Category Archives: Politics

Why Are There So Few Women Mathematicians?

As soon as mathematician Chad Topaz ripped the plastic off his copy of the American Mathematical Society’s magazine Notices, he was disappointed. Staring back at him from the cover were the faces of 13 of his fellow mathematicians—all of them men, and the majority of them white.  “Highlighting all this maleness and whiteness—what is the message that is being sent to the membership?” he wondered.

Topaz, a professor at Macalester College, knew that his field had a gender problem. In mathematics, just 15 percent of tenure-track positions are held by women, one of the lowest percentages among the sciences, along with computer science (18 percent), and engineering (14 percent). “Softer” sciences tend to have more women in tenure-track positions, like in psychology (55 percent women) and biology (34 percent). Despite training in a field with so few women, Topaz had the unusual experience of having women as both his Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors. “They rarely talked about representation issues, but I noticed that they were often the only women in the room,” he said. Topaz grew increasingly interested in understanding why women were so underrepresented in his field, and then had a daughter, who he says loves math and science.  “At some point I thought, I need to be doing something active to contribute to addressing this problem.” So Topaz and the Macalester statistician Shilad Sen set to work by looking at a new metric of academic success: the editorial boards of academic journals.

Who’s on an editorial board may seem like an esoteric statistic, but Topaz and Sen argue that it’s a proxy for women’s leadership in a field. Think of the editors as the gatekeepers of science: They direct journals’ peer-review process, the backbone of modern science. Editors call the shots on which papers get published in their journals—and this affects the ultimate direction of a field.

On an individual level, being asked to join an editorial board is an important career milestone for academics. “Editorial boards are a great chance for professional networking,” says Sen.  “It’s important for tenure and promotion, and is seen as a prestigious honor.”

And Topaz and Sen’s research shows that women are being left out of these opportunities. In their analysis of 13,000 editorship positions on 435 math journals, they found that just under 9 percent of all math journal editorial positions are held by women. The median journal has an editorial board with 7.6 percent of editorships held by women, but one in ten journals have no female editors at all.

These numbers show that something is going on in the field of mathematics, but more research is necessary to understand what’s driving the disparity. One factor Topaz and Sen believe contributes to it is what they call the “brilliance effect”: the belief that natural brilliance or knack for a subject drives success, rather than hard work or persistence. And, sadly, women are less likely to be seen as brilliant. One recent study that analyzed reviews of professors on the site RateMyProfessors.com found that in fields where the words “brilliant” and “genius” were less likely to be attributed to women, women were less likely to reach upper levels of academia. “The implication is that to be a mathematician you have to be brilliant, and women are not brilliant,” says Topaz.

Even when women are brilliant, their accomplishments may be viewed differently by colleagues. Maria Emelianenko, a mathematician at George Mason University, told me about a colleague at another university who experienced this on her first day as an assistant professor.  “When she arrived, she had a sign on her door that said ‘Mrs. Smith’—but the rest of the signs in the department all read ‘Dr. So-and-So.’ She’s on the same level as her other colleagues, but somehow they referred to her differently.”

Other times, female mathematicians’ accomplishments are chalked up to the “gender card.” Mathematician Sarah Brodsky says that after she was awarded the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship, there were colleagues who told her that she’d won the award only because she’s a woman.  This kind of thinking—that women’s professional accomplishments are due to tokenism, not their abilities or hard work—plays a role in why women may be overlooked for leadership roles in their field, like editorial positions.  “[Editorial boards] are looking for someone who is mature, has expertise, and can review articles and point toward directions that elucidate deficiencies in others’ work,” says Emelianenko. “They want to be assured that this person is very well-qualified. But this doubt—“this lady has published a lot and gotten some grants, but it’s because she’s a woman”—may hurt women.”

It could also be the case that women in math are producing less work compared to their male colleagues. Working women shoulder more of housework and child-rearing responsibility than men, which could have a real affect on their output. Emelianenko says she’s seen colleagues struggle to balance family responsibilities with work. “One colleague had a C-section and had to teach in a week,” she says. “She didn’t think she could fight for her rights, because [the colleague’s department] had no departmental policies about it, and she was on the tenure track, so if she refused to do it she worried she would not get the job she wanted.”

But even if some women are producing less work—or God forbid, taking a few days off to have a baby—that says nothing about the quality of their work. “I don’t have time to write 10 articles a year, but say I write two—two that are not incremental papers, but something deeply interesting and thorough,” says Emelianenko. But academic environments often reward quantity of output over quality.

Gender disparities may be especially pervasive in mathematics due of the culture of the field. It has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and it can feel like an old boys’ club to many women. Brodsky tells me when she entered her graduate program, she was one of six women in a cohort of 40. She was horrified to learn from a classmate that her male colleagues had exclusive social outings. “They would get beers after work and rank the six of us in terms of who was hottest and most fuckable,” she says. After discovering this, it was hard to feel like she was being taken seriously. “That’s one good example of why I could never feel like an actual colleague—[we women] are just gossip to discuss.”

Of course, sexist behavior and harassment are not specific to math. But there are other aspects to the culture of math that contribute to an environment that undervalues women, like its reverence for objectivity. “Part of what sets math apart from other fields is the belief, on the part of the practitioners, in the ultimate perfection of their system,” says Moon Duchin, a mathematician at Tufts University. In academia, and especially math, objectivity is an ideal quality: scholars must separate themselves from their work. But humans, by nature, make subjective and biased decisions even if they are striving for objectivity. Those committed to scholarly objectivity may pass off their personal beliefs as ultimate truths without recognizing their own biases may have crept in. Duchin recalls a conference she attended as a second-year graduate student where mathematicians were ‘objectively’ rating colleagues. “The game of the evening involved naming two people, and everyone had to say who was better. That’s a particularly crass example,” she says, but it illustrates the pervasive belief in the field that there’s an objective way to measure who is a “good” mathematician. “If that’s your ideological commitment, then of course you’re going to discount implicit bias.”

Topaz, Sen, Duchin, Emelianenko, and Brodsky all shared ideas about how their field could eliminate barriers for women, from anonymizing paper submissions to reduce bias associated with male or female names and developing better parental leave policies to making a point of including multiple women on editorial boards. “A lot of editorial boards have one woman, and not a lot have two. One can be a token, but the move from one to two could be huge,” says Duchin.

