Universities aim to be centers of learning that find the best and brightest students, treat them fairly, and equip them with the knowledge they need to lead better lives. But Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness join us today to show how American universities fall far short of this ideal.
What is the purpose of college? What are academics getting out of university life? What do students want from their university experience? What is a wage premium? Are students actually learning skills they need? Do employers think that college graduates are lacking writing skills? What is wrong with student evaluations? What would it take to actually measure teacher effectiveness? How is tenure a barrier to entry to the academic field?
Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, written by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness
‘Cracks in the Ivory Tower’, written by Scott Jaschik
When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice, written by Jason Brennan
College: Too Costly, Too Little Learning, Too Much Underemployment, Free Thoughts Podcast
Cracks in the Ivory Tower: A Dispiriting Assessment of Higher Education, written by Aeon Skoble
The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Jason Brennan, the Planning and Family professor at Georgetown University. He’s the author of many books. He’s been on the show a few times. And if you listened to the last episode covering his book, “When All Else Fails,” you’ll have learned that his lifetime fist fight record is 23-1, right? That’s good, Jay. And also, Phillip W. Magness, the Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We don’t yet know his fist fight record. Well, maybe we’ll get to that.
00:34 Phil Magness: Possibly. We’ll see the University professors.
00:38 Trevor Burrus: Together, they are the authors of “Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education.” Welcome to Free Thoughts, gentlemen.
00:45 Jason Brennan: Thank you.
00:45 Phil Magness: Thanks for having us.
00:46 Trevor Burrus: So, this might seem obvious to people, but I think your book sort of raises this question, what is a college or a university for?
00:53 Phil Magness: It’s a good question. Ostensibly, they present themselves as proprietors of high-minded ideals of education, of transferring knowledge. But we also find in some of the more recent literature, especially Bryan Caplan’s book, and this is a theme we explore ourselves. The universities are actually in the market for credentialing. They’re providing a degree that’s an access point to the job market.
01:17 Jason Brennan: Yeah. In the last chapter of this book, we review maybe six or seven different items, or things that universities could be aiming toward. They could be museums of ideas, and if they are, they’re very poor museums. They could be things meant to originate ideas. But very few universities are actually in the idea production regime. Maybe a couple hundred do that. Most of them simply regurgitate ideas. They could be about teaching students and giving them skills, but pretty much all of them fail to actually do that. There’s a couple other purposes that they might have. Like, they could be public investment machines and that kind of stuff, and they seem to be pretty good, at least, for that purpose. So, yeah, but the things that they advertise themselves as doing aren’t what they actually do.
01:55 Trevor Burrus: Your book reminded me of something actually that Bryan Caplan told me one time when I said something like… Well, I think I said, “Well, public schools are very inefficient.” And Bryan said, “Ah, ah, but they might be extremely efficient at delivering a specific good that is not the one that you think they are supposed to be delivering, like having good pay for teachers, and secure jobs.” They may be extremely good at that. And I think a lot of the things you see in your book is that if you look at the incentive structure you might say, “Public universities, or just universities in general, may be bad at being these sort of paragons of enlightened discussion, but they’re really good at some other things.” And everyone wants something different out of these universities. So, what are academics looking to get out of the university?
02:35 Phil Magness: I’d say, employment first and foremost. And you find this as a recurring theme that university professors want a good, stable, secure, well-paying job to do things that they like. And if you have an intellectual hobby that’s very heavily interested in a specific discipline, if you really like history, you really like philosophy, you really like Math, there’s almost no better job that you can get to be paid to sit around and study that on your own time, in your own direction, basically the entire year. And not only that, have all the perks that come with academic life of being self-directed in your research. You get to choose what you wanna work on. You have a large summer break. You have opportunities for traveling around the world. So, these types of opportunities that exist with an academic job are very, very appealing for people who want to work in that area.
03:22 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Well, how do we see this play out in terms of sort of the inner university, inner campus politics between? So, of course, every professor wants employment. But as Phil pointed out, there might be a difference between 14th century Estonian choral music and economics professors. And then, there might be some tension there.
03:42 Jason Brennan: Yeah. You can think of the entire university as being… It’s made up of a number of individuals who work as individuals, but also are part of interest groups, and they know that they’re a part of organized interest groups. And they’re all organizing to fight over a limited amount of resources, and power, and status. And so, administrators, they try to get more money for themselves and more status for themselves. And the way that they do that might be by inviting external control and external regulation which then allows them to hoard over the faculty and force them to do things. As an individual administrator, you can get more money for yourself and more status for yourself by increasing the amount of stuff that your office does, and that can mean including useless stuff, or counterproductive things, or by increasing the number of staff who work for you. And then, you can externalize the cost of that on to others, but you, in turn, get a higher budget for not just your office, but also you get a higher salary and more status. Individual academic departments like English or Economics have that same kind of incentive where I benefit from being in a larger department rather than a smaller department, that means more money for me. Students have similar kinds of things where, when they’re making decisions about what’s worth doing, anytime there’s more programming or more perks added, the costs are diffused, but they often have the benefits concentrated.
04:56 Jason Brennan: And so, everybody’s kind of lobbying to get more for themselves. And then, the odd thing is that the people at the very top, the presidents and so on, you might think that they would think, “Well, we should try to have the most bang for a buck and be efficient and try to lower costs.” But you never see a president come in and say, “I’m gonna try to deliver the same amount of good that we’re doing right now for 25% less. I think we can do it if we trim the fat off.” Instead, they have this weird thing where the bigger… The more money the university spends, the more impressive they look, and the easier it is for them to then go on and move on to another university and get a bigger pay raise for themselves and so on. So everyone has this incentive to just increase costs.
05:34 Trevor Burrus: And you said, you guys cite something that I didn’t know, but the US News and World Report, that has a direct relationship between how much you spend per student. So, if you spend less and get the same output, your ranking will go down, which is insane.
05:47 Jason Brennan: Yeah. We grabbed their algorithm, and we didn’t have access to all of their data for everything, but we could make some rough calculations based upon the numbers that they had. And so, it worked out to be something like the year that I looked at the thing in the book, it was like, I think it was like the 2018 data, the University of Chicago was ranked number three. But if miraculously, the University of Chicago could deliver exactly the same goods as they did with spending zero money, they would go from ranked third, to like 13th. And Yale was the same kind of thing. So, yeah, they reward you for overspending. They use spending per student as a proxy for quality, which means that more efficient universities get hurt.
06:26 Trevor Burrus: I think that’s also a thing, too, like proxies, how do you measure quality? I think you could pretty much describe your book as public choice theory applied to the university in some basic sense. Maybe that’s how you guys first got together and said, “We should write this book.” Who are the actors? What are the incentives? What do they wanna maximize? What do they wanna minimize? How are they using different metrics? Now the students, this is my favorite one, I love this question that Jay asked the students in class, what do the students want? “Would you rather A, graduate from Georgetown with a Georgetown diploma, but literally learn nothing the entire time you were here. B, graduate from East Podunk State College but double your knowledge. C, not graduate from any college, but triple your knowledge. How do your students rank those preferences?
