Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

The Whiners and The Doers

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng. Haley credits VCU support network for helping them get this far.

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng with Empower Card. Haley credits VCU’s support network for helping them get this far. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense.

by James A. Bacon

Two stories about Virginia Commonwealth University were in the news today. A front-page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted a forum in which African-American and Muslim students expressed how badly they are treated and how the university needs to make a greater commitment to “diversity.” The other, appearing in the email newsletter of Richmond BizSense, described how two members of VCU’s  2011 Final Four basketball team hope to launch a venture, Empower Card, that will allow purchasers to funnel a portion of their credit card purchases to worthy causes.

The contrast is highly illuminating.


VCU President Michael Rao and VCU student Angelique Scott. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

About 500 people packed the VCU forum hosted by President Michael Rao and gave voice to a succession of gripes and grievances. “VCU has failed black students on many levels,” said Angelique Scott, a junior representing a group called Black VCU Speaks. “We are tired of hearing about old initiatives that have never been set into action.”

Hiba Ahmad, a sophomore from Fairfax, said Muslim students have become fearful in the wake of terrorist attacks and “a growing rhetoric of Islamophobia.” Students “who display their faith very visually” through their dress are concerned for their safety, she said.

There was a lot of talk about fears and perceptions, but no mention of anything tangible. Have minority VCU students been assaulted? No such incidents were reported. Has anyone been physically bullied? Again, no mention. Ahmad took objection to classroom discussions in which “hurtful” and “disrespectful” comments about Muslims are made and the failure of professors to back up the Muslims. Another student spoke about feeling “marginalized” when he discovered he wasn’t invited to a cookout at a professor’s home.

Poor, delicate flowers.

We don’t know how representative the views of these 500 students are, but Rao legitimized them by saying the university is trying to create a more welcoming environment. “Let’s just face it, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The urgency is more serious than I think some might grasp.”

It is important to note however, that the wallowing-in-self-pity movement does not represent the views of all minority VCU students — just the noisiest ones. We hear a very different story from fledgling entrepreneurs D.J. Haley and Rob Brandenberg, two recently graduated members of VCU’s most celebrated basketball squad. Their idea is to use credit and debit cards as vehicles for businesses and consumers to donate money to participating not-for-profit causes.

Working with a company called Linkable Networks to provide the technology, Haley and Brandenburg have launched a website and are lining up businesses and charities to take part. The idea is that participating businesses would build their brand and customer loyalty by funneling 5% of the credit-card charge to select charities.

For now, reports BizSense, the company is in the very early stages. Haley, who works for a marketing advisory and data intelligence firm in Northern Virginia, and Brandenberg, who works for CornerstoneRPO, a corporate recruiting company in Richmond, are working part-time on the enterprise. Among other hurdles, they figure they need about $50,000 to get the venture off the ground. “We’re betting on the intent to do good works,” said Haley.

How was their experience at VCU? Here’s what Haley said: “We were fortunate to be exposed to great people and great principles,. The other thing that we’re working with is how intertwined we are with the VCU community. We’re confident we have the support we need to make this thing happen.”

I am awaiting the day when Rao holds a forum for ambitious, striving and upwardly mobile students like Haley and Brandenburg. I am guessing that he would get very different feedback. VCU faces a critical choice: Which constituency does it choose to empower — the whiners or the doers? If VCU wants any kind of future, it should cast its lot with the doers.

Du Bois-Washington Debate as Relevant as Ever

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

by James A. Bacon

As debate rages in the comments section of Bacon’s Rebellion over the legitimacy of the demands made by African-American student activists at Virginia Commonwealth University last week, I asked myself whether differential graduation rates between different race/ethnicities might be playing a role in the frustration experienced by the student militants. The answer is, probably not. What I found instead was an upbeat story, which, though a few years old, reflects well upon the VCU administration — and, to my mind, represents exactly the kind of policy the university ought to be pursuing.

A pair of reports issued by The Education Trust in 2012 found that VCU had eliminated the graduation gap between African-American and white students between 2004 and 2010, raising the black graduation rate from 34.5% to 49.8%. VCU ranked 16th nationally on the list of “Top 25 Gainers in African-American Student Graduation Rates among Public Institutions,” according to a report summary prepared by the VCU news office. Results improved for Hispanic students as well.