But addressing the disparity will take more than changing journal practices; many mathematicians say they’ve seen firsthand how gender disparities begin early in students’ education. Sen says it’s common in his own classroom. “Women come into my introduction to computer science class and when they don’t quite get something, they think, I don’t get this, it looks like everyone else is getting this, I’m just not good at this,” he notices. But men, he says, just figure everyone else is equally stumped. “They think ‘I don’t get this, everyone else in the class doesn’t get it either.’” Studies have found similar differences in male and female confidence in math with high school and even elementary school students. Sen says he thinks it’s important to address these attitudes with his students, and normalize the idea that people need time to digest new concepts. “The biggest impact I can make is in my classroom, especially in the intro levels, where the culture is coagulating.”

Sen and Topaz are hopeful that more participation from women, especially in top ranks, will improve the field. “There’s research that shows that the best decision making happens when you have a diverse group of people,” says Sen. “If half the world’s population is not participating in math, you’re missing out on half of the really good people.”

via The Atlantic http://ift.tt/2foAK2G

Harvard’s Social-Justice Paradox

Harvard University and more than 700 of the school’s dining workers have come to a “tentative agreement” over wages and health benefits after a weeks-long strike, the union representing those workers said Tuesday. It’s the apparent culmination of a battle that has embodied the ironies of the Ivory Tower and brought into question the role of university endowments.

Brian Lang, the president of Unite Here Local 26, said in a statement that the bargaining committee felt the two sides had hammered out an agreement that addressed “all of the concerns.” But he added that the strike would continue until a vote could be taken on Wednesday. The group declined to disclose specific details of the agreement until then. Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The university, which has the largest endowment of any school in the United States at $35.7 billion, had been locked in negotiations for months with dining workers, who called for year-round pay (many dining halls close over the summer) and a salary increase of several thousand dollars to $35,000. The workers also asked the school not to raise out-of-pocket health expenses, which some workers said were already in the $4,000 range.

In a moving opinion piece in The New York Times on Monday, a worker named Rosa Ines Rivera said that she’d passed up on an appointment to get a spot on her lung checked for cancer to limit co-pays after a doctor said her daughter might need surgery.

Rivera, who wrote that she’d been employed by the school for 17 years, added:

Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment. But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.

During the weeks of dialogue, in which students walked out of classes in support of workers and staged sit-ins in administrative buildings, the university and its supporters countered that workers were making about $22 an hour, higher than most local food-service workers. The school also pointed out that it had asked all union workers, not just those in dining, to pay more for insurance coverage, and that insurance costs are rising. (The Obama administration announced this week that premiums for Obamacare insurance plans were up 25 percent.)

But the headlines (such as “Harvard Has Billions, So Why Won’t It Pay Workers a Living Wage?”), and the general sentiment among Harvard students and some faculty members was largely sympathetic to the workers, asking why the richest school in the country and the birthplace of some of the nation’s most progressive policies couldn’t part with a few million dollars and significantly improve quality of life for the workers who help keep the university and its students running.

“Time for the school to show some moral leadership and set an example for the rest of higher ed,” Emil Guillermo, a self-identified working-class kid who attended the school on scholarship in the 1970s, wrote in Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Harvard can do that easily by taking care of the people who never graduate but choose to give their lives to make Harvard work.”

While it is true that endowment funds are sometimes earmarked for specific uses, and that the school’s endowment reported a disappointing 2 percent loss this year, the school announced last month that it had raised north of $7 billion in a capital campaign.

One commenter on the Times article wrote, “Harvard Corporation’s response to the strike has been cold and unfeeling. Rather than responding to the personal struggles of the strikers, they simply sent out an email with some cherry-picked statistics, basically calling the workers entitled. Harvard Corp also asked if any students would mind volunteering to set out sandwiches. Unsurprisingly, no one volunteered. It doesn’t work like that Harvard, you have to pay people.”

Dining-hall employees who don’t have the opportunity to work at the university year-round aren’t able to collect unemployment because, as an educational institution, Harvard doesn’t have to pay that benefit.

The strike highlights growing tension around how wealthy institutions treat their workers, many of them immigrants of color, who keep the campuses running. These are institutions that have been criticized in recent years for educating predominantly well-off white students while failing to adequately open their doors to lower-income, often minority, scholars. While schools were not immune to the recession, many weathered the economic downturn far more easily than the workers who help sustain them.

A Harvard Magazine piece last year pointed out that one of the Harvard endowment’s managers earned more than $11 million in 2013. The school’s president, Drew Faust, makes in the upper six figures, but also has access to perks like an official residence and retirement benefits that take total compensation north of a million dollars annually.

Yet at the same time as the school’s top officials have pulled in lofty salaries and as big corporations beyond school gates have rebounded in the ensuing years, hourly-wage workers have continued to struggle, with median weekly earnings just surpassing a 2009 peak this March. Elite universities, which employ both highly compensated, highly respected academic leaders and low-wage workers who sometimes feel invisible, offer a depressing illustration of the widening gap between the richest and the poorest Americans.

And as cities have gentrified and young professionals earning good salaries have opted to put down roots in places like Boston and Los Angeles, neighborhoods that were previously accessible for hourly workers have grown too expensive, pushing families out of homes and communities they’ve lived in for decades.

A recent survey of workers in the University of California system, which has an endowment of more than $14 billion, found that seven in 10 workers in clerical, administrative, and support services struggle to afford enough healthy food for their families. Although the system, California’s third-largest employer, announced last year that it would pay employees and contract workers a minimum of $15 an hour, the highest of any public-university system in the country, the average wage of the workers in this latest study was already $22 an hour. A 2013 report from the California Budget Project found that a single parent with two kids needs to make about $36 an hour. A faculty strike also over wages and healthcare costs recently ended in Pennsylvania.

The final details of the Harvard agreement are under wraps for now, but the union workers appear to view the outcome as a win. Beyond that, the strike, the union’s first on the campus in more than 30 years, seems to have brought together two groups of people—students and the workers who feed and care for them—who usually operate in different spheres despite sharing the same physical space together.

As a dining worker who participated in the negotiation process, William H. Sawyer, told Harvard’s student paper, “I’m feeling great about it, everything feels good … The students and everyone behind us [have] been really inspirational… they kept us up, up, up, up and alive about this.”

via The Atlantic http://ift.tt/2dGdHiC

How the Internet Wrecked College Admissions

Over the last decade, the internet has made it much easier for students to apply to college, especially thanks to services like the “Common App.” For the nearly 700 schools now part of the Common Application—the nation’s leading standardized online college-application portal—students can browse by name, state, or region, by the type of institution (public or private), and by whether it’s co-ed or single-sex. Clicking on a college takes students to a brief profile of the school and then an invitation: “Ready to apply?”

