Oberlin Students and Alumni Reflect on Activism at the College


I have some thoughts in defense of Oberlin students. Let me make clear that I am a foodie and a white person who enjoys cooking ethnic cuisines. While at Oberlin, I remember CDS served something called the “Indian Platter,” which consisted of feta cheese, pita, raw spinach, and hummus. The feta cheese was listed as “paneer” and the pita as “naan.” The previous day, CDS served exactly the same dish but called it “Mediterranean Platter.” CDS was known for casually using ethnic buzzwords to remarket old dishes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact same Banh Mi sandwich depicted in your article was served the day before, but listed as “pulled pork sandwich.” I understand how it seems extreme to accuse CDS of cultural appropriation for these minor transgressions, but I also think there is some background you must understand.


Oberlin advertises itself as the first racially integrated college in the country. From my understanding, a very low percentage of Oberlin’s students of color make it to graduation, and many students feel this results from a lack of institutional support. There are few professors of color. At least once a year, racial slurs and threats are posted on some public forum. Many students are in the process of learning about the racial inequality of our criminal-justice system and are rightly angry about it. Campus officers are not immune from racism. I have heard stories about officers assaulting students of color. And financial aid is almost non-existent. A lot of students of color feel like they don’t matter to the college.


In that climate, it is easier to understand how minor transgressions like inauthentic food can offend students of color. They feel their school doesn’t care about them. Inauthentic food is just one more aggravating factor that brings them over the edge. Food is embedded in culture. It’s nothing new for offense to be taken when someone misuses the name of a dish.


As a foodie from New York who, growing up, could easily find a great Banh Mi sandwich for $10, I was never satisfied with Oberlin’s cafeteria food. I am a picky snob. But the people fighting to change CDS are not picky snobs from New York. They are people of color from many walks of life who feel like their college doesn’t care about them. They are trying to improve their living conditions. That is a noble cause, and I hope I have shed some light on why students think it is important.

A 2010 graduate agrees that the “food appropriation” controversy should be viewed in a larger context, but thinks that context reflects poorly on today’s students:

When I read the reports coming out of Oberlin I’m ashamed and embarrassed, but I also find myself thinking: It didn’t used to be this way. Among the activist-minded students there were always a few who were shrill, intolerant, allergic to critique, and bent on subsuming the whole of reality within their preferred ideological framework. They didn’t care about persuasion … they knew they were right and didn’t give a damn if they alienated everyone to whom they were ostensibly preaching.


But their approach to advancing their agendas on campus was different. Before, student activists generally viewed a direct and immediate appeal to institutional authority as a double-edged sword (one that could bring your goals to fruition, but not without the cost of some degree of democratic credibility). Today, student activists have become acutely aware that the decision-making authority at Oberlin is the college administrators, and they’re increasingly willing to take even the most minute problems straight to the top to be institutionally rectified.


Ideas that thrived in a space of open exchange, a space that the administration stayed out of, are now seen as needing institutional validation, codification, and, indeed, enforcement. The various conceptual iterations of “privilege,” for instance, were current and widely discussed, as were “whiteness,” “safe spaces,” and the many different “-isms.” But such concepts were not then what they have since become–cudgels. They had not yet hardened into a rigid system of moral norms, enforced by a self-appointed activist vanguard with the backing of cowed administrators, norms that to transgress would invite public shaming, harassment, or social ostracizing, to say nothing of official disciplinary action.


There were plenty of people who vocally proclaimed their categorical dismissal of the very existence of forms of oppression that today no one would dare question. Did I myself agree with such people? Not at all. I almost always came down on the side of the anti-oppression crowd when I felt their positions were staked out in good faith, were intellectually sound, were practically applicable, and weren’t fueled by that uniquely liberal-arts-college brand of narcissism and self-indulgence. I enjoyed learning about their work and being challenged by their ideas, and I tended to regard the majority of complaints about PCism as short-sighted, because I never felt like I couldn’t disagree with anyone. For the most part, people with seriously divergent views could air them without risking any kind of official infraction. There simply was not a precedent for reporting someone to the authorities because their very opinions made you feel, to use the watchword of today’s activists, “unsafe.”


In short, beyond a certain point, people with opposing views simply left each other alone, and even in as small a place as Oberlin there was room enough for everyone. There was a tradition of grudging inclusiveness toward different views–and genuine inclusiveness need not be anything more than grudging. Yet everything I see from Oberlin now suggests that this tradition has given way to something very different. There is now an atmosphere of close-mindedness, intellectual submission, conformity, and fear. Anti-oppression activism, something inherently noble, has become an extensive apparatus for suffocating freedom of expression and crushing dissent, and an increasingly illiberal left devotes its energies to denouncing, pillorying, and silencing anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep with its latest orthodoxies.


