted to that fact in a sensible manner that anyone (including everyone who hates them) would have done in the same situation. Another way of putting this: Act 10 in Wisconsin has given districts freedom to enact beneficial reforms and districts will not enact those reforms because they are not interested in doing so. And nobody will be able to blame unions for that any more (which is a shame, because what we’ll discover is that not only teachers but the quality of the education system benefited from the presence of unions, even the crappy union).

Just an anecdote. A group of leaders union locals (mainly dissident NEA, plus some AFT — most rural, but a couple of very big city unions) asked me to present an analysis of Race to the Top to them a few years ago. I presented the main provisions, and spent a good deal of time presenting a series of arguments why evaluating teachers based on test scores was such an extraordinarily bad idea (they all opposed it, but did not have good reasons why — I gave them the good reasons). I was struck that they, unanimously, agreed that the teacher evaluation system is broken, and how extremely frustrated they were that their members have to live with incompetent colleagues, because principals, who are entitled to fire teachers pretty much at will during the 3 probationary years, NEVER DO SO, and systematically grant tenure to incompetent teachers, which wrecks the working conditions of the other union members, and undermines both their morale and that of the union leaderships. None of them would have said this publicly, and I do not feel at liberty to reveal who was saying this. But I could (and won’t) name several teachers who during their 3 probationary years were NEVER ONCE observed by a principals; and others who, though observed, were told by the principals to WRITE THEIR OWN EVALUATIONS.

Make of all that what you will — I’m done, its nearly midnight and I have a needy sick 8 year old, and four 14 year old girls helping/hindering me.

Two prior posts on value added:

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/01/26/value-added-league-tables/

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/08/30/evaluating-teachers-using-test-scores/

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Harold 05.30.15 at 4:31 am

I read the conclusion of the linked report of the American Statistical Association on Value Added Modeling as saying that its use to evaluate the quality of individual teachers in public schools is unsound for various reasons, and that the American Statistical Association supports the use of sound statistical methods, not unsound ones.

The report also says that VAM may be used to evaluate teacher training programs (not individual teachers) and for other experimental purposes designed to improve the quality of education.

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harry b 05.30.15 at 4:39 am

Finally, having recently been excoriated on hundreds of right wing blogs and several national radio and TV hosts imputing stupid ideas to me, I’m more impatient than usual when I read comments from people I regard as roughly on my side that assume that I am naive, an idiot, or ill-willed. I’m even more impatient with the crappy treatment of Daniel, who is smarter than any of us and entirely on the side of the angels. Some people here seem like they’d rather live in a world in which everyone in Daniel’s profession is an evil shit to one in which Daniel is in that profession. Me, I prefer this world. Fortunately, he is the one person I have ever come across who is able both to combine rudeness with good humour, and capable of calibrating his rudeness perfectly to the situation. Anyway, I don’t expect anything but crap from Mr. Limbaugh, but it would be nice to experience a bit more charity and assumption of good faith from our commenters.
The 14 year olds seem to have saved the day, but I am bloody tired, and buggering off.

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Kris 05.30.15 at 4:44 am

One possible scandal that John Quiggin mentioned is conflicts of interest among faculty.
It appears that economics suffers from a particularly severe and pernicious form of this problem, and apparently disproportionally in leading academic departments. Another group of faculty where there are exmples of this problem are those in professions related to human health. For example, there was a pretty serious scandal involving a leading psychiatry professor:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulthacker/2011/09/13/how-an-ethically-challenged-researcher-found-a-home-at-the-university-of-miami/

In my mind, this is probably the most possibly serious sort of scandal that could involve faculty directly in a pretty pervasive manner.

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The Temporary Name 05.30.15 at 3:04 pm

So that happens in Miami…and it’s one of 77 accredited universities in Florida. It can, in the US, be a constant case of “one bad apple” and affect nothing.

In Russia and Pakistan being a professor is still a status position despite massive corruption…why should it be different in the Western world?

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Harold 05.30.15 at 3:18 pm

I read harry b.’s posts on Value Added Modeling (written when he was posting simply as HARRY) from 10 and five years ago. The 2010 one, which pointed to a paper co-authored by Richard Rothstein and Diane Ravitch, among many others, was interesting and had particularly good comments on the problems with VAM. Sample excerpt (by Bill Gardener @28):

“The report does not say that VAM could never work. For example, the report cites the agreement between structured observation and VAM as evidence for the validity of the former; this argument makes no sense unless there is also some validity in VAM. It’s possible that there may be a place for VAM in the (likely far) future … . “[END QUOTE]

Frankly, the fact that value-added modeling (which may be perfectly valid — if not “good” — when used properly) has been used to systematically destroy public education in this country is in my opinion as big as scandal as LIBOR, Abu Graib, pervasive mortgage fraud, exploitation of non-tenured faculty, fee harvesting by the criminal justice system, and stop-and-frisk (not to mention systematic gunning down of black youths in the streets by police), since the victims are primarily children.

