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Though many US universities have cooled to the idea of opening overseas campuses in the last few years, Yale is just now jumping on the bandwagon. Its new Yale-NUS College, scheduled to open next year, will be, Yale says, “Singapore’s first liberal arts college, and the first with a full residential college model.”

What it won’t have, if all goes according to plan, is student protest, or student political organizations.

Singapore’s restrictions on civil liberties and freedom of expression are extensive, and Yale has chosen to accept the government’s limits on its campus. The college’s one thousand students will not be allowed to form political parties or clubs, and protests and demonstrations will be banned on campus just as they are in the rest of the country.

Yale-NUS is funded entirely by the government of Singapore and private donations, primarily originating within Asia.

Last fall a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt-Johnstown campus was banned from the men’s locker room at the university gym. The student, Seamus Johnston, is listed as female in the university’s records, but has been living as a man for three years and carries a driver’s license identifying him as male. When Johnston refused to comply with the ban, he was brought up on campus disciplinary charges and arrested for disorderly conduct.

In February the Pitt Anti-Discriminatory Policies Committee (APDC) issued a unanimous ruling opposing Johnston’s ban and calling on Pitt to craft clear policies on the use of bathrooms and locker rooms. Those new policies, announced last month, require all Pitt students, faculty, and staff to use bathrooms and locker facilities consistent with the gender assigned on their birth certificates.

This policy puts many transgender members of the Pitt community in an extremely difficult — and potentially dangerous — position.

By state law, Pennsylvanians may receive a driver’s license bearing a gender other than that assigned at birth on presentation of a reference from a doctor or counselor specializing in transgender issues. The federal government has issued passports on the basis of similar documentation since 2010. And the NCAA allows transgender athletes to play on teams reflecting their gender identity after one year of hormone treatment. But Pennsylvania state law mandates gender reassignment surgery before amending a birth certificate.

Under Pitt’s new policy, then, a student enrolled in college as a woman, listed as a woman on her driver’s license and passport, playing women’s sports for Pitt or a visiting team, would be barred from changing into her uniform with her teammates if her birth certificate did not declare her to be female.

And some states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the west — do not permit amendment of birth certificates for any reason.

The whole situation is a huge mess. Students, who were not consulted on the ruling and have not yet been provided with it in written form, are up in arms. Transgender faculty have announced that they will defy the ban. And the chair of the city of Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations believes that the ban is a violation of city law. Pitt’s student newspaper lambasted the “bizarre,” “despicably self-serving” way in which the decision was made and announced, saying the decision showed “the University’s blatant disregard for its transgender students” and for the student body as a whole.

University officials are refusing to comment.

Update | I want to say a little more about this.

Until now, Pitt’s policy on gender and bathroom/locker-room use has been to address the issue on a “case-by-case” basis. That can mean a lot of things, of course, and it has the big drawback of not providing trans folks with reliable, predictable institutional backup, but as an approach — at least in the abstract — it has the virtue of recognizing that the relevant questions here are questions of interpersonal dynamics, not taxonomic order.

If you think about it for even a moment, the reason why the Pennsylvania DMV and the State Department have issued progressive policies on gender and ID becomes obvious: The point of identification is to identify you cleanly and clearly. If you consistently present as a man, and your driver’s license or your passport identifies you as a woman, that’s going to cause all sorts of problems — not just for you, but for police, bureaucracies, businesses, everybody. The vast majority of the time a person is out in the world, nobody has any reason to know or care about their biological sex. It’s just not relevant.

And it’s no more relevant in the bathroom than it is at the airport or in a traffic stop.

The DMV and the State Department have both come to terms with the fact that prescriptive, mechanistic policing and enforcement aren’t viable responses to the lived realities of gender expression in 21st century America. Here’s hoping Pitt figures that out sooner rather than later.

No time for a full treatment of this right now, but can I just point out something?

There wasn’t a Superbowl riot at U Mass last night.

The AP story on last night’s events on campus says there were no hospitalizations, and no property damage. A university spokesperson says there were a few fistfights, but all thirteen of the student arrests were for either disorderly conduct or failure to disperse.

Why the “failure to disperse” arrests? Because fifteen minutes after students gathered in a main residential quad on campus, police told them to go home. They used horses, dogs, and smokebombs, cops to clear the area, and busted folks who wouldn’t leave. From everything I’ve seen the big drama all came from the cops.