Whoever can most cunningly, loudly, and shamelessly cloak themselves in the flag of social justice is empowered to effectively disregard everyone’s speech other than their own. Administrators, terrified of being accused of this or that ism, are unwilling to push back in any way against activist bully tactics and have allowed them not only to dictate the course of campus life but to have effective veto power over curricula as well. And who do the victims mostly end up being? Who are the harassed or dis-invited speakers? The professors who can’t teach what they want? Liberals and other leftists whose crime has been to presume that they are in some sense on the activist side but who have failed to meet their limitless criteria. This is not social justice at work.


The business about culturally insensitive dining-hall fare is attention-grabbing for its ludicrousness, but it’s hardly the prime example of what has taken hold. A better example would be the the list of demands issued by the Black Student Union. Beyond the stunning extent of these demands, which include firing certain faculty and staff… they reflect a truly perverse view of education as the forcing of a worldview down the student’s throat.


An ability for nuance, for a recognition of degrees, subtle differences, finer essences, and other aspects of abstract thought in which the liberal arts are supposed to train one, seems to escape these students. It’s not enough to point out contradictions and inconsistencies in enlightenment universalism, with its tendency to take a certain dominant group’s narrative as applicable to all people, and attempt to rectify them. No. All of Western culture is tainted by white supremacy, and thus Western higher education as we know it should itself be dismantled.  


Student activism in this country is only possible because generations of Americans on and off college campuses have forged a tradition and a culture of freedom of speech, in tandem with a jurisprudence of expansive legal protections for speech and expression. Yet, not only are today’s activists turning on the very tradition that has allowed them to be activists: they may also be unwittingly engaged in long-term self-sabotage in the event that the various speech restrictions they demand are one day used against them. Conservative Christian safe spaces, anyone?


My sincere hope for the future of Oberlin and for student activism is that it turns off from its present course, toward one that honors principled disagreement, self-critique, and individual conscience. As it stands now, all of those values are endangered. I am, of course, interested to hear what current Oberlin students have to say about all this (including the ones who would disagree with me), so I hope you’ll receive some responses from them and compile them in another article.

This next correspondent agrees that Oberlin activists contribute to an intellectually “oppressive” climate, but defends their good intentions and primary goals:

Oberlin is not, sometimes, a “safe space” for those who express skepticism about safe spaces. This call for less cultural appropriation in the dining halls comes amidst giant upheaval in other areas: there was the petition calling for better food to be served at the African Heritage House, for it to contain less cream, since African-Americans are often lactose intolerant; and there was the petition from the Black Student Union which was quickly picked up by conservative blogs (like here) which demanded fairly outrageous structural changes to the institution, including paying activists for their work on an hourly basis, developing a prison to college pipeline, firing specific administrators, and tenuring certain professors.


That said, these complaints and demands arise from one of the most liberal wings of fairly liberal colleges at a time when the plight, struggle, and disadvantage of people of color in this country is finally coming to light in vicious and often incomprehensible ways: black people are being killed with impunity, and, it now dawns on us, always have been, but the general public didn’t notice, as individuals chose to look the other way.


There is a sense at Oberlin that something should be done about this, especially at an institution that prides itself as a beacon of progress and enlightenment, a bulwark against backwardness and ignorant conservatism. Oberlin students want what other college students are asking for, whether they phrase it this way or not: better control of the college’s money. It’s time, I think, to revoke some of the power that the boards of trustees have—the undue sway of the moneyed few—in favor of the consciences of the paying and physically attending students. So for us, I think, legitimate complaints have gotten mixed up with more questionable ones.


As someone who lives in the Oberlin environment, I can speak to the enormous outrage about—and the difficulty of expressing—the gross narcissism involved in some of the students’ rhetoric. Considering the privilege most of us have––which most of us have to have in order to even stumble on a place like Oberlin––it’s sickening to hear certain complaints, not about the quality of the food, which of course is pretty terrible (situation normal, all fucked up) but the language-mantle of colonialism. This group of largely white students is also young and fairly privileged, and it makes sense that they can be blind to the circumstances of many whose lived existence they use as an excuse for leverage and social cache, ignorant of the hypocrisy of campaigning for even greater privileges for themselves by using the experience of the benighted poor as justification. That experience of the American poor, a population they’ve been separated and insulated from, is not necessarily your experience, and to appropriate it can be as scandalous as bad sushi.