I apologize to HARRY/harry b. if I seemed to question/bridle at his use of the adjective “good” to describe the use of VAM in evaluating educational outcomes, as I didn’t understand that he was merely employing the measured and restrained academic tone required of a serious academic professional.

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T 05.30.15 at 3:57 pm

LFC @334

If the students are getting better (50% increase in As in 15 years) and you want to grade on some invariant historical standard (although the material changes in many disciplines) then all grades will asymptote to As and all GPAs to 4.0. Harvard’s median grade is already 3.67 (A-) and the average GPA is nearly 3.5. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/12/9/stats-grade-inflation/

Once this process is complete, grades will fail to distinguish among college graduates and you’re just left with the signal of which school the student attended. In essence, the only thing an outside observer would learn about the student’s four years at college was their academic major. And, if you are correct, the additional knowledge that all students are smarter than their predecessors. So much for college as the path to social mobility. The other side effect is that school brand becomes even more important, something very much in the interest of top-branded institutions.

btw — I thought studies show that current undergraduates spend significantly less time studying than students in the past.

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Harold 05.30.15 at 4:15 pm

@343, Sorry, forgot to check spelling of name Gardner (not Gardener).

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TM 05.30.15 at 4:27 pm

harry, I have twice asked whether there are precedents from other countries using VAS successfully to improve the quality of education. You seem to say that there are ( “When I said “the sensible thing” I meant “what other countries that value education and have half-decent education systems do”” ). Would you mind giving examples of that (I understand you know of more than one)?

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LFC 05.30.15 at 4:57 pm

T @344

if you are correct, the additional knowledge that all students are smarter than their predecessors

I never said that all students are smarter than their predecessors. I doubt very much that that is true. I was challenging your implication that student improvement has occurred only in the natural sciences.

So much for college as the path to social mobility

This is something of a non-sequitur.

____

I think it might be a good idea if there were less grade inflation, but it’s not an issue I esp. care about nor one I can do anything about (not being a teacher). So I think I’ll stop writing comments about it.

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js. 05.30.15 at 5:29 pm

harry b,

Thanks (as always) for your comments on (K-12) teaching and associated issues. I don’t think we’re in complete agreement, but your comments have significantly altered my thinking my thinking on these issues (which—let’s face it—doesn’t happen often in a comment thread).

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adam.smith 05.30.15 at 5:48 pm

(I have an answer to TM @348 in moderation).

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T 05.30.15 at 6:09 pm

LCF
Let me fill in the steps to my reasoning.
While college increases social mobility on average, performance in college does as well. If college acts only as a signal, students at high-prestige colleges garner most of the benefits. These colleges are typically private institutions attended, on average, by children of the income eleite. Last time I looked, Ivies still accepted over 40% of their students from private secondary schools and a significant proportion of their students are paying full freight which is approaching $300K. If a less wealthy student attending a state school cannot distinguish herself from a wealthier student who attends an elite school based on performance due to grade inflation, grade inflation mitigates against the increase in social mobility of the less wealthy student.

I agree that this is a sideshow to the original post. I really don’t see a scandal that taints all faculty, no LIBOR moment unless it is the collective sham of admitting grad students with no future job prospects. I don’t see that gaining much traction since th grad students are pretty powerless and the faculty exploiting them is not. I can see potential scandals for the academy in the way they treat sexual assault and mental illness.

The adjunct issue may surface as well. But not because the adjuncts are treated miserably (which is a scandal) but because parents and students get pissed off that they are paying $60K to the college and having multiple courses taught by part-time adjuncts who may or may not have been vetted carefully. Once gain, the powerless adjuncts are shafted again.

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Harold 05.30.15 at 7:16 pm

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harry b 05.30.15 at 7:51 pm

Harold — there really is nothing sinister about my choice of name — I am Harry when I’m logged in (and posting) because that’s how the system was set up, and harry b when commenting (and not logged in) because that’s…well, that’s how I post. Apology accepted. Your perception that VAM has been used to destroy public education is quite different from mine. Its a tool, and a useful one. The enemies of public education have plenty else at their disposal.

js — thanks! And thanks to others for the kind things you’ve said about what I write here.

TM — in context, you’ll see what I am referring to is the design of the career, in particular I don’t know of anywhere else in which teachers are not allowed to manage and managers are not allowed to teach (I also don’t know anywhere else in teaching gym and coaching athletics are treated as qualifications for running a large instructional program, but there may be such places I suppose).

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Harold 05.30.15 at 8:36 pm

I never said there was anything sinister about your choice of name. It is just that it seems a bit unreasonable to complain that non-specialist may be ignorant about what you said five and ten years ago (which appears under a different handle on my computer than the one you are presently using). I thank you for clearing it up by providing the requisite links, since Google did not help me.