07:09 Jason Brennan: Oh, in that order. Universally, they would prefer to have the Georgetown degree with no increase in knowledge to having a lower quality degree, lower prestige degree with a massive increase in knowledge to having an incredible increase in knowledge with no degree at all. And I say in the book, I’m not blaming them, I’m not saying that that shows that they have bad preferences or they don’t care about learning. They do care about learning, they do care about ideas, they’re intellectual-type people. But they also understand the incentives. If I wave my magic wand and make it so you now have the greatest engineering knowledge of anyone in the world, well, you still won’t get a job as an engineer. No one will know that you have that knowledge and you might be like, “Oh, I can just start my own engineering business.” Well no you can’t, ‘cause you won’t get licensed, you won’t get credentialed and no one’s gonna give you money to start an engineering firm, like no venture capitalist because they don’t know that you know this stuff. So the credential matters. That’s why I like to say that going to college for the sake of learning is like booking a trans-pacific flight for the sake of the meals.
08:08 S?: Right.
08:09 Trevor Burrus: And the students… I guess, the backdrop of this too, is the students are the ones coming in with, usually the government backed financial aid. So we have institutions you can analyze the incentives of any given institution, whether it’s for-profit, or not for profit. But it seems like one of the elements of this is that the government is just sort of funneling money into it, and so, there’s no break on it with a price point.
08:35 Phil Magness: No, that’s absolutely the case. And we’ve seen higher-ed shifting… Higher-ed funding has shifted very heavily toward this type of a model of a student payer, but it’s a student payer with all these different layers of state and federal loans, sometimes state and federal grants that are attached to it. That’s definitely increased at a very rapid pace in the past 20 years. One of the points that we make is if you take education as a good, a market good that’s being offered ask the question, who’s providing it, who’s receiving it, who are the suppliers and who are the customer bases. And if you see the faculty or the suppliers, they don’t price their good, they’re detached in one-layer on the execution side of what they’re offering. Students are not actually price responsive either, because they’re going through second and third party payers essentially to fund tuition to acquire this degree. And you start asking the question, “What incentive exists for a student to shop around for the best price for their education?” And we find out it doesn’t. At best case scenario, they’re going through a parent or someone who’s funding it indirectly. More often the case, it’s through multiple different layers.
09:44 Jason Brennan: Yeah, one of the disturbing things we found was… So governments offer subsidies to students to get them better educated and the reasoning is, it sounds like sound reasoning. They say, “Well look, some people can’t afford college that should go to college. We shouldn’t let these minds go to waste, lets offer them a subsidy.” Now, we know in basic microeconomics if the government said, “We don’t think enough people can afford Honda Civics so we’re gonna give everyone a $10,000 voucher to buy a Civic.” We know what auto dealers would do, they would raise their prices by roughly $10,000. And you wouldn’t actually help the students, you wouldnt help anyone get any Hondas, you would just help the Honda dealers. But you might think, “Well, universities, they’re not for profit, they have often social justice missions so maybe they won’t be price responsive in the same way.” But there’re a bunch of studies on this and what they find is, nope, they act just like the auto dealers. You increase subsidies to college and colleges respond by increasing their price.
10:32 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting, regarding what Phil said. So where the students are responsive, they’re not paying and 30 years down the line when their loans are due, they’re not really sensitive to that. But what you see maybe as they go to visit the campus, and they say, “Look, there’s a climbing wall, there’s a lazy river, there’s all these great amenities.” They kind of expect it seems, especially with gen ed requirements, and I’d like to get into how those work that you’re gonna have this sort of liberal university. They’re gonna make you take 120 credit hours of various things. That’s all gonna be the same except for maybe how the school is ordered. It ranked in terms of prestige, but this one has a climbing wall. And so we also see the incentives work out there.
11:08 Phil Magness: Well, that’s absolutely the case. And this is something we see anecdotally all over the country, new university builds a lazy river on campus, and there’s several public universities that have these expensive facilities. You see, when the students go on campus for the tour, where do they take them around? It’s to the athletic facility that has the climbing wall, or the fancy amenities. It’s to all the student life amenities and activities that they can really show off or it’s to the nicest dorm, the dorm that has en suite bathrooms and looks more like a hotel than something you would have lived in 20 or 30 years ago, kinda the grungy dorm that they stick the freshmen in. So universities are really using this almost as a marketing point to sell students in coming to their particular campus. “Choose our college because you’re gonna be here for three, four, or five years and life is gonna be great. It’s gonna be a continuous party with activities, you’re gonna have a high-end social community and all of this is built into the package in addition to this education that you’re pursuing.”
12:11 Trevor Burrus: I mean, maybe we’re paying too much for schools in that… I don’t know how much we should be paying for schools and there’s obviously the experience of going to college, there’s a sort of, the experience’s good. But college is worth it. Under any metric in terms of earnings, it seems that college is worth it. Even if you leave with $150,000 in debt, it’s still worth it for many, many people, if not most people.
12:35 Jason Brennan: Yeah, one funny number that’s come out recently, there are a couple of studies on this, is that the people who graduate with more debt tend to have a higher repay rate than the people who graduate with very little debt. The average person who has $5000 in college loans probably will drop out. That’s why they have so little. They’re often lower quality students who go to lower-tier schools, they drop out, they don’t end up getting any kind of wage premium, and they can’t repay the $5000. Somebody comes out of Duke University with $80,000 in loans. That’s a lot of money to repay, but they’ll probably get a job that allow them to repay it. So the thing about college is it’s clear that there’s a wage premium, and that there’s a positive return on investment.
13:12 Jason Brennan: But there’s a question and there’s another book on this, Bryan Caplan’s book that’s more about this than ours, why do you get this wage premium? What explains it? And it might be the kind of thing where as an individual, I benefit from getting the degree, but it’d be better if just no one was getting these degrees. So we’re all competing to have ever better credentials. There becomes an arms race. There’s a positive return as an individual for me getting the greater credential, but socially speaking, we’re spending a lot more money to chase… Like we’re spending more money to chase these credentials than we’re getting back as a group, but for any individual, I benefit from doing it. So Bryan Caplan’s analogy, which I’m sure you’ve heard before is if we’re at a concert, like a classical concert, we feel like sitting and one person stands up. He gets a better view, then everybody stands up and no one gets a better view.
13:58 Trevor Burrus: Or eventually someone could bring a box and everyone has to bring a box and then you could have like everyone has to bring 10 boxes and the entire crowd is standing on 10 boxes.
