Universities Are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Carey and NYT

By Cathy Davidson|July 27, 2015|Reflection|3 comments

[Cross-posted from HASTAC. This post was corrected after useful tweets from Kevin Carey and others. Special thanks for those. All errors, of course, remain the author’s.]

Yesterday Kevin Carey wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he argued that the recent academic and athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina could happen because, basically, universities are “illusions.” There is no real oversight of what happens in the classroom. Therefore it was easy for some professors in the African American Studies Department to enroll some of the athletes in fake courses, give fake grades, that allowed them to fake pass and therefore to stay in school and, for some, to retain eligibility on their athletic teams and pretend to be “scholar athletes.”

Here’s the link to the essay: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/24/upshot/the-fundamental-way-that-universities-are-an-illusion.html

I have so many responses to this piece but my first one is: thank goodness there is not more oversight and standardization and regulation of the college classroom! There is already so much, we college profs are already awash in so much bureaucracy, it is hard to imagine that these scandals happened. Adding another level of academic bureaucracy won’t solve future scandals. It will prevent or at least impede future innovation. It already has in public elementary and high school. To extend the hardships we place on public school teachers to college would be to take one tragedy (the scandals at UNC) and pile on another (of limiting creative pedagogy, methodology, and intellectual and academic innovation).

In K-12 public education, we have seen the continual and growing demoralization of real learning that has happened through the imposition of poor quality, end-of-grade high stakes, summative tests onto classrooms as an attempt to ensure that teachers are “doing their jobs.” The result? A drop out rate of the best teachers that far exceeds even the drop out rate of students, and a mind-numbingly bad method of teaching to the test. We’ve also seen a soaring in “learning disabilities”–some of which are real, but many of which mean: kids cannot sit still unconscionably long and be bored for impossibly longer and longer amounts of time in order to learn how to answer what is on the test, an impoverished way of learning sure to kill curiosity. (Read Anya Kamanetz’s The Test if you want the depressing stats on what testing and certification have done to K-12).

That kind of making sure we know what is happening in our classrooms is the last thing I want for higher education, whether at our community colleges or at America’s elite universities. We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.

And Kevin Carey knows that. He’s written a book about that.

Do abuses happen sometimes, despite all this regulating, despite all the forms we all fill out each and every year about everything we do? Of course. I don’t know any bureaucracy, no matter how tight, that manages to find a way to regulate itself into complete honesty if there are participants who seek to be dishonest. A new layer of oversight will add politics–especially in North Carolina where the politics regulating higher education get hotter and heavier each year. A new layer of policing will not prevent all future problems from happening.

The real reason UNC’s scandal happened is that a lot of people colluded to make it happen. The motives may have varied; dishonesty in some cases, perhaps even good but extremely ill-considered intentions in others. But the point was there was no accident here. It wasn’t just about “illusory” structures; it was about a deception enacted around very careful, fixed, and well-known structures. There were rules and procedures, in other words. People broke them. Period.

Over-regulating the current system doesn’t prevent people who want to circumvent it from doing so. Nor does it fix it. Changing the system might. But the system that needs changing is college sports (in the case of the athletic fraud). There were clearly, it has been pointed out to me (in a tweet by Kevin Carey, in fact), several students who were not athletes who were also passed along in fake courses, with fake grades. Again, an unforgivable travesty and a tragedy, for everyone and for a fine university. But is regulation the answer? Or should we be asking why these students needed fake courses and fake grades. What about real, dedicated college mentoring or tutoring if that was needed? What about help and attention to social skills in the competitive world of the state’s top public university where the intellectual and social pressures are great?

Other universities have addressed similar problems in constructive ways. Not through the oversight of classrooms from a strictly external perspective, and certainly not by adding new regulating bodies (a particular danger in North Carolina, with its legislators all too willing to pronounce on university policy, inspired by politics as much, sometimes and in certain cases, as ethics)..

