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.

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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.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe published two lengthy features on workplace bullying. Both are detailed and compelling and worthy of our close attention.

Bullied in the state prison system

The Globe‘s Jenna Russell goes in depth on the story of former corrections officer Marycatherin DeFazio, who suffered years of savage bullying and sexual harassment while working for the Massachusetts state prison system. It is a terrible account of repeated verbal battering, sexual vulgarities, defamatory rumor-mongering, physical assault, and abandonment by co-workers that left her at severe risk of harm. DeFazio’s reports of the abuse to prison officials made no difference.

Like so many stories of severe, ongoing bullying and abuse at work, this one cannot be easily summarized. Russell does a superb job of explaining the personal and organizational dynamics, sharing plenty of nuances that are part of many bullying situations. She also makes brief mention of efforts to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill here in Massachusetts. You can read the entire story here; registration may be necessary.

Bullied in the process of becoming a doctor

Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran, a Canadian resident physician and medical journalist, provides an in-depth look at bullying and mobbing behaviors at the residency stage of medical training:

THERE’S NO QUESTION that bullying is endemic in medical education. One study revealed that about half of residents and fellows in the U.S. reported being bullied, most often by their attending physicians. Canadian researchers found that 78 percent of residents surveyed reported being bullied and harassed in their training, often by attendings or program directors. 

The mistreatment can be so severe that suicides of residents have been associated with it. And if the abuse alone isn’t bad enough, consider that it also negatively affects patient care.

This piece, too, is hard to capture in a few snippets and thus merits a full read. You can read it in full here; again, registration may be necessary.

Some background

In December 2017, the Globe became probably the first major newspaper in the U.S. to put a feature about workplace bullying on its front page, when it ran Beth Teitell’s excellent overview of workplace bullying and its impact on workers and workplaces.

This weekend’s coverage took the focus into a deeper level of understanding. I have to say that I hopefully anticipated both features. I provided background information to both Russell and  Kalaichandran as they were preparing their articles, and I could tell that they “got it” in terms of grasping the complexities of bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors at work. This was borne out by the quality of their published pieces.

We need more media coverage of this caliber in order to expand public education of the human carnage wrought by bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. Hat’s off to the Globe for providing two excellent examples this weekend.

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Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status

One of the more popular posts on this blog is a 2013 piece about how some workplace bullies try to claim victim status:

We’ve seen it countless times: Workplace bullies claiming to be the victims of workplace bullying. And the smartest aggressors often are experts at doing this.

There is no foolproof method to prevent bullies from alleging victim status, but at the very least we don’t want to help them make their case.

I referred to this as a “judo flip” of sorts that targets of workplace bullying should be wary of and strive to avoid.

I’ve been thinking about that post because twice during the past week, I’ve had people ask me whether the term “DARVO” may apply to workplace bullying situations. DARVO, as explained by psychology professor Jennifer Freyd (U. Oregon) on her very informative webpage (link here):

…refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim — or the whistle blower — into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation.

Institutional DARVO occurs when the DARVO is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when police charge rape victims with lying. Institutional DARVO is a pernicious form of institutional betrayal.

Although I was vaguely familiar with DARVO from discussions about sexual and domestic abuse, I hadn’t associated it with workplace bullying. But it certainly fits: Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender is exactly what happens when workplace bullies paint themselves as victims rather than as abusers. I replied to these inquirers that I believe we’re talking about similar if not identical dynamics of abusers claiming to be victimized by false accusations of wrongdoing.

Indeed, DARVO can be an especially devastating tactic for workplace bullies who enjoy superior status over the target and thus are often in a stronger position to recruit allies and supporters among senior managers and executives. Before the targets know what has happened, the tables have been turned on them, and they are left to defend themselves in a way that only reinforces the original mistreatment.

Workplace bullying, worker dignity, and therapeutic jurisprudence: Finding my center of gravity, Part I

The process of retrospection may sometimes yield soggy nostalgia, confusion, or even regret. On other occasions, it delivers a surprising dose of clarity. I experienced a big chunk of the latter, when — and apologies for the cliché — a random trip down memory lane reminded me of the origins of, and connectivity between, so much of the work I’m doing now. I forewarn readers that I’m going to use this post to ponder about this and meander a bit.