Which is part of why I was a bit disappointed to see supporters of the Occupy movement snarking the U Mass students. No, their Superbowl party wasn’t a political act, but since when do any of us only like political parties? Occupy is about (among many other things) reclaiming public spaces, opposing police harassment, and creating community. Isn’t a mass campus gathering like the one that took place last night presumptively a good thing? Isn’t it a good thing even if we call it a riot?

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Harris — then a campus radical at UMD-College Park, now a writer and Occupy activist in New York — was present at a similar “riot” after Maryland’s basketball team beat Duke. His take on that night is well worth remembering now:

I know as an activist I’m supposed to oppose sports riots. I’m supposed to complain that students are willing to take to the streets when the Terrapin mens’ basketball team wins but not when tuition increases or black enrollment drops. Sadly, I can’t play the alienated radical role today because I was there Wednesday night, and I saw more than drunk revelers.

When students took to Route 1 after a hard-fought victory over Duke, it was with joy and celebration. We chanted “Maaarylaaaand,” and we didn’t mean the buildings or the endowment or the logo. We meant one another.

Student activism (as I wrote then) has always straddled the line between politics and play, between organizing for social change and acting up for the hell of it. Either impulse can be creative or destructive, either can be deployed for positive or negative ends, but both impulses are inherent to student identity, and both are worth celebrating.

Go Terps.

Update | Aaron Bady passes along a fascinating piece on the role of Egyptian soccer fans in that country’s popular uprising. Here’s a taste:

I believe we are witnessing a natural development in an inevitable conflict between two parties that have found themselves following two different paradigms of life: the paradigm of the depression, control, and normalization of apathy versus the paradigm of joyful liberation from the shackles of social and institutional norms to create gratifying chaos.

The latter is what I call “the politics of fun”.

And another:

The key to understanding the Ultras phenomenon is to imagine it as a way of life for these youth. For them, becoming a football fan became a symbolic action that was both joyful and a means of self-expression. But the broader social, psychological, and cultural contexts were unable to adapt to the groups’ activities, in part by virtue of their rebellious nature and their defiance of norms.

Go read.

Ten Muslim students from the University of California were found guilty of misdemeanor charges Friday after a 2010 incident in which they disrupted and delayed a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States on the UC Irvine campus. The students, who could have faced jail time, were sentenced to probation and community service.

The university had previously suspended the Irvine Muslim Student Union in connection with the incident, and many observers — including Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UC Irvine law school — criticized the decision to bring criminal charges.

I agree with those who are dismayed by the verdict. The interruptions of Ambassador Oren were brief and non-violent, the students didn’t resist ejection, and the ambassador was eventually able to give his speech in full. Clearly the students were disruptive, but they did not have the intent nor the effect of preventing Oren from speaking.

As a person who speaks on campuses with some regularity, I’d certainly be appalled if such an incident ever led to criminal charges against someone who was critical of anything I had to say — the idea that the disruption of a campus speaker would leave a student with a criminal record, and relying on the forbearance of a judge to avoid jail time, is astonishing.

But as I told the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, the most important thing to underscore here is that this prosecution stands as part of a larger recent pattern of criminalization of non-violent student protest throughout California, and in the UC system in particular.

Again and again over the last few years, university officials in California have directed law enforcement to end protests by arresting students, including in circumstances in which those protests were neither violent nor substantially interfering with the functioning of the university. In many cases those arrests led (as here) to overreaching prosecutions, while in others the arrests themselves had a disruptive effect on legitimate protest.

It’s the university’s prerogative to set limits on student protest (subject to their First Amendment obligations to permit free speech and assembly), but those powers should be used with restraint and discretion. When the university finds itself deploying mass arrests of non-violent student protesters as a matter of course, as the University of California has in the last several years, something is seriously out of whack.

By contributing to the criminalization low-level non-violent protest as they have, UC administrators, police, and prosecutors have cowed some student activists while radicalizing others. They’ve fostered a charged, tense atmosphere in which students have chained themselves together on the high ledge of a Berkeley campus building and in which a UC San Francisco police officer pulled a gun on a group of protesters, all within the last twelve months.

The Irvine 11 were among some 250 California student activists arrested during the course of protests during the 2009-2010 academic year. That’s a mind-boggling number, and evidence that student-administration relations have gone profoundly off the rails.

