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Student Activism by Angus Johnston - 1y ago

Okay, so I bought some stickers. Specifically, I had some stickers made. More specifically, I had more than  two   five   eleven   seventeen   twenty  twenty-eight thousand stickers  made.

Want some?

Each of the stickers is one inch tall by five inches long. (Think bookmark, not bumper sticker.) They’re made of vinyl, not paper, and they’re white print on a black background. (The white border you can see in the photo is the backing paper they’re attached to.)

May 1 Update | The stickers are now available with a pink or a rainbow flag background, in addition to the black. And as of this morning, they’re available in red as well. Happy May Day!

If you’d like some, you can have some. For free. Here’s how it’s going to work.

If you’d like some stickers, fill out this Google Form, giving me your name and address, and telling me how many stickers you want and what you’re going to use them for.

That’s it. If you’d like five or fewer, that’s all you have to do—just tell me you want them, and I’ll send them. I’ll stuff the envelopes, I’ll cover the postage. Everything. (The form is set up for US addresses, so if you’re overseas, you’ll need provide your full address in a comment to your request.)

If you’d like more than five stickers, or you’d like to kick in some money to help cover my costs, that’d be great. (Really great. I’m an adjunct professor, and I don’t make a lot of money. This is an extravagance on my part, not an eccentricity.) Just click here and donate via GoFundMe. (If you donate make sure you include your name so I can match it up with the one on your request form. You can send the name privately if you like.)

How much should you donate? Well, there’s no set charge per sticker, but don’t make me a chump. I’m going to put the first chunk of cash I receive directly into buying more stickers, and I’m hoping this works out well enough to be a model that I can use again in the future without draining my bank account. In other words, if you send me a dollar and ask for five hundred stickers, that’s not going to be sustainable. (If you want more than a hundred stickers, check with me by email before you fill out the form. If you’re not sure whether your donation is too small for the number of stickers you’re requesting, feel free to ask.)

If you’ve got any general questions, feel free to ask them here, but remember to use the Google Form to request stickers.

If you’re concerned about giving out your address, here’s the deal: I’m going to use your info to get you the stickers, and that’s it. I won’t share it with anybody, and I won’t keep it for myself. Pinky promise.

TLDR: Request stickers here. Donate here, if you like.

January 27 Update | More than 450 requests for stickers in the first 24 hours, from forty-four states plus Canada, Britain, Austria, and the Netherlands. I’ve already put in an order for more stickers and a whole mess of envelopes and mailing labels, and I’m heading out to buy stamps today.

$1,776 in total donations (no, really) as I write this. We’ve had about one donation for every four sticker requests, which is wonderful—and which is about the rate we need for this project to continue to be self-sustaining.

So if you can donate, that’s amazing—and thank you so much. But if you can’t, please don’t be shy about putting in a request. We’ve got your back.

January 28 Update | Since so many people have asked, and since I’m beginning to get a better sense of the economics of this project, if you’re interested in receiving stickers in bulk, a donation of 50 cents or a dollar a sticker is a pretty good rule of thumb. At that rate we should be able to keep giving out stickers for free for a while. (Even at that rate, please don’t request more than fifty stickers without checking with me first, though.)

February 23 Update | Continuing to plow my way through the requests, getting closer and closer to being caught up. Ordered 6,000 more stickers this week, which means that by about two weeks from now I should have completely cleared the backlog. If you have ordered, but haven’t received your stickers, check back here in a bit—I’ll post again when I’m completely up to date, and you can nudge me then if your order went missing. And again, thank you to everyone who’s contributed to the project—you’ve made this possible, and are making it possible to continue.

March 4 Update | New stickers are in, including one thousand PINK ones. Backlog almost cleared, new requests will be filled much more quickly. Request stickers here, donate to keep the project going (and to receive more than five stickers) here.

March 18 Update | Mailed off our one-thousandth envelope yesterday. Just about caught up—printed out 150 labels today, and that’s the last of the orders to date.

I’ve had about half a dozen envelopes returned due to errors in the addresses. I’ve reached out to people on Twitter where I’ve been able to, but there are a few folks I haven’t been able to track down. Here are their initials and states—if any of these is you, email or DM me with your correct address, and I’ll send your stickers out again:

  • TM, Arizona
  • EZ, Wisconsin
  • U, New Jersey

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Okay, so I’m going to say some stuff at the start of this post that’s going to be a bit of a drag, but I want you to stick with me. It’ll be worth it, I promise, and there’s no way around what I have to say at the top without going through it. So I’m just going to jump in, and I’ll meet you on the other side. Here we go…

America’s current crisis isn’t one crisis, it’s a hundred.

