Saturday, June 08, 2019

Separate And Unequal

 Abstract: On May 11, 2019, the US federal government indicted 50 individuals, charging them with bribery and fraud in a widespread college admission scandal involving wealthy parents, coaches, administrators, and business executives, paying bribes to buy their children’s way into the nation’s elite schools. For weeks thereafter, the public discourse had become engaged primarily with the action of the individuals, secondarily with some schools’ administrators, but not with the role played by the State. I argue that the evidence unearthed for these cases point to a human rights violation because the State, through a plurality of systems and instruments, has actively participated in perpetuating inequality and economic disparity.


First, for clarity purposes, I shall define key terms and concepts. I use the word “State” to refer to the modern nation-state governing power, as a legal person that is in social contract with society, which authorizes (through a public mandate, electoral or otherwise) it to assume legal monopoly on the use of violence and taxation and the judicious use thereof. I also define human rights as claims by members of society against the State when the State abuses its powers or fails to treat citizens equitably and fairly. As such, human rights claims are above and beyond criminal and civil claims. With these definitions in mind, let’s consider the facts related to the so-called elite schools’ admissions and to the scandal that ensued and draw appropriate conclusions.

Federal charges against some wealthy parents, accusing them of buying their kids admission to prestigious universities brought to the forefront the broader discussion of the status of private universities and the role of governments in education. Given the role higher education plays in social mobility and wealth production, a serious look at admission and teaching practices by public and private institutions is necessary. Importantly, given the principles and norms enshrined in the treaties on social and economic rights, the role of private universities that receive government funds in creating inequality must be framed within the legal and moral imperatives of human rights norms to which the State must adhere. For clarity purposes, I frame human rights violations as claims by individuals and/or social groups against the State for discrimination or for actively contributing to the creation of conditions that perpetuate inequality and economic disparity, provided that such discrimination and causation of inequality are prohibited by the national constitution or treaties ratified by the State. Access to higher education in the US is hardly a US domestic problem. Given that countries from around the world, especially oil-wealthy Muslim countries in particular, send thousands of students to study in the United States and/or establish satellite campuses of these elite universities, problems in US educational institutions are universal problem, not just a national one.

To understand the role and the degree of the State complicity and/or responsibility, let’s examine some of the facts related to education at private institutions and the many ways local and federal governments preserve this engine of inequality and economic disparity.

Key data related to representative public universities (2015/16 academic year):

University of Washington-Seattle; 31,331 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 53%; $2.529 billion market value of endowment.

University of Michigan; 29,821 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 26%; $11 billion market value of endowment.

University of Illinois-UC; 33,955 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 66%; $2.556 billion market value of endowment.

University of Texas-Austin; 40,492 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 36%; $30 billion market value of endowment.

University of Wisconsin-Madison; 32,196 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 58%; $2.746 billion market value of endowment.

University of Iowa; 24,503 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 80%; $1.387 billion market value of endowment.

University of Minnesota; 35,433 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 45%; $3.49 Billion

Key data related to representative private universities (2015/16 academic year):

Princeton University; 5,394 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 7%; $22.29 billion market value of endowment.

Harvard University; 6,766 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 6%; $37.62 billion market value of endowment.

Columbia University; 6,162 Undergraduate Enrollment, acceptance rate 6%; $9.64 billion market value of endowment.

Yale University; 5,746 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 7%; $25.54 billion Market value of endowment.

Stanford University; 7,062 undergraduate enrollment, acceptance rate 5%; $22.223 billion market value of endowment.

As of the 2017-18 academic year, there were 4,298 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

  • Private non-profit: 1687 (with only 98 being 2-year colleges; 300 of these are Faith-connected)
  • Public: 1626 (with 876 being 2-year colleges)
  • Private for-profit: 985 (506 of them being 2-year colleges)
  • At any given year, about 20,000,000 students enroll in these universities and colleges.

Source: 2017 stats; National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/)

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The Real Cost of Elitism:

To understand the real engine behind inequity in society, one must look at the allocation of resources and the burden of educating the next generations:

50% of the endowment wealth dedicated to education is controlled by just 20 schools. Combined, these 20 schools enroll less than 5% of total number of students. Out of these 20 schools, 17 are private universities, and 8 of them, known as Ivy League universities. These eight Ivy League universities, alone, control 20% of the total US endowment wealth but responsible for just 1% of the students at any given year.

Understood in the context of economic and social inequality in American society, these figures define systemic discrimination and such discrimination is, at minimum, enabled by the State. Preserving an elite education system contribute more to inequity and less to education and learning.

