Oxford needs quotas

I’m on sick leave, and so missing the delicious pleasures of Schadenfreude.   My colleagues will shortly begin interviewing teenagers to decide who should get one of the  few places to study law here at Oxford.  I say ‘Schadenfreude’ because, owing to seniority and other things, the closest I ever get to undergraduate admissions these days is dining with colleagues who, over claret at High Table, moan about what an awful job theirs is: having to choose which students they would quite like to teach, and  which ones are then most likely to go to careers at the Bar or in England’s judiciary.

My colleagues mean well.  Most of them mean better than I did when I was charged with selecting England’s elite-to-come, years ago.   There is now more centralization and standardization of interviewing than when I did it.  There is better training;  almost everyone is alert to  the possibility of unconscious bias.  (Having completed their online training, none of my colleagues is conscious of any unconscious bias on their own part.)  There is better institutional outreach, and more evidence that the senior administration are serious about these issues.  There has been real, non-negligible, improvement.

Still: however you slice or dice it, year on year, in subject after subject, Oxford admits a class of undergraduates who not only fail to mirror–even roughly–the relevant population in their age cohort; they look like an entirely different species.  Apart from sex, Oxford (and Cambridge) have made too little progress in admitting disadvantaged groups. The facts are not in serious doubt.  We debate only responsibility and remedies.

Our responsibility–setting aside our inefficient and ineffective system of interviews– -is limited.  This is mostly not our fault.   But we do want to teach in a very special way.  In some subjects, we want to teach in a class size of two or three (no; you did not misread), and so we select students who, we think, will flourish in the unique way we intend to teach.  Of course we know there are other ways to teach undergraduates.  After all, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard all seem to turn out brilliant graduates (and even to replenish the US class system) without anything like our commitment of resources.   I’ve taught in both systems, and I know that, for the faculty, it is more fun and more illuminating to teach students in pairs than in scores.  But it has been a long time since Oxford (or Cambridge) has seriously examined the tutorial model,  though I think the Equality Act probably requires us to do so.  So some share of the blame is ours.

What is manifestly not our fault is the huge disproportion of good applicants who were privately educated–pupils whose parents could give them not only the social capital, but also the cold cash, to be educated in private schools that prepare pupils well for how Oxford has decided to teach.  This state of affairs is not unique.  In most capitalist societies, such advantages can be purchased either directly, by paying school fees, or indirectly, by buying a house in the catchment area of an excellent state school.  England is unique only in how pervasive, overt, and toxic the transaction is.  There is a nice philosophical question whether it is more opprobrious to  buy advantage on the open market or to buy it as a foreseen, welcome, but strictly unintended, consequence of one’s housing choices.  (And these are, for some people, real choices: my own parents gave up a lot of personal pleasures to buy a house in an area where I was likely to get the sort of education that would prepare me for the right sort of university.  Yet being on the (far) left, they would never have considered paying school fees.)

But the fact that something is not Oxford’s fault, in the sense that we are not morally or politically responsible for causing it in the first place, does not show that we are blameless when we have the power to change it yet decline to do so. I think that is our actual position.  We could quickly improve things with quotas:

I propose that Oxford (and Cambridge) should require the over-representation of privately educated undergraduates stay below 300%, which quota should be reassessed every 10 years.

You may be thinking that a 300% over-representation of any social group is already outrageous.  Maybe.  But depending on how one counts it, the current over-representation of private-school students at Oxford is around 600%.   So we could make a huge reduction in offers to the privileged and still leave them with triple what they would be entitled to under mirror-representation.   That would be a lot easier than expanding the size of the university, or spending more on ‘outreach’ to attract new applicants who we might still reject.

Or you may be thinking that my proposal would be discriminatory.  In English law anyway, it would not.  ‘Wealth and status‘ are not ‘protected characteristics’ under  discrimination law.  There are many good reasons we should not set caps on the number of Jewish or Asian students we admit.  But these do not apply to those elevated by economic and social privilege alone, and there is no solid evidence to show that a cap on the (relatively) rich would be indirect discrimination against one of our protected groups.  In practice, all this means is that some children of the privileged will not make the cut at Oxford or Cambridge, but will instead get accepted at one of England’s other, still excellent, universities.

