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Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.

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The Grubers in the Audience


For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.

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John Kerry Speaks!


At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.

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President Obama recently made a whirlwind tour of colleges and issued a series of proposals for making college more affordable. On the good side, his speeches spurred public discussion about the problems of higher education, especially its costs. On the bad side, they deflected attention from the causes of the problems.

U.S. higher education has been providing questionable products at high costs for years. Under the Bush administration, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tried to address the weaknesses with a special commission on higher education. Among other things, the commission proposed requiring schools to report their students’ learning outcomes. (That is, did they learn anything?) This caused something of a stir among universities, which scurried to create a voluntary program of “accountability” — briefly. The urgency faded away, especially when university lobbyists got Congress to forbid the Department of Education from making too many demands.

It was only with the 2008 crash and recession that the public took notice of higher education again. The economic downturn revealed that many college graduates, some with mindnumbing debt loads, were not able to get jobs. That public notice meant that President Obama would not be far behind.

Unfortunately, Obama’s recommendations are superficial. The centerpiece is the idea of rating colleges on affordability, graduation rates, and access to low-income students. That’s not very much different from the College Scorecard that the Department of Education issues now. The department even has a “hall of shame” — an annual listing of colleges that have too-high tuition or that raised their tuition too much. These efforts don’t seem to have had much of an impact, although more information is generally a good thing.

Obama wants to use the rating system to reward the schools that score well. He would provide higher Pell grants to students at schools that have both high graduation rates and high percentages of low-income students. But it is simply a fact that high percentages of Pell grantees are correlated with lower graduation rates. To have both a high percentage of Pell grantees and high graduation rates would probably require gaming through grade inflation (and grade inflation is already a problem).

Fundamentally, President Obama is trying to “fix” college problems through regulation and legislation, without changing the underlying incentives that push costs up at most schools. It does not take rocket science to diagnose what is wrong with higher education.

Essentially, too many students are going to school who don’t want to, who don’t benefit, and who don’t learn enough to justify high wages. The national mantra that “everybody ought to go to college” is reinforced by federal grants and loans (and, until recently, federal guarantees of private loans).

This artificial demand, a lot like the artificial demand for housing in the mid-2000s, enables colleges to keep pushing up their tuitions. They do this shamelessly because they are spending for education, which is “priceless.” Furthermore, most colleges are either government-owned or nonprofit, and thus there is no pressure to make, or even identify, a profit. The result is that all revenues are spent, and the hard task of controlling costs is ignored (again, education is “priceless”). Since there is no market for control (economists’ words for potential buyers scrutinizing a company to decide whether they can run it more efficiently and thus profitably), there is no pressure to keep prices down . . . as long, of course, as there is this continual demand.

With these university characteristics firmly in place, the president’s proposals are window-dressing. And it’s unlikely that Congress will pass any of them.

In closing, I should say that one of Obama’s suggestions is a good one: He thinks that students should not be able to get additional Pell grants if they have not completed a specific number of courses within a certain period of time. That would be a start in reforming the $30-billion-a-year Pell grant program — but only a start. Much more needs to be done.

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Football? Why?


Me? I like tennis, a much more gentle and gentlemanly sport than the current favorite, football. Knocking people down takes little skill. Pounding a “down the line” passing shot that just ticks the line takes super hand-eye coordination. Notice that in football the home team fans are encouraged to hoot and scream like the lynch mob in front of the jailhouse, to drown out the quarterback’s signals. Contrast that with the silent courtesy given to the server even if you’ve got 50 bucks riding on the match against him.

So — a brief note on college football. I used to be a fan. (And the origin of that word, by the way, is not “fanatic,” but “fancier.” People arefanciers of the University of Alabama.) I used to enjoy the game, although I never saw a defensive tackle turn to the ref, shed a tear, and mumble, “I held No. 33.” But I’ve seen McEnroe overrule the ump: “No, his ball was in.”

