The Growing Sexual-Assault Investigations Industry

In response to questions from the Washington Examiner’s Ashe Schow, a spokesperson for Iowa senator Charles Grassley made a telling admission that has received insufficient attention. “The university,” the spokesperson noted, “will be responsible for any new requirements in the bill and be responsible to find the funds within its budget, whether that be from an endowment, trimming administration costs, tuition, or any other area.” The spokesperson did not indicate how many new faculty lines should be sacrificed or how much of a tuition increase students should bear so that colleges can construct a parallel criminal investigations system, albeit one with many fewer due process protections for accused students and a much lower threshold of guilt.

It turns out that the financial pressure is starting on colleges even before the McCaskill-Grassley bill has cleared Congress. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that “a cottage industry is growing around campus sexual assault.” Some of these developments are benign or even helpful, such as a fingernail polish designed to detect date rape drugs, a product designed by UNC students (and oddly attacked by some ideologues as contributing to “rape culture”).

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Another Study Fails to Justify Affirmative Action

There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s new report, “Affirmative Action and Human Capital Development,” which defines affirmative action as “the practice of granting preferential treatment to under-represented (UR) demographic groups,” but it’s down hill from there. The descent begins in the second sentence, which states that “It was first mandated by the Kennedy Administration in the 1950s….”

Of course there was no Kennedy Administration in the 1950s, and the affirmative action required by Executive Order 11925 — issued by President Kennedy March 6, 1961— not only did not mandate but actually prohibited preferential treatment by requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” [emphasis added].

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Trustees Must Act, Report Says

A group chaired by CUNY Board of Trustees chairman Benno Schmidt recently published a report entitled, “Governance for a New Era.” (I was part of the group, which included a variety of trustees, presidents, administrators, and faculty members.) The report, which has received considerable attention, urges trustees (and, working under the direction of trustees, senior administrators) to fulfill their oversight role—in the process providing a necessary check and balance too often absent in today’s universities.

The report’s basic premise: principles of shared governance and academic freedom require trustees—no less than administrators and faculty members—to do their jobs. Trustees, in short, need to provide active, effective leadership—and meaningful, not toothless, oversight. And in increasingly politicized public universities, only trustees serve as the voice of the taxpayers who help fund the institution. Indeed, at public schools that rely on political support, effective trustee oversight sometimes can save the faculty from themselves.

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The Frenzy Over “Rape Culture” Grows

Examiner

Scheming politicians, opportunists, and grifters have latched onto the recent panic over a supposed “rape culture” on college campuses to clamp down on activities having nothing to do with rape. In some cases, they have imposed regulations that take away student opportunities and harm small businesses.

Never mind that, as Wikipedia recently noted, there has been a steady decline in rape rates for all age groups over the last two decades, and data “from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics” show a “58%” overall reduction from “1995 to 2010.” With enough fear, you can manufacture a crisis, and a crisis gives you “an opportunity to do things . . . you could not do before,” as President Obama’s former chief of staff noted in his famous remarks about not letting a crisis “go to waste.”

As the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson notes, small businesses have suffered from “Maryland’s grain alcohol ban,” passed in the name of preventing campus sexual assault, which has “tripped up violin restorers, cake pros,” and “craft bitters folk,” judging from a recent Washington Post story. For example, “violin makers in Maryland depend on 190-proof grain alcohol to create varnishes used in making and restoring their instruments. . .The craftsman dissolves the resin in Everclear because, with its high alcohol content, it dries resins quickly, so the already tedious process can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time.” “There’s really nothing else that works,” said Silver Spring violin maker Howard Needham.

At Free State Notes, Olson discussed the spurious campus “‘sexual assault’rationale” that “is behind the new grain alcohol ban,” and how “tax dollars have enabled” the “crusades” against it that led to the ban. As Michelle Mintonnoted in the Baltimore Sun in July, “Maryland banned high-proof liquors like Everclear and other inexpensive tipples” after activists funded by taxpayers (and effectively rewarded for their alarmism) “claimed such ‘high octane’ liquors increased the likelihood of binge-drinking and sexual assaults on college campuses.”

Meanwhile, Columbia University has canceled a popular concert over sexual assault fears. “A popular, twice-a-year concert at Columbia University has been put out to pasture after administrators [worried] that the event was causing sexual assaults at the school. . .The abrupt cancellation will cost the school over $55,000 in payouts . . . to artists scheduled to attend. . . .There had been specific complaints about Bacchanal in the past, with a student penning an op-ed for the school newspaper last spring complaining about alleged sexual harassment that she experienced” at the concert.

The Obama administration has taken advantage of this climate of fear and panic to order colleges to drop longstanding procedural norms in campus disciplinary hearings (such as the clear-and-convincing evidence standard, which most Ivy League colleges used for disciplinary hearings of all types until 2011, when the Obama administration ordered them to use a lower standard for sexual harassment and assault cases. The administration also recently discouraged them from allowing cross-examination by accused students, even though the Supreme Court has described cross-examination as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”).

