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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Educational Earmarks

Progressives have rightly criticized congressional Republicans for wasting taxpayer money on pork barrel projects such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” However, attacks on government spending could have troubling implications for colleges and universities across the country. Democrats should make sure that any legislative reforms do not result in less money for higher education.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has written a letter to over a hundred colleges and universities to inquire about how they received federal funds. Coburn has criticized educational institutions for employing high-powered lobbyists to secure government dollars. While the process might be corrupt, Coburn misses the real issue. The actual problem is that colleges and universities do not receive enough funding from the federal government.

Since Congress refused to fully fund higher education, it is no wonder that colleges and universities are forced to hire political professionals. Business has perfected the lobbying culture—what is wrong with educational institutions get in on the act? Unless Congress provides full funding for education, colleges and universities will be forced to abuse a sometimes corrupt process.

Parents Use Facebook to Spy on Their Children

Facebook is an extremely popular website that allows college students to share personal information with their fellow students. Millions of young people have created detailed profiles that describe everything from favorite music to sexual preference. A story in today's New York Times highlights some of the concerns about privacy that are raised by websites like Facebook.

According to the article, many parents are using Facebook to spy on their children's social lives. Adults are also using social networking websites to learn about their child's friends. Colleges and universities were overwhelmed this year by the number of parents who called and requested a roommate change based on something they saw on Facebook.

Never before has so much personal information been readily available for strangers. Young people should certainly be held responsible for the content of their profiles, but some college students may be too immature to fully understand what type of information should be kept private. Students need to seriously reconsider how much information they provide about themselves to protect personal privacy.

By the way, you can join the "For Our Future" Facebook group by clicking here.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein, one of my favorite writers from the American Prospect, has written a great article on this subject over at Campus Porgress.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Brigham Young Suspends Professor for 9/11 Theories

Professor Steven Jones from Brigham Young University was recently suspended with pay for publicly supporting conspiracy theories that imply the U.S. government was responsible for September 11th. He is part of a loose network of academics called “Scholars for 9/11 Truth” that has released a series of reports criticizing the official government account of the attacks. Jones suspension raises some interesting questions about how institutions of higher education should deal with professors who hold controversial views.

Professor Jones believes that explosives, not planes, brought down the World Trade Center. Frankly, the conspiracy theories advocated by Jones are absurd. Publications such as Popular Mechanics have thoroughly debunked these myths. Still, Jones has the right to express unpopular viewpoints.

According to officials from Brigham Young, the issue isn’t freedom of speech—it’s a question of scholarship. Many professors have criticized Jones for having sloppy methodology and making unsupported claims. University administrators have suspended him on the grounds that he is not meeting the high academic standards set by Brigham Young.

If a professor fails to meet high standards, universities have a right to suspend that individual. Some might argue that James is being singled out because of his views. That may be true. Still, someone taking extremely controversial positions should be smart enough to aviod cutting corners while doing research. It appears that Brigham Young made the correct decision.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Global Decline of Academic Freedom

While conservatives moan about the liberal bias on college campuses, educators in Russia are facing a major reduction in academic freedom. Conservatives should be less concerned about political bias on American campuses and worry about the worldwide decline of cherished educational liberties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated state control over the public university system and now appoints the major administrative officials. The Russian president has been roundly criticized for repeatedly encroaching on democratic freedoms. This move is just the latest in a campaign to increase the power of his government.

Unfortunately, the current administration has not taken a strong stand against Putin’s anti-democratic initiatives. President Bush has actually praised Putin and declared that he “was able to get a sense of his soul” during a brief meeting with the Russian leader. Bush has gently prodded Putin on human rights issues, but has never publicly brought up academic freedom.

Russia isn’t the only country that has seen reductions in the freedoms enjoyed by educators. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's has declared war on liberal professors and is urging radical student activists to purge the universities. Although the stated policy of the U.S. is to promote democracy in Iran, the actual results have yielded a decline in liberty.

These are just of the examples. Conservatives love to whine about liberal bias, but there are much more serious issues in the world of academia. Around the globe, educators are having their rights taken away by oppressive governments. Currently, the Bush Administration has no organized policy to promote academic freedom. This obviously should be rethought. The free exchange of ideas is one of the most important pillars of a democratic society.

Students Can Force Change Through Their Dollars

Note: My name is Adam Waxman. I'm Ben's twin brother and a senior at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. I've written a couple of different things here and there, and Ben's asked me to help out with the blog by posting occasionally. If you want to send me feedback, my email is


A few years ago, radical singer-songwriter David Rovics came to my campus to and did a little concert. In his set, he played a song called "Drink of the Deathsquads," which is basically a polemic assailing the Coca-Cola Company for their, how shall we say this, labor issues in Colombia.