And now that students can apply to more colleges with the click of a few buttons, they are doing exactly that. In 2013, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), 32 percent of college freshmen applied to seven or more colleges—up 10 percentage points from 2008. Almost all of this growth has been online. In the 2015-16 admissions cycle, over 920,000 students used the Common App, more than double the number in 2008–09.

On the one hand, the internet has been good news for college access. Officials at the Common App, for example, say 31 percent of the college applicants who used the portal in 2015–16 were first-generation students. Students and their families are also now smarter consumers of what’s likely to be among the biggest ticket items they will ever buy: a college education. The internet has also been great news for college marketing departments, which can now reach many more students—and more cheaply—than they could via old-fashioned snail mail.

But the growing piles of applications are also causing problems—both for colleges and for students. While schools might welcome the rush of national exposure from a broader pool of prospects, they also increasingly face the problem of sorting out qualified, serious applicants—students who not only have the right academic chops but would actually enroll if accepted—from the scrum. And so long as the sheer volume of applications continues to rise, the odds of colleges’ guessing wrong rise too—which, in fact, is what’s happening, with dire consequences.

For students, the flip side is how to rise above the growing tide of competition, or how to hedge their bets if they don’t. For middle-class and upper-income students, this means more hassle, anxiety, and expense. But for lower-income students, it means barriers that could prove insurmountable. While the college-admissions process has long been a game that favors those who know the rules, a crowded market is just one more way of stacking the deck against those who don’t or can’t afford to play.

For many schools, the national applicant pool made available by the internet has been a great way to raise their “selectivity”—a metric that matters greatly for traditional college rankings, like those of U.S. News & World Report. The lower the percentage of students admitted, the more “selective” the college. This means a school that admits the same number of students every year can appear more “selective” if its applicant pool is bigger and more students are rejected.

Many schools discovered that online applications, including the Common App, were an easy way to help grow the pool of prospects. The Common App, for example, offers a standardized application, “auto-fills” students’ personal data from form to form, and offers tools to help manage submissions. Adding new schools to a student’s wish list can be accomplished with a click. At some schools, simply replying to an email is enough to make a student an applicant. “As colleges moved to online applications, many of them looked to streamline the process so it wouldn’t be as cumbersome for students,” says David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC. “A lot of colleges also found that it resulted in a lot more applications coming in.”

At the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, freshman applications jumped by roughly 28 percent in 2013, the year the university joined the Common App, and have continued to grow, according to the admissions director, Kevin MacLennan. While the school saw 22,437 applications in 2013, it fielded 34,100 applications this year. Most of that growth has also come from out-of-state and international students, from whom applications have risen by more than 10,000 since 2013. “The quality of our applicants has gone up,” MacLennan says. “[It has] increased in grade-point average and high-school rank, but in test scores as well.”

For smaller schools, a digital admissions marketplace has helped to shortcut their path into the national or international spotlight. “Who knew about Macalester [in St. Paul, Minnesota] in the early 1990s, or Rollins [outside Orlando, Florida]?” says Jeff Knox, an educational consultant who works with the Bethesda, Maryland–based firm PrepMatters. “But they’re becoming really popular.”

The concern for colleges is that selectivity and national reach aren’t the only metrics that matter. Just as critical is “yield”—the share of accepted students who actually enroll. It’s what colleges use to project their revenues and manage their finances, and miscalculations can be fatal. Too few students—too low a yield—can spell shortfalls that lead to budget cuts, fewer classes, or even faculty layoffs. In 2013, for example, Joseph Urgo, the president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, resigned after the school fell short of its enrollment targets by nearly 25 percent. On the other hand, too many enrollments could mean not enough student housing or financial aid. At Temple University earlier this year, an unexpected number of acceptances for the incoming freshman class—a higher-than-expected yield—caused the school to exceed its financial-aid budget by $22 million and resulted in the abrupt ouster of both the provost Hai-Lung Dai and the president Neil Theobald.

Most schools, however, are having trouble finding the right students. In fact, despite the online application boom, schools are in crisis around yield. NACAC’s State of College Admission survey found that the average four-year college yield rate was 35.7 percent in 2013—down from 48.7 percent in 2002. At the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, MacLennan, the admissions director, says that while about half of the in-state students who are accepted are likely to enroll, the school yields one out-of-state student for every five or six offers—a yield rate of roughly 20 percent. At Drexel, a university in Philadelphia which was one of the schools that pioneered the reply-to-this-email-and-you’re-an-applicant trick, the school’s yield rate plummeted to as low as 8 percent despite a surge of applications. The college has since taken steps to stem the flood by returning to a more traditional process.

The cause of all this volatility is a problem in the college-admissions marketplace that the Stanford University economics professor and Nobel laureate Alvin Roth calls “congestion.” “Congestion is what happens when you have a lot of people in the market and too many offers,” says Roth, the author of Who Gets What—and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design. “It’s gotten easier to apply to colleges, but now colleges get many more applicants. That changes the ‘signal to noise’ ratio.” It’s an ironic and unintended consequence of college admissions on the internet: The seeming efficiency of online applications means less efficiency overall.

But if colleges are aiding and abetting this market congestion, a big share of the burden of coping with it has fallen on prospective students, the wealthiest of whom are best equipped to navigate the marketplace.

For example, many schools are increasingly relying on “early decision” and other tools to secure commitments from top recruits. According to NACAC, nearly half of colleges said they admitted more students through early decision during the 2013-14 admissions cycle, while the number of early-decision applicants also grew. While colleges enjoy the certainty of a student’s commitment to their school (and the resulting boost in yield), the downside for students is less ability to compare financial-aid packages across schools. As a result, affluent students are the most likely to apply early decision, especially to more selective schools. A 2016 investigation by The Washington Post found that many top schools filled as many as half of their freshmen classes with early-decision students, effectively shutting out lower-income students from a big part of the applicant pool.

The same bias afflicts schools’ increasing reliance on “demonstrated interest”—another tactic colleges use to raise their yield by looking for proactive indications that a student will enroll if accepted. “It used to be that applying was how you demonstrate interest, but it’s just not the case these days,” says Knox, the educational consultant. In fact, some admissions officials say that “demonstrated interest” is now almost as important as an essay or teacher recommendation in determining who gets admitted.