14:05 Jason Brennan: Yeah. So no matter what other people do, you’re better getting up higher than staying lower, but if we… So it’d be better collectively if we just stayed lower.
14:13 Trevor Burrus: Now, I see the point with a lot of these degrees. English, let’s say, some of these humanities degrees, in terms of how many skills it adds to… It actually adds. Having a specialty in 16th Century French Literature or something like that, but engineering or some of these STEM things, those definitely have a skills added thing. I think if you go into school not knowing how to build a bridge and you might leave school knowing how to build a bridge. So it’s more the problem with the humanities than it is with the STEM classes?
14:40 Jason Brennan: So if you’re… Like I’m in a business school and maybe 20% of what students learn, they’re actually going to use on the job. And I don’t mean “Hey… ” ‘Cause I’ve said this before in one of my classes, “You’re all are gonna only get maybe 20% out of this but it’s different for you than for you. Sometimes it’s like that.” But I mean, overall, a lot of what you’re studying just will not be useful and it’s predictably not useful ahead of time. In fact, it’s often on purpose that it’s not useful. The reason the classes are there is not because it’s good for you, but because it’s good for the faculty to make you take them. But then even some of the general skills they’re supposed to learn they don’t. So one of these really disturbing studies we were looking at said… They lately took physics and chemistry majors at Arizona State. And I understand… Sorry ASU that…
15:25 Trevor Burrus: You’re sitting here wearing… By the way, Jay is currently wearing an Arizona Wildcats t-shirt.
15:31 Jason Brennan: There you go.
15:33 Jason Brennan: Arizona State University undergrads is kind of like a glorified community college, but not for the physics major.
15:39 Trevor Burrus: Send the emails to Jay Brennan. [chuckle]
15:41 Jason Brennan: Jayb896 [at] georgetown.edu but I probably won’t read them ‘cause if you’re coming from ASU, you probably won’t spell properly and I’ll just dismiss it.
15:49 Jason Brennan: But anyways, ASU overall is like a glorified community college, but to be a physics major or a chemistry major at ASU you still have to be really, really smart. You have to have an IQ of like 130. So ASU physics majors, I think you’re smart, except for the following: They do this study asking them really basic question about understanding science. So this is the question. It turns out… This is the study’s being done to see if people have general scientific reasoning ability and they say, “Alright we have a number of people coming into the Student Health Center and they’re reporting mental illnesses of various sorts and it turns out they’re not eating. Does it follow from that, that if they ate better, their mental illness would go away or be improved?” Very basic question. If you’ve taken a science class or just you’re good at science, you should be able to answer, “No, it doesn’t follow. It could be that that’s actually a symptom and it has a common cause and you could devise certain experiments to study that.” And then, they wanted to study how well do senior Physics and Chemistry majors do answering this question. And they had like a zero to four scoring system, and the overall majority of the people got a 0.5. So they were just horrible.
16:52 Jason Brennan: After four years of studying science, they can’t take that skill, this general scientific reasoning and apply it to a novel question outside of the narrow domain that they’ve studied. And these are smart people with IQs of 130. Not the average ASU student as I said is dumb but the smart ASU students.
17:07 Trevor Burrus: It may be the problem, critical thinking skills. We send people to universities and we have all these gen ed requirements to… I remember, I went to Boulder and we had cultural literacy and we had composition and some math and a foreign language, stuff that I tested out of in high school. But learning this stuff helped me learn better skills like just generally writing, critical thinking, learning a foreign language, taught me more about my language than any English class I ever took. Because you’re learning about parts of speech and how different languages work. So doesn’t this all end up being like a well-rounded person comes from this? You guys are both just grimacing. What… No, Phil?
17:43 Phil Magness: Yeah, I guess there are two layers to this problem. And the first is if you ask the students, “What kind of skills did you learn in college?” And they have surveys where they go and ask students that are recent graduates “Would you evaluate… How would you self-evaluate your writing skill?” And it’s always above average to excellent. You get major segments of the student population think that they’re wonderful writers, they’ve gained all the stuff.
18:05 Trevor Burrus: They’re all from Garrison Keillor’s type of…
18:06 Jason Brennan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
18:06 Phil Magness: Exactly. Everyone’s above average. And then you go ask the employers, people that are hiring in the first layer of the job market people, they’re taking entry level employers, “What skill do your employees lack the most?” And they all say “They can’t write. Their writing skill is terrible.” So you have a difference in perception of the students themselves that are coming out of this program, but then also what the employers are saying is just completely at odds with each other. Add on to that, actual measures of what these programs are being delivered and there are several studies that have been done where they’ll say, administer a test to freshmen their first week of campus. They’ll ask them maybe write in response to this prompt essay and it’s to evaluate their critical thinking skills, evaluate their writing level. Just basic introductory stuff when they’re coming out of high school. And then they come back and they administer the same test again at the end of sophomore year. So after you’ve been through two to three semesters of English and writing, another couple of semesters of the Gen-Ed Humanities, First-Year Experience type of classes.
19:11 Phil Magness: So supposedly, you should see a measurable increase in all these different skill sets and there’s no difference. There’s no difference whatsoever between the first time it’s administered and then after two years and however many classes later, there’s no improvement that’s seen for the typical student. Few minor exceptions. If you’re an English major, it does seem to go up but for almost everyone else who’s taking these classes, it’s just not discernible, that they’re doing anything at all to their benefit other than taking their money and keeping professors employed.
19:44 Jason Brennan: Yeah, most students get worse at math over time. If you’re not using math, you come in better at math than when you leave. Yeah. That’s why the GRE math section is often easier than the SAT math section.
19:51 Phil Magness: Sadly.
19:52 Jason Brennan: Yeah.
19:53 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] I mean, but what about cultural enrichment? This seems to be, if we’re trying to get people to enjoy a liberal education being, “I’ve read Shakespeare, I have some familiar with Dickens, I know what references are, maybe I took a music class, maybe I went and read some Plato at a Philosophy 101 class.” They have a familiarity, they might be able to answer a question about Plato on a test and be like, “Yes, I know what the Republic was,” that seems like a good thing.
20:20 Jason Brennan: Well, even… Not that there’s a study directly testing how much people remember about Plato, but just like this kind of general knowledge of what they learn. Forget about the soft skills, which for nine out a 10 students don’t go up very much, they forget most of what they learn in college and in high school. It seems like when the tests on average say they maybe remember about 20%, it doesn’t appear to really turn people into sort of appreciators of fine art and fine culture. Philosophy books don’t sell very well, and people aren’t consuming opera, and they’re not buying Shakespeare. They’re just watching a slightly higher quality Netflix show compared to the unwashed masses that don’t go to college.
20:57 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but there has been an uptick in the quality of television, maybe it’s ‘cause people went to university.