My classmates are bright and articulate people—often. In many senses they are the future: the future of government, the future of NGOs, of non-profits, the vanguard of green-energy policy, et al. And their progressivism is often to the good.


Yet we (Oberlin students as well as onlookers) must not fail to recognize that the most seemingly progressive of people are not the most goodly people by default; rather, like others with extreme views, they are fully susceptible to blanketing over inconvenient truths and signing away liberties (particularly involving free speech) in the name of more and more rules that “protect” us. This is not something we are inclined to support when it comes to the NSA, and we should be very careful when considering enforced codes appended to documents meant to “keep people safe.”


There is no safety from ideas, merely ignorance, and to argue that “some things just aren’t up for discussion,”—rather than to posit that by arguing something one feels cheapened, or sacrifices a part of one’s morality—but to insist that things simply can’t be talked about, is more conservative and narrow than I think my classmates realize. Many Oberlin students reading this would argue, I think, that it mischaracterizes honest efforts to change an unjust institution within a damnably unjust world. I hope I can honor and join in the efforts of my classmates to change our many situations for the better while reserving the right to point out creeping egotism where it erupts—but the atmosphere for doing that work of semi-judicious skepticism is just a little tough right now.

This correspondent believes the media’s focus on the “food appropriation” story is misplaced:

As a current 4th year at Oberlin College, I would like to take you up on your offer and provide one (of many) insider’s perspective … This was not a unified issue on campus: I saw many Asian-American students who were unconvinced that this constituted a cultural appropriation… while the complaints were circulated, this did not receive nearly as much publicity as MANY other issues on campus.  The amount of attention that this issue has achieved in the media is COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTATIVE …


Just last week a petition was circulated detailing various institutional demands which generated around 700 signatures within a day.  However, the petition was defaced with INCREDIBLY RACIST, ANTI-SEMITIC, AND VIOLENT words and symbols (which I have attached below).  This issue was FAR MORE RELEVANT, IMPACTFUL, PUBLICIZED, and IMPORTANT than any of these food complaints, yet NOTHING in the media has covered this.  In truth, what the general public believes to have been the “focus” of student activists this semester is a fabrication by the media and not remotely representative. I do appreciate the fairness and depth to which you wrote your article (compared with any other news source I have seen).  But now I am urging you:  please share this racist incident and encourage all others in the media to do the same.  If you truly want to hear what is going on at Oberlin: this is it!  While calling out cultural appropriation in food is valid, this is how you can report what truly are relevant and important issues not only at Oberlin but facing marginalized communities as a whole!

This next alum started to mistrust the earnestness of fellow Obies after observing the social incentives to laud and defer to members of groups that are perceived as victims:

At Oberlin, anyone seen as vulnerable is given the benefit of the doubt: there is no room for understanding, there is a victim speaking their mind and there is the oppressor. This mode of thought impacts all issues (race, gender, sex politics, etc.). In order to be hip, one should identify or sympathize with whatever group is being oppressed. Most of it is for show.


I would be happy to take a bet that the Vietnamese freshman was not offended as much as they were excited to see an opportunity to be the victim… I guarantee they got 10+ emails congratulating them on their courage… If you’d like another outrageous story, I urge you to find ABUSA’s petition which made waves within the Oberlin community and demanded (basically) a hostile takeover of the college by black students and students of color (my last name is _____, mind you. Not all POC Oberlin people feel this way). This included the hiring and firing of professors, inclusion of incarcerated folks in the college community, and boycotting Israel.


It’s wild.


​Honestly, the social climate of that school is bullshit. Plain and simple. Very privileged kids trying to run away from their privilege by being part of the solution.

A 2014 graduate criticized the press, cautioned against dismissing the complaints of black students, and posited that Obies know they’re not exposed to enough dissent:

… While Oberlin students can be a bit overzealous in their social justice efforts (which I think is a good thing!), what is disturbing is not their activist excesses but how journalists frame them as ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky claims… The idea that students at “elite” campuses (where, by the way, many black students attend not from their parents’ wealth but from Pell grants) are too privileged to be taken seriously is an old canard. When students claim their campus is racist, or culturally insensitive, we should listen …


You end the article with these sentences, which I found striking: “From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice. Is that how it looks from the inside, too?”


Yes. That is exactly what it looks like from the inside. And students are very aware of this problem. Although the “radical left” students are the most vocal, many of us (and many of them) recognize that the lack of political diversity on campus is concerning. It makes our arguments weak and it prevents us from honing our claims against the grindstone of critical opposition.