The best way for a student to demonstrate interest is to visit the campus. The problem is that while a college tour might be a rite of passage for middle-class and affluent students, it’s far less feasible for students without the resources or support to visit prospective schools.

In addition to campus visits, colleges are also creating elaborate systems to track and measure students’ interest in other ways. “Colleges now have these sophisticated electronic dashboards so that every interaction with them is logged into the system,” says the NACAC’s Hawkins. “Even something as simple as liking a college on Facebook—that’s a little checkmark in your dashboard. It’s part of a very comprehensive recruitment strategy that colleges are now engaged in because of this uncertainty around yield.”

“We also know every interaction students have had with the university,” says MacLennan, from the University of Colorado Boulder. “Maybe they’ve come in and visited the campus for an information session. Maybe they’ve toured the campus. Maybe they’ve shown up on a high-school visit or brought their parents to one of our hotel programs. We have a record of not only how many times we have contacted them but how many times they’ve contacted us, and that will begin to show the strength of their interest.” These records can begin as early as ninth grade.

Of course, most students have no idea that this is how colleges are judging them. Some do, however, because they have the means to hire private educational consultants who can explain the rules of the current admissions marketplace. “One way to tell that the market is dysfunctional is if you have to hire a guide,” says Roth, from Stanford. “The college-admissions process at one point was supposed to be something that high-school seniors could do for themselves.”

According to Mark Sklarow, the CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the number of private educational consultants has skyrocketed over the past decade. Sklarow estimates that there are 5,000 full-time consultants nationwide, including the roughly 1,500 who are members of his organization, plus another 10,000 to 15,000 consultants working part-time. Thirty years ago, Sklarow says, educational consultants numbered less than 100 and catered exclusively to the highest-income families. Today, he says, the typical client is a middle-class or upper-middle-class student in a public school. Despite the mainstreaming of private counseling, it’s still expensive. Sklarow says that the typical cost of hiring a consultant to help with college admission is about $4,500, spread out over three years, beginning in a student’s sophomore year. While some consultants charge a flat fee, others charge an hourly rate, which averages $160 nationally.

In addition to the perceived complexities of applying to college, the shortage of public-school counselors is what’s driving demand for private admissions consultants. “There’s an increased need for counseling and a decrease of availability,” Sklarow says. The average ratio of students to school counselors in public schools was 491 to 1 in 2014, according to the American School Counselor Association, up from 460 to 1 in 2012. According to a study by the nonprofit CLASP, high-poverty public high schools are about twice as likely as other schools to have no counselor at all. Instructively, many private admissions consultants have gotten into the business because their jobs as high-school guidance counselors were eliminated.

The confusion caused by the congestion in the college-admissions market, together with a shortage of guidance counselors and the emerging dance around “demonstrated interest,” could exacerbate the problem of “under-matching,” where high-quality lower-income candidates are channeled into less-selective schools, where their chances of graduating are lower and their lifetime earnings lower even if they do graduate. But there are growing risks for other students, as well, because there’s no obvious endpoint for the escalation in applications. As long as students continue to apply to more and more schools, the noise in the market and its attendant uncertainties will increase. This, in turn, prompts yet more applications by students anxious to hedge their bets by casting a wider and wider net. It’s a deepening, bottomless spiral.

Unless the colleges choose to stop it.

One way to do this, says the Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant Shelley Levine, is for colleges to stop marketing to students just to pump up their application numbers and “selectivity.” For one thing, this system is unfair to students. “You wouldn’t believe the students who come into our office saying they’ve received letters from Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Washington University saying they’re just the kind of candidate the school is looking for,” she says. “I say stop giving false hope.”

But the only way for this to happen is for colleges to abandon their obeisance to “selectivity” and other metrics that distort students’ choices toward “prestige” and away from the more important consideration of fit. Given the losing battle that colleges seem to be engaged in over the question of yield, this is one place where what’s best for students might be the right answer for colleges, too.


This post appears courtesy of Washington Monthly.

via The Atlantic http://ift.tt/2eyguA1

A new school year. A new fight against affirmative action. This time at Harvard.

Harvard’s affirmative action case picks up where Fisher ended.

A two-year-old lawsuit accusing Harvard University of maintaining racial quotas against Asian-American students is moving forward to wage the latest battle against affirmative action.

In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit organization behind the Fisher v. University of Texas case led by conservative political strategist Ed Blum, who is white, filed a lawsuit against Harvard on behalf of an anonymous Asian student who was rejected by the university, allegedly despite perfect test scores and graduating at the top of their class.

The case was put on hold until after the Supreme Court made a ruling in Fisher. This summer, the Court upheld holistic affirmative action policies as constitutional, so the SFFA case is moving forward, the Harvard Crimson reported. Like Fisher, the SFFA lawsuit seeks to dismantle affirmative action, but the strategy for this case is slightly different. Instead of arguing that people of color are given preferential treatment over more qualified white students, the case against Harvard centers on Asian-American students, to attack affirmative action on the grounds that it hurts people of color too.

Harvard isn’t alone. In May, the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a civil rights complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Yale University, Dartmouth College, and Brown University for reportedly maintaining racial quotas at the expense of Asian-American students with perfect test scores.

The message is clear: Meritocracy is more ideal than holistic review that includes race, and attacking affirmative action isn’t racist if people who experience racism say they are harmed by the policy too.

As OiYan Poon, a professor of education at Loyola University Chicago, told Vox, this strategy is fraught with racial anxiety among a small segment of Asian Americans speaking out on the behalf of a much larger group with much more complex feelings on the matter than the plaintiffs would let the public believe.

Affirmative action isn’t simply a black and white issue — even if Asian-American students are made to fit into the conversation as if it is.

Below is my conversation with Poon, edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Massie

I wanted to see if you could talk a bit about what you’ve seen with the affirmative action movement among Asian Americans.

OiYan Poon

The [Office for Civil Rights] complaints are actually primarily led by Chinese-American immigrants. In my research, over the past six months it’s been very difficult to find non-Chinese immigrants who are involved in that effort. And when I say Chinese immigrants, there’s a very specific type of Chinese immigrant that is involved in these legal efforts. They tend to be wealthy, and men, specifically, are the ones who are really leading the OCR complaint by what’s called the Asian American Coalition for Education [AACE].

The people involved in that organization are all immigrants from mainland China who came here primarily for graduate education. They’re very highly educated and relatively well-to-do, and of a very privileged status, even before coming to the United States. So that gives you a little bit of a picture of who these people are who are involved.

