Institutional Malpractice and Campus Accountability


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Perhaps you remember the 1977 Canadian cult classic Outrageous!, one of the great unsung films that appeared at a moment when the movies grappled with the biggest issues of the time:  gender roles, sexuality, race, war, the nature of American society, and the very meaning of sanity in a world of bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

Directed by Richard Benner and staring Craig Russell and Hollis McLaren, this low-budget, low-production value camp sleeper was not only among the first to explore drag and gay life but to destigmatize mental illness and view schizophrenia through a non-judgmental lens.

There was only one sense in which the movie was outrageous: It appeared three decades before its time.

We live in a moment when mock or performative outrage flourishes.  Expressing outrage on social media has become a way to bolster one's social capital and assume an activist guise without doing anything tangible in return.

But genuine outrage — the kind that arose following the death of George Floyd — is rare.   How many times, in recent years, have you shut yourself in a closet and screamed in anger?

We need to regain our sense of indignation.  Examples abound that should make you blow your top.

  • Master’s programs offered by elite institutions that leave graduates “financially hobbled for life.”
  • The misuse of work-study programs by wealthy universities to pay students to clean dormitories and toilets.
  • Bailing out college athletics with federal Covid relief dollars.

Which brings us to the latest outrage.

You need not be an ardent populist to express fury after reading the Wall Street Journal’s revelations about how some of the wealthiest US colleges are steering parents into no-limit federal loans that they will never be able to repay and will burden them into retirement.

The story gives a fresh meaning to the idea of “need-blind” admissions.

This is no different than a car salesman or a banker to push a family to buy more of a car or a mortgage than they can afford so that a dealership or bank can increase its profits.

Worse yet, the Journal reports that Baylor, the expose’s target, on average only gives enough aid to cover two-thirds of students’ need, unlike most wealthy institutions that cover all that need. At the same time, Baylor continues to award a variety of non-need-based scholarships.

The current president of Baylor University, acknowledges that her institutions enrolled students from families that couldn't afford the institution's cost and encouraged parents to take out through the Parent Plus program that has have no cap, irrespective of the family’s income. But, not surprisingly she rejects the idea out-of-hand that Baylor has any responsibility for assisting those parents.

Parents at Baylor University had the worst repayment record, but other institutions (and the article mentions Miami, NYU, and Syracuse) also had very high number of borrowers from low-income backgrounds and low repayment rates.

To make matters worse, it seems likely that one response to this scandal might be not to increase or redirect financial aid, but to restrict the number of admittees with high financial need.

The time has come to blow the whistle.

Higher education is predicated on integrity. We hold students accountable for cheating and plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty.  We punish faculty malfeasance and misconduct.

We need to hold our institutions to the same ethical standards.

It was ten years ago that we learned that for 18 years the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had organized bogus classes with automatic A’s and B’s for some 3,100 students, half of whom were athletes.

In the end, nine relatively low-level employees were fired or placed under disciplinary review, but the institution itself faced no major sanctions except for a single year of probation imposed by the accreditor SACS, despite a “lack of academic control” and a “failure to monitor” for academic violations.

Enough.

We need to take certain steps without delay.  We need to require:

  • Higher education institutions to act as fiduciaries and recognize a duty of care in recruitment and awarding financial aid.
  • Colleges and universities to assume skin in the game when families default on their loans.
  • Campuses to admit a minimum percentage of Pell Grant eligible students in order to receive federal funding.
  • Non-profit institutions to meet the same gainful employment rules as for-profits and ensure that the net cost of an education is proportionate to the earnings it will generate.
  • Loan recipients to receive clear disclosures describing how long on average students or parents take to repay loans.

We owe our students and their parents nothing less.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, October 18, 2021
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Monday, October 18, 2021



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