Recently I retrieved from my bookshelves Mark Satin‘s Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (2004). Mark is a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war and left activist whose writings evolved to a place that he called the “radical middle.” I bore witness to a piece of his political transition. From 1984 to 1992, Mark wrote and published an independent, left leaning but “post-liberal” political newsletter titled New Options. I was among his subscribers, and I found it to be a thought-provoking publication.

However, at 46, and after many years of writing and editing New Options, Mark sought to have a greater impact within the mainstream. He figured that law school would give him some insights on how the worlds of law, policy, and commerce operated, so he set his sights on obtaining a legal education and earning a law degree.

This is how paths can cross in person: In the fall of 1992, I was starting my second year as an instructor in the first-year legal skills program at New York University School of Law, my legal alma mater. I looked at my class list and saw the name “Mark Satin” on it, and I soon confirmed he was the very person whose newsletter I had read. This connection led to many conversations about legal education, politics, and the future of the country.

During his second year at NYU, Mark asked me to supervise an independent study project that he had been contemplating for some time. Always attentive to emerging social and political trends, he wanted to write about the growing confluence between law and psychology. He envisioned putting together a broad-ranging paper that surveyed and analyzed law and psychology linkages in many different aspects of legal thought and practice. I agreed to oversee the paper despite that I only a mild curiosity in the topic that Mark had described. I saw law & policy through a primarily political lens, and while I didn’t disregard the role of psychology informing legal doctrine and practice, it wasn’t a front and center perspective for me.

With characteristic determination, Mark dove into his research project, and eventually producing a law review article, “Law and Psychology: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” published by the Annual Survey of American Law, one of NYU’s student-edited law reviews. (Unfortunately, there is no open online access to this article.)

After graduating from law school, Mark did go mainstream, at least for a short while! For several years he became a commercial lawyer, working for a New York law firm. But the writing/newsletter/policy wonk side of him couldn’t be suppressed for long. Furthermore, Mark’s political worldview was evolving in a direction that he would call the “radical middle.” And so in the late 90s he launched what would become the Radical Middle Newsletter, which he would write and publish from 1999 to 2009. (You may access the newsletter archives here.) He would also author his book, Radical Middle, which was published in 2004.

Although my own political outlook was somewhat to the left of Mark’s, I agreed to join his first board of directors and then later would slide over to his advisory board. During this time, Mark started writing about stuff that I was discovering independently. You see, my work on workplace bullying and dignity at work was drawing me to the law and psychology perspective that he had championed in his law review article. Among other things, Mark wrote feature articles for Radical Middle discussing therapeutic jurisprudence (here), “rankism” and human dignity (here), and workplace bullying (here).

In one of his last Radical Middle pieces (here), he highlighted my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law:

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think my article (pictured at the top) still holds up well. It remains the best articulation of my beliefs of what our system of regulating the workplace and resolving employment disputes should look like. (You may download it without charge, here.)

My political center of gravity is still more left than center, and in many ways I’m an old-fashioned liberal. (Indeed, it makes sense that for many years, I’ve been on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, an old-fashioned liberal advocacy organization.)

But these deep themes of psychology, human dignity, and societal & individual well-being now frame my outlook on the making, implementation, and practice of law and public policy. Furthermore, the overlaps between Mark Satin’s “radical middle” and my back-in-the-day brand of liberalism appear to be many, at least if my other affiliations with the workplace anti-bullying movement, therapeutic jurisprudence movement, and human dignity movement are any indication. Perhaps this also means that while political labels matter at times, maybe the distinctions between them aren’t as sharp as we sometimes imagine them to be, at least at their respective margins. 

To be continued…..

Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

Are workplace abusers “emotional terrorists”?

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

In my last post, I discussed a lengthy investigative piece in Variety magazine from December, detailing the story behind Live Nation Entertainment’s decision to place leading producer Heather Parry (“A Star is Born”) on leave, in the wake of multiple accusations of severe workplace bullying and verbal abuse. The Variety piece is loaded with anecdotes from former Live Nation employees, including this one from one-time development executive Wynn Wygal:

Wynn Wygal went to work as a development executive at Live Nation Prods. in November 2017. She said she immediately noticed that her colleagues tensed up whenever Parry walked by.

Wygal soon found that she was prone to angry outbursts, and her moods were impossible to predict.

