More on For-Profit Colleges; More on Horowitz

It’s amazing how people are willing to accept truisms—and to argue with questions rather than with facts.

A case in point is Bill Belew at the blog “The Biz of Knowledge.” He stumbled across my post (it also appeared on dKos, TPMCafe, and ePluribus Media) yesterday on the problems the University of Phoenix is now facing. He calls it “happy, giddy?, ecstatic.”

Interesting. Read my blog, and see if he’s right.

He’s actually calling two of us “happy,” et al, me and Asparzia at Mad Melancholic Feminista. In response to her post, Belew asks, “What’s wrong with making a profit?” Not only does the question show a rather unsophisticated understanding of economics, but it is the wrong question. Profit itself is not the problem—it’s the use of a profit model inappropriately that bothers those of us concerned by the U of P type of education business. Profit (in the context of contemporary American free-market beliefs) demands short-term dollar efficiency, something that leads to a streamlining of procedures that, in an educational context, leads to a dumbing down of the “product.” Belew continues his misunderstanding, assuming a simplistic dichotomy between profit and operating “in the red.” He doesn’t seem to understand that these aren’t the only options, and that “non-profit” doesn’t necessarily mean losing money (look at Harvard, for Pete’s sake). All Belew is doing with this question is appealing to the misconceptions of people who blindly accept the idea that profit is the end of everything (which it may be, though not in the sense assumed).

Belew’s next question is “What should education be?” About U of P, he then says “they except [sic] most any student, indeed.” As long as that student can pay the freight. But many of our colleges do the same, particularly our public community colleges. He also conveniently ignores the fact that the expansion of American higher education is due to the expansion of public institutions, not from for-profit education. As he never even attempts to address his question himself, we have to assume that, like his “profit” question, this is simply a red herring.

Getting to my post, Belew asks again if there is a problem with making a profit. He follows: “Schools like the University of Phoenix likely pay enough in taxes to fund a number of non-profit schools. Would anyone like to do the math?” Yes, I would like him to do the math. Not that it’s relevant, but he makes a claim here that would be extremely difficult to substantiate.

The problem with profit-driven schools is that profit becomes the goal, not product. In many businesses, we need the profit motive to insure a good product. In education, where the product is much harder to measure, this doesn’t work so well. That’s what’s wrong with profit in this context. The difficulty of measuring the quality of the product makes mis-use of “education” too easy for those whose interest is simply profit and not education. Often, people don’t know that they have gotten a substandard education until years after the fact.

Belew doesn’t like that the traditional educational structures insure faculty power: “Faculty powers have also protected themselves at the expense of their students, kept curricula in tact [sic] when nobody was interested, and driven countless school budgets into the red.” Not that he provides any proof of these sweeping statements! Faculty power and student power are, sometimes, at odds, but it is a tension that is needed for the good of the institution, just as is the tension between these two and administrative power. In a for-profit situation, using a customer model, the faculty becomes simply “service provider,” weakening the entire structure and, ultimately, short-changing the students (who, by their very nature, are not “educated” consumers).

Like so many who criticize our “real” universities, Belew conveniently overlooks the fact that they are the best in the world. The for-profit ones can’t compete with them on any level, except by presenting a weakened parody of real education, offering it to unsuspecting consumers as the same as the “real” thing though at a cut-rate price. Buyer beware: you get what you pay for.

Oh, maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe there should be a much more careful debate about the value of for-profit institutions like U of P. Belew, unfortunately, doesn’t even try to further such a thing. At least, not in his responses to me and to Asparzia.

Maybe someone else will. I would love to listen to someone making a real defense of the likes of U of P. It’s a debate that, given the current climate, we really should have.

A sure sign that David Horowitz and his minions have lost their “war” against the universities is that all they can do, now, is jump up and down, yelling “Not, not, not.” Jacob Laksin is doing just that. It is certainly comforting.

In a “critique” of the American Federation of Teachers study of faculty-bias “research,” Laksin is reduced to the odd claim that the research considered wasn’t meant as research, but to “paint a representative picture.” However, as the AFT study shows, the data used to paint that picture is flawed by its own bias. The methods used are akin to that of an artist who claims that red is blue, proving so by pointing to her own painting in which she has portrayed a red sky. Odd indeed.

Later, Laksin continues the claim that examination of syllabi can stand in for examination of a course as a whole:

First, syllabi are comprehensive. They reveal on what basis professors grade their students (involvement in political activism is frequently a factor); what books they assign (often from only one-side of the political spectrum); and what their motivations are (many professors frankly announce their commitment to nurture political activists). Second, they are unimpeachably objective, insofar as they are compiled by and represent the views of the professors themselves.

No. Syllabi are not comprehensive, no more than outlines are. And they do not reveal the basis for grading, only the assignments and their weight (and I would love to see Laksin prove that “political activism is frequently a factor” and that “many professors frankly announce their commitment to nurture political activists”—giving percentages and total numbers. He can’t? Oh, right—he just picks and chooses, not exactly a scientific method). His second point is just strange. Syllabi are objective? Sure, professors put together their syllabi, but the syllabi are merely a means of pointing out the general direction of the courses. They are in no way an “objective” view of the courses themselves.

To make his argument, Laksin does admit that the studies he and Front Page Magazine have been involved in are based “largely on course syllabi, [and that] they cast light on a prevalent pattern of unprofessional conduct by professors and expose entire academic departments where the top priority is indoctrination rather than education.” In other words, he is admitting that what he and FPM are passing off as research is on the same level as student papers that use, say, SparkNotes rather than primary material. Even if, to use Laksin’s own justification for shoddy research, the authors of the subject books had written the SparkNotes on them (as professors write their syllabi), the two things remain essentially different: conclusions from the one cannot safely be applied to the other.

Laksin argues that he and FPM use syllabi because they would not be granted access to classrooms. He even claims that a charge of McCarthyism would be leveled if they tried. But I have a standing invitation to Laksin’s boss, David Horowitz, to visit my classroom at any time—an invitation I would certainly extend to Laksin or anyone else (as long as they were willing to observe and not disrupt). There are certainly thousands of other professors who would open their doors, too—it is in our best interest for the public to see what we do. Laksin, Horowitz, and FPM notwithstanding, we do an excellent job and love to share.

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