But maybe you are thinking that this would violate a moral norm: ‘each person should be treated as an individual, on her own merits, and not just as a member of some group or other!’  (Myself, I’d dread being treated on someone’s view of my ‘merits’.)   But if that norm is sound, it would already require a huge change in our admissions standards.  We do not now treat the hundreds of applicants ‘each on her own merits’.  Each is treated as a member of a group:  the group who got three A’s at A-level, or the group who scored high on the LNAT,  or the  group that impressed the interviewer, or the group that came from a school we know and respect.   The fantasy that our existing system is attuned to individual merits is laughable.  (And adding ‘contextual’ data–‘he grew up in a rough neighborhood’–is just another form of group-based prediction.)

So here’s an idea.  Let’s experiment.  Let’s set a 300%–or, if you like, 400%–cap on the over-representation of the over-privileged at Oxford.  Without expanding enrollment, that will make lots of space for other good students.  Then let’s see how that works out for us, and for the legal profession in England.  This would, I admit, be a big change.  So I suppose we will have to confront the Ultimate Objection:

‘How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light-bulb?’

‘What do you mean, “CHANGE”???’

How to improve Oxford’s interviews

In my last post, I suggested that we can’t understand the persistence of the Oxford admissions interview without understanding its ceremonial function. It is an initiatory rite that expresses and secures the power of  tutors who get to select which undergraduates they would like to teach.

This conjecture has not met universal favour among my colleagues, or at least not among those who are interviewing this week.  They say, rightly, that I exaggerate the lack of uniformity among subjects when I describe our system as ‘chaos’.  Isn’t our Common Framework for admissions a steadying force? Others mention that this is ‘not a good time’ to cast doubt on the fairness or effectiveness of Oxford admissions.   And several tell me they are adequately warned against unconscious bias and that they are not, in fact, conscious of any unconscious bias in their own interviewing.

There is no doubt that admissions interviews could be, and historically have been, much worse (including when I used to do them).   Still, I think we should abandon them, for the reasons I gave.

Oxford knows how to admit talented students without the ritual. That is how we already admit people to our elite, tutorial-taught, postgraduate degrees, including the B.Phil. and B.C.L.: centrally, on the ‘paper file’, and without interviews.  Many of them come to Oxford without ever having had a tutorial or anything like one, yet they learn how to learn in our system.   Indeed, many of their tutors gave their first Oxford tutorials without ever having had one; they too learned. Yet we persist in the fiction that only by seeing the cut of their jib can we be sure that applicants can work the magic of an Oxford tutorial.

In any case, if interviews are to persist, there is one way we can improve them: No one should interview those they will have the blessing (or burden) of teaching: nemo iudex in causa sua. If an applicant really is incapable of learning in our system, let that determination be made by someone other than the tutor who will be charged with trying to help them.   This argues for more centralized, faculty- or department-led, ‘blind’ interviewing.    Perhaps it even argues for the inclusion of non-specialists (academics in other subjects, or alumni, or even students!) on our admissions panels.

I do not pretend that eliminating or improving interviews will make Oxford more representative of the communities we serve. For that, more drastic measures are needed.   I shall sketch the case for one of them in the New Year.

In the meantime, all good wishes for the holidays, and my sympathies to those of you who are interviewing, or being interviewed. Best of luck!

Why Oxford’s admission interviews persist

A week from now, one of Oxford’s annual rituals begins.   Clueless teenagers arrive in force to be interviewed for an undergraduate place.

I call it a ‘ritual’ because admissions interviews are not really functional; they are ceremonial.  They take place in buildings that, unless you live in Downtown Abbey, seem utterly alien.  Directions are given in code (‘call at the Porter’s Lodge’, ‘meals will be taken in Hall,’ ‘await instruction by the Old Smoking Room’…). The interview is a minuet in which smiling tutors and grimacing candidates dip and swing around questions that are supposed to distinguish minds that are truly graceful from those that are merely trained.  None of it makes our admissions process more accurate, reliable, or fair.

