Monday, March 4, 2013

An Open Letter to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Dear Profs. Hacker and Dreifus:

As preparation for a magazine article I am writing about the costs of a college education today, I have been reading your book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids--And What We Can Do About It.  I was quite looking forward to this book; the provocative title and the impressive set of endorsements in the opening pages held out the promise of a fascinating read.

In the opening pages of your first chapter, you tell a story designed to illustrate your thesis--which is spelled out pretty clearly in the title of your book, so I won't rehearse it again here in my own words.  The story recounts an incident that happened a "few years back" in the political science department at Queens College.  A job candidate for a position in political science, as you describe it, sat down for an interview with the department chair and asked a series of outlandish questions indicating that he expected to teach as little as possible, spend most of his time on research, and take frequent sabbaticals. This story serves as a stand-in for the ways in which contemporary academia has lost its soul, focusing more on research and faculty perks than educating students.

Like all good storytellers, you fill out your narrative with details--including, in this case, the title of the job seeker's dissertation.  You give the following title to his "trendy" thesis: An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  It sounds trendy!

Fascinated to learn whether this self-centered political scientist ever landed that plum research job he was seeking, I Googled the dissertation title you gave.  Strangely, the only results came from your book.  It seems highly unlikely to me that a dissertation written a "few years back" would have absolutely no presence on the internet.  I double-checked the language of your story, and the notes from your book, none of which indicates that this is a fictional story.  So I have written this open letter in the hopes that you will be able to provide me with more information on this job candidate or his dissertation.

I confess I would not find this question quite as pressing if it did not seem to me part of a constant and disturbing trend in your book of citing undocumented "anecdotes" in support of massive claims about the wastefulness of higher education, or of manipulating statistics, to the same purpose, in some really obvious ways.

Just an example or two.

1) You reserve some of your most damning complaints for professors and their light teaching loads. You rightly anticipate the objection that for every hour we spend in the classroom, we spend many more hours preparing for class and evaluating student work.  You claim to be skeptical about this, and cite this story in support or your skepticism:

"A tale is told of a classroom where all the students were busily scribbling as the professor droned on.  All,that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word.  How so?  She had with her the notes that her mother had taken with that professor during her own student days."

I would love to learn more about where this story took place.  Unfortunately, the language you use to introduce the story--"A tale is told"--seems to imply that this is an urban legend.  Urban legends are fun, but generally, as I like to explain to my students in English Composition, we should not cite them as evidence in arguments.

2) In a chapter which tries to explain why colleges cost so much, you claim that "a big slice of the tuition pie ends up with lawyers and their clients.  After hospitals, colleges may be our society's most sued institutions."

Putting aside the slippery nature of adjectives like "big," it seems to me like information about our society's most sued institutions "may be" available to someone who does their research.  It strikes me as curious why you would not want to track down this actual fact.  Instead of providing any documentation for this statement, you cite five eye-catching lawsuits in which colleges had to pay legal fees.  Five lawsuits, over a two-year period, against more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States!  If those figures are correct, we may in fact be the least sued institution in our society.

I suspect the number is more than five, but I don't really know.  The point here seems to be neither do you--but that didn't stop you from making a sweeping claim about it in your book.

3) In that same chapter, you claim that "football can be the biggest budget buster of them all," implying that expenditures on football are driving up tuition costs.  Two paragraphs later you point out that the "profitable sports program at the University of Texas brings in $100 million each year."

Can you help me out here?  I'm prepared to debate the merits of big-time college football programs, which I think bring both goods and ills to our campuses, but I just can't make any sense of the difference between your sweeping statements and the specific evidence you cite.

I supposed I should add to this open letter the editors at St. Martin's Griffin, which published this book, and the host of folks who endorsed it. As a writer of a few books myself, I know how well-scrutinized my manuscripts are before they appear in print.  As an occasional reviewer of books, I know how important it can be to check a few facts in a book like this one before endorsing or reviewing it.  How did examples like this--and the many dozens of others I could cite--slip by so many people?

But I will let that question go, and return to my original one.  I'm really just looking for the author of An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  If you wouldn't mind sending me his e-mail address, or pointing me to his research, I would much appreciate it.

Jim Lang

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