The Week

Scott Bauer, AP Images

February 09, 2015

An Error in Wisconsin

It’s hard to know whether last week’s most startling higher-education news was Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to make meeting "workforce needs" the primary mission of Wisconsin’s state-university system—instead of extending knowledge, searching for truth, and improving the human condition—or the speed with which he disowned the effort once it blew up online.

"This was a drafting error," the governor’s press secretary, Laurel Patrick, asserted in an email to the Wisconsin State Journal just hours after Mr. Scott, a Republican, told reporters that the mission changes proposed in his budget would better focus the university’s efforts on "the jobs and opportunities that are available in the state."

The changes would have stricken from the law describing the system’s mission stirring language representing what’s known as "the Wisconsin Idea" and incorporating some of the grandest aspirations of the state’s progressive political tradition—including, for instance, "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth." Instead, meeting work-force needs would have been added to the law’s first line. On Twitter, where his page has a "Wisconsin Is Open for Business" background, the Republican governor calls the budget document his "Freedom & Prosperity" proposal.

Oddly enough, just days before unveiling the plan, Governor Walker tweeted: "Federal data released yesterday shows that WI ranked 5th in the country & 1st in the Midwest for private sector job growth in November." With statistics like that—statistics many governors would envy—it’s also hard to know what the governor thinks the state’s higher-education system is doing wrong.

By the way, the Freedom & Prosperity budget still includes a proposal that would give the university system more autonomy but cut $300-million over two years from its state appropriation.

Speaking of Budgets …

President Obama sent his plan for the 2016 fiscal year over to Congress last week. Given that Republicans control both the House and the Senate, the proposal’s prospects are poor at best. But as a road map to his agenda, the higher-­education sections of the budget are more useful.

The administration’s focus here is college affordability, and to that end the president proposed simplifying and expanding tax credits for higher education, as well as raising the maximum Pell Grant to keep up with inflation. As he had promised, Mr. Obama included a plan to make community college free for millions of students. But how that would be paid for was unclear after a barrage of criticism forced Mr. Obama to abandon his initial plan, which called for taxing withdrawals from 529 college-savings plans.

Elsewhere in the budget, the administration sought a 31-percent increase for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. The additional money would let the office, which among other things investigates hot-button Title IX sexual-assault complaints, grow from 544 staff members to 754. The budget includes a 3-percent boost in federal research spending and tiny increases in the minuscule outlays for the arts and humanities.

Meanwhile, someone at Politico wonked deep into the budget document’s data tables and noticed that rapidly expanding federal student-loan programs ran a $21.8-billion shortfall last year. You read that right—billion with a b. Politico put the shortfall in perspective by noting that it’s larger than the combined annual budgets of the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, and that it single-handedly added 5 percent to the deficit. Ouch.


AP Images

Pennsylvania’s community colleges announced a plan to let adults earn college credit for work experience or training. … The executive committee of Boston University’s Board of Trustees rejected a proposal, made by the board’s committee on socially responsible investing, to stop investing in companies that make guns. … A District of Columbia council member introduced a bill last week that would rename the University of the District of Columbia for Marion Barry, the late mayor known for both his political acumen and his personal failings. … Menlo College, a 700-student institution in Atherton, Calif., said it would drop its football program after struggling for years over the program’s "financial viability." … The Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, in England, said a drawing discovered in France by an emeritus professor of art history supported attributing two bronzes in the museum’s collection to Michelangelo. The attribution would make the two statues, which show a pair of "naked, beautiful, muscular" men riding ferocious panthers, the only bronzes by Michelangelo to have survived.

Deceived and Deceiving

"When I came back from the East last autumn," says Nick Carraway at the beginning of The Great Gatsby, "I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart."

That quotation came to mind last week when The Daily Beast offered up a detailed interview with Paul Nungesser, a Columbia University senior who has been accused of sexual assault. Mr. Nungesser’s case attracted attention worldwide after his accuser, Emma Sulkowicz, began carrying a mattress around the campus to protest a university decision clearing Mr. Nungesser of charges filed against him by Ms. Sulkowicz and two other women.

Like an earlier interview published in The New York Times, the Daily Beast article calls into question many aspects of the allegations against Mr. Nungesser. And it is accompanied by three pages of what the Daily Beast says are text messages between him and Ms. Sulkowicz.

They don’t make for particularly good reading—nothing to match Gatsby’s "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." But they do leave you wondering how, as a society, we reached a point where journalists and Title IX coordinators and deans and surely even university presidents regularly find themselves combing through the text messages of 20-year-olds—at Columbia, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and elsewhere—seeking not privileged glimpses into their hearts but evidence meeting whatever standard prevails in a given institution’s misconduct hearings. It sort of boggles the mind.

Or maybe not. See, for some perspective, St. Augustine’s Confessions, 4.1.1—"For this space of nine years (from my nineteenth year to my eight-and-twentieth) we lived seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving, in divers lusts." Augustine didn’t leave us text messages to comb through, of course, and probably that’s just as well. At 19 he might have had no more judgment than the average student has today.

While we’re on the topic of moral attention: A study just published by the American Psychological Association found that universities underreport sexual-assault complaints on their campuses when they’re not being watched by the U.S. Department of Education, although they report complaints accurately during audits by federal officials. "The result is students at many universities continue to be attacked and victimized," writes the study’s author, Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas, "and punishment isn’t meted out to the rapists and sexual assaulters."