Flawed standards and self-perpetuating reputation:

The metrics used for ranking schools are outcome-based measures that interest students, such as whether they will get good jobs, can avoid large student debt, or like their instructors. These outcome-oriented metrics do benefit from large endowment. Wealth can be used to limit class sizes, reduce student-instructor ratio, pay for tutors and other resources, provide scholarships instead of teaching assistantships, and lower the rate of admission. Such a metric does not measure if a student who attended a private university would exit more prepared than if the same student had attended a public university.

While endowment can be private donations, they are hardly used by these institutions for teaching and research activities. Research in private universities are generously funded by federal grants and contracts. In fact, more federal money goes to private schools than to public universities. In addition to federal grants and contracts money, private schools benefit from favorable tax policies and exemptions and unequal research funding and donor tax write-offs. The grants and policies increase disparity between rich, elite private schools and poor public institutions, which increase the gap between the poor and rich people in society at large.

Some people could argue that public schools do receive state money. While it is true that public schools receive government funds, state appropriations come with strings attached that limit public universities’ ability to increase tuition or become more selective in their admission practices in ways that would increase revenues. For instance, most states require public universities to guarantee admission to state residents who would meet minimum standards related to standardized testing scores and high school grades. Moreover, state contributions are dependent on the political and economic factors and, generally, some states’ appropriations to education has been in decline and it is projected to reach zero by the end of next decade.

Ivy League schools, on the other hand, do not need much resources since they are highly selective and students who are admitted to such schools are well prepared through elite education in private high schools or through private tutoring. Public universities, meanwhile, because they must admit more students who may not have gone to well-funded public high schools require more money and resources to meet the needs of a diverse student population. In reality, private universities in general and Ivy League institutions in particular, spend ten times per student than the average public university. For example, based on the 2016/17 data, Princeton University’s tax-exempt status produced about $100,000 per student per year in taxpayer subsidies, nearly ten times more than the $12,000 per student taxpayer subsidy at Rutgers University, the state flagship, and nearly fifty times more than the $2,400 per student at the nearby community college, Essex County College.

Private universities are having it both ways: they receive more research grants as well as other forms of public privileges like tax preferences, and research subsidies—all without government oversight.

All not-for-profit private universities are heavily supported, directly or indirectly, by governments. Federal student loans, tuition tax credits and Pell Grants allow them to raise fees. The tax-deductible treatment of private donations helps these universities fund new facilities, buildings, and resources. Private universities benefit from state and local (city and/or county) government exemption of facilities from property and, in some cases, sales taxes. In addition to research grants, the federal government often offers generous allowances for overhead expenses. Endowments themselves benefit from tax privileges. Despite all these tax-payers’ provided benefits, private universities are shielded from federal control by claiming that, as “private” universities, they are not subject to governmental interference. The same cannot be said about public universities, which are subject to government oversight.

In public universities, faculty members and administrators are mindful of constitutional rights and limitations. Faculty members in public universities honor the First Amendment, adhere to the terms of the Establishment Clause, and obey state and federal laws relevant to access, discrimination, violence, harassment, and civil rights. Private universities often ignore many of these limitations. In fact, elitist private universities, because they sidestepped government oversight, often engage in discretionary practices, violate human rights, and flout constitutional norms. Admission standards in most private, elite universities, discriminate when they give preference to legacy admissions–children and grandchildren of alumni. Many of the private institutions that receive public funding and privileges are also faith-based and they engage in theological discourses, clergy training, and religious activities.

Ivy League institutions were the first to rely on standardized testing, which contributed to the exclusion of racial and ethnic marginalized social groups. Numerous studies have established that, since the adoption of standardized testing, students of color, especially those from low-income families, have been negatively impacted. Settled research data from the last fifty years demonstrate that students who are African-American, Native American, Asian, and other marginalized social groups have struggled with discriminatory bias from standardized tests. The legal cases related to admission added new data that support the finding that Ivy League metrics, which rely heavily on GPA and standardized testing scores, favor the rich and discriminate against the poor. From expensive prep classes to expensive private schools, these indicators are now revealed as function of wealth and means, not indicative of personal, natural aptitudes.

Education, evidently, is directly connected to economic and social conditions and the reverse is true. As such education is a human right and the State is responsible for providing equal access to education as required by treaties it had ratified and pertinent national laws. Furthermore, since discrimination is illegal, State-enabled discrimination in education is, therefore, a human rights violation. The many affirmative action measures adopted by federal and state governments support a proposition whereby the State’s function includes leveling the playing field for historically disadvantaged social groups, allocating resources on need base, and addressing systemic discrimination and conditions that contribute to undue economic disparity. Therefore, the State is responsible for making education accessible, affordable, and fair. When education through private universities is used as an instrument for perpetuating inequality and when the State funds such an instrument of inequality, the State, then, violates human rights.