21:01 Jason Brennan: Well, maybe it’s because when you have a niche system when you’re able to pay, you get a premium customer who with his higher income paying for a premium product.
21:09 Trevor Burrus: That’s possible too. I prefer to blame the university, Jay.
21:11 Jason Brennan: Yeah, yeah. So it’s sort of like… These things are speculated, but it’s in so far there have been studies attempting to show that A causes B, they just don’t find it. Our best evidence is not that we know for sure universities aren’t delivering, but there’s very little evidence that they’re delivering for most of the students. So, maybe for like the bottom half of the students, they get nothing out of college. For the next 40%, they get a little bit. And for maybe one out of 10 people, they get a lot. Interestingly, people like you, you’re an intellectual. And when educational psychologists study professors and intellectuals, they are the people that retain a great deal of stuff from all their different classes and they synthesize it, and they apply it, and transfer it to novel situations. So I think a lot of what happens is that universities are being taught by people who have an unusual psychology when it comes to learning. And their model of how a university should work is based upon themselves not based upon the actual students they’re getting. And they’re like, “I learned so much.” And it’s like, “Yeah, that’s right. You’re the kind of weirdo who becomes… “
22:07 Trevor Burrus: I loved my Shakespeare class.
22:07 Jason Brennan: Yeah, you’re the kind of weirdo who becomes a college professor, so.
22:11 Trevor Burrus: Alright, so some of the more interesting things in your book is also metrics. And it’s kind of interesting I think when you find metrics that, this is actually more common I think than a lot of people realize it, that you could have an institutional effect where everyone just sort of pays attention to a metric, because that’s what they use and it’s been solidified over time. The Nielsen ratings in television have worked this way forever. Even though they kind of know that they’re BS and Sweeps Week was always like BS, they all just sort of solidified around them. So the two of the metrics that you guys discussed, so student evaluations, which matter a lot in raises, and promotions, and things like that. What’s wrong with student evaluations?
22:49 Phil Magness: They’re basically incoherent in the way that they’re administered. They don’t really tell us anything at all. They’re also very subject to bias. So there are several studies that have revealed that the difference between a male and a female professor is going to affect how students are rating them, what they write down. If you were attempting to aggregate, for example a series of student ratings across classes, the quality of what goes into the material is highly variant. A lot of it’s also correlated with how well you did in the class. So students that get As tend to write better evaluations for example. Professors that are hard graders get penalized in terms of that. So, trying to use this as kind of a standard metric to evaluate teaching quality across the university becomes a just basically an incoherent basis to make decisions on. And not only that, there are some elements that could be said to be outright unethical if you’re using a metric to make promotion or hiring decisions. And it’s actually incorporating other personal biases that students bring to the table, that’s a real problem.
23:56 Jason Brennan: Yeah, in the book, we go through very carefully, what would it take to actually measure teaching effectiveness? And it would require randomization of students and a bunch of other things in order to control for all the confounding variables, which it interfere with student freedom, and academic freedom. And then you could in principle measure it. And in so far as people have, a number of different people have run studies trying to see, is there a correlation between genuinely measured teaching effectiveness versus what happens on people’s SAT scores, student evaluation scores?
24:28 Trevor Burrus: It’s probably negative, it’s probably negative.
24:29 Jason Brennan: There’s a very slight negative correlation. So, Phil and I, we put in our scores and then just be like we’re not special pleading, we actually get highly above average scores, but then at the end we’re like… But if anything, that’s a count against us, because there’s a slight negative correlation between how much students learn and what our scores are. So they’re reliable, which is a technical term meaning that people tend to get the same score over and over again, but they’re invalid meaning they do not track teaching effectiveness. Anything that can meaninglessly be called teaching effectiveness is not captured. But then the question then is well, why do these things persist? And so, we start the book by saying, “If you understand ancient divination rituals,” you recognize that there’s a use to these things, even though they’re literally bullshit, because if one, if I’m the witch doctor of my tribe, that gives me more power over others. Having people believe in this common mythology can keep them in line, it can allow the administrators to have power over the sort of lay people. So students might not, they don’t seem to know that their invalid, so they feel like they’re getting their input and they feel placated. So you kind of cheaply pay the students off.
25:33 Jason Brennan: Once you get a bunch of people whose job it is to administer these things, they fight very heavily to reinforce them, and they ignore, they don’t know the research. Even though research is overwhelmingly negative, all the positive research is back in the ’80s before they were statistically savvy, all the new research is completely negative. The people who work on this, survey showed, they don’t know that it’s invalid, they don’t actually study it. And then if you think about the conflict between administrators and faculty, student evaluation scores give power to administrators over the faculty. They help them get resources, help them control them, help them a lot in the standardized classes, and etcetera, and make the faculty more expendable. But we then say, the next chapter, so we know faculty are gonna be like, “Yeah, yeah, you got ‘em. Yeah, this stuff is BS.” We’re like, “Great, let’s look at grading.”
26:13 Trevor Burrus: Well, before we go to grading, I wanna ask about student evaluations. It’s gotta be better than nothing. I mean, Yelp, Yelp is incoherent too. You can’t take Yelp reviews and average them in the way and there’s all… And the question of whether or not what they’re actually rating is this, are people rating the same thing, but it’s better than nothing.
26:33 Jason Brennan: Oh, no. It’s worse than nothing.
26:34 Jason Brennan: Nothing is better. Nothing is definitely better. Imagine I’m your boss here at Cato, and I’m like, “Alright, I wanna measure who are the most effective at their jobs. And the way I’m gonna do that is by have people step on a scale and then measure their height. And whoever has the most ideal BMI, I’m gonna give the biggest raise to and the biggest promotion to. You’d be like, “Oh my boss is an asshole, he’s mistreating me, he’s not doing the right thing.” Like, “My boss owes it to me to evaluate me by a proper measure of my actual job.” And so, at best, you can say about these things. Yeah, they placate students, ‘cause they don’t know better. It gives them power but you’re acting… You’re an asshole boss when you use these.
27:12 Trevor Burrus: But if… So, we talked about the student experience. So, why we have climbing walls, why we have lazy rivers. So, if the students like a professor because he’s super cool, and fun, and plays guitar, or whatever, but doesn’t learn that much. But if we’re actually manufacturing a student experience here, maybe that’s really what this is, it’s like for your club med, for 18 to 22 year-olds, and it needs to seem that way. And we pay a bunch for it, so we can spend four years on this, get the credential, move on and maybe we should just accept that. And if they’re grading you by being like, “I like that guy, that guy’s class is cool,” and not that I’ve been rigorously tested on how much I learned in Jay’s class or Phil’s class, then that’s okay.