Oxford has many rituals that are harmless, even valuable: gowns, punting, Evensong. The interview is not among these.  It adds expense, work, and stress for no benefit. But compelling empirical evidence of unconscious bias, negative and positive, in face-to-face interviews has no impact on the high priests of the process, the admissions tutors. Some of the most inquiring and skeptical minds on the planet display a touching faith in their own ability to spot a diamond in the rough while never being dazzled by the flash of fool’s gold.  The ritual is hated by applicants, hated by the press, and increasingly hated also by the government.

So why does it go on? Few are actually proud of the fact that, year after year, we admit a vast disproportion of applicants from private (i.e. fee-charging) schools. Only 6.5% of the cohort are educated in such schools, but last year they made up 41% of Oxford’s intake. (The average for all UK universities was only 10%.)   And few of my colleagues are unaware that their counterparts around the world do not have the burden of interviews.

In part the explanation is stasis: ‘”How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb?” “–What do you mean, ‘change’?”’

In part it is chaos: Oxford is a federation of 38 universities, its colleges, without a coherent overall admissions policy.

But I’m afraid that another important part of the explanation is power. Admissions tutors do not want to yield the power to choose the students they would like to teach over the next three or four years of their careers. The interview is a ritual that expresses, secures, and celebrates their power.

It is not generally understood that, at Oxford, those doing the interviewing are those doing the teaching.  Nor is it understood that those at the top of the hierarchy, the Professors, normally have no obligation to teach or admit undergraduates.   It is the Tutorial Fellow, overworked and often underpaid, that does the heavy-lifting. (Oxford, unlike many leading universities in the US or Canada, has not yet shunted undergraduate teaching onto graduate students.) That is why they are so keen to keep control over those they admit, and why a dysfunctional and damaging ritual continues.

But the secret is starting to leak out. British author Alex Preston, writing in what is, I think, intended to be a defence of the interview system, openly acknowledges that he was crammed for it: ‘I was prepared for my interview by the genial headmaster of the Sussex state secondary I attended. We met most mornings in the weeks leading up to that fateful October day and he’d fire questions at me about Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce…’

Preston is touchingly unaware how few applicants have a ‘genial headmaster’ able to coach applicants for ‘most mornings’ over a period of weeks.   But Preston does have enough self-awareness to figure out what the Oxford interview is really for:

the interview was about my potential tutors deciding whether I was a pupil who would manage to stick out the three years of essays and exams, whether I’d bore them in tutorials, or infuriate them…’

An ineffective ritual that leaks bias into  admissions is sustained by the tutors’ desire not to admit students who might ‘bore’ or ‘infuriate’ them (or, I suppose, who might threaten or offend them).  Even our students have started to figure it out.

What is to be done?   We are unlikely to abolish interviews (see above, under ‘change’ and ‘chaos’); but there are  ways to limit their damage. I shall explain two in the next post.

Why it is hard to be a campus conservative

When the right claims that US universities have been taken over by ‘liberals’, and that faculty and students of ‘conservative’ opinions are afraid to speak up, they do not mean that its campuses are now swamped by people who think we should restrict liberty only to prevent harm to others, or who demand that social inequalities benefit the worst-off. They mean American universities are full of people who believe things like this:

  • Species arose through natural selection.
  • No author of any gospel ever met Jesus.
  • Homosexuality is a normal variant in human behaviour.
  • The United States lost a war against Vietnam.
  • Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.
  • The United States has worse public health than do countries with nationalized health care.

Even more threatening to conservatives, however, is not these individual claims which are endorsed by all but a minority in serious universities. It the dominance of  habits of thought, modes of inquiry, and sensibilities of outlook that lead people to these conclusions. But none of this is because US universities are bastions of liberalism. It is because they are universities.

Of course, as Mill explained, every society should tolerate some truth-deniers. (He went further. He said that if a society lacks truth-deniers it might invent them, to keep us all on our toes.) But Mill never said their place is in universities, or that it falls to universities to provide ‘safe spaces’ for those whose political identity is bound up with  ignorance and superstition.  A university must tolerate, and even welcome, those who follow evidence and argument to conclusions that are false or unpalatable; but it may reject those who seek a platform for hatred or deception.  That is why it counts counts against Middlebury College when it shouts down Charles Murray but it counts in favour of Berkeley when it excludes Milos Yannopoulos.

