Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Law School Dean Offers Grief Counseling to "Hysterical" Students after Trump Wins: Legal Reasoning Suffers

Michael Schwartz, dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced in November, 2016 that he would resign the following summer. His accomplishments included a lawyer-student mentoring program, live-client learning sessions, and a low-income clinic in the Arkansas Delta.[1] The trigger for his resignation was a school-wide email he had sent to students just days earlier in which he announced that he was making counseling available to any student who was upset by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Besides effectively normalizing over-reactions and failing to recognize normal venting, the dean’s email interjected partisan politics, albeit tacitly, into higher education. Rather than turn the popularized context into a teachable moment for assumption-analysis, the dean modeled what happens when unsupported assumptions run unchecked. In the end, the legal reasoning of students could suffer.
“For those of you who feel upset,” the dean wrote, “we have arranged extra on-campus counseling services today.”[2] Ironically, the dean who was taken up by the politics of the day instructed his law students (who in America are older as they already have one undergraduate college degree), “No matter how you are feeling, the most important thing for you is to focus on your studies.”[3] The dean’s assumption was that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was unique in this regard, for another professor at the school, Robert Steinbuch, noted at the time that he could not recall the dean’s office offering grief counseling after Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. “I knew plenty of people who were disappointed,” Steinbuch observed, “but I didn’t know anybody [who] needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”[4] I suspect that the normalization of the hysteria was aided by the intolerant political-correctness movement (i.e., how dare you accuse me of hysteria!). The dean was unwittingly facilitating the tacit demand for the normalization by normalizing the hysteria himself. Even the venting, which in itself is quite normal, can succumb to the demand that it be treated as something else, as if each of the vented grievances is valid rather than an over-reaction based on overblown assumptions.
The dean could have turned the attention on the election into a teachable moment by conveying to students how valuable critiquing assumptions can be when they are based on heightened emotions. Legal reasoning is presumably better when it is not at the mercy of high-charged emotions. Instead, the dean himself overextended his own assumptions—namely, that minorities would be attacked and not valued simply because Donald Trump won the election. “Our diversity is a strength and a goal that we need to cultivate in every way we can,” he wrote as if that needed all of a sudden to be said.[5] “Everyone deserves a safe, supportive, collegial learning environment,” he insisted.[6] Had reports indicated that the safety of the school would be compromised? “Please reach out to your peers and let them know they are valued.”[7] Did this include Republican peers? Furthermore, if some students were not feeling valued, maybe what they really needed to hear—for their own good—is that their inner feelings of value should not depend on external circumstances. Lastly, presumably without any evidence—a legal term—of any student being mistreated, the dean added, “And, if you witness someone being mistreated because of his or her politics, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, please do not sit silently by.”[8] It is odd that after the campaign season the dean would assume that political mistreatment would be an issue. Even if Donald Trump has personal views on particular religions, races, ethnic groups, and homosexuality, to assume that students would begin mistreating each other is a stretch, to say the least, and that presumes that the dean knew Trump’s personal views. I submit that the dean was simply laying out the laundry list of partisan causes—going well beyond even the issues then at hand. In other words, the dean was representing a partisan position whose Democratic candidate(s) had lost.
Even in ideologically overextending his reach by “warning” his students, the power-seeking dean modelled how unchecked assumptions can result in muddled reasoning. That he presented such “reasoning” as sound and valid meant that the students’ own cognitive lapses were enabled. He did nothing to improve the students’ legal reasoning, but maybe the underlying problem is that he was not oriented to legal education as per the contents of his email. I submit that a dean has an obligation in leading a school to stay on point in the sense of focusing on the dissemination of knowledge, which includes sharpening reasoning abilities. Put another way, good reasoning and a value on higher education should be major factors going into the hiring of deans.