Before he broke into song, Rovics related a little story about how he had visited another campus (I think it was Warren Wilson, but don't quote me on that) with a union activist from Colombia a few weeks before. The night after the concert, the administration at WW awoke to find all of the Coke machines on campus inoperable, their coin slots gummed up with hot glue.

Everyone at the Guilford concert got a good chuckle out of this. Where this goes, obviously, is that the next day, students on our campus awoke to find all of the Coke machines vandalized. A fair number of students were pretty upset, including some of us in the progressive community who don't view this kind of activity as politically helpful or genuinely effective. And it extends beyond just soda machines to larger issues on campus. The question becomes, how can students be sure that they are not forced to support companies whose business practices they find morally questionable?

Thankfully, students across the country (and indeed the world) are using a new way to ensure that their dollars go to support companies that provide decent working conditions, respect the environment, and provide quality products. Students from the University of Michigian to Rutgers in New Jersey have begun to adopt resolutions encouraging the boycott of Coke products.

These kinds of resolutions could have a tremendous effect on the way companies do business - my own small Guilford College, for example, leverages about $85 million in buying power each year. Larger universities with strict rules about ethical purchasing can really force companies to take notice.

Probably the best example of this kind of buying power can be seen in the Workers Rights Consortium, a nationwide network of close to 160 campuses dedicated to ensuring that school apparel is produced in humane conditions. The WRC provides research on factories worldwide to campuses who then make decisions about which suppliers to use. Already, the WRC has helped leverage billions of dollars across on industry to force a betterment of working conditions.

The WRC represents a good model for other important products that carry an ethical dimension. Progressive students, faculty, and staff at schools across the country can develop ethical guidelines for purchasing that can have a real impact on the social conscience of companies eager to do business.

Harvard Drops Early Admissions

Harvard University shocked the world of college admissions by announcing they plan to ban early applications. Currently, many colleges and universities allow students to apply in the fall of their senior year. Administrators at Harvard have rightly concluded that early admissions puts low-income and minority applicants at a disadvantage. Hopefully this decision will spark other reforms in the college admissions.

Early admissions are problematic because they favor students who can prepare an application throughout their junior year of high school. Young people from affluent backgrounds can afford to hire expensive admissions consultants who help navigate through the application process. In contrast, less wealthy students only have help from their parents and maybe a sympathetic guidance counselor.

Harvard specifically cited the barriers experienced by working-class students as the primary motivation for dropping early application. It is gratifying to see such an elite institution motivated by these types of concerns. Other colleges and universities should look to Harvard as an example of how to make higher education more accessible.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Youth Values and September 11th

September 11th has had a profound impact on my generation. It was the formative event of our political lives and shapes our worldview in profound ways. We have come of age during an era of conservative dominance that has seen the basic foundation of our democracy eaten away. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about these lost values.

Young people have grown up in an era when our rights are traded away for the promise of security. We have been told that only the guilty need to worry and everyone else will be fine. Youth are encouraged to only think about our own personal safety and ignore the collective rights that are protected by the Constitution. Unfortunately, this approach to security has placed some of our most cherished principles on the chopping block.

The first principle is the search for knowledge. Young people have always been intimately involved with academics and intellectual development. Since September 11th, conservatives have sought to control the content in the classroom to conform to their world view. They have targeted professors and academic disciplines that are critical of U.S. foreign policy. The right has also attacked study abroad programs that focus on majority Muslim nations. Ultimately, they seek to influence the basic worldview of my generation.

Their attack on professors is best exemplified by an organization called “Students for Academic Freedom.” Founded by right-wing activist David Horowitz, SAF encourages young people to report on unpatriotic statements made by their professors. They also pressure state legislatures to pass something called “The Student Bill of Rights.” Their proposals would penalize colleges and universities that don’t hire enough conservatives.

Conservatives has also tried to change the focus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies programs. They attack programs that are insufficiently pro-American and label any effort to understand the motives of Islamic extremism as borderline treason. Organizations like Campus Watch have made a cottage industry out of attacking Middle Eastern studies programs. Some universities have responded to the pressure and drastically overhauled their approach to controversial subjects.

These attacks on entire disciplines seek to limit the scope of knowledge accessible to my generation. Conservatives want to wrap our worldview and force their version of the truth. Students should be allowed to weigh all sides of an argument before making a decision. The right wants to limit our exploration to their approved sources. Young people need to be able to explore diverse subject to make informed decisions.

