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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday, April 15, 2018
In proposing mass closures of liberal arts majors, the administration at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has made the most serious case I've seen for the conversion of liberal arts fields into service courses for career-focused majors. This conversion is not a provincial offshoot in the evolution of U.S. higher education. It is also not just the force-fed Christmas goose of right-wing cultural politics. Instead, it is a rational response to what I've argued elsewhere is the default budget logic of bipartisan austerity politics. So how should people respond to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point restructuring plan?

By protesting, for starters: the campus saw another march against the cuts on April 12 (above, photo credit Stevens Point Journal), with the goal of stopping the current proposal and turning an administrative decision into a planning dialogue. Twenty-three professional organizations have also opposed the across-the-board elimination of liberal arts majors and called for reconsideration (see below).

Two other responses are also necessary. The first is doing what Stevens Point folks have already been doing--setting out a public good framework for a regional university (see Part 1 of this post). Another is to put the UWSP plan, Point Forward, in its political context, in which it fits with, without being dictated by, a longstanding Republican effort, first formulated in the Powell Memorandum (1971), to re-subordinate the university's practices of autonomous inquiry to workforce needs and business norms. As Valerie Strauss put it in the Washington Post,
The push away from liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills — but with liberal political views.
And yet these three responses aren't enough: we also need a systematic analysis of whether the Point Forward plan makes sense and whether it has a good chance of working.

We have to start by recognizing that the UWSP administration more than half agrees with these first three reactions. It has itself called for campus participation in developing the plan. Its plan invokes the public good. It formally embraces the original Wisconsin Idea to pursue the truth for the benefit of the whole state and it rejects Republican-style vocationalism. This isn't a new position for them: soon after he became the chancellor of UWSP, Bernie Patterson blasted an earlier downsizing proposal from Scott Walker as "send[ing] UWSP back to the 19th century." So not only should we not read the UWSP administration as tools of Scott Walker and his Republican appointees: we should remember that austerity logic and vocationalism are also pursued by Democrats like Jerry Brown and Barack Obama. These are all reasons to take the plan seriously on its own terms. It has a good chance of being imitated.

For this post, I've reviewed not only the Point Forward plan but most of the posted video of campus debates, particularly provost Greg Summers' presentation to the campus on March 15 (with slides), as well as his reply to his critics in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm going to conclude that the plan is grounded in flawed assumptions and will likely make the campus's finances worse. The good news is that there is therefore plenty of room to improve the plan's conclusions as it is finalized in the coming months.


The plan is prompted by Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies, who had been turning the budget screws on Wisconsin higher ed for years when, in the last biennial budget, they took away another $250 million from the system over two years (while, coincidentally, giving the same amount to the Milwaukee Bucks for their new stadium). Stevens Point lost a higher share than any other campus in the system-- 25 percent of its state funds. Now the campus faces a $4.5 million structural deficit.

The sorrows of Stevens Point are deepened by prior struggles to make cuts work.
Within Academic Affairs over the years, we have tried nearly every . . . strategy [other than large program cuts], from improving the marketing, recruitment, and retention strategies of enrollment management to endlessly searching for cost-savings until efficiency became pervasive austerity. We have increased workloads, raised class sizes, reduced administrative spending, and nearly eliminated budgets for supplies, equipment, technology and facilities. We have restricted travel, sabbaticals, and other professional development, and declined for years to invest in salaries for our faculty and staff members. We have squeezed administrative support functions to a point where we are failing to provide badly needed services, especially in those areas on which we depend regardless of enrollment. In Information Technology alone, nine and a half positions have been lost in the past three years, a number that will likely grow further in the current restructuring—this at a time when the demands on their services and expertise are greater than ever.
This is awful. It is exactly what happens when irrational cuts are imposed on an institution, which is the steady degradation of everything. My heart goes out to all the folks who have been living with this for years.

Naturally, it's tempting to cut some things to save others.
In short, we have “lived without” across the entire Division of Academic Affairs, disadvantaging nearly all of our programs and services, and most importantly, undermining the education we provide our students. There is a limit to how long a university can thrive under these kinds of across-the-board austerity measures and remain a vital and thriving institution, and we have reached it. Restructuring our curriculum will not solve all these financial shortcomings by itself. Nevertheless, given our growing dependence on tuition and the current imbalance between expenditures and revenue, our only remaining alternative is to examine our curriculum, an operational area we have modestly adjusted in the past but never fundamentally restructured.
This is the moment of greatest danger. Having tried to get solvent and start growing again by adjusting non-core costs ("supplies, equipment, technology and facilities," then "travel, sabbaticals," etc.), desperate executives seek major savings in the educational core. I'd call this core, for regional universities, comprehensive, integrated instruction--not one or two unbundleable skill sets, like Java and Stata, but, for example, a combination of statistics, history, environmental studies, composition, and depth in at least one substantive field for a career goal of wildlife management. Given recent experience, the senior managers go after the core with a deep sense that there is no alternative (or TINA, as it was named in the Thatcher years).

Years before, UWSP management had identified the external environment as one that is hostile to their educational core. Hence the litany of cuts that have damaged it over the years--and their attempt to shield it as much as possible. Their implicit first planning choice was whether to let this hostile environment shape the restructuring, or to plan in defiance of this hostile environment. Though it appears paradoxical, a condition of austerity under which it seems like management has no choice at all is exactly the period when management must engage in the act of choosing. The act of choosing establishes that more than one framework or paradigm actually exists. In other words, it establishes for the campus that the TINA postulate is wrong.

UWSP did chose a paradigm-- the irreversible hostile environment. It appears in Greg Summers' cutest slide.

Summers et al. posited that what is happening to UWSP is like climate change--there's nothing a management team can do about declining funding, Wisconsin's shrinking youth population, or new entrants in the higher ed space. Summers referred to himself half-jokingly Chicken Little. Chicken Little says the sky is falling. He doesn't figure out how to keep the sky in place.

Holding up the sky sounds like a fool's errand. It isn't. It's always bad when the sky falls. There is always an alternative to accepting the conditions that created your decline in the first place. The alternative has to be created--in opposition to the hostile trends of austerity, loss of the youth population, and disruption that drives quality down. This would include, for example, (1) persistent confrontation with Ray Cross, the UW system president who has been lowering the public value of the whole UW system for years while allowing a minor deficit to knock this campus off course; (2) active recruitment of a higher percentage of a shrinking high school cohort into four-year public colleges, including Stevens Point; and (3) sharp differentiation of UWSP from certification programs and technical colleges by developing a comprehensive, integrated, diversity-friendly, and fulfilling curriculum.

The UWSP administration had a choice, and without public debate they choose the framework that would guide the planning: restructuring would be an adaptation to the hostile conditions of austerity, shrinkage, and downmarket disruptors. Their first planning assumption is

1. Adapt to a hostile environment.

This assumption guarantees that the plan would reflect austerity, shrinkage, and moves downmarket. Hence the plan's declaration:
[We confront this simple but vital question: Do we continue to offer the current number of majors, all of which will be chronically under-resourced and unable to serve students effectively, or do we reduce our program array so that the majors we offer, though fewer in number, are all adequately resourced and able to deliver the kind of rigorous, high-quality, and valuable education that our students deserve? We must choose the latter path, doing so in a way that maximizes potential enrollment and the service we provide to the region (emphasis omitted).
This is a false choice, since it leaves out the kind of restructuring in which the liberal arts and career-oriented majors are equal partners. It also reflects the general weakness with adapting to hostile trends, which is that it confirms their power:

  • Shrinking academic goals to arbitrarily cut budgets justifies further austerity.
  • Reduced curricular options narrows the range of potential students.
  • The campus (in spite of its intentions) looks less like an alternative to cheap technical colleges, and more like (an expensive) version of them.