[1] Emily Walkenhorst, “UALR Law School Dean to Exit Post,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 19, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

For-Profits Cutting Corners in Higher Education: Distinguishing Vocational and Educational as a Solution

In my hometown, a local college decided to become a university. Not that the institution was expanding; the draw was tuition money from foreign students whose governments required that aid be given only to foreign universities. So overnight, departments became colleges. The underlying mentality, I submit, is that of forsaking what an institution is and so claiming to be something it’s not in order to get more money. In short, the underlying mentality is more, more, more, even if this means being something an institution is not. The change comes off as pretentious and greedy. The mentality is also in the mix when for-profit colleges take advantage of the U.S. student-loan program to the extent that they become financially dependent on the subsidized loans. Furthermore, some for-profits turn non-profit as a way to avoid oversight without losing the financial benefits of being for-profit. The trend points to an increasing decadence in American higher-education. The good news is that between 2011 and 2016, the enrollments at the major non-profit schools dropped by more than half; the “pullback came as the government clamped down on aggressive recruiting practices and stricter policies intended to ensure that schools are preparing students for gainful employment.”[1] Even the assumption that the purpose of a college is to train students for jobs rather than educate to make students knowledgeable. I suspect that the latter mission ironically makes for better hires among graduates.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for new students to decide on a major based on the sort of job they want after they graduate. This orientation willows down education artificially to that which fits with employer needs. While such a concern has a place in the professional schools, it does not fit higher education itself. Part of the problem may be that jobs-oriented majors (and schools) are housed alongside other majors (and schools) in American universities. In the E.U., the cleft is more pronounced institutionally. The American case risks a reductionism of higher education to vocationalism. Ideally, criteria appropriate to each should have their proper place at the American universities such that like fits with like. Whereas the practice of public accounting should have a place in the accounting major of a business school, such vocational concerns should not extend to majors in the humanities, for instance; a student doesn’t major in classics because getting prepared for a job is the motive. The bottom-line may be a lack of faith in higher education itself as a social good, including being of value to students in terms of knowledge as an end in itself.
To the for-profit “universities’” managements, I would point to the consistency between such a university being profit-oriented and the criteria being the preparation of hires in the for-profit workplace. It would make sense were such “universities” limited to the professional schools rather than having majors in the liberal arts and sciences, but the mentality is not one of self-limitation, but, rather, maximization, even if it means trying to have something both ways.
In a clear decision on August 11, 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Education took aim at the sordid mentality in denying a request by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based college, to convert to nonprofit status for financial-aid purposes. Because board chairman Carl Barney was the main financial beneficiary of the college, the college was private rather than non-profit. The college would continue to face the higher regulatory scrutiny that goes with being a for-profit college; such a college “cannot derive more that 90% of its revenue from Title IV federal student-aid funds.”[2]
That a mentality of “wanting it both ways” was at least part of what the government was going after is clear from the Education Secretary’s comments. John King said, “This should send a clear message to anyone who things converting to nonprofit status is a way to avoid oversight while hanging onto the financial benefits: Don’t waste your time.”[3] That the college’s chief executive, Eric Juhlin, characterized the government’s decision as “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful” suggests that the administration did not get the message.[4] It would seem that wanting to keep the proverbial cake and yet eat it too is a sordid mentality that resists self-awareness even though it reduces credibility and thus has real costs. I submit that such a mentality can harm higher education more generally because corners tend to be cut even as the cutters remain in denial.
Fortunately, a federal crackdown on for-profit colleges had been taking place, such that in early September, 2016, ITT Technical Institute “abruptly closes more than 130 campuses, forcing more than 40,000 students . . . to begin looking for another school.”[5] The U.S. Government had banned the college from enrolling new students receiving federal aid. In short, the college had been too oriented to student loans and not enough oriented to training its students such that they could find employment. Put another way, ITT, and Corinthian Colleges, which faced liquidation a few months before, paid scant attention to their respective missions because making more money was the true mission.
Perhaps part of the problem with for-profit colleges has to do with the conflating of vocational and educational missions at non-profit universities that sport both professional schools and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. In the E.U., vocational training is institutionalized apart from the universities. Perhaps restricting for-profit colleges in the U.S. to being vocational-training centers would provide a fit for those institutions. Student loans would not apply as they would not be colleges or universities. By extension, professional schools at the non-profit universities would stress the application (and thus knowledge) of the basic disciplines. This orientation is practiced at Yale’s professional schools, especially its divinity and law schools. Were other universities to follow suit, we could distinguish those professional schools from the for-profit training centers.  Students could go “straight knowledge” in colleges of liberal arts and science, “application of such knowledge to practical pursuits” in university professional-schools, or “training in skills” at vocational training centers.

[1] Mellisa Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2016.

[2] Melissa Korn, “U.S.: For-Profit College Can’t Become Nonprofit,” The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College.”