The next crime reduction breakthrough

Many of our great universities are having some awkwardness about how they deal with people who sexually mistreat their students.  The government is making them report on cases and how they are handling them, and Yale’s offers an innovation that has vast promise for all criminal justice, even though its merit completely escapes some bloggers.    The innovation is to rename rape as  non-consensual sex.  Like most innovators, Yale didn’t push their invention as far as they should have, but we can fix that: what they actually meant was partially consensual sex: surely they didn’t mean to completely ignore the enthusiastic consent of the rapist that is universal in these cases! In the student-on-student cases, it’s not just anyone consenting, but a Yale Man, not to mention a future stream of alumni bucks – possibly even  a letter athlete. In gang rapes, it seems only right to say “minority nonconsensual sex“.

The language change is much more interesting than it might appear.  For one thing, it sounds much less like something that’s done to you by somebody, and more like something that just happened.  Like when you trip on a loose rug when you didn’t mean to.  So all that blaming and fault-finding that makes the dean have Seriously Awkward Meetings with the spoiled son of a rich alum gets the heat turned down from the start. For another, it elides what we know about rape being a matter of power and not, mainly, sex. And finally, it wonderfully raises the subconscious suggestion that maybe not consenting was the offense!

I foresee a whole penal code worth of creative renaming in this line.  For a start, it will be super useful as the military looks under its sexual abuse rock; in lots of those cases, the consenting rapist outranks the victim, a clear case of predominant consent. When someone points a gun at you and takes your money and your cell phone, that’s not robbery; it’s partially consensual sharing!  When Yale students cheat on their exams, they’re using partially approved study methods.  If that armed sharer just shoots you to move things along, he’s aggravated the offense with partially consensual lifespan determination.  The possibilities in international relations make my head swim; armed occupation, for example, is partially consensual governance, which is obviously not that far from enacting legislation in Congress with a less-than-unanimous vote.

Rape is a felony, and felonies tend to involve the police, prison sentences, and a bunch of other really messy stuff. If we call this something that sounds a lot more like kids having fun…well, you get the idea. If you call a dog’s tail a leg, the dog has five legs, right?

I am ashamed that my alma mater does not get credit for this breakthrough, but maybe we can come up with something like it in the next round.

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”

Math is hard

Two dispatches this week from the “is our girls and women learning?” wars. Elizabeth Weil writes about the nascent movement for single-sex education in public schools, and Christina Hoff Sommers takes on efforts to socially engineer the equal representation of women in science and engineering PhD programs. (Charlotte Allen’s “Women are dumb” doesn’t make the cut.)

These arguments over the influences of innate cognitive differences (in the mean and in variability), socialization, hostile environments, and self-selection don’t seem to be going anywhere. Sommers has moved on from the crisis in boys’ learning to the crisis in men’s—women now earn the majority of PhDs, so academia must be hostile to men. Except in math, science, and engineering. And activists are now using Title IX to redress this last injustice.

Continue reading “Math is hard”


Abolish it? Maybe.

An extremely clever friend who teaches public policy from a tenured position at a first-rate place proposes to cut the Gordian Knot. If we can’t make a tenure system that’s fair to women, let’s just abolish tenure:

1) I have never observed a single colleague cross the tenure line who became more courageous or innovative either intellectually or managerially afterwards, actually usually the reverse. I think the whole institution is toxic (this goes for law partnerships and civil service tenure as well) because it makes it impossible for the institution to send a real Spencian signal of good work. “We’ll keep you on for another year” has the same conditional probability no matter whether you did a great job or slacked. In the absence of a meaningful message of appreciation, our natural paranoid fear that we aren’t really qualified for what we do, or aren’t doing it, starts to take over. If women ran things, we would have an entirely different, more humane, more productive, and more efficient way to protect academic freedom and get good work done.

(2) I’ve watched three hiring decisions go by here lately and I’m sorry to say I think we at least are simply not able to give women a fair shake…and it’s not just publication records. Yes, there’s prejudice and yes, it matters.

(3) Doing a site visit for an innovations-award program, I had occasion to visit Collier County, Florida. I started my day with a very spry retired 70-year old who ran the landfill (where the innovation was), who introduced me to his boss, a 55ish import engineer from Ohio, who introduced me to his boss, the county environmental chief, about 40, and then I finally met the maximum super top jefe, the County Executive. In his corner office with the flags when I went in was a 29 year-old-kid who had recently finished his MPA at Big Red. Yup, he was the CE.

I catch on quick, so I said to myself at that moment “gee, everyone here reports to someone younger than he is!” This happens because the county is on a very short financial leash (poor and retired taxpayers, the latter on fixed incomes) so they can’t afford, for example, the CE who would normally run a county that size. Also a lot of people retire too early, move and realize that golf and tennis do not make a life. So they go looking for some sort of job, but the only jobs are making beds in the hotels and working for the county.

The result of this is to inject the latest technical know-how about management right at the top of the organization, and wisdom, experience, and judgment at the bottom. Also courage: obviously you can’t mistreat these retirees, they don’t need their paychecks.

In our business, we do some things upside down, for example having junior faculty teach intro courses, where maturity, confidence, and teaching skill is essential and where their latest frontier knowledge can’t really be used except to show off or intimidate the students.