So I find it interesting, and I wonder how much of the SFFA versus Harvard case is a white man–led effort from a very conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), of fighting historical voting rights that were won for people of color and other areas of civil rights laws. I find it very intriguing to see this difference. And so my question in my research at this point is how are Asian Americans actually actively fighting affirmative action? I honestly don’t know, and I doubt the level of involvement Asian Americans have in the SFFA versus Harvard case.

Victoria Massie

What does it mean to have Ed Blum, who is a white man, behind a case to dismantle affirmative action on behalf of an unnamed Asian student?

OiYan Poon

He’s actually following a very tried-and-true pattern of "racial mascoting." By using and essentially fronting an Asian student as the victim, he, as a white man behind the scenes, and AEI, as a predominantly white and conservative organization, can wage these campaigns, especially against affirmative action, and say, "It’s not a white person who’s fighting this anymore, so it must mean it’s not a racist campaign."

The racial mascot as an Asian American provides a kind of racial cover to deflect accusations of their efforts as being anti–civil rights. In fact, they can turn it around and say this campaign is for civil rights because the victims [they’re] fighting for are not white. They are a minority.

It’s a complicated racial divide that critical race legal scholars have actually documented since the 1960s, in various cases. It very much follows the idea of Asian Americans being labeled a model minority, which is a stereotype of how to achieve as an Asian American.

What’s often forgotten is that Asians are claimed as a "model" to shame and dismiss other people of color’s claims of racial barriers. It’s complicated, but it’s deeply ingrained in the kind of racial pop culture of our country at this point.

Victoria Massie

I’m glad you brought up the issue of the Asian model minority myth. Typical affirmative action discussions hinge on the issue of meritocracy — that what makes affirmative action fundamentally flawed is that people who are getting a "leg up" are seen as inherently undeserving compared to those people who have had advantages. Race tends to be one of the major dividing lines, and test scores are viewed as unbiased benchmarks. And yet test scores don’t take race out the equation, especially when white people are more likely to advocate for holistic review when Asian students are considered to be their competition.

OiYan Poon

Even with the test scores, there have been studies trying to understand why Asian immigrant populations are scoring on average higher than some white students are. And that research has shown that in these immigrant communities, they have a high level of anxiety around making it in American society that have created these kinds of cottage industries around the country in various ethnic communities called “cram schools.”

If you just drive down the peninsula, even just El Camino, [California,] you’ll see tons of these Asian cram schools. And it’s reflective of the kinds of anxiety of needing to make it because other pathways for mobility that are open for white middle-class students may be closed off.

There have been some psychological studies that because some Asian immigrant communities feel [they have] very limited pathways for mobility, they see education as a proven track for mobility, and they’re investing a whole lot in that area. What’s transparent about the elite college admissions pathway is they think the test score is everything, when it really isn’t.

Some of the folks I’ve been interviewing, who are campaigning actively against affirmative action, they’re all Chinese, and they’re almost all immigrants, and they’re almost all men. They often cite Thomas Epenshade, a retired sociologist from Princeton. And his work is from the 1990s, and his conclusion is that Asian Americans need to score something like 140 to 200 points more than anyone else to get into the same schools. So it’s this test score gap that a lot of the opponents of affirmative action are claiming as smoking gun evidence of anti-Asian bias.

What they’re not accounting for is the fact that his study was done prior to the current system of admissions, which is holistic review. So once Grutter v. Bollinger happened in 2003, elite colleges really beefed up their holistic review processes. Gratz v. Bollinger, the other Michigan case in 2003, barred the use of point systems.

So especially after Fisher this summer, the consideration of race in selective admissions is done in such a way that it is so minimal. You can’t tell how it’s actually influencing decisions because, as Justice Kennedy said this summer, it has to be a factor within a factor. And that’s echoing the Gratz decision that said that points systems were not allowable. So there’s no bonus or clear preference. Grutter also says you can’t use race as a determinative factor; it can only be one of many factors. And then Fisher this summer clarified that it has to be a factor within a factor.

I honestly believe for my research that there is an intense anxiety amongst some of these Chinese-American immigrants. And they see this Princeton’s sociologist’s work as smoking gun evidence of anti-Asian bias. But even he’s admitted as a retired sociologist, publicly, multiple times, that [his] research has little relevance to today’s admissions landscape and context. So it doesn’t tell you what’s going on internally, because he considered three factors, and holistic review considers a multitude of factors for admissions.

Victoria Massie

You brought up racial anxiety. How does that fit into the kind of profile of those who are fighting against affirmative action?

OiYan Poon

First, these people make up a super-small segment of the Chinese population and so an even smaller segment of the Asian-American population. I think they appear bigger than they are because of the general media coverage of them. And because of their economic privilege and status, they are able to launch louder campaigns and more effective campaigns. They’re a minority within a minority.

But across these people that I’ve interviewed, there’s a few things. There’s a cultural nationalism that they’re identifying with, especially for folks who were born and raised in China, in an era post-Mao in the 1980s, which was a different China, I think, than the postwar China that my parents came from. In fact, one of the interviewees actually told me that I wasn’t really Chinese. But they definitely note the segmentation even within the Chinese community.

So these folks come from an upper echelon, even in China. And the system for success that they acknowledge in China, that their families and they themselves really benefited from, was a very clear class-driven educational system. Basically you took a test, and there was a cutoff score. And that cutoff score meant you were either going to the top universities or not. And so these folks scored very high in China, went to the best colleges in China, which is why they were able to come to the United States for graduate school. So they grew up in a post-Mao China that really instilled in their generation a cultural nationalism along with centuries-long colonial shame by Europeans.

And now, the 21st century, this is China’s century. This is the time for China to rise up. And so this is the atmosphere that a lot of these folks were raised in, I believe. So coming to the United States, you mix that cultural nationalism in with the fact that many of these folks that I’ve interviewed have experienced racism themselves and discrimination themselves, whether they be microaggressions or actually in the workplace in more serious ways. There’s certainly recognition of their lower status compared to the white middle class. So they may have the economic privileges here in the United States. But politically and socially and culturally, they recognize they’re still second-class citizens.

