Campus Politics and Free Speech

There’s been a lot of press about commencement speakers facing protests. This Washington Post article about International Money Fund’s Christine Lagard is one of the latest examples.

This passage explains why it won’t get better any time soon.

“I have been surprised at the number of recent bailouts by speakers themselves instead of standing their ground,” said Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors. “When a speaker backs out, it does somewhat compromise academic freedom.”

Why stand their ground? It’s clear that they’re not wanted. Why go through all this bullshit?

There was a time when Bill Maher was on Dennis Miller’s HBO show and they talked about this same thing:


Maher: You were mentioning the college campus situation. You’re totally right. I guarantee you there is less free speech at Berklee than there is in the Whitehouse…I play colleges, I don’t know if you do—
Miller: Yeah, they’re very close-minded. I don’t even like playing them anymore. Kids are just such pains in the ass nowadays.
Maher: Well, they’re pampered little pricks – is the problem. Not only do they not get half of what we’re saying, but they think it’s our fault…if you take an issue that is controversial – to support affirmative action or not support it is controversial, but on many campuses…they say “if that’s your opinion you can’t be heard” — who did not slap these little assholes when they were young? And who are these irresponsible, despicable professors, and the people who run this campus, who let this go on, and, as you say, the place where ideas should be MOST alive, not most shunted down?
Miller: …there are a lot of things in this country that are never gonna get solved now, because you can’t even get near it without all the alarms going off.

That was over 10 years ago.

To invite a speaker, and they accept your invitation, and then then they decline it after they see the reaction from your campus…it’s not the speaker compromising academic freedom. It’s the campus students and faculty not being open to hear a different point of view and wanting to live in their worldview.

Of course – there are some special cases…like when the Ultimate Warrior did those conservative speaking tours.

The College-Loan Scandal

Matt Taibbi reporting on student loans and the business of higher education:

One final, eerie similarity to the mortgage crisis is that while analysts on both the left and the right agree that the ballooning student-debt mess can be blamed on too much easy credit, there is sharp disagreement about the reason for the existence of that easy credit. Many finance-sector analysts see the problem as being founded in ill-considered social engineering, an unrealistic desire to put as many kids into college as possible that mirrors the state’s home-ownership goals that many conservatives still believe fueled the mortgage crisis…Others, however, view the easy money as the massive subsidy for an education industry, which spent between $88 million and $110 million lobbying government in each of the past six years, and historically has spent recklessly no matter who happened to be footing the bill – parents, states, the federal government, young people, whomever.

And some economics here:

College degrees are actually considered to be more essential than ever. The New York Times did a story earlier this year declaring the college degree to be the “new high school diploma,” describing it as essentially a minimum job requirement. They found an Atlanta law firm that requires even clerks, secretaries and runners to have four-year degrees and cited research that everyone from hygienists to cargo agents needs to have graduated from college to get hired.

Prices increase under high demand. Entry-level jobs now require degrees. Why, if not just to drive demand for college education and increase prices?

Is Facebook Destroying the American College Experience?

Danah Boyd:

It’s high time we recognize that college isn’t just about formalized learning and skills training, but also a socialization process with significant implications for the future.

I thought this was the whole selling point of higher education for the past two decades or so. It wasn’t the education, it was the social experience…and, particularly for Ivy League schools, the connections that a young student forms by living among other upper-class, American “elite”, in order to perpetuate and strengthen that social class.

That’s why Harvard costs over $50k a year.1

Flippin’ Degrees for Profit

Remember the housing meltdown ? Tough to forget isn’t it. The formula for the housing boom and bust was simple. A lot of easy money being lent to buyers who couldn’t afford the money they were borrowing. That money was then spent on homes with the expectation that the price of the home would go up and it could easily be flipped or refinanced at a profit.  Who cares if you couldn’t afford the loan. As long as prices kept on going up, everyone was happy. And prices kept on going up. And as long as pricing kept on going up real estate agents kept on selling homes and finding money for buyers.