In sum, adaptation to a hostile environment limits the available set of planning practices, starting with Summers' requirement that all the design proposals for the liberal arts and sciences include cuts. It made the goal of moving forward much less likely.


In his March 15th presentation, Summers stated that the campus's educational strategy will be to niche the curriculum: find subdisciplines not well covered by the competition and build in those.

I agree with the general strategy when it means building in areas not already monopolized by the dominant competitors. UC Santa Barbara, where I teach, resembles UWSP in having started as a normal school in the later 19th century, then becoming a teacher's college and later spending some awkward time in the mid-20th century as the Santa Barbara College of the University of California before becoming a general campus of the UC system. As one example of niching, UCSB's College of Engineering decided in the 1970s and 1980s not to emphasize hiring silicon-device engineers to compete with huge, powerful departments at Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere, but to hire in other materials systems like gallium arsenide. This and similar niching strategies have produced most of the campus's strongest departments. They do indeed create research and instructional programs that stand out.

Summers puts it this way:
UWSP needs to distinguish itself in some fashion from our competition . . . that much I know. Natural resources, health, business, education, performing arts--these are clearly the institution's strongest identities now . . . especially if you look at overall enrollment trends, and which majors tend to draw the most new students in particular. These identities also run the most deeply in the institution's history. But again, this is absolutely up for debate. . . . I trust this campus to have these conversations in the coming months.
Here he's arguing, quite correctly, that in a highly competitive higher ed ecosystem, UWSP needs to give students specific reasons not to go to Madison or Oshkosh or a community college. The campus can fix its deficit and restore solvency by branding itself with one-of-a-kind programs.

There are at least two overlapping ways to do this niching. We can simplify them as supply and demand. Niching via supply would involve identifying problems that society needs to solve and then looking at how existing and incoming faculty and programs could be redesigned to address them. This process is intellectually complex, and involves a lot of rigor and honesty. It also takes imagination: it has to look over the horizon for new questions that other universities aren't pursuing.

Niching via demand involves surveying student preferences, usually proxied as enrollments. If students are leaving liberal arts majors for natural resources, then the administration tries to build mostly in natural resources. Changes in allocation are routine and happen to some extent at all campuses in most years. Niching via demand is okay in a growth environment, though it rarely involves much rethinking.

What UWSP is doing is niching via demand in a shrinking market. It has made the leading feature of its plan to close 13 majors and lay off 20% of their payroll. Wisconsin's recent weakening of tenure made exactly this kind of resource shift even easier: tenured professors, usually the people with the highest salaries in an academic unit, can now be fired in the course of furthering "the reallocation of resources to other programs with higher priority based on educational considerations."

I've been told by several Stevens Point faculty that they did try niching via supply--they met, designed new programs with niche potential and sent them to the administration. Aquaculture/ aquphonics was one of these, and the planners picked it up as one of the future programs. I personally can't tell whether this is an emerging field with new intellectual potential in an underserved niche. Assuming it is, there's no evidence that's why Summers picked it: as we'll see, his selection analysis focused entirely on immediate student demand.

At the public meetings I reviewed, faculty asked what had happened to their various new curricular ideas that had not been included in Point Forward. Summers replied that very rarely did they get a proposal that included cutting something--following Assumption 1 above. This is one example of how austerity spoils niching by biasing decisions towards strong incumbents.

This bias appears shapes the Point Forward agenda. Summers didn't explain to anyone the specific intellectual or market strengths of new offerings like "Captive Wildlife." Though he uttered niching theory, he offered no niching practice. Instead, he and his colleagues are doubling down on what "are clearly the institution's strongest identity now" -- "natural resources, health, business, education, performing arts."

The idea seems to be that investment must be limited to fields reflecting the campus's current core identity--and not creative niches within these broad categories (say a major in "public resource finance" inside "business"). UWSP's administration claim that only these "branded" disciplines will regularly beat those of rival campuses in a competitive market. But a brand is not a niche (even if a niche later becomes your new brand). A brand is closer to the opposite of a niche.

So we derive the next assumption, in spite of the administration's insistence that student demand is only one of many factors:

2. Niche to Dominant Present Student Demand.

Putting the first two planning assumptions together, we have UWSP letting cost drivers and existing demand set supply. We also have a bias towards the campus's dominant incumbent disciplines. The main public innovation is so far only the cutting of liberal arts departments and not anything new happening in the dominant ones. This appears to me to be second important error-- to follow current demand, and at the moment when it is weak.


Summers passionately declared that UWSP would never become a trade school as long as he was around:
Among the most disturbing things I’ve heard in the past week is that the only students who truly receive a liberal arts education are those who are lucky enough to major in one of the liberal arts disciplines. . . . To be clear, again, that’s 6-10 percent of our students. I really hope that’s not the case. In fact, I know it’s not the case. It’s absolutely not the case. Every single one of our majors takes, as part of their 120 credit degree, a third of those credits, 40 or maybe more, in one of the traditional liberal arts disciplines, in our general education program, our core curriculum. For that reason these are not vocational degrees. This is not and never will be a technical college. We have to stop disparaging 90% of the students we graduate, and 90% of the degrees that we offer. I simply don’t think that’s a fair statement. (my transcription, around 1:02)
This sounds like a commitment to keep liberal arts credit hours at around one-third of the total for all UWSP students. If that's about the share of liberal arts credit hours now, then UWSP is not actually planning a major change in curricular shares between liberal arts and four of the Big Five branded sectors (Performing Arts is the fifth). There's to be a big upheaval in majors but not in enrollments. In general, while liberal arts majors have declined--e.g., 25 percent between 2010 and 2016 at UC Santa Barbara--liberal arts enrollments have not (down less than 1 percent at the same institution). At UWSP, liberal arts units, whatever they end up being, aren't going to see much of a change in workload.

Summers injects his statements about the liberal arts with an animus toward the elective system. As he desribes the situation, non-majors take a cafeteria sampling of unrelated courses merely to score a certain number of credits.
students in those programs in business and health and natural resources, when they go to satisfy their humanities requirement, they take kind of a random class from a menu of options, right, that has no purposeful design. You put a menu in front of students and they’ll pick out whatever they happen to be able to enroll in. And it’s not purposeful. It’s not intentional. And it may not be providing the best kind of background for those graduates in those particular fields. (around 0:50).
I again agree with Summers: general education depends way too much on a cafeteria display of electives where coherent choice has been made even harder in the past decade by cutting courses to fit reduced budgets. (I have written elsewhere about fixing distribution requirements that don't support any kind of undergraduate expertise. A hard-core and less desirable version appears in Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring's The Innovative University, which recounts the forced teardown and rebuilding of a modular, integrated curriculum at BYU-Idaho.) In short, a curriculum offering purposeful integration to students that may have uneven academic preparation would be a niche that could build student demand. In my opinion, this is the strongest part of the Point Forward plan.

Except that it's not really part of the plan. Summers mentions the weakness with general ed (which is nationwide) to make it sound like it comes from the very existence of liberal arts majors and of their departments. The implication is that the great majority of UWSP students would get better liberal arts without liberal arts departments. Summers offers no evidence for this claim, but it does taint the competence of the departments.

With this pall cast over the liberal arts, Summers presents four kinds of student demand metrics: (a) enrollment by major (the slide captions say "enrollments" (this says Student Credit Hours [SCH] to me, but I assume he means total number of majors); (b) cost per student credit hour; (c) majors declared by new freshmen or transfers; (d) and trends in majors (up or down).