I’m only one alumnus, and others may feel differently, but what I would emphasize is that there is a lively debate, both in and outside of Oberlin, about how to find the balance between idealism and pragmatism, zeal and diplomacy. When articles like yours appear online, we discuss them at length—and there is plenty of disagreement. I can only hope that journalists will take it seriously, and view it as a sign of deliberative democracy rather than the thoughtless churning out of liberal sentiment.

An Oberlin senior writes:

Really, this is about much more than food. It’s about the myth of multiculturality that our school likes to perpetuate, but fails to enact. Here’s an example regarding the serving of beef in recognition of Diwali: on the surface, this looks like an attempt to make Hindu students feel welcome. However, by using beef, they served a dish that Hindu students could not eat. By doing this, our dining services showed that they are not concerned with serving authentic food to Indian students, but instead with branding our dining hall and institution as multicultural.


Its reflective of a tendency to value the foods of other cultures while rejecting the people of that culture.


That’s a problem.

Ignorance of Hindu dietary restrictions strikes me as a far more likely explanation for the misstep of dining hall workers than “rejecting” the culture of Hindu students. I don’t understand the impulse to frame matters in a way that presumes that others are acting in the most hostile way possible when odds are against that interpretation.  

The senior continues:

In response to your quote from Freddie de Boer: No one is berating the underpaid workers. In fact better benefits for dining hall workers have been the subject of recent protests. You didn’t include this in your article. Instead, complaints have been directed towards the management level.

I should have mentioned that some student activists have called for better treatment of dining hall workers. And de Boer did mention that in his commentary. However, I think the students who insist that they are targeting the corporation that runs the dining halls at Oberlin without affecting the workers preparing their food are naive about the likely effect of students complaining that they’re being served incompetently prepared fare that has been offensively named.

A 1970 graduate believes that the college should just stop trying to serve ethnic fare because it will only upset people when the cooks inevitably get various things wrong:

The dilemma of a college food service trying to be all things to all people seems a modern one.  My vague memory of Obie food back in the day was that it was decent American food.  There weren’t many attempts to be multi-cultural.  I knew some of the food service workers at the time.  The meals were prepared by cooks, not chefs.  The one constant is that college students always, always complain about the food.  My daughter’s a sophomore in college and she complains about the food.  Venturing too far afield from the cuisine food service cooks have mastered … is an invitation to insult, and complaint.  Rather than cook Indian, or Thai, or Japanese food badly, I just wouldn’t go there.  

Another correspondent explains why people who go to Oberlin tend to pick fights over seemingly small matters––and defends that inclination as laudable and salutary:

I graduated from Oberlin with majors in English and Dance in 1997. I was inspired and emboldened by recruitment and admissions materials that were glossy black, with an image of earth in the center. The text above the satellite image read, “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.” Oberlin is a small campus.The student population hovers below 3,000. The insularity makes it such that potential injustices or oversights do both seem and become worth fighting for. This is inspiring. It can also mean that these issues can seem too big, too immediate, to be rational or appropriately reflective. But I would rather see students’ risk overreacting for the sake of what feels right, than dissipate their political awareness in humility—and I say that while NOT agreeing with all of Oberlin students’ missions, including the embrace of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel.


While the reactions may read to some as knee-jerk self indulgence, I gather they are a sincere response to approaching the cafeteria serving line, and––despite the names of the dishes being served––feeling on some level miscounted, anonymous, voided. Oberlin is not only the kind of place where this can be expressed, but where there is the latent promise that dialogue about how we understand and interact with one another is viable. While it may seem small, or entitled, it is also within the promise of the campus to consider that small things can resonate largely, because values systems translate from what is on the plate to more impactful levels of global discourse, outside of the dining hall.

A former Oberlin dining hall worker takes a dim view of today’s students and wants to give them a taste of their own medicine:

As a teenager, I worked in the food service area of the college.  The staff members were overwhelmingly black.  I doubt that’s changed.  How dare these privileged college snobs complain about food prepared by oppressed minorities? Administration should forced these students to attend sensitivity sessions until they learn to respect other cultures.  And hire another administrator to oversee the program. That’s the way it’s done at Oberlin.

A 1998 grad who worked in the dining hall isn’t quite so down on the student protestors, but is annoyed:

Students really do care about food, and they also really care about oppression. They’re not insincere, but they can be annoying … When I worked in the dining halls, employees were either students on work study or adults from the community. Most of these adults were low-income African Americans …


There’s something I find deeply irritating about mostly privileged students whining about how the dining hall staff isn’t preparing the sushi with the same reverence as a Japanese chef. There also seems to be very little understanding of how much it costs to serve food on a large scale, and how the changes students are seeking will inevitably impact tuition. None of this means Oberlin can’t make improvements. But students have to recognize that dining halls have limitations, and that sometimes bad sushi is just bad sushi.

