It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige

Top fueler of the unhealthy prestige obsession

Here in the U.S., we’re watching the unfolding of a major college admissions scandal (highlights here) led by criminal indictments alleging that dozens of wealthy parents engaged in fraud and bribery to get their kids into highly selective universities. It has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Have you heard the term “Yale or jail“? It’s a catchphrase that refers to the notion that if you don’t get into a prestigious college, then your only option is a slide toward landing in jail. It’s a clever saying, but a more accurate descriptor of this dynamic is Yale or fail. You see, it’s not that parents and applicants fear an eventual jail sentence if they don’t attend Yale or a similarly elite school. Rather, it’s that they fear failure, loss of social status, and others’ perceptions of the same.

The Yale or fail dynamic, I submit, is the main answer to the question of why would rich parents risk felony indictments to snag that elusive letter of acceptance for their children.

This scandal, which just broke last week, has already prompted a ton of handwringing in media commentaries about social class inequality and how the wealthy and powerful gain undue access to prestigious institutions of higher learning. It has been accompanied by a wave of anger and resentment about those advantages, splashed all over the social media.

Of course, these protestations may be a bit overdue. In reality, these advantages have been around for a long, long time. Perhaps it took a scandal of this (alleged, of course) brazenness and magnitude to unleash the simmering backlash.

Against this backdrop is another truth: There are many colleges and universities outside of that elite circle that provide quality learning and open doors to life’s opportunities. Literally millions of people can personally attest to that. The focus on such a narrow band of colleges and universities takes out of the conversation hundreds of schools that deliver multiple, abundant benefits to their students.

The underlying culprit: U.S. News rankings

I submit to you that the world of American higher education changed dramatically when the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs came onto the scene. The appearance of the U.S. News rankings has been the most influential development in modern higher ed history, in terms of shaping perceptions of institutional prestige and accompanying priorities. These rankings have serious flaws — there’s a whole literature on that — but they have occupied the field nonetheless.

Many educators and administrators in higher education are positively obsessed with these rankings and their endless spinoffs. Of course, because the rankings are so influential, they are ignored only at one’s peril. They can and do matter. Ask any admissions director, and they’ll tell you why.

However, I have good reason to suspect that much of the obsession is due to too many denizens of higher education allowing their own self-images to be unduly shaped by those rankings. Intellectually, they know the U.S. News rankings are problematic, yet they buy into them. Beset by what I call the “good student” syndrome, they look externally for validation, rather than creating their own markers for evaluating quality and success. True, most of us do that to some extent, but here it can be taken to extremes.

The whole deal breeds a lot of insecurity and elitism among a bunch of people already susceptible to both. Former college president and physicist Robert Fuller has coined a term for this dynamic. He calls it “rankism,” or the abuse of rank-based privilege.

A better measure of institutional quality?

In the wake of these rankings has come a second generation of metrics and measures of institutional quality, infused with talk of “outcomes,” “assessments,” and “returns on investment.” This is the commoditization of higher learning, and it is contributing to the decline of important disciplines such as history, philosophy, and the liberal arts in general. It’s largely about training new worker bees, and measuring their schools by how much money their graduates are earning.

I propose an alternative measure of college quality, one that is concededly difficult, if not downright impossible, to package in purely numerical terms. In a reflective essay about my own undergraduate experiences at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, 2017; link here), I wrote the following:

Currently the higher education industry is positively obsessed with “assessments” and “outcomes,” educational jargon for figuring out what students learned. Well, here’s a longer-range outcome for colleges and universities to consider: How are your graduates turning out in life? If my friends are any indication, then Valparaiso can stand proud on this measure. They have turned out darn well, in myriad ways. Amid differences in life choices, family arrangements, political views, incomes, faith traditions, and vocational paths, they are grounded people leading good and meaningful lives. Some have met significant challenges with courage and determination.

In sum, this obsession with college prestige and reputation has gone too far. And while vocational considerations are certainly important in terms of post-secondary learning, a higher education should include a healthy dose of ideas, concepts, information, and experiences that don’t necessarily translate into a paycheck. Indeed, perhaps that education might even transmit the kind of values that would discourage someone from paying a huge bribe to get their child into a chosen school. Imagine that.