Then I realized that while to me football is entertainment, to students it’s a distraction and corruption. Colleges are institutions supposedly dedicated to the education and maturation of youth. I assume that’s the wellspring of their nonprofit status. But football, in its current form, downplays sportsmanship. It recruits — in most cases — large, fast, violent young men who specialize in using their large, fast, violent bodies to knock down and inflict serious injury on opponents. This is not exactly a lesson in sportsmanship or human relationships. Our colleges accept this anomaly in their mission because a stultified public allows it. And in many cases a gang of alumni — who evidently got a lousy education — sponsor it. The G-d of mammon — not learning — reigns. The lure of reinforced endowments and bulging bank accounts is irresistible. Who said that colleges’ nonprofit status carries over to sports and other athletic activities? A courtroom full of lawyers could debate that for a semester or two.

Coaches make millions — much of it from my taxpayer pocket. It should be an optional item on my tax form. And after all, it seems only fair that if the school makes a profit, I should get a proportionate refund.

But money is not the main issue. (Most schools lose money on their athletic programs.) It’s the disproportionate emphasis on sports, which might involve 1 to 2% of the student body, versus the rest, who are purchasing the school’s educational products. If I’m going to be a drunken spendthrift with institutional money (and remember, nobody spends your money like it’s their own), I’d rather pay two million to the head of the engineering department than two million to the football coach.

Which skill is more important? Creating a bridge, a new concept of combustion engines, a new source of energy — or whacking an anonymous opponent, which sounds a lot like modern warfare? And don’t think that the coach tears up and shouts at the defensive tackle who breaks the leg of an enemy quarterback, “Oh, dear, you broke his leg. His incompetent backup will have to finish the game. I so wanted to go against their first team.” Such lines are never spoken on the gridiron battlefield. Sportsmanship is a rare commodity. And winning, as misspoken by some coaches, isn’t everything. You learn from losing, too. And life is full of losing as well as winning.

I only scratch the surface. But you get the idea. Why are colleges in the entertainment business? Certainly not for the benefit of their primary customers. It’s as though the municipal fire department held courses in arson, on the side.

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There’s No Such Thing as a Free Education


The refusal of the Senate to accept a measure that would keep interest rates artificially low on government-subsidized student loans should be an encouraging sign. The senators who voted against the measure, and those in the House who said they will do the same if the bill makes it to them, understand that government intervention leads to unintended consequences. In this instance the unintended consequence of government intervention — in the form of manipulating interest rates — has been an increase in the cost of post-secondary education.

Money is a commodity. Interest rates reflect the price of that commodity. A borrower pays a price, in the form of interest, to the lender. The price of a commodity reflects what a borrower is willing to pay and what the lender is willing to accept. Numerous factors go into setting a price. But at the most basic level, supply and demand will set the appropriate price so that market equilibrium can be reached. As demand goes up, price will go up until the supply matches the demand. If there is an oversupply, demand decreases as too do prices.

Education and training are necessary for a productive workforce — but the right kind of education and training, not a generic form.

However, when the government interferes with markets, signals are distorted and equilibrium cannot be achieved, as supply and demand are not allowed to react to one another naturally. By keeping interest rates low the government has created an artificial demand for higher education. In this particular instance the cost of borrowing money in the form of a Stafford loan is cheaper than it ought to be, which means that more students will borrow money. In a free market these people may have found their way into the workforce or a technical college, but now they are pursuing four-year degrees which may or may not help them in the long run — just because the money is cheap. The result is that colleges now have more customers, i.e. students, demanding their services. In response they raise their tuition, because as demand goes up price goes up as a result.

The effect of government’s making college more affordable by keeping interest rates artificially low is a higher cost of education. This not only makes for a greater debt load for graduates who take government subsidized loans but also prices middle-class students out of education. This means that they too will have to resort to taking out loans and unavoidably piling on debt. It is a vicious circle that can only be avoided if interest rates are allowed to follow market principles. In that event, the accurate price will be charged for borrowing money and for the cost of education.

The nation’s single minded pushing of four-year degrees on our youth has had deleterious effects on the development of our workforce. Students who would flourish with training in the industrial arts are being pushed to a four-year degree that may or may not land them a job or match their natural aptitudes. There is a lack of economic sophistication and a sense of humanity in our pursuit of making sure that students move through our higher education system as if on a conveyor belt.

Education and training are necessary for a productive workforce — but the right kind of education and training, not a generic form. Only the market can determine what the right kind of education and training is, and only a system that allows flexibility will encourage students to match their aptitude with their financial aspirations.