“Heather berated me on a regular basis for a whole slew of trivial reasons,” Wygal says. “She didn’t like my tone of voice on a call. She didn’t like the way I phrased my emails. She didn’t appreciate my body language in a meeting… I braced whenever she called me into the office.”

Once, she says Parry threatened to fire her for not responding to an email within 15 minutes when she was at lunch with an agent.

Wygal says others were treated even worse, and that Parry was especially hard on the women.

“One day I was sitting in our lawyers’ office when she came in and berated our lawyer right in front of me and the other attorney,” Wygal says. “On multiple occasions I had colleagues come to me distressed and often crying about how Heather had treated them that day.”

“She’s an emotional terrorist,” Wygal says.

Emotional terrorist. Whoa, now there’s a loaded term. I was curious to see how it has been used in other contexts, and quick Google search yielded a lot of hits, especially in the realm of personal relationships. Here’s one from the Urban Dictionary, with a gendered spin:

A person (usually a female) who uses seemingly subtle or inconsequential text messages, body language, or short tone of voice to begin a surprise emotional attack against a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or Ex. The attack usually results in catastrophic relationship damage.

A person engaging in the planning and execution of heinous acts intended to kill relationships and scare off potential relationship commitment.

I’m not sure where they got the “usually a female” angle, but you get the point. It’s about searing, surprise emotional attacks that can destroy relationships.

Of course, this is all from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of the abuse. And given that targets of workplace bullying and mobbing often invoke references to psychological torture in describing their experiences, emotional terrorist is not off the mark. 

The term itself has no clinical meaning. However, it may characterize behaviors suggestive of a mental health disorder suffered by the person who is launching the verbal attacks. In that sense, listening to targets’ experiences and labels may help us to understand more about the psychology of workplace abusers. If we are going to adequately prevent and respond to these behaviors, then that greater level of understanding is necessary.

Is a “personality crisis” fueling abuse and cruelty?

Psychologist John Schumaker, in a thought provoking piece for the New Internationalist, posits that a fundamental crisis of human personality is undermining our ability to grapple with serious societal challenges in humane and responsible ways:

For a culture to avoid self-destruction as it progresses, writes Henry George in his classic 1883 work Social Problems, it must develop ‘a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit’, while ensuring responsible and visionary leaders who embrace ‘the mental and moral universe’. By stark contrast, modern consumer culture barrels in the opposite direction, breeding an increasingly trivialized and disengaged strain of personhood, devoid of the ‘loftier’ qualities needed to sustain a viable society and healthy life supports.

…While the ever-deepening mental-health crisis is common knowledge, less understood is the even more serious ‘personality crisis’ that has rendered the consuming public largely unfit for democracy and nigh useless in the face of the multiple emergencies that beg for responsible and conscientious citizenship.

Schumaker aptly cites global climate change as the most alarming crisis being fueled by a lack of collective responsibility, but his observations apply to other core problems as well:

Guilt has lost much of its former powers of persuasion and deterrence. Character building as a socialization pathway to ethical resolve and civic commitment is virtually extinct. The trait of narcissism, as well as diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, have risen so much in recent decades that many now regard the narcissistic personality as a normal outcome of current social-cultural conditions. The same is true of the sociopathic personality.

Researchers, such as those at Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity, have chronicled a deepening crisis in which people are increasingly willing to condone behaviour, both in themselves and others, as well as their leaders and institutions, that once would have been deemed dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social.

The full article is well worth your attention.

Interpersonal abuse at work

Obviously Schumaker’s observations and insights resonate with many topics discussed on this blog, especially how they inform our understanding of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. This includes comprehending the actions of both individual aggressors and the organizational cultures that enable them. All too often, qualities of narcissism and sociopathy are found not only in those who abuse others, but also in the organizational responses to the abusive behaviors. Indeed, how many times have targets of workplace bullying reported the behaviors to management, only to have their complaints dismissed or even used against them? In such circumstances, the cruelties are multiplied.

Schumaker’s opinion piece reminds us that toxic organizational cultures are, in part, a reflection of the larger society. And if his thesis is true — namely, that a deeper and broader personality crisis has beset us — then we have a lot of work to do. Personally, I fear that he is onto something with this worldview. While there certainly are many people who have developed “a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit” (to borrow from Schumaker’s invocation of Henry George), these qualities are in shorter supply than circumstances require. 

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Hat tip to Charles D. Hayes for the Schumaker piece.

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