So my theory is the anxiety is partly about wanting to be accepted fully in the United States within the current status quo racial hierarchy because they have almost made it. So maybe being able to go to Ivy Leagues and be validated with that sort of education would be kind of like a social or cultural validation. They haven’t been able to reach the upper echelon, but the Ivy League certainly represents that upper echelon. And it’s almost like a stamp of approval, like, “Yeah, we made it, we’re accepted,” or, “I have this accomplishment that I’m entitled to.”

Victoria Massie

One of the things that is so interesting is that this one group is speaking for a much wider group of Asian immigrants in the US. Asian immigrants coming to the US during the 1970s and ’80s were more likely fleeing conflict and war. They didn’t arrive with the resources of this particular group that is now fighting affirmative action. How are these immigration narratives getting conflated and overlooked, especially considering how some policies like affirmative action can ameliorate other Asian communities in the US too?

OiYan Poon

I think one thing that is underlying all of this is the changes to immigration policy. So the immigrant flows prior to the ’90s were around family reunification and refugee resettlement. A lot of it was family reunification, and so that brought in a lot of different, diverse classes of immigrants from all over Asia. After the ’80s, immigration policy changed so drastically, and more recently even more drastically, to really cut off the flows of family reunification. So that basically cut off the working class of immigrants from Asia.

To this day, Asian Americans remain here because of policies that allow for family reunification, but this is changing because of the shift toward immigration policies that privilege the highly educated, the highly skilled professional. It’s interesting to see these more recent immigrants are increasingly — the largest groups are Chinese and Indian, in part because of those professional and highly educated preferences in immigration policy. And so political scientists like Karthick Ramakrishnan believe that because of these immigration changes, it may lead to these more recent immigrant inflows being predominantly more and more economically privileged and possibly more and more politically conservative.

So there may be some shifting dynamics.

Victoria Massie

And it seems like with the SFFA case and Blum, he’s exploiting this shift.

OiYan Poon

Exactly. Like I’ve said, these anti–affirmative action Chinese folks are a small minor segment, but they’re very loud. So Ed Blum can certainly take advantage of it.

Victoria Massie

What have you found to be the most pressing issues facing Asian students in higher education today? And how is the current affirmative action discussion potentially obscuring those issues?

OiYan Poon

I think that because this particular debate gets so much attention, folks tend to assume that a large [number] of Asian-American college students are at the Ivies, are at the Stanfords, when in actuality about half of them attend community colleges. They face similar challenges that many other students and students of color face, but that often doesn’t get much attention. That’s probably my biggest concern around the fact that [affirmative action] gets centered as the key concern.

The other thing is that [as] part of this conference that my colleagues and I were thinking about doing, we were raising the point that affirmative action is not just about higher education. That it may operate in one way in higher education, which has been very limited and is controversial perhaps among some Asian Americans. But affirmative action is also in employment, and public contracting.

I raised the point in 2009. I worked on a research study with a professor at UCLA where we compared San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta, and we compared how well Asian-American businesses were doing in these different regulatory climates, with the different ways affirmative action was implemented. And you would assume that in San Francisco, Asian-American businesses would be doing the best of the three cities, and in actuality they were doing the worst. Asian-American businesses in Atlanta were actually doing better than in San Francisco. And they were doing best in Chicago, where they had the most aggressive affirmative action policy.

Of course, in San Francisco, because of Proposition 209, in business contracting, affirmative action was banned — at least at the public county, state, city level. And Asian-American businesses were getting near zero public contracting dollars. Which is shocking in San Francisco, the Bay Area, knowing the demographics. So I was engaging in dialogue with these folks about how perhaps some of them want to start up small firms that, without affirmative action, we know for a fact these businesses suffer in and are hindered from accessing public contracting dollars, which contributes to wealth and asset development and the development of businesses.

I think that’s the other thing. If these folks’ voices are dominating the dialogue, I wonder if they’re forgetting that affirmative action is not just about college access but all other parts of social and public life. And some of them are against it in colleges but for it in business and employment, which is troubling to me. I don’t know how they reconcile it. And the other argument they provided to me was they were not against affirmative action. They were for affirmative action; they were just against race conscious affirmative action. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of this.

Victoria Massie

It’s so interesting, in part, because so much of affirmative action policies are not race-conscious specifically. Especially in education, with the holistic method, race is one of a multitude of factors. Nonetheless, racial quotas are often used to anchor the conversation. How do quotas misconstrue the terms of the debate, particularly when it comes to pushing for equity?

OiYan Poon

I think that one thing that has come up in my conversations with anti–affirmative action folks is their concern about even that term “underrepresented minority.” Several of them have told me, "Am I not a minority?" They’ve told me, "We’re not white. We do face racism. I have experienced challenges." But then the term underrepresented minority, I think one of my interviewees suggested that it was kind of a slap in their face. That it was a way to delineate between and clearly suggest that the minorities that institutional bodies actually care about are not them, as Asian, but specifically African Americans and Latinos. Nobody mentions Native Americans or indigenous folks unfortunately.

I think if it is really equity-minded, which is the goal, then specifically [with] numbers, we can get too caught up at the entry point for higher education, which is extremely important. So what happens when students of color get to campus and they enter curriculums that dismiss their cultural backgrounds, their cultural values, have no ethnic studies, no women and gender studies? Or generally have more hostile campus climates, which I think was very much so highlighted last year in the student activist campaigns.

At my own campus, students were protesting campus climate, which had a lot to do with institutional cultures. And there’s plenty of research students, including my own, who show even when you have white students who are not the majority, that there’s really racial pluralities instead of majorities — even on those campuses, there can be a hostile climate. I guess the question for me then becomes what is it that we are looking for? And I don’t think the public has fully come to a consensus about what equity-minded policy is.

I think for those in academia, at least in my field in higher education, we have a clear sense of what we mean by equity-minded policies and goals in higher education. But certainly that can be isolated from the public in the ivory tower. The public goals may be unclear, and I think that can contribute toward some of the venom when you don’t have very clear understandings of terminology.

Victoria Massie

In terms of what we’re seeing with the Harvard case, what kind of precedent do you think this case could set for affirmative action in a post-Fisher era?

OiYan Poon

The interesting thing about the SFFA case, specifically against Harvard, is that it was seeking to end legacy preferences, which I think that a lot of people, including pro–affirmative action people, could get behind interestingly. The more concerning aspect of the case is its call [for] unholistic review, which is troubling because holistic review is really about looking at each applicant as a whole person, more than just their grades, test scores, and other quantitative measures and various other characteristics. It goes back to this point system that I don’t think really benefits many students at all.

