The College Experience and Culture

May 15 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I am normally quite irritated by Ross Douthat who can't seem distinguish among being conservative about different things. I for one am more conservative about driving than I am about crossing the street at a busy intersection.

He has had two columns in the NYT about the college experience that young women have. The first one is about the book “Paying for the Party,” which describes the class aspects of current college climate. I've not read the book, and its on my list. Here is the review from Inside Higher Ed. The book talks about how the social life so dominates colleges today, and how people from working class backgrounds are poorly prepared to cope (let alone do not have the money to keep up). The book followed a group of women through their career and documented what happened to them. I do not doubt that this is true. From Douthat:

The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright.

This is where I started to get irritated. This was not my experience when I was teaching college-level biology. This was clearly not the experience of the working class students I've seen in MRU (and other) medical schools, dental schools and other allied health fields. There are people, millenial people, who know what college is about. Who have a clue of what they want and what they need to do to get it.

Douthat has an ax to grind and its that other people are having fun. Not all parties are "libertine". Not all owning-class or petite-bourgeois students are there to spend money and have fun.

But this isn't what I wanted to rant and rave about here. The second column titled "Rape and the College Brand" actually makes a few good points. Always read the people you despise or even the people with whom you disagree. He is still busy trashing what he sees as the college atmosphere or climate "oriented toward heavy drinking and hooking up".

He may be wrong about the reasons for it, but he is right about wanting to talk about:

a more specific and toxic issue in college social life: the prevalence on campuses, often in alcohol-infused situations, of rape and sexual assault, and the question of what college administrations should be obliged to do about it.

There is more stuff I disagree with, but the strong point he makes is how little  campus administration seems to care about this.

The protesting students may be overzealous and unduly ideological, but when you’re running an essentially corrupt institution, sometimes that’s the kind of opposition you deserve.

Corruption is a strong word, but not, I think, unmerited. Over the last few generations, America’s most prominent universities — both public and private — have pursued a strategy of corporate expansion, furious status competition, and moral and pedagogical retreat.

And the point I agree with is (except for the bit about supervision):

But the modern university’s primary loyalty is not really to liberalism or political correctness or any kind of ideological design: It’s to the school’s brand, status and bottom line. And when something goes badly wrong, or predators run loose — as tends to happen in a world where teens and early-twentysomethings are barely supervised and held to no standard higher than consent — the mask of kindness and community slips, and the face revealed beneath is often bloodless, corporate and intent on self-protection.

I was about to disagree with the "held to standards" part, but then I remembered a story I heard last week from a colleague about catching a student cheating, documenting it on video, and then having it dismissed for being "insufficient evidence". This was a medical student.

I understand that colleges, medical schools, universities have to have a budget. They need to pay the bills. But the corporate mentality, including the incredible expansion of administrators over faculty is part of what Douthat is talking about. As long as Boards of Trustees, who are rich business people or political appointees (or both), set the tone, chose the president, and want to run Universities like for-profit companies, rather than not-for-profits that have another goal (education) these problems won't disappear.

4 responses so far

  • H.D. Lynn says:

    This might be one of the columns of Douthat's I actually agree with. As someone who went to a renowned school and came from a lower income bracket, I've experienced some of the disparity he's talking about in the social life on campus. At my university and in my major, it wasn't as prevalent, thank god, but it manifested itself in who could afford to take the extra classes over the summer or work for a professor unpaid and who needed to get a 'real' job to go to school. It's a more subtle opportunity divide that has the potential to lead to a negative feedback system with grades, too.

  • M. says:

    It's hard for me to express how utterly disenchanted I've become with university administrations in this regard. I normally have the same attitude you do toward Douthat, but I was grateful he called it corruption. It is.

    I'm now on the faculty at a top private R1. My university has a history of weak wrist slaps for (tenured) faculty sexual harassers. They'd rather let the undergrads and grad students suffer, even when the evidence of wrongdoing is incontrovertible. I've been advised as an assistant professor to be careful reporting anyone. At the public R1 where I received my PhD, they also had video evidence of a medical student flagrantly cheating, but his dad was on the faculty and nothing happened. The student didn't even get a letter in his file. My undergrad private R1 is also in the club that (fortunately) might finally be gaining notoriety for terribly unjust and incompetent trials of sexual assault claims. What's horrific is that members of the faculty--including professors who obviously have no clue about due process or the physical or psychological dynamics of assault--are given authority to make misogynist and borderline perjurous cases for defendants, and equally incompetent faculty adjudicate these trials and (more often than not) acquit.

    There is virtually no institutional protection. It's shameful. I'm looking forward to the day when I have more power (read: tenure) and can push aggressively for reform.

  • becca says:

    The key is that as universities have money/power/influence/reputations, they have incentives to protect them. It doesn't matter how much you supervise the teens and twentysomethings, if your football coaches are diddling little boys, you will observe the university protect the predators rather than risk reputations. It doesn't matter how heinous the crimes are, the university will try to cover it up.

    Here are the key things to understand:
    *The numbers behind sexual assault and many other misdeeds are such that every university has predators and criminals
    *The universities have no incentive to punish these people, and every incentive to keep it from being public knowledge

    So what to do? If you are a victim on campus (or know of one) run, don't walk, to the police. Not campus officials.

  • Bashir says:

    I have read some of the Paying for the Party book. It's ok so far with a lot of "well of course.." moments. The students for whom the university is more of a "reach", who have less money, less "social capital", end up in different places that students how have those things. You'd have to be a bit naive about US higher ed for those things to be a surprise. The general topic of higher ed and class in the US has plenty of stories and data to mine, but so far this particular book is so-so. Maybe the 2nd half will pull things together more.

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