The next correspondent feels that the college is in crisis:

I’m a current Oberlin student.


Sadly, academic merit, deep history, and dedicated faculty aside, it seems the only thing we’re known for these days is being the target of ridicule from The New York Post and others. First and foremost I wanted to thank you for writing an article that treated us like people, not children. But the story of Oberlin in 2015 is much more than the small, incredibly loud, socially conscious minority that drives mainstream opinion here.


Oberlin is a campus in crisis.


A week ago, a petition was posted by the Black Student Union that was rightfully criticized for being utterly ridiculous. It included such demands as the renaming of buildings, admissions quotas for black students, an increased number of exclusive safe spaces, and free classes for town residents, among others. They also demanded the alteration of several meals served in African Heritage House, which the New York Post included in their article. The administration responded to these demands by revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary diploma. The (public) Google doc containing the signatures was unfortunately posted anonymously to 4chan and vandalized with racist language/imagery and a threat to the auditorium, although it was never specified which one. The next day there was an increased police presence on campus and a protest on one of our quads in which white students formed a barrier around black students. Students groaned on Facebook as to why the food incident was being reported on but this was not.


My greatest disappointment about the reality of Oberlin is its failure to recognize differing opinions. As upsetting as these online threats were, I and others understand that they were radical, extreme, anonymous threats with little reason to send the campus into the frenzy that they did.


Of course racists hate us, of course they want us killed, but I hold the belief that it’s only then that we need to be bigger than them and maybe not stoop to their level. Of course I never voiced this opinion outside of a small group of friends. It truly would have been social suicide and I would have been labeled the racist, cisgender, heterosexual white man that I am. The complaints about the food on the other hand were maybe valid on a certain level but were completely ill-intentioned and alarmist on behalf of those students. That’s why as a proud Oberlin student I am completely split on where I stand on these issues.


It is enraging to see how we are depicted in The New York Post, but still there’s truth to it. It still baffles me trying to come to terms with how we can be ranked so highly as an academic institution, with some of the best professors in the country and some of the most brilliant young minds, but also stoop so low as to engage in petty complaints about the ingredients in our campus food while a number of students scrub dishes in our kitchens to desperately try to alleviate some of the burden of debt.

Another alum blames consumerism for the food protests:

As a 2001 graduate of Oberlin, I have lately begun to cringe whenever my alma mater makes headlines. I guarantee you that the students are perfectly serious in their intent. Think about it: approximately $60,000 buys one year of classes, housing, and dining at Oberlin, placing the student in the highest tier of American educational consumers.


Given this, why should they not place demands—substantive, banal, and yes, even ridiculous—on the very system that so gleefully accepts their tuition checks? Look, I co-oped all four years at Oberlin. I ate my tofu, protested financial aid policies, and generally did all the usual things that one did at Oberlin. But you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t dream that campus dining was ever trying to be authentic (even if they said they were) when serving Asian, Italian, or any other kind of food. You know what you’re getting with campus dining. To pretend otherwise is just stupid. And to appropriate the language of social justice as a tool with which to badger folks working in the service industry is just cruel.

The next correspondent feels that the problem is that critics of Oberlin students just don’t understand the social justice concepts that would help them to see reality:

I’m emailing you just to explain some of the reasoning behind some of the complaints. Cultural appropriation is the “adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” At Oberlin people take cultural appropriation very seriously. For example, at a school sponsored event a few months ago students were outraged by the presence of henna tattoos. Giving people henna tattoos would be an example of cultural appropriation because it trivializes a traditional act by another culture. I think that people were trying to bring attention to the lack of appreciation for other culture’s foods when they’re reduced to just another thing on the dining hall’s menu. CDS in general has done a poor job of giving other cultures dishes the recognition they deserve. Bahn Mi and sushi are both traditional dishes from cultures that are not our own, so, if prepared at all, they should be prepared in a manner that gives the dish the respect it deserves. People don’t usually think about food as something that deserves respect, but food is reflective of the heart of different cultures. I identify as religiously and culturally Jewish and I would be offended if someone prepared a traditional Seder plate incorrectly at some time other than Passover. This would de-sanctify the religious meal of Passover and reduce it to just another quotidian meal.


Food plays a large part in people’s cultural background and I agree that it is wrong to prepare traditional foods incorrectly. Cooking a traditional dish with improper ingredients and using incorrect method demeans the culture of those who hold those dishes dear. I hope you read this and at least gain a bit of understanding about why students were upset about the quality and nature of food they were being served.