The key to success? VCU’s University College, a program that prepares entering students for college-level work.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

“Our Focused Inquiry Program helps new students experience a college curriculum in a very short time,” said Joseph Marolla, vice provost for instruction and student success. From the article:

The Focused Inquiry I and II courses are the central component of the University College curriculum. Those courses target oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, the development of quantitative abilities, information retrieval and evaluation and collaborative work.

Class sizes are limited to 22 students. Marolla said the 43 faculty members teaching at University College are critical to the success of the program and its students.

Here is a program with 43 faculty members — an expensive commitment — geared to help insufficiently prepared students achieve success at the university.

This strikes me as money well spent. VCU’s proper priority is providing African-American students the academic support that allows them to complete their graduation requirements.  It also strikes me that anyone interested in improving the prospects of African-Americans in Virginia should be focusing on substantive issues like on-time graduation instead of politically potent but ultimately trivial issues such as those articulated by the VCU student protesters.

What we’re seeing played out in the modern American campus is a reprise of the old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago. Where should African-Americans focus their energy: upon education and self-improvement or advancing a civil rights agenda? Du Bois won that debate, resulting in sweeping and much-needed civil rights reforms in the 1960s. Economic gains for poor African-Americans since then have been limited, but African-American political and thought leaders have shown relatively little interest in revisiting core assumptions in light of new conditions. White micro-aggressions and insufficient support for campus cultural institutions aren’t what’s holding back African-Americans today, either at VCU or society at large. Low graduation rates in high school and college are.

As PBS summarizes his thinking, Washington seems more relevant than ever: “He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.” That assessment may or may not have been valid in the 19th century when virulent racism was still prevalent, but it may be the best path forward for African-Americans in the 21st century when only vestiges of racism survive.

VCU’s African-American students need to ask themselves which will benefit them most: more self improvement and educational achievement or the cultivation of resentment and grievance over symbolic issues.

How Does Virginia’s Most Diverse, Liberal University Manage to Alienate African-Americans?


by James A. Bacon

Following up on our conversation about the demands made by black Virginia Commonwealth University students, I stumbled across this data compiled by the college ranking website. I was startled to find that the VCU student body ranked itself as the most liberal of any college or university in Virginia — and the 88th most liberal among the 880 colleges surveyed. VCU also got the highest score for diversity of any Virginia institution (tied with Marymount University).

African-American students invaded the VCU president’s office Thursday and issued demands for more African-American professors, more funding for African-American cultural programs, and implementation of a “cultural competency” course for all students. VCU President Michael Rao engaged in a respectful, two-hour dialogue with the protesters.

I find it fascinating that this surge of unrest by African-American students — fueled, they say, by their alienation from campus life — occurred on the campus that is the most diverse and the most liberal of any university in Virginia. (Read here the methodology behind’s survey, and how it included only those institutions with statistically meaningful results.)

One is prompted by these numbers to ask where the feelings of alienation come from.

Can VCU be said, by any objective measure, to be a hostile or even an indifferent place for minority students when the university rates an “A” for diversity? That is hard to swallow.’s diversity rating gives 20% weight to the percentage of international students, 20% to racial diversity of the student body, 20% to student survey characterizations of the institution, 15% to the percentage of out-of-state students, 10% to faculty diversity, and smaller percentages to gender and socio-economic diversity. (See the methodology here.) Whatever flaws VCU may have, it cannot be said that the university administration lacks a commitment to diversity.

Can it be said that African-American students feel excluded by other members of the student body — that they are marginalized by other students’ racist attitudes? One reason to suspect otherwise is the fact that only half the student body (51%) is white and nearly one-fifth (18%) of the student body is African-American, with significant percentages of Asians and Hispanics. Not only are whites less predominant than at other college campuses, those whites likely are more liberal minded than white students generally. Unless we accept the proposition that self-professed white liberals are closet racists, this explanation does not hold water. (Caveat: We have to be careful drawing hard-and-fast conclusions about student attitudes given the modest size of the survey samples and the inevitable margin for error.)

I would propose a different explanation: that the alienation expressed by a relatively small number of African-American students at VCU — about 30, who may or may not be representative of the larger African-American student body — stems not from VCU’s insufficient commitment to diversity or the racist attitudes of a non-dominant white student body, but the ideology of victimization and grievance that is intrinsic to liberalism in the ivory tower. African-American students at VCU — or at least the students participating in the protest — feel alienated because the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails on college campuses fosters alienation. Fifty years of failed liberal policies have done nothing to lessen the breadth or intensity of African-American poverty in America, but rather than admit the unintended consequences of social engineering, liberals in academia have doubled down on the racism paradigm. Thus, they seize upon ever more subtle manifestations of racism, as evidenced by the recent distress over “micro-aggressions” on college campuses.