The result of these demand tests, taken together, is confusion. The same is true for looking only at (a), (b), or (d). Sociology, slated to be cut (except for social work) is as big as Health Care Professions and Biology, and is fifth in overall majors. Philosophy is the campus's second fastest-growing major (with Sociology number 3 in this category as well), yet it is to be cut. The same non-alignment is true of cost per SCH: most of the to-be-terminated majors are in the cheap half of the table, with Sociology to be axed although it is the number one cheapest major on campus. Winning in one or more categories doesn't save you from extinction. Losing can translate into winning.

It turns out that the decisive metric is (c), the majors that most interest the newest students. Here's slide 7

The numbers here represent major declarations on day 10 of the student's first term on campus. This is the metric where low rank most strongly predicts that Summers wants to close you, and Summers explains why.
Look carefully, if you will, at the departments and the majors clustered at the top half of this table. . . . You’re going to see a lot of programs in health, business, education, and the arts. . . . These are clearly the programs that play the strongest role in shaping the university’s identity. These are our brand. . . . These are the things that make us different, that draw students here as opposed to somewhere else. . . . If our decisionmaking in the months ahead is going to sharpen and strengthen our identity rather than weaken it, I think we should look most closely at this table. And that's exactly what we've done. (around 0:44)
The theory here is that demand is best defined by the student's first major. Summers also assumes it is the best proxy for the campus's identity. In this view, the 10th-day major shows which customers will cross the county or the state to study with you (business, education, wildlife ecology, or forestry), while only a few say they did the same to study English or Philosophy. The conclusion is that the campus shouldn't try to build enrollment in a crowded market where it has weak pull, but build enrollment where it has strong pull.

To base your planning on the only one of your four data slices that shows the non-liberal arts prevailing, you'd want to be pretty sure that this is not your noisiest slide. You'd want to be sure that these data reflect demand and long-term future campus identity rather than a lot of other things. You'd also want to explain why it's okay to follow the interests of the greenest students with the least possible direct experience of the campus and its courses. Summers presents no evidence that the views of 10-day freshmen are the best basis for transforming the campus, or that they've really thought about other possible inputs into these numbers.

I immediately thought of three kinds of noise: parents, media, and schools. Students' initial majors reflect family conventions and parental wishes, which usually and understandably skew towards job training. The media has been circulating anti-liberal arts propaganda for years, with the result that many people think philosophy majors never get jobs. Even if high school teachers and counselors resist the media's dumb common sense, their schools generally don't offer most of the majors slated for elimination (sociology, art and design, international studies, political science, geography and geology, philosophy, and most languages), so students wouldn't really know what they're like. This slide could be a snapshot of student peak ignorance, and not any better a guide to the next UWSP than it is to the student's sophomore year.

To head off the interpretation that as students mature intellectually, they move toward the liberal arts, Summers also denigrates double majoring. Normally, we assume they express a student's multiple interests that are seeking integration. Not for Summers. Philosophy has been growing nicely, he agrees. But "the department will acknowledge that 70 percent are actually double majors. They’re in programs like business, natural resources, health programs. They are picking up philosophy as a complementary curriculum, in much the same way that they are looking for a minor" (around 0:49).

This apparent detail is actually a key claim: Summers asserts, again without saying why, that because the philosophy majors are "in programs like business" that philosophy is a minor sidelight for them. In his slide on Sociology and Social Work (featuring a weak 10th-day preference for Social Work over Sociology), and in the Appendix slides, Summers tries to show that most liberal arts majoring is really vocational majoring, especially at the 10-day point. The next step is obvious: if most liberal arts majors are really liberal arts minors or liberal arts dabblers, then the numbers for majors grossly inflate the demand for liberal arts as majors. Thus these minor interests could be satisfied by a handful of courses rather than the dozen or more that majors require. So UWSP doesn't need liberal arts majors at all.

I'm struck by the weakness of the evidence for these inferences. UWSP doesn't show the evidence that justifies putting 10th day major data above the other major (and undisclosed enrollment) data or for dismissing overall liberal arts majors or for their growth. Were the campus looking over the horizon, it might see that double majoring students are out in front of what's offered by the existing campus identity--that undergraduates at Stevens Point and everywhere else are hacking majors with the help of sympathetic faculty. Double majoring generally mean that the students care about two or more fields equally, or are taking on a "second" major that reflects the true interest their parents disallowed, or want to synthesize disparate skill sets, among other things.

The growth of double majoring points towards the most likely future of public universities, one that will include a broadening of regional service, more yoking analytical, communicative, and technical skills rather than the Point Forward elevation of the technical over the others. Universities will probably be more interactive and embedded with their communities and more directly translational of their research into practice with those communities (and less via licensing agreements and start-up companies). The translational liberal arts will be central to developing these new social powers. UWSP is exactly the kind of university that could pioneer this work--while pioneering the reconnecting of higher education to rural America. But one big obstacle is the UWSP administrative assumption that they must, instead,

3. Define the liberal arts as marginal to practice.


After all this, what about the whole point of the Stevens Point revolution, which is to save money for the new career majors? Slide 12 gives a sum of the yield of the closed majors via the layoffs of 20 percent of departmental staff. It is savings of $1.4 million. The closures are to save about 5 percent of the campus's instructional budget, and less than 3 percent of the overall budget of Academic Affairs (about $49.5 m). The rest of the deficit is to be made up by cuts from elsewhere, none of which are identified.

The closure will save so little money because these departments have already been cut repeatedly and are excessively efficient. Yet that is the new money to be put on the table. What about the costs of designing and mounting the new flagship majors? And what about the revenues that they are expected to generate?

The plan has no information about either of these. I didn't learn anything in the presentations about projected costs of and revenues from the new majors. The campus thus can't judge whether the closure savings will cover the cost of the new programs, or how much new revenue the new programs will earn beyond what their current versions already do.

There are some obvious questions. For starters: How much enrollment growth are the new majors estimated to produce? What are the estimates for enrollment losses due to closed liberal arts majors? Can the new programs live mostly off money that used to run the liberal arts as a set of majors? Extrapolating from slide 6's cost calculations, the new majors will all cost more than the majors that are being closed, so how will the new majors fix the campus's balance sheet? If the new majors will not be self-supporting for a few years, when will they be? If they are to be self-supporting, as the business-school dean claimed his would be, what then is the point of the closures? The programs need to be special and not generic, but how much extra will special cost? To date, none of the official materials I've found project the costs of the new programs or revenue growth or estimate profits after the layoffs on the basis of projected enrollment growth.

I hope such budget projections exist, and don't understand why Summers would not have presented them--unless they weakened his case. There are reasons to worry that they do. Summers deepened my concerns when he said he expected no real enrollment growth for years to come (around 0:49); and when he was asked directly to compare savings and costs at the March 19th campus forum and said nothing about costs.

In any case, I've found no public evidence that UWSP's new curriculum may put its budget back in the black. On the contrary, there is indirect evidence that the change will make the budget deficit worse-- new program costs, stagnant enrollments, alienated liberal arts and liberal-practical double majors, general disruption and lowered morale, and the continued influence of the dominant incumbents, all so far left undiscussed.

This leads me to the last of the four implicit planning assumptions:

4. The restructured curriculum is designed to signal austerity and vocationalism to the system rather than to achieve (desirable versions of) them. So far, it is a political project.

Stevens Point can do better than this. But it can only if it rejects these four assumptions. It needs four other things instead. It needs a new deal with the state. It needs to design educational supply by extrapolating future intellectual and public needs. It must connect, on an equal basis, liberal arts and sciences to "applied" majors. And it must do all this on the basis of open and complete budgeting.