I agree that VAM is a useful (potentially) tool. Or, at least, I agree that that is what the ASA said (since it originated in manufacturing, I ha’e me doots, but I am not a statistician). The ASA says it was potentially useful for studying educational training programs, not individuals, so I understood. That is not controversial. If I gave you the mistaken impression that I think we disagree about that, then I guess I must not have been not sufficiently clear.

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adam.smith 05.30.15 at 8:36 pm

Hmm — somehow wordpress seems to have swallowed my comment wholesale. Don’t see it as in moderation either. In any case — if you’re looking internationally, Poland is probably the most interesting case of VAS. They went through a lot of effort to specifically train teachers and principals in how to use the scores (which rely on state-administered public end-of-year exams) and their use isn’t required. My knowledge of this is not terribly in depth, but that’s along the lines of what I’d have in mind.

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harry b 05.30.15 at 9:23 pm

I think “no reason you should have read it” counts as non-complaint. I do forget that each conversation is new, rather than them all being ongoing, and being reminded of it makes me a tiny bit more sympathetic with journalists who repeat themselves endlessly as if what they are saying is brand new. I could have provided another 20 or so links which, if you didn’t have a life, would tell you a great deal of what I think about these things….. (its ok, I’ll assume you have better things to do, and for your sake I hope you do!)

adam — I looked, and the system doesn’t have a record of your comment! Sorry.

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LFC 05.30.15 at 10:23 pm

T @352
Last time I looked, Ivies still accepted over 40% of their students from private secondary schools and a significant proportion of their students are paying full freight which is approaching $300K.

Not sure how many pay full freight. I suspect it’s maybe on the order of 15 to 20 percent, but that’s a guess; I may look up the figures later. (But anyway, I understand your chain of reasoning re grade inflation and social mobility.)

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adam.smith 05.30.15 at 10:29 pm

@LFC — about 70 percent of Harvard undergrads and about 64 percent of Yale undergrads receive some type of financial aid, i.e. 30-35% pay full tuition.
T is correct that the share of super-rich at those places is stunning. That’s at least as true at lesser top-20 schools (think Duke, Northwestern, etc.), which give less generous financial aid (Harvard and Yale give you free rides with parental income <65k unless they have extraordinary assets).

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harry b 05.30.15 at 10:53 pm

Even most who don’t pay the sticker price at the Ivies plus are, nonetheless, very affluent by any reasonable standards.

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Collin Street 05.30.15 at 10:55 pm

btw — I thought studies show that current undergraduates spend significantly less time studying than students in the past.

If we can teach better than we used to we’d expect both better results [==”grade inflation”] and less effort spent getting them. Technology change, essentially.

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LFC 05.31.15 at 1:48 am

adam.smith @359
thanks for the figures

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LFC 05.31.15 at 2:00 am

harry b @360

Even most who don’t pay the sticker price at the Ivies plus are, nonetheless, very affluent by any reasonable standards.

Assuming those schools want (for financial or other reasons) to take, say, 30 to 35 percent full-freight payers, that leaves the question of why they are failing to diversify as much as they might (in terms of income) the remaining 65 to 70 percent of the class. Harvard says it has a need-blind admissions policy, meaning it admits students w/o regard to ability to pay. Even factoring in the desire to admit certain children of esp. wealthy or connected alumni, that still leaves a lot of the class to fill. The relative failure in this area is probably a good argument for a more conscious policy of ‘class-based’ affirmative action, but that would be another thread.

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T 05.31.15 at 2:32 am

Colin @361
Seems the data shows the big decline in studying occurred between the early 60s and early 80s, before technology became widely available. Hours studying fell from 24 to 17 over that period and have fallen to less than 15 since.

“Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, higher education began to serve a more diverse population of students, with many students having greater work and family commitments. At the same time, faculty interest in teaching declined as colleges and universities increasingly emphasized their role in producing new knowledge through research and scholarship. We began asking less of our students during this period, and their performance fell to meet our expectations. The good news, such as it is, is that the steep decline arrested itself in the early 1980s.”

https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/its-about-time-what-make-reported-declines-how-much-college

Take it for what it’s worth…

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TM 06.01.15 at 8:10 pm

harry 354, I don’t think that in any way answers my question. You specifically claimed that VAS are used to good effect in “other countries that value education and have half-decent education systems do” . Which other countries are you referring to, and what evidence are you relying on?

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TM 06.01.15 at 8:24 pm

361: “If we can teach better than we used to we’d expect both better results [==”grade inflation”] and less effort spent getting them. Technology change, essentially.”

I’m curious, do you really believe that the quality and effectiveness of instruction in this country is increasing? Due to technology? Any evidence for that? Shouldn’t we see some effect of that improvement in, say the quality of public discourse? Or anywhere really? (I’m still puzzling over 313).

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TM 06.01.15 at 8:33 pm

Harold 353: Thanks for the link. I think that kind of scandal might possibly blow up and rival some of the financial industry scandals: misleading and overcharging students, and blatant profiteering under cover of non-profit tax-exempt status.

