Christian Smith, #HigherEd and Bullshit

My colleague Jim Wolfe pointed me to a Christian Smith’s recent op-ed, Higher Education is Drowning in BS; and it morally corrosive to society! Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame, really lays out a laundry list of sins committed by our institutions, their leaders, funders and bureaucrats! From the Chronicle of Higher Education (here are a few of my favorites)

I have had nearly enough bullshit. The manure has piled up so deep in the hallways, classrooms, and administration buildings of American higher education that I am not sure how much longer I can wade through it and retain my sanity and integrity.

Even worse, the accumulated effects of all the academic BS are contributing to this country’s disastrous political condition and, ultimately, putting at risk the very viability and character of decent civilization. What do I mean by BS?

BS is the university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.

BS is the farce of what are actually “fragmentversities” claiming to be universities, of hyperspecialization and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns.

BS is the expectation that a good education can be provided by institutions modeled organizationally on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls — that is, by enormous universities processing hordes of students as if they were livestock, numbers waiting in line, and shopping consumers.

BS is universities hijacked by the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, including chasing rankings that they know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence (to be distinguished from the vacuous “excellence” peddled by recruitment and “advancement” offices in every run-of-the-mill university).

BS is the ideologically infused jargon deployed by various fields to stake out in-group self-importance and insulate them from accountability to those not fluent in such solipsistic language games.

BS is a tenure system that provides guaranteed lifetime employment to faculty who are lousy teachers and inactive scholars, not because they espouse unpopular viewpoints that need the protection of “academic freedom,” but only because years ago they somehow were granted tenure.

BS is the shifting of the “burden” of teaching undergraduate courses from traditional tenure-track faculty to miscellaneous, often-underpaid adjunct faculty and graduate students.

BS is states pounding their chests over their great public universities even while their legislatures cut higher-education budgets year after year after year.

BS is the fantasy that education worthy of the name can be accomplished online through “distance learning.”

BS is the institutional reward system that coerces graduate students and faculty to “get published” as soon and as much as possible, rather than to take the time to mature intellectually and produce scholarship of real importance — leading to a raft of books and articles that contribute little to our knowledge about human concerns that matter.

BS is third-tier universities offering mediocre graduate programs to train second-rate Ph.D. students for jobs that do not exist, whose real function is to provide faculty with graduate RAs and to justify the title of “university.”

There is plenty more in there and well worth reading. So many instances of BS its hard to know which to fix or how to fix it.

A couple of more.

BS is the standard undergraduate student mentality, fostered by our entire culture, that sees college as essentially about credentials and careers (money), on the one hand, and partying oneself into stupefaction on the other.

BS is the failure of leaders in higher education to champion the liberal-arts ideal — that college should challenge, develop, and transform students’ minds and hearts so they can lead good, flourishing, and socially productive lives — and their stampeding into the “practical” enterprise of producing specialized workers to feed The Economy.

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Road Ahead for America’s Colleges and Universities

Two economists from William & Mary offer their insights into the challenges and opportunities ahead for higher education in the United States. A question and answer session from Inside Higher Education with Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, authors of, The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges and Universities.

Archibald and Feldman’s predictions aren’t as sweeping or attention grabbing as Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. In fact, they’re happy to distance themselves from the world’s most aggressive prognosticators, arguing futurists are people who are happy if you don’t read their books in 20 years. They point out that the future is not preordained and can instead be changed by policy choices, economic decisions and other unforeseen events.

Nonetheless, they acknowledge that forces — notably income inequality — are making it increasingly hard for many students to pay for college. Institutions serving underprivileged students are facing some of the greatest threats, they argue. As such, the higher education system’s ability to drive economic opportunity is uncertain going forward.

Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 Challenge; Save Facebook

For those who have been watching Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg for years (as I have); each year Zuck creates a personal challenge for growth. Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 challenge is specifically focused on his company — very different from recent challenges – visit all 50 states, learn Mandarin, read lots of books. From Zuckerberg’s post:

For example, one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.

But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.

There are important counter-trends to this –like encryption and cryptocurrency — that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands. But they come with the risk of being harder to control. I’m interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.

Here is coverage of Zuckerberg’s challenge and its attempt to avoid government interference — from TechCrunch (Romain Dillet) and CNBC (Michelle Castillo). 

Here is an article from Fast Company on some of Zuckerberg’s personal self improvement goals from the past.