Of course, liberals will take issue with my analysis. If past is prologue, some will insinuate that I am racist for criticizing the liberal paradigm — in other words, I’ll be tarred with the “R” word not because I am antagonistic in any way toward African-Americans but because I entertain different ideas of how to bring them into the mainstream of American society. My deeply held hope is that America one day can become a country where racism disappears, where the historic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are overcome, and where every child has an opportunity to succeed regardless of the color of his or her skin. I just don’t think we get closer to those goals by cultivating victimization and grievance. As long as universities continue to do so, they will remain reservoirs of African-American discontent.

Black Students Issue Demands to VCU

Black VCU students talking to President Michael Rao. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Black VCU students talking to President Michael Rao. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

With the occupation of the Virginia Commonwealth University president’s office by an estimated 30 African-American students yesterday, the national politics of racial polarization has come to Richmond. Expressing solidarity with the black students at the University of Missouri, the black VCU students say they feel alienated from campus life and abandoned by the university. Given the black anger sweeping the nation, it was just a matter of time.

Race relations are worse now than any time I can remember since the race riots of the ’60s and ’70s. The militancy of the “Black Lives Matter” movement has given rise to a scary backlash by white hate groups, as highlighted by the South Carolina church bombing and the arrest yesterday of two white Richmond-area men for plotting to shoot up or bomb synagogues or black churches. The inflammatory words and actions of one extreme justifies the inflammatory words and actions of the other. The difference is that white extremist groups remain despised and marginalized in our society, as they should be, while the “Black Lives Matter” movement and its offshoots has demonstrated that it can dethrone university presidents.

Because broad sectors of our society, especially our intellectual elites, confer legitimacy upon black militants like VCU’s student activists — giving sympathetic play to their demands in a way they never would for alienated whites — it is only reasonable to subject the militants’ demands to critical scrutiny.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the VCU students expressed three broad sets of demands: (1) They want to double the percentage of black professors at VCU by 2017, (2) they want more funding for cultural organizations and events on campus, and (3) they want VCU to create a “cultural competency” course, which all students must attend. Let’s deal with those one by one.

More black professors. Fifteen percent of the VCU student body is black, while VCU says that only five percent of the professors are black. Students “say it’s often difficult for them to deal with educators who don’t understand their cultural concerns or the experience driving their thoughts and world view.” VCU, they insist, needs to double the percentage of African-American faculty within two years.

The Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern students at VCU don’t seem to have a problem with the faculty’s cultural experience different from their own, but that’s a side issue. There is a very practical problem with the students’ demand: There are not enough black professors to go around. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, blacks comprised only six percent of full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions in 2013. Granted, that’s one percentage point more than at VCU, so it’s possible that VCU could hire more black faculty. But raising the percentage to 10% is all but impossible. Making the job even harder for VCU is the fact that the scarcity value of black professors gives them a real premium in the academic marketplace, meaning that more prestigious schools with greater resources are likely to outbid VCU.

Accomplishing the goal within two years is literally impossible, even if VCU could achieve the goal demanded by students of ensuring that at least one of three candidates interviewing for a faculty position is black. While it’s true that 7% of PhDs awarded in the United States these days (based upon 2007 data published by the Survey of Earned Doctorates Fact Sheet) goes to to blacks, the distribution of degrees is highly unbalanced: 38.4% of all black doctoral recipients earned a degree in education (double the average for whites), which suggests that VCU will have no trouble making or exceeding its quota for education school professors. But much smaller percentages earned degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, meaning it will be nearly impossible for VCU to consider black candidates for certain fields.

Bottom line: The under-representation of blacks in VCU’s faculty does not reflect “institutional racism” or “white privilege” but the paucity of African-American PhDs. The paucity of African-American PhDs does not represent discrimination against African-Americans in higher ed, a bastion of liberalism and politically correct thinking, but the lower percentage of African-Americans graduating from high school capable of doing PhD-level work.

More funding for cultural organizations. The activists say there is “no effort being made to foster a community for black students.”