That means universities can never be comfortable for a certain kind of conservative.  Those who need the lecture hall to flatter their personal convictions are bound to feel lonely and misunderstood.  Those who think views in the college should mirror votes in the electoral college are bound to feel cheated.  Maybe they can take comfort in the welcoming company they can find in America’s churches, legislatures, and even its courts.  But they should expect only argument from its universities—not speaking with a single voice, but speaking in that irritating way that universities do: insisting on belief that is proportionate to evidence, and on standards of reasoning that are neither liberal nor conservative, but merely human.

How to make your gay students uncomfortable

Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, is quoted as giving the following awkward if well-intentioned defence of free speech on campus:

I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. (… ) And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable. If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

In later qualification, Professor Richardson explained that she wasn’t talking about ‘many’ conversations here at Oxford.  I believe that.   I also believe Professor Richardson knows her legal obligations under the UK Equality Act to ensure the university is a comfortable place for its LGBT communities to do what we are all here to do: to teach, to research and to learn.  In any case, most of what needs to be said to remind her of that obligation, as well as her obligation to defend academic integrity from incompetence and quackery, has already been said.

Except, I think, for two points.

First, how does it come to be that any university teacher is expressing ‘views against homosexuality’ in a class?  I’m baffled. Maybe it was a seminar on human sexuality, moral philosophy, or human rights law.  But what if it was on quantum mechanics, modal logic, or numerical analysis? Maybe a university policy on sex discrimination or free speech was under discussion.  But what if it was merely that the rainbow flag was flying, and that gave the professor a homosexual panic attack? These distinctions matter.

I expect my gay law students to be willing as anyone to test the view that sexual orientation should be a prohibited ground of discrimination, or to be able to assess arguments about same-sex marriage. I do not expect them to have to put up with the casual homophobia of everyday life, with irrelevant or biased comments or examples, or with the stench created by some professor’s religious incontinence.

Second, where debate about homosexuality is relevant, it does not fall only on students to tackle false, ill-informed, or unsympathetic views on the part of teachers. And it certainly does not fall mainly on gay students to do so. It falls on all of us, starting with the Vice-Chancellor.

In my own fields, there are only two or three faculty whose homophobia intrudes in their work. Their disapproval of homosexuality is usually gracious, emollient, and even, in its twisted way, ‘reasoned’. I am less troubled by them than I am by pusillanimous  colleagues, tenured liberal faculty who regard such views as outrageous or pathetic, but who never dare put pen to paper, or even a hand in the air, to join in the argument and, in that properly academic way, help make their gay students more comfortable.

As Professor Richardson says, ‘If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them’.  But she should also have said, to her colleagues as well as to her students, ‘and this means you.’

On Judicial Plagiarism

It is an open secret that judges sometimes plagiarize from submissions by the lawyers before them, and even from articles and books by academics.   With respect to the latter, they are often aided and abetted by their clerks—law students working with them as research assistants.

Unlike scholarly or literary cheaters, the worry about judicial plagiarists is not that they undermine the research process, violate authors’ ‘moral rights’, or steal someone’s intellectual property. Judicial plagiarism is worse than any of these. It undermines the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. A judge who knowingly or recklessly reproduces words or arguments of others as if they were his own may not be making his own decisions. If discovered, this undermines public confidence that the judiciary can be relied on to think for itself.

Still, we know judicial plagiarism occurs. We also know why. Courts are underfunded and under-staffed; there is far too much work; many judges struggle with an impossible docket.   So the temptations to silently lift others’ work can be powerful.   Some lifting will be obvious.   A claimant will not fail to notice if a judge copies out page after page of the respondent’s pleadings, interspersing phrases like, ‘as we can clearly see’, or ‘ surely the better view is….’ But unacknowledged material that a clerk, or judge, copies without attribution from sources on Westlaw or Google is harder to spot, and can silently infiltrate judicial decisions.