The reputational system of the classroom and of universities is all we’ve got. We need to build upon and improve upon that system–peer mentoring, honor codes, honor systems, and other internal checks and balances have been shown to have impact. With new ways of analyzing data, student evaluations can be (and need to be) vastly improved. Rankings can be vastly improved. (Why is selectivity rather than graduation rate a metric for high rankings? Why don’t we factor in the over-reliance on adjunct and contingent labor as a metric of quality?) Formative feedback systems can also be vastly improved. But the thing we need most is freedom to innovate, experiment, try new methods and models and pedagogies. We do not need, now, even more regulation and oversight and credentialing.

We need deep thought about our values (ie. the athletics problem above), about what university education is really for.

Every day I see corrections in the New York Times when good readers find errors that journalists and fact checkers should have caught. Does that mean the New York Times needs new regulators? Would that make for a better press?

Every year at least one Pulitzer Prize winner turns out to have faked his stories? At least once a month a story seems downright suspect and politically motivated (this week it was the word “criminal” inserted by the Times erroneously into a report about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use). Do I want regulation from some external body? No. I want better journalism, better reporting, and perhaps the public as a better watch dog.

And I want the freedom and the looseness of a system that allows and appreciates and welcomes innovation. Higher education is already way too boxed in with competing regulations. It is not illusory. It is too much of a checklist–requirements, majors, minors, distribution requirements, far too much reporting to far too many external bodies. It makes it very hard to turn the ship around. And the ship needs turning. That includes the ship of collegiate athletics.

[This blog was corrected after useful tweets from Kevin Carey and others. Special thanks for those. All errors, of course, remain the author’s.]


  1. For those who do not teach at a college, here are some of the steps required
    by the two universities with which I’ve been affiliated most recently, Duke
    University and the Graduate Center City University of New York. This is
    typical of each and every class. I may be leaving out some steps.

    I will take five minutes and list as many of the steps as I can think of but
    let me reiterate the points of this exercise first: 1-people cheated not
    because the system is unregulated but because they knew the system well and
    figured out, like all professional cheaters, how to cheat within that system
    and how to make the system work for their goals; 2-higher education is so
    regulated that it is difficult to innovate and innovation is what is needed
    badly,. not more regulation to stop the very rare incidence of this kind;
    3-the worst kind of regulation uses a travesty and a tragedy such as the one
    at UNC to allow those who have very strong ideological beliefs (such as the
    Pope Foundation and the Locke Foundation) to intrude into the educational
    process with more rules that ostensibly make the system more “honest” but, in
    fact, help to justify the control of curriculum and therefore the censorship
    of ideas. This is especially important given the recent moves to
    eliminate programs in such fields as African American studies, programs in
    urban poverty, programs in environmental studies–all of which have been
    targeted/ (NB: someone who knows this area better than I do should update
    this content, please; I’ve not kept up with this since moving to NYC except
    in a passing way). / Still, it is alarming and those responding to the
    academic and athletic fraud crisis themselves need watching.

    Okay, here’s my rapid fire list of what happens for each and every course I
    teach. Any prof can add to this list. Please feel free to in the comments
    section below.

    –Departments decide on which courses to offer

    [At this stage, courses leave the department and
    typically go to a sequence of committees at the division, school, and then
    university level. As many as 30 different people might read all the
    materials pertaining to any new course and as many as three to five separate
    committees might have to sign off. Many of the steps below have these
    further administrative steps with forms, signatures, committees, work
    assigned, faculty time given over to sitting on these committees, tuition
    dollars (and money that might go to hiring full time faculty dollars)
    diverted from the classroom into bureaucracy to make all these checks and
    balances and regulations required for accreditation and so forth work.]

    –Departments decide on which courses to offer in what sequence in a given

    –Departments decide who will teach what courses in a given semester

    –Faculty members submit course descriptions for each course

    –Departments announce the course offerings and post the individual course

    –Faculty members who wish to offer interdisciplinary courses go through a
    complex process to have the courses approved by all relevant departments

    –Faculty who wish their courses to “count” as general education or
    distribution requirements or as major requirements go through a complex
    process to have the courses approved in the relevant category.

