The American Sociological Association is collapsing and its organization is a perpetual stagnation machine

I am at the end of a three-year term as an elected member of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Committee on Publications, during which time, despite some efforts, I achieved none of the goals in my platform. I would like to say I learned a lot or whatever, but I didn’t. I enjoyed the time spent with colleagues at the meetings (and we did some rubber stamping and selecting editors, which someone had to do), but beyond that it was a waste of time. Here are some reflections.

First, some observations about sociology as a discipline, then about the ASA generally, and then about the situation with the Committee on Publications.

Sociology

Sociology has occupied a rapidly declining presence in US higher education for two decades. The percentage of bachelor’s, masters, and PhD degrees that were awarded in sociology peaked at the end of the last century:

soc degree share

Looking just at the number of PhDs awarded, you can see that among the social sciences, since the 2009 recession (scaled to 0 on this figure), sociology is one of the social sciences disciplines that has slipped, while psychology, economics, business, and political science have grown (along with STEM disciplines).

phds relative to 2009

The American Sociological Association

So, sociology as an academic discipline is in decline. But how is ASA doing — is it fair for me to say “collapsing” in the title of this post? The shrinking of the discipline puts a structural squeeze on the association. In order to maintain its organizational dimensions it would need a growing share of the sociology milieu. The prospects for that seem dim.

On the plus side, the association publishes several prominent journals, which were the ostensible subject of our work on the publications committee. Metrics differ, but two ASA journals are in the top ten sociology journals by five-year citation impact factor in Web of Science (American Sociological Review and Sociology of Education [the list is here]). In the Google Scholar ranking of journals by h5-index, which uses different subject criteria, only one (ASR) is in the top 20 of sociology journals, ranking 20th out of the combined top 100 from economics, social science general, sociology, anthropology, and political science  (the list is here). In terms of high-impact research, among the top 100 most cited Web of Science sociology papers published in 2017 (an arbitrarily chosen recent year), seven were published in ASA journals (five in American Sociological Review [the list is here]). The 2020 Almetric Top 100 papers, those gaining the most attention in the year (from sources including news media and social media), includes 35 from humanities and social sciences, none of which were published by ASA (although several are by sociologists). So ASA is prominent but not close to dominant within sociology, which is similarly situated within the social sciences. In terms of publications, you can’t say ASA is “collapsing.” (Plus, in 2019 ASA reported $3 million in revenue from publications, 43 percent of its total non-investment income.)

But in terms of membership, the association is leading the way in the discipline’s decline. The number of members in the association fell 24 percent from 2007 to 2019, before nosediving a further 16 percent last year. Relative to the number of PhDs completing their degrees, as one scale indicator, membership has fallen 42 percent since 2007 — from 26 paying members per PhD awarded to 15. Here are the trends:

asa membership

Clearly, the organization is in a serious long-term decline with regard to membership. How will an organization of sociologists, including organizational sociologists, react to such an organizational problem? Task force! A task force on membership was indeed seated in 2017, and two years later issued their report and recommendations. To begin with, the task force reported that ASA’s membership decline is steeper than that seen by 11 other unnamed disciplinary societies:

discsocmem

They further reported that only 36 percent of members surveyed consider the value of belonging to ASA equal to or greater than the cost, while 48 percent said it was overpriced. Further, 69 percent of members who didn’t renew listed cost of membership as an important reason, by far — very far — the most important factor, according to their analysis. Remarkably, given this finding, the report literally doesn’t say what the member dues or meeting registration fees are. Annual dues, incidentally, increased dramatically in 2013, and now range from $51 for unemployed members to $368 for those with incomes over $150,000 per year, apparently averaging $176 per member (based on the number of members and membership revenue declared in the audit reports).

