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Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat—she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain


So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing—yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

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After strange day the Wisconsin Idea survives.

by Harry on February 12, 2015

So here’s roughly what happened.

Last Tuesday (Feb 3) our Governor proposed his budget. Now, as you may remember, he has a habit of putting things in the budget that don’t look especially connected to the budget except insofar as, of course, everything is connected to the budget. So it wasn’t so surprising, I suppose, that, alongside the very substantial and potentially devastating $300 million dollar cut to the UW system (the system, by the way, is comprised by 22 different campuses, some 2-year, others 4-year, and others including substantial numbers of graduate and professional programs, so it is not just UW-Madison), proposed changes to the mission of the system. One change, which although lots of people are unhappy with it, seems to me entirely reasonable, and also trivial since it is already implied on any reasonable interpretation of our already stated mission, is that we should help “meet the state’s workforce needs”. However, along with this came other changes – numerous deletions, which amounted to at best a watering down and at worst the elimination of what we call The Wisconsin Idea, the idea that the university is here to serve the state very broadly, in terms of producing and disseminating knowledge that is valuable for the residents, public institutions, and businesses of the State.

I got an email from a journalist fairly early on Wednesday, after I had heard about the proposals, but before I had scrutinized them (because I was preparing for a class, the students in which I live in a kind of horror of disappointing, as our Governor would be pleased to know), asking what I thought about the proposals. After reading them carefully, I responded that I didn’t want to say anything publicly, because the proposals looked so eccentric to me that I had no understanding of what was going on. And I am cautious about being quoted in public about university matters, because I don’t want to be off-message, and didn’t know at the time how the leadership of my campus (in whom I’m happy to say, I have a great deal of, fortunately justified, confidence, and from whom I am happy to take leadership) would respond. But I did say that I thought the proposed changes were distinctly odd.

Here are what seemed to me that most eccentric changes. The following phrases were all deleted from the mission:

“Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth”
“Which makes effective and efficient use of human and physical resources; which functions cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems”
“Which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority”

Let’s start with truth.

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Reason to be cheerful

by Harry on February 10, 2015

Here. I don’t know why Alabama matters more than any other state that has been liberated so far, but I feel that it does, somehow.

Master Teachers?

by Harry on January 30, 2015

William Bowen and Eugene Tobin’s new book, Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education, has just been published: anyone interested in the governance of universities and colleges should read it. The first part is a very terse but interesting account of how ‘shared governance’ emerged over time in the US; the second part is devoted to a detailed discussion of how governance works, the challenges that the current common governance structures face, and proposals about for changes in governance that would help us cope with these challenges. These proposals are grounded in the case studies that constitute the third part of the book; highly textured discussions of the way governance has developed at CUNY, the University of California, Princeton, and Macalester Colleges, and how various challenges have been met, or failed, as a result of those structures.
I’ll write more, later, about the book, and some of the proposals. Right now I thought I’d discuss a proposal they make (I do know of places where some version of it is present, in embryo form) which is not central to the discussion of governance, but which, I think, raises a serious conflict of interest issue (which, actually, they don’t discuss): the proposal to develop a distinct career track of “master teacher” for employees who would specialize in teaching, who would teach more than regular tenure-track faculty, who would not be expected to do research, and whose continuing professional development would focus on instruction and pedagogy.

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The Corrupted

by Harry on January 28, 2015

The second series of The Corrupted has started. The first series, last year, was amazing—an immersive, 450 minute saga of criminality in the East End in the 1950’s: I think it’s the longest serious drama series Radio 4 has done for decades (I’m not counting soapy plays like the wonderful Brief Lives, or the episodic genre pieces like Baldi and the sublime Pilgrim). I wasn’t going to bother bringing it to your notice, because I didn’t realise that the first series was available, but, apparently, GF Newman posted it all to youtube soon after it was broadcast (and nobody else has noticed judging by the numbers). Series 2 covers the 1960’s. It is riveting. First series here; second here.