    –Courses are advertised widely and students write to the profs and the
    department about each course

    –Faculty put course materials up on relevant public and private
    sites–Blackboard, Sakai, WordPress sites (and since I make all my classes
    public, HASTAC or now, at CUNY, on the C-Box Buddy Press/Word Press Academic
    Commons site).

    –Faculty provide students with ways to communicate with one another and with
    the professor (often through these online tools as well as through publicly
    posted office hours)

    –Once the class meets, universities require early grades for first year
    students; for students who have fallen into academic trouble; for students
    who are on certain scholarships with grade requirements; for athletes; and
    for other categories of students. Faculty receive these notices and must
    respond to the registrar.

    –Faculty must file midterm grades

    –At CUNY, faculty solicit midterm course evaluations from students

    –Faculty submit final grades

    –Faculty give students final course evaluations which are turned in,
    anonymously, to the department through a third party.

    –Students also tweet if a course is not going well or go to Rate the Profs
    and post comments, sometimes positive and sometimes rude.

    –Faculty fill out numerous forms about “learning outcomes” and “learning
    goals” before, during, and after each and every course.

    That’s over fifteen separate steps, with oversight and scrutiny of
    individuals, administrators, and committees, for every single course, every
    single semester. If universities are illusory, it’s an illusion of a lot
    of rules. A lot of regulation. A lot of procedures. A lot of
    bureaucracy. A lot of checks and balances.


    These are just the normal, typical steps for each and every course. There
    are far more if you are trying to change a course, to add a new course, to
    change a requirement, to change a curriculum. If there was cheating, it
    was because there were cheaters. This system is dreadfully OVER regulated,
    not under.

    Universities are not illusory. They are regulated so fully that it is hard
    to change them. I, for one, am doing everything in my power to help work
    with other faculty—and with students–to help to transform all these rules
    and systems, developed between 1865 and 1925, and honed and improved, and
    regularized to death for over a hundred years, into a more flexible, adept,
    adaptive, interactive system for the world we live in now. Regulation make
    things worse. Politics makes things much, much worse.

  2. Pingback: Universities Are No More Illusory Than Journalists | The Academe Blog

  3. Cathy, great list. I’d underline the long parenthesis at the top. For example, my department submitted a proposal for a new lower division lecture course in June 2015 to university committees in the hope that we can offer it in September 2017. I don’t think Carey has thought through what kind of standard-setting he wants. An uber-acreditor that operates nationally? A non-faculty Provost of Undergraduate Studies that reviews syllabi for hundreds or thousands of courses and goes through grades and compares them with submitted work? His point seems to be to in general discredit the self-management of educational standards based on the truly appalling UNC case, rather than calling for public assistance in getting corporate sports under control (UC Berkeley’s low graduation rates are a more typical problem). I completely disagree with him on that. To repeat Cathy’s point by overstating it a bit, regulatory bureaucracy is exactly what has suppressed and fragmented the professional enforcement of internal standards. Managerial audit has long been replacing academic governance even of classes. The UNC case may well be an example–one person in a department makes an arrangement with outside administrative officers (in Athletics, in Student Services, etc), it may start out ok and then gets fraudulent, but it’s now “owned” by a senior professor in conjunction not with his colleagues but with entities outside the department. The dept itself either stops trying to regulate it because they’re told everything is fine and has approval at a higher level or does try to look into particular “gut” courses and is told to buzz off for the same reason. Not to let UNC faculty off the hook, but faculty do give up trying to control processes that they are told have administrative ownership or oversight in order to minimize the wasting of their time: it’s quite common for decision rights to have migrated above the professor’s pay grade. The loss of local supervisory quality is not something Kevin Carey seem to think or care about, and that skews his analysis. And at the same time, we could do a better job of explaining what kind of distributed or bottom up or ? procedures would work better that bureaucratic audit.

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