This is why we should be concerned by reports of plagiarism on the part of Trump’s nominee to the US Supreme Court.  Judge Neil Gorsuch’s 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia , has been shown to contain passages and descriptions offered, without citation or acknowledgement, as if they were his own, but which were taken from other authors. That book was in turn based on Gorsuch’s 2004 thesis, submitted for a degree at the law school where I teach. It can only be a matter of time before someone downloads the thesis from the Oxford University Research Archive, to see whether it also contained the passages impugned in the press reports on his book.

If it did, and if Gorsuch were still an Oxford law student, he would be subject to the jurisdiction of University, which unambiguously prohibits plagiarism.  It does not matter whether silently copying others’ work is intentional or not; it does not matter whether it is done with the tolerance of those copied; it does not matter whether the passages copied are central to an argument or peripheral.  At Oxford, as at most other universities, the wrong is in the misrepresentation. It is an offence of academic dishonesty.

There is, of course, an important question of degree to attend to.  There is much worse plagiarism around, even in our universities.  And plagiarism in Gorsuch’s book has only been alleged in a few passages, though one of them is fairly extensive. But why is there any at all?  These passages seem to have survived an awful lot of scrutiny. In writing a thesis, submitting it for examination, revising it for publication, responding to editorial comments, and correcting texts and proofs there are many opportunities to spot, and correct, honest mistakes or omissions.  Indeed, it is not too late to do so even now.  So why the silence from Gorsuch and all the loud denials from his apologists?

Here at Oxford, our chief disciplinary officers, the Proctors, do not merely have a reactive role. They have broad powers they must use, not only to enforce our regulations, but to prevent future breaches of them. Why is this important? Gorsuch is no longer a member of Oxford University, so the Proctors have no enforcement jurisdiction over him. But they can and must act to prevent misconduct on the part of current students or faculty.

They should be concerned, then, that Gorsuch’s former Oxford supervisor has provided a statement to the ‘Gorsuch team’ denying any plagiarism in the book:

Having reviewed the examples provided by BuzzFeed News to the Gorsuch team, the professor who supervised Gorsuch dissertation, Emeritus Professor John Finnis of Oxford University, provided a statement to the Gorsuch team, concluding, “[I]n my opinion, none of the allegations has any substance or justification. In all the instances mentioned, Neil Gorsuch’s writing and citing was easily and well within the proper and accepted standards of scholarly research and writing in the field of study in which he and I work.”

This opinion has been widely republished and read, not only by the politicians for whom it was written, but by law students around the world.  And this opinion, coming from such an influential scholar, sends the wrong message to young lawyers and scholars.

If by ‘the field of study in which [Gorsuch] and I work,’ Professor Finnis means university research in law or legal philosophy, then his claim is unfounded. Oxford University’s regulations and guidance to students, and years of interpretation of  them by the Proctors and others, put this beyond doubt.   But perhaps Finnis means that lower standards of integrity apply to law books than to law theses? I do not think that is true either; but it is in any case it is the standards of our University that our students need to comply with, now and in the future.

For my own part, if ever I encountered plagiarism in work by one of my own students I would insist they revise their thesis to include full acknowledgement and citation, using it as a ‘teaching moment’ to explain why it is critical to get this right, especially for lawyers. Legal citation is, as they say, not exactly rocket science: misattributions or non-attributions, if not accidental, suggest a cheater seeking to gain advantage from the work of others, or someone who has contempt for academic culture.

Good judges are sensitive to the further issues at stake. In a British Columbia appeal against a trial judge’s decision that lifted wholesale from one the parties’ submissions, Mr Justice Smith wrote,

Trial judges are busy, and there can be cases… where a party’s submissions so accurately reflect the trial judge’s reasoning that nothing would be gained by postponing other pressing work in order to rewrite the reasoning and conclusions in the judge’s own words. However, judges who are tempted to prepare reasons for judgment in this way should be acutely aware they may create a perception that they did not reach their decisions independently. Such a perception would tend to undermine public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary generally and would bring the administration of justice into disrepute:

Of course, an academic book or article is not a party’s submission, but for a judge to rely on it without citation would raise similar worries.   Indeed, that case would be worse for, as I mentioned above, judicial plagiarism of that sort will be a lot harder for the parties and others to detect. Given that it can always be avoided by a mere footnote–by a moment’s attention–failure to provide one is wrong.   That is why we demand it of our students, our judges, and ourselves.