Recently, politicians like Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) proposed a “Campus Accountability and Safety Act” that would menace due process by giving the Education Department’s Office for Rights a financial incentive to find colleges guilty of mishandling or misreporting sexual assaults (I discussed that bill here). As The College Fix notes, The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities has also raised concerns about the provision:

“The association notes that the Department of Education would have a perverse incentive to punish universities: ‘The U.S. Department of Education would be responsible for pursuing cases against universities and the revenue from penalties would all go to the Department, which creates undue incentive and may invite a bounty mindset. Two separate provisions in the bill each call for non-compliance penalties of up to 1 percent of an institution’s operating budget. This means an institution could face penalties of up to 2 percent of its operating budget. There are additional financial penalties elsewhere as well.”

Rape is now, and always has been, a serious problem, but it is not a mushrooming “epidemic” that justifies violations of fundamental due process norms.

The Undead Are Rising on Campus

Scores of colleges, from Goucher to Harvard, now feature “Undead Studies,” that is, academic work on zombies and vampires. Depending on your point of view, this is either yet another indicator of the debasement of higher education, or a playful way to attach serious thinking to not very serious expressions of popular culture. Frivolous or not, it takes its place among all the  other “studies” that  have come and gone (and sometimes stayed) in teaching research.  This one will last as long as the popularity of the canonical texts of Undeadness do, including movies and TV shows such as Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
 
The Undead made a lively breakthrough this summer as one of the nation’s best legal blogs, The Volokh Conspiracy, edited by  UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, opened itself to an ecomomic analysis of how humans could respond to  a serious assault from zombies.
 
The lead bloggers were Glen Whitman and James Dow, editors of a new book of essays on the undead, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science. The book includes chapters on the investing secrets of wealthy vampires, preparation for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, and optimal taxation of zombie labor. The book has been praised, sort of, by economics columnist Megan McArdle, who wrote: “Those who are looking to get their finances in order for the coming Zombie apocalypse should definitely buy this book…”
 
The rise of the undead in academia owes something  to despair (“These kids don’t read and we have to do something to engage them” ) and something to faculty leisure, and bloggers this time are nicely free of resentment in their discussion. To traditionalists who favor high culture over mass culture and pop culture products, Whitman and Dow have two responses.  “First, lighten up!” they say.  Let’s not get over-earnest about our jobs and kill the joy—”Zombies and vampires are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”  That’s a refreshing admission, and one can appreciate the authors’ common-sense perspective on their topic.  I have seen enough of the opposite, humanities professors talking about Terminator films and Lost as if they were heralds of 21st-century thought, the only thing, in their rendition, more significant than Arnold’s inhumanity being their own recognition of it.
 
The second response reminds readers that the field is economics, not the humanities where legitimacy has become a real question, in part because many humanities professors have so often relished provocatively frivolous topics.  Added to that, the authors claim to handle their discipline rigorously in the volume, ever “scrupulous about making sure the economic concepts and reasoning were sound.”
 
Indeed, they even concede that the substitution of “schlocky zombie novels” for Shakespeare and Jane Austen in English courses “might be a problem.”  While off-campus observers from Right and Left would largely agree, among academics this counts as a significant concession.  To uphold a hierarchy of art objects, to raise high culture above mass culture and popular culture, is to rehearse malicious social hierarchies, the objection runs, especially if one can track the division in racial or class terms.  That Whitman and Dow can maintain it, even half-heartedly, suggests that economics departments are in better shape than humanities departments.
 
But then come three statements that show precisely how far economics departments are from understanding the doubtful trends affecting humanities curricula.
 
First, they assert, “if the goal is to impart basic writing skills . . . those skills can be learned by writing about pretty much anything.”  Not so.  Writing about zombie novels is not just as helpful in inculcating comp skills as writing about Shakespeare, precisely because working with Shakespeare acquaints students to richer vocabulary, syntax, metaphor, irony, and the rest of the resources of language.  Writing is a habit that follows from exposure and practice, and exposure to better expression makes for better student stylists.  The thing one studies isn’t as benign as the authors think.
 
Next, they ask, “Why must English composition always be paired with (classic) English literature?”  Here we have a remarkable anachronism.  What the authors don’t realize is that composition studies rejected classic English literature in the freshman writing classroom long ago.  Starting in the 1970s, an anti-literature animus emerged and spread until literary classics became a decidedly backward approach to writing.  Look at the syllabi of freshman writing classes today and you find a mishmash of digital media, visual culture, topical readings, writing-across-the-curriculum, and identity politics.  The old tradition of English prose masters from Addison to Charles Lamb to Chesterton looks like a dinosaur these days.
 
Finally, the authors betray precisely the anti-intellectualism that has proven so damaging to the humanities.  They refer to topics that “are equally pointless in terms of students’ long-term prospects,” then ask a rhetorical question: “How much good did that whole semester on Faulkner do you, anyway?”  A query like this one undercuts precisely the common-sense distinction between great art and “fun stuff” that made the blog post enjoyable in the opening paragraphs.  Why take a shot at a canonical author whose corpus includes four of the most important American novels of the century?  The act suggests that the authors aren’t fully confident that their escapade in undead art can stand on its own unless further deterioration of the monuments takes place.