Not surprisingly, then, although they did recommend “a comprehensive review of our membership dues and meeting registration fee structures,” they had no specific recommendations about member costs. Instead they recommended: Create new ways for sociologists to create subgroups within the association, “rethink the Annual Meeting and develop a variety of initiatives, both large and small,” remove institutional affiliations from name badges and make the first names bigger, give a free section membership to new members (~$10 value), anniversary- instead of calendar-based annual pricing, hold the meeting in a wider “variety of cities,” more professional development (mechanism unspecified), more public engagement, change the paper deadline a couple of weeks and consider other changes to paper submission, and provide more opportunities for member feedback. Every recommendation was unanimously approved by the association’s elected council. The following year membership fell another 16 percent, with some unknown portion of the drop attributable to the pandemic and the canceled annual meeting.

With regard to the membership crisis, my assessment is that ASA is a model of organizational stagnation and failure to respond in a manner adequate to the situation. The sociologist members, through their elected council, seem to have no substantial response, which will leave it to the professional staff to implement emergency measures as revenue drops in the coming years. One virtually inevitable outcome is the association further committing to its reliance on paywalled journal publishing and the profit-maximizing contract with Sage, and opposing efforts to open access to research for the public.

Committee on Publications

But it is on the publications committee, and its interactions with the ASA Council, that I have gotten the best view of the association as a perpetual stagnation machine.

I can’t say that the things I tried to do on the publications committee would have had a positive effect on ASA membership, journal rankings, majors, or any other metric of impact for the association. However, I do believe what I proposed would have helped the association take a few small steps in the direction of keeping up with the social science community on issues of research transparency and openness. In November I reported how, more than two years ago now, I proposed that the association adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies. (In the November post I discussed the challenge of cultural and institutional change on this issue, and why it’s important, so I won’t repeat that here.)

The majority of the committee was not impressed at the beginning. At the January 2019 meeting the committee decided that an “ad hoc committee could be established to evaluate the broader issues related to open data for ASA journals.” Eight months later, after an ad hoc committee report, the publications committee voted to “form an ad hoc committee [a different one this time] to create a statement regarding conditions for sharing data and research materials in a context of ethical and inclusive production of knowledge,” and to, “review the question about sharing data currently asked of all authors submitting manuscripts to incorporate some of the key points of the Committee on Publications discussion.” The following January (2020), the main committee was informed that the ad hoc committee had been formed, but hadn’t had time to do its work. Eight months later, the new ad hoc committee proposed a policy: ask authors who publish in ASA journals to declare whether their data and research materials are publicly available, and if not why not, with the answers to be appended in a footnote to each article. And then the committee approved the proposal.

Foolishly, last fall I wrote, “So, after two years, all articles are going to report whether or not materials are available. Someday. Not bad, for ASA!” Yesterday the committee was notified by ASA staff that, “Council is pleased that Publications Committee has started this important discussion and has asked that the conversation be continued in light of feedback from the Council conversation.” In other words, they rejected the proposal and they’ll tell us why in another four months. There is no way the proposal can take effect for at least another year — or about four years after the less watered-down version was initially proposed, and after my term ends. It’s a perpetual stagnation machine.

Meanwhile, I reviewed 24 consecutive papers in ASR, and found that only four provided access to the code used and at least instructions on how to find the data. Many sociologists think this is normal, but in the world of academic social science, this is not normal, it’s far behind normal.

I don’t know if the Council is paying attention to the Task Force on Membership, but if they were it might have occurred to them that recruiting people to run for office, having the members elect them based on a platform and some expertise, having them spend years on extremely modest, imminently sensible proposals, and then shooting those down with a dismissive “pleased [you have] started this important discussion” — is not how you improve morale among the membership.

Remember that petition?

While I’m at it, I should update you on the petition many of you signed in December 2019, in opposition to the ASA leadership sending a letter to President Trump against a potential federal policy that would make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free — presumably at some cost to ASA’s paywall revenues. At the January 2020 meeting the publications committee passed two motions:

  1. For the Committee on Publications to express opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.
  2. To encourage Council to discuss implications of the existing embargo and possible changes to the policy and to urge decisionmakers to consult with the scientific community before making executive orders.