Really? VCU’s website lists 621 student organizations, including these:

African & American Student Empowerment Project
Association of Black Social Workers
Black Art Student Empowerment
Black Awakening Choir
Black Graduate Student Association
Black Ice (hip hop dance group)
Black Student Law Association (BLSA)
Minority Legal Students of BLSA
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Association of Black Accountants
National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice
National Society of Black Engineers

And that doesn’t include the cultural organizations for African students generally, and Ethiopians, Sudanese and Eritrean students specifically.

VCU has no student organizations based on white racial/ethnic identity. I presume that organizations like the Ukelele Club, the Car Club and the Tae Kwon Do Club are open to all, regardless of racial/ethnic affiliation. If there aren’t enough options among the 621 organizations listed to plug into university life, there is nothing to prevent African-American students from starting new organizations, registering with the university, and applying for student government funds like every other organization does. What’s the problem here? Why is it someone else’s responsibility, and not that of the students themselves, to create the kind of community they want? Continue reading

Was $100,000 in Federal Research Grants Diverted to an Indian Community College?

Jagadish Shukla in his native village of Mirdha, in a 2003 New York Times photograph.

Jagadish Shukla (left) in his native village of Mirdha, in a 2003 New York Times photograph.

by James A. Bacon

George Mason University climate scientist Jagadish Shukla isn’t under congressional scrutiny just for paying himself handsomely with federal research funds over and above his university salary, he is also being questioned about donating $100,000 to his pet education charity in India.

Shukla attracted considerable notoriety as the lead author of a letter to President Obama urging a federal investigation into major energy corporations under the RICO statute for “knowingly deceiving the American people about climate change.” Climate skeptics quickly hit back by drawing attention to his pocketing of $250,000 in salary and compensation from GMU as well as $314,000 as president of the federally funded Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES) in addition to paying his wife Anastasia Shukla $146,000 in IGES funds.

On October 1, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, mailed a letter asking Shukla and IGES to preserve a “full and complete record of relevant communications” should the committee request them. Smith followed up with another letter, dated October 19, to request documents relating to the alleged shifting of $100,000 in federal grant money to the Institute for Global Education Equality of Opportunity and Prosperity in 2014, which then allegedly transferred the funds “to a school in India that was apparently founded by Dr. Shukla.”

“It appears that grants provided to IGES are not serving the intended purpose of providing services to the public,” wrote Smith. “Instead, taxpayers appear to be picking up the tab for excessive salaries, nepotism, questionable money transfers, and political activity while receiving little or no benefit.”

“The public expects non-profit organizations that receive taxpayer money to exercise responsible stewardship of their tax dollars,” he continued. “As the Committee is charged with investigating waste and abuse in agencies under its jurisdiction, I have initiated this oversight regarding grants received by Dr. Shukla.”

The query by Congressional Republicans occurs against the backdrop of a highly partisan debate over climate change. For years, climate warriors have tried to discredit skeptics by linking them to giant fossil fuel companies, with the implication that their arguments were tainted by self interest. The latest iteration of that argument, advanced in books and newspaper articles, is that Exxon Mobil knew the dangers of man-made climate change years ago but misled the public in a manner similar to the way tobacco companies hid the link between smoking and cancer. Exxon Mobil has heatedly denied the charges, responding that journalists cherry picked facts to fit their narrative. The letter signed by Shukla and 19 other climate scientists, including five from GMU, urged the Obama administration to prosecute energy companies if they were found to be lying to the public. Since then, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has subpoenaed documents from the oil giant to determine if the company lied to the public.

Skeptics have countered by arguing that research by climate alarmists is biased by the endless quest for federal research grants. Given the capture of the federal bureaucracy by climate alarmists, they contend, only research supporting the prevailing orthodoxy gets funded. Through his non-profit vehicle, IGES, Shukla has been a major beneficiary of federal funding, which he has used to fine-tune computerized climate models for forecasting global warming. As Shukla’s handling of the grant illustrates, skeptics contend, climate scientists aren’t pure either; they, too, pursue their self interest.

IGES describes itself as a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to climate research in service of society.” The institute was established to “improve understanding and prediction of the variations of the Earth’s climate through scientific research on climate variability and climate predictability, and to share both the fruits of this research and the tools necessary to carry out this research with society as a whole.”