We’ve got a crisis in access to medical care, and it’s about to get worse. We’re in a deep crisis in mental health care, and again, it’s about to get worse. Ditto access to reproductive healthcare. Two of the last five presidential elections have been won by candidates who lost the popular vote. That’s a crisis. Because of gerrymandering, vote suppression, and voter clustering, elections in the House and Senate and state races are growing less likely to reflect the will of the electorate. That’s a crisis. The interference of American intelligence agencies with the just-concluded presidential election is a crisis, as is the likelihood that we will never get a full accounting of that interference.

Also a crisis: Police violence against people of color, and police impunity when such violence is committed. The Republican Party’s manifest unwillingness to hold the Trump administration accountable for conforming its actions to the constitution. Rising income inequality and persistent poverty. The incompetence and malignance of so many of the administration’s appointees. Their plans to dismantle public schools and universities, undermine academic freedom, and open up the public-money spigot to predatory for-profit colleges. The weakening of international organizations and agreements. The undermining of essential diplomatic relationships. Threats to free speech and scientific research and the arts and the climate.

And of course there’s so much more I could add to the list. (I didn’t even mention the Russians.) No one person can fight all of it.

…you still with me? Excellent. Because here’s the good news:

No one person can fight all of this, but no one person needs to. Wherever you put your effort in the coming days and years, your effort is needed. Whatever work you do to fight this crisis is important work. What’s vital is not what precisely you do, but that you do something—that you pitch in and lend a hand.

It’s easy to imagine that there’s one crucial path to preventing the trainwreck we’re watching unfold, and that our obligation is to find that one thing to do—impeaching Trump, saving ACA, ending voter suppression—and do it. But that’s not how this works. We need to fight on every front at once, because all the work is necessary. That may seem overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be, because again, nobody can do it all, and nobody needs to.

The work is ongoing, on a hundred fronts. All you need to do is be a part of it, somehow, somewhere. Everything helps. Everything is vital.

And here’s some more good news: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you’re someone with loads of organizing experience and lots of resources and a robust network of fellow activists and you see a gap in the existing web of work and you want to jump in and fill it, that’s great. That’s happening all over the place right now, and it’s great. But if you’re not any of those things—if you’re new to all this and want to help but don’t really know what you’re doing—that’s okay too. It’s better than okay, actually. It’s wonderful. Because it means that the struggle to fix what’s wrong with the world has one more person in it today than it did yesterday, and building that struggle is how we win. So hi, and welcome, and thank you!

So how do you get involved if you haven’t been involved before? One of the best ways is to find a group that has been involved before, and help them out. Most of these crises aren’t new, and none of these struggles are. Trump is making things worse, but he hasn’t invented anything. People have been fighting people like him, and stuff like the stuff he’s trying to do, for decades. Centuries. They know how to do this. They’ve been doing it. They’re doing it right now. And they’d love to have your help.

So start brainstorming. Is there an organization you’re a fan of but have never been involved with? Google them, and see if they’re looking for volunteers. Is there a local politician you’ve always admired, or a losing candidate for local office you wish had won? Drop them a line. Are you a union member, but inactive? Get active. Is there a rally coming up in your community? Find out who’s organizing it, and offer to lend a hand with logistics or setup. Get in touch with a local food pantry, or homeless shelter, or teen crisis hotline, or abortion clinic. If you can afford to donate money, do, but while you’re at it, see if there’s a way for you to help more directly.

I’ll have some more concrete suggestions for how and where to lend a hand later, but really, don’t stress out too much about what to do. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of getting off of your butt and doing something. Because it’s by doing something that you’ll really start figuring out how to be of use, and learning how.

Maybe the first place you volunteer will be an amazing and wonderful and empowering experience. Maybe it’ll set your life on a completely new trajectory. But if it doesn’t, it’ll still be worth doing. Because you’ll learn a bunch of stuff by doing it. You’ll learn what you’re good at, and what you like doing, and what kinds of work are sustainable for you. But you’ll also learn a lot about how organizations and movements work, and what makes them succeed or fail. You’ll make connections with other people, connections that may persist after your relationship with the group is over. And crucially, you’ll get out of your comfort zone. You’ll expand your comfort zone. You’ll get more comfortable with not just the work itself, but with the phone calls and emails that put you in the room. You’ll learn how to do all the stuff, both practical and logistical, that’s going to help you be more useful in the next project you take on.