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Mdc 06.01.15 at 8:42 pm

Median family income at Harvard is around 200k.

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TM 06.01.15 at 8:45 pm

T 364: These data are of course self-reported and as such to be taken with a grain of salt. I wonder what the trend is with students working in jobs. I would expect that students have to work more hours due to the increasing cost of education. If that is the case, I would expect them to have less time for studying.

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Harold 06.01.15 at 9:03 pm

I think Harry was talking about the role of principals in other countries, not VAS for evaluating teacher quality (I don’t know about the role of principals in say, Finland.) He is suggesting, as I understand it, that in problem schools in the USA, principals tend to be incompetent.

It was Adam.Smith who asserted that in at least one other country that has been using , VAS / or VAM (same thing?) is doing well educationally and that is Poland. Though I believe his figures come from the Bill Gates-supported OECD, which is rather dicey and has a conflict of interest. In any case, Poland is using VAS to evaluate educational training programs, as I understand it — I may be wrong — not for the purpose of evaluating teacher competence.

In short though harry b. and Adam.Smith are calling VAS “good” or a useful tool when used correctly, neither one approves of using them to assess teachers, nor as a way to get rid of unions (harry b). Adam.Smith even goes on to say it would be advisable to stop talking about “accountability” though harry b. still uses this buzzword.

As far as the Common Core, I gather that harry b. is not opposed to the idea of a common core if done properly; in his opinion, i.e., not by a multi-national corporation of bad repute, such as Pearson.

There is another thing here that is not being mentioned. That is, that students in affluent schools in the USA score as well or better than Poland on the PISA tests and as well as all other developed countries except for a small group at the top that have a cut-throat testing and extensive extra-scholastic tutoring tradition (not to mention a tradition of cheating in some of them), such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and certain cities in China. Russia, I believe is also among the top tier. So the idea that our PISA test scores are a problem is not even true and has never been true. The problem is the number of children is poverty and lack of jobs and affordable homes. transportation, and health (including mental) and dental care for the parents. In short: inequality.

Those pushing the VAM scores also make a habit of testifying in court cases against equitable school funding, claiming that by using VAM scoring and firing the worst performing teachers, students in impoverished schools can be made to perform as well as those in affluent schools without spending any money. Which is clearly a lot of snake oil and casts further doubt, if there were any to begin with, about the validity of VAM as a useful educational tool.

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adam.smith 06.01.15 at 9:06 pm

TM —

You specifically claimed that VAS are used to good effect in “other countries that value education and have half-decent education systems do” .

Harry claimed no such thing. The phrase you keep quoting refers clearly and unambiguously to the career of principals. He’s responding to a post by Cranky Observer that is exclusively about principals and makes no mention whatsoever about VAS. The fact that you refuse to see this even after he clarified is really quite odd.

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Matt 06.01.15 at 9:09 pm

I’m curious, do you really believe that the quality and effectiveness of instruction in this country is increasing? Due to technology? Any evidence for that? Shouldn’t we see some effect of that improvement in, say the quality of public discourse? Or anywhere really? (I’m still puzzling over 313).

I presume that “technology” of education was intended in its broad sense: the practical application of scientific knowledge. Not the narrower connotation of stuff from Silicon Valley. I still remember a high school physics teacher’s ire that her “technology grant” could be used only to buy personal computers and associated products, not a vacuum pump or lasers.

Public discourse is largely performed for persuasion, not for earning a high mark from humanities instructors. It has about as much in common with the skills honed in a liberal arts program as drone strikes in Pakistan have in common with Judo at the Summer Olympics.

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adam.smith 06.01.15 at 9:12 pm

FWIW, I linked to descriptions of how Poland uses VAS (which is the same as VAM — measures vs. scores) by the OECD as well as other sources. Given that they’ve only started implementing these in 2005/2006, attributing Polish educational performance — good or bad –on them would be rather foolish.
Also, while the OECD has a neoliberal/technocratic bent (and so yes, I’d not take everything they publish as the gospel), it’s funded by member states, not by any private philanthropist.

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The Temporary Name 06.01.15 at 9:20 pm

Yes to adam.smith on the OECD. OECD data (and conclusions!) have a bent, but the data is pretty helpful.

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TM 06.01.15 at 9:31 pm

Ok apparently I misread harry. I think it goes back to harry’s 310 where he said “the emergence of using value added/growth measures, … has been very good”. I just hoped to clarify in what sense harry thinks the emergence of these measures “has been very good”.

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Harold 06.01.15 at 9:44 pm

Ah, “very good.” Yes, I forgot the “very”.

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TM 06.01.15 at 9:45 pm

Matt 372, it all goes back to what we mean by education and how we measure/determine the quality thereof. I do think that if an increasing fraction of the population is increasingly better educated (in some objective sense), that should have noticeable effects on society. I recognize it’s a difficult issue but to me it makes no sense to discuss the quality of education as something that in some sense can be objectively measured, and then to say that the quality is improving but we can’t really detect it because the skills learned aren’t really applicable to real life (or some such).

