Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.
In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:
- Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
- Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.
Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.
In case you’re wondering, I’m obviously Tom Cruise and Steven Pinker is Jack Nicholson.
Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article/book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.
I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:
Race. And money. But really, race.
Here’s a more subtle answer:
College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.
Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.
Roughly, it goes something like this. First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools. Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things. Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era. Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.” Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school. College admissions has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.
If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:
- A huge increase in Asian enrollments
- A modest decrease in White enrollments, but with strong Jewish enrollments
- A substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments
- An increase in people who don’t give back
- A very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.
Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are White minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?
I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.
This clip is full of rationality, sanity, and basic human decency. Reagan even proposes an essentially open US/Mexico border at the end. When Reagan is to the left of Obama, it shows our policies are in need of serious overhaul.
Last week, Indiana Ph.D. student Karlijn Keijzer was killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The university news web site reports that she was an athlete, gifted science student, and an accomplished teacher. Her passing is a tragedy that has deeply touched the IU community.
History will likely pin this senseless death, and the deaths of hundreds of others, on the separatists and their cruel patron in Moscow. Yet, we should reflect on a broader point. This type of violence, where governments hand out such sophisticated weapons of war to masked men, is made possible by nationalist sentiments. Putin only thrives because of a deep spring of nationalist pride that legitimizes war, a sentiment that exists in many nations. Before we egg on our leaders and demand that they bring war to other nations, let us remember the innocent people who will suffer.
Twitter is, well, a-twitter with people worked up about the Facebook study. If you haven’t been paying attention, FB tested whether they could affect people’s status updates by showing 700,000 folks either “happier” or “sadder” updates for a week in January 2012. This did indeed cause users to post more happy or sad updates themselves. In addition, if FB showed fewer emotional posts (in either direction), people reduced their posting frequency. (PNAS article here, Atlantic summary here.)
What most people seem to be upset about (beyond a subset who are arguing about the adequacy of FB’s methods for identifying happy and sad posts) is the idea that FB could experiment on them without their knowledge. One person wondered whether FB’s IRB (apparently it was IRB approved — is that an internal process?) considered its effects on depressed people, for example.
While I agree that the whole idea is creepy, I had two reactions to this that seemed to differ from most.
1) Facebook is advertising! Use it, don’t use it, but the entire purpose of advertising is to manipulate your emotional state. People seem to have expectations that FB should show content “neutrally,” but I think it is entirely in keeping with the overall product: FB experiments with what it shows you in order to understand how you will react. That is how they stay in business. (Well, that and crazy Silicon Valley valuation dynamics.)
2) This is the least of it. I read a great post the other day at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective Blog (here) about all the weird and misleading things FB does (and social media algorithms do more generally) to identify what kinds of content to show you and market you to advertisers. To pick one example: if you “like” one thing from a source, you are considered to “like” all future content from that source, and your friends will be shown ads that list you as “liking” it. One result is dead people “liking” current news stories.
My husband, who spent 12 years working in advertising, pointed out that this research doesn’t even help FB directly, as you could imagine people responding better to ads when they’re happy or when they’re sad. And that the thing FB really needs to do to attract advertisers is avoid pissing off its user base. So, whoops.
Anyway, this raises interesting questions for people interested in using big data to answer sociological questions, particularly using some kind of experimental intervention. Does signing a user agreement when you create an account really constitute informed consent? And do companies that create platforms that are broadly adopted (and which become almost obligatory to use) have ethical obligations in the conduct of research that go beyond what we would expect from, say, market research firms? We’re entering a brave new world here.
According to immigration scholar and advocate Francesca Pizzutelli, the phrase “illegal immigrant” did not exist in English (or was insanely rare) before the 1930s. Rather, people used the phrase “irregular immigrant” for transitory labor. The bias against outsiders exists in all societies, but this suggests that the modern legal and cultural edifice that bars people from migrating peacefully to the US did not exist till the series of anti-immigration laws passed by Congress in the 1920s.
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.