don’t sacrifice college to the pandemic

I wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens’ “What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?“. Unsurprisingly, the letter was not published, so I offer it here as a conversation-starter on lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from higher education’s current situation.

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what I’ve learned: chairing unc’s general education curriculum redesign

From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences .

This first post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years chairing the curriculum redesign process.

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the milgram study and the suppression of violence research

milgramt

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.

I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.

As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.

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no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

Continue reading “no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams”

why the liberal arts? the value of general education

This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee. 

Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.

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lessons learned.

I just sent my final email* as my department’s Director of Graduate Studies. If I had the energy, I’d throw a party to celebrate the end of my term, but I don’t think I have it in me. Instead, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what I learned, in hopes that others who want to be an advocate for graduate students (whether in an official position or not) might find some use for what worked and what didn’t over the last three years:

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cost-cutting in higher ed

In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:

  1. Cap administrative costs
  2. Operate year round, five days a week
  3. More teaching, less (mediocre) research
  4. Cheaper, better general education

The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.

  1. Define what you mean by “universities.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
  3. Don’t rely on outdated data.
  4. Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

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