Universities are no more illusory than journalists



This week Kevin Carey wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he argued that the recent academic and athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina could happen because, basically, universities are “illusions.” There is no real oversight of what happens in the classroom. Therefore it was easy for some professors in the African American Studies Department to enroll some of the athletes in fake courses, give fake grades, that allowed them to fake pass and therefore to stay in school and, for some, to retain eligibility on their athletic teams and pretend to be “scholar athletes.”

Here’s the link to the essay: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/24/upshot/the-fundamental-way-that-universities-are-an-illusion.html

I have so many responses to this piece but my first one is: thank goodness there is not more oversight and standardization and regulation of the college classroom! There is already so much, we college profs are already awash in so much bureaucracy, it is hard to imagine that these scandals happened. Adding another level of academic bureaucracy won’t solve future scandals. It will prevent or at least impede future innovation. It already has in public elementary and high school. To extend the hardships we place on public school teachers to college would be to take one tragedy (the scandals at UNC) and pile on another (of limiting creative pedagogy, methodology, and intellectual and academic innovation).

In K-12 public education, we have seen the continual and growing demoralization of real learning that has happened through the imposition of poor quality, end-of-grade high stakes, summative tests onto classrooms as an attempt to ensure that teachers are “doing their jobs.” The result? A drop out rate of the best teachers that far exceeds even the drop out rate of students, and a mind-numbingly bad method of teaching to the test. We’ve also seen a soaring in “learning disabilities”–some of which are real, but many of which mean: kids cannot sit still unconscionably long and be bored for impossibly longer and longer amounts of time in order to learn how to answer what is on the test, an impoverished way of learning sure to kill curiosity. (Read Anya Kamanetz’s The Test if you want the depressing stats on what testing and certification have done to K-12).

That kind of making sure we know what is happening in our classrooms is the last thing I want for higher education, whether at our community colleges or at America’s elite universities. We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.

And Kevin Carey knows that. He’s written a book about that.

Do abuses happen sometimes, despite all this regulating, despite all the forms we all fill out each and every year about everything we do? Of course. I don’t know any bureaucracy, no matter how tight, that manages to find a way to regulate itself into complete honesty if there are participants who seek to be dishonest. A new layer of oversight will add politics–especially in North Carolina where the politics regulating higher education get hotter and heavier each year. A new layer of policing will not prevent all future problems from happening.

The real reason UNC’s scandal happened is that a lot of people colluded to make it happen. The motives may have varied; dishonesty in some cases, perhaps even good but extremely ill-considered intentions in others. But the point was there was no accident here. It wasn’t just about “illusory” structures; it was about a deception enacted around very careful, fixed, and well-known structures. There were rules and procedures, in other words. People broke them. Period.

Over-regulating the current system doesn’t prevent people who want to circumvent it from doing so. Nor does it fix it. Changing the system might. But the system that needs changing is college sports (in the case of the athletic fraud). There were clearly, it has been pointed out to me (in a tweet by Kevin Carey, in fact), several students who were not athletes who were also passed along in fake courses, with fake grades. Again, an unforgivable travesty and a tragedy, for everyone and for a fine university. But is regulation the answer? Or should we be asking why these students needed fake courses and fake grades. What about real, dedicated college mentoring or tutoring if that was needed? What about help and attention to social skills in the competitive world of the state’s top public university where the intellectual and social pressures are great?

Other universities have addressed similar problems in constructive ways. Not through the oversight of classrooms from a strictly external perspective, and certainly not by adding new regulating bodies (a particular danger in North Carolina, with its legislators all too willing to pronounce on university policy, inspired by politics as much, sometimes and in certain cases, as ethics)..

The reputational system of the classroom and of universities is all we’ve got. We need to build upon and improve upon that system–peer mentoring, honor codes, honor systems, and other internal checks and balances have been shown to have impact. With new ways of analyzing data, student evaluations can be (and need to be) vastly improved. Rankings can be vastly improved. (Why is selectivity rather than graduation rate a metric for high rankings? Why don’t we factor in the over-reliance on adjunct and contingent labor as a metric of quality?) Formative feedback systems can also be vastly improved. But the thing we need most is freedom to innovate, experiment, try new methods and models and pedagogies. We do not need, now, even more regulation and oversight and credentialing.

We need deep thought about our values (ie. the athletics problem above), about what university education is really for.

Every day I see corrections in the New York Times when good readers find errors that journalists and fact checkers should have caught. Does that mean the New York Times needs new regulators? Would that make for a better press?

Every year at least one Pulitzer Prize winner turns out to have faked his stories? At least once a month a story seems downright suspect and politically motivated (this week it was the word “criminal” inserted by the Times erroneously into a report about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use). Do I want regulation from some external body? No. I want better journalism, better reporting, and perhaps the public as a better watch dog.

And I want the freedom and the looseness of a system that allows and appreciates and welcomes innovation. Higher education is already way too boxed in with competing regulations. It is not illusory. It is too much of a checklist–requirements, majors, minors, distribution requirements, far too much reporting to far too many external bodies. It makes it very hard to turn the ship around. And the ship needs turning. That includes the ship of collegiate athletics.