The Penn Gazette — the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine — is one of the only paper publications I still receive. Cause it’s free, and they somehow find me wherever I move. (The other two are The Atlantic, which I often think about dropping, and Consumer Reports, because my mom keeps sending it to me.)
President Amy Gutmann has a column at the beginning of each issue. The most recent one touched a nerve in a way I could go on about at length, but will just mention briefly. (Man, it turns out blogging during the semester is a lot harder than blogging on sabbatical.)
Penn has implemented a new award for graduating seniors called the President’s Engagement Prize, which “will be competitively awarded annually to Penn seniors to undertake fully funded local, national, or global engagement projects during the first year after they graduate from Penn.”
Gutmann’s larger explanation for why they are creating the award is worth quoting at length:
While any time would be a good time to create an award for civic engagement, I think it is especially appropriate to launch this initiative at this time. Increasingly in recent years, the national discussion about higher education has come to take an extremely narrow and atomistic view of the utility of attending college. “Value” in higher education in these discussions is measured primarily in metrics focused on the individual’s post-graduation economic experience—typically by the average or modal salary range for alumni five years out—with little or no attention to the enormous value society gains by going through the time, effort, and expense to richly educate each new generation of graduates. The focus today on the economic gain to college graduates is almost a complete inversion of the tradition and expectation that girded the founding of Penn, as is evidenced by Benjamin Franklin’s own assertion at that time that an educated youth is “the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths.” A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create social good, he argued, that had as its chief aim the cultivation of educated individuals “qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.” Yes, educated people do well, but they do so by doing good.
I couldn’t agree more.
But at the same time, from the perspective of someone at an underfunded public university, the scale of the award is just mindblowing: “Up to three prize recipients (either individuals or teams of up to three students each) will receive a generous living allowance for one year after graduation and up to $100,000 in project expenses.”
I am sincerely delighted that Penn is using some of its wealth to encourage public service projects. But I also look at that and think about my undergraduates, who take almost no classes with fewer than 100 people in them, who have very limited access to advising, many of whom are working 30 hours a week or taking care of family members, and the disparity is just gobsmacking. And the strategic plan of this university is all about educating even more students with fewer resources.
There have always been disparities between wealthier and less wealthy universities. And I realize that the half-million a year or so Penn is using for these awards is just a drop in the bucket, though I could certainly put such a “drop” to work. It is reflection, though, of how our university system is going the way of society at large — toward massive, massive inequalities. And the wealthiest universities attract the biggest donors — as in the record-setting $350 million donation Harvard’s School of Public Health just received.
Wealthy universities can use this money to do good things, of course. But at the same time, a future in which we have 15, maybe 25 extremely well-funded universities and then hundreds that are desperately trying to generate revenue from all sources possible does not seem healthy for the future of the nation.
Last week, I argued that academics face poor incentives. We are rewarded for solving hard problems, but rarely rewarded for simple, but important, problems. On Twitter, Eric Crampton suggested that my argument could be seen as a vote for think tanks as policy vehicles:
There’s a simple logic here. Policy is the whole point of think tanks. In practice, there would probably be a bias in favor of simple solutions as voters and politicians would have a tough time understanding complex solutions.
Still, I don’t see most think tanks as immune from perverse incentives. Rather, they have a different audience that imposes its own incentives. For example, an Atlantic article chronicles the decline of the Heritage Foundation as the primary source of high quality conservative policy work. The story is straightforward, the need for funding made it hard to resist the Tea Party. Heritage flipped on so many issues from health care to immigration that it’s hard to recognize it as the same organization.
Academia has the perverse incentive of rewarding people for technical skill at the expense of real world importance. The think tank world has a different problem. These organizations depend on fickle donors. So yes, simple is good, until the winds change.
Loyal orgtheorista and sociologist Amy Binder has forwarded me this course syllabus for a course at UC San Diego. It is called Soc 211 Computational Methods in Social Science and was taught by Edward Hunter and Akos Rona-Tas. The authors are working on a textbook, the course was made open to a wide range of students, a and it was supported by the Dean at UCSD. I heard people had a nerdy good time. Click here to read the soc211_syllabus.
When people discuss affirmative action, they often have a mistaken view that higher education is filled with legions of under-qualified minorities. From the inside, we have the opposite view. The higher up you go, the less likely you will find folks from under-represented groups. So, what gives?
In addition to plain ideological differences, I think people are selectively looking at the academic pipeline. Basically, at some points in the career, affirmative action is indeed at work and some folks, including myself no doubt, will receive extra consideration. But most of the time, privilege is the rule. People will disproportionately focus on the parts of the pipeline where affirmative action is a modest benefit for some people.
To grasp the argument, it helps to break down what needs to happen in order for anyone to become a tenured professor:
- Getting a high college GPA.
- Applying to the “right” grad schools.
- Admission to the “right” grad schools.
- Passing courses.
- Passing exams.
- Getting the “right” adviser.
- Getting published in the “right” places.
- Writing the dissertation.
- Applying to tenure track positions
- Getting an offer from a school.
- Strong teaching skills.
- Continuing to publish in the “right” places.
- Getting elites in the profession to vouch for you.
- Getting the department and college to sign off on your tenure case.
As you can see, academia is this insanely long career track with a long list of interdependent parts.
Now let’s get back to affirmative action. Where does that policy work? In my scheme, it shows up mainly in step #3. Most schools will look askance at graduate school cohorts that lack ethnic or gender diversity. Some may even provide funds for recruitment and fellowships. But that’s it. After step #3, affirmative is rare. Perhaps the exception is when deans or departments at the junior level look to diversity the faculty and they may approve a hire.
This helps explain the perceptions of the policy. Admissions is high profile and people are openly competing for spots. Faculty hiring is also high visibility. In contrast, say, getting published in a journal, or joining the “right” research groups is highly invisible to most observers until after the fact. And these are structured as homophilic networks, which might work against diversifying the faculty.
So, when it come to diversity in academia, you can’t look at one link in the chain. You have to look at the whole thing.