As best as I can tell, most critics of the Oberlin students are well aware of the rationale set forth in the email above, but reject many of its premises as wrongheaded.

An Oberlin freshman is shocked by the climate at the college:

I’m a freshman at Oberlin College. My first semester at Oberlin was interesting to say the least. I’m a liberal, politically active kid from [very liberal city].  I didn’t expect the atmosphere at Oberlin to be much different from the one I’ve been used to for the past 18 years. I was mistaken.


Not everyone at Oberlin is a lunatic. Yet the most radical students are by far the loudest so it seems like Oberlin is way more radical than it actually is. I hadn’t even heard about the food thing until I got home for break and saw Oberlin students sharing a Fox News article about food appropriation.  But there have been many heated discussions (via Yik Yak, an anonymous iPhone app for instance) regarding similar issues. For instance, a couple months ago, there was this big debate about whether Henna is cultural appropriation.  When these discussions come up, I, along with the other smart Oberlin kids, don’t get involved.


The reason is that the radical vocal minority is quick to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them. This is why I would ask that if you would like to quote me on anything, you keep it anonymous. The far left radicals are as bad as equally radical right wingers. Although I agree politically on almost all issues, their inability to tolerate people with different views is absurd. They tend to not focus enough on reaching a goal but instead on having a strong reaction.  I feel frustrated when I think about my school because I know that if I were to do something like share the Fox News article and make fun of my school, I would get disparaged on Facebook.


Oberlin students responded to these articles by complaining that they detracted from the big issue now at Oberlin, the ABUSUA petition. This petition was created so that black students could demand certain changes to address issues at Oberlin. I agreed with many of these issues but I didn’t sign the petition because some of it was completely unrealistic. And it demanded that certain teachers be fired without giving enough explicit info about their supposed wrongdoing. On Yik Yak, many people were against the petition but no one said anything against it in public.


This is because it became abundantly clear that to critique the petition would be racist.  Any dissenters are called racists by the vocal minority which completely shuts down conversation. This is a very long winded email but I hope to convey some of my uncertainties about my new school. I think these issues have become apparent in many liberal arts schools. If you have any specific questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. But again, I wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Finally, a reader who neither attended nor worked at Oberlin remarks from afar:

The most valuable thing I learned in college was that (aside from a few close friends and family members) nobody in the real world cares what happens to me. They don’t care where I’m from, what my dreams are, if I’m happy, or even if I’m fed or clothed. It was a hard lesson, but a formative one. It’s important to know that. The idea that a college administrator would care that I’m satisfied with, or at least not offended by food choices is an idea that I have literally never considered before.


My mind is blown.


I worked in a college cafeteria. The people who prepare the food are trying to get through their shift. They are assembling pre-packaged ingredients according to standard protocols. They are quite uninterested in who eats the food, or how they feel about it, or even if they like it. There is no scheme to appropriate culture. They are indifferent to culture. I don’t doubt that the students are offended, and I don’t mean to minimize their feelings. It’s just hard for me to relate to their demands.

What Happened to the Common Core Debate?


The Common Core was expected to be a ubiquitous subject on the campaign trail in 2016. The education standards had, over time, become a political football as conservatives condemned them as federal overreach.

It’s so far hardly been the case. Governors in the race, like Jeb Bush, have backed away from using the term because of its negative connotation among the electorate, even if he still stands by the standards. Should he gain traction moving into the presidential primary it might become more relevant as early-voting states—and other governors, like Chris Christie—grapple with the standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, known as the Common Core, is a set of academic standards for mathematics and reading for all ages. State school chiefs and governors collaborated to develop the standards, but since its rollout in 2009, it’s become a point of contention. A common criticism being that the standards aim to nationalize education, although they’re applied at the state level and weren’t ever explicitly mandated by the federal government.

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core. Christie, the governor of New Jersey and a Republican presidential candidate, agreed to adopt the standards in 2010, but has since dropped his support. “The truth is that it’s simply not working,” he said earlier this year.

The Rise of Urban Public Boarding Schools


The critique of the Common Core in part stemmed from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which encouraged states to implement high standards, among other reform strategies, in exchange for grants. The competition at the root of Race to the Top sparked frustrations, as it gave the impression that the federal government was imposing the standards on the states, said Tamara Hiler, the policy advisor for education at Third Way.

The Common Core appeared to be at the forefront of issues to be tackled by presidential candidates come 2016. A year ago, The Washington Post had a headline that read “Common Core might be the most important issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Here’s what you need to know about it.”