Finally, conservatives have targeted one of the best ways for students to learn about the world: study abroad programs. They have sought to limit the number of students from Arab and Muslim countries by enforcing rigid quotas. While they claim this is for security reasons, there is undeniably a jingoistic tinge to these efforts. Conservatives have also tried to discourage American students from learning Arabic or studying in Muslim majority countries. They want my generation to wage a war against radical Islam, but don’t want us to understand the enemy.

The quest for knowledge is a vital part of being young. Conservatives have sought to limit the scope of our inquiry to shape my generation's worldview to their liking. Instead of promoting conformity and obedience, academics should teach students how to think critically and question authority. Young people must be equipped with these skills to be informed citizens in a democratic society.

Former Iranian President at Harvard

Mohammed Khatami, the former president of Iran, spoke at Harvard yesterday. His appearance generated a great deal of controversy among students, faculty, and the general public. Many people, including the Republican governor of Massachusetts, called Khatmi a terrorist and demanded that the speech be cancelled. Thankfully, officials at Harvard did not bow to public pressure and the principals of academic freedom were protected.

Khatami has generated controversy because of Iran’s ties to militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Conservatives have criticized the Bush Administration for giving him a visa and some have even called for Khatami to be arrested upon his arrival to the United States. The right-wing seems to believe that allowing any forum for alternative viewpoints is tantamount to treason.

This is ludicrous. Young people need to hear unorthodox perspectives to contextualize the major foreign policy challenges faced by our country. Since September 11th, the United States has become increasingly involved in the Middle East. Despite neoconservative fantasies, Iran is going to play a major role in the region. Khatami’s ideas might be reactionary, but they represent the beliefs of millions of people.

Inviting Khatami to speak does not equal the endorsement of those views. Allowing different perspective is an essential part of any academic institution. The free exchange of ideas is one of the most important components of an open society. Students should be exposed to a wide variety of opinions in order to understand the world in which we live.

After all, students have to understand the issues before they can make decisions about their own beliefs. Khatami’s views might be reprehensive, but allowing him to speak is actually helpful to the struggle against religious extremism. His speech has allowed a public response that defends secular and pluralistic values. Our vision of an open society is vastly superior to a theocratic state like Iran. Comparing the two side by side is an excellent way to show students the superiority of democracy.

Conservatives almost seem afraid of Khatami’s ideas. Frankly, the entire effort to silence Khatami has no place in a democratic society. Censorship is something done by authoritarian governments, not the United States. Perhaps conservatives are uncomfortable with Khatami’s ideas because the two philosophies have some striking similarities.

Students must have access to a variety of ideas to fully participate in critical discussions about the future of our nation. This does not only apply to young people. The general public needs to hear from people like Khatami in order to make informed decisions about politics and policy. Colleges and universities are uniquely structured to provide a civic space for dialogue. Khatami’s speech and the ensuing backlash is a great example of the discussion that can be generated by controversial speakers.

These dialogues are good for students and good for general public. Academic institutions are not only for the people attending and teaching classes. Millions of public dollars are pumped into universities and colleges—they should be tools of engagement for the democratic process. Khatami’s speech at Harvard is an affirmation of the importance of higher education in our society.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Data Skewed to Promote National Student Database

An article from Inside Higher Ed provides a glimpse at the tactics being used by the Department of Education to push a national student database. According to the article, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education has been using data from the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education for its upcoming report. The center has long been an advocate for increased tracking of student performance. Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, has been advising the Bush Administration on education policy.

The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which Callan has advised, has made a priority of pushing colleges to identify and to start using ways to measure learning. While there was much talk during the commission’s deliberations of having some test, the panel did not recommend that any single measure, but called on colleges to have easily understood, consumer-oriented tools that would allow prospective students and their families, as well as the government, figure out what happens during the years of an undergraduate education. Supporters of this push talked about the need for standards and accountability, while critics — especially amid discussion of possible national tests — cautioned against trying to measure all colleges in the same way.
If you read the whole article and explore the Center on Public Policy and Higher Education website, it because clear that one of their central arguments is that most testing should take place. The Department of Education seems to be basing their entire report on data from the center. If the data says that more testing is needed, then the necessity of a national student database is a forgone conclusion.