You may have noticed that I’m mostly talking in this post about getting involved with organizations and institutions. There’s a few reasons for that:

The first is that a lot of folks have written good guides to taking individual action, particularly political action. (Here’s a very well-shared one, here’s a great one that was just published today, and here’s an excellent one that leans more toward grassroots social action. This is good too, and you’ll never go far wrong following Woody Guthrie’s lead.) If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably encountered at least one of those guides already.

A second reason is that, as I said at the top of this post, this crisis is going to put extraordinary stresses on regular people and the local institutions that help them get by. Keeping people fed under Trump is part of fighting Trump. Getting people access to birth control under Trump is part of fighting Trump. Supporting teachers under Trump is part of fighting Trump. We need to be doing it all.

A third reason is that working in organizations gives you skills you can’t get anywhere else. You may not be an organizer now, and if you aren’t, you won’t turn into one overnight, but this is stuff you can learn, and one of the best ways to learn it is to apprentice with people who know it. 

But the fourth reason is maybe the biggest, and it’s this: We don’t know what’s coming, and we’re going to need each other when it gets here. The worst-case scenarios for democracy and civil liberties in the coming years are really bad, and even if the worst cases don’t materialize, building robust networks of friends and allies in the struggle is going to be vital to winning victories, maintaining our equilibrium, and staying alive. And while I’d be the last person on earth to deprecate the importance of online relationships, we’re going to need to be connected with each other on a face-to-face basis too.

Calling your senator is a good and important thing to do, but it doesn’t make you less isolated. Donating to someone’s Go Fund Me may help them, and society, a lot, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next fight. Tweeting is important—I’m a big fan of tweeting—but in the years to come I’m going to want to have good people nearby as well. I have some now, but I want to have more, so I’m going to go find them and work with them.

I said on Twitter this morning that I think we’re on the cusp of a huge wave of left and liberal organizing in this country. I think we’re going to beat Trump, and I think beating Trump is just the beginning of what we’re going to do. But as I said this morning, it’s going to be hard. We’ve got a long struggle ahead of us, and it’s not a struggle we’re going to win just by calling elected officials.

We need to get together.


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In recent weeks two public figures with far-right views—Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacist Richard Spencer—have made headlines with high-profile visits to American campuses, while their opponents on the left have made headlines by trying to derail those appearances.

With both Yiannopoulos and Spencer planning more campus talks, and with campus organizing on the rise in the wake of Trump’s victory, such protests, and the free-speech debates that accompany them, are going to gain much more attention in the coming months. As a civil libertarian who is also an anti-fascist, I have some thoughts on the issue that other civil libertarians might want to bear in mind…

Off-campus individuals have no right to speak on campus.

Professors, students, and staff are members of the campus community, and their ability to speak on campus without constraint is essential to fundamental principles of free speech and academic freedom. Outsiders aren’t in the same category.

When speakers like Spencer and Yiannopoulos come to our schools, they come as invited guests. Such invitations are privileges, subject to campus rules and to the preferences of relevant decisionmakers. It’s not a violation of their free speech rights for us to refuse to host them, or to discourage others from hosting them.

It’s not a violation of the First Amendment or of principles of academic freedom to oppose giving Nazis a soapbox.

The right to invite a speaker is meaningless without the right to change your mind.

Organizations like FIRE frequently raise alarms about disinvitations of campus speakers, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong, from a civil libertarian perspective, with rescinding an invitation to speak. If an invitation has been extended without a full understanding of the issues involved, or without consideration of all relevant perspectives, there’s nothing sinister in withdrawing it. Likewise, there’s nothing inherently sinister in encouraging others to change their minds about extending such invitations, even where such encouragement takes the form of protesting the invitation.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many “disinvitations” aren’t disinvitations at all. If a speaker cancels because their planned appearance has brought them negative publicity, or to avoid embarrassing the host institution, that’s not a disinvitation, and it’s not a violation of anyone’s free speech rights.

Shining a spotlight on the views and acts of an invited speaker is legitimate behavior, and if the speaker decides to withdraw in the face of such publicity, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

The right to protest is an essential component of the right to free speech.

Protesting a speaker is an act of free speech, and the right to protest must be defended by civil libertarians even when the protest is indecorous or unruly. It’s not an infringment on a speaker’s rights to challenge them, even if that challenge is uncivil. Sometimes incivility is exactly what a situation calls for.

It’s crucial to be alert to infringements on the free-speech rights of protesters, even hecklers. When campus officials have protesters arrested, they are leveraging the power of the state against expression they disapprove of in ways that chill free speech far more powerfully than most hecklers.