27:49 Jason Brennan: Yeah, if universities came forth and were honest about this stuff, I think it would remove some of the moral problems, so if they changed their view books and said, instead of saying like, “We’re gonna teach you all these skills that will transform you into a new person and make you high-minded,” if they just say…
28:02 Trevor Burrus: Which they say all the time.
28:03 Jason Brennan: They say… If they…
28:03 Phil Magness: Exactly, exactly.
28:04 Jason Brennan: If they stopped saying that, and they just said, “Ah, it’s gonna be a lot of fun and you’ll get a credential at the end which will help you make more money.”
28:09 Trevor Burrus: Like ASU?
28:09 Jason Brennan: Yeah.
28:10 Jason Brennan: If they said that that would take away the problem, if you…
28:12 Trevor Burrus: Email Jay, for that one.
28:13 Jason Brennan: Yeah. If your deans just said, “Oh, we’re gonna be very clear to this, to both the students and the faculty that we know that these scores are not measuring teaching effectiveness, they’re simply a matter of student satisfaction and that’s what we care about.” That would be more honest. And like I said, I’ve been in an experience where for an executive education program where the person in charge of it, basically said, “Yeah we’re using this as a profit-making venture, so we just care about student satisfaction. We don’t actually care that much about the learning.” And it was like, at least he’s admitting that. And if they do that, that’s fine, but that’s not what they’re doing, they’re using this under the pretense that they’re measuring certain things and delivering certain skills and they don’t, which makes them either liars or in most cases negligent because they should know better. They shouldn’t just say it, right? If I come forth and I say to you, “Trevor, if you buy this piece of paper from me, it is going to make you the greatest guitarist of all time.” And then you give me $1000 and it doesn’t work and my excuse is, “Oh, well, I didn’t actually do any research on whether it worked.”
29:12 Trevor Burrus: Or even if you believed it, but you didn’t do any research.
29:14 Jason Brennan: Right. I believed it, but I didn’t do my research, you’d be like, “Yeah, you’re still…
29:17 Trevor Burrus: You’re negligent.
29:17 Jason Brennan: “You’re still engaging in bad marketing, you can’t do that.” If a drug company did this, what we say in the book is, “If drug companies advertise the way that universities did, the FDA would shut them down and fine them billions and billions of dollars,” but universities get away with the kind of advertising that no for-profit company’s allowed to do.
29:33 Trevor Burrus: Well, the university is an icon of western civilization too. I mean, with Bologna and the kind of development of the university system. But you mentioned grading. So this is a big one, a straight A student, they’re grading Fs, we use them as metaphors all the time, but grading is also problematic.
29:50 Jason Brennan: Yeah, so we started writing as we expected to say something like, “Well, grades have nine different things that they can mean and it’s not clear which they are,” but that really is a problem. Even over 100 years ago, a book was written on this and said, “There is no set thing that a grade means.” It could mean ranking you against other people in your class, ranking you against other people that in the university or in the country as a whole, it could mean something like measuring you by some absolute standard of value. It could mean measuring…
30:19 Trevor Burrus: Like 75 out of a 100 correct.
30:21 Jason Brennan: Yeah, or just like… But also it could be qualitative like I think this is good, I think this is excellent by some standard. It turns out, professors are not reliable grading class to class, or essay to essay, if you give them essays in a different order, they grade them differently. It turns out that professors mean something like at least nine different things when they assign grades, which creates a level of incoherence because just think of the mathematics here, you get an A in English, a B in… An A in English means excellent, and then you take a Chemistry 101 class and you get a B, and a B there means 85% of the questions, right. And then you take Econ 101 at the Business School and you get an A and an A there means…
31:00 Trevor Burrus: Competence…
31:01 Jason Brennan: Either you ranked two out of 45. So then the mathematics is, “Okay, great, plus 85%, plus ranked two out of 45 divided by three equals…
31:12 Trevor Burrus: Your GPA.
31:13 Phil Magness: Your GPA.
31:13 Jason Brennan: Right, right. And they substitute in these numbers, and that’s not licit. And there’s even problems with things like, a lot of times these rankings or scoring are what are called ordinal numbers rather than cardinal. So, ordinal means like first, second, third, fourth. And you can’t average those where you can average numbers like just one, two and three. So literally the mathematics of this is incoherent. It turns out, GPA is not really correlated with future job success or so on. There aren’t that many studies on it, but in so far is there are, it doesn’t… It’s not as good a predictor as people think it would be, the strong evidence that it hurts student learning, it makes them worse at learning. So we should probably stop doing it. And for what it’s worth, we wanna make this very clear, Phil and I are the exact opposite of Hampshire College hippies, right?
31:55 S?: Why? [chuckle]
31:55 Jason Brennan: I am all about measuring things and using numbers and people are like, “You’re a liberal, I’m… ” No, no, I wanna measure things. I think you can put a specific dollar value on every individual human life. I think everyone’s life is commensurate with a dollar value.
32:07 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, yeah.
32:07 Jason Brennan: My problem here is not that we’re using numbers, it’s that we’re doing bad science.
32:11 Trevor Burrus: Okay, so you’re not saying, “You can’t reduce people to a number, man.”
32:14 Jason Brennan: Yeah, I’m like, “We should reduce people to numbers and we’re totally sucking at it here.”
32:19 Trevor Burrus: But the good ones.
32:19 Phil Magness: Non-sense numbers. [chuckle]
32:19 Jason Brennan: “And since we’re here, we’re so bad at it, we should stop doing it.”
32:22 Trevor Burrus: But again, I’m thinking about the fact that this is better… Is it better than nothing, is it… Does it give us some semblance, so we don’t know. Again, I’m thinking of Yelp again, we don’t know what people mean when they mean four stars or when they mean three stars or when they rate five stars. So if we average them together, we don’t know exactly what that means for anyone. In turn, we also don’t know with an A, B, C grade and always with ranking systems as we see in the sharing economy, they’re trying to get more granular data. So, you rank your Uber driver. And then they say, “Do you like… ” And then they wanna go, “Do you like conversation? Do you like speed? Do you like the fact that they didn’t talk? How do you average these together?” Nevertheless, even though some people like an Uber driver who doesn’t talk and some people like an Uber driver who talks all the time, there’s some meaning to that data that’s better than not having it. And couldn’t we do something with grades where we try to fix it and make it better than zero?
33:13 Phil Magness: Like one of the issues that comes up is any time you try to impose a metric of this nature, it’s often gameable, it’s often manipulatable, and there are people that do chase GPA. I’ve had dozens of those types of students in class that come in and, “Well, I got a 95 on this quiz, but I really need a 97 because I have a perfect GPA and you’re gonna ruin it, if you don’t give me this one particular grade.” So, it actually does alter the way that people conduct themselves or alter the way that students conduct themselves in class. So not only do you have a poor metric. A metric that doesn’t really tell you much of anything, it’s one that creates all sorts of perverse incentives up and down the system. Same thing with teaching evaluations. If say I’m a student in the class, and I don’t like a professor, ‘cause I’m unhappy with my performance, maybe that person graded me harshly or didn’t appreciate the value of the paper or something that I turned in.