In its 2014 Form 990 filing, IGES listed a $100,000 grant among its expenses, although it did not specify to whom the money was given. The Smith letter suggested that the recipient was the Institute for Global Education, Equality of Opportunity, and Prosperity. That group, which lists Anastasia (Anne) Shukla as its secretary, describes its mission as alleviating poverty, educating the public about the sources of poverty, establishing an education center in Washington, D.C., and “supporting Gandhi College in the Ballia district of Indian to provide education and training to poor rural students, especially women.” Continue reading

Why Is GMU Stonewalling?

stone_wallby James A. Bacon

Two months ago, Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University professor, was one of twenty climate scientists to affix their signatures to a letter calling for a federal investigation into “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” It was imperative, stated the letter, that “these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate.”

Outraged by the assault on free speech, climate skeptics brought to light some troubling facts about Shukla’s activities. Not only did Shukla take in $250,000 in salary and compensation from GMU, he paid himself $314,000 in 2014 as president of the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), the recipient of generous federal grants, and that doesn’t include the $146,000 salary paid to his wife Anastasia Shukla.

A month ago, the controversy jumped from the Internet to the political realm when Congress got involved. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sent a letter informing Shukla that it was “foreseeable” that the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology would investigate him, along with IGES, for using science-research monies provided by taxpayers while participating in partisan political activity. Although Shukla later stated that he signed the letter in a personal capacity, he did identify himself as a GMU professor, and he did post the letter on the IGES website.

The Smith letter asked Shukla/IGES to preserve a “full and complete record of relevant communications” should the Committee decide to request documents. The request encompassed all e-mail, electronic documents, and datacreated since January 1, 2009. The congressman also asked Shukla to exercise reasonable efforts to notify employees, former employees, contractors and third parties to do the same.

Shukla is a high-profile member of the GMU faculty, whose combined salary/compensation exceeds that of GMU’s president and makes him among the highest-paid professors at the university, if not the highest paid. If you’re looking for a local hook on this story, Shukla serves on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, which is making recommendations to the governor regarding state climate change-related policy.

While the Congressional committee seems to be focused on Shukla, I would suggest that certain questions should be put to his employer, George Mason University.

  • What is GMU’s policy regarding faculty drawing salaries from outside organizations?
  • Did Shukla disclose to GMU that he and his wife were drawing salaries from IGES?
  • Did GMU review the arrangement to ensure that it complied with the university’s disclosure requirements, conflict-of-interest guidelines and other rules?
  • Has GMU been alerted to the congressional request for Shukla and IGES employees to preserve all electronic documents?
  • Do any such documents reside on GMU servers, and what measures, if any, has GMU put into place to ensure that the documents are preserved?
  • Has GMU “lawyered up”? Has Shukla “lawyered up?” If so, is GMU covering Shukla’s legal expenses?

Let’s crowd source this bad boy!

Contacting three separate people on the university’s communications team over the past three weeks, I have tried repeatedly to get answers from GMU. I received no answer from two spokepersons, and a non-responsive email response from a third. Clearly, GMU is stonewalling. To get answers of any kind, I apparently have no choice but to file FOIA requests. I expect that GMU will maintain that certain correspondence is privileged, either because it pertains to “employee” matters or “legal” matters. I get only one shot at this, and I want to make sure I craft the FOIA request correctly.

I would invite readers to crowd-source this story. If you dig up something worthwhile through Internet research, or if you have suggestions on how to word the FOIA request, let me know in the comments.

The Tragic Political Economy of Higher Ed

Lynchburg College President Garren. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Lynchburg College President Kenneth Garren. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Lynchburg College President Kenneth Garren was sipping wine at a reception last year when he bumped into Senator Mark Warner. He button-holed the senator and urged him to oppose an Obama administration plan to create a ratings system for U.S. colleges and universities. Two months later, under pressure from Garren and other Virginia college presidents, Warner declared his opposition to the plan, reports the Wall Street Journal today.

The higher education system has emerged as one of the most effective lobbying forces in Washington, spending more than $73 million yearly on lobbying and employing more than 1,000 lobbyists — more than any other industry in the nation save drug manufacturing and technology, the WSJ says.

Moreover, with a presence in every state and every congressional district, higher ed can mobilize enormous grassroots support. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, told the Journal that he received a letter opposing the Obama plan from every school in Virginia, and he met with several college presidents on the matter.