Extending invitations to harassers has costs. 

Milo Yiannopoulos was banned permanently from Twitter in July because of his long history of coordinating harassment campaigns against other users of the site, and he has recently used his platform on at least one campus to engage in similarly abusive behavior. At UW Milwaukee in December, he put up the name and photo of a transgender student from that campus on a large screen behind his podium, then proceeded to spend the next several minutes abusing and deriding her, referring to her as “it,” calling her “a man in a dress,” and making a variety of cruel and ugly remarks about her.

There’s nothing obviously illegal about this nastiness—it’s Yiannopoulos’s right to engage in squalid, repulsive behavior. But again, universities have no obligation to provide a platform for it.

And they do, I believe, have at least some obligation, when they consider hosting speakers, to take into account their propensity for such behavior and anticipate its potential consequences. Yiannopoulos left UW Milwaukee that night, but his target remained to face the consequences of his actions.

People like Spencer and Yiannopoulos aren’t looking for debate.

Booking controversial speakers on campus is often defended as an opportunity for dialogue, but dialogue isn’t what these figures are after. They’re looking to build their base and their brand—to rally supporters and harvest attention.

When someone’s public persona is based on shock and “transgression”—on violating social norms for the sake of notoriety—actual dialogue isn’t in their interest and should not be used to justify their presence.

Not all questions raised by such speakers are as easily resolved.

Having said all this, I recognize that some difficult issues remain. While I consider it appropriate for universities to refuse to bring such figures to campus, for instance, I generally believe that student organizations deserve broad deference in booking speakers. Though I think the rights of hecklers should be granted far more weight than they’re typically afforded, there does come a point at which the exercise of those rights limits others’ ability to exercise theirs. And although the right to protest vocally, even rowdily, is worthy of strong defense, there are circumstances in which such protest crosses a line into physical intimidation or harassment.

These are thorny questions that pose conflicts between reasonable claims. But they’re not questions that can be engaged in a productive way unless the rights of protesters are given due weight and issues of speakers’ rights are disentangled from issues of institutional policy.

Spencer, Yiannopoulos, and their ilk hold extremist, overtly bigoted views, but they are not fringe figures—they represent an ideology and a political movement that is on the ascendancy in the United States and in much of Europe. They must be fought, and with all the tools at our disposal.

An effective defense of our civil liberties requires it.


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Student Activism by Angus Johnston - 1y ago

The things she knew, let her forget again—
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the needless, tuneless songs to sing;
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

—Dorothy Parker, 1928


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Less than two weeks after it was slammed with stiff new sanctions by the Department of Education, and just days before its fall semester was scheduled to start, giant for-profit college chain ITT Tech has closed its doors.

ITT announced the shutdown in a blistering statement, released early this morning, in which it called last month’s sanctions “unwarranted . . . inappropriate and unconstitutional.” The statement described “the damage done to our students and employees, as well as to our shareholders and the American taxpayers” as “irrevocable.”

The Department’s actions, however, reflected ITT’s ongoing corporate malfeasance. The chain is currently the subject of lawsuits and investigations by a long list of state and federal agencies, and it has been out of compliance with Department of Education oversight mandates for months.

And ITT Tech’s misbehavior was of particular concern to the Department because the company’s revenue came overwhelmingly from the American taxpayer. Since 2010, some $5 billion in federal money has flowed to ITT in the form of grants and loans, outlays for which the chain had steadfastly refused to be held accountable.

Last month’s sanctions were designed to rectify that. Limits were placed on ITT’s ability to divert revenue to its management and investors. Enrollment of new students using federal loans and grants was paused. And crucially, ITT’s letter of credit was hiked dramatically.

This last provision is worth explaining in more detail, because it clarifies both why ITT failed and what will happen next. When the Department requires that an educational institution post a letter of credit, that institution essentially places a specific amount of money in escrow, setting it aside so that it will be available to use to, for instance, compensate students if the company fails while their studies are ongoing. It’s an insurance policy, in essence, imposed to ensure that the taxpayer isn’t left holding the bag in the event that a college collapses.

If a company is healthy, a letter of credit will be a straightforward cost of doing business—either they’ll be able to cover it themselves, or someone will be happy to lend them cash to do so. If a company is already failing, securing a substantial letter of credit becomes more crucial (because the risk of inaction on the part of the Department is greater) but also more dangerous (because more robust oversight could expose and compound structural weaknesses).