34:07 Phil Magness: And they know that they can penalize me by writing this really horrendous review, giving me nothing but one out of five in all my scores, writing malicious things in the comments, turning that into my department. Then my department chair, if he’s making a decision on that calls me into the office and says, “What’s going on here, what the hell? I just got this set of evaluations from a student and they said that you’re absolutely horrible.” But there’s another story behind it. Well, then the perverse incentive is actually played out. So what we get is metrics that are not only inaccurate in delivering the information that they promised to deliver, but are game-able in such ways that they could be used for harmful purposes.
34:44 Trevor Burrus: Well, this is why you need tenure. So tenure protects… If you wanna be a professor who teaches hard, and ends up being the 3.5 out of five rating on the student evaluations because you’re a hard teacher, well the tenure is what protects that. Correct? And lets you do research and lets you research controversial things. It’s one of the reasons it’s there.
35:07 Jason Brennan: But the problem is getting tenure’s often based upon these student evaluations. So most universities, faculty do very little research, most faculty over the course of their lives do very little research, they spend most of their time teaching, and most schools, the decisions about tenure and promotion, and also your year-to-year raise are based upon these teaching evaluations which are not valid measures of student learning. So and then you’re giving students grades which actually make them learn less. That’s what the empirical evidence is. It hurts their learning. So you have that kinda… Even for me, I work at a research one university. My raise is almost entirely determined… Is predominantly determined by how much research I do. We get summer bonuses based upon doing research, we get increased research budgets based upon publication and so on.
35:52 Jason Brennan: But even for me, if I got lower evaluations that would come out of my pocket, that would make me lose some money. And that… It compounds year after year. If I get $1000 less raise this year, that’s worth like… I’m trying to do a net present value of that but over the next 30 years that’s worth like 150 grand, right?
36:08 Trevor Burrus: Sure, sure, Yep.
36:09 Jason Brennan: So that’s, that’s a lot. And at my school, that’s the primary thing that we use to evaluate whether you’re a good teacher is student-teaching evaluations even though the research overwhelmingly says they’re not good.
36:20 Trevor Burrus: So what about tenure? Should we have… You mentioned it doesn’t protect teachers who wanna teach hard. But does it help them produce more sort of trailblazing research or product academic freedom or…
36:31 Phil Magness: Yeah, so to give you some summary stats. The average college professor in the United States, self reports that they spend about 60% of their time, on teaching, and the remainder is split between service and research. If you actually get into what they’re researching, what they’re producing, typical professor publishes less than one piece of research in a given year, on average and this could be anything from a simple book review all the way up to a 500-page manuscript.
36:58 Trevor Burrus: And I imagine that that’s probably, if you average everything you have some people who are… That curve is extremely of people who publish like Jay who publish 20 things a year and then you have two people and then the average is 11 between Jay and another professor.
37:11 Phil Magness: It is. And it’s very much a skewed distribution but the skew is much to the lower end. So you have something like 25% of professors that do next to nothing in terms of research, next to nothing in terms of output. Yeah, we have this tenure system that ostensibly it’s there for all these high-minded ideals to protect freedom of speech, to protect faculty from being penalized by administrators in the university system. In some element of that is there, I’ll give a partial defense of tenure, there are actual cases where it has saved people from political persecution. There are cases where it’s allowed people to engage in controversial research. But it’s also an entry barrier. It’s an entry barrier into the field that can be used in ways that are anything from punitive and malicious to simple justification for more bureaucracy and how to get and secure that point in your career. I guess give another example. We think about the cases that are saved by tenure when they’re high profile in the news. What about the people that never get tenure because their fellow faculty or their fellow administrators view that as a risk to give to someone ‘cause they think, “Well, if someone… Five years in the future, this guy is gonna be writing controversial research and he’ll be tenured, and I don’t wanna have to deal with that. So we’re just gonna get them out of the system.”
38:29 Jason Brennan: There are quite a few studies on trying to test the hypothesis that tenure really helps people. And so, one theory about tenure is like when you get tenure you can finally do really controversial stuff. Like you’d write a book about how you should shoot cops that are acting badly, or write a book about how democracy is sad or…
38:44 Trevor Burrus: See the previous, a few episodes with Jay, yes.
38:46 Jason Brennan: You could write a book about how your employer is corrupt or something.
38:49 Trevor Burrus: Now, those did come out after tenure, right?
38:51 Jason Brennan: Yeah. They did.
38:51 Phil Magness: Yeah, there you go.
38:53 Jason Brennan: But there are people who’ve tried to test this in economics and sociology in other fields and they’ll try to get independent research on… Like evaluation of how high-hitting is this research, and so on, and how productive are people. And what you find is that the threat of not getting tenure makes people really swing for the fences, and work very productively, and produce a lot of stuff. And then, upon getting tenure, people produce less and they become more conservative in their work. So on average, for most faculty, what happens is, when you remove the flames from under their butts, they work less. And that wouldn’t be surprising… If I said to Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, if Bill Belichick said to him, “You could be a quarterback for the rest of your life, no matter how badly you played,” you’d think he’d probably play a little bit worse. If I said to the average McDonald’s worker, “I don’t care if you burn every single french fry, you’re still getting at least a cost-of-living raise and you can work here forever.” They’d be less productive and less good. It turns out faculty are exactly the same as everybody else.
39:53 Trevor Burrus: They’re not high-minded, worldly. Yeah, they just, they have incentives too. What a shock.
39:57 Jason Brennan: Yeah, and they respond to incentives, yeah.
40:00 Trevor Burrus: So, I’d like to get in some of the controversy that decides well, Phil’s Twitter life, for lack of a term.
40:06 Phil Magness: Oh, absolutely. [chuckle]
40:07 Trevor Burrus: So, there’s a few things that… So we have people who are lamenting the nature of the university, but they often claim it’s because corporations are taking over the universities or neo-liberal ideology, is taking over the universities, not these kind of basic incentive structure that you’re talking about. So what do we say to those ideas?
40:25 Phil Magness: Oh, the poltergeist… Poltergeist concept.
40:28 Trevor Burrus: The poltergeist, yeah.