It sounds hard, but it would be worth the trouble. A truly interesting new curriculum could still come of this.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 0

Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018
There may be one benefit of Republican downgrades of the University of Wisconsin system in recent years: insight into the kind of public colleges that austerity and #faketenure will create.  At the system's Stevens Point campus, the administration has used an induced budget deficit to propose the closure of thirteen arts, humanities and social science departments, whose savings are to fund the expansion or creation of majors that seem more directly connected to existing jobs. UW's modified tenure rules allow the firing of tenured faculty when their lines are needed for other higher priority programs, so faculty layoffs are likely as the main source of any budgetary savings.  The result is to be the conversion of the humanities into service units for vocational majors.

This idea of the humanities as service providers of basic skills may sound strange to people acquainted with the riches of literary history, philosophy and multiple languages--or who assume that policymakers still want graduates steeped in common national culture.  But the service humanities are  baked into a vocational model that enjoys bipartisan policy support.  I've tried to focus our collective attention on this before, after service status was indicated by the bulk closures of humanities departments at SUNY Albany in 2010.  The current case is worse. Not only has the administration at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point (UWSP) proposed the closure of many more departments than Albany did--"American studies, art (but not graphic design), English (other than English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (social science for teacher certification would continue), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology (social work major would continue) and Spanish"--but it openly champions the humanities service model.  

Here I'm going to argue that the main objections to this model have rested on a valuable public-good intuition about higher education that we should develop. In Part 2, I'll analyze the administration's strategic planning, which is defective in illuminating ways.

One important criticism is that the plan relegates the students of central Wisconsin to second class citizenship.  MLA Executive Director Paula Krebs rightly described the plan as an insult to working-class students who, because they can't go to the Madison flagship, are to be given a limited-option, second-tier degree.  Students from well-resourced high schools and affluent families can study anything they want in any depth at UW-Madison.  Meanwhile, rural or poorer or older or more rooted students get the limited job-training menu at UWSP.  The original vision of statewide university systems was democratic: a citizen would not get a lesser education because of location or lower income.  The new Wisconsin plan is stratification and inequality within the system.  This will intensify growing income inequality outside, and inject lower qualifications into a rural economy that needs exactly the opposite.

A second objection has targeted the plan's overt subordination of qualitative to quantitative and technical fields.  On the UWSP campus, the Save Our Majors coalition mounted the campus's biggest protest since the Vietnam War.  In demanding a new and inclusive planning process, the coalition wrote a letter that "acknowledges the university must change but says students and central Wisconsin residents oppose the current plan to address its $4.5 million projected deficit by targeting humanities majors."

The Stevens Point Journal reported, "at one point, one student’s speech turned directly to the chancellor.  'We feel expendable. This is how many students feel,' Ethan Cates, a senior philosophy and Spanish major, said.  'I want you to see how much anger and frustration there is.'"

Many people pointed out the irreplaceable content of arts, social sciences, and humanities courses (I call these SASH for short, to avoid saying ASSH).  This was summarized by a student sign:
The SASH fields are as empirical and instrumental as STEM and professional fields, but in their own domain: they discover and spread knowledge about culture, society, relationships, and every kind of individual distinctness.  And it's true that no problem on earth can be solved without better SASH knowledge that we have now, including problems that seem mainly technical.  Students get this, which is why so many double or triple major to combine expertise in domains like wildlife ecology and Spanish.

The public good intuition combines two insights.  One is that study should not be rationed according to ability to pay.  Another is that the full range of human interests and capabilities need to be brought to bear on public problems.  The U.S. should double down on qualitative and interpretative thinking, not cut it in half.  It should also build its capacity to link qualitative and quantitative methods, not subordinate the former.  The country's political crisis is arguably the result of a population that is not smart enough about hard qualitative situations. The same goes for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica opinion manipulation, which will only be addressed with better syntheses of interpretative and data skills.

One hard qualitative problem comes from the state of Wisconsin itself.  It is losing its younger population to other states--in the typical community, the youth population fell 22 percent between 1990 and 2010.  A recent study of the problem began with the insight that the state can't stop brain drain with policies that target young people as individuals.  That is because their decisions to stay or leave involve the overall community culture, including a range of amenities from housing, outdoor recreation, coffee shops, arts facilities, and many other things that create the look and feel of a place that will attract not only you but your friends and peers.  Understanding the problem means understanding both individual and group subjectivity. How do you make young people feel like they can have they life they want in Wisconsin?

Help on this kind of public problem could come from graduates of UWSP's proposed new major in Geographic Information Science.  But GIS majors can't understand multi-causal cultural and psychological interactions in GIS terms.  Quant approaches need to work with--really be embedded in--qualitative socio-cultural studies. These need to include education in languages and the intersecting identities that affect everyone's real world decisions.

Now, the UWSP's restructuring statement claims that they have this covered.  They are making the liberal arts more relevant by rehousing them.
We must resist the false choice between providing a broad, well-rounded education or narrow professional and vocational pathways. As one strategy, we will reimagine traditional liberal arts majors for students seeking applied learning to improve their career potential. Second, we will strengthen our core liberal arts curriculum. Preparing students for engaged citizenship, ensuring that they graduate as broadly educated and well-rounded lifelong learners, and equipping them with the kinds of professional skills that we know are essential for career success in any field—these are things we owe to all students regardless of major. 
UWSP's leaders say they aren't downgrading the liberal arts but reimagining them. They aren't marginalizing the liberal arts but strengthening their core.  They aren't going to crank out job-ready technicians but create well-rounded citizens.  They aren't narrowing Stevens Point education but broadening it.  Eliminating majors and departments doesn't demote their content but generalizes it.  But what is the evidence for this claim?

In regard to the public document, the answer is none.  In fact, the administration makes it clear that they will sacrifice the "well demonstrated" value of "traditional liberal arts" degrees to training for  "the careers available to [graduates] in central and northern Wisconsin"-- even as young Wisconsin graduates, for decades, soon leave those jobs. (See the Jobs comments for Plover, adjacent to Stevens Point.)   The UWSP administration wants
programs that allow students to study the liberal arts in order to build specific skills and achieve career-oriented outcomes. For example:  
• Rather than a general major in English, can we create a more focused program for professional writing and publishing in a digital age? 
• Instead of comprehensive majors in French, German, and Spanish, how can we equip graduates in health and business careers with the language and intercultural skills they might need to do their jobs in a diverse global society? 
• Instead of a Philosophy major, can we develop offerings in applied ethics for the next generation of professional leaders? 
• In place of broad majors in Political Science and Sociology, can we explore the creation of more career-minded programs in Public Affairs, Criminology, or Legal Studies?
The answer to each question is yes you can, but only by narrowing and dumbing the curriculum down.   Having real "language and intercultural skills" is a process that takes many years. "Engaged citizenship" doesn't happen in one or two general education courses, but through full course sequences in history, political science, economics, literature, and sociology, where the results need to be actively integrated by each student who moves through the curriculum.

For every possible combination, 21st century learning requires depth through immersion and integration across fields, not surface familiarity through a handful of electives. It requires more coherent course sequencing, much better advising, and independent student projects. It means "research-learning" for every student. That can only be supervised by regular faculty who are themselves research-active, and have the working conditions that allow teaching and research to coexist.  

None of this is achieved by swapping out liberal arts and sciences majors for vocational ones.  In fact, it looks as though the growth of vocational majors is partly responsible for the "limited learning" that scholars have been detecting of late.  The most likely outcome of UWSP's plan is to transmit reduced budgets directly into reduced learning for its graduates. The plan lowers the possibility of the alternative, full-scale creativity learning of the kind I discuss here and at length in The Great Mistake. 

