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By now, most people who read this blog have seen the letter that the Dean of Students of the University of Chicago sent to incoming students this week:

The crucial paragraph of the letter was the third:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

There’s a lot to say, and a lot that’s been said, about this passage—Jeet Heer wrote a short piece at the New Republic (using some of my tweets as a jumping-off point) arguing that it was an attack on academic freedom, for instance, while the former president of the U of C student government unleashed a devastating tweetstorm addressing the various ways in which the college’s administration had, during his time on campus, ducked its obligations to engage in open and constructive dialogue. (Link is to his Twitter feed. Scroll back.)

What I want to talk about today, though, is an essay by Jesse Singal of New York magazine, a writer whose views on campus issues I often share.

Singal is no huge fan of the letter’s framing, it’s important to note. Many of the criticisms I’ll be raising here are ones that he himself makes. But his core premise is that while the letter was perhaps over-aggressive and over-simplified, it was nonetheless a useful and justified intervention because it addressed a real problem on the contemporary campus—attacks on free speech.

Free speech is under threat on campus, he believes, and so, in taking a forthrightly pro-free-speech, pro-academic-freedom stand, the letter “could be a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.”

Singal is right that there’s a real culture clash happening in American higher ed right now, but he’s wrong to portray it as a clash between supporters and opponents of free expression. To understand why, let’s examine the letter’s core positions one at a time.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings…'”

The college has already had to walk this one back a bit, because of course one may support trigger warnings and also be committed to academic freedom. Indeed, as a college professor who uses trigger warnings in my own classes, I’d interpret a statement like this from administrators at my college as a denigration of my pedagogical choices, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle suggestion that I revise my syllabi.

A university truly committed to academic freedom will allow its professors to decide for themselves whether to use trigger warnings, and will foster open and unfettered discussion as to whether they should so. It will also recognize that students who choose to agitate for the adoption of such warnings are themselves engaging in acts of free speech and deserving of the protections afforded by the principles of academic freedom.

The letter, sadly, acknowledges none of this.

“…we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial…”

Here too the letter reduces a complex, multifaceted question to a fatuous soundbite. Are there many people really arguing that a university should “cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial”? Not in my experience, and I pay quite a bit of attention to this stuff. No, the letter is here misrepresenting the position it argues against, and in so doing it papers over the most interesting questions it raises.

Here are some of those more interesting questions:

Should a university invite speakers who are bigots? If so, under what circumstances? Who should decide who is invited to speak on campus, and who should determine how student money is allocated to bring such speakers? Does a student club have an obligation to go forward with an invitation it has extended if it later comes to regret it? What are the proper limits of dissent and protest and disruption when an obnoxious speaker appears?

These are all questions on which people committed to free speech can vigorously disagree. (They’re all questions on which I’d happily argue one of several contradictory positions, for starters, if you’re buying the beer.) But there’s no hint of that vitality and complexity here.

“…and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Again the letter elides the most interesting, and most important, issues at hand. Should a campus Atheist Club be required to accept a fundamentalist Christian as a vocal participant in its meetings, and vice versa? Must a Women’s Center open its discussion group for sexual assault survivors to men? Are all spaces on campus sites of perpetual intellectual combat, open to all comers, or might students reasonably choose to affiliate only with like-minded friends and allies on occasion? The letter presupposes one answer to each of those questions, and to any other that could be asked from similar premises. But there is a strong civil libertarian case to be made for the opposite stance on each.

In fact, on each of the topics mooted in the letter—trigger warnings, campus speakers, and safe spaces—it could be argued that the principles of free speech and academic freedom demand the opposite conclusion from the one the letter reaches. Both the professor guarding her freedom to use trigger warnings and her colleague who opposes them may be civil libertarians, as may the reviled speaker and the student protesting at their talk and the atheist who demands a voice and the Christian who asserts her right to converse with those she chooses.

Again: There is no single pro-free-speech position on on any of these questions.

And so while Singal is right that there are major divisions on the contemporary American campus around issues of freedom of speech and academic freedom, he fails to recognize that those divisions are so deep and so contentious in large part because each side in each of those the debates can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of free expression.

The positions that the letter takes are not more civil libertarian than the ones that I, for instance—a supporter of trigger warnings and agitation against obnoxious speakers and safe spaces—take. In fact they are, I’d argue, in each case a less civil libertarian position.

And that is why we will never, despite what the University of Chicago might hope, and despite what Singal suggests, resolve these disputes via appeals to first principles.

Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my views on one or more of these questions is unsustainable from a civil libertarian perspective. But if so, we’ll figure that out not by fiat, but through robust, unfettered debate and by real-world experimentation. That debate is necessary, and it is not advanced be pre-emptive deployment of “we do not supports” and “we do not condones.” (Particularly when many members of the campus community emphatically do support and do condone precisely the positions that are repudiated by the dean’s letter.)