In my mind, this is strangely similar to the intelligence gathering that occurred before the invasion of Iraq. Bush administration officials cherry picked the information they wanted and ignored anything that countered their worldview. It appears that this approach to public policy is still alive and well at the Department of Education.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Some Colleges Adapting to Student Needs

Education is one of the best ways to reduce income inequality. Unfortunately, necessity to juggle work and school can generate a great deal of stress for working-class students. Wealthier students can devote countless hours to academics while their less privileged counterparts are forced to work menial jobs to make ends meet. Thankfully, some universities are recognizing this problem and providing special services for busy students.

One such program provides students with a personal coach:

Long reserved for pro athletes and corporate executives, personal coaches are now being offered by some colleges to help students set goals and manage time.

It sounds like the kind of college concierge service one would expect to find at exclusive, upper-crust schools. But in fact, the 15 or so schools that have hired a coaching company called InsideTrack don’t fit that description at all. Several _ including a number of for-profits _ cater to older students trying to balance the demands of work, school and family. Others serve traditional-age college students who may need help making the transition from high school.

Of course, coaching programs aren’t the only thing necessary to help more college more manageable. Schools should consider issuing scholarships that help pay for living expenses as well as tuition. Working-class students who are forced to work several jobs just to keep their head above water deserve more support.

Dept. of Education to Track Middle School Students

Department of Education unveiled a new database today that will monitor the academic performance of students in grade three through eight. While federal officials claim that the database will help improve education policy, troubling questions remain about student privacy and the overall effectiveness of such a program.

The database is designed to track everything from test scores in targeted subject areas to high school dropout rates. Students will begin having data collected about almost every minute detail. Educators and elected official will then analyze the data and make recommendations about how to improve public schools.

One feature of the database tracks how students are performing in specific subjects and then allows teachers to appropriately change the curriculum. Unfortunately, this data will be relatively useless unless it is correlated with other information about students. Policy makers need to under the social and economic context of their student’s performance. Low test scores almost always correlate with students from low-income families. The proposed database would fail to take this vital information into account.

Another problem with the proposed database is privacy. Although government officials claim that the information will be safe, every system is always at-risk to hackers. In fact, a recent news item about a San Diego man who was convicted of breaking into computer system of the University of Southern California underscores the threat that centralized databases pose to student privacy.

This database is most likely a precursor to the Department of Education’s proposal for a national tracking system for college and university students. The problems associated with a national database for middle school students is only magnified when applied to a college-oriented program. Skeptics of the Department of Education’s proposal should keep an eye on this pilot program.

September 11th, Students and the Politics of History

Public outcry might not compel ABC to cancel their controversial mini-series “Path to 9/11”, but progressives have already won an important victory. Scholastic Incorporated, one of the largest suppliers of textbooks and other educational materials, has been forced to withdraw their biased study guild that was slated to accompany the film.

“Path to 9/11” has generated controversy because it primarily blames the Clinton administration for failing to capture Osama Bin Laden. It also makes bogus connections between the attacks of September 11th and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Scholastic produced a study guild for students that repeated many of the same falsehoods. This blatant attempt to brainwash the next generation shows that conservatives will do anything to propagate their narrative about that fateful day in September.

For many youth, the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was a formative political event. It was the first major challenge faced by a generation raised in relative peace and prosperity. For many, it was a wakeup call that there was an entire world beyond our borders. September 11th jolted us from our collective slumber and helped forge a renewed sense of national identity.

Conservatives have long sought to exploit the attacks and blame liberals. Young people must remember the truth. We offered to help our country in this time of crisis and President Bush told us to go shopping. We yearned to understand the rest of the world and our government declared millions of people to be evil. We watched in horror as our country invaded a sovereign nation that had no connections to the attack and the world grew more dangerous.

For young people, September 11th and the ensuing response was a lesson about ideological extremism, incompetence, and the limits of conservative governance.

Now, the right-wing wants to re-write history. They want young people to believe that the Clinton administration should be blamed for the September 11th attacks. They want students to think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They want the history books to record their narrative and shape the minds of generations to come.

Thankfully, progressives rose to the challenge in this round. Bombarded by thousands of e-mails and phone calls, Scholastic had no choice but to withdraw their biased study guild. Thousands of youth will be spared from being force fed right-wing propaganda. Of course, this will not be the last attempt by conservatives to influence the politics of history.

Progressives must stay vigilant against right-wing attempts to influence school curriculum. Although they might claim to oppose the mechanism of big government, conservatives will gladly use public schools as a tool of indoctrination. There will undoubtedly be future attempts to re-write history according to the right-wing talking points.

The politics of September 11th will be with us for a long time. We cannot allow conservatives to shape the historical narrative of this crucial event. Young people and their progressive allies have a special responsiblity to stay watchful of any efforts to replace academics with misinfromation.