It's a deep mystery why ostensibly democratic societies don't make a bigger effort to offer the same quality of learning to regular people that they invariably offer their elites. For example, the most influential single major in the U.K. is arguably Oxford's program in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This is partly because of the highly selected students who enroll at this super-elite university, but it is also because of the program itself, which integrates many SASH disciplines over an intensive three-year course.  USWP's "core liberal arts curriculum" will be painfully half-assed by comparison, and not just compared to Oxford but to any undamaged state college.  

The challenge of 21st century higher ed is to bring the whole university population up to a higher standard.  We have to undo the stratification that afflicts the current system, and that has lowered overall U.S. university outcomes to its current level of international mediocrity.  UWSP's administration proposes to perpetuate and intensify stratification by ignoring the results of educational research, to the obvious disservice of its students and its region.

The current response to the plan reflects a contrary, public-good understanding of higher ed, in which university systems allocate learning without regard to the wealth of a region or its students.  It reflects an awareness that UWSP's administration is offering a quality rationing plan.

Cynics will say that this is what you'd expect when career managers and political appointees design a university curriculum.  You'll obviously get a structure that doesn't pass professional muster.   You'd consider it only because its authors have the power to impose it.  But we might more generally see the UWSP proposal as a reflection of an administrative-political subculture, one appealing, in spite of nods to citizenship, to a private-good sense of the value of college as residing in salary increments.  This is a subculture, however.  It has fallen woefully behind current popular demands for universities with broad public benefits and advanced academic standards.

Photo credits: Stevens Point Journal
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 4

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday, March 10, 2018
by Akos Rona-Tas, Professor of Sociology, UC San Diego

Between 2013 and 2015, the University of California, has signed a series of contracts with the consumer credit agency Equifax. It has outsourced our employment verification to Equifax Workforce Solutions (TALX until 2012), a subsidiary of Equifax. UC employees in the past could receive an employment verification letter from their campus, most recently through their At-Your-Service Online (AYSO) site. Though this option is still available, employment verification (often requested for bank loans or by prospective employers) will soon be handled at all campuses through Equifax’s web site: The Work Number (TWN).

Currently, all but two University of California campuses participate in the outsourcing. UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley are supposed to join the other campuses in the near future.

There are at least three reasons that this is cause for serious concern. The first has to do simply with data security. Recent security breaches at Equifax compromised 147 million records. Earlier, smaller breaches resulted in the theft of tens of thousands of employment files.

The second is the customer service record of Equifax. Equifax has the worst record of consumer complaints with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).

And the third, data aggregation, is probably the most worrisome. Equifax purchased TALX in order to aggregate employment data with data from other of its subsidiaries, including its credit registry. Weak security, poor service and big data aggregation are the three chief concerns that I will address below.

All three are rooted in one simple cause: people like you and me (the faculty and staff of the university) are not the customers of Equifax. We are just its data, its product. Equifax’s business depends not on the people whose data it sells but on employers and lenders who provide and use their data. [1] The UC-Equifax contract takes away most of our control over our own data.

While those three problems burden faculty and staff individually, there is also the question of whether this contract makes any sense as an economic proposition for the university as a whole. UC pays Equifax for accepting our data and TWN site then charges for each inquiry (except when one looks at one’s own record). I will not be able to address this question, and this is a secondary issue, in any case. But UC is about to complete the UCPath Project, [2] that will centralize all HR functions at UC. It is unclear why Equifax needs to be inserted as the middleman between verifiers and UCPath.[3]


More than eleven years ago, on December 18, 2006, UC employees of all campuses except Berkeley, UCSC and UC Irvine, received an email message about new tax services offered through TALX, a private payroll service company that at that time was independent. We were told that our payroll data will be sent to TALX and we can download our W-2 form from TALX. If we wanted to opt out of this service individually, we were given until January 1, 2007 to do so.

The faculty at several UC campuses revolted not just against the idea of handing our data to a private company but also against the process that not just failed to consult faculty (or other employees) but was clearly designed to minimize our ability to opt out. Our fears deepened when, on February 14, 2007, TALX announced it was going to be bought by Equifax, one of the three giant credit bureaus, for $1.4 billion. The next day, in an earnings call, Richard Smith, CEO of Equifax, explained to investors that TALX data will be used to improve Equifax credit files.

Local academic senates protested the deal and brought the issue to the systemwide Academic Council, which discussed it and expressed its own concern to the Office of the President. The Council made three recommendations:

  1. The University shall take appropriate action to terminate the TALX contract;
  2. The University shall take responsibility for purging all employee information from the TALX databases; and
  3. The Office of General Counsel shall review its opinion that the University has the authority to disclose employee information without the consent of its employees.

As a result, the TALX contract was terminated. We were also made the following promises: in similar cases in the future, faculty will be consulted and any similar program will be on a strictly opt-in basis.

In October 2016, I was surprised to find out that UC had subsequently outsourced our data to TALX’s successor, Equifax Workforce Solutions. To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t even a public announcement that this would happen.

When I inquired about the promised consultation I was informed that
The UCPath Center Leadership met with several groups at UC Office of the President to explain The Work Number process and gain approval. On October 28, 2014 UCPath Center Leaders met with Vice Provosts of Academic Personnel including Vice Provost Carlson and on November 14, 2014 they met with Academic Senate Faculty Welfare Committee meeting chaired by [XXX] from UC San Diego. Both of these groups reviewed and approved the program for the University of California.
The “consultation” described above took place in 2014, while the first contract was signed in 2013. As I found out, at least two campuses, UC Riverside and UC San Diego, already had their own agreements with Equifax and had been already delivering data as early June 1, 2012.

As for the “strictly opt-in” promise, that one was not kept either. Currently, even opting out is a major challenge. Last year, I was promised that an easy way of opting out would be implemented soon. This has yet to happen.

Below I will expand on the three main concerns about outsourcing our payroll data to Equifax, and why we need to worry about our ability to control our data and our data privacy.

Weak Data Security

The first reason why payroll outsourcing is harmful is that Equifax has a terrible history of data breaches. A few examples:

We still do not know the true extent of the damage. What we have found out so far was the product of intense Senate investigations. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote: "I spent 5 months investigating the Equifax breach and found the company failed to disclose the full extent of the hack. Today, Equifax acknowledged that 2.4 million more people were affected than initially reported and that driver's license information was also stolen. Equifax can't be trusted. Their mistakes allowed the breach to happen, their response has been a failure, and they still can't level with the public.”[7]

Despite these breaches, in the 2017 proxy statement attached to its 2016 Annual Report, Equifax justifies bonuses to its CEO, Richard Smith and CFO John Gamble, among other things, by citing their outstanding records in data security. This is after a year of serious breaches, written just a few days after the Apache notification.

How much confidence can we have in what Equifax tells us about its data security? Not much.

Poor Service

Credit registries like Equifax have had a long history of data problems. External research on bad data in credit bureaus focused on credit records, as data aggregation from other sources is a relatively new phenomenon. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has conducted five reports between 2004 and 2012 on the accuracy of credit histories and found various discrepancies. In its latest, 2012 study, the FTC found that 21 percent of consumers had identified errors that have subsequently resulted in a change in their record.[8]

The three credit bureaus are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to consumer complaints. Most of their customer service is outsourced to India, Chile and the Philippines, and requests for corrections may take years. The bureaus prefer settling court cases with the most persistent complainers to committing to investigating thoroughly every complaint brought to them.