I stand with Singal in his advocacy for freedom of expression on campus, and I share some (though not all) of his concerns about contemporary campus climate. But the authors of the University of Chicago letter are not my allies in that fight, and I suspect that they’re mostly not Singal’s, either.

The Department of Education yesterday imposed massive sanctions on for-profit college chain ITT Tech, giving the predatory college thirty days to place $153 million in escrow to protect students and taxpayers from potential costs associated with the company’s malfeasance. At the same time, the Department banned ITT from enrolling new students using federal financial aid money.

ITT 5-day stock price chart from Google.ITT’s stock fell 35% in half an hour after yesterday’s announcement before trading was halted to stop the slide. It opened down another 50% this morning, leaving the total stock value of the company at less than ten million dollars.

This is almost certainly the end of the road for ITT Tech, until recently one of the biggest players in the for-profit college world. The company has little hope of raising the cash it needs to provide the funds the Department has demanded, particularly given its dependence on federal financial aid for revenue — last year 80% of its income came from Department-administered financial aid programs. (Adding to ITT’s woes, the escrow requirement puts the company in violation of the terms of a $100 million loan it received from a private equity firm in 2014. Oops.)

The Department’s crackdown on ITT is a welcome, if overdue, development. For years, the D0E has allowed the chain to operate with near-impunity as it defrauded students and flouted federal regulations, and yesterday’s actions represent a decisive — and potentially historic — break with that history.

In a particularly heartening move, the Department imposed a wide variety of sanctions on ITT, each designed to ensure that the company, its management, and its investors are held accountable for ITT’s misdeeds. In addition to the escrow requirement and the ban on extension of financial aid to new enrollees, the department:

  • Mandated notice to current ITT students that the institution is in violation of accreditation requirements.
  • Forbade ITT from issuing any “bonuses, severance payments, raises, or retention payments to any of its Management or Directors.”
  • Prohibited ITT from paying dividends to its investors.

Each of these sanctions, as it happens, are ones that Chris Hicks of the AFT and I urged the Department to impose on predatory for-profit colleges in our June report, Regulating Too-Big-to-Fail Education: Next Steps for the Department of Education.

For too long, the Department of Education has failed to act aggressively in using its oversight and enforcement powers to rein in for-profit education companies that prey on students and divert taxpayer money to programs that offer little or no benefit to enrollees. The Department’s decisive action against ITT yesterday gives reason for hope that the entire for-profit sector will soon be subjected to the kind of robust, common-sense regulation that it so desperately needs.

It’s been summer, and I’ve been busy with other work, so I haven’t posted in a while. This started as a Facebook thing, but I figured I’d put it up here to knock the cobwebs out.

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I’ve read a few things recently on how things would go with the election, logistically, if Trump dropped out, but none of them put the whole story together.

So I’m gonna.

This is going to be long. Here goes.

If Trump withdraws from the presidential race, the responsibility for choosing his replacement will fall to the RNC. (That’s the Republican National Committee, made up of about two hundred party leaders, not the Republican National Convention, made up of thousands of delegates. The Committee could theoretically reconvene the Convention to hold the vote, but they won’t.)

So the Republican National Committee would get together somewhere, and elect a new nominee. This would likely be Mike Pence, since he’s the veep nominee—picking anyone else would divide the party further, and that’s the last thing they’ll want in the wake of a Trump schism. Pence isn’t widely hated, and putting him in the slot could be framed as a pro-forma thing, so that’s what they’d be most likely to do.

So Pence, let’s say, becomes the nominee. Presumably he picks a new veep choice, likely in consultation with party leaders, and the RNC rubber-stamps that pic right after picking him. But that’s not the end of it.

Because it turns out that every state has its own rules for taking someone’s name off the ballot and replacing it with someone else’s, and the earliest deadlines for doing that are coming up soon. Unless Trump drops out in the next couple of weeks, there are going to be states where he’s going to be listed no matter what.

Which means that if Trump drops out in, say, mid-September, there will be some states where GOP voters will be pulling a lever next to his name, and some where they’re voting for Pence. And as it turns out that matters too, because…

Every state also has its own laws about who Electoral College electors are allowed to vote for. In some states, they’re legally bound to vote for the candidate who was on the ballot in their state. The laws vary a lot, and some of them are pretty vague, so what to do about it would have to be hashed out multiple times all over the country.

If Clinton wins, of course, none of this will matter much. Electors on the losing side have voted in ways they weren’t supposed to in the past, and if Pence’s ticket gets, say, 180 Electoral Votes, nobody is going to care if some of them are cast for Donald Trump. But what if Clinton loses? What happens then?