Regarding specifically the public discourse, it is hard to explain that a population of increasingly well educated people continues in large numbers to reject the science they supposedly learned in college. It is hard to explain the often demonstrated gullibility of the general public, including educated sections thereof. It is hard to explain the claims quoted at 313, if higher education is really such a success story.

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Harold 06.01.15 at 9:54 pm

The study that was published by the OECD came out quite some time ago, in 2008 and was a “working paper”, i.e., not subject to peer review prior or subsequent to publication.

http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Maciej_Jakubowski/publication/24125222_Implementing_Value-Added_Models_of_School_Assessment/links/00b7d52679120209ee000000.pdf

Therefore, as Adam.Smith says, it would be hard conclude whether the emergence of VAS as a measure, was “very good” or not, as related to educational outcome.

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The Temporary Name 06.01.15 at 10:03 pm

The researcher is part of the OECD education directorate. Not vouching for what he says about Poland (I haven’t read it) but he’s published more than working papers.

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=Maciej+Jakubowski+poland&btnG=&hl=en&num=20&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_ylo=2009&as_yhi=2015

(And sorry if this gets the thread further down the rabbit hole.)

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Matt 06.01.15 at 10:32 pm

I think that you might be expecting too much of education. Highly educated people often still believe weird stuff and become even better at rationalizing their beliefs than their less-educated fellow believers.

I had a major epiphany when I was an undergraduate. Chemistry, geology, and physics all came together when I really understood isochron dating for the first time. The Earth really is ancient. All the evidence fits together with marvelous elegance. This realization kicked off my exit from Christianity, since my family and church up to that point had endorsed Biblical literalism in the form of Young Earth Creationism.

The YEC evidence didn’t fit together the way mainstream science did. It was a bunch of ad hoc rationalizations and misrepresentations. I thought that I would understand the apparent weaknesses better when I got older and learned more, but the weaknesses just became more glaring. Maybe if I had been raised with the half-assed compromise position of Old Earth Creationism my faith wouldn’t have collapsed, but it was too late for me. I’d been deceived too much up to that point and most of my childhood beliefs were up for re-evaluation. Many did not endure.

I came to find after graduation that my experience was atypical. Most of the middle class kids I grew up with at my church also went to universities where they took mainstream science courses. Few of them seemed to emerge so changed. They knew how to supply Science Answers for Science Questions and Bible Answers for Bible Questions and didn’t seem troubled that the answers were in conflict. Even if Not Getting Fooled by Yourself or Others were a required course for all graduates, I suspect that many would demonstrate Not Getting Fooled skills only so long as they were in a classroom getting graded on it.

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Mdc 06.01.15 at 10:42 pm

“the half-assed compromise position of Old Earth Creationism”

Creation doesn’t imply any particular date. Even an eternal world may have been created.

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harry b 06.01.15 at 10:47 pm

“very good”, because before the emergence of VAM almost everyone in the policy world outside of academia judged schools by the way students performed on standardized tests. I prefer the introduction of something that enables us to get beyond that.

“Accountability”. Well, I use the word because I don’t know what other word to use. You want principals to reserve jobs to their golfing buddies or their former students; you want school districts to make it impossible for anyone who does not live in the vicinity to apply for a job; you want teachers not to teach math because they are math-phobic; you want schools (like those my children attend) which have socio-economically mixed populations to concede, every time, to the demands of the upper-middle class and educated parents? — sure, no need for accountability. In fact — welcome to the world before people talked about accountability. Affluent and educated parents make damn sure the schools their children attend are accountable to them both in terms of results and process. They also make sure (in the US, where they can!) that it is extremely difficult for other kids to get a look in with the best qualified and most experienced teachers and leaders. So schools are accountable to the market (most obviously, through the housing market) whatever we do. Government accountability systems can, used well, help to counterbalance the market power of the affluent.

Exactly how to design an accountability system? The US has an allergy to allowing inspection of schools, in which civil servants with experience make judgements by looking at quantitative data and interpreting it in the light of the qualitative data you get from spending time in a school, interviewing teachers, principals, and students, etc. I understand why (nobody trusts government officials, and everyone has some reason not to, plus there are all sorts of vested interests). We need to try different things out. Hearing people (as I do, all the time) rail against CC and testing, without offering any alternative, and sneering at the term ‘accountability’ makes me wonder what they think the default is? The default, in the US, is school districts carved up to separate social classes, unequal district-level funding to benefit the affluent, catchment areas within districts also designed to separate social classes, in-district transfer rules ensuring that more experienced and more qualified teachers can migrate to the schools with more affluent student populations, a housing market which gives you more choice among all these schools the more affluent you are (and the mortgage income deduction which artificially raises the cost of housing, and keeps people at the margins from owning homes, so they are subject to the whims of landlords in addition to already having insecure employment so that their children are much more likely than the children of affluent parents to have to move mid-year, and often, both of which seriously harm their ability to be educated well). If you’re happy with that default, go ahead, sneer at people who use the “buzzword” accountability. Me, I’m not, I think it is outrageous.