Equifax receives the most complaints at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Before its massive breach, between February and April 2016, Equifax led the pack with a monthly average of 1,301 complaints (followed by the other two big credit registries, Experian (1,178), and TransUnion (1,000)).

There are many journalistic treatments of the horrific customer service Equifax (and the other two registries) provide. One excellent piece is by John Oliver. In brief, if you find an error in your Equifax file, your ability to correct it is very limited.

Data Aggregation

Since the late 2000s, Equifax has embarked on a project of data aggregation. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (the one that replaced Glass-Steagall) removed the obstacles that prevented companies from sharing data among subsidiaries they own. As long as two companies belong to the same holding, they can legally exchange information.

As a result, companies began to aggregate data by acquiring other, data rich companies. Initially, Equifax planned to use payroll data only to “beef up” so called “thin files.” Thin files are credit records with little or no data for an individual. Yet, there is no reason for Equifax to stop at thin files and not use payroll data where it is available for all files in calculating the single number that summarizes one’s credit record, called the credit (or FICO) score. And Equifax, indeed, did not stop there. It also purchased Discovery Solutions, a tax data specialist company and IXI Corp, collecting wealth related information. In two company videos, Equifax explains how they use payroll, tax and wealth data to create their new product Decision 360TM.
Decision 360 TM, The True 360° Consumer ViewTM, “draws from a wealth of unique data sources and insights that include:

  • Exclusive access to more than $10 trillion in investable asset data [IXI].
  • 195+ million active employment records from more than 2,000 U.S. employers [TALX].
  • Tax transcript information, delivered in 24-48 hours, verified directly from the IRS [Discover Source/TALX].
  • SSN verification based on searches of more than 15 billion public/private databases, and authenticated by the Social Security Administration.
  • An extensive credit reporting database of more than 250 million consumer records [Equifax’s original credit registry].”

There is a lot more to come. In 2016, at a financial conference, Rick Smith, then CEO of Equifax, according to the New York Times, “described a new system that searched four billion public tweets for keywords like “car” and “automotive lease.” It paired the tweets with a person’s Equifax credit file. In real time, the credit bureau could identify potential buyers and provide its customer, a company selling car leases, with everything it wanted to know about those people.”

Why you should worry

It's easy to explain why one should worry about weak data security that may lead to identity theft. You may wonder, though, why it is the individuals who must pay the entire price? If your data is stolen and used to open a new loan account or to file for false tax returns, why is it not the lender or the IRS who should be responsible for not properly checking the identity? Why is the burden of proof on the victim?

UC administration argues, as does Equifax, that our data is more secure with a company specializing in data management and protection than with UC. This is a strange argument that assumes that data is like gold: once you move it from your cupboard to a bank vault, you are more secure. The fact is that our data remains with UC, even if it is handed over to Equifax. Giving it to Equifax only provides another opportunity for hacking. Hacking Equifax may be harder than hacking UC, but it is much more lucrative. Outsourcing further reduces safety.

Why one should care about poor customer service is also not hard to see. Correcting errors and settling disputes are daunting tasks with a company that is unaccountable to the people whose data it processes.

Why one should be concerned about data aggregation is perhaps less obvious. UC’s contract with Equifax does not permit the sale of our payroll data to third parties[9], but it doesn’t prohibit the transfer of data within Equifax, which is why Equifax can merge payroll with credit records.

Data aggregation tightly couples various forms of social disadvantage. Suppose you lose your job. Merging payroll data with your credit history results in an immediate downgrading of your credit profile and your credit score will drop. As a result, just when you are most vulnerable, your access to credit becomes more difficult and expensive, making default more likely. Worse yet, credit scores are also used by insurance companies setting car insurance premiums, by landlords in negotiating and granting rental applications, and by the majority of private companies in hiring as part of their background checks. Higher car premiums, worse rental conditions and and inability to find your next job immediately will all affect your score adversely. Individuals can be thrust into a downward spiral. At a societal level, data aggregation amplifies inequalities. (I explain this in more detail in this publication.)

Finally, Equifax may expand its business into new realms. In the past, Equifax was caught selling TWN data to debt collection agencies, but that is not illegal. Were Equifax to launch its own debt collection business, it could move payroll data not just legally but also invisibly to exploit “data synergies.”

As big data inevitably proliferates in the world, the rules of the game are still evolving. Our actions now will decide how much control we keep over our information. UC walked into a contract, probably to save a few dollars, squandering our control over our own data. UC is the largest employer in the largest state. It should respect our data privacy and should set a national example.

Additional links:
Watch Dann Adams, President of TALX explains data aggregation and the role of TALX in Equifax’s effort. (Needs Adobe Flash Player)

Watch Janet Ford, Senior Vice President for The Work Number explain Decision 360. (Needs Adobe Flash Player)

A recent New York Times piece suggesting that you persuade your employer to pull out of Equifax.

Equifax CEO Richard Smith testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Banking Panel on October 2017
And some of the highlights

[1] One of the services of TALX/Equifax Workforce Solutions is to represent employers fighting unemployment claims by ex-employees.
[2] There is no mention of Equifax on the UCPath site.
[3] You may ask, can’t anyone get access to our salary information, anyway, through public sites like the Sacramento Bee? Can’t anyone just harvest that data? Public sites give only our annual salary, and only with more than a year delay. Our payroll data is delivered monthly or bi-weekly to Workforce Solutions and includes length of employment, and most importantly, unique IDs, like the SSN, that allow Equifax to merge our data with other records.
[4] We know that Equifax Chief Financial Officer John Gamble sold shares worth nearly $950,000 on August 1. Joseph Loughran, Equifax's president for U.S. information solutions, sold shares on the open market worth about $584,000 on August 1 as well. And Rodolfo Ploder, president of Workforce Solutions, sold stock for more than $250,000 on August 2. At that time, the share price was $145. After the data breach announcement, the share price plummeted to $92. Currently, it is under $120. In November, Equifax’s board clear the executives of all charges of insider trading.
[5] The delay gave hackers plenty of time to take advantage of their data.
[6] It is unclear, why and how Equifax has driver’s license data.
[7] Equifax’s first response was to try to sell a credit monitoring service to people whose data was compromised but it soon backed down, its CEO apologized, and later resigned.
[8] Thirteen percent had a change that affected their credit score and five percent of consumers moved into a lower risk tier in a way that would make a significant difference in future borrowing.
[9] There is no way we can know if Equifax complies with this prohibition.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 2

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Yesterday Columbia University Provost John Coatesworth announced that the University was refusing to bargain in with the Graduate Workers of Columbia  (the union for teaching and research assistants) despite the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board that Columbia graduate workers were entitled to collective bargaining through their chosen representative.  Although the University characterizes this decision as simply acting on its "right to have the status of graduate student assistants reviewed by a United States Court of Appeals" in reality it is choosing to engage in an unfair labor practice and daring the union to sue it. As with the longer history of the University's employment of labor-busting law firms to stretch out the certification process, Columbia appears determined to take advantage of President Trump's election in order to find a legal venue hostile to labor.

The hypocrisy of Columbia is overwhelming.  Columbia's President Lee Bollinger is a renowned scholar of the First Amendment and Columbia trumpets its commitments to the notions of free debate and the force of reasoned argument.  But apparently they are only committed to these principles when it will not cost them control over their graduate student laborers.  Both the University and the Union have debated these issues for years and the graduate students have voted that they want representation.  Columbia has refused to accept that it lost the argument when graduate students overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionizing.  Columbia--like so many of its peers--claims that a union would constitute a "third party between student and teacher." But it has not hesitated in seeking out external law firms to fight the unionization.