In the past, the Department of Education has often delayed taking action against predatory and mismanaged for-profit colleges until they were in such dire straits that any attempt to impose even mild sanctions would lead to disaster. (Chris Hicks and I discussed this problem, and proposed ways of fixing it, in a report we released this summer.) Thus, when the Department announced in the summer of 2014 that it was placing a three-week delay on disbursements of federal financial aid to Corinthian Colleges, it sent that chain into a tailspin. Corinthian imploded in the months that followed, taking an additional $35 million in emergency taxpayer funding with it.

In some ways, the fall of ITT Tech seems to mirror that of Corinthian—after years of gentle treatment by the Department of Education, a crackdown was followed almost immediately by a collapse. In other ways, however, the Department’s actions in regard to ITT reflect lessons learned from Corinthian, suggesting that the ITT crackdown is less Corinthian II than a first step toward a new model of for-profit college oversight.

I’ll be discussing the similarities and differences between Corinthian and ITT, and what the Corinthian debacle tells us about how the Department should handle the ITT aftermath, in a later post.


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A point I’ve often made in response to sky-is-falling critics of classroom trigger warnings is that there’s no substantial movement afoot to make them mandatory. Where trigger warnings have been adopted, it’s been voluntarily by professors.

Indeed, even activists who’ve pushed for their use haven’t typically attempted to have them made a requirement. Last year’s notorious Columbia University op-ed on the subject merely “proposed that [the university’s Center for the Core Curriculum] issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students,” while 2014’s Oberlin College document on the subject—since withdrawn—was explicitly framed as advisory rather than directive. (A student government resolution passed at UC Santa Barbara in February 2014 did call for mandatory trigger warnings, but it had no formal authority and was essentially ignored by the university.)

Today, however, FIRE reports that “there are several colleges and universities that, as part of their sexual misconduct policies and procedures, require professors to use trigger warnings in the classroom,” citing a passage from Drexel University’s sexual misconduct policy—replicated in the policies of at least four other colleges—that reads as follows:

“[i]t is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used.”

This is closer to a mandate than anything I’ve seen or heard of before, and as policy it definitely takes the trigger warning debate in a new direction, but it’s not quite as clear as FIRE suggests that it amounts to a mandate.

For starters, the FIRE extract leaves out important context for the quote. Here’s the full text of the relevant passage:

Examples of behavior that might be considered sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct include, but are not limited to:

[. . .]

Non-academic display or circulation of written materials or pictures degrading to an individual(s) or gender group (It is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used.).

Note that the list that this entry appears on is a list of actions that “might be considered” misconduct rather than a list of prohibited acts. Note also that the non-use of trigger warnings does not appear as a main entry on the list but as a parenthetical.

In context, then, the statement about trigger warnings is an aside about “expected” behavior rather than a formal directive. And while one could certainly read “expect” as a veiled mandate, other instances of the word in the same document clearly refer to behavior that is hoped-for but not compelled. Consider the following examples:

“Not every individual will be prepared to make a report to the University or to law enforcement, and individuals are not expected or required to pursue a specific course of action.”

“The University expects all community members to take reasonable and prudent actions to prevent or stop an act of sexual harassment or misconduct. Taking action may include direct intervention, calling law enforcement, or seeking assistance from a person in authority. Community members who choose to exercise this positive moral obligation will be supported by the University and protected from retaliation.”

In the first of these quotes the word “expected” is explicitly distinguished from “required,” and in the second an expectation is characterized as reflecting a moral obligation rather than an institutional requirement.

Is it possible that a professor at Drexel (or one of these other colleges) could be disciplined for, say, screening hardcore porn in a classroom setting without warning? Definitely. But that would be possible even in the absence of this policy. Given that, it’s not immediately obvious to me how much of a change this represents.

As I said above, these policies certainly strike me as a significant development in the national debate over trigger warnings. To my knowledge, they’re the only formal, college-wide policies in the country to even recommend the use of trigger warnings in the classroom. And the fact that they’ve flown under the radar until now suggests that there may well be more—and perhaps more explicit—policies in place that haven’t yet attracted notice. I’ll be following up on this, both in respect to the five campuses that have adopted this policy and more generally.

In the absence of more information about how this language is being interpreted and implemented, to describe them as explicit mandates strikes me as unwarranted. If I were an anti-trigger-warning professor on one of these campuses, though? I’d certainly be asking my administration some pointed questions.

More soon.