Until the easy money stopped.  When easy money stopped, buyers couldn’t sell. They couldn’t refinance.  First sales slowed, then prices started falling and then the housing bubble burst. Housing prices crashed. We know the rest of the story. We are still mired in the consequences.

Can someone please explain to me how what is happening in higher education is any different ?

Some Seniors Still Paying For College

…the New York Fed estimates that Americans owed $870 billion in student loans during the third quarter of last year, significantly outpacing credit card debt or auto loans. Borrowers age 60 and above accounted for 5 percent of that debt. The share for Americans age 50 and older is 17 percent.

What a great business model. Claim that state schools are shit, that private colleges are the only ones worth going to, and that you’ll need a loan from your institution in order to pay a private school’s expensive tuition and get ahead in life. Then collect loan payments for a 4-year program for 40 years.

And we’re talking about people who went to college 30-40 years ago.

“This current generation of borrowers is going to be a generation of seniors who are burdened with debt,” she said.


“10 Things I Didn’t Learn In College” by James Altucher

I think it should be mandatory to take a finances course in college as part of your general education requirements. Stock trading, mutual funds, splits, derivatives, 401k, IRAs…my high school had an economics class, but I think that’s probably too much for a 16 year old to learn. I would have gotten much more out of a course like that than Cultural Anthropology, a course I actually took.

“Forgive Student Loans? Worst Idea Ever” by Justin Wolfers

Economist Justin Wolfers points out exactly what’s wrong with this idea and what ideas could serve as a better economic stimulus.

Besides this proposal feeling like a stunt for the attention of young voters by a congressman, and how little thought there is behind it, I think the thing I dislike most is how it ignores the root of the problem.

Too much emphasis has been put on higher education. For years we’ve been telling teens that they need a college education and it’s created a generation of adults who have degrees and can’t get jobs because what they learned doesn’t have value. Meanwhile, some of the most notable and admirable business leaders of our time are college dropouts or don’t even have a college education.

Higher education should be an option, not the only option.

We shouldn’t be finding a way to forgive student debt. That rewards a broken educational system and gives them no incentive to improve. We should be finding a way to make education accessible and affordable by reforming what an education in the 21st century should be. It shouldn’t always be a four-year degree.

“On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial” by Natasha Singer

Natasha Singer writes for the New York Times about the pervasiveness of marketing and brand ambassadors on college campuses.

One student working for HP on a college campus and promoting HP products to her friends:

“I can tell they believe me,” she says. “There’s a completely different trust level when it’s peer-to-peer marketing.”

She also posts to H.P.’s Facebook site for students and uses her own Facebook account, with more than 1,300 friends, and her Twitter account to promote H.P. student discounts and contests.

“I am constantly marketing on Facebook and Twitter,” she says, “to the point where my friends threaten to block me because I am constantly posting about H.P.”

SMDB in training.

We Were Dorks: Remembering College Radio

Derek Sivers has advice about how musicians should promote themselves to the college music market. He starts with this:

One thing to get straight: don’t confuse college radio with college gigs. The kids that run college radio are the real music fans. The ones deeply into music for music’s sake. But the ones with the big budgets for entertainment and activities are called the “Student Activities Office”.

Which is exactly right.

I joined my college’s radio station in my Junior year. We had a pale white guy with long blonde hair who was really into heavy metal, a guy who dressed in black and listened to the Cure a lot. We had young women listening to The Shins before Garden State came out. A friend of mine had a show for microtonal music.1 I spent my airtime playing old New Order songs and even had a weekly show where I played video game music.

We were all dorks. Big music dorks. We had no cool people. If they joined they left within a month or two.

Occasionally the radio staff would DJ parties for clubs across campus, but nobody seemed to appreciate us. To their credit we were bad DJs. We were good in that we thought we were playing some awesome tunes, some new music that needed some ears. But that’s not what party DJs are supposed to do, I learned.

“Can you stop playing techno?” I was once asked. Lady! This isn’t techno–it’s drum n’ bass! I thought you guys wanted to party!

