Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us: Higher Education Edition

The old saying has it that "what you don't know can't hurt you". I believe that we are living through an era in which what we don't know about each other is hurting all of us, because that lack of knowledge fuels unnecessary conflict.

This is absolutely true in my industry of higher education. Universities all have varying levels of conflict, of many types. One of the most common is conflict between faculty and administration. Much of this conflict is unnecessary and stems from a lack of knowledge.

I have been reminded of this in many ways in recent weeks, but most proximately by a social media post from a friend which read in part:
My school has an "enrollment management" office with a multi million dollar budget that seems to go up every year. I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent, especially when my scholarship and other support dollars are at an all time low and will not go up anytime soon. Meanwhile, enrollment at the university as a whole has gone down, and continues to plummet, even while [our department's] enrollment grows each year. ... Bureaucrats will multiply and take all the money, meanwhile, people in [our field] will continue to connect and develop life long meaningful relationships.
To be clear: I have great respect for the faculty member who wrote this post, which also included excellent examples of the work going on in that person's department. I also have great respect for the department as a whole, and the ways in which it has succeeded despite having few resources at its disposal. I think these are excellent people doing great stuff.

My concern, as is often the case, is the characterization of the faceless "they" and the conflict which this needlessly perpetuates. The post above has a few problems caused by a lack of knowledge:

1) The budget of the enrollment management office in question has been going down, not up. The phrase "seems to go up every year" hides the fact that the author doesn't really know, but suspects. Often times, what we suspect to be true isn't. In this case, the office in question has been pushed to do more and more with less and less, just as (perhaps even more than) the academic departments have. And unlike some faculty, nobody in the enrollment office has tenure - many can be (and have been) fired.

2) The phrase "I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent" is honest, but conveys a suspicion that those efforts are wasted. Not knowing should be an occasion for either humility or research, or both. Negative speculation is harmful.
     In this case, the work of enrollment management is extremely difficult. If it were easy to control enrollments, more universities would do it - most except for the very elite struggle with this constantly. Moreover, the university in question has historically under-invested in marketing itself (an assertion which faculty might dispute but which in fact holds up under scrutiny if you take the time to look comparatively and to understand how marketing works).

3) The claim that "[b]ureaucrats will multiply and take all the money" is both broad and inaccurate. The contrast with the second half of that sentence reveals a broader narrative: faculty are the ones doing the important work of the university, whereas "bureaucrats" are wasted money whose work does not contribute to the education of students or the health of the university as a whole. Professional staff see these comments and know this attitude is out there.

Again, to be clear: faculty DO very important work. I agree that the work that faculty do directly with students is THE work of the university. It is in those relationships that education happens.

But it is also true that without the work of the "bureaucrats", the work of the faculty would be impossible. There is a vast amount of effort that goes into recruiting, admitting, housing, advising, scheduling, and providing for the needs of that student before she ever reaches the classroom. Most of this work is invisible to both students and faculty, as it should be. Ideally, all of this is as seamless and efficient as possible.

But seamless and efficient does not mean free. And while I believe that everyone within a university, at all levels, should be accountable for the quality of their work, the conflicts that arise between faculty and administration often aren't about accountability. They're about tribalism, about them being "them" and us being "us". They are always wrong, and we are always right. And because we are always right, I don't need to know anything about them, because they are wrong anyway, so why learn?

This is the very essence and root of our conflict. Yes, there are disagreements over interests and policy directions and so forth. But if we really understood each other, if we understood how things work on "the other side", and if we ceased doubting (or assuming) each other's motives, the concrete disagreements would be vastly easier to resolve.

Now that I have the position I do, I have few avenues to make these kinds of arguments. Faculty at many institutions are allergic to being "told what to do" by administrators, even if all we're saying is that we would like to develop a common understanding of how the world works. The narratives that drive these conflicts on our campuses are rooted in a fundamental mistrust about motives, but they are fueled and maintained by our steadfast refusal to learn more about each other. That's a problem we can fix - if we want to.

This is, of course, true in our broader society as well. I have previously argued that we don't really have an "America" anymore, but a feuding set of tribes that know less and less about each other. The antidote is always knowledge - not knowledge of facts so much as knowing and understanding people. We claim in our universities to be laboratories for solving society's problems. Perhaps we should start with this one.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Alliance Politics: Emotion over Reason

There are policy decisions which most people agree on. There are policies that reasonable people disagree about. There are policies that are so extreme that few people embrace them.

Then there's Donald Trump's foreign policy.

Over the last few days, Trump sowed chaos at the NATO summit in an unprecedented fashion. At the height of his extremity, he called on NATO members to boost their spending on their militaries to 4% of their GDP.