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By now, most people who read this blog have seen the letter that the Dean of Students of the University of Chicago sent to incoming students this week:

In a welcome letter to freshmen, the College made clear that it does not condone safe spaces or trigger warnings: pic.twitter.com/9ep3n0ZbgV

— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) August 24, 2016

The crucial paragraph of the letter was the third:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

There’s a lot to say, and a lot that’s been said, about this passage—Jeet Heer wrote a short piece at the New Republic (using some of my tweets as a jumping-off point) arguing that it was an attack on academic freedom, for instance, while the former president of the U of C student government unleashed a devastating tweetstorm addressing the various ways in which the college’s administration had, during his time on campus, ducked its obligations to engage in open and constructive dialogue. (Link is to his Twitter feed. Scroll back.)

What I want to talk about today, though, is an essay by Jesse Singal of New York magazine, a writer whose views on campus issues I often share.

Singal is no huge fan of the letter’s framing, it’s important to note. Many of the criticisms I’ll be raising here are ones that he himself makes. But his core premise is that while the letter was perhaps over-aggressive and over-simplified, it was nonetheless a useful and justified intervention because it addressed a real problem on the contemporary campus—attacks on free speech.

Free speech is under threat on campus, he believes, and so, in taking a forthrightly pro-free-speech, pro-academic-freedom stand, the letter “could be a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.”

Singal is right that there’s a real culture clash happening in American higher ed right now, but he’s wrong to portray it as a clash between supporters and opponents of free expression. To understand why, let’s examine the letter’s core positions one at a time.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings…'”

The college has already had to walk this one back a bit, because of course one may support trigger warnings and also be committed to academic freedom. Indeed, as a college professor who uses trigger warnings in my own classes, I’d interpret a statement like this from administrators at my college as a denigration of my pedagogical choices, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle suggestion that I revise my syllabi.

A university truly committed to academic freedom will allow its professors to decide for themselves whether to use trigger warnings, and will foster open and unfettered discussion as to whether they should so. It will also recognize that students who choose to agitate for the adoption of such warnings are themselves engaging in acts of free speech and deserving of the protections afforded by the principles of academic freedom.

The letter, sadly, acknowledges none of this.

“…we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial…”

Here too the letter reduces a complex, multifaceted question to a fatuous soundbite. Are there many people really arguing that a university should “cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial”? Not in my experience, and I pay quite a bit of attention to this stuff. No, the letter is here misrepresenting the position it argues against, and in so doing it papers over the most interesting questions it raises.

Here are some of those more interesting questions:

Should a university invite speakers who are bigots? If so, under what circumstances? Who should decide who is invited to speak on campus, and who should determine how student money is allocated to bring such speakers? Does a student club have an obligation to go forward with an invitation it has extended if it later comes to regret it? What are the proper limits of dissent and protest and disruption when an obnoxious speaker appears?

These are all questions on which people committed to free speech can vigorously disagree. (They’re all questions on which I’d happily argue one of several contradictory positions, for starters, if you’re buying the beer.) But there’s no hint of that vitality and complexity here.

“…and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Again the letter elides the most interesting, and most important, issues at hand. Should a campus Atheist Club be required to accept a fundamentalist Christian as a vocal participant in its meetings, and vice versa? Must a Women’s Center open its discussion group for sexual assault survivors to men? Are all spaces on campus sites of perpetual intellectual combat, open to all comers, or might students reasonably choose to affiliate only with like-minded friends and allies on occasion? The letter presupposes one answer to each of those questions, and to any other that could be asked from similar premises. But there is a strong civil libertarian case to be made for the opposite stance on each.

In fact, on each of the topics mooted in the letter—trigger warnings, campus speakers, and safe spaces—it could be argued that the principles of free speech and academic freedom demand the opposite conclusion from the one the letter reaches. Both the professor guarding her freedom to use trigger warnings and her colleague who opposes them may be civil libertarians, as may the reviled speaker and the student protesting at their talk and the atheist who demands a voice and the Christian who asserts her right to converse with those she chooses.

Again: There is no single pro-free-speech position on on any of these questions.

And so while Singal is right that there are major divisions on the contemporary American campus around issues of freedom of speech and academic freedom, he fails to recognize that those divisions are so deep and so contentious in large part because each side in each of those the debates can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of free expression.

The positions that the letter takes are not more civil libertarian than the ones that I, for instance—a supporter of trigger warnings and agitation against obnoxious speakers and safe spaces—take. In fact they are, I’d argue, in each case a less civil libertarian position.

And that is why we will never, despite what the University of Chicago might hope, and despite what Singal suggests, resolve these disputes via appeals to first principles.

Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my views on one or more of these questions is unsustainable from a civil libertarian perspective. But if so, we’ll figure that out not by fiat, but through robust, unfettered debate and by real-world experimentation. That debate is necessary, and it is not advanced be pre-emptive deployment of “we do not supports” and “we do not condones.” (Particularly when many members of the campus community emphatically do support and do condone precisely the positions that are repudiated by the dean’s letter.)

I stand with Singal in his advocacy for freedom of expression on campus, and I share some (though not all) of his concerns about contemporary campus climate. But the authors of the University of Chicago letter are not my allies in that fight, and I suspect that they’re mostly not Singal’s, either.


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The Department of Education yesterday imposed massive sanctions on for-profit college chain ITT Tech, giving the predatory college thirty days to place $153 million in escrow to protect students and taxpayers from potential costs associated with the company’s malfeasance. At the same time, the Department banned ITT from enrolling new students using federal financial aid money.

ITT’s stock fell 35% in half an hour after yesterday’s announcement before trading was halted to stop the slide. It opened down another 50% this morning, leaving the total stock value of the company at less than ten million dollars.

This is almost certainly the end of the road for ITT Tech, until recently one of the biggest players in the for-profit college world. The company has little hope of raising the cash it needs to provide the funds the Department has demanded, particularly given its dependence on federal financial aid for revenue — last year 80% of its income came from Department-administered financial aid programs. (Adding to ITT’s woes, the escrow requirement puts the company in violation of the terms of a $100 million loan it received from a private equity firm in 2014. Oops.)

The Department’s crackdown on ITT is a welcome, if overdue, development. For years, the D0E has allowed the chain to operate with near-impunity as it defrauded students and flouted federal regulations, and yesterday’s actions represent a decisive — and potentially historic — break with that history.

In a particularly heartening move, the Department imposed a wide variety of sanctions on ITT, each designed to ensure that the company, its management, and its investors are held accountable for ITT’s misdeeds. In addition to the escrow requirement and the ban on extension of financial aid to new enrollees, the department:

  • Mandated notice to current ITT students that the institution is in violation of accreditation requirements.
  • Forbade ITT from issuing any “bonuses, severance payments, raises, or retention payments to any of its Management or Directors.”
  • Prohibited ITT from paying dividends to its investors.

Each of these sanctions, as it happens, are ones that Chris Hicks of the AFT and I urged the Department to impose on predatory for-profit colleges in our June report, Regulating Too-Big-to-Fail Education: Next Steps for the Department of Education.

For too long, the Department of Education has failed to act aggressively in using its oversight and enforcement powers to rein in for-profit education companies that prey on students and divert taxpayer money to programs that offer little or no benefit to enrollees. The Department’s decisive action against ITT yesterday gives reason for hope that the entire for-profit sector will soon be subjected to the kind of robust, common-sense regulation that it so desperately needs.


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It’s been summer, and I’ve been busy with other work, so I haven’t posted in a while. This started as a Facebook thing, but I figured I’d put it up here to knock the cobwebs out.

•          •          •

I’ve read a few things recently on how things would go with the election, logistically, if Trump dropped out, but none of them put the whole story together.

So I’m gonna.

This is going to be long. Here goes.

If Trump withdraws from the presidential race, the responsibility for choosing his replacement will fall to the RNC. (That’s the Republican National Committee, made up of about two hundred party leaders, not the Republican National Convention, made up of thousands of delegates. The Committee could theoretically reconvene the Convention to hold the vote, but they won’t.)

So the Republican National Committee would get together somewhere, and elect a new nominee. This would likely be Mike Pence, since he’s the veep nominee—picking anyone else would divide the party further, and that’s the last thing they’ll want in the wake of a Trump schism. Pence isn’t widely hated, and putting him in the slot could be framed as a pro-forma thing, so that’s what they’d be most likely to do.

So Pence, let’s say, becomes the nominee. Presumably he picks a new veep choice, likely in consultation with party leaders, and the RNC rubber-stamps that pic right after picking him. But that’s not the end of it.

Because it turns out that every state has its own rules for taking someone’s name off the ballot and replacing it with someone else’s, and the earliest deadlines for doing that are coming up soon. Unless Trump drops out in the next couple of weeks, there are going to be states where he’s going to be listed no matter what.

Which means that if Trump drops out in, say, mid-September, there will be some states where GOP voters will be pulling a lever next to his name, and some where they’re voting for Pence. And as it turns out that matters too, because…

Every state also has its own laws about who Electoral College electors are allowed to vote for. In some states, they’re legally bound to vote for the candidate who was on the ballot in their state. The laws vary a lot, and some of them are pretty vague, so what to do about it would have to be hashed out multiple times all over the country.