When writing as an academic, Neil Gorsuch did not have a trial judge’s excuse of the extraordinary pressures of work. He was not copying from submissions others had read, but from authors most readers would not even know. With the leisure of the ivory tower, and with no one but scholars depending on his writing, Gorsuch failed an easy, elementary test we demand of every student: acknowledge all your sources–every single one–truthfully and fully. How should we expect him to behave when the stakes, and temptations, are higher?

Israel’s Bar Ilan University: letting the side down yet again

Professor Hanoch Sheinman is one of Israel’s most distinguished legal philosophers. Like many thoughtful Israelis, he deplores the illegal and oppressive aspects of Israel’s foreign policy.  He is not shy about this. During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Sheinman introduced a bland housekeeping email to his law students by saying he hoped it,

‘finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.’

Many of Sheinman’s right wing students were enraged. How dare a professor express political views in a work email? How dare a Jewish law faculty employ such a person? How dare anyone suggest the moral equivalence of innocent Israeli and innocent Palestinian lives?

Bar Ilan University’s Dean of Law, Shahar Lifshitz, sided with the outraged students, announcing that their complaints were justifiable: ‘[The] Letter from Professor Sheinman – both content and style – is contrary to the values ​​of the University and the Faculty of Law.’ He continued, ‘This is abuse of power by a lecturer who exploits his position as a jurisprudence teacher to send messages reflecting his views, which are highly offensive to the feelings of students and their families. ‘ Lifshitz promised to deal with Sheinman in due course: ‘I assure you that the matter will be handled with the appropriate seriousness.’

Now one might debate whether a politically charged email is protected by academic freedom. Still, it seems to me that I should be permitted to introduce an email by writing, for example, ‘I hope this finds you healthy and well, and that you have not been driven to food banks as a result of the Government’s policies on student loans.’ That might be gauche or inappropriate—I imagine that my Conservative students and colleagues might think so—but it would be ludicrous to say it amounts to an ‘abuse of power’ or the ‘exploitation’ of a professor’s position.

In any case, even if Professor Sheinman’s comment was not protected by academic freedom, Dean Lifshitz’s threat was condemned by it. For it is clear that by ‘appropriate seriousness’ Lifshitz did not mean ‘the degree of seriousness appropriate to an otherwise innocent, one-off comment that gravely offends some students’ (viz: a degree of about zero). No; Lifshitz plainly meant a degree of seriousness that might warrant formal reprimand, or worse.   When Deans make threats like that, they do not need to carry them out in order restrict the academic freedoms on which teaching, learning and scholarship depend. That they show themselves ready to do so is enough. If there was any ‘abuse of power’ or ‘exploitation’ of one’s position in this matter, it was on the part of Dean Lifshitz.

As is common in cases like this, everyone could see that except the victim’s own colleagues. They mostly went scurrying for cover. (Advice to junior faculty: never get between your senior colleagues and their own self-image.) It fell to outsiders to defend Sheinman. Bad press, the intervention of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, pressure from hundreds of foreign academics, and threats of lawsuit eventually induced Lifshitz to think again. On reflection, he acknowledged that he had mis-spoken in promising the students that Sheinman ‘will be handled’.

A story at The Leiter Reports now suggests that Lifshitz has been having second thoughts all over again.  A poisonous atmosphere, angry students, and a truculent administration have paved the way for an  ‘interim review’ being imposed on the as-yet-untenured Sheinman.   His lawyers claim that this procedure has been set up without proper university authority, that it is imposed retroactively, and that Sheinman has not been given reasonable opportunity to prepare for it. I have been told by sources close to the Bar Ilan administration that they expect Sheinman to be in trouble on the teaching side. (It is inconceivable that Sheinman’s research could be found wanting; he is more able, and already much more distinguished, than all but a few of Bar Ilan’s tenured law faculty.) Given that outraged students led the charge against Sheinman in the first place, and that the Dean encouraged them, nothing would be less surprising than for Sheinman to be confronted with bad student evaluations. It is amazing that he even manages to continue his research in such a poisonous atmosphere.