We never heard back from the ASA Council, and the staff who opposed the petition were obviously in no rush to follow up on our entreaty to them, so it disappeared. But I just went back to March 2020 Council minutes, and found this profoundly uninformative tidbit:

Council discussed a recent decision of ASA’s authorized leadership to sign a letter expressing concern about an executive order related to scientific publishing rumored to be coming out with almost no notice or consultation with the scientific community. A motion was made by Kelly to affirm ASA’s policy for making time sensitive decisions about public statements and to confirm that the process was properly followed in this instance. Seconded by Misra. Motion carried with 16 for and 2 abstentions.

This doesn’t mention that the substance of the dispute, that the publications committee objected to the leadership’s statement, or the fact that more than 200 people signed a letter that read, in part: “We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to scholarship, including our own.” To my knowledge no member of the ASA leadership, whether elected sociologists or administrative staff, has responded publicly to this letter. Presumably, the terrible statement sent by the ASA leadership still represents the position of the association — the association that speaks for a rapidly dwindling number of us.

Side note: An amazing and revealing thing happened in the publications committee meeting where we discussed this statement in January 2020. The chair of the committee read a prepared statement, presumably written by the ASA staff, to introduce the voting on my proposal:

The committee has a precedent that many of you are already aware of, of asking people to leave for votes on the proposals they submitted…. This practice is designed to ensure that the committee members can have a full and open discussion. So, Philip, I’d like to ask you to recuse yourself now for the final two items, which you can simply do by hanging up the phone…

Needless to say, I refused to leave the meeting for the discussion on my proposal, as there is no such policy for the committee. (If you know of committee meetings where the person making a proposal — an elected representative — has to leave for the discussion and vote, please let me know.) It was just an attempt to railroad the decision, and other members stepped in to object, so they dropped it. The motion passed, and council ignored it, so seriously who cares, but still. (The minutes for this meeting don’t reflect this whole incident, but I have verbatim notes.) 

You will forgive me if, after this multi-year exercise in futility, I am not inclined to be optimistic regarding the Taskforce on Membership’s Recommendation #10: “Enhance and increase communications from ASA to members and provide opportunities for ASA members to provide ongoing feedback to ASA.” I have one more meeting in my term on the publications committee, but it doesn’t seem likely I’ll be there.

Don’t both-sides the war on truth

Glad to see political obituaries for Trump appearing. But don’t let them both-sides it. Case in point is George Packer’s “The Legacy of Donald Trump” in the Atlantic (online version titled, “A Political Obituary for Donald Trump“).

Packer is partly right in his comparison of Trump’s lies to those of previous presidents:

Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public.

He’s right that the target is truth itself, but wrong to attribute this to postmodernism. Trump is well-grounded in modernist authoritarianism, albeit with contemporary cultural flourishes. This ground was well covered by Michiko Kakutani, Jason Stanley, and Adam Gopnik, who wrote the week before Trump’s inauguration:

there is nothing in the least “postmodern” about Trump. The machinery of demagogic authoritarianism may shift from decade to decade and century to century, taking us from the scroll to the newsreel to the tweet, but its content is always the same. Nero gave dictates; Idi Amin was mercurial. Instruments of communication may change; demagogic instincts don’t.

This distinction matters, between Trump the modern authoritarian and Trump the victim of a world gone mad. You can see why later in Packer’s piece, when he both-sides it:

Monopoly of public policy by experts—trade negotiators, government bureaucrats, think tankers, professors, journalists—helped create the populist backlash that empowered Trump. His reign of lies drove educated Americans to place their faith, and even their identity, all the more certainly in experts, who didn’t always deserve it (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, election pollsters). The war between populists and experts relieved both sides of the democratic imperative to persuade. The standoff turned them into caricatures.

Disagree. Public health scientists and political pollsters are sometimes wrong, and even corrupt, including during the Trump era, but their failures are not an assault on truth itself (I don’t know what about the CDC he’s referring to, but except for some behavior by Trump appointees the same applies). We in the rational knowledge business have not been relieved of our democratic imperatives by the machinations of authoritarians. No matter how we are seen by Trump’s followers, we are not caricatures. The rise of authoritarianism and its populist armies can’t be laid at the feet of the reign of experts. In one sense, of course, anti-vaxxers only exist because there are vaccines. But that’s not a both-sides story. Everyone alive today is alive because of the reign of experts, more of less.

This reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s ridiculous (but very common, among conservatives) attempt to blame anti-racists for racism: “The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry [i.e., being called racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic] and create their own tribal identity politics.” If Packer objects to the comparison, that’s on him.

That said, the know-nothing movement that Trump now leads obviously creates direct challenges that the forces of truth must rise to meet. The imperative for “engagement” among social scientists — the need to communicate our research and its implications, which I’ve discussed before — is partly driven by this reality. In the social sciences we have an additional burden because our scholarship is directly relevant to politics, so compared with the other sciences we are subject to heightened scrutiny and suspicion — our accomplishments are less the invisible infrastructure of daily survival and more the contested terrain of social and cultural conflict.

And, judging by our falling social science enrollments (except economics), we’re not winning.

So we have a lot of work to do, but we’re not responsible for the war on truth.

Graduation remarks, 2020 edition: ‘We need you.’

Graduations are online this year. The good news is you can shop around for whatever speeches they want (Your choice: Barack Obama or Melania Trump). If you want one that’s under 5 minutes, with a 75/25 dark-uplifting ratio, aging leftist sensibility, and a little sociology, here’s the text:

 

Congratulations to the students graduating this year. You deserve to be congratulated for your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your family and community members as much as any other graduating class in history. Congratulations.

If that’s all you wanted to hear you can turn it off now. I won’t begrudge you. Because what’s next is going to be dark.

It’s common in graduation speeches to tell the promising graduates that the future is in your hands. That you will determine the course of our history in the future. I hope that is true. I sincerely hope that’s true. But I can’t promise you that, and neither can anyone else. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Humanity has gone through and is still going through a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Millions of people have been sickened, many have suffered horribly, and hundreds of thousands have died, in the pandemic. And everyone has been disrupted, personally, economically, socially.

This virus travels the world on the backs of the healthy to infect and kill – among others – the old and the weak. The devastation has been worse in the United States than anywhere else, because of our systemic weaknesses, but now that it has set its sights on the poorer countries of the world, that likely won’t be true for long.

And that’s not the extent of our problems, of course. We’re in this predicament now because “normal” was already not on a sustainable path. Trump and the racist, nationalist horse he rode in on, the obscene concentration of wealth, climate change, guns, segregation, xenophobia, sexual violence, the degradation of our infrastructure, including science and science education, were all setting us up for this moment. Even if we can contain this pandemic, there is no sustainable normal to get back to.

And our tools for responding may not be up to the task. Our democracy is frail. Our discourse is polluted. Social media generates ever-expanding spirals of polarization, and it has displaced many of our other communication tools. Like journalism.

This pandemic will bring out more bad things. It will exacerbate inequality. It will lead people to shut down, and shut in, fear others, blame others. It has already put a damper on travel and social exchange across all kinds of boundaries, which has been a force for good – and that might last for a long time. And more people will suffer and die, many unnecessarily.

It could make bad things worse, if the economic crisis is long and deep, xenophobia rises, conflict flares up, war, political paralysis. No one can tell you these things are not very real possibilities.

But. In the contours of this crisis we can also see how to begin to make things better, how we could turn things around. If we make it possible, we could recognize the importance of collective action for global problems, including public health but also climate change. We can learn the importance of science and education. We can see the value of investing in social and material infrastructure, including the tools for public health. We might even learn the usefulness of government for saving us from the threats we face.

And you – You can still have great lives. Happy and productive and kind and generous and adventurous and doing the best you can. Which is what people have always hoped for. And you can do those things even if you can’t turn this all around. Look, people have made good lives in hard times before. You make life worth living by what you put into it, which is no more true in good times than bad.

And, we do need you. Even if you’re not not ready to invent this vaccine or fix our broken government. I hope you have your chance to do things like that, too. But before that we need you to figure out how we live with purpose and perspective. How we avoid turning inward and shutting down even as the physical distances between us grow. How to pull down barriers within our own walls. I hope you’ll help us, and yourselves, and the generations to come, figure this out.

Thank you. Good luck.

Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

May 1 is the traditional deadline for paying a deposit for the fall semester’s tuition. These are my thoughts for the students facing the decision about whether to enroll.

49762678626_658e07c409_k
PNCohen photo / Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/2iPmJDG

Higher education leaders are in a terrible situation as they plan for the fall. They’re bleeding cash from lost tuition, grants, and state support. With every school facing the prospect of collapsing budgets – and an unknown number on the brink of closing down – presidents, provosts, and deans are trying to make the most important decisions of their careers without the basic information they need even about the very near future. And they’re doing it from home in Zoom meetings with colleagues in their pajamas, apple sauce stuck to their laptop camera lenses, and kids screaming in the background.

Pulling off a 2020-2021 academic school year will take billions of emergency dollars, brilliant logistics, and heroic public health efforts. And most of the public is pulling for them. As Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, wrote the other day, “The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority.”

They may still make it possible for students to at least start the school year this fall. Heck, at the University of Maryland, where I work, they may need to come back in the fall just to get their belongings, which have been locked up since the university abruptly canceled their move-out plans and closed up the dorms after spring break.

But for students, the question isn’t so much will campus be open, but should they go even if it is? Higher education’s famously high opinion of itself (which I sometimes share), is remarkably resilient to assaults from reality. President Paxson wrote, “If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.” To which students might be wise to reply, “And?”

We need to be square with students on some hard questions. First and foremost, will you and your family get your money’s worth attending school this fall? Paxson says universities must maintain “the continuity of their core academic functions.” But a lot of what students get out of college results from social interaction – in labs, classrooms, gyms, stadiums, student groups, and – yes – parties. What is college worth without all that? If it’s reduced to recorded lectures and stilted online seminars, the value starts to fall towards that of a public library card (which is of course very high, but it’s also free). But the price is the same.

Practically speaking, students need to ask, if the contact tracing app beeps and I’m told to spend two weeks isolated in my dorm room because someone in my class is infected, will I get my tuition back? What if it happens more than once? What if classes move back online altogether? What is my protection if I’m kicked out of my dorm and stranded far from home?

And students also should consider their alternatives, which, contrary to the aspirational assertions of some higher education leaders, do exist. What if they stay home this fall?

They could attend a community college, which at a fraction of the cost might provide a smoother online instruction experience (and transfer the credits later).

They could take advantage of the voluminous, and expanding, array of free online lectures and instructional videos (I post the lectures for my students on YouTube, because why not?)

They could do vitally needed local (or remote) volunteer work, helping the members of their communities who are unemployed, homeless, hungry, at risk, or themselves struggling in school.

They could engage in the make-or-break effort to save democracy in the elections this fall, maybe at least slowing the country’s accelerating slide into oligarchy – and increasing the odds that we come out of this crisis moving in the right direction as we confront our health care crisis, climate change, and the rising tide of nationalism. With mandatory social distancing, campus political campaigns might not be where their efforts are best placed.

They might have a better chance of working a paid job to help support their families, including laid off parents and dependent relatives.

The people who make the most of this disastrous year will be disciplined and focused on their own wellbeing as well as the greater good, working in coordination with supportive community members and close social networks. In the best of times, a great college experience helps train people to do just that, and provides the social context in which those skills can blossom. But in the coming disarray, there may well be better, more cost effective, strategies for students.

You will have to be self-disciplined and highly motivated to make it work, but that will probably be the case more than ever at school as well in the coming year. Normally I would extol the virtues of learning together as one of the advantages of attending school, but the comparative advantage of the on-campus experience this year may be drastically reduced.

We all want a successful higher education system, and with luck we may end up with one. But let’s not put this on students, not this year. Saving higher education is not your job.

Black women really do have high college enrollment rates (at age 25+)

The other day I reported on the completely incorrect meme that Black women are the “most educated group” in the U.S. That was a simple misreading of a percentage term on an old table of degree attainment, which was picked up by dozens of news-repeater websites. Too many writers/copiers and editors/selectors don’t know how to read or interpret social statistics, so this kind of thing happens when the story is just too good to pass up.