(4) Obviously Rubin didn’t complete the socialization of Larry Summers, or it didn’t stick. But a lot…a LOT…of his critics don’t know the meaning of the words hypothesis and probably, and have forgotten the first duty of an academic, which is to be willing to examine any proposition, even if you really hope it’s not true and even if it comes from someone crude, awkward, even a person of ill-will. Wagner was a truly awful misogynist, treacherous to his friends, egotistical, an anti-Semite (even if of the 19c less-odious type). But modern music is impossible without his innovations, and he also had some really humane and wise insights about the role of art in communiy and society. This trashing of Summers by assertion and namecalling is deplorable and embarrassing, and the issue of whether there are different sigmas in male and female traits, and if so, what would that mean, will not go away just because Good People shout it down.

Everyone who has been through the tenure mill must have thought that any change in such an awful system would have to be an improvement. It guarantees academic freedom mostly to those too old and beaten-down to be able to use it well; younger scholars are utterly exposed to the whims of their (often less knowledgeable and less creative) seniors.

And yet … tenure is part of the functioning of the extremely complex and successful enterprise known as the research university. If everyone’s job is up for grabs at all times, every hiring decision has to be made with the question “Will this person like my work?” in mind.

The combination of tenure and the departmental prestige competition sometimes — not always — overcomes the natural tendency of insecure people to avoid associating with those who might be brighter than they are. (I emphasize, not always: I’m told that the very good people forced into second-rate places by the current glut sometimes don’t get tenure because they’re too threatening intellectually to the second-rate tenured faculty.)

Here again, we can’t just assume a can-opener. No matter how bad a system is, it can always be made worse. Using butter to lubricate a clockwork won’t in general improve its performance, even if you use the very best butter.

Someone has to design an incentive-compatible management system to replace tenure. As soon as my friend Susanne Lohmann publishes her book on the management of the research university, we’ll all know how hard that is, and maybe even have some idea about how to do it.

Designing a sex-fair tenure system

Half-time assistant professorships, with each year counting as half a year on the tenure clock.

A reader answers my challenge to design a tenure system that would deal with the problem Brad DeLong points out: that the 60-hour-per-week effort required to get tenure someplace good is more costly for women than for men:

The answer is obvious, it seems to me: Part-time faculty slots. This is the only way to do it. Pay women (or men for that matter) who want to commit to child care half the salary for half the commitment. (Or other pro-ratings: three-quarters, for instance, which would stretch six years of publishing clock to eight.) Stretch out the tenure clock not just for one year but for twice the years that the person involved wants this deal.

Stop asking the question, “how many years since your dissertation” for publishing purposes, and take the tenure clock seriously: i.e. a non-full-year does NOT count as a year. (This would involve a big culture shift, but not as big as the shift away from saying “man” for human.) As it stands, women or men who take an “extra year on the tenure clock” don’t really get an extra year, since it still looks like a wasted year on their c.v. and the informal psychic equivalents thereof.

This is no doubt inefficient. Too bad: we must swallow the costs. (Including the costs of full health care for half the work–though I can see the case for giving only half pension benefits.) For too long, half the human race has been free-riding off the other half when it comes to rearing the next generation. Universities–and analogous institutions like law firms and consulting firms making partnership decisions–should start realizing that their tuition-payers do not come out of cabbage patches and should make it possible for people to be both employed at their institutions and parents.

This is not an abstract issue for me: it also affects those of us men who are approximately equal partners in the parenting game. Two years ago, I acquired a second full time job, but as far as tenure is concerned nobody noticed.

This seems to me like a serious idea. (It turns out it’s already on the books at the University of California, but no one seems to recall it ever being used.)

For the idea to be workable, three things have to be true: (1) Of two candidates coming up for tenure with comparable bodies of work, the one who produced that work in twice as many years half-time will, on average, achieve the same distinction within the discipline as the one who produced it in half as many years full-time; and (2) currently tenured faculty can be brought to believe (1); and (3) assistant professors can figure out a way to live on half of salaries already far from generous, or aren’t married to other assistant professors.

Ignoring #3 for the moment, and assuming that if (1) is true (2) would eventually become true, we need to ask how likely it is that (1) is true, or mostly true.

Departments are vying for prestige, which is the coin that attracts smart graduate students, smart new faculty, and (increasingly) resources from the university administration. A tenure decision is basically a bet on future academic stature. Most of the time, the bet doesn’t pay off; pick your favorite department, and you’ll notice that three-quarters of the faculty over 50 are more or less deadwood in research terms. They mostly publish some, but it’s not very exciting; they earn their keep, if they do, by doing teaching and administration. So a system that asks departments to make worse bets simply isn’t going to work.

Is it true that slowing the clock in that fashiou wouldn’t reduce the eventual disciplinary stature of the participants? Search me. Offhand, I’d bet it might work well in the humanities, where the wisdom that sometimes comes with age means that the best scholars often keep getting better, and much less well in math and the natural sciences, where productivity of important new ideas — if not of published papers — seems to drop rapidly with years since graduate school.

But at least we have a real proposal on the table now.

Update: Or just can the tenure system entirely?