You may be tempted to roll your eyes and say, as Rick does to Ilsa in Casablanca, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’ But it is precisely because academic life in Israel has become so crazy that this matters so much. Bar Ilan’s image problem is nothing new. After all, its law faculty is the alma mater of Itzakh Rabin’s murderer; it is a university where male students can be kicked out of lectures for refusing to wear a kippa, where the administration can demand that faculty defend the contents of their books, and where gay students are prohibited from holding events on campus. Life in the bush league, you say? Maybe; but put this in the national context. Israel’s universities are all struggling to resist the academic boycott movement. Bar Ilan is, shall we say, not exactly helping the cause. Many Israeli academics feel under intense pressure to show that they are not just lackeys of Brand Israel. The Bar Ilan law faculty are doing nothing to help them either.

The latest criticism has now elicited a ‘reply’ from nine of Bar Ilan’s tenured law professors.   Their letter is embarrassingly irrelevant.   Were it a first year student’s answer to a statement of claim it would get a failing grade. It does not even notice, let alone answer, the gravity of the charge: that, as applied, this particular review is unfair and is motivated by Bar Ilan’s desire to silence faculty who, like Sheinman, infuriate their right-wing students. Instead, they irrelevantly say that other law faculties have interim reviews, and they reaffirm their touching faith that ‘Prof. Sheinman’s political views will have no bearing on the committee’s evaluation of his performance. Neither will the letter that Prof. Sheinman sent to students during the 2014 war in Gaza.’

Clap your hands if you believe.

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Child: My job description grows again

Every year, my job description gets longer. Research and teaching, obviously, and a share of university administration ancillary to that. (For instance, preparing the Law faculty’s REF submission and, more dangerously, chairing my college’s Coffee Committee [OfCoff!].

For the professoriate, these things have always come with the territory. Now, however, I am also drafted as a delegate authority to assist the government in implementing its political agenda. The UK’s self-destructive policies on migration, including the admission of foreign students, are to be monitored by people like me. I have a duty to report how often I lay eyes on my visa students. (What if Oxford students are not really having panic attacks in the library but are actually off in Isis training camps?) I also have a ‘prevent’ duty to make sure they aren’t being sucked into terrorism. (What if they come to believe John Locke’s claim that one may make a violent ‘appeal to heaven’ whenever the rulers try to govern without consent?)

My own view—I wish the Vice Chancellor would endorse it—is that these new duties must not only be ‘balanced against’ my duty to support academic freedom and my Public Sector Equality Duty to advance the status of protected groups—they must be subject to them.  Academic freedom and social equality should be side-constraints within which any ‘prevent’ duty or duty to monitor migration is exercised. Otherwise, the essential bond of trust between teacher and student will be ruptured, and the status of our universities will be undermined.

Consider this. If I do not see a postgraduate student at least three times in eight weeks, I need to report that to the administration.   If I have concerns about why I have not seen her, I need to report those too.  If I fear a student is being ‘radicalised’ I also need to report that. How will I know? The University has a duty to train me: ‘We would expect appropriate members of staff to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist-related activity.’ Of course, the University can’t know what ‘factors’ cause support for ‘terrorist ideologies’ until it knows which ideologies are actually ‘terrorist’. No worries— ‘BIS offers free training for higher and further education staff through its network of regional higher and further education Prevent co-ordinators. ‘ I am not making this up.

Today, I learn that the government is pressing ahead with legislation to ensure that the security services have access to a year’s worth of our online data, including a complete list of every website you accessed. (If you haven’t done so, download Tor now, and browse with nothing else until this legislation is repealed or, if you are in Scotland, until independence frees you from still more English insanity.) The availability of this information will feed into the duty to monitor migration and prevent terrorism.

It isn’t hard to see where this could lead.  I’ve only seen a visa postgraduate twice in eight weeks? Her email says she is away conducting research in Washington. But we can check to see if she has accessed our servers, and from where, and what she is searching for.  We have a duty to keep that data.   A student used to favour power-sharing in Northern Ireland but now jokes that the DUP needs a whiff of gelignite?  I can alert the university to check out his Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Indeed, I must. The statutory guidance says:

‘Radicalised students can also act as a focal point for further radicalisation through personal contact with fellow students and through their social media activity. … Changes in behaviour and outlook may be visible to university staff. Much of this guidance therefore addresses the need for RHEBs to have the necessary staff training, IT policies and student welfare programmes to recognise these signs and respond appropriately.’

It is clear that this government cares little about academic freedom, civil liberties, or social equality. More surprisingly, they seem to care little about the competitive position of our leading universities. (Our opposite numbers at Yale or Harvard are not burdened by any of this–nor by REF or TEF.)   So where are our senior administrators on the issue?  Where is UUK? Where is the professoriate of the ‘elite’ Russell Group of British universities?  I guess they are all off at free BIS training sessions on how to recognize and prevent radicalization among  students.  Or perhaps at job interviews at U.S. universities.

Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

Germaine Greer does not think new clothes, new hormones, or sex-reassignment surgery can turn men into women (or, I assume, women into men).   She is right about that, and a Cardiff University controversy about her planned lecture this month is a tsunami in a teaspoon.

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

Obviously, the fact that something is true need not stop people taking offense at it. But there is actually no evidence of widespread offense at Greer’s remarks. I called the controversy a ‘tsunami in a teaspoon’ because, contrary to what you might suppose from the press, the students were mostly untroubled by Greer’s comments. Not one in a hundred even felt moved to click on an anti-Greer petition. No serious opposition was mounted; no policy of exclusion was formulated. There was no ‘hecklers’ veto’; in fact, there was a pretty effective hecklers’ veto veto.

So this is all rather puzzling. Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone.  Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.   And what safer, softer, target than an imaginary recrudescence of virulent PC-ism in our student unions?

Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, criticizes the ‘lamentable’ teaching some UK undergraduates receive. He is determined to ‘drive it out’: by subjecting universities to for-profit competition, by letting weak universities go under, and by imposing on everyone another costly and destructive regulatory scheme, the threatened ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

Never mind that there is no empirical evidence that bad teaching is pervasive. Never mind that our leading universities compete in a global market against peer institutions that do not waste time on ‘Excellence Frameworks’. Never mind that the best teaching is expensive, and  if there are to be more contact hours, more feedback, and more Nobel laureates in smaller classrooms, someone will need to pay —if not the public, then students.  But another reporting scheme, in which first prize may be permission to raise regulated fees by no more than inflation, will make teaching worse, not better. Hundreds of millions of pounds are already wasted in a national research evaluation scheme whose benefit has never been tested, let alone demonstrated.

Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year. (Nor, in my view, should it.)

What then are students ‘unclear about?’ The answer is obvious. It is unclear to them why they should be paying even £9,000 a year when their counterparts in excellent German or Scots universities are not. It is unclear to them whether they should be going to university at all, since the economy is not producing enough graduate-level jobs for all who graduate.

We could clarify their minds about that without yet more bureaucratic regulation:

(1) They are paying tuition fees because they (mostly, their parents) voted for political parties who think higher education should be paid for privately and not publicly. (I set aside the massive charge on the public purse that will be racked up through unpaid student loans.)

(2) Their degrees are worth less because the economic value of going to university, though still significant, is lower than it used to be.  A degree is in part a ‘positional good’. The more graduates there are, the less valuable it is to be a graduate. And as long as the austerity-cult continues to depress the economy, even the few who graduate from elite universities now compete for fewer good jobs. (I set aside the bullshit jobs created by the regulatory schemes themselves.)

But maybe I oversimplify.  Perhaps the unclarity in students’ minds is of a different kind.  Maybe they are asking, ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ or ‘What’s the point of education if it doesn’t land me a better job?’  If that is a widespread worry then it is a sign, not that university teaching is failing, but that it is succeeding.