I ignored another part of those stories, which was the claim that Black women have the highest college enrollment rates, too. This is more complicated, and the repeated misrepresentation is more understandable.

Asha Parker in Salon wrote:

By both race and gender there is a higher percentage of black women (9.7 percent) enrolled in college than any other group including Asian women (8.7 percent), white women (7.1 percent) and white men (6.1 percent), according to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau.

You know the rewrite journalists are playing telephone when they all cite the same out-of-date statistics. (That Census report comes out every year — here’s the 2014 version; pro-tip: with government reports, try changing the year in the URL as a shortcut to the latest version.)

But is that true? Sort of. Here I have to blame the Census Bureau a little, because on that table they do show those numbers, but what they don’t say is that 9.7% (in the case of Black women) is the percentage of all Black “women” age 3 or older who are attending college. On that same table you can see that about 2% of Black “women” are attending nursery school or kindergarten; more relevant, probably, is the attendance rate for those ages 3-4, which is 59%.

So it’s sort of true. Particularly odd on that table is the low overall college attendance rate of Asian women, who are far and away the most likely to go to college at the “traditional” college ages of 18-24. That’s because they are disproportionately over age 25 (partly because many have immigrated as adults). But, if you just limit the population to those ages 18-54, Black women still have the highest enrollment rates: 15.5%, compared with 14.6% for Asians, 12.6% for Hispanics, and 12.4% for Whites. Asians are just the most likely to be over 25 and not attending college, most of them having graduated college already.

This does not diminish the importance of high enrollment rates for Black women, which are real — after age 25; the pattern is interesting and important. Here it is:

womcolen

Under age 25, Black women are the least likely to be in college, over 25 they’re the most likely. This really may say something about Black women’s resilience and determination, but it is not a feel-good story of barriers overcome and opportunity achieved. And, despite her presence in the videos and stories illustrating this meme, it is not the story of Michelle Obama, who had a law degree from Harvard at age 24.

This is part of a pattern in which family events are arrayed differently across the life course for different race/ethnic groups, and the White standard is often mistaken as universal. I have noted this before with regard to marriage (with more Black women marrying at later ages) and infant mortality (which Black women facing the lowest risk of infant death when they have children young). It’s worth looking at more systematically.

ADDENDUM 6/29/2016: Cumulative projected years of higher education

If you take the proportion of women enrolled in each age group, multiply it by the years if the age group (so, for example, 18-19 is two years), and sum up those products, you can get a projected total years in college (including graduate school) for each group of women. It looks like this:

bweducaddend

Note this makes the unreasonable assumption that everyone who says they are enrolled in college in an October survey attends college for a full year. So, for example, Asian women are projected to spend 6.2 years in college on average between ages 18 and 54. What’s interesting here is that Black women are projected to spend more years in higher education than White women (5.5 versus 4.9). But we know they are much less likely than White women to end up with a bachelor’s degree (currently 23% versus 33%). This has to be some combination of Black women not spending full years in college, not going to school full time, or not completing bachelor’s degrees after however many years in school. Attendance may be an indicator of resilience or determination, but it’s not as good an indicator of success.

No Black women are not the “most educated” group in the US

2020 UPDATE: This post has been up here for four years now. It has been viewed 100,000 times, but the meme that started this has been viewed 10 million times.  I’ll summarize: Compared with Black men, Black women are highly educated (more than women of other groups, compared to the men in those groups). But compared with White (and some Asian) women, Black women have fewer degrees, on average, because of structural racism. You just can’t tell how great a group of people are by how many degrees they have. Black women have been materially oppressed in America forever, and they deserve better than this — more education, better education, and more respect — because Black lives matter.

If you would like a “real” source to cite for this, you can cite my book, Enduring Bonds, which includes a version of this post on pages 160-164.

Here’s the original post:


I don’t know where this started, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping. The following headlines are all completely factually wrong, and the organizations that published them should correct them right away:

The Root: Black Women Now the Most Educated Group in US

Upworthy: Black women are now America’s most educated group

SalonBlack women are now the most educated group in the United States

GoodBlack Women Are Now The Most Educated Group In The U.S.