Nobody in their right mind would call for such a thing. Even the US doesn't spend that much, and the US outspends the next dozen or so countries on the planet combined.

Trump later appeared to drop that particular target, calling instead for the 2% target to be met immediately - after earlier signing a joint statement that called for meeting that target by 2024. Later, he mentioned 4% yet again, then dropped it again.

None of this makes any sense, if you assume that the President is a minimally rational human being for whom words and numbers have meaning.

But Trump is none of these things. He is not rational, in the sense that he does not select strategies that are aimed at achieving goals. He has said himself that he doesn't prepare, he "goes with his gut" - the very antithesis of rationality. He is driven by feeling, by instinct. This is many things, but it is not rational in the standard definition of that term.

News networks have been tying themselves in knots trying to make sense of these varying and contradictory statements. Some have taken the time to look up facts that clearly demonstrate that a 4% target is an absurdist fantasy.

All of this is a waste of time. When Trump says 4%, he doesn't mean what you or I would mean. He doesn't mean anything. He doesn't understand the numbers, doesn't know what the right number would be, and doesn't care.

When Trump says that everyone else should spend 4%, what he means is, everyone else should do what he says. He means simply to project power, to demonstrate that he is right and everyone else is wrong. That, in his own words, only he can save us.

So let us not waste our time arguing with facts that are obviously and absurdly wrong, or policies that are obviously beyond the bounds of reason. None of this is about policy. It's about a man on the world's biggest stage trying desperately to convince everyone (or maybe just himself) that he has all the answers, and that everyone else is wrong.

God help the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Why the Administration's "Advice" on Affirmative Action Doesn't Matter

There is lots of concern on the left about this recent headline story:
Trump administration reverses Obama-era guidance on use of race in college admissions
As someone who works in higher education administration, this is the least concerning thing the Administration has done in months. There are several reasons why this isn't worth our time and attention:

1) It's pointless as a symbolic gesture. I've heard it argued that one reason why folks on the left are upset about this is the symbolic message is sends, that the Administration is hostile to the rights and welfare of minorities. I would have thought that referring to neo-nazis and white supremicists as "fine people" was more that sufficient to make that point. As a symbolic message, this doesn't say anything Donald Trump hasn't been saying for decades.

2) It's non-binding advice. The "guidance" in question doesn't change the law, or the boundaries of the law. There may be a message in here about what this Justice Department is or isn't willing to argue in court cases that may come up, but again we already knew that (see #1 above). Otherwise, this just amounts to a set of suggestions that universities are free to do with as they please.

3) This only applies to institutions that are selective enough for these kinds of things to matter. If you only read the New York Times, you would get the impression that higher education in the United States consists of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and a few other schools here and there. But the reality is that genuinely selective schools are only a very, very small slice of the higher education landscape. Most schools, public and private alike, are desperate enough for students that they will happily accept as many qualified students as they can find, even as they also want to admit diverse groups of students. The number of schools that might conceivably turn away a white applicant in favor of a black or Latino one is extremely small.

4) Because of #3, we need to understand that this isn't about creating a more racially just society in any broad kind of way. This is a rich people's argument, because only the very well-off can afford to send their kids to the kinds of schools for whom these sorts of decisions are relevant. Yes, every year Harvard or Yale or Williams or Stanford will let in a handful of minority students on full ride scholarships. That number is a fraction of a drop in the bucket. For the vast majority (95%+) of minority families who pin their hopes on higher education to lift them out of poverty, their kids aren't going to go to those schools. They're going to go to regional public institutions for whom this argument is irrelevant.

If you care about a more racially and economically just society, and if you believe that higher education is a means to that end, don't spend your time agonizing about this "guidance". Focus that energy on getting your state legislatures to re-fund their public higher education systems, gutted and increasingly expensive after decades of budget cuts. Don't get distracted by red herrings. Focus on what matters.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

We're Thinking About the Court All Wrong

So Justice Kennedy announces his retirement and the internet blows up. Liberals are screaming in fear because they believe the court will be stacked against them for the next 20 years, and conservatives (or whatever they are nowadays) are shouting in triumph that they will finally have a bulletproof majority on the Court.

All of this is wrong. All of it.

I get that the court is, by necessity, something of an all-or-nothing institution. When it makes rulings, its rulings stand - at least until a later court overturns them. Another casualty of the politicization of the law may be the stare decisis standard, which appeared to take a bit of a hit today in the Janus case. I fear that future courts, both right and left, will see their job as undoing the work of the "other side" in the previous generation.

The reality is that we live in a diverse, often divided nation. And we live under a political system that is supposed to value that diversity, and to produce outcomes that, however imperfectly, reflect everybody's voices. If only 20% of people want something, they shouldn't be able to impose their will on the other 80%. That's what we call democracy, and it's what we all claim to value.