If Clinton wins, of course, none of this will matter much. Electors on the losing side have voted in ways they weren’t supposed to in the past, and if Pence’s ticket gets, say, 180 Electoral Votes, nobody is going to care if some of them are cast for Donald Trump. But what if Clinton loses? What happens then?

Well, then it gets weird.

Let’s say that the Republicans wind up with 280 Electoral Votes, of which fifty or so are the fruit of states where (1) Trump was still on the ballot on election day, and (2) state law mandates that electors vote for the person on the ballot. In that case, if everyone votes according to their legal duties, nobody gets a majority in the Electoral College and the election goes to the House of Representatives.

That “everyone votes according to their legal duties” thing is a big if, though. Assuming the Trump electors are good Republicans who want a Pence victory, some or all of them would likely vote their conscience rather than the law, or file suit to get the law nullified before the vote. Even if they didn’t, the RNC would have good reason to try to get around the state laws.

The constitution seems to grant electors the right to vote for who they want, and even if it didn’t, the Supreme Court would likely reject the idea that the EC wouldn’t be able to seat a duly-elected president because North Carolina treated the guy who quit two months ago as the candidate, so I’d expect SCOTUS to allow GOP electors to vote for Pence, giving him the presidency without having to go through the House.

Unless.

What if some of the GOP electors wanted to vote for Trump? What if they were die-hard Trump supporters who believed the Republican Party had betrayed them, and they weren’t willing to fall in line—or, alternatively, they were local politicians in Trump-heavy districts who were worried about voter backlash? What if they vote Trump not because they have to but because they want to, and the Electoral College deadlocks as a result?

In that case, I suspect SCOTUS would stay out of it, and the election would go to the House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting a single vote. In such situations the GOP is considered to have a structural advantage, given the composition of the House, with Pence again likely to emerge the winner. Unless, again, some House members cast votes for Trump, gumming up the works enough to keep the election deadlocked and allowing whoever the Senate chose for vice president to assume the presidency on an acting basis.

Which is a subplot from the most recent season of the HBO comedy Veep.

Most of this probably won’t happen, of course. If Trump pulls out, the GOP ticket most likely loses, and if it somehow wins, the Electoral College stuff most likely sorts itself out in the courts.

But if Trump does quit, expect everyone on your Twitter feed to become immediate experts on the Twelfth and Twentieth Amendments.


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Remember that poll from last week that found that young adults weren’t big fans of capitalism? Well, I just stumbled across the full report, and it has some interesting stuff to say about the upcoming presidential election.

The big story out of the poll is that Clinton is currently beating Trump among likely voters aged 18–29 by a margin of 61% to 25%. Romney got 37% of the youth vote in 2012, and McCain got 32% in 2008. Even accounting for undecideds, these numbers would put Trump under 30%.

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the poll’s partisan voter data. There’s a lot of worry right now about what Sanders voters will do in November, and though that worry is mostly expressed in terms of young “Bernie Bro” types, there hasn’t been a huge amount of polling on the issue that breaks down the electorate by age.

So how’s Clinton doing with young Democrats? Pretty well. The poll has her beating Trump 83–5 with that group, which is almost on par with exit polls from 2012 and 2008.

Trump, on the other hand, beats Clinton by only 57–13 with young Republicans, who went for Romney 91–7 and McCain 84–15. That 30% undecided Republican figure is particularly ugly — Clinton’s undecideds among young Democrats are only 12%.

And on top of that, she’s winning young independents by better than two to one.

Looking at race, we find Clinton doing about as well as Obama with young black voters, and a bit better than Obama with young whites, though a lot of white voters remain undecided. Where the difference between the two candidates really shows up in the racial/ethnic breakdown is with young Latinos, who supported Obama 74–23 in 2012. In this poll, Clinton is up 71–9, which translates to Trump losing half of Romney’s young Latino vote even after you account for undecideds.

Oh, and Trump is losing young women to Clinton 57-15. McCain got 29% of young women, and Romney got 32%.

Short version? Young Sanders supporters aren’t a problem for Hillary right now, but young Republicans are a disaster for Trump. Young whites like Clinton fine, and young Latinos are flocking to her.

Young voters went for Obama in historic numbers in 2008, and a bit less decisively in 2012. Right now, Clinton’s polling with the youth vote looks more like Obama 2008 than Obama 2012, and if anything it’s a little better than the 2008 results. Given Clinton’s performance in the primaries, I think it’s safe to say that these numbers are less a reflection on her than on her opponent.

When it comes to the youth vote, Trump is the anti-Obama.


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