If you want a really good book about accountability, here’s a post for you:

http://crookedtimber.org/2008/11/18/grading-education/

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Harold 06.01.15 at 10:52 pm

I agree with Matt in that the effectiveness of what one has learned can only be assessed in the long term. The claims about VAM, however, concern purported improvements in students’ prospective earning power, not their ability to understand and relate to their lives and those of others the subject matter after the test is over.

As far as Jakubowski, his original 2009 working paper was about VAS in lower and upper secondary school (not the early grades, like the paper on VAS Chetty and al. finally submitted after many many years for peer review in the USA) and the other papers were about other topics such as the effect of early tracking, not VAS. Of course, I don’t understand Polish, so I don’t understand what Jakubowski’s papers in that language were about.

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mdc 06.01.15 at 11:55 pm

harry b- Maybe we need a different word for standards that build in responsibility at the front end- classroom observations, student and colleague interviews, area expertise, mentoring. These have long been supported by teachers’ unions. But they don’t at this point sound like “accountability” measures, since they don’t hold anyone to outcomes measures.

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Matt 06.02.15 at 12:10 am

Creation doesn’t imply any particular date. Even an eternal world may have been created.

I call it a half-assed compromise because you’re left with no observable evidence and little distinct culture after fixing up all the facially science-contradicting parts of the Bible and the parts that are too reactionary for moderns. The church that I attended when I was young billed itself as for Biblical literalists, but in practice it had discarded most of the Apostle Paul’s ideas about women. I expect that in another generation they’ll be ignoring Paul’s views about homosexuality too — and good riddance! But it seems like serving a Thanksgiving tofurkey: why aren’t you eating real meat, or actually-good vegan food, instead of this awkward compromise that has no outstanding merits of its own? See also: the market among Evangelicals for derivative “Christian” versions of popular music.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 12:28 am

@382 harry b The US has an allergy to allowing inspection of schools, in which civil servants with experience make judgements by looking at quantitative data and interpreting it in the light of the qualitative data you get from spending time in a school, interviewing teachers, principals, and students, etc.

The US has an allergy to civil servants, so there goes that idea.

However, the ills you describe do not hold true in all schools, only the ones in poor districts. And, as I said before, VAM and “accountability” have been used for the past 20 years precisely to avoid doing anything about educational inequities and to maintain the status quo as far as funding goes and/or allow unaccountable private firms to take over segregated school and run them more like prisons.

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T 06.02.15 at 1:15 am

TM @369
I think the study I reference concluded exactly that — some of the decrease in study hours is due to the students working and providing family care.

I’m with you on the quality of education. Most tenure- track faculty have significantly higher research requirements than in the past and devote more time to research relative to teaching prep. And I’ve pretty unimpressed by the vetting of adjunct faculty at some institutions. This is not a criticism of adjuncts. Rather it’s a reflection of relative importance of teaching vs. research at research institutions by the powers that be.

I do think that the use of technology can and has improved instruction. Just the time saved by having everything online is a huge improvement over the past.

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harry b 06.02.15 at 1:47 am

Harold,
It doesn’t take a private company to run a school like a prison, I promise you. Political actors have mixed motives; some of the advocates of test-based accountability clearly want bad things, others clearly want good things, just like its opponents. I disagree, by the way, that only poor districts have the problems that I describe, in fact some of the problems are specific to socioeconomically mixed districts. And even in affluent districts lots of schools seem to coast. In fact one thing that NCLB has done is reveal the level of coasting in mixed districts — districts like my own used to have “excellent” high schools, because although the low income kids were completely ignored, the 40% with affluent and educated parents did great (big surprise!). One of the reasons people talk about the achievement gap so much is because NCLB forced schools to disaggregate achievement data for the first time.
Further reading if you’re interested:

David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?

Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher
(here’s what I said about an NYT article of Green’s, though the link seems to be missing: http://crookedtimber.org/2010/03/05/building-better-teachers/)

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Harold 06.02.15 at 2:39 am

What you said was fine, harry b. and Massachusetts has the best scores in the nation, and a unionized teacher corps. I agree that teacher education is the way to improve things, but I wonder if this program has any effect in the five years that have passed since the NYT article (which cites some of the bad actors we have spoken about, namely the anti-union proponents of rank and yank we talked of earlier). Diane Ravitch has a column today in which she or one of her commenters says that test scores tend to go up proportionately to how many years of experience a teacher has in the classroom as well, something, I and every parent and competent administrators have noticed about the teachers in our children’s schools.

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harry b 06.02.15 at 3:10 am

Just about test scores going up proportionately to years of experience — I’d want to see the study. If it is raw scores (not value-added) that is just what you would expect in a seniority system, in which more experienced teachers are able to choose to teach the higher scoring (because more socio-economically advantaged) students. If the study uses value added measures, well that is real information, something that VAM makes possible.