Federal loans and grants to college students now runs at $134 billion a year, making higher ed one of the biggest recipients of federal assistance of any industry in the country. With student debt surging way past the $1 trillion mark and student defaults climbing into the billions, the Obama administration, like administrations before it, has pushed for more transparency and accountability in higher ed by publishing data to allow students and parents to make more intelligent consumer decisions.

The higher ed lobby defeated Obama’s plan to rate colleges, although the administration did end up publishing significant data without the ratings. Colleges have opposed such transparency and accountability measures on the grounds of protecting student privacy or the impossibility of making fair comparisons between colleges serving different market niches. Government should not be in charge of weighing the factors that go into determining colleges’ performance, the industry says.

The colleges’ arguments have some merit, but they overlook the obvious: He who pays the piper calls the tune. When Uncle Sam supports the industry through $134 billion yearly in tuition assistance (not to mention billions in research grants), Uncle Sam will want a say in how that money is spent.

While much of the rest of the country has stagnated economically over the past 15 years, higher ed has been a growth sector entirely due to federal largess. But costs have ballooned, tuitions have soared and a generation of students is hobbling its future with debt. Higher ed doesn’t want to give up the money or to be held accountable to its students, and the federal government can’t afford to dole out billions without a measure of accountability, so conflict is inevitable.

As the federal leviathan seeks to impose its will, the industry mobilizes to defend itself, and yet another sector is sucked into the rent-seeking maw of Washington politics. Higher ed, a bastion of economic privilege, is fighting to maintain that privilege. The sector is morphing into another special interest like all the others

How the Feds Run Virginia’s Colleges and Universities Now

Anne Holton, Virginia's Secretary of Education: not really in charge of higher education any more.

Anne Holton, Virginia’s Secretary of Education: token task master. She’s really not in charge of Virginia higher education any more.

by James A. Bacon

A new Vanderbilt University study sheds light on the relentless increase in costs at U.S. colleges and universities: government regulation. In a detailed study of 13 institutions, Vanderbilt and the Boston Consulting Group found that compliance with federal regulations ranges between 3% and 11%, depending upon the institution, with a median cost of 6.4%. Research institutes bore the heaviest burden — grants & contracts incurred the greatest costs — but government regulations cut across all aspects of campus life.

The report delved deeper into the numbers than any previous study and is the most authoritative to date. “While many regulations are useful and effective, others are unrelated to the mission of higher education. All regulations impose cost, however,” said Thomas W. Ross, president of the 17-campus University of North Carolina, one of the study participants. (No Virginia university participated in the study.)

Under pressure for soaring tuition and fees, the higher ed sector has long complained about the cost of government regulation. A recent report, “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” put it this way:

Over time, oversight of higher education by the Department of Education (DOE) has expanded and evolved in ways that undermine the ability of colleges and universities to serve students and accomplish their missions. The compliance problem is mandated by the sheet volume of mandates — approximately 2,000 pages of text and the reality that the Department of Education issues official guidance to amend or clarify its rules at a rate of more than one document per work day. As a result, colleges and universities find themselves enmeshed in a jungle of red tape, facing rules that are often confusing and difficult to comply with. They must allocate resources to compliance that would be better applied to student education, safety and innovation in instructional delivery.

Key points made in that study:

  • Regulations are unnecessarily voluminous. Referring to Department of Education regs alone, “the Higher Education Act (HEA) contains roughly 1,000 pages of statutory language; the associated rules in the Code of Federal Regulations add another 1,000 pages. Institutions are also subject to thousands of pages of additional requirements in the form of sub-regulatory guidance.”
  • Regulations are overly complex. “Frequent issuance of sub-regulatory guidance by the Department, although intended to clarify, often leads to further confusion.” A “Dear Colleague” letter on Title IX responsibilities regarding sexual harassment required further guidance in the form of a 53-page “Questions and Answers” document that took three years to complete. “And that raised even more questions. “Complexity begets more complexity.”
  • The DOE has an increasing appetite for regulation. The growth in the “volume and velocity” of regulation has increased in recent years, even in the absence of new statutory changes from Congress. “Negotiated rulemaking sessions have addressed topics as varied as accreditation, college teacher preparation programs, PLUS Loans, debit cards, gainful employment, state authorization, and the credit hour — all undertaken solely at the Department’s initiative without any prior Congressional action.
  • The DOE does not act in a timely fashion. “The HEA explicitly requires the Secretary of Education to issue final regulations within 360 days of the date of enactment of any legislation affecting these programs. The Department almost never meets this deadline.”
  • Regulation can be a barrier to innovation. “The Department’s definition of credit hour … is one example. By relying on the concept of ‘seat time,’ the Department’s definition had discouraged institutions from developing new and innovative methods for delivering and measuring education, such as competency-based models.”
  • The regulatory process is opaque. “While intimating that it consults professionals in the field in developing its calculations, we have been unable to locate a single institutional official who has ever been contacted by the Department for this purpose. Even more telling, we have been unable to locate any institutional official who has heard of anyone else ever being contact for this purpose.”