Well, then it gets weird.

Let’s say that the Republicans wind up with 280 Electoral Votes, of which fifty or so are the fruit of states where (1) Trump was still on the ballot on election day, and (2) state law mandates that electors vote for the person on the ballot. In that case, if everyone votes according to their legal duties, nobody gets a majority in the Electoral College and the election goes to the House of Representatives.

That “everyone votes according to their legal duties” thing is a big if, though. Assuming the Trump electors are good Republicans who want a Pence victory, some or all of them would likely vote their conscience rather than the law, or file suit to get the law nullified before the vote. Even if they didn’t, the RNC would have good reason to try to get around the state laws.

The constitution seems to grant electors the right to vote for who they want, and even if it didn’t, the Supreme Court would likely reject the idea that the EC wouldn’t be able to seat a duly-elected president because North Carolina treated the guy who quit two months ago as the candidate, so I’d expect SCOTUS to allow GOP electors to vote for Pence, giving him the presidency without having to go through the House.

Unless.

What if some of the GOP electors wanted to vote for Trump? What if they were die-hard Trump supporters who believed the Republican Party had betrayed them, and they weren’t willing to fall in line—or, alternatively, they were local politicians in Trump-heavy districts who were worried about voter backlash? What if they vote Trump not because they have to but because they want to, and the Electoral College deadlocks as a result?

In that case, I suspect SCOTUS would stay out of it, and the election would go to the House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting a single vote. In such situations the GOP is considered to have a structural advantage, given the composition of the House, with Pence again likely to emerge the winner. Unless, again, some House members cast votes for Trump, gumming up the works enough to keep the election deadlocked and allowing whoever the Senate chose for vice president to assume the presidency on an acting basis.

Which is a subplot from the most recent season of the HBO comedy Veep.

Most of this probably won’t happen, of course. If Trump pulls out, the GOP ticket most likely loses, and if it somehow wins, the Electoral College stuff most likely sorts itself out in the courts.

But if Trump does quit, expect everyone on your Twitter feed to become immediate experts on the Twelfth and Twentieth Amendments.

On Twitter last night, lefty blogger Matt Bruenig got into a thing with Joan Walsh of The Nation, accusing her of intentionally misrepresenting the demographics of Bernie Sanders’ voter support. In the course of that attack (on the substance of which I mostly agree with Bruenig), he referred to her as both “geriatric” and ageist, and to her expressed views as “disgusting” and “pathetic.”

While Bruenig was working himself into that lather, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress @-ed Walsh in sympathy, at which point Bruenig turned his sights on her. Calling her “Scumbag Neera,” he said that Tanden had “worked to starve my mother of cash assistance,” that she “uses welfare when she needs it then takes away from others when they need it,” and that she “tried to starve me and my mother because she wanted to be in Democratic politics.” When challenged on this, he said he was referring to Tanden’s welfare reform advocacy in the 1990s.

As far as I can tell, Bruenig has no evidence to support this charge. (August update: Some evidence has since emerged. See below.)

Tanden said on Twitter last night that she’d never done welfare policy work, to which Bruenig replied that he was talking about her public statements in support of it. That’s a real stretch, since he’d previously claimed she’d “worked to starve [his] mother,” and that she’d “take[n welfare] away from others” — those are allegations that she had been involved in welfare reform directly, not just cheering from the sidelines.

But this secondary claim appears to be without basis. The one bit of evidence he’s offered for it is a quote from a podcast in which Tanden told Ezra Klein that “welfare reform is really about ensuring every child has opportunity.” But here’s the context for that quote — Tanden had just finished (at 7:26) telling Klein how important public assistance had been to her and her mother when she was growing up, and that led to this exchange:

Klein: Do you think the welfare system as it exists now in its post-reform era would have played the same role for your family?

Tanden: Well, you know, my mother was on welfare three years. My own view of welfare is that welfare reform is really about ensuring that every child has opportunity. It’s not really about the parents. So I worry about a system that puts kids in worse positions because of the decisions that their parents make. I mean, there are a lot of people who have parents who are not fully functional, and we have a system that  decides to in some ways disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It strikes me as absolutely clear that Tanden is here using the term “welfare reform” to refer to the principles that should guide welfare policy, not in reference to welfare as it exists, and that the rest of her remarks are an explicit criticism of the ways in which welfare policy has changed since she was a child. Welfare, she says, should be a mechanism for helping kids, not punishing parents for bad choices, and to “disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make … doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

One can criticise elements of Tanden’s argument here. But to suggest that these comments represent support for “starv[ing]” mothers on welfare, for “tak[ing] away” public support from women in need? That’s just false. It’s imputing a meaning to her words that’s the direct opposite of what they say. (If Bruenig has other evidence to support his claims, he should present it. I’ve gone looking on his timeline and on Google and this is all I’ve found.)