And then the video, by ATTN:, on Facebook, with 6 million views so far. I won’t embed the video here, but it includes these images, with completely wrong facts:

bweduc1

bweduc2

What’s true is that Black women, in the 2009-2010 academic year, received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group. So, for example, of all the MA degrees awarded to Black students, Black women got 71% of them. In comparison, White women only got 62% of all White MA degrees. Here is the chart, from the data that everyone linked to (which is not new data, by the way, and has nothing to do with 2015):

bwdegchart

For Black women to be the “most educated group,” they would have to have more degrees per person than other groups. In fact, although a greater percentage of Black women have degrees than Black men do, they have less education on average than White women, White men, Asian/Pacific Islander women, and Asian/Pacific Islander men.

Here are the percentages of each group that holds a BA degree or higher (ages 25-54), according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey, with Black women highlighted:

bwdegchartBA

23% of Black women ages 25-54 have BA degrees or more education, compared with 38% of White women. This does not mean Black women are worse (or that White women are better). It’s just the actual fact. Here are the percentages for PhD degrees:

bwdegchartPhDJPG

Just over half of 1% of Black women have PhDs, compared with just over 1% of White women – and almost 3% of Asian/PI women. White women are almost twice as likely to have a PhD and Black women, Asian/PI women are more than 5-times as likely.

Racism is racism, inequality is inequality, facts are facts. Saying this doesn’t make me racist or not racist, and it doesn’t change the situation of Black women, who are absolutely undervalued in America in all kinds of ways (and one of those ways is that they don’t have the same educational opportunities as other groups). There are some facts in these stories that are true, too. And of course, why Black women (and women in general) are getting more degrees than men are is an important question. But please don’t think it’s my responsibility to research and present all this information correctly before it’s appropriate for me to point out the obvious inaccuracy here. You don’t need this meme to do the good you’re trying to do by sharing these stories.

Our current information economy rewards speed and clickability. Journalists who know what they’re doing are more expensive and slower. Making good graphics and funny GIFs is a good skill, but it’s a different skill than interpreting and presenting information. We can each help a little by pausing before we share. And those of us with the skills and training to track these things down should all pitch in and do some debunking once in a while. For academics, there is little extra reward in this (as evidenced by my most recent, sup-par departmental “merit” review), beyond the rewards we already get for our cushy jobs, but it should be part of our mission.

What if Reason didn’t write the NYT coverage of Oberlin students?

 

1989 Michigan Daily poto by Robin Loznak.

Daily Beast columnist Robby Soave is also a staff editor at Reason, according to his Twitter profile. Here I’m comparing his column from Dec. 20, “Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist,” with a Dec. 21 news article in the New York Times, written by Katie Rogers, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall.”

Soave’s opening:

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

Rogers’s opening:

Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.

First, the facts from Soave, in order:

  • Oberlin student with Japanese name, quoted in Oberlin Review, complained the sushi was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin student with Vietnamese name, also quoted in OR, complained that banh mi sandwich was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin tuition is $50,000
  • Fredrik de Boer snarky tweet about General Tso chicken not being authentic in the first place.
  • Black students (according to document linked, “obtained by Legal Insurrection,” a right-wing activist site) are demanding “safe space” for Black students.
  • Black students also demand Black psychologists and non-Western healers at the counseling center.
  • Black students also demand pay for organizing time. Offending community members “banished” (Soave’s word), and four buildings renamed.

Here are the facts from Rogers’s story, also in order:

  • Black student union “earlier this month” protested lack of response to an earlier petition for more traditional food, “including more fried chicken,” as reported by Oberlin Review.
  • List of complaints from the other OR story, including banh mi, sushi, and General Tso chicken. Same quote from Japanese-name student, attributed to OR.
  • Quoted statement from Oberlin dining services director.
  • Fredrik Boer tweet.
  • Response from dining services conglomerate.
  • Black student demands (same link to right-wing source): “segregated safe spaces” (Rogers’ paraphrasing of Soave’s critique), plus demand for increase in Black student enrollment.