More importantly, the issue of unionization is not concerned with the relationship between teachers and graduate students as students.  It is concerned with the relationship between university management and graduate student workers as employees.  By implying that the issue is about relationships of teaching Columbia's management has misrepresented the situation--what the graduate students are demanding is the right to bargain over employment conditions not over their activities as students.

Since Columbia's intellectual and academic arguments are very weak it appears that ultimately this is about power.  The Columbia administration's decision to hoard theirs in clear contradiction to both the NLRB and the expressed will of their graduate student workers.  Like their fellows at the University of Chicago and Yale, to name only two, they are behaving much like feudal aristocrats have always done when faced with a challenge to their authority--by claiming that they are only concerned with maintaining personal relationships.  But what that really means are paternalistic relationships in which subordination is key.

It is important to recognize that the threat to academic freedom and learning does not come from graduate student unions but from overweening managerial authority.  I have taught in universities with unionized graduate students for nearly three decades and have not once had the union interfere with a genuinely pedagogical question.  I have, however, seen unions support graduate student employees in preventing their employment by the university overwhelm their capacity to fulfill their jobs on the one hand and pursue their studies on the other.  But as we can see more generally with the consistent decision by university managers to impose precarious working conditions on more and more of their labor force, management is not in fact thinking about either academic freedom or the relationship between teachers and students.  Its concerns lie elsewhere. 

Columbia's administration should be ashamed of itself.

Posted by Michael Meranze | Comments: 1

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018
Jerry Brown's terms as governor have been bad for CSU and UC funding.   The doubling of tuition revenues has not actually made up for the state cuts followed by small annual increases. In the UC case, campuses also need to find another $700 million a year for pension costs they didn't have ten years ago, and additional money for buildings that the state doesn't build anymore.  For the math behind our Lost Decade, see the last six paragraphs of "A Faculty Overview of the UC Budget--Tenth Anniversary Edition."

Last week, Brown gave CSU and UC even less than the inadequate 4% the systems thought they were getting, namely, 3%, which, subtracting one-time money comes to 2.1%, i.e. to the rate of consumer price inflation.  The governor also does not propose a tuition increase.  The two systems have 33 campuses between them, and Brown proposes that the structural problems and everyday squeezes at all 33 will remain in place.

Why does the governor and most of the Democratic establishment think UC and CSU can do more with less, and that state cuts don't hurt quality?  Brown offered a kind of explanation (thanks to Cloudminder for the transcript).
It is enough. You're getting three percent more and that's it. They're not gonna get anymore. And they've got to manage. I think they need a little more scrutiny over how they are spending things. It's just because the University is a good they say 'we've got to have more good' -but if you have too much good it -in certain circumstances - -it becomes a bad. So they're gonna have to live within their means. And what will happen here is when the next recession they'll have to put everything in reverse and lay people off and raise tuition and that's not a good thing. So, they've got to lower the cost structure and there are tools to do that and they need to step up and more creatively engage in the process of making education more affordable.
Brown posits as always that any quality problems are the result of bad UC and CSU management. This is a axiom for him that he never questions.  He has always thought that the state's public universities spend too much money on administration and executive salaries (especially UC). He is again saying they should get all of their new teaching and research money by cutting there.  This is a view he has held since around 1975.  There is truth to the story of administrative bloat, but perversely much of it is caused by the cuts themselves, since they force campuses to staff up to pursue "alternative revenue streams."  (I explain how this works in the The Great Mistake, Stage 2.)

Second, Brown categorically assumes that money can be saved by shifting much face-to-face instruction to online.  Last year,  he and California Community Colleges (CCC) chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, whom Brown had also appointed to the UC Board of Regents, announced a fully online CCC degree program called the Flex Learning Option for Workers (FLOW).  His budget proposes that this become a new 'online campus' for the community colleges.  The idea is similar to what then-dean of Berkeley Law (and Yudof consigliere) Chris Edley suggested for UC almost ten years ago - an 11th campus that would be all online.  The background assumption has remained the same: ed-tech has moved the cost-quality curve, so online college is "better faster cheaper" than face-to-face--both better and cheaper at the same time.

Brown has long been a true believer in online (see Toby Higbie, "The Governor's Thinking has Become Very Uptight").  But by the end of 2013, the MOOC-wave had crashed on revelations that it was neither better nor cheaper.  The famous Brown-brokered deal between Udacity and San Jose State was suspended after an NSF-based study showed Udacity's online courses actually reduced remedial ed outcomes, prompting Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to call it a lousy product.  In addition, those of us who tried to find cost savings were unable to.  Georgia Tech's online Masters-Udacity's other flagship--continues to run with multi-million dollar subsidies from AT&T.  (See also the ambiguities of the University of Florida's online programs.) In short, online had not suspended the rules of learning, in which you can always save money . . .  by cutting quality.  After 2013, MOOC companies retreated from their initial claim to be replacing college, instead offering professional retraining and credentialing.  (My retrenchment overview is here).

In focusing on adult re-trainers, Gov. Brown's current online proposal seems at first to follow the arc of retrenchment. But it comes with a renewed MOOC-style claim that online is "as good or better" than face-to-face.  George Skelton quotes CCC chancellor Oakley making a categorical assertion of the online program's value because they are directed at "social network kids." A further example appears in Teresa Watanabe's coverage in the Los Angeles Times.
Laura Hope, a California Community Colleges executive vice chancellor, said improved classes and tools for online orientation, counseling and tutoring have significantly narrowed the performance gap between online and traditional classes. Nearly two-thirds of online students completed their courses in 2015-16, compared with just over half a decade earlier. Over the same period, the percentage of students who completed traditional classes stayed roughly the same, at about 71%.
There is no doubt that distance learning is more convenient than campus courses, or that online courses can and should play a role for at least some students.  In Fall 2016, about 11% of CCC course units were taken in "distance education" (DE) format.  The proportion of students taking at least one online course per year (for credit or noncredit) has gone from 19.5% in 2011-12 (page 4) to around 33% five years later (based on the CCC Chancellor's Office's Distance Education Fact Sheet).

Convenience granted, the real question is educational: is online as "as good or better" than face-to-face, as good or better in a way that justifies using them to replace face-to-face?   CCC's own data analysis is now making this claim, summarized in this slide, which refers to "Success Rates" in all types of CCC courses for the past ten years.

In the email that accompanied this figure, a CCC official claimed it showed that online technology is on track to match the results of face-to-face.  So, via CCC, "better" is  back.  And "cheaper" (though unproven) never went away.

As it happens, Cameron Sublett and I are in the middle of writing papers based on his extensive analysis of exactly this CCC data.  Our topic is racial disparity in online courses.  Our overall question is, does moving students of color from face-to-face to online help or hurt their education?

Cameron was able to reproduce the CCC figure with the data we've been been using all along. Following our past practice, he then disaggregated outcomes by type of course and by racial category. Here are two examples of face-to-face / online comparisons, using two types of course that are likely to resemble the "retraining" courses offered by the FLOW program.

Online continues to deliver a significant drop in success rates in basic skills courses. The convergence trend CCC claimed on aggregate is much weaker here.   In addition, online makes the racial disparity of in-person courses somewhat worse.  The success rates of "Underrepresented Minority Students," to use the standard classification, are poor. In addition, they are not improving much in "Basic Skills," as CCC claims for the aggregated results. [This last sentence was clarified after initial posting; h/t Teresa Watanabe.]

One reasonable policy conclusion would be quite the opposite of Brown's and Oakley's--Black and Latinx "basic skills" students should never be placed in online courses.  White and Asian students should use them sparingly.