It might be true that, in free market economy, private entities and civil society institutions are not responsible for narrowing the wealth gap or for solving problems of social and economic inequality. However, when such entities receive public funds, such institutions, notwithstanding their status as private enterprises, must be subjected to government oversight to ensure equal and fair treatment of all students, a critical charge of governments. And when the State fails to undertake oversight over institutions it funds through public moneys, the State is liable for all and any practices and policies that violate equal access and equal treatment undertaken by these institutions.

One could argue that the fraud indictments against 50 persons proves that the government has undertaken action when evidence for abuse became available and therefore the State should not be accused of human rights violation for failure to act. Such an argument is flawed for a number of reasons. First, the State participated preserving a system that invited criminal abuse. Second, charging these and even future individuals with fraud will not fix a system that perpetuates inequality. Third, the charges are purely criminal; they do not address the more important issue of access to education and problem of discrimination practiced by private schools. Fourth, the State took no legal action against private institutions that receive public moneys and that discriminate in their admission practices and perpetuate economic disparity.

A human rights claim against the State does not absolve these wealthy individuals of their criminal activities and for abusing policy intended to help persons with disability and members of historically disadvantaged social groups. Indeed, persons who defraud the system are not only committing crimes, they are also contributing to inequity and economic disparity. Furthermore, those who choose to send their children to private universities over public universities are contributing to inequity as well. But that is a moral position, different from the State’s active funding of a system that demonstrably and measurably perpetuates inequity and economic disparity. Moreover, criminal charges against individuals committing fraud to buy a seat for their children in elite universities will not stop these elite universities from creating economic disparity through arbitrarily, highly selective systems that allow only the select few to benefit from the vast resources they hoard. Such an endeavor might be legitimate for private enterprises. But when such institutions receive disproportionate amounts of moneys and services from governments, then their actions become discriminatory, not merely selective, and such discrimination is thus enabled by the State, making it a human rights violation.

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Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, History, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Cowardice, Elitism, Racism And Academia

 While launching his political 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump, clarified beyond doubt what he means by his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He called on four congresswomen to go back to their countries of origin. The four congresswomen are, Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY). Omar is a naturalized Muslim US citizen who was admitted to this country as a refugee from Somalia. Pressley is a Black US-born citizen whose ancestors were enslaved and brought to this country against their will. Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez are US-born citizens descendants of non-white migrants. The implication is clear: in the mind of Trump and some of his supporters, being a woman of color who migrated recently, whose parents migrated recently, or whose ancestors were slaves would preclude her from being an equal citizen to her white counterpart. Making America great again, therefore, is about taking America back to before the 1868 14th Amendment (citizenship and slavery), before the 1870 15th Amendment (citizenship and race), and before the 1920 19th Amendment (citizenship and sex). This white nationalism impulse is now supported by a growing body of evidence in the form of statements and policies.

The attack on these women was ostensibly triggered by their critical views of some of the US domestic and foreign policies. Trump equated their criticism and political views to being unpatriotic and disloyal. This comes from a man whose slogan implies that America (especially under Obama) was not great, and that he is the person capable of making America great again. When white men, like Trump, criticize the conditions of the country, it is patriotism; but when non-white American citizens do the same, it is treason. This is not a political campaigning rhetoric; it is a lethal narrative that will be co-opted by those who wish to make American a homeland exclusive of non-white people and who are willing to kill to achieve that goal. This toxic, lethal discourse amplified by the chief executive officer will endure beyond political cycles, and should Trump lose his bid for another term, his supporters will likely resort to more violence.

When the political leader of the nation’s highest office makes a statement telling a group of citizens to go back to their countries of origin, reasonable, fair-minded persons would expect leaders at places of work to standup and remind everyone that we live in a country of laws where discrimination, threats, and retaliation are illegal. Regardless of what a president would say or do, leaders should reaffirm that respect for the law and the constitution that binds us together must supersede personal politics—including the president’s. An unequivocal stance from leaders of the institutions that is responsible for educating future generations is fundamental given the institutions’ core mission. Silence emboldens those who act above the law. But silence is what is happening.

Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic reported that leaders of universities and companies are all silent and none of them are willing to go on the record saying anything about such racism. Off the record, however, they admit that if the statements were made by someone in their institutions, the person making them “would face serious consequences… But virtually none of those leaders — from schools and universities to big global companies to nonprofits and local government — have been willing to publicly express that consensus as President Donald Trump has deployed that incendiary and openly racist language himself.”

Leaders in my institution, the University of Iowa, too, were silent: No leader from the department, college, or central administration came out publicly to reassure students and employees who are of the same background as these women or who have family members who fit the same profile as these women that, as leaders, they condemn racism and that they stand up for constitutional rights of all citizens, as equal under the law. That silence, for a person like me who feels that Trump’s tweets are directed at my family members who share the same background as the four congresswomen–is stunning.