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adam.smith 06.02.15 at 3:59 am

Studies on effects of teacher experience are all over the place. Hanushek (yes, I know) finds in a meta analysis that among all studies, only 26% show a statistically significant positive effect on teacher quality, while it’s 41% of “high quality” studies (which he defines as using value added from a single state)
http://hanushek.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Hanushek%2BRivkin%202006%20HbEEdu%202.pdf
In his critique of an earlier Hanushek paper, Alan Krueger argues that Hanushek’s meta analysis over-emphasizes insignificant findings — so those are likely low estimates.

The Kane/Staiger study for the Gates foundation (where their main goal is to compare evaluation and observation methods) find a relatively small, but clearly positive effect of experience (comparing 0-3 to 12+ year teachers) on value added scores in a very well-designed study.
http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED540960.pdf (this really is a very interesting study in a whole number of ways).

It’s difficult to interpret this though: It could mean that teachers get better (which is what most teachers strongly believe) or that worse teachers are more likely to leave or (most likely) some combination of the two.

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Trader Joe 06.02.15 at 11:45 am

@382
Its interesting to note that in many states associations of independent schools undertake the peer-review, audits and sharing of best practices that you describe and likewise tend to have a much more rigorous approach to requiring instructors to pursue continuing ed and other development activities.

To be sure there are a) reasons why they can afford to do these things and b) independent schools have their own sets of pros and cons – my point isn’t to debate or suggest that independent schools have some advantage. My point would rather be that the forms of accountability that you suggest wouldn’t have to be invented from scratch but could be adapted from some of the experience that independent schools have already had.

NAIS.org has an assortment of papers and resources on the topic (with all the biases and data limitations such papers normally have) but it is ground that has been covered. Whether such ideas can be exported and supported by elected school boards, union employees and taxpayers remains to be seen.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 2:06 pm

From commenter Lloyd Lofthouse (on Diane Ravitch)
June 1, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Back when I was still teaching, one of the history teachers at the high school where I worked took all the data from the most recent California annual standardized tests for our school and compared test gains between veteran teachers who had taught 10 years or more to teachers with less than 10 years of experience in the classroom. He discovered that most of the gains were made by the students of veteran teachers and there was very little or no gains among the teachers with the least experience.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 2:16 pm

In other fields there is a recoil now from the fad of using statistics and logorithms as a panacea: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jun/04/training-young-doctors-current-crisis/

The motto should be “first do no harm”.

Not to mention the malign effect of using the (tax-exempt) “charity” of billionaires in formulating public policy.

Here we get back to the premise of the OP: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/whats-left-after-higher-education-is-dismantled-20150528

The scandal is the involvement of malefactors of great wealth, large commercial publishing conglomerates, and the business model in general in public policy, public health, and education.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 2:28 pm

“algorithms” not logarithms, sorry!

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bianca steele 06.02.15 at 2:30 pm

Microchips and slide rules, there’s a big difference there.

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Bloix 06.02.15 at 2:40 pm

#389 – Most teachers don’t last very long. More than half leave teaching within five years.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/08/AR2006050801344.html

Of course, some leave because the pay is low and conditions are poor. But you would expect that among those who leave, the percentage of those who are bad at it is higher than among those who stay.

Terry Gross tells a story about how she was fired after six weeks as a teacher. That’s an extreme case, but you would expect that many teachers who leave after a couple of years leave in part because they aren’t succeeding.

If this is true, then you can’t attribute better outcomes of experienced teachers just to experience. The pool of “teachers with ten years of experience” is not equivalent to “teachers with 2 years of experience eight years on.”

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harry b 06.02.15 at 3:34 pm

Bloix — that’s absolutely right. It is relevant data though. If it is reliable, districts should dismantle the seniority rule whereby more experienced teachers migrate to schools with more advantaged students (and the schools with less advantaged students are taught by beginning teachers, many of whom are going to quit). Doesn’t matter much in districts with homogeous populations, but it does in others.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 3:45 pm

I don’t think you can simply assume without any evidence to back it up that experienced teachers do better than inexperienced teachers merely because they get to pick and chose the type of student they will teach. For one thing, that experienced teachers are more effective is true in private schools where all the teachers the same type of students. For another it is hardly scientific to operate on the basis of what is nothing more than a malign sort of hunch (really a calumny).

Studying effective strategies with a view to persuading teachers to adopt them is a worthy goal, but harry b. himself has said that “Nobody sensible thinks that teachers should be evaluated according to value added scores.”

http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2015/06/02/just-in-court-of-appeals-says-repeal-of-nc-tenure-law-is-unconstitutional/

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harry b 06.02.15 at 3:54 pm

Harold — you’re missing the point. I’m not assuming anything about why experienced teachers are more effective (if they are). Whatever makes them more effective, we don’t want their skills to be disproportionately devoted to more advantaged students. At least, I don’t — I want them disproportionately devoted to less advantaged students. Seniority transfer rules work to the benefit of the children of affluent parents; that’s why I’m opposed to them.