40:29 Phil Magness: Yeah. We develop in the book, what is a poltergeist? It’s this phantasm, this ghost-like creature that moves into a house and inhabits it and causes a mess around the kitchen by throwing things out of cabinets, causes creaks in the night, all sorts of problems. But the other thing about a poltergeist is, they don’t exist, they’re not real, they’re not actual entities. So we use this as a metaphor for major critiques and diagnoses of the university system that we hear, especially in the higher ed press. If you interview professors, what they do is they look around the university system, they see there are real problems, there are problems in employment, there’s a huge job crunch in the Humanities, a glut of PhD seekers for jobs at a time when there are very few jobs to go around. The number far exceeds what’s available to make a career in that. They also see administrators acting unethically or things like the college admission scandal. So very real diagnosable problems but the tendency and the strain of the literature in this press is rather than to get into what are the institutional under-pendings or some of the reasons behind these problems, they’ll seize onto a poltergeist, a phantasm.
41:43 Phil Magness: And two of the most popular ones that they come into are corporatization of the university system or, closely related, neo-liberalism. It’s kind of this boogeyman term that is all encompassing. It’s supposed to exploit everything that’s wrong with university system. It can’t be something that we’re doing wrong ourselves. Rather, this outside other has moved in, and invaded the universities, and taken away all the things that were good about university life 20 or 30 years ago, and turned it into the service of this mess. We asked the question, when they’re diagnosing these phantasms, they’re diagnosing Poltergeists, what is the term? What does it actually mean? What is neo-liberalism? You can go through a 10,000 article and book literature on the question of neo-liberalism and you’ll find that there’s no clear, coherent, definition of what it even means. It’s really kinda this pejorative term that’s thrown out to encompass markets in general, economics in general, but above all else, things that I personally don’t like. So it becomes kinda the scapegoat for getting around actually having to confront real problems, real issues.
42:52 Trevor Burrus: Why are we seeing university faculty more friendly to markets or more… [chuckle]
42:56 Phil Magness: Oh, quite the contrary. And there, actually, is good survey data on this. We don’t try to make this as a left versus right point, at all. We aren’t trying to get into the ideology, but it is, none the less, measurable. So, if you were to ask the question, what does a neo-liberal university look like? We’d suppose that professors are becoming more market friendly, if neo-liberalisms invaded the professoriate…
43:20 Jason Brennan: Or the administrators.
43:21 Phil Magness: Or the administration.
43:22 Jason Brennan: The presidents, yeah.
43:22 Phil Magness: The president, everything, all the way down, we should start seeing… If neo-liberalism’s taking over the university, they should be hiring neo-liberals and it’s actually the opposite trend. Faculty on a whole have moved dramatically leftward in the past 20 years.
43:37 Jason Brennan: And administrators, even more.
43:37 Phil Magness: And administrators and it’s just up and down the system. So, faculty have gone from maybe about a 40% left-leaning morality tent now, it’s a two-thirds majority. They start pulling administrators, and the administrators are even further to the left in their political identification than the faculty. So this is not market ideology that’s invaded the university system, or if it is they’re doing a really poor job of ensuring that this is enforced. So we asked this question, like, does this claim of neo-liberalism taking over the universities, even hold up in metric after metric after metric of attempting to discern that reveals no evidence in favor and quite a bit to the opposite.
44:19 Jason Brennan: And the universities were the most neo-liberal back in the ’50s. That’s when they were young.
44:23 Phil Magness: And raw. [chuckle]
44:23 Trevor Burrus: Right. They should be in some sort of general market for liberals.
44:25 Jason Brennan: Yeah, and now they’re very left-leaning, and that’s just everyone from the top to the bottom. Very left-leaning, social justice oriented, and we’re not saying that’s bad, but we’re just saying there’s no neo-liberalism here, there’s no evidence of this infection. So, one thing that’s nice about this chapter, which Phil mostly wrote, was he as best you can operationalize the claims that people are making and then measure them, and said, it’s the opposite of the trend. Corporatization’s not the right diagnosis, it’s rather just a scanning effect of budget maximization within smaller bodies.
44:57 Trevor Burrus: Building the scanning and not the scanning center.
45:03 Jason Brennan: Not the scanning center obviously they’re not aptly named the scanning center.
45:03 Jason Brennan: So it’s…
45:03 Trevor Burrus: Bureaucracies want to increase their budget?
45:05 Jason Brennan: Yeah, they want to increase their discretionary budget. And so what we find is you have these highfalutin stories that people tell where they don’t really give a causal explanation or a mechanism by how it would cause it. And it’s like, well maybe you’re right, but the evidence goes the other way, and then we can just tell a simple story about, there’s this person, they have this incentive to do this thing for themselves and they can externalize the costing on others. And what we offer as a diagnosis explains everything without having, again to highfalutin concepts. So, like if you mug somebody, the first thing we wanna ask is, well was he just being a jerk and he thought he could get away with it and get some money, rather than start talking about, did Satan possess you, cause you to do it? Like we don’t go to the satanic explanation when like…
45:41 Trevor Burrus: Until you need to.
45:42 S?: Until you need to, yeah.
45:45 Trevor Burrus: So if we’re looking at some of these problems that Phil mentioned, that the academia has acknowledged what they call admission scandal, we have an increasing skepticism toward college or whether or not it’s worth it, all this kind of stuff. And if we did a radical reform, for example, we broke it up, made it much more vocational, whatever, broke up the Gen ed requirements. How many people on the universities understand for example, like professors and PhDs… Trying to get their PhD, that if there wasn’t a requirement that they take your class like sociology and stuff, they understand that they would literally have no students in a market voluntarily going. They would say, “Economics is a good degree for getting a lot of career paths. Sociology… ” You have to make people take it and then you could justify the existence of the department and you guys talk about these things. These meetings you’ve been in where someone says, “We’re gonna create a new engineering degree.” It’s like, “Well, only if you create a new sociology professor position to study the sociology of engineering.” And it seems like that that might be extremely conscious, “I have to protect my department or no one would actually go to my classes.”
46:47 Phil Magness: So what we develop in the books, basically a theory of academic rent seeking and it parallels rent seeking in the political world. And so you ask a question of what does a university exist for? And ostensibly the high minded version is introduction to a wide range of subject matter. All the liberal arts, a person emerges from a degree program with a well-rounded education. But what we actually find is that the departments that are facing declining enrollments, they’re dropping majors, they’re less and less popular also tend to be more reliant on making their classes mandatory. So it’s not that you walk into the university system and you have to take one math, one economics, one English, one history, one philosophy. It ends up being, maybe you have one semester where you choose between economics, sociology and psychology and four semesters of English. So English is something that’s very rapidly contracting in terms of majors and there’s actually some empirical evidence of this. So there was a study done in 1974 where they polled most of the universities in the United States and said, “What’s your English requirement? What’s your introductory writing requirement?”