In CEO’s report on racial disparities in UW admissions, they highlight an extremely misleading statistical concept — that of “odds ratios” — to leave the false impression that black and Latino applicants to UW are hundreds of times more likely to win acceptance than whites. They also dump more than a thousand students of color out of their applicant sample, inflating admissions percentages for blacks and Latinos by excluding weak and unqualified applicants from that pool and distorting statistics on Asians by excluding all applicants of Southeast Asian origin from their study.

In addition to all that, they engage in a variety of petty manipulations of data, as when they scale their admissions rates chart to begin at 50% rather than 0%, thus dramatically enhancing the visual impact of the graph at the expense of accuracy and readability.

Strangely missing in all this statistical sleight-of-hand is any straightforward statement of the magnitude of the supposed advantage that black and Latino applicants have over whites. At no point in the report do they compare — for instance — the chances of admission of two students, each at the midpoint of the applicant pool, one white, one black. (Neither do they directly compare the chances of admissions of students by criteria other than race under which white applicants have a structural advantage — those of legacy admits vs. non-legacies, for instance.)

At one point they inch toward such a comparison, with a chart listing the number of students of various races rejected with SATs or ACT scores and class rank higher than the median black admittee, but since that chart fails to list how many students in that category were accepted from each race, it’s impossible to translate the chart into actual comparative data.

In fact, there is only one section of their report in which they offer a direct comparison of the chances of admission of two groups of students, and it’s a comparison whose terms have been cherry-picked to provide the impression that they are hoping to leave.

In the report’s section on “Probabilities of Admission” they provide a chart comparing the chances of admission for groups of white, black, Latino, and Asian students — one chart each for in-state and out-of-state applicants. So far so good.

But each chart compares only a small sliver of the actual applicant pool. Beyond the exclusions I mentioned in previous posts, these charts leave out female applicants, who represent well over half of total applicants. They leave out the substantial fraction who took the SAT rather than the ACT. They leave out all legacies, a mostly white group with significant advantages in the admissions process. And as in the previous chart they set the bar for comparison at the median ACT score for black admittees.

There’s a basic principle in statistics that the farther away from the middle you get, the weirder your numbers are going to turn out. If you compare the chances of two students near the middle of the pack, you’re going to get stats on their odds of admission that reflect the fact that they’re similarly situated. But if you go looking for outliers, things start to get wacky.

To understand how this works, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that only one student whose first and last names both begin with the letter Z was admitted to Wisconsin in a particular year, and that this student happened, by chance, to have the second-worst grades and test scores of the entire entering class. Of all those students whose numbers were worse, only one was admitted, while 2000 were turned down. And among those 2000, by coincidence, there was a second student with a ZZ name.

Among ZZ-named students with grades and test scores as bad as or worse than our admittee, then, one out of two was admitted, giving that group odds of admission of one in two, or 50%. Among non-ZZ students with similar grades and test scores, only one in 2000 was admitted, giving  admission odds of 0.05%. ZZ-named students at that grade/score level, in other words, were one thousand times more likely to be admitted than non-ZZs.

And what does this tell us? Pretty much nothing. If that ZZ student happened to be 100th from the bottom rather than second, the exact same formula would show that ZZs had odds twenty times better than non-ZZs, instead of a thousand times better. One-hundredth from the bottom and second are damn near identical in terms of actual numbers, but we’re so far out on the statistical distribution tail that even a slight change in real-world data produces huge swings in the reported odds.

The folks at CEO understand this. They understand that because the vast majority of UW’s applicants are white, and because black applicants tend to have somewhat lower test scores, choosing the black admittees’ median as your starting point will produce more dramatic contrasts than using the median of all applicants. They also understand that the smaller you make the pool, the more random variation you get. And so they made the pool small and unrepresentative.

To be clear, I don’t know what the numbers would look like if CEO were to crunch the data in a useful way. I don’t know how many times more likely to gain admission a black or Latino applicant with an application at the middle of the total pool would be than a white student with identical numbers. I suspect that such a student would have a considerable advantage.

But here’s the thing. CEO does know the answer to this question. They do have the data. They know what admissions rates look like if you compare students of different races from the middle of the pack, just as they know what the plain-language version of their misleading “odds ratio” claim would be.

They know all this stuff. They’re just choosing not to share.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall 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
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