As I live this experience, I could not help but think of the words of the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he invited to give a speech at the Morningside campus in 2006. Introducing his guest, Mr. Bollinger said:

We at this university have not been shy to protest the challenge–and challenge the failures of our own government to live by our values, and we won’t be shy about criticizing yours. Let’s then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

While there are reasons to be critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad, calling someone now term-limited into retirement a dictator is more problematic for an institution that received money from the Saudi government whose crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has no concepts or institutions of election or term limited positions. As absolute ruler who controls all the levers of power, bin Salman sent his agents to literally dismember a US resident Saudi dissident with medical saws in a diplomatic building in Turkey. Ignorance aside, consistency and credibility are the real issues leaders of US academic institutions must be mindful of.

It has been a week since Trump published the most recent racist tweets. Yet, Columbia University has not issued a public statement about this or other discriminatory statements and policies of “our own government.” I now realize that persons from “shithole” countries, to borrow the words of the head of “our own government,” are expected to criticize their governments and white men who are not even citizens of such countries do, too. But the reverse is not true. We, non-white citizens that is, cannot criticize “our own government” and if we do, we will be asked by the white president to go back to our countries of origin and neither the president of Columbia University nor any other university president will “challenge the failures of our own government.” It is easy for white people to challenge a brown-skinned president of a distant Muslim country and expect brown-skinned persons to join in. In fact, we are not expected to just join in, we are expected to only limit our challenge to governments in our countries of origin. The rudeness to an invited guest who also happened to be the head of a state was applauded, but the discrimination against US citizens is met with absolute silence–racism is deeper than a tweet. While Trump’s racism is explicit, the silence of leaders and professors of academic institutions is implicit. And while administrators silence can be explained, though not justified, by their worry about losing government funding or about challenging their hiring/firing superiors (public university presidents are usually hired by board members appointed by political leaders), the silence of senior professors is even more troubling.

In Academia, the most compelling justification for tenure is the need to protect experts and scholars against intimidation, threats, and retaliation so that they are able to express themselves freely on critical matters of public interest and speak fact-based truth to power. Unfortunately, it would seem that courage, in academia, is limited to pointing out the wrongs done by dead kings and dictators, foreign authoritarians, and/or democratically elected leaders of countries “our own government” does not like—not for any other principle- or fact-driven reasons. Many of us make use of the archived writings of the few courageous dissenters (who put their freedom and sometime their lives at risk and spoke truth to power) to reconstruct reality but avoid, at all cost, to speak against cruelty in the moment and challenge failure to uphold the law the instant it happens—not after the deed is part of the archived history. How useful is tenure if all it affords us is delayed outrage against dead racists, fascists, authoritarians, and violators of human rights.

Simply, it is cowardice that prevent academicians from standing up for social justice, rule of law, and human rights. Systemically, cowardice is a result of a tenure process that was turned into a domestication, pacification, and elitism-inducting scheme. In many institutions, tenure-review processes lack transparency, due process, and fairness empowering senior faculty members to indulge their personal biases and political views. Such corrupt process, overtime, produced distorted understanding of collegiality and became an obstruction to innovation, debility to imagination, and decrepitude to originality. A typical academician must go through an average of six years of navigating the sensitivities and temperaments of mentors as a graduate student, about seven years of fittingness with senior colleagues as a junior faculty member, and an average of eight years of expected reverence to elitist class of full professors as an associate. After about twenty years of leading a life shaped by the views and judgements of one’s mentors and senior colleagues, one is likely to lose perspective of who they were and what they stood for. These are some of the reasons that are making faculty unionization more appealing to some faculty members than the elitist tenure system. The silence of senior professors in the face of such openly racist attacks on historically marginalized social groups is the strongest argument against the value of tenure system as is. The good news is that there are more options than tenure/non-tenure binary options. For instance, faculty members could stop pursuing further promotion beyond the associate rank with tenure and focus on the public good they could do rather than on subjugating themselves to further domestication for the sake of a useless rank that has to do with prestige and elitism and less with achievements and expertise. If we have to choose between public good and elitism, public good should prevail.

For administrators, however, presidents of US universities like Mr. Bollinger and the president of my own university are adding to their credibility deficit and betraying the core missions and values of the institutions they lead. Knowledge is consequential and leadership is responsibility therefore silence is not an option. To regain the trust of the people they lead and communities they serve and for their words to have meaning, they need to stand up for the laws of this country and say to a president, who has built a self-incriminating body of evidence, and tell him, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel racist.”

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Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, History, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.

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