The second figure:

Success rates are generally higher in vocational courses.  This is true with online as well, where the convergence with in-person is more convincing.  Racial disparities remain, and remain larger than with in-person courses.  Again, a system that is serving a minority-majority student population needs to be very careful with its use of these courses.

We'll have more to say about all this in further writing.  We have technical issues with the CCC's definition of "success" that may turn out to lower all of these rates, but we won't know that for a while.  We have issues with using completion as a proxy for learning.  But for the moment let's leave it at this:

(1) Online is valuable and important as a selective and supplemental approach to extending in-person higher ed. It helps students who cannot stop full time work or family care.   It is especially good at dealing with the repetition that is part of all learning.  This is an area where it has a clear advantage over human teachers, as language labs (and books!) have been proving for generations.

(2) State leaders are wrong to continue to push online as a categorial good.  This current push depends on aggregating data in a way that conceals how online disadvantages African American and Latinx students.   Online education is currently an engine of racial inequality, and no good higher ed policy can be created by ignoring that fact.

(3) Online should never be used to excuse state budgets that are too small to support the established features of educational quality.  These features include the presence of fully-qualified teachers working with classes that are small enough to allow individual feedback.  Online that approaches face-to-face quality is actually a "hybrid" that relies on structured personal contact. We know of no hybrid online courses that will save universities money.  States should never budget by assuming the opposite.

In short, university officials, including faculty senates, should loudly oppose officials who let online reinforce the color line.  The FLOW program should restart the discussion about the higher ed practices and investments that would actually reduce racial disparities in attainment, rather than cover them up.

Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 3

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
In December I took a break from blogging about universities to write a set of overdue papers. That was interrupted by December's Thomas Fire, which destroyed houses in Ventura County, including at least one UCSB faculty member's, and threatened at several points to burn down Montecito and Santa Barbara as well.   Thomas wound up as the largest fire in California history, but not the most destructive or deadly.  That last part was entirely because of the powers of the public service known as fire protection.

I was traveling when the fire headed off west from Ventura County and entered Santa Barbara County.  I obsessively watched live KEYT news coverage and the daily 4 pm meetings, while at other times Facebook messaging the TV station when their burn map wasn't updating properly or they misidentified a canyon I recognized.   My mother and youngest brother also live in the City of Santa Barbara; both were born and raised in Los Angeles; she has been through about 20 wildfires, and has been evacuated in both LA and SB at least 6 times.  At one point on December 16th (the date of the photo above), I called her to say, "the new mandatory evacuation zone boundary is your street!"  She said, "oh, that's the other side of the street."  "Mom!"  I replied.  "Well," she said, "my side is voluntary. I'm fine."  Later on a deputy who disagreed came knocking on her door, and she wound up flying north to stay with her sister for the next 10 days.

I couldn't keep myself from comparing fire fighting and higher education during the community meetings.  Every day, at least a dozen people representing different agencies spoke in an high school auditorium to anyone who wanted to show up.  This included officials from Cal Fire, which I understood to be the lead coordinator of the many agencies involved in the effort, as well as the county sheriff, the local highway patrol captain, the US forestry service, county health, county air quality, animal rescue, city and county schools, the county fire battalion chief, various spokespeople from one or more of the many fire agencies from outside the county, and someone just back from emergency work in Puerto Rico.  Each afternoon they described the efforts of what became 8100 firefighters working out of at least 2 base camps, hundreds of engine units, dozens of helicopters, a Boeing and an Airbus bombing the inaccessible slopes with retardant, and the invisible logistics, communication and management personnel along with the folks staffing the evacuation center at UCSB.

The first days laid out the underlying conditions--seven years of drought was now coupled with record low humidity to make the hillsides ready to burn even when the wind dropped, which it did not do reliably.   Every day's meeting updated the public on the evolving strategy, which in a sentence was to use bulldozed fire breaks and water drops and hand crews to push the fire towards the previous burns that Santa Barbara County has in abundance.  New fuels don't burn as well as old fuels--battalion chiefs apparently don't see trees and brush, just variations of fuels.  There were maps and plenty of repetition, especially from the police who wanted people to be patient with the blocked access and crowd control in the evacuated areas.  The updates seemed to me to be relatively unvarnished.  The tone at least was far removed from the PR messaging that has taken over public communications these days. It stayed rooted in a common problem that the fire agencies were trying to solve with the community.   If the first round description of the day's strategy was a bit too technical, the details were unfolded in questions and answers that went on as long as the audience was willing to stay via direct access to the officials in the room.

These fire meetings were a model of public engagement that I wish universities would use.  The problems we address have a more distant horizon, but that's the only difference.

There's another issue raised by fire protection.  Markets and fees were not involved.  What was not happening was the allocation of this public service according to ability to pay.  Protection was available to everyone equally on the basis of general provision through taxation.  This was true even though private property was at stake--our excuse for charging tuition--such that every homeowner experienced a private market gain (a non-loss) when her house didn't burn down.

You don't have to imagine how the critique of "free firefighting" would sound-- you hear it all the time with universities.  "Fire protection does have some benefit to the national forest, but most of the benefit is to private property owners. Because public fire funding is expensive and lacks market discipline, we are cutting the funding and the basic service, so you are eligible for one free fire department call to your house every three years.  If you need more fire service, we have many plans to fit every budget.  Those with large private property benefits should buy Premier-level privatized firefighting--our 'Ivy League Plan' offers the fire protection equivalent of moving you from the bottom income quintile to the top one percent.  For those who need more service but cannot afford it, the state has set up a Fire Aid Program to consider your application on a case by case basis, where you will submit your family financial and fire need information via our 12-page FASFA form (Free Application for Fire Supplemental Aid) . .  ."

Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can allocate a public good through market mechanisms--the past four decades of public policy have shown this. The questions are why we would want to, and what we lose when we do.  Education and fire protection are public goods and yet, contrary to a truism of economics, they are "rivalous" (the engine at my house is therefore not at your house), and "excludable" (full quality fire protection may cost more than your community can pay).  Full quality firefighting depended on pulling dozens of crews from all over California and at least nine other states, on the strictly non-market basis of emergency service mutual aid.  

Society has tended to treat higher ed as a private good because it can, because it saves wealthy, powerful people money, and also because it has not grasped the cost.  The cost is clear in a fire: private fire protection would have

  1. a vast bureaucracy for internalizing returns by matching payments and services, which would have undermined Cal Fire-type managerial efficiencies; 
  2. increased overall fire danger by overprotecting wealthy and under-protecting poorer home owners, whose losses would be not only a greater relative catastrophe but would also send embers onto richer roofs; 
  3. prevented the massive general public firefighting effort on which the private firefighting is entirely parasitic;
  4. destroyed the wall-to-wall public support for an effort that was trying to help absolutely everybody at the same time.

The silver lining in the giant Thomas smoke cloud was the public good that isn't clotted with private interests.    We want our towns not to burn down because of global warming.  We want our kids to be smarter than we are, since that is our only hope.  In such cases, we finally don't want to use price signals to allocate according to individual ability to pay rather than to get the broadest allocation of the best possible quality for maximized general benefit.

The glory of civilization is not the market signal but almost its opposite--the intelligence that emerges in general collaboration as people figure things out together for the immediate and the long term.  The University of California, Cal State Channel Islands, Santa Barbara City College--not to mention Hollywood High Schoo--are all more like Cal Fire than they are like Genentech.  We need a rebuilt public funding model that reflects that basic fact.

Today the helicopters are back, this time chasing floods. Many thanks to all the public personnel who saved (most of) our bacon last year--including the state prisoners on the fire's front lines.  Welcome to 2018, and please keep your eyes wide open.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 7