Monday, July 28, 2008

Cliff Adelman, Bologna, and Colorado

By Richard Vedder

My new junior sidekick Jim Coleman keeps me informed on the day's news in higher education, and two pieces, one from INSIDE HIGHER ED and one from the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION caught my fancy today.

Cliff Adelman is one of the brightest and shrewdest observers of the higher education scene around today, a former U.S. Department of Education official who has moved out of the Maryland Avenue bureaucracy and continues to make informed commentary, much of which makes people very uncomfortable (and appropriately so).

Cliff's new study claims that Americans talk a lot about accountability but really do little about it. As an aside, I was reading a major study from the 1970's that said the real issue in higher education was accountability --and 30 years later, it STILL is an issue, meaning there is an awful lot of talking and very little action.

Cliff says, "look at Europe." As part of the decades long Bologna Protocol, EU nations have long worked together to coordinate some of the ways they do higher education. Cliff notes that at every level of education, there are learning outcome expectations, such as for the bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree in history at all the schools means certain content is covered, that persons hiring new holders of that degree can expect certain minimal learning, if the graduate went to an elite French school or a lower prestige, non-flagship school in, say, Spain or Greece. Everyone is singing the same song, albeit sometimes in different keys, or with different styles.

On the minus side, Americans believe that vast diversity of offerings and a lack of standardization is a virtue --greater choice of products. Yet there is probably an optimal amount of standardization of outcomes that is desirable --and we are not there. We cannot begin to agree on curricular content among American universities, many of which are private and the public ones are in 50 jurisdictions. We talk a lot about standards of accountability, and have even taken a few modest moves in the direction of achieving it (the VSA process that a few hundred schools have agreed to), but what we have done is pretty pathetic. Whether the Bologna approach is optimal (it strikes me as vaguely like what some State Department of Educations try to do to individual school systems in K-12) or not, I don't know, but I usually find that Cliff is more right than wrong.

Move west to Colorado, where I read that the University of Colorado may have to alter the terms on over 100 scholarships if an anti-affirmative action initiative passes this fall. Tough. Assessing students, faculty, or other employees largely on the basis of race or gender is morally wrong and fundamentally un-American, as voters from Michigan to Washington have pointed out, but the higher education establishment refuses to accept. I am presiding over a panel Thursday on higher education that includes Hank Brown, former CU president (who finally got rid of Ward Churchill), and I am anxious to here what he has to say about the initiative.

7 comments:

Eveningsun said...

You write, "Assessing students, faculty, or other employees largely on the basis of race or gender is morally wrong and fundamentally un-American." Well, maybe. But to imply that affirmative action programs generally assess people "LARGELY on the basis of race or gender" is dishonest. Under my own institution's affirmative action policy, race or gender becomes dispositive only when two job candidates are already "tied" for a position, which happens very rarely. (It's never happened at all in any search I've been involved with.) I'd hardly describe such a hiring policy as largely based on race or gender. What it's largely based on is merit.

Melissa said...

How do you define "tied"? What is the standard of measurement?

Nevermind, let's forget that and simplify matters.

Let's say a black person and a white person are "tied" for a promotion. Who gets the job and why do they get it?

Melissa said...

ANNOUNCER: "Okay eveningsun, your time has run out! Melissa, would you like to answer?"

"Yes I would. If we take the very narrow view that Affirmative Action is only in play when there is a tie, then the the job goes to the black person. This is because Affirmative Action is a race and gender based program."

ANNOUNCER: "That's CORRECT!! And circle gets the square!"

In all seriousness, I would recommend a (google) search on affirmative action for more information.

Eveningsun said...

A note from our distinguished panel of judges:

According to the affirmative action policy at the college in question, when a black person and a white person have emerged from the search process with a tie, the black person gets the job. It is easy to see why our distinguished host, with her producers signaling frantically for a commercial break and little time to think her decision through, called this one as she did.

However, we must rule in favor of the contestant. The act of deciding who gets a job is distinct from the act of assessing a candidate's qualifications for a job. They are different kinds of actions, involving different procedures, and performed by different people. They are distinct things and should not be confused.