Yet the celebration on the right, and the yearning on the left, for a court supermajority are both repudiations of these foundational ideals. It's not just that the court is (by some necessity) a non-democratic institution. How we think about the court betrays how little we really value our democracy.

Take the issue of Roe v. Wade, one of the most oft-cited cases for the importance of getting "your" side to dominate the court. I get that there are people who believe that abortion should be eradicated entirely. I also get that there are people who would like it to be restricted much more than it is. Just as there are people who think it should remain available, and people who would like to widen that availability. I spent a semester in grad school poring over General Social Survey data on Americans' attitudes towards abortion. They are diverse, and remarkably stable, and on balance tend to fall into the "keep it legal but hopefully rare" area, with a large standard deviation around that mean.

So if you celebrate winning a supermajority on the court so that Roe can be overturned and abortion made illegal everywhere, you're in essence saying that winning a complete and total victory on this issue is more important to you than democracy. That even if your view is only held by 20% of the American population, you think you should win anyway and impose that view on the 80% who think differently.

The alternative approach, which is actually far more consistent with our claimed democratic values, would be to try to persuade enough of that 80% to see things your way, so that your view prevails across the population. This is basically why gay marriage is legal now - not because a court said it should be, but because over the course of a couple of generations most Americans have come to agree that people should be able to marry whom they want. Want to change that? Convince them back the other way (good luck).

That approach hasn't worked well on abortion, as the GSS data shows. Hence the arguing over the court - and the hidden abandonment of democratic ideals.

You can substitute any number of other issues for abortion here - gun rights, labor unions, travel bans, take your pick. For those who take the "long view" on the court, who are looking out over the next 20-30 years, it's not any one issue. It's the desire to see "their side" win all of the battles over that period.

If we really believed in democracy - if we really believed that we make our best decisions collectively when everybody's voice is in the mix - we wouldn't want a supermajority on the court. Or a permanent majority in Congress, as Karl Rove used to dream of. If we really believed in democracy, we would want Justice Kennedy replaced with another moderate, swing-voting judge. If Elena Kagan stepped down, we would want her replaced with another liberal justice. If Clarence Thomas retires, we would want him replaced with another conservative.

If we really believed in democracy that's what we all would want, regardless of our own personal views. But we don't really believe in democracy. We only support it when it means we get to win.

All of this is compounded by the fact that we are living through the most anti-democratic Presidency in modern US history. Trump has not the slightest regard for the views of others, and - by his own repeated admission - he wants to win all the time. He doesn't care about what other people think. If he could impose his will on the world, he would, even if nearly everyone disagrees with him.

The mood of the country as a whole is increasingly anti-democratic. Sure, lots of folks are saying, go out and vote. Voting is not a reliable indicator of democracy - just ask Zimbabwe, or pre-1990 South Africa, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. On all sides, the act of voting - indeed, all political acts - have taken on existential proportions. Everything has become Chuck Norris' "1000 years of darkness" warning, on all sides.

Don't believe me? Watch Tucker Carlson, speaking to a national audience of millions, equate the desire to welcome immigrants with suicide. Translate that into Kinyarwanda and Carlson would fit in nicely with RTLMC radio just ahead of the Rwandan genocide.

This is not Schoolhouse Rock America anymore. We are not e pluribus unum - rather, our motto ought to be e unum pluribus. Out of one have come many. Where there was one nation, united by a common set of political values, now there are many, divided by fear and anger and hatred.

For those who look at Kennedy's retirement and say, this is why I voted for Trump - who believe that for all of his faults and problems, it was worth it to "secure the court" for the next generation - you're entitled to your reasons. If you feel happy today, you're entitled to that too. What you're not entitled to do is claim that you value democracy. Because in the end, if we don't value each other more than we value winning out over each other, then what are we?

Free Speech and Our Upside-Down Ideologies

For those inclined to believe there is only one right way of thinking about "free speech", especially on college campuses, this summary news article is worth reading:
A More Nuanced View of Law on Campus Speech
As I mentioned in a brief post yesterday, I am old enough to recall a time in the past when "conservative" meant something very different - even radically opposed - to its meaning today. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched the conservative movement try to make sense of the upheaval of the 1960s.

Free speech - the kind of free-for-all "marketplace of ideas" position described as one pole in the article above - was largely a cause of the Left, which saw society as stifling dissent and diversity and wanted new voices (African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ, and others) to have a place.

The conservative response was the other pole: the "order and morality" theory, in which the good of society and societal order and the prevailing norms and mores of the day were held to be important. Indeed, that's what "conservative" meant - a desire to preserve the values of the past and present, to "not throw the baby out with the bathwater". Rousseau's Social Contract - a forerunner to what used to be called "conservative" - sought to provide the stability necessary for human thriving.