At some campuses, they consider over 900 factors. Things like can you pay full tuition, or what high school did you go to, and have that high school’s other alumni entering been academically successful? There’s hundreds of criteria that different institutions use to determine whether or not to admit a student.

And perhaps this is part of the anxiety that I mentioned around some of these folks. That we really don’t know — there’s no transparency in how admissions is done at these private universities. And I say private universities because most of these lawsuits have been at public universities, including the companion case at [University of North Carolina]. I’ve talked to a few lawyers who don’t think the Harvard case will go very far, but the Harvard case is used more as a narrative to push the agenda.

But back to your original question around the potential legacies of a Harvard case going forward. It really is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater of holistic review affirmative action. But then there is that intriguing aspect of fighting legacy preferences.

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UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power.

A letter from the University of Chicago’s dean of students to the incoming students of the class of 2020 has been making the rounds on social media the past few days. Its purpose, I guess, was to let those students know they were in for a real education. More of a full-on broadside than a welcome letter, the dean let the incoming students know that the university is totally committed to academic freedom and "freedom of expression" from its faculty and students.

What this means in practice, the letter continues, is that "we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." And, if you’ve watched students at other campuses, the dean warns, don’t get any crazy ideas about protesting invited speakers: "we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial." And, for the love of Milton Friedman, "Our commitment to academic freedom means we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings.’" WE ARE A MIGHTY RACE OF INTELLECTUAL WARRIORS.

I’ve been teaching on the college level for 18 years, and I also direct my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, so I’ve been following the debate over "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the purported scourge of "political correctness" for quite a while. Despite the apocalyptic tone that often accompanies screeds against supposedly coddled students and their trigger-free safe spaces, the issues involved strike me as far more complicated than the overheated rhetoric suggests.

As with any conversation about teaching and learning, context and nuance matter greatly — but they’re not present in most of the critics’ attempted takedowns of trigger warnings (better called "content advisories," in my estimation) or safe spaces.

Students deserve much more credit than they get in the UChicago letter

I’m dismayed by how diatribes like the Chicago letter approach students in adversarial terms, implying that they don’t know how to make choices or approach material when it comes to their learning. Our students deserve more credit than they get in these types of polemics; as I’ve argued elsewhere, they are far from the coddled, entitled softies that they’re often painted as. Rather than obsessing about a cartoonish version of what some hypothetical Oberlin graduate might say, we ought to engage with our students as the real and complex people that they actually are.

As you might imagine, though, there’s been a wave of support from the usual quarters for the Chicago letter and its sentiments; I assume that’s what such a blatant attempt at elitist posturing was aiming for in the first place. On the surface, the points seem hard to argue with.

Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that. And that’s what this dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on — that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed.

The screed is a manifesto looking for an audience

Even the timing of this missive raises questions. Why go full blast against this purported scourge of wimpy, touchy-feely educational malpractice right up front? Is there a safe-spaces petition percolating in the ranks of the first-years? Are the dean and the university worried that people will lose respect for the almighty maroon if they didn’t stake out the tough-guy intellectual turf from the beginning? Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?

From the outside, it looks like a lot of smoke without much heat. I suspect that this letter is not intended as an orientation statement, but rather a public rebuke to what its authors see as a threat to their vision of what higher education ought to be. It’s not a welcome letter, it’s a manifesto looking for an audience.

And as a statement of principle, the letter — as does much of the general argument against trigger warnings and safe spaces — relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance. The document comes from a place, I imagine, where the true defenders of Academic Rigor™ man the parapets against the encroaching legions of namby-pamby liberals who want to coddle students instead of teach them.

Ohhh, you want a safe space so the mean nasty Truths of the world won’t hurt your wittle feewings. You want to be "warned" before we discuss "sensitive" subjects. WELL HEY JUNIOR, "WAR AND PEACE" HAS WAR IN IT. If you don’t like it, go sit on the quad and sing "Kumbayah" with the other flower children.

That’s the specter that arguments like this conjure up: The greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.

That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction — people still read Allan Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called "political correctness" in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and — most significantly — the student population.

What’s really behind the hand-wringing: the gatekeepers want to remain in place

Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives.

If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do? And what does it cost? A student may choose an alternate text I provide, but this material isn’t savagely ripped out of my course to satiate the PC police.

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos.

Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social Darwinist assertions that certain "races" are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

These two examples — one centered in an individual classroom and the other involving institutional decisions — speak to the diversity and complexity of the issues involved. It’s easy to inveigh against silly scenarios. It’s much harder to address real things that really happen. Do I tell my student that, even though she was the victim of a brutal assault in her past, she must read testimony of gang-rape survivors in my course in order to uphold the sacred values of free intellectual inquiry?

Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views. But is it okay for us to use student fees paid in part by African-American students to bring him to campus, fête him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites? Well, he makes a strong argument and isn’t bound by conventional "niceties." Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the reason people claim to like Donald Trump, and I don’t see universities lining up to bring him in as a guest lecturer.

Ignoring the complexity of real-life situations is a common accusation hurled at academics and the academy in general. Why on earth would we be so eager, in this case, to prove those accusations true? To prevent imaginary sit-down strikes against Victorian literature, we’re willing to force students into a predetermined path where to deviate is to compromise academic integrity? Are we so scared of losing the intellectual heft of our curricula that we want to muzzle our students and deprive them of agency?

Or are we just afraid of our students challenging us and holding us accountable to the very values we profess?

Our first reaction to expressions of student agency should not be to shut them down

As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value — and it isn’t them.

The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset — in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat, but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students.

Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting — from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.

Kevin Gannon, PhD, is professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to his own blog at thetattooedprof.com, he writes on pedagogy and academia at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae and the Teaching US History blog. Find him on Twitter @TheTattooedProf.

This article was adapted from a post that originally ran on The Tattooed Professor.

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us atfirstperson@vox.com.

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Poor and Uneducated: The South’s Cycle of Failing Higher Education

ATLANTA—The existence of Civil War emblems on campus has pounded out a drumbeat of angst and activism at universities across the South in the last few years.

But some campuses in this region are part of another North-South rift that’s gotten less attention:

Southern states have been disproportionately cutting spending on public higher education. In a region where the poorest families already face some of the nation’s highest poverty rates, forced tuition increases make their colleges and universities among the least affordable, a slew of recent data show.

This contributes to falling enrollment in states already struggling with some of the nation’s lowest percentages of residents with college educations.