By the time the "race or gender" provision kicks in, both candidates have already been assessed, and, barring misconduct explicitly forbidden by the AA policy in question, neither race nor gender were factors in that assessment; again, remember that the AA policy in question explicitly forbids such considerations at any time during the assessment of the candidates' qualifications.

Melissa, your argument works only if you reduce my college's AA program to that part of the program which kicks in when there's a tie. But our program includes several more components than just that one. Those components include making an "affirmative" effort to advertise a position as widely and effectively as is feasible (which is about attracting minority applicants, not about assessing them). They include gathering data on applicants' race, gender, and so on (which info is used by the institutional research office for demographic purposes and not released to the search committee). They include drilling into search committee members the importance of avoiding various behaviors and utterances that might be construed as discriminatory or as evidence of discrimination (which is about avoiding lawsuits, not about assessing applicants).

These are all part of our affirmative action program, and they are part of every single search we do, and they have nothing at all to do with assessing applicants on the basis of race or gender. In fact they are designed in part to insure that every candidate gets assessed without regard to race or gender. They are designed to insure that race or gender "count" only after that assessment is complete. Ergo, we have an AA program, yet it is simply not true that, to quote Vedder, we "assess[] students, faculty, or other employees largely on the basis of race or gender." We assess them "largely," in fact exclusively, on their merit.

You're looking at only one side of the coin. You're focusing on the one circumstance (which is rare, and anyways takes place after candidate's have been assessed) when my school's AA policy does invoke race or gender. You're missing the fact that the very same policy FORBIDS the use of race or gender in every other situation, and wisely so, since there might be hiring committee members who, having some fuzzy personal notion of what "affirmative action" means, might be inclined to actually evaluate candidates on their race or gender. But our AA policy explicitly instructs them NOT to do so.

And in all seriousness, please try to respond to what I actually write so that you don't do things like insultingly insinuate that I'm unfamiliar with affirmative action. If you read carefully enough you might even find that you have no reason to assume I favor affirmative action. I don't. But I also believe in understanding what it is I oppose. Not all affirmative action programs are the same, and it behooves us to know the differences, at least if we're improving higher ed rather than just playing games.

Melissa said...

eveningsun -

I really appreciated your reply as I found it thoughtful and you elaborated on your drive-by.

However, when it came to the lecture in your last paragraph I forgot about your enlightening comments and only remember the condescending lecture. So in this reply, I'll be very carefull to tip-toe around so I do not disturb your feelings of insecurity.

Who was it that actually wrote, "Under my own institution's affirmative action policy, race or gender becomes dispositive only when two job candidates are already "tied" for a position, which happens very rarely."?

It was you.

You laid out the premise. And I would like to know how two (or more) individuals can be reduced to being exactly alike - a "tie" as you put it.

You write: "...please try to respond to what I actually write so that you don't do things like insultingly insinuate that I'm unfamiliar with affirmative action."

Once again; Who was it that actually wrote, "Under my own institution's affirmative action policy, race or gender becomes dispositive only when two job candidates are already "tied" for a position, which happens very rarely."?

It was you. And that is what I responded to.

I don't know, maybe you think I'm a mind reader.

You were insulted? Because I light-heartedly showed that AA is a race and gender based program as you yourself actually defined it in your drive-by? ("...race or gender becomes dispositive only when two job candidates are already "tied" for a position...")

You also write, "If you read carefully enough you might even find that you have no reason to assume I favor affirmative action." I did not raise or address any such issue. I don't care what your position is; but apparently you feel a need to advertise it.

If you are so thin skinned that you felt my (obvious) hostile and rapier-like words were used to excoriate you, then maybe I should apologize. Nah, I think not.

Eveningsun said...

Melissa, job candidates do not have to be "exactly alike" in order to wind up "tied" in a search. More likely the tie would result from an evenly split vote on a search committee. In my experience, such a thing has certainly been rare--but hardly as rare as finding two candidates exactly alike!

Melissa said...

eveningsun - Thank you for your reply - I understand your point(s).

Time to move on to bigger and better things?