We weren’t even a popular radio station. Our listeners were mostly friends of ours. Some weeks there were rumors about how the FCC was listening, so we’d have to be extra careful to watch our language on air. That was exciting.

Around my last semester a few people had started a sex chat show, but no way they were getting laid, right? They were dorks. If they were having sex regularly surely they wouldn’t be hosting a late night sex chat show. And their callers? Probably not having sex either.

Tons of new music came in every week and we’d have listening parties every Friday afternoon. Just a pile of CDs and a whole lot of dorks in a room. And we were judgmental. Nothing was ever good. For me it wasn’t so much an opportunity to hear new music as much as it was a way for me to try to make some jokes at the expense of someone who worked their ass off making a record that I spent under two minutes listening to. I was a jackass.

We were dorks.

A friend of mine was struck by one CD we got of a solo jazz/folk musician. He loved it so much he got in touch with him for a on-air interview. Their conversation before they went live went something like this:

Musician: So how many people do you think are listening?
Friend: Oh, maybe five.
Musician: Wow! Five thousand people?!
Friend: No. I mean just five.

Down the hallway were the people in charge of student entertainment. I knew some of them from music business courses I took. A few were wannabe rock stars. There were some people in both the radio station and the entertainment services, but they booked the gigs.

The radio people? We were dorks. We just played songs we liked and thought it was fun hearing our voices on the radio. If you want to play the college music market, send these dorks your CD, but you should talk to the entertainment people.

  1. If you really want to know more: Microtonal music on Wikipedia 

The College News Circuit

I started my freshman year of college as an undeclared student. Although I’d eventually major in music I spent my first semester exploring an interest in communications. So without knowing many people, and needing to make new friends and explore other interests, I attended a student newspaper meeting.

It’s always a little strange going to these club meetings for the first time, especially if you don’t have friends with you. The first meeting for any campus organization defines your expectations for the rest of the year. While some of the other students seemed pretty normal there was one who stood out.

The editor was going around the room asking for article ideas, topics they could write about for the coming semester. A short, balding guy–I guess a few years older than me–pitched his idea. He wrote for the Entertainment section (Arts & Culture was separate). I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it went something like this (read it in a way similar to the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons):

“It’s come to my attention that the campus is going to be dropping the UPN network. Now, as many of you know, UPN is the only network on campus that broadcasts Xena in syndication. If we lose UPN we will lose all Xena: Warrior Princess broadcasts, which throws a big question mark up in the future of the Xena. I’m very, very concerned about this new development.”

We’re talking Beat The Geeks kind of stuff.

I was clearly inexperienced for hard hitting journalism. Serious shit, like minor tuition increases, were left to the Junior/Senior professionals. Anything having to do with state budgets was out, thankfully. Anything having to do with student government was out, thankfully.

Still, I showed up, so the editorial staff gave me a soft ball. I was assigned to do an introductory story on the Office of Multicultural Affairs on campus. I would go there, interview the director, and submit an article for publication.

During the coming days I put off the interview. Days became weeks. Weeks became months. I stopped going to the newspaper meetings. After a couple of months I went to the office, did the interview, and submitted an article that was published a week later. I can’t even remember what the Office of Multicultural Affairs does.

I never attended another student newspaper meeting, but I wrote and submitted parody articles for their April Fools editions with headlines like “MTV Campus Invasion Trounces SUNY System.” The very last thing I ever wrote for that paper was a favorable review of Duran Duran’s Astronaut.

We all make mistakes.

Link: Textbook rant

Seth Godin posted a rant about the college textbook industry.

As far as I can tell, assigning a textbook to your college class is academic malpractice…This industry deserves to die. It has extracted too much time and too much money and wasted too much potential. We can do better. A lot better.

This is why I think Seth Godin is the authority when it comes to marketing and growing your audience.

If there’s one good thing that results from the Kindle I hope it’s that it changes the way college textbooks are used.

Also note that the textbook he mentions in his post is not part of the Personal MBA It doesn’t appear that any standard business textbook is a part of this list.