This isn’t the first time that Matt Bruenig has been criticized for his attacks on prominent people, and when such criticism has come in the past he’s often framed it — and rejected it — as a mealy-mouthed, hypocritical call for “civility.” But civility is not what’s at stake here. We can debate when snark turns into abuse and when vitriol becomes harassment (and whether Bruenig tends to aim his flamethrower disproportionately at women). But we don’t have to reach any of those questions here, because Bruenig has presented no evidence to support his claims.

To call someone “geriatric” in the same breath in which you accuse them of ageism is obtuse and unhelpful. But to accuse someone of enacting policies they appear to have had no role in, and to do so on the basis of a statement that explicitly repudiates the position you accuse them of holding?

That’s just lying. And it’s fundamentally incompatible with either serious political debate or good-faith movement building.

Update | Demos has announced that Bruenig will no longer be blogging for them, saying that “Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees” — controversies that Demos was largely unaware of until today. It appears that they asked him to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter, he declined, and they’ve let him go.

August Update | Evidence has recently emerged that seems to give some support to the contention that Tanden was involved in welfare reform work in some capacity subsequent to the law’s passage in 1996. She was cc’ed on some materials on the subject in 1998, and welfare reform architect Bruce Reed was recently recorded saying that “she was obviously involved in the implementation.” (The question he was responding to is ambiguous, but Zaid Jilani, who asked the question, says he was asking about welfare reform specifically. Tanden subsequently posted what she said was an email from Reed saying that she didn’t start at the White House until after the welfare reform law was passed and that “she didn’t work on it when she got there,” however, and it doesn’t look like Reed has chosen to clarify things further. Make of all that what you will.)

None of this goes to the question of the interpretation of the Ezra Klein interview, of course, and it’s not more than suggestive on the question of what Tanden actually did at the White House. But ambiguous evidence is more evidence than no evidence, which is what was available when I wrote this post.

In my original post, I wrote that “all the evidence indicates that Bruenig’s attacks on Tanden are, again, simply false.” I still hold that view regarding Bruenig’s gloss on the Klein interview and his claims that Tanden played a role in drafting the Clinton welfare-reform law. However, it’s reasonable to read the available evidence as suggesting that she may have been involved in some way—though we have no evidence as to how—in welfare reform work after the passage of the law, so I’ve rephrased that passage and I retract that claim.

Remember that poll from last week that found that young adults weren’t big fans of capitalism? Well, I just stumbled across the full report, and it has some interesting stuff to say about the upcoming presidential election.

The big story out of the poll is that Clinton is currently beating Trump among likely voters aged 18–29 by a margin of 61% to 25%. Romney got 37% of the youth vote in 2012, and McCain got 32% in 2008. Even accounting for undecideds, these numbers would put Trump under 30%.

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the poll’s partisan voter data. There’s a lot of worry right now about what Sanders voters will do in November, and though that worry is mostly expressed in terms of young “Bernie Bro” types, there hasn’t been a huge amount of polling on the issue that breaks down the electorate by age.

So how’s Clinton doing with young Democrats? Pretty well. The poll has her beating Trump 83–5 with that group, which is almost on par with exit polls from 2012 and 2008.

Trump, on the other hand, beats Clinton by only 57–13 with young Republicans, who went for Romney 91–7 and McCain 84–15. That 30% undecided Republican figure is particularly ugly — Clinton’s undecideds among young Democrats are only 12%.

And on top of that, she’s winning young independents by better than two to one.

Looking at race, we find Clinton doing about as well as Obama with young black voters, and a bit better than Obama with young whites, though a lot of white voters remain undecided. Where the difference between the two candidates really shows up in the racial/ethnic breakdown is with young Latinos, who supported Obama 74–23 in 2012. In this poll, Clinton is up 71–9, which translates to Trump losing half of Romney’s young Latino vote even after you account for undecideds.

Oh, and Trump is losing young women to Clinton 57-15. McCain got 29% of young women, and Romney got 32%.

Short version? Young Sanders supporters aren’t a problem for Hillary right now, but young Republicans are a disaster for Trump. Young whites like Clinton fine, and young Latinos are flocking to her.

Young voters went for Obama in historic numbers in 2008, and a bit less decisively in 2012. Right now, Clinton’s polling with the youth vote looks more like Obama 2008 than Obama 2012, and if anything it’s a little better than the 2008 results. Given Clinton’s performance in the primaries, I think it’s safe to say that these numbers are less a reflection on her than on her opponent.

When it comes to the youth vote, Trump is the anti-Obama.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.

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