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Harold 06.02.15 at 4:18 pm

I think I got the point.

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TM 06.02.15 at 5:13 pm

Matt 380, you are making the case for me. If one can graduate from an American college (probably with high grades) without even minimal understanding of how the universe fundamentally works, how can that be considered a successful education.

I will give in to the temptation and relate an anecdote. In one “sustainability” class I TAed, a professor had the class watch Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie, doubtlessly because he hadn’t prepared any actual teaching. There was no no actual teaching about climate change apart from the movie, not even any classroom discussion. Instead, the prof had write an essay on the movie (no specific instructions, just write something). The prof graded the essays himself. Now the effort of actually reading them would have been prohibitive. I know he read a few of them and made short comments but he must have given up. Almost everybody got an A. Needless to say many of these successful essays were ill-informed rants and many more were just poorly written and bereft of an actual argument. To me this is scandalous. Not because these students didn’t “deserve” their As or because future employers wouldn’t be able to discern whom to hire. The point is that the students were given the feedback that they had done a good job and reached the educational objective when in fact they were mostly as ignorant as they had been before. This kind of teaching and grading – which I believe is by no means the exemption – is just going through the movements, rather than actual education. As the old joke goes, the students pretend to do academic work and the profs pretend to grade them.

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TM 06.02.15 at 5:34 pm

Regarding time spent studying, I found a WP article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/is-college-too-easy-as-study-time-falls-debate-rises/2012/05/21/gIQAp7uUgU_story.html) with a few pieces of information amid a lot of rhetoric, and a BLS time use chart from 2009 (http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/chart6.pdf). The latter says that full-time students spend 3.3 hours daily on “educational activities”, and 2.5 hours on working. The WP article mentions an average of 15 hours per week spent studying but that supposedly is in addition to time spent in class. The WP article also mentions that many students actually work full time, on addition to “studying full time”. The BLS figure would indicate that full-time students spend almost no time on education other than sitting in class. In an anonymous survey in one of my classes, 3/4 of students admitted they never or rarely read the text book. I don’t blame students for reacting the way they do to the fierce economic pressures most of them are facing. It’s also hard to blame students for prioritizing credentials over actual learning – they are part of a society that is fiercely anti-intellectual, openly hostile to learning and disdainful of reason, a society in which political careers are made by attacking science. These students are told to attend college for mercenary reasons, to regard education as an economic investment. While universities have been subject to unprecedented political attacks and public funding for higher ed has been relentlessly cut, while tuition and student debt have spiraled out of control, the young have been told that a college degree is the only chance they have to reach or maintain a decent living standard. Why would anybody expect higher ed under these circumstances to actually deliver high quality education, and even to get better at it?

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TM 06.02.15 at 8:13 pm

I came across an attempt at actually measuring undergraduate learning based on the CLA: http://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/D06178BE-3823-E011-ADEF-001CC477EC84/

I’m surprised this hasn’t come up so far in the discussion. Any perspectives on the results or methodology? Any views on the “Academically Adrift” study by Arum and Roksa (who coauthored the above study)? I haven’t read it. Appreciate any input whether it’s worth reading.

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harry b 06.03.15 at 12:36 pm

I have read Academically Adrift, and I’m not qualified to comment on the methodology; my colleagues who are qualified all have problems with it, which I haven’t asked them to elaborate, not because I am lazy, but because I keep postponing writing a book on higher education, and don’t want to get into the details till I am ready to write it (and don’t want to bother them twice!). Said colleagues do not comment on the drift (ha!) of the conclusions of the book, just the methodology.

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engels 06.03.15 at 1:28 pm

Another possible scandal in HE, courtesy of George Monbiot:

Oxford University asked us, “isn’t it preferable that [the City] recruits bright, critical thinkers and socially engaged graduates who are smart enough to hold their employers to account when possible?”. Oh blimey. This is a version of the most desperate excuse my college friends attempted: “I’ll reform them from within.” This magical thinking betrays a profound misconception about the nature and purpose of such employers. They respond to profit, the regulatory environment, the demands of shareholders, not to the consciences of their staff. …

The hero of this story is Gordon Chesterman, head of the careers service at Cambridge, and the only person we spoke to who appears to have given some thought to these questions. He told me his service tries to counter the influence of the richest employers. It sends out regular emails telling students “if you don’t want to become a banker, you’re not a failure”, and runs an event called “But I don’t want to work in the City”. …

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TM 06.03.15 at 8:39 pm

harry: Unsurprising given that any attempt at quantifying educational outcomes, to my knowledge, has methodological problems. Which is why some of us are surprised by your enthusiasm for VAS. I’m still trying to decide whether the book is worth reading. Any informed opinion (or maybe links to informative reviews) appreciated.

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