Brief comments on William Bowen and Haverford College commencement


William Bowen at Haverford commencement, May 18, 2004

William Bowen at Haverford commencement, May 18, 2004

Above, my view of William Bowen yesterday

At yesterday’s Haverford College graduation, one of the honorary degree recipients was William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and longtime head of the Mellon Foundation (from 1988 to 2006). He took the opportunity to talk about the controversy at Haverford over the granting of an honorary degree to former University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Birgeneau was one of four named honorary degree recipients, and after he was named, several dozen students and faculty wrote an open letter to him asking him to accept nine conditions surrounding the use of law enforcement against Occupy protesters at Berkeley in 2011. Birgeneau’s response was dismissive (“I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks”), and he eventually decided not to come to graduation. Given Bowen’s stature in higher ed, his commenting on the controversy was both perfectly understandable and instant news in higher ed.

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Why has no one challenged Florida’s large voucher programs?

In the wake of this year’s legislative maneuvering to expand Florida’s voucher programs, there is a significant question floating over the future of voucher programs: since the state Supreme Court ruled a smaller program unconstitutional in 2006, why has there been no legal challenge to the other, larger voucher programs in the past 8 years? The brief answer is that lawsuits targeting education policies and practices have political ramifications, and are expensive, complicated, and subject to idiosyncrasies behind the scenes in how they develop.

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The ultimate LIFO

I’ve been trying to carve out time this week to read José Vilson’s This Is Not a Test, and also continue with Thomas Piketty. The combination of the two has sparked a few musings in the back of my mind, including the fact that someone else has noted, that Piketty’s hundreds-of-pages-long book doesn’t have much on human capital.

And then I had this thought: the accumulation of wealth is the ultimate “last in, first out” (LIFO) practice. Those that have, get more. Those that don’t, don’t. Passing on wealth to further generations is anti-meritocratic, letting those who have inherited a sinecure rest on other people’s laurels.

I’m not a defender of the more absolutist versions of LIFO practices, or guidelines that give at least some protection to more senior teachers in a school in layoff conditions. I am also skeptical of claims that LIFO is the worst thing since … well, the last worst thing that education reformers complained about. I have seen no evidence that ending LIFO has improved schools where that policy change has happened.

Beyond that, it strikes me that if one is going to complain about LIFO policies in schools, one can ask about your approach to the retention of institutionalized privilege in society at large. Do you really believe that we need to eliminate the security of long-held positions, or does that only hold within school walls? If you truly believe in ending LIFO in schools, to be consistent you should also believe in and argue for ending LIFO outside schools, in terms of intergenerational wealth transfers and unearned wealth.

I mean confiscatory-level estate taxes — say, 100% above $3 million per family member that you transfer your wealth to. I’m not wedded to that as a definition of high estate taxes that ensure each generation only makes it on their own efforts; that is just an example.

So, while reading Vilson and Piketty, I have become curious whether anyone who has argued against LIFO has also argued in favor of confiscatory estate taxes. I’m not holding my breath, but it would be evidence of consistency in policy preferences.

Addendum: Since I’ve been asked: No, I’m not advocating confiscatory estate taxes here. I’m pointing out a bit of inconsistency, which is often the case when people talk about education policy issues in isolation from the rest of social policy.

Don Heller, debt, and the debt-crisis discourse

On Thursday, Valerie Strauss published a commentary on college-debt debate by Don Heller, the dean of Michigan State’s College of Education. The gist of Heller’s remark is that it is hyperbolic and unproductive to term the status of college-student and -alumni debt a crisis because the total indebtnedness that is allocated to college loans has crossed a nominal threshold of $1 trillion or because total college-student loan debt has overtaken other forms of debt, such as credit cards.

I agree with Heller that nominal sums and debt-category comparisons are not sensible bases on which to claim a policy crisis. They are used to sensationalize an issue — you could do the same thing in the way President Ronald Reagan used in one speech: if you pile all the dollar-bills that current and former students owe on student loans in the United States, it would reach more than one-quarter of the way from the Earth to the moon. Maybe this is an indication of a crisis, while student debt that reaches only one-tenth of the way to the moon isn’t. Or maybe if we can pile up dollar bills to the edge of space, that’s a problem, but beyond the International Space Station is a crisis. As someone who wrote my first book on the construction of leaving high school as a social crisis, I am deeply sympathetic to Heller’s point: it’s hard to see how crisis-mongering is either accurate or useful.

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Walking through a mental neighborhood

Severe storms at the USF Tampa campus pushed me off campus this afternoon, and I’ve used it in part to catch up on reading, such as Joy Ann Williamson-Lott’s article “The Battle over Power, Control, and Academic Freedom at Southern Institutions of Higher Education, 1955–1965” ($$) in last November’s Journal of Southern History. It’s an important consolidation of and addition to the literature on academic freedom and the modern civil rights movement.

Part of what makes the article so pleasurable is the way Williamson-Lott layers additional dimensions onto what I know about both the history of higher education and the civil-rights movement, from the ways Alabama State’s administrators turned the other way as Jo Ann Robinson and others planned a one-day bus boycott in Montgomery, to the cross-cutting pressures on both administrators and trustees between 1955 and 1965 (and at all sorts of institutions, public and private, HBCU and historically all-white). From the first to the last page, for me this is an intellectual walking tour of a familiar neighborhood, one in which I get to hear someone I know explain more stories of the neighborhood that I know well.

If you are not an historian or otherwise familiar with the material, what you now know is how one professional experienced this article. What does that really tell you?

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