Like many great debates, both sides had a point. Existing social norms and structures of the 1950s and 1960s were indeed stifling and repressive, especially to women (who were confined to very restrictive roles in society) and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. However, all well-functioning societies do need a level of order and common understandings of morality.

The battle of the 1960s was about how to change the repressive nature of those common understandings without tearing the country apart entirely. We succeeded, but only just.

Fast-forward to today, and the positions have entirely reversed. Self-proclaimed "conservatives" are now the ones who have thrown the order and morality position out the window. They are the ones who are arguing that any speech, no matter how offensive or harmful, must be protected, even celebrated. They organize provocative events around speakers who are noted not for their wisdom or their contribution to important debates, but for their ability to inflame and insult. Indeed, sometimes that appears to be the entire point of the exercise.

It is sadly ironic that the descendants of those who once argued that order and morality matter are now defending the position that neither order nor morality count for anything, and that freedom should be infinite and absolute. This puts the Left in the position of discovering the value of common decency and the virtue of order and stability - a somewhat strange place for a movement built on (sometimes revolutionary) change.

There were excesses during the 1960s, when we threw out rules about how we should treat each other in the service of fostering change. We are now throwing those rules out again (as I remarked on yesterday) - but in the service of what? I don't see that today's firebrand conservatives have a vision of a more just society and a better future. MLK had a dream of racial and economic justice, and the feminist movement yearned for a world in which women were economic and social equals to men. What vision do these folks have? What kind of a world are they trying to create?

I think this may be the key difference this time around. The movements of the 1960s, for racial justice, better economic opportunity, gender quality, and the rest, were rooted in a vision of a more just society. For the most part, we have accepted most of these ideas, and the strong majority believe that we are better for being more accepting of diversity and less socially and politically restrictive.

Perhaps what we are seeing is the rearguard action of those who do not share these ideas - those who believe that there ought to be a racial hierarchy, that the United States should be dominated by a particular racial/gendered/sexualized structure. That they cannot articulate the alternative in a way that appeals to anybody else suggests that, ultimately, they will lose. But that doesn't mean they won't cause as much pain as possible in the process.

Ultimately, this is where the radical libertarian view that "all speech is acceptable, no matter how painful" is problematic for me. Even if you're trying to create change, change that may be resisted by people who really don't want it, you use words that are designed to include and to heal, not to hurt. Go back and listen to MLK speeches. He challenges the prevailing orders of his day, but he never called anybody names. Never insulted them personally. Never used words to anger or harm. That some people got angry at what he said was a sad byproduct, not the main point.

When I seek solid ground on which to stand, I always come back to the Gospel. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets." I see no love in today's "conservative" free-speech movement - I see only anger and hatred. This is not of God.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Remember Conservatism?

In response to this news piece:
'Go Home to Mommy'
I remember a time when conservatives cared about decorum and civility. I remember when the conservative movement - the movement of William F. Buckley Jr., Peggy Noonan, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Bork, and others - held itself and others to high standards of discourse. I remember when they understood the importance of the Presidency as a role model for young Americans. I remember when they articulated a positive vision of America as the Shining City on the Hill.

I think that if that movement still existed today, I might well be a conservative. I see real value in those things. I think that how we treat each other matters, and that a politics based on scorn and contempt ultimately degrades us all.

This is not a conservative President. This is not a conservative movement. I don't yet know what it is, although "mean-spirited" comes to mind. Who among us would want our children acting this way?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Pie Crust Promises: Nuclear Edition

So the Trump Administration has signed a joint agreement with North Korea pledging to work towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That sounds great - fewer nuclear weapons is a good thing. But even leaving aside the other problematic aspects of this "agreement" (like the US unilaterally giving up military exercises), Kim Jong Un's promise to talk about giving up his nukes reminds me of Mary Poppins' 'pie crust promise': easily made, easily broken.

Yes, I once published a journal article with that title along with my good friend Steve Saideman. I think there should be a prize for publishing an article with a Mary Poppins reference.

For those inclined to take North Korea's pledge seriously, I would direct you to Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT treaty, created in 1968 and still in force today):

Article VI
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. [emphasis added]

The United States is a Party to this treaty, as are Britain, France, China, and Russia (the other recognized "nuclear states"). None has ever seriously contemplated a treaty on nuclear disarmament, outside of a brief rhetorical flirtation by the Reagan administration during a summit with Michael Gorbachev in the 1980s. There haven't even been serious international negotiations on drawing down nuclear stockpiles since the early 1990s.

All of this is simply to say that arms control promises - even in treaty form, much less in a joint communique following a meeting - are easy to make and equally easy to break. Which suggests that the news cycle of the past 24 hours really didn't tell us very much at all.