It’s “a vicious circle,” said Dave Spence, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB. “You’ve got a region that’s poor. Why? Because it’s undereducated.” Yet budget cuts keep pushing university and college degrees out of the reach of many.

Three of the five states that have most reduced their funding per public college and university student from 2008 to 2016 are southern, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan research institute. Louisiana led the way among these southern states with a 39 percent decrease, followed by South Carolina and Alabama.

Seven of the 20 states with the deepest cuts in higher-education spending are in the South, another report measuring funding decreases from 2010 to 2015 found. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO, said Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia each decreased spending on public colleges and universities by at least 10 percent.

That means most of the states with the highest cost of college for families earning less than $30,000 a year are now also in the South, according to a new report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. In many of those states, about a quarter of the population earns that much or less.

Four of the five states where a community college costs the most for the poorest students are southern: Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Arkansas. Low-income families there would have to pay anywhere from 39 percent to 47 percent of their annual household incomes to pay for a two-year degree, the Penn study found.

And all five of the costliest four-year public university degrees for low-income families are in the South, the same study shows: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas, where the poorest students would have to spend from half to three-quarters of their incomes to attend college.

These trends affect more than the number and income level of people on southern campuses, said Melanie Barton, the executive director of the independent, nonpartisan South Carolina Education Oversight Committee. They threaten the region’s economy and portend a further entrenchment of poverty.

“I’m scared to death we won’t have students in the pipeline for jobs,” said Barton, especially in newer fields such as high-tech manufacturing and healthcare administration.

Five of the 10 states with the lowest percentages of people who have college and university degrees are in the South, the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this, finds: Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

Of the top 25 metropolitan areas with the highest percentages of people with degrees, only two—Atlanta and Charlotte—are southern.

Meanwhile, five of the 10 states with the biggest declines in university enrollment are in the South, according to SHEEO: West Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina.

Barton said the low priority given by some governors and legislators to public higher education and the sort of associate’s degrees or certificates linked to newer jobs may be a throwback to a time when many workers in southern agriculture and manufacturing industries didn’t need one.

“It’s time to change the culture and our cultural aspirations,” Barton said.

Other observers say the problem stems in part from a more recent emphasis in southern states on giving money to students with good grades who may not have financial need  in order to keep them from moving away.

This amounts to “spending on students that are going to college anyway,” said William Doyle, a professor of public policy and higher education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, who studies college affordability. “You’ve got a set of states that have spent a lot time and money on solving the wrong problems.”

F. King Alexander, the president of Louisiana State University, said the real issue is a shortage of state funding overall. Louisiana, like some other southern states, has suffered from declining oil revenues and political resistance to increasing taxes.

Those and other reasons have led Louisiana to slash higher-education spending by nearly 40 percent since 2008, with more cuts likely, forcing a doubling of tuition and warnings that the very existence of Louisiana State is at risk.

Funding for Kentucky’s public higher education fell short this year by $26 million, resulting in a 6 percent increase in tuition and the layoffs of more than 500 faculty and staff. Gov. Matt Bevin, who has said taxpayers should support engineers but not humanities majors, has ordered another $18 million in cuts over the heads of the legislature. A judge has held he had the right to do this, though the case has been appealed.

State funding in Georgia has also fallen, and tuition in the University of Georgia system has doubled since 2008.

States in other parts of the country have also reduced higher-education spending, increased tuition, and seen enrollment drop. But not to the same degree as in the South.

Cuts like these also have a bigger impact here, where there are fewer alternatives to public higher education.

“The South has built its higher education system on the back of public education, unlike the Northeast, with its private colleges and universities,” Alexander said. “So it’s particularly damaging when appropriations are reduced, as has been the case in the last 10 years in the South.”  

Because tuition has increased and financial aid has shifted to students based on reasons other than financial need, Doyle said, “They’re not helping first-generation, under-represented, minority, low-income students to attend college.”

That’s the exact population that is in abundance and is growing in the South, where the number of Latinos in particular is among the fastest-growing in the nation.

In states such as Louisiana, Alexander said, if degrees in fields like health care remain out of reach for a large swath of the state’s population, those industries will be hobbled by the inability to find qualified employees. Therefore, they will contribute less state revenue and still less money to support the public universities and colleges.

It’s another vicious circle, he said.

Spence said the South needs to be innovative in the way it tries to solve this problem.

“We’ve got to find a way to be more efficient and help students increase post-secondary education without increasing costs—particularly since it appears that we’re not going to see an increase in appropriations,” Spence said.

But, he added, this is not a new imperative.

“I’ve said this once or twice a decade for the last three decades.”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

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In long-awaited decision, labor board says graduate students can unionize at private universities

Private universities will need to recognize graduate students who conduct research and help teach classes as employees and therefore accept the unions that they form, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

In a 3-1 decision, the board ruled that undergraduate and graduate student assistants and research assistants are statutory employees and are therefore covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The decision opens the door for the students and research assistants at private universities to band together to negotiate issues like pay, benefits, workload, and class size.

The decision came in response to a petition from graduate students at Columbia University and reversed a previous decision involving Brown University that found private universities are not required to recognize graduate student unions.

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In the new decision, board members wrote that the Brown decision not only had an incorrect interpretation of the act, “but also because of the nature and consequences of that error.” The decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act,” the members wrote.

Ahead of the decision, graduate students had been running union drives and preparing for union elections at top institutions including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. The efforts ramped up after New York University became the first private university to voluntarily recognize its graduate student union in 2013.

Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among the universities that opposed the petition before the board, warning that giving graduate students collective bargaining rights could destroy the mentor-student relationship.

Allen Aloise, dean for administration and fninance at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told STAT earlier this year that doctoral candidates “are students first” and that “it would be a mistake to change that relationship.”

The universities said that doctoral students were not employees because the research they conducted led them to their PhDs. Doctoral students often don’t pay tuition and in part do research and assist professors as part of the deal to get a degree tuition free.

The universities also argued that they could face disruptive grievances and years-long disputes over everything from graduate students having to grade essays, which students’ tuition got waived, and how many credits a student needed to become a teaching assistant.

The United Automobile Workers (which, despite its name, represents workers mostly from outside the auto industry nowadays) helped lead the union drive at institutions like Harvard. The union represents student unions at public institutions and NYU.

Students involved said that unionizing would allow them to negotiate stable livable stipends instead of having to rely in part on grants.

Graduate students also said that they could be both students and employees. When they were doing their own research, they were students. But when they were teaching classes, they were employees.

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