***

Related writings

I’ve written a couple of law review articles about the influence of the rankings culture on aspects of legal education:

  • Way back in 1997, I wrote one of the first law review articles critiquing ranking schemes of law schools, “Same Old, Same Old: Law School Rankings and the Affirmation of Hierarchy” (Suffolk University Law Review; free download here). I pulled a few punches, as I was a very junior professor writing on a topic that had yet to be explored in legal scholarship, and my caution shows. However, I think it anticipates the fuller criticisms that have followed.
  • The rankings and prestige obsessions have infected the world of scholarly publication as well. I wrote a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggested alternatives in a more recent law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, free download here). If I may be immodest, it is one of my best long-form, essay-type writings.

On “workism” and American attitudes toward work

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook that I had managed to crank out a 30-page draft of an article, citing roughly 75 sources, in four days. Although I was happy with the draft when I submitted it for possible publication, upon rereading it I quickly saw its rough edges. Nevertheless, some of my Facebook pals gave me kudos for having hunkered down and completed the job, and I have to say that I was giving myself a pat on the back for having pulled it off.

But today I read this piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “Workism Is Making America Miserable” (link here) and I had to wonder if it was speaking to me:

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

…The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

OK, so some might understandably say that “workism” is merely a repackaged way of saying workaholic. But Thompson is taking the latter notion a step further. He’s basically giving social class and (male) gendered angles to this deep, sometimes obsessive quest to work. He confesses that he is a “workist” whose personal identity “is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity,” yet he also realizes that this isn’t good for him or for society. In fact, he makes suggestions for public policy reform that combat workism. (He shares plenty of details in the full article, which I heartily recommend.)

I am very grateful for the work I get to do. In terms of my work as a professor, with the exception of grading exams (a necessary evil) and faculty meetings (ditto, sometimes minus “necessary”), it’s a wonderful job. Teaching, scholarship, and service — the troika that make up a professor’s core job duties — are very rewarding activities. But geez, I saw a lot of myself in that article. It’s not unusual for me to work seven days a week.

However, I break with the workism theme here: While Thompson says that workism has replaced faith for some, I don’t necessarily look at it that way. Although my religious beliefs are a work-in-progress — I believe in a God whose truth is somewhere in the intersection of the great faith traditions and various notions of spirituality — that hodgepodge of values helps to infuse my work with meaning. There are many others with much more defined religious beliefs who see their work as a personal ministry. And for those who see their work as an opportunity to create positive change, it’s not about making more money. 

That said, all work and no play can be an unhealthy recipe. I’m trying to do better on that elusive work-life balance thing. One of my hobbies is singing. For years I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center. I’ve also become a regular at a local karaoke studio. I love the Great American Songbook — Sinatra, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, and some of the classic singer-songwriters are among my favorites. In fact, I’ll be crooning a few tunes at karaoke this weekend.

Of maize and blue: Talking about workplace bullying, at the University of Michigan

I just had the distinct pleasure of spending two days on the University of Michigan campus, courtesy of a speaking invitation from the school’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) and Dr. Lilia Cortina, a psychology and women’s studies professor and leading authority on workplace harassment and incivility. ICOS describes its mission this way:

ICOS, or the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, has the single goal of enhancing the University of Michigan’s strength as a world center for interdisciplinary research and scholarship on organizations. We seek to enrich the intellectual environment of Ph.D. students and faculty interested in organization studies, by increasing the quality, breadth, depth, and usefulness of organizational research.

It was a wonderfully stimulating and intellectually rewarding visit. My talk, which you may access here, addressed some of the demographic and diversity aspects of workplace bullying. Here’s how I previewed it in my abstract:

This talk will examine bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work, with an emphasis on demographics and diversity. It will briefly sketch out some basics, a sort of “Workplace bullying 101.” It will then look at the demographic and diversity dynamics of these behaviors overall, especially pertaining to aggressors and targets, especially in the context of organizational cultures. Finally, it will take a closer look at gendered aspects of bullying and related behaviors at work, including (1) linkages between bullying and sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement and (2) complicated issues of bullying-type behaviors between women at work. Plenty of time will be reserved for comments and questions.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of colleges and universities to give guest lectures, and all have been a worthy expenditure of time and energy. What distinguished this visit from most of the others was the way in which the ICOS program goes well beyond the guest lecture to add in lots of additional conversations through small group meetings and meals.

In addition to my talk, my time on campus included meetings and meals with faculty in psychology, English, theatre, engineering, medicine, and business; a deep conversation about diversity initiatives with leaders of the university’s organizational learning programs; and multiple exchanges with U of M Ph.D. students, whose own research in organizations, working conditions, and diversity will no doubt command our attention sooner than later.