Those who support keeping interest rates artificially low for government subsidized student loans do so because they think that keeping rates low will make college more affordable. They therefore castigate opponents for being against the expansion of higher education. This is a cheap argument that ignores market fundamentals and sidesteps a substantive debate. The time for that debate is now.

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The Pains of Proflish


A student taking an advanced degree at a world-renowned institution sent me a news item about a math professor at Michigan State University who (allegedly, always allegedly) took off his clothes in the middle of class and ran around naked, shouting things like, “There is no f*cking God!”

No, I’m not going to claim those words as an invitation to comment on the linguistic habits of scientific atheists. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I could do that, but it would be wrong. But I’m not sure how wrong it would be to take it as a commentary on the linguistic habits of college professors (of the which I am one). It seems to me that during the past 30 years we’ve done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

I can’t say I was surprised by the news my fellow Watcher sent me. What did surprise me was the reported reactions of the professor’s class. (No, I didn’t mean “were the reported reactions”; I meant was; the number of the verb follows that of the subject, which is what, and which is singular.) “We were literally scared for our lives,” one student said. “The police took about 15 minutes to get here, and during this time he continued walking around screaming.” The complaint was echoed by another student: "It took them more than 15 minutes to arrive. It could have turned into something very bad if he had a weapon on him. It was pretty infuriating to have to wait that long." And that second student wasn’t even in the professor’s presence; the professor was out in the hall, by that time, and the student was in a classroom.

The fact that the troubled pedagogue was naked didn’t seem to have allayed these young people’s fears. And as for the 15 minutes: I’m no fan of the police, but look at your watch and picture yourself getting a call, leaving your office, traveling across one of the nation’s largest college campuses, locating the place where an incident is taking place, clambering upstairs, and confronting some nut who’s running around naked . . . Now look at your watch again. Think you could make it in 15 minutes? Think that somebody has a right to complain bitterly at this complete abdication of police responsibility? Think that you and I and a bunch of fit young college kids concerned with a naked, middle-aged man possess a right to have cops show up in less than 15 minutes?

I think I’d rather take off my clothes and run around like a maniac than to utter the complaints of those college students.

But if you’re thinking just about words, and not about guts, the worst part of this report is the eight words that say, “The professor’s name has not yet been released.” Not released by whom? And why not? Everybody on the scene knew who he was. Their reactions were reported at length. A blurry picture of his apprehension was included in the news report. So why not his name?

During the past 30 years we professors have done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

Pity? Perhaps. But this pity, this verbal delicacy and restraint, is by no means evenly distributed. If Joe Blow from Kokomo has a fight with his girlfriend, gets a little drunk, drives down the street, and gets nailed by a passing cop, no one will withhold his name from publicity — or his mugshot either, in some jurisdictions.

The day after the scary incident, anonymous students identified the professor as a certain John McCarthy. The day after that, the really loony thing happened. An article about the affair appeared in the MSU student newspaper. You can tell MSU standards of journalism by contemplating the following sentence, which is about the weekly meeting of the “steering committee” of the university’s president: “At the Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, the conversation turned to mathematics professor John McCarthy, which students said he had a mental breakdown during a class Monday.”

“Which students said he had a mental breakdown . . .” OMG — now we know what kind of grammar MSU is teaching.

Well, let’s see what intellectual level MSU’s president is operating on. For other people, the serious issue introduced by the professor’s actions might be, “Did MSU know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does MSU have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?” But that was not the issue that President Anna K. Simon wished to discuss. For her, we learn, “an incident Monday brings in to [sic] question the impact and role of social media.”

Huh? As far as I can make out from Simon’s murky remarks, murkily reported, the problem is information control: “’The complication of social media, with everyone with a camera and a cell phone, is one that we continue to struggle with in terms of information because the event would not, under (normal) circumstances, trigger one set of alerts,’ Simon said. ‘There’s also the need for more crisp communication about what the outcome was. Whether that would have controlled some of the rumors, tweets and other things, I’m not quite sure.’”

Did Michigan State know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does Michigan State have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?

Let’s look at this in another way. Suppose you’re concerned about the quality of some public institution. You want to find out whether there’s any quality control. You learn that a teacher, policeman, bureaucrat, or other publicly employed personality, may have done something egregiously stupid and wrong, and perhaps illegal, while exercising his or her official duties. She’s said to have told her students to vote for Obama. He’s said to have beaten a homeless person for “resisting” some “order.” She’s accused of making a “questionable” transfer of city funds. He allegedly takes off his clothes in front of his students and runs around screaming.

You’d like more facts. But how long do you have to spend just trying to confirm this person’s name? A week? A month? Three months? Forever? Unless there’s a miracle, the information control artists will keep you from knowing what it is until virtually everyone has forgotten the episode — and then the data will be stored in a closed file, no longer accessible to the public. In the meantime, you will be informed that personnel regulations do not allow release of that information, or, pending possible legal action, the city cannot comment on this case, or some other nonsense that never applies to a normal person in a normal job (or didn’t, until the “standards” of “public service” bureaucracies spread into big private companies). And, to top it off, some CEO will entertain the media by looking at her navel and meditating about how tough the times are, what with all these cameras and phones and computers around, ready to convey the truth to anyone online . . .

So what do you think? What are we supposed to say about that? What are we able to say, since if we do comment we can always be told that we do not have all the facts?

The chair of John McCarthy’s department presumably has all the facts. These facts lead him to be concerned “about the way some people made jokes about the incident. An incident like this often teaches us who we are and what we represent. I hope we can all use what transpired after this incident to reflect on our values and our role as members of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world.”

Gosh, don’t you feel guilty? Your making jokes about a figure of authority at an institution that strives to be among the best of the world has hurt the feelings of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world. Or something.

But to continue with college professors, which I can easily do, considering that I am one, have you been following the curious case of Professor Amy Bishop? She’s the one who was recently convicted of killing three of her colleagues and wounding three others at a meeting of the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. That happened in 2010, and there were plenty of witnesses, because she didn’t manage to kill them all, but it took two and a half years to convict her. I don’t know why, except that it may have something to do with the cultural and verbal universe in which she lived.

Perhaps the EEOC is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health.”

In 1986, in Massachusetts, where’s she’s from, she killed her brother Seth with a shotgun, then went to a local auto dealership and tried to commandeer a car so she could escape. Apparently because of her family’s ties to the local power structure, she wasn’t even questioned about the shooting for 11 days. Then it was called an “accident.” Eight years later, she was implicated in an attempt to pipe bomb an academic supervisor in Boston. He had suggested she was “mentally unstable.” Four months after the attempted bombing, investigators finally showed up at her house. She was uncooperative, and the investigation was inconclusive. It went away. Seven years later, she was arrested after assaulting a woman in a fight over a high chair at an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, MA. She was sentenced to probation and an anger management class (which she probably didn’t take). In the restaurant, she had yelled, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Amy Bishop!”

Now she gets to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where she is known as “difficult” by “some.” A good piece of reporting tells the story. Bishop didn’t publish very much; she listed her children as first and second authors on one of her publications; a student filed a grievance against her; she was detested by almost everyone.

Then, as our reporter says — and this is the cream of the jest:

In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint.

I have been unable to learn whether the federal agency is still looking into it. Perhaps it is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health,” or, in plain terms, insane, bonkers, off her rocker, completely gone, in the zone, out of her skull, a desperate lunatic, and otherwise, well, crazy, or if she is, whether anyone should have said it.

A Martian appears in your kitchen and tells you that the folks back on the slopes of Olympus Mons have been following the Amy Bishop story on their nightly news. He wants to know what is so weird and touchy about that word crazy. He wants to know how somebody who uses it in its clearest and most self-evident application could possibly be investigated by a government of 300 million people (which presumably ought to have other things on its mind), because the word might have been discriminatory against the woman who killed four people. What words would you use to explain this?

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find them, but we professors would — or at least keep anyone else from doing so.

On October 2, I was watching a CNN segment about why more security wasn’t provided to our diplomatic installation in Benghazi, when it was obvious that the place might be in danger from fanatic Muslims. The interviewer asked a professor — or someone who talked so much like a professor that he should immediately be given tenure — what he thought about all the warnings that came in, and apparently were not adequately heeded. Well, he said, “you have to parse the different kinds of violence that were taking place.”

That was his response.

What would you have to do to interpret that for your Martian friend?