Rogers added the next day’s worth of news to the story. So that’s the news. But the whole existence of the story is based on the Soave piece. The Vietnamese student complaint is from a story dated Nov. 6; the Black student dining hall protest was reported Dec. 12. As for the mysteriously-linked Black student demands, they were posted a week earlier by Legal Insurrection, who admit they don’t know who wrote them or who they represent, and their source for the document is anonymous. Nice reporting, NYT.

Look

People have been telling student activists to get off their lawns since they invented lawns. The criticism just varies between national-security-threat tear-gas them off the lawn and liberal disdain kids-these-days get off my lawn, depending on the context and climate. The difference is whether they spank (gas, arrest, surveil) or merely mock them for abusing their privileges when they should  be thanking their betters. Neither Soave nor Rogers nor any of the many who shared and copied the story cared to get the actual story from the actual actors involved. This is not required (by editors or readers) when all you’re doing is reinforcing the already-known sorry.

You wouldn’t know from the Soave/Rogers story that the Black student demands also include benefits for part-time dining hall workers, as well as better pay and benefits.

Of course, if the students are concerned about racism they could spend their energies instead just protesting the giant national racist movement that is leading one of our two political parties, and therefore presumably simply be ignored by the NY Times. But the transition from annoying spoiled brats to national security threat is surprisingly easy to make — when the story is owned by the national news media. Rogers could have written her story about the students’ explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric and tied it to the San Bernardino “self-radicalizing” story instead. The stretch wouldn’t have been much further.

When I complained that the Times was highlighting the fried chicken demand instead of the labor demand, Judith Shulevitz tweeted, “They kinda set themselves up for that one. Gotta pick your battles.”

But it’s not that simple.

DEPLORABLE PLAGIARISM CHARGE UPDATE

When I first saw this story I immediately linked it to the Daily Beast story, which I had been arguing about the previous day. When I saw how similar they were, I tweeted this:

I said it would be plagiarism in a class paper, because the main idea and most of the facts came from someone who was not acknowledged for that contribution. I honestly don’t know what constitutes plagiarism in journalism, but in my line of work such writing is unacceptable. In response, Patrick LaForge, who describes himself as senior editor of the NYTimes Express Team,* objected with three tweets (in reverse order):

laforge

My argument really is not about plagiarism, it’s about the news coverage – the story itself, the sources, and the writing. It is true that the NYTimes story did link to the Soave piece, but not in a way that gave any credit for all it contributed. I don’t see that as dispositive. Soave also tweeted that he “didn’t have a problem with the story,” which is nice. I guess he cares more about his influence whipping up the national hysteria about kids on the lawn than about getting individual credit for his work, which is admirable.**

* No disparagement intended by “describes himself”; I just couldn’t find this information on the NYTimes website.

** Of course, criticizing the NYTimes is all fun and games until you enrage an editor, and then it’s like, “Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it … you’re still gonna quote me, right? We’re good?”

University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today
USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.

Some politicians lie (Maryland edition)

That’s just my opinion.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is responding to the tax shortfall in his (our) state with a plan to cut taxes. And his justification, repeated during the campaign, and now during his State of the State message, includes these two claims:

“We’ve had the largest mass exodus of taxpayers fleeing our state – of any state in our region, and one of the worst in the nation.”

“Businesses, jobs and taxpayers have been fleeing our state at an alarming rate.”

As a dedicated public servant — who just got furloughed, lost a cost of living pay increase, and lost a merit pay increase, while our students are getting a tuition increase because of the state’s disastrous tax shortfall — I remain doggedly committed to pursuing truth.

So, the “mass exodus of taxpayers” fleeing our state:

Book1

Yes, population growth was a little slower than the regional and national averages for a couple years there. But the 25+ population has grown every year but one since 2001. Checking my definition of “exodus” now…

And the “jobs … fleeing our state at an alarming rate”:

Book1Job growth faster than the national average, no (net) “fleeing.”

The source for both figures is my calculations from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

Addendum: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Maryland employment trends here. Here is the employment trend from 2004:

IMG_2349