The Common Core hasn’t been absent on the trail. In August, Jeb Bush called the term “poisonous,” adding “I don’t even know what it means.” Lots of people would agree with him, but, contrary to a majority of GOP presidential candidates, he backs the standards.

In August, some of the Republican presidential candidates attended a policy forum in New Hampshire where the standards were discussed. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who supports Common Core, conceded that it was troublesome. “Look, did I back away from it?” he asked. “Did I say what I thought?” The forum laid bare the complexities behind the term—the idea that perhaps it was the sentiments tied to the rhetoric rather than the standards themselves causing trouble. This might be most evident in states like Indiana, which dumped the Common Core even though its standards might be the same, according to Hiler.

“[Some of the presidential candidates] haven’t flip-flopped on their belief of Common Core, but what they’re not saying is Common Core,” Hiler said. “It’s a language shift. They believe in high standards that they should be held to, but the government shouldn’t have a role. That’s not the case now.”

To that effect, some GOP presidential candidates may be taking on a reactionary position. Among the general public, 54 percent of Americans oppose the Common Core in comparison to the 24 percent who support it, according to a PDK/ Gallup poll. There are polls, however, that suggest differently. And a survey conducted and funded by Fairleigh Dickinson University , found that a majority of Americans—both supporters and opponents—have misconceptions about the standards. Many believed that the education standards also covered sex education, global warming, and evolution.

The mixed perceptions of the Common Core are also present in Iowa, where the standards are used and where the first caucus of the presidential primary will soon take place. A Des Moines Register Iowa poll in February found that 56 percent of Iowans ages 18 and older view the Common Core—which is defined as an “education initiative in the U.S. to define what K through 12 should know at the end of each grade”—positively. But 61 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers don’t want the Common Core implemented.

Suburban parents and teacher’s unions have also expressed frustrations with the standards. Laura McKenna described it in an Atlantic piece:

Parents take their cues about education from their children’s teachers, and unfortunately that often means important facts are lost in translation once they exit the classroom. The bottom line is that if the teachers aren’t happy, the parents aren’t happy either.

David Whitman weighed in on the degree of dissonance in a Brookings paper. The problem, he said, “is that the norm of public understanding of the Common Core bears little connection to the standards themselves.” Whitman goes on to further explain the conservative critique in his paper:

To date, the conservative critique of Common Core has been propelled primarily by ideology (the battle over federalism and the federal role in education) and politics (antipathy toward President Obama and policies he favors).

Whitman argues that the Common Core, in part, dates back to the Reagan administration when a report, A Nation at Risk, called for higher standards. “In 1983, advocating for higher standards was considered to be politically conservative because it flipped the left-leaning education establishment’s preoccupation with measuring educational inputs,” he writes

During the first GOP debate the Common Core came up briefly, leading Bush to reflect on his tenure as Florida governor. “I’m for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way, with abundant school choice, ending social promotion,” he said. “And I know how to do this because as governor of the state of Florida I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.” Marco Rubio quipped that he would not allow the government to “force [the Common Core] down the throats of our people and our states.”

If and how the Common Core plays a role in 2016 isn’t clear, but it certainly appears that the debate will linger on.

The Ugly Fight Over Arabic in Augusta County

If there was any doubt that Americans haven’t figured out a good way to grapple with Islam, look no further than Augusta County, Virginia. Schools there are closed today after an uproar over an assignment that including copying the Islamic profession of faith.

No one comes out of this looking great. The assignment at Riverheads High School near Staunton—to copy calligraphy reading “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God”—seems well-intentioned but ill-considered. Parents may have been justified in questioning the assignment, but the level of fury isn’t commensurate with the offense, and it’s hard to imagine it happening with any other religion. And it seems like Superintendent Eric Bond, who made the right decision in refusing to fire Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher involved, overreacted by shuttering schools on Friday, especially as there were apparently no specific threats against the system of 10,500 students. (What better evidence for a conspiracy theorist looking for Islam’s creep than the schools closing on the Muslim day of prayer?)

The Fear of Islam in Tennessee Public Schools



It’s important not to overstate the level of backlash, a temptation that reporters and polemicists alike often indulge in stories like this. While a few parents demanded that LaPorte be fired for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” others rallied around her. “Both the Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it both in line with state standards, as well as not in violation of students’ rights,” The News Leader notes. Of course, that being true, it seems a little much to shut down the schools and cancel weekend activities, just over some attention. Students and principles said that while extra security at school this week had been a little weird, the general atmosphere was fairly normal. (There’s a lesson here about students’ resiliency  and calm in the face of, and as opposed to, adult hysteria.)