48:01 Phil Magness: And most universities answer, “Well, we have one semester of writing required of all freshmen.” So they repeat this survey about 30 years later to see what’s happened. And, the gist of the empirical data is the number of writing requirements have doubled in that period of time. But yet we also have all this other evidence that writing’s not getting better. In fact, it’s getting worse. So the diagnosis of poor writing skills is to make people take more and more classes in writing, but it’s not actually doing any improvements. So we come up with an alternative theory. And the theory here is that it’s actually the departments that are lobbying to get themselves inserted into the Gen ed curriculum. So English is the clearest evidence because we have the best data there, but you start seeing similar types of signs in foreign languages. So 20 or 30 years ago you had to take one semester of Spanish, now it’s two or three semesters of Spanish. And it just so happens that foreign languages are also declining in popularity as majors or they work themselves into the Gen ed curriculum with…
49:03 Phil Magness: They have this system of courses that are often referred to as first year experiences. And this is, you enter in freshman year. It’s not really in any subject matter, but it’s this general type of a class about cultural knowledge and exchange and university life, study habits. All of these tend to be taught by professors in humanities disciplines that are declining in enrollment and declining in their own majors themselves. So I think really the mechanism that we show here and to the best amount of data that we can bring to bear on it, is that less and less popular majors are basically lobbying to get themselves inserted into the higher ed curriculum. Then all of a sudden you can mandate the students take your classes. They have to spend one to two years in the university. There’s money attached to it. That money in turn returns to your department as a butts in seats type of a measure. And that means you can hire more faculty.
50:00 Jason Brennan: And I wanna add to that. He’s right, we basically… There’s lots of things like external funding and so on. And so the more financially vulnerable a department is, the more likely it’s classes appear as a Gen ed over time. It sounds like rent seeking, right? . But it’s not just, “Oh, well that’s too bad you had took English classes.” This is positively evil. Professors should feel really, really bad about themselves. Pray to your God for forgiveness for doing this.
50:25 Jason Brennan: Because college is really expensive, especially if we’re supposed to be concerned about social injustice, especially for poor students who can barely afford to go. And you’re basically saying, “I’m gonna force you to spend thousands of hours of your time and tens of thousands of dollars taking a class for my benefit rather than for yours so I can get more money and I can have more, a higher salary and have graduate students who serve me and feel good about myself.” If you’re doing that, you’re a horrible person. You should quit your job and go work for Geico [laughter] and do something productive in the world. So Gen ed rent seeking is evil and almost everyone does it. And you know what? They know they do it. ‘Cause if you’ve been to these meetings anecdotally, they say…
51:06 Jason Brennan: When I was at Brown University, I remember we pitched to the economics department. Let’s have a PPE concentration, a bunch of students have independently asked for it. We’re not even spearheading it ourselves. We’re just like, “They’re spokespeople.” And we went up to the econ department head and he said, “No way. We’ll lose students. We’ll lose money. Yeah, we’re still at lunch. Let’s talk about some other stuff.” We’ve been in meetings where people say, “Oh well we need to have our major here because we need more money.” Georgetown, I should say, we don’t have that same funding model that most schools have where you get money per butts in seats. And we have the opposite thing happening. I’m on the Gen ed committees there where people are like, “Can we offload our Gen eds onto others so we don’t have to staff them? Because we don’t want to staff the philosophy requirement ‘cause we just wanna spend it on our own things we care about.” And the reason is not because they’re especially noble at Georgetown, it’s just because there’s no money attached to it. So if anything, you spend money educating people.
51:56 Trevor Burrus: Then in the last chapter you, this big question comes up about universities and for what they’re for. And we have public university, we have private universities and we… Some of these things are a product of funding of government backed student loans, to some extent, but I think you could also see institutional dysfunction without the government funding these things, like the student evaluations for example. But should we even be talking about the purposes of university, is my first question, and whether or not we should even be funding it on a public level to kind of start rolling some of this back. Should we view education as a public good in this thing, that we need to sort of fix how we’re doing this and maybe have the government come in and fix this stuff or… There’s a lot of incentives here that are out of whack, and it’s hard to fix. So maybe the first thing we do is take away the government funding and start some other processes going.
52:46 Phil Magness: Well, I think there’s a broad question here. Who are universities answerable to? Who are they responsive to? And if they’re publicly financed, one of the answers to that is the tax payers. Second, are the actual students that are going in and paying tuition. So, what Jay was just saying, if you’re requiring students to spend tens of thousands of dollars on classes that they don’t need just to keep a higher number of faculty employed, make sure that they have cushy jobs, that’s probably unethical. If you’re doing the same thing, if you’re taking tax dollars that are ostensibly servicing this high-minded ideal of creating a more educated populist, which is how education funding is always sold, but then you’re turning it around and really using it as kind of a jobs program for people who study 15th century poetry or post-colonial puppeteering, or all these kind of weird little fringe niche hobbies that may be perfectly enjoyable for some of the people that do them, but you ask the question, “What is this really delivering in terms of value, not even to society at large, but just to the students that are tending this university,” you start getting into questions of do we have a misalignment in the allocation of funds?
53:54 Phil Magness: And these are not only public finance questions, they’re ethical questions as well, because the general direction of this type of thing, it’s from people that are less economically empowered. It’s from first-generation college students at 17, 18, 19-year-olds that have very little, in terms of income, other than maybe what their parents provide them, that are being used to subsidize the careers of a mid-age philosophy professor, or an English professor, or chemistry professor, who are basically living a very comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle teaching niche subject matters, teaching courses that maybe aren’t delivering on that supposed claim with the public good that they’re used to justify themselves.
54:38 Jason Brennan: Yeah, a good way to put it is… The last chapter of the book, we give about seven or so possible justifications for universities, including why they should be government financed. And rather than saying, “No, they shouldn’t or shouldn’t be,” we just kinda give a checklist of like, “Here’s what it would take to prove that it should be government financed.” And also, even if you think it should, there’s a question of like, “Do you have too much or too little?” So you might think, “Ah, there’s a reason to have… There’s a reason to have, say, public financing of roads because as we all know, no one would build the roads without them, but it doesn’t follow that you should build this road here at this time.” There’s still a question of, “On the margin, where are we?” And we don’t really take a stance in that. We do say it would be difficult to show this rather than that, and no one’s really done it. So it could follow that maybe the government should spend, say, $150 billion a year financing universities. So, we should just cut it by $75 billion.
55:28 Jason Brennan: It could be that you should spend another $100 billion, but it takes work to show that. And people are very averse to actually doing that work, which is ‘cause they don’t actually care about justice because what… The reason… They really don’t because if they did, they would say, “Oh I don’t… The government budgets are limited, and we could be spending this extra $100 billion giving aid to mothers with dependent children, rather than helping to re-insure sinecures for upper-middle class… Like intellectual hobbyists.” But if you say that to most faculty and most administrators, they’re like, “How dare you even say that there’s a trade-off,” which shows that they lack even a minimal level of moral seriousness.
56:16 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate us on Apple Podcast, or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Airs. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.