I suppose you would start by noting that the key word was “parse.” In normal English, “parse” means to identify the grammatical functions of the words in a sentence. But in Proflish, the professor tongue, which is the status language of planet earth, the language to which all other languages aspire, “parse” means anything you want it to mean. In this case, it appears to mean something like “look at.”

Well, says the Martian, why can’t he just say “look at”?

That’s sort of a puzzler, but I can think of two, related reasons. One, he would be understood immediately, and that is not the goal of anyone speaking Proflish. Two, he would reveal the fact that he is saying nothing. Suppose I do look at or inspect various kinds of violence. Suppose I go further, and distinguish one kind of violence from another. So what? That isn’t enough. I haven’t really said anything. But a word like parse will keep everyone, or at least the interviewer, impressed with me. And that’s the point of talking, see? Ya see?

Yes, says the Martian. I’m parsing it all.

Editor's Note: Word Watch will comment on the presidential and vice presidential debates after the disease has run its course.

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The Law School Biz


One of the necessary requirements for fundamental reform of a dysfunctional institution is self-reflection among the individuals within that institution. It is now quite obvious to knowledgeable spectators that the American system of higher education is desperately in need of fundamental reform. But this realization has yet to sink into the heads of most of the key players in that institution, the faculty and the administrators. This, I think, is mainly because they are not yet generally self-reflective.

One of the main impediments to self-reflection in the academic world is the tendency among its inhabitants to view higher education — indeed, all education — not as a business but as a kind of quasi-religious institution. Under this view, the key players (especially the faculty) are not agents delivering a service and subject to the same motivations as agents in any other business (chief among which is self-interest), but are instead disinterested and selfless individuals educating young minds as a noble calling.

That is why it is always useful to report data that demonstrate that in fact college is a business like any other, and the agents in it (the faculty, staff, and administrators) as well as the customers — the students — behave as agents and customers do in other businesses, i.e., as rational maximizers of their personal preferences. Recent data on the changing reality of law schools are very illustrative in this regard

Consider first the data on the market for law school graduates, as reported by Deborah Jones Merritt. If you look at the percentage of recent law school grads who land a full-time job requiring bar admission (as opposed to those who get any sort of full-time job, say, as a waiter or bus driver), you see a declining market. In 2001, only 75.9% found such jobs within the nine months after they graduated. In 2002, the figure dropped to 75.3%. In 2003, it was 73.7%; in 2004, it was 73.1%. In 2005, it ticked back up to 74.2%, in 2006, to 75.3%; in 2007, back down to 74.2%. But in 2008, it dropped to 71.2%; in 2009, to 65.2%; and in 2010 it slid to 62.3%. Now; in the 2011 figures, it has sunk to 59.8%. That is, over 40% of law school grads last year could not find full-time work for which their costly education was appropriate within nine months of graduation.

This means that during the past four years, nearly 74,000 law school grads could not find appropriate full-time work (again, requiring bar admission). This represents huge direct costs in terms of money spent to educate these students (and the wages they have forgone in law school) and in even greater opportunity costs. (Most people bright enough to get through law school could have gone instead into medical, business, or technical trades.)

Students have apparently heard about the declining chances of employment in the field. Law school applications are way down over the past two years, dropping by nearly 16% last year alone.

More interesting still, the biggest drop in applications is not among the least but among the most qualified applicants — at least as measured by the ubiquitous Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Among those who scored at the highest level (175–180), applications were down by nearly 14%; at the next highest level (170–174), they were down a whopping 20%. But at the next to lowest level (140–144), applications were down only about 6%, and at the lowest level (140 and below), only about 4%.

This leads to an interesting conjecture, especially for those who can’t believe that law schools are just businesses like any other. If law schools were run as quasi-religious institutions, solely devoted to the public good, they would respond to the obvious oversupply of attorneys and the resultant decline in the quality of applicants by cutting back on the number of students admitted. But if they are like other businesses that face a declining customer base, they will do what they have to do to attract the same number of buyers.

Specifically, my guess is that at the top-tier schools (especially the top 14, admittance to which usually requires an LSAT score of at least 165), you will see not a reduction in the size of the entering class but simply a reduction in the quality of that class, reflected in lower mean LSAT scores for those students.

We’ll see.

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