Some of my academic colleagues may be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to be doing during a visit of barely two days. Indeed, when I first previewed the fulsome itinerary, I knew that I’d have to be “on” for most of that time. But I will attest that this is a very smart way to maximize the value of guest speakers’ visits and to give them plenty of opportunities to share their work and insights. It also tells them that their contributions are respected and trusted beyond the inherent boundaries of formal presentations.

Now that I’m back in Boston, I’ve got pages of notes and names from my short trip, some which will result in followup contacts and maybe even another blog post or two. In sum, it was a great visit featuring lively, informed, and appreciative dialogue throughout.

***

My talk can be accessed here. Go to this page to access presentations from other speakers in the ICOS series.

Sculpted tile: A lovely gift from my friends at ICOS

BBC reports: Do-nothing self-promoters still get ahead at work

A study by researchers at the Hult International Business School in the U.K. has identified a certain type of self-promoter at work who doesn’t do much but manages to get ahead while dragging down the morale of others. The BBC’s Sean Coughlan reports:

You might have seen their strategically self-regarding emails or watched their self-inflating egos in work meetings.

But business school researchers have identified a type of employee who manages to look busy and successful, without actually doing anything useful.

The productivity study examined 28 UK workplaces and found staff who appeared to be “highly engaged”.

But on closer inspection they were found to be “self-promoters” whose lack of effort pushed down overall output.

The research, from the Ashridge at Hult International Business School, examined the engagement levels of teams of workers, across seven different employment sectors, such as health, government, transport and not-for-profits.

It found some very motivated workers – and some who were plainly disgruntled and disaffected.

I’m shocked, simply shocked.

No, just kidding. I’ve seen these folks in many professional workplaces. They are masters of their craft, that is, if we define “craft” as relentless self-touting, bloviating, credit-grabbing, and exaggerating — and not doing a lot of work to go with it.

Self-promoters in academe

This brand of self-promoter is especially prevalent in academic circles. Said individuals manage to devote the lion’s share of their energies to networking in and out of the building. In meetings they bray, posture, and pontificate ceaselessly (or so it seems to those of us who must listen to them). If scholarly output is part of their expected workload, then they do the minimal amount, while presenting themselves as learned intellectuals.

They often manage to talk and kiss their way up to promotions (with accompanying raises), and they’re very good at aggrandizing power within the institution. Some will bully those who are critical of them, and the more telling the criticism, the more virulent the bullying. They manage to be evaluated by a different, seemingly tailor-made set of rules, rather than being held accountable for the work they should be doing. In the meantime, others are watching and resentful toward what’s going on.

Management, values, and culture

In that sense, it once again comes down to management practices, institutional values, and organizational culture. This brand of self-promoter is enabled by the organization itself. By contrast, in workplaces that expect quality work and reward those who do it, there is no room for such an individual to flourish.

Guardian investigation: Bullying behaviors rife at top U.K. universities

Hannah Devlin and Sarah Marsh report on a Guardian newspaper investigation indicating that a culture of bullying is “thriving” at leading British universities:

Hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years, prompting concerns that a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities.

A Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, extreme pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about avoiding negative publicity than protecting staff.

Their feature-length article goes into detail about their investigative findings and shares stories of individuals who have experienced bullying behaviors in academic workplaces.

When media devote coverage to bullying and related behaviors in academe

This is not the first time that the Guardian has highlighted bullying and abuse at work. The newspaper ran a week-long series on workplace bullying in 2017. And we’ve known for a long time that academe can be a petri dish for these behaviors. In fact, “Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?” (2009, revised 2014), is one of this blog’s most popular posts.

As I discussed in my last entry, when major, mainstream media outlets devote feature stories to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, it serves as a powerful message that we must take these destructive behaviors seriously. It’s also noteworthy when a major newspaper with a global readership deems that bullying in academe merits significant coverage.

Here in the U.S., coverage of academic bullying has been limited primarily to specialized media covering higher education (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education). My own interest in workplace bullying was originally stoked some 20 years ago by my awareness of such behaviors in academic (as well as legal) workplaces. So, cheers to the Guardian for diving in with this piece. It makes a difference.

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers

If you’re interested in whistleblowing and gaslighting behaviors, then I strongly recommend a piece by Retraction Watch, “How institutions gaslight whistleblowers — and what can be done.” It features an interview with Dr. Kathy Ahern (U. New South Wales, Australia), author of a new journal article on how whistleblowers are traumatized by institutional betrayal and gaslighting.