Bacon’s bottom line: For perhaps the first time ever, I feel a smidgen of sympathy for Virginia’s university administrators. The DOE exercises fearsome power — the ability to cut off federal backing for college loans, upon which almost every college in the country is slavishly dependent. And the DOE has wielded that power to compel colleges to submit to new regulations. A recent example: The Obama administration’s aggressive interpretation of Title IX regulations to attack the supposed “epidemic of rape” on colleges campuses has led to the creation of a new bureaucratic apparatus to combat the problem. (Hopefully, Bacon’s Rebellion soon will be able to document how that has played out at the University of Virginia.)

The big take-away from these studies is to change the way we think about public oversight of Virginia’s “state” colleges and universities. They are “state” universities in the sense that the state provides financial support for them and provides modest regulatory oversight. But the federal government, in its overweening way, now exercises as much, if not more, control over “state” universities as the state does. Indeed, all major regulatory initiatives in recent years have emanated from the U.S. Department of Education, not the state, not Congress.

The fact is, the Governor of Virginia and the General Assembly aren’t the drivers behind higher educational policy in Virginia anymore. The federal government — more specifically, the Obama administration, acting without the authorization of Congress — has usurped that role. The federal leviathan grows ever more powerful in ways that may never be reversed.

In Defense of Teresa Sullivan

Jim Bacon defends Teresa Sullivan? What's next, earthshakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions?

Jim Bacon defends Teresa Sullivan. What’s next, earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions?

by James A. Bacon

Things have come to a strange pass when I find myself defending University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. In past posts, I have been highly critical of her performance. But, while I think there are legitimate grounds for criticizing her, some attacks just go too far. A recent case in point is an op-ed published by Del. David I. Ramadan, R-Loudoun, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In arguing that it’s time for Sullivan to “go” — presumably to resign — he lays upon her the full responsibility of every sin real and alleged that has been hurled against UVa in the two or three years, from the supposed “epidemic of rape” to ABC agents’ use of excessive force to subdue a black student who’d been drinking near the university grounds.

Perhaps there is rough justice at work here. Citing two documents — an American Association of Universities (AAU) “campus climate” survey and an Office of Civil Rights report on UVa’s response to sexual assaults — Ramadan paints a picture of UVa where one in four women say they they have been sexually assaulted during the past academic year and the university has acted insufficiently to eliminate the “hostile environment” toward women. That’s especially rich because Sullivan, through words and actions, contributed to that perception. In so doing, she helped perpetuate the atmosphere of hysteria that threatens to consume her. But blaming her for failing to address the supposed rape epidemic is manifestly unfair.

Ramadan wrote:

At the University of Virginia [the number of rape, assault or sexual misconduct] was 23.8 percent, with 13.4 percent of undergraduate women saying they had been assaulted during the past academic year alone. In plain English, it means that almost 2,000 daughters — daughters who wanted only a decent education — may have suffered unspeakably.

And also:

The disturbing report issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) tells a sickening story of gang rape and multiple accusation against the same accused perpetrators, says the university failed “to eliminate a hostile environment” and, worse still, didn’t act to protect the safety of the broader university community.

Let’s make something clear: The two documents Ramadan cites are highly politicized, created to advance the Obama administration’s “war on women” narrative. A sincere, well-meaning, liberal woman, Sullivan is collateral damage.

Let’s talk first about the AAU survey. The survey was conducted in a wave of orchestrated hype to advance the narrative that an “epidemic of rape” is sweeping through American universities. There is indeed an epidemic of sexual misbehavior, much of it revolving around the excessive use of drugs and alcohol, but the study methodology and conclusions were designed to create the impression that thousands of young women are being subjected to violent rape on campus. There is a problem with rape on campus — and any rape is too many — but the problem is not nearly as severe as portrayed.

The first thing you need to know about the survey is that it was based upon a response rate of 26.4% — one quarter of the student body.  The study never accounts for the possibility that the sample might have been biased by the fact that students (especially women) who had experienced sexual assault were far more likely to participate in order to make their voices felt, or that the highly vocal and well organized anti-rape movement on campus likewise might have spurred like-minded people to take part. I would argue that the highly emotional atmosphere of UVa in the wake of the Rolling Stone gang rape allegations skewed the participation rate. This is confirmed by the fact that the 26.4% response rate at UVa was significantly higher than the 19.3% average response rate for the other 27 institutions of higher education  included in the survey.

Now, let’s dig into the number of self-reported victims of sexual assault. Ramadan correctly quotes the AAU study as saying that 23.8 percent of female undergraduates reportedly experienced some kind of “sexual assault” since entering UVa. But that includes a wide range of offenses.


The percentage of undergraduate women who described themselves as victims of rape (forced to have sex by physical force or the threat of force) was only 3.0%. Of course, that’s way too many — the only permissible percentage is zero — but it’s a far, far cry from one in eight! The overwhelming majority of these “sexual assaults” constituted unwanted sex that occurred as a result of “incapacitation” — the parties were inebriated — or of unwanted groping. I condemn both, but they are a very different matter than violent rape.

Please note that these numbers refer to undergraduate women. The rate of such incidents for female graduate students is about one-third the rate for undergraduates. The percentage for married graduate females was even lower — pretty close to the incidence for society at large, I would wager. In other words, the epidemic of rape/regret sex/unwanted groping is overwhelmingly an undergraduate phenomenon, not a phenomenon afflicted female students randomly across campus. Why would that be? Could it have something to do with the culture of hook-ups and drunken sex that is much more prevalent among undergrads than graduate students? If that’s the case, it changes the complexion of the problem. Continue reading

Income, Ethnicity and Student Indebtedness

by James A. Bacon

Both sides of America’s ideological divide acknowledge that student debt is a huge and growing problem, and both sides deem the climbing delinquency rate on student loans to be a bad thing. The question is what to do about it. The Obama administration has chosen to target private career colleges, whose students accumulate disproportionately large loans and fall behind on their debt payments at disproportionately high rates.

As the Obama administration points out, students at for-profit colleges represent only about 13 percent of the total higher education population, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. “Higher education should open up doors of opportunity, but students in these low-performing programs often end up worse off than before they enrolled: saddled by debt and with few—if any—options for a career,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a press release last year.

The recent publication by the Department of Education (DOE)’s online College Scorecard” was designed to bring some transparency to the cost and performance of public colleges, private not-for-profit colleges and private for-profit career colleges. There is no question that attendees of for-profit institutions experience are far more likely to fall short on student loan payments. But for-profit institutions argue that their programs aren’t the problem. The problem is that their students consist disproportionately of low-income and minority students who have trouble carrying their debt load regardless of the type of educational institution they attend.

Drawing upon College Scoreboard data, I decided to look and see what the situation looked like for Virginia-based institutions. Do private, for-profit colleges in the Old Dominion fit the stereotype of preying upon low-income and/or minority students and saddling them with unmanageable levels of debt?

First, I collected College Scoreboard data on (a) for-profit colleges, (b) community colleges, and (c) two public universities with high percentages of low-income and minority student bodies, Norfolk State University and Virginia State University. Then I plotted four different variables against the percentage of students at each institution that failed to pay at least $1 of the principal balance on their federal loans within three years of leaving school.

One logical explanation for the failure to pay down debt is low post-school earnings of students. The lower a student’s earnings, the heavier the burden of student-loan debt, whatever the size. There is indeed a modest correlation between earnings and debt troubles, as seen in this chart:

Data source: College Scoreboard

The R² of 0.125 suggests that about 1/8th of the variability in students’ ability to support their debt hinges on how much they earn after they leave college (making no distinction between whether they graduate or not). That’s not insignificant, but it’s less important than other variables.

Next I looked at the size of the monthly student-loan payments. All other things being equal, students with larger monthly payments, I conjectured, would have a harder time keeping up with their debt than students with smaller payments. This hypothesis is borne out by the numbers.


The R² of 0.2642 was twice as high as that for post-college earnings, suggesting that this variable has twice the explanatory value as post-college earnings. Continue reading