New MA in Music Entrepreneurial Studies

As it becomes clear that students and society want more entrepreneurship and innovation, higher education obliges. Azusa Pacific University, keying on its location near Los Angeles, has announced a new Master of Arts in Music Entrepreneurial Studies. From APU

“Given the immense growth of independent music in all genres and the lack of innovation in traditional record labels, we see a huge opportunity for independent artists to compete directly with major label music acts,” said Henry Alonzo, MBA, director of the Music Entrepreneurial Studies Program and assistant professor in the School of Music. “By exploring independent study and work internships within the music industry and collaborating closely with experienced industry professionals, candidates learn to run their careers in music as a small business, which is invaluable in today’s market.”

An expanding music industry ensures higher employability and profitability rates for music entrepreneurs, and for aspiring music professionals, the Los Angeles area is an optimal location to gain industry experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the L.A. metropolitan area represents the second highest rate of employment for musicians and singers, as well as music directors and composers, and the number one rate of employment and profitability for sound engineers. APU’s close proximity to Los Angeles gains program candidates easy access to the central hub of entertainment innovation in the U.S.

Universities are our Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Everyone is looking for them. We have them already… They function pretty well. My recent paper: The Campus as Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. From the abstract:

One question that immediately comes to mind when studying ecosystem performance is what the proper unit of analysis is: the country, the state, the city, the region, or something smaller, like an incubator or accelerator? This paper suggests that the open, innovative American frontier that closed at the end of the 20th century has reemerged in the entrepreneurial economy on the U.S. campus. The contemporary campus entrepreneurial ecosystem offers the characteristics of Turner’s frontier: available assets, liberty and diversity while creating opportunity, and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation. A case study of the University of Chicago explores governance of the campus as an entrepreneurial ecosystem and the output produced by that campus ecosystem.

Google Employee Manifesto Continues Diversity Debate in Silicon Valley

One of the reasons that I argue the university is the best entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it has a diverse collection of people — diverse across multiple variables (life stage, place of origin, field of study, political persuasion, home country/state, full time v part time, etc).

This diverse population (when combined with available assets and liberty/freedom) leads the drive for change, creativity, innovation, production and commerce – in today’s world – entrepreneurship.

As the debate over diversity in Silicon Valley continues and grows — questions and definitions of diversity have been raised. Most recently by a Google engineer offering a manifesto criticizing the company’s diversity effort. From Matthew Lynley at TechCrunch:

A screed from a Googler against the company’s diversity policies appears to be circulating internally at the company, according to Gizmodo, which has published the memo.

Motherboard first reported on the existence of the document making the rounds, which Googlers condemned on Twitter. In it, the author of the “manifesto” appears to try to argue that the gender gap in technology is not a product of discrimination — but rather inherent biological differences between men and women in general.

“I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes,” the memo states at the beginning as published by Gizmodo. “When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem. Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.”

Update: It looks like Motherboard has an internal response from Danielle Brown, Google’s new VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance. Here’s part of what she says, according to Motherboard:

“Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Brown also says that document is “not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages,” according to Motherboard.

There is no doubt there is a lot that corporations and other large organizations could learn from diversity as it exists on university campuses — the kind that takes place day to day in classes, coffee shops, dorm rooms, labs, sports teams, bands and clubs, departments, and more. As my research argues, this diverse environment (with thousands pursuing their unique paths), leads to the creative, productive output and American research universities are lauded for.

GWU Grad Student Launches Food Startup

As my research on student startups highlights, food ventures are popular. A recent George Washington University grad student has launched a social venture (Halona Foods) to get more value out of ‘ugly’ produce.

From DC Inno:

As a grad student at George Washington University, Stephanie Westhelle committed her academic life to studying sustainable development. That’s how she found herself researching and visiting small farms around the area.

“It was disheartening to see how many thousands and thousands of pounds of produce are left behind,” she said. “I think the one that was the most disheartening and really made me move forward with my idea was a small farm in Maryland that had lost about 80,000 pounds of apples due to some bruising that happened because of a hail storm… I came up with the idea to start making apple crisps from [them].”

Westhelle is the co-founder and CEO of Halona Foods, which she founded just a little over a year ago. She works with micro-scale farms (small, typically family-owned farms that usually bring in under $1 million in sales annually) to give new life to produce that would normally be considered waste. She and her team buy the irregularly-shaped, bruised or otherwise hard-to-sell fruits and veggies and turn them into snacks, like zucchini chips or apple crisps.

Halona Foods is not the first DC based food startup created by students to try to bring more efficiency to the use of farmed produce. Georgetown’s Misfit Juicery has had a nice run so far — recently being selected to join Chobani’s food accelerator.