I’m going to share some snippets of the Retraction Watch interview with Dr. Ahern here, but it’s definitely worth a full look:

Whistleblower gaslighting entails officers of an institution using their authority to deceive a whistleblower so that he stays engaged in a process designed to harm him.  Employees have an expectation of support derived from social norms regarding workplace interactions and formal policies. Whistleblower reprisals have a sting of betrayal that is largely imperceptible to outsiders because gaslighting institutions use deception to exploit the employee’s trust in his employing institutions.  

***

One gaslighting strategy is to use this trust to force the whistleblower to repeatedly defend himself against bogus disciplinary charges presented as genuine complaints.  Eric Westervelt describes whistleblowers at the U.S. VA who were subjected to investigations of unspecified charges such as “creating a hostile work environment” or “abuse of authority”, although subsequent FOI requests yielded no details of the charges.  As a gaslighting strategy, the dual purpose of false charges is to both discredit and exhaust the whistleblower.

***

Descriptions of whistleblower experiences and outcomes in the literature show a constellation of symptoms that are very similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) typically found in survivors of child abuse.  It is hypothesized that the abuse by a trusted, more powerful adult leads to a general distrust of self and others. Adults with C-PTSD have trouble regulating intense negative emotions, and feel disconnected to other people. 

***

The other symptom I see in targets of whistleblower gaslighting is a desperate urgency to be believed.  This looks a lot like an “obsession,” but as with the “paranoia,” it is not the result of a mental disorder.  It is more like the normal response of someone who spent 10 years in jail for crime he didn’t commit. Such a person is indefatigable in pursuit of having his name cleared, as are targets of whistleblower gaslighting who also are intent upon clearing their names and reputations. 

Folks, there’s so much here that will resonate with individuals who have experienced or witnessed institutional responses to whistleblowing. For those who want to read Dr. Ahern’s scholarly take on this, please look at her journal article, “Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting: Why Whistle-Blowers Are So Traumatized.”

In short, this is very important work.

If you’d like to read more about gaslighting behaviors generally, Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro) is the best general treatment of the topic.

And here are some of my previous entries on gaslighting:

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

***

Hat tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the Retraction Watch piece.

Incivility and “deplorables”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, law school dean Blake Morant (George Washington U.) recalled a speaking appearance in which he was verbally challenged by a man who called himself a “deplorable”:

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

Morant wrote that he tried to engage the man in a conversation, but that his efforts failed. He added that he has been haunted by the exchange, asking himself if he could’ve responded to the man in a more constructive way. He used the story of the incident to call for more civility in our civic discourse.

The backstory

But there’s a catch here that Morant didn’t mention. The term “deplorables,” in this context, traces back to a Hillary Clinton speech at a fundraising event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what happened, per this report for Time magazine that includes the full transcript of her remarks:

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Friday, Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She said the other half of Trump’s supporters “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”

I remember feeling my heart sink when I read the news reports. Of course, I knew it would become a campaign issue, and that was enough to cause despair. Boiled to its essence, Clinton had just called millions of likely Trump voters “deplorables.”

And that, indeed, is how it was reported in the popular media. Clinton’s reference to the other half of his supporters who felt let down by the system was largely ignored.

In response, lots of Trump supporters, playing on Clinton’s remark, began to identify themselves as “deplorables.” They co-opted and claimed the insult.

And so that is why Dean Morant’s unhappy panel discussion attendee announced himself as a “deplorable.”

Civility, opinion, and judging

I voted for Hillary Clinton without reservation, largely because I found her opponent’s worldview and behavior to be alarming and disturbing.

But I voted for Clinton also without enthusiasm, in part because of her “deplorables” comment. It reflected an elitist attitude that is entrenched in powerful circles, and that includes a certain cohort within the left-of-center. 

It may be a fine line, but there’s a critical difference between calling someone’s opinions or conduct deplorable and calling that person a deplorable.

At times, I’m guilty of taking the latter approach. Instead of characterizing viewpoints I find deeply objectionable, I label the person.

Nevertheless, the world would be better off if we kept those judgments to a minimum and gave people the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to avoiding blanket condemnations. (There are exceptions, of course, and I admit that I apply one to America’s current president.)

Incivility, like bullying and abuse, often runs in cycles. Once it starts, it can be hard to stop. We’re seeing an ugly, destructive ramping up of that dynamic in our civic life today. As these divisions deepen, they will become harder to dissolve.

%d bloggers like this: