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.

Donald Trump, Laura Kipnis, and the Intolerable

No one I know who voted for Donald Trump has told me that he (or, conceivably, she) did so.   But then I hang out in the wrong circles: lawyers, academics, immigrants, gay people, and adults who are able to read and write. Still, I am sure there must be some. I suspect several of my rich American friends, most of the constitutional ‘originalists’ I know, and far too many ‘Christians’.

None of these actually approves of Trump, his values, or his conduct. On the contrary, they held their noses when voting, because they thought the alternatives worse, and because they thought Trumpism would secure the things they do approve: the wealth and power of the rich, a Supreme Court free of liberal-minded people, and a country in which women and LGBT minorities know their place.   That is to say, the sort of people I know who voted for Trump did so, not because they approved of him, but because they were willing to tolerate him.

Now, that does not eliminate, or much mitigate, their moral responsibility in helping support one of the most unjust, corrupt, and vile regimes of any aspirantly democratic society.   They share in the blame for its increasing corruption, not because of what they favour, but because of what they are willing to tolerate in the name of what they favour. They tolerate the intolerable—and mostly they still tolerate it—and that is wrong.

Which brings me to Laura Kipnis, and her illuminating, powerful, and controversial polemic, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.   Daring to question some complaints against a Northwestern professor hounded out of his academic post as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct—and, more important, daring to question the fairness of some universities’ procedures created to address sex discrimination—Kipnis  now finds herself exposed to a variety of complaints and lawsuits, essentially for supporting, or at least tolerating, the intolerable.

There are reasons to doubt that these claims will succeed.   But even if they fail, many will urge that this is because free speech, academic freedom, and procedural fairness are, in the US, treated with more affection than is gender equality. The more we insist on procedural fairness—a presumption of innocence, a right to confront one’s accusers, and to test their evidence—the easier life will be for harassers and rapists, and the harder for victims.

That is true, and because (alleged?) harassers and rapists attract little sympathy, it is a truth that dominates discussion about sexual predators on campus. After all, whose side are we on?

It is a good question. But a good answer to it should mention, not only the interests of the (alleged) victims and the accused, but also a group that no one ever mentions: the bystanders.

A graduate student whose instructor or supervisor is suspected of sexual misconduct will attract  suspicions.   Even when, and especially when, she is not a complainant, it may be assumed that this is because she is compliant. Or, if not compliant, then at least tolerant of a supervisor who is a harasser. Now, graduate students don’t have a lot of power, but most of them have enough power to ditch a supervisor who behaves in such ways. They do not need to show that he assaulted them. It is enough not to want to work with someone who assaults other students.   One willing to work with such a person when she could change that can fairly be assumed to tolerate his conduct. And, like voting for Trump, this is to tolerate the intolerable. (‘I know he is a sexist—racist, homophobe, adulterer, liar….—but he really is the world’s expert on the Roman Law of Dogs, so it is fine for me to keep working with him.’)

And this takes us back to procedure. A false accusation of harassment, racism, homophobia, infidelity… damages, not only the accused, but those who, in virtue of their own decisions, can  be supposed to tolerate the accused’s behaviour.   So fair and accurate procedures are important, not only for the sake of those who may be wrongly accused, but also for the sake of innocent bystanders, who may be wrongly accused of tolerating the intolerable.  It is time for them, and not just the wrongly accused, to speak up in favour of fair procedures.  They too have an interest at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are there any ‘theoretical disgreements’ about law?

In this illuminating new article, Brian Leiter amplifies his criticism of Ronald Dworkin’s treatment of so-called ‘theoretical disagreements’ in law.

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/…/theoretical-disagreement…

Why ‘so-called’? Well, Dworkin made up not only the term but the thing. He was the most inventive legal philosopher of our time. (Also, and contrary to a common belief, he could be a very nice guy. Another day, I will tell you about his kindness to me when my mother was dying and, unknown to me, so was Ronnie.)

Here is is a conjecture that suggests an explanation different from, but not incompatible with, Leiter’s:

A theoretical disagreement is a disagreement about what the law actually is (to the extent that there is actually law) in a case where most competent lawyers agree on *all* the ordinary historical and other empirical facts about what relevant people have thought, said and done. These lawyers are said to disagree *only* about how these agreed, empirical facts ‘make law’–that is, on the *bearing* of all ordinary facts on the law.

Now, the standard(s) that determine the bearing of ordinary facts on the law are usually called ‘recognition rules’, or, to be more precise ‘ultimate recognition rules’.  (Some subordinate recognition rules are themselves matters of law.  That is why neither the US Constitution, nor any part of it, is ‘the rule of recognition’ in US law.)  The existence and content of these ultimate standards are matters of (ordinary) facts, a bit like the facts that determine the existence and content of the rules that provide the criteria for grammaticality in a natural language. (To the extent that there are facts about that: some sentences in a language are neither clearly grammatical nor clearly ungrammatical.)

So there are theoretical disagreements only if there are cases in which (a) there is law, (b) the existence or content of which is subject to disagreement among most competent lawyers, (c) who nonetheless agree on *all* the ordinary facts.  But that set is empty:

Suppose the contrary. Then it must be the case that some disagreeing, competent lawyers are correct in their claim about what the law actually is, and others incorrect. (They might be incorrect in thinking it is the law that not-p, while it is actually p; but they might also be incorrect in thinking that the law is indeterminate, that it requires neither p nor not-p.)  It follows that there are at least at least some ordinary facts about which those very lawyers disagree: to wit, what are the recognition rules of the legal system in question? Any legal disagreement that turns on an ordinary disagreement is not a ‘theoretical disagreement’, as Dworkin defines that term.

Suppose, now, that our Dworkinian  replies: ‘this begs this question. There *are* no ‘”recognition rules” that determine the bearing of facts on law.’ This is no help. Whether or not *there are* any recognition rules is a matter of ordinary fact. A recognition rule is a matter of social custom and practice.  Lawyers who disagree about whether they exist disagree about a matter of ordinary fact. So these lawyers do not have a ‘theoretical disagreement’ either.

Some philosophers never see a ditch they wouldn’t mind dying in.  So they go on to reply, ‘You’ve misunderstood. My claim is that what *you* call ‘recognition rules’ are not exhausted by what *you* call ‘ordinary facts’.  I say they include what I call “moral facts”.’  (Sidebar comment: a lot of legal philosophy–well, a lot of philosophy actually–works by the selective deployment of skepticism.  For example, a roll of eyes over ‘recognition rules’  combined with a fond batting of lashes towards ‘moral facts’ that somehow fix the law.)  But this isn’t a matter of verbal legislation, surely.  One person who says that the ultimate standards determining what counts as law are exhausted by ordinary facts, and another who says they are not, disagree about the nature and content of those very standards, whatever we call them.  One side is  presumably not saying that it is a bad idea, or regrettable, that the ultimate standards  in law should be (what most call) recognition rules.  They are saying that the ultimate standards are not recognition rules at all.   If other competent lawyers deny *that* then they do deny a certain matter of ordinary fact: that there are what most people call recognition rules.  They deny what others assert–that in every legal system there are at least some rules whose existence is a matter of ordinary human thought, speech and action and which determine the existence and content of law  So, again, they do not agree on all matters of fact while disagreeing on the content of the law.

But then how should we characterise their disagreements?  Leiter, in the above piece, sets out some plausible alternatives. None of them requires that we acknowledge the existence of ‘theoretical disagreements’ about the law.

 

 

 

 

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: The New vs The True

A paper by a junior scholar greatly impressed me. I thought it should be published. A distinguished philosopher did not share my view: ‘It’s warmed-over Rawls,’ he wrote, in a curt letter of rejection.

Now, I could see for myself that the central claim of the paper wasn’t completely new. But it was, I thought, completely true. And its case for a familiar truth was different from—though not inconsistent with—other arguments to the same conclusion.  So why the obsession with the new?

This misery has company elsewhere, including in the social sciences.   I do not only mean that, when others try to replicate famous ‘findings’, they cannot get the same results. I mean that hardly anyone tries to replicate anything.   You can see why. Replication is expensive and unoriginal. Editors do not fight over a paper that argues that the findings of an earlier paper are all correct. Hence, there is a high prior probability that a lot of what finds its way into print is rubbish. (And then that rubbish is cited, and the citations re-cited, by philosophers who want their work to be ‘continuous with’ the advanced social sciences.)

In the humanities we do not have the excuse that originality is cheaper than replication. Admittedly, some of our work is not truth-apt, and some that is truth-apt is not truth-oriented (for instance, because it is bullshit). But I imagine that most of us hope that our claims about things like justice or law are, if not true, then true-ish.   Yet our collective behaviour reveals a strong preference for the new over the (merely) true.

In my own fields, the pursuit of novelty has bad effects: one can be pretty sure that the next general theory of law will be more daft than the last one. And in moral and political philosophy writers continually ‘discover’ principles that no one in the history of humanity ever heard of.

The novelty-fetish has further  knock-on effects.   It isn’t enough for ideas to be new; others need to acknowledge that they are new, so small novelties get over-emphasised, and the errors of past writers exaggerated. No longer are others merely mistaken, misguided, or muddled—their claims must be ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘ludicrous’. These epithets have various meanings, but they have a common use. They are all ways of pleading, ‘Don’t read him! Read me, me, ME!’

Though not excusable, this is understandable. Most of us write for a serious audience of a few hundred, of whom maybe a couple of dozen actually engage our work. (Legal and political theorists who imagine they have ‘impact’ in the halls of power, or even literature, mostly live in a hall of mirrors.) To lose a few precious readers to the judgment that our work is warmed-over Rawls (or Mill, or Marx…) feels like an amputation without anaesthetic.

We need to get over that.   David Hume exaggerated when he wrote of political philosophy that, ‘New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters.’ But he was not ridiculously, ludicrously, or disgracefully mistaken.   Here as elsewhere, Hume was mostly right—though with some one-sided over-emphasis.   And there was nothing new in that either.

Top-25 US Philosophy Placements by PGR Rankings

There is an informative table here showing where the 2015-16 tenure-track  appointees to the top 25 US Philosophy departments did their doctoral work.  (This is interim data; I’ll do this again later.)

I excluded foreign graduate schools (which are ranked in their home jurisdictions, not against US programmes) and then did a multiple regression of placement numbers against inverse 2006 and 2014 PGR ranks  (recklessly treating these, I know, as cardinal variables).

As expected, the line slopes down slightly to the right–the lower-ranked a programme, the fewer people it placed in top departments.  But not by much.Version 2The  coefficient for the 2014 rankings is -0.15, and for 2006 it is -0.07, which you can pretty much see with your own eyeballs.  And none of this is  significant at p=.05, except the intercept (0bviously).

A couple of  comments. There are few data points.  They are placement numbers; not success rates. This does not test the predictive power of PGR rankings: we would need to know about lower-ranked departments and about rejected candidates.  We would want to add more independent variables.

Still, this does not suggest that well-informed departments, when hiring to the tenure-stream, are in the thrall of the PGR.  Apart from the very top-ranked departments–which, on anyone’s account are stellar and, whether by selection effect or treatment effect, turn out stellar candidates–lots of other places are about equally successful in elite placements.  Not that elite job placements are the only thing, or even the main thing, to think about in life.

You knew that already, right?