My department is working on a project for the department to try to get more systematic information about why undergrads become philosophy majors (and why students who might, don’t). As one component of that project, we’re planning to conduct two online surveys—one of current philosophy majors and another of students who recently took introductory-level philosophy classes. Obviously we’re particularly interested in why women and members of certain racial minorities become majors at lower rates than men and members of other racial groups. Thing is—being a philosophy department we are not over-endowed with expertise on how to frame or conduct surveys. We are going to enlist the help of experts but my colleague who is heading up the effort asked my department for initial suggestions of survey questions, and I thought, well, why not crowd-source it? Its entirely possible that other departments have already done this successfully, and it is quite likely that some of our readers will have useful suggestions of questions. So—suggest ahead.

Seeing the Monkees

by Harry on January 16, 2015

I grew up watching The Monkees on TV. Even when I was 8 or so (when I first watched them) I could tell that the carefree, enthusiastic attitude they seemed to have toward life was not going to be for me, and I was stupid enough to find Davey’s English accent utterly confusing (where did he get that accent from in California, I thought—I was equally befuddled when some character turned up in the Archers with an American accent, having lived in the US for 30 years). But I did love them, and even in my teens, when I my musical tastes were very much for the authentic and not-over-produced (I went, alone, to see Kevin Coyne live at the Marquee, for my 21st birthday, for example), I still enjoyed listening to them, and never blamed them for not being the Beatles, which seemed a pretty minor crime.

So when The Monkees DVDs first came out I bought both seasons, basically on a lark. The kids proceeded to watch them, over and over; and SW, the eldest’s friend, borrowed them for a year during which I suspect she did nothing except watch them. My middle kid is a particular fan, so last spring, when I noticed that the remaining three were performing in Milwaukee, I (with the help of SW) convinced the whole family to go together. A nice woman in Minneapolis who had gotten groupon tickets mistakenly thinking that the performance was there sold me her tickets over CraigsList, and seemed much more concerned about someone using the tickets than getting the money—when I couldn’t get Paypal to work, and given that there was some doubt that her groupons would actually transfer validly (they did), she told me to send her a check once I knew everything was in place. SW’s dad called to ask if he could come along. Which actually put the pressure on me, because he’s i) not a kid and ii) an accomplished and discerning musician. So I got another ticket at the regular price.

There was no opening act. The Monkees stage act combines musical performance (yes, they play their own instruments) with film—and opened with the backing band on stage watching archive footage of the boys auditioning for the TV show. Then, to the sound of Hey Hey…, and with the opening titles of the show up on the screen, three ancient men walked on stage. I had a moment—well more than a moment—of complete horror, thinking how annoyed my party was going to be at seeing three old men who should be in a home singing out of tune on stage. Tork, in particular, looked in a bad way, basically hobbling onto the stage. And they definitely seemed not up to much…. for about 2 minutes. Then, toward the end of the first song, some sort of transformation happened.

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Wonder Woman

by Harry on December 3, 2014

I just finished reading Jill LePore’s amazing book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (which, as you can see, is unlikely to be a #1 bestseller because it lacks the requisite paragraph-length subtitle). I’ve no idea why I wanted to read it—I was a Marvel [1], not a DC, reader as a kid, and before reading LePore’s carefully planted trailers most of what I knew came from the Lynda Carter series which I watched as a kid. So pretty much everything in the book was a revelation.

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Family Values

by Harry on December 1, 2014

family values

Its been a long time coming, but we, at least, feel it’s been worth the wait. My book with Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, was published earlier this Fall. The book originated in conversations we started having many years ago when I was living in the UK, and we found not only that we were both planning to write books about the place of the family in liberal egalitarian theory, but had similar enough views, and different enough habits of mind, that a book written together would be better than either of us would write separately. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The family is hotly contested ideological terrain. Some defend the traditional two-parent heterosexual family while others welcome its demise. Opinions vary about how much control parents should have over their children’s upbringing. Family Values provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should—and should not—have over their children.

Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift argue that parent-child relationships produce the “familial relationship goods” that people need to flourish. Children’s healthy development depends on intimate relationships with authoritative adults, while the distinctive joys and challenges of parenting are part of a fulfilling life for adults. Yet the relationships that make these goods possible have little to do with biology, and do not require the extensive rights that parents currently enjoy. Challenging some of our most commonly held beliefs about the family, Brighouse and Swift explain why a child’s interest in autonomy severely limits parents’ right to shape their children’s values, and why parents have no fundamental right to confer wealth or advantage on their children.

Family Values reaffirms the vital importance of the family as a social institution while challenging its role in the reproduction of social inequality and carefully balancing the interests of parents and children.

You can read more about it, too, at the p. 99 test.

A good number of the ideas have been tested at some point or another on Crooked Timber, and we’re grateful to commentators for taking us to task. In fact we’ve been lucky in having been able to publish, and get feedback on, some of our ideas along the way – among the many reasons it’s taken us a while is that our ideas have evolved in response to the feedback we have gotten (this is my way of saying that the book is not a simple repackaging of the best-known papers we’ve published on the subject, but a wholesale rethinking with substantially different arguments and, in some cases, conclusions).

Since the book is about the family, I thought I’d share two of my children’s reactions when I first brought a copy of the book home. My 8 year old (boy) said “Oh you wrote a book, that’s interesting. Its a bit strange having that huge dead chicken on the cover, though”. The eldest (girl, whose friends were still frequenting the house in great numbers when the first copy turned up, just before she left for college) was less excited. “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….its not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“.

Milgram and Kitty Genovese

by Harry on September 24, 2014

In my class today someone made reference to the Kitty Genovese case (it was relevant) and I commented, casually, that I thought that the claim that 30 something people had looked on while Genovese had been discredited. Another student said “oh no, I am revising for a test later today about this” and proceeded to give us the standard account of the case. Here’s Nick Lemann’s New Yorker review of the books that seemingly discredit it.

I sent the students the link, and a different student wrote back that she had thought I was joking in class (they know I do that sometimes) and that as a psychology major she hears about the case in every class she takes. That got me to thinking about the Milgram experiment (which philosophers make much more of than they do of the Genovese case) which, again, seems to me (I say “seems” because I read part of Gina Perry’s book, and have heard her interviewed in depth) also discredited. And made me wonder i) whether anyone has a refutation of Perry’s book but, more, ii) how quickly professors adjust their teaching when findings they have taught as gospel are thoroughly discredited. I was a bit shocked, frankly, that the Genovese case is still being taught as something to be regurgitated in a test, but I am also quite struck by the number of times I have heard philosopher’s call on the Milgram experiment as evidence for some philosophical view, and wondered how long it will take before it is removed from the philosopher’s armoury (and the psychologist’s lectures)

Scotland Referendum Open Thread.

by Harry on September 18, 2014

I’ll be open about my preference, only in order to tell a story. The issue came up last week in a class of mine which contains a student from the UK. I made an off-hand comment (overstating the case) that I was a bit shocked to find out that I am a hard line unionist. Two minutes later the student, sounding quite distressed, said “Yes, that’s what I’ve found out too”. I said “what, in the course of the campaign” and she said “No. 2 minutes ago”. I felt guilty. Still do.

However things go, if you want a really fun read, try CJ Sansom’s Dominion. Well, if the No vote wins, and you are very disappointed indeed, you might want to wait a year or so.

Anyway go ahead. Please be polite—at some point I will go to bed and stop monitoring.

Jean Jaurès, 1859-1914

by Harry on July 31, 2014

Chris Brooke reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès.

Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

by Harry on July 22, 2014

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.

Incongruous songs

by Harry on July 21, 2014

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?