All that said, the assignment could have been better thought-out. It came as part of a geography-class unit on world religions, which also includes Hinduism and Buddhism. And as The News Leader points out, LaPorte didn’t come up with the assignment herself—it came from a teacher workbook, raising the question of how many times the task has been assigned without summoning a firestorm. The homework includes a printed calligraphic rendering of the phrase (known as the shahada) and asked students to copy it, to get a sense of the complexity of Arabic calligraphy.

Of all the phrases to choose, though, why this one? Using the profession of faith, an essential part of converting to Islam, feels strange, especially when there are so many other possibilities that could achieve the same task. (The phrase is also on the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS, among other places.) Why not bismillah al-rahman al-rahim (in the name of God, the most gracious the most merciful), a far less charged phrase? There’s no reason to believe that LaPorte was trying to indoctrinate her students into Islam, but the choice of phrase just feeds paranoia about it. It may be just another case of conservative political correctness run amok, but there’s also something uncomfortable about using someone’s expression of faith in this impersonal way. It’s hard to imagine a case in which students would be asked to recite the Apostle’s Creed as part of an academic lesson on Christian liturgy.

Not that the new compromise seems great either. “Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” the district said in a statement. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Arabic calligraphy is of world-religion interest specifically because it is Islamic. Because Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, it has attained an exalted place in Islam throughout the world, well beyond Arabic-speaking countries. And because many forms of Islam prohibit or discourage figurative imagery, elaborate, beautiful, and highly stylized calligraphic artwork using Qur’anic phrases is a staple wherever Muslims are, around the world. Islamic art is a major chunk of world art, and while it’s inextricable from religion, it’s also a larger, civilizational thing than mere devotion. Using a secular Arabic phrase glosses over all that context.

Think about it this way: Would someone try to teach a class on Western art while excising Christian art as indoctrination? Of course not—in part because they’d have very little to work with in the centuries between Constantine’s conversion and the Renaissance. But Islam is something different, something that many Americans still view as a threat. My colleague Emma Green reported earlier this week on how schools in Tennessee and around the nation are facing intense efforts to roll back even the most academic, detached lessons on Islam. In many of these cases, too, the fight is being led by a small but vocal band of parents who find the act of educating about Islam, a religion with 1.6 billion followers around the world, itself objectionable and dangerous. It’s no coincidence that these battles almost always occur in heavily white, Christian school districts.

The Augusta County assignment was more vulnerable to outcry because of the unwise step of including the shahada. But there’s little question this is about fear of Islam, and not about objections to religion in the public schools. After all, Augusta County schools also offer students the chance to leave school once a week to attend Bible study.

Does Affirmative Action Create Mismatches Between Students and Universities?


Last week, during oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia drew outraged criticism for declaring that “there are those who contend that it does not benefit African­-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school, a slower­-track school where they do well.” Scalia was clumsily alluding to “mismatch theory,” a prominent critique of affirmative action. Its proponents argue that non-academic preferences in college admissions ill-serve some intended beneficiaries, who end up admitted to schools for which they are relatively unprepared, and struggling, rather than thriving at different schools where they would be at least as well prepared as their classmates.

The denunciations were fierce.

“It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench on the nation’s highest court,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The cover of the New York Daily News declared it “Scalia’s racist rant.” Andy Borowitz, whose humor reliably flatters the preexisting beliefs of the average New Yorker reader, quipped that Justice Antonin Scalia would fare better if he served as a judge at a court that was ‘less advanced’ than the United States Supreme Court.”

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In response, some indignant conservative media critics declared that “mismatch theory” is “a taboo subject for the MSM” and that “the left” is made up of “contemptible liars” who are “terming Scalia a racist” because “the left’s ugly belief that subjective hurt somehow trumps statistical fact means that he must be labeled a bigot.”

If the underlying subject were inconsequential, America’s red and blue tribes could watch the uncharitable back-and-forth, get their respective serotonin boosts, and depart with the satisfaction of feeling superior to their ideological adversaries. As is often the case, however, the hyperbolic sniping that emerged from the political culture of stigma-and-outrage junkies muddied an important debate about a subject that deserves to be engaged cooly, rigorously, and constructively.

After all, many institutions of higher education give admissions boosts for non-academic characteristics, including race, athletic ability, musical talent, leadership potential, geographic diversity, and having parents who are alumni. It would be beneficial for the relevant admissions officers to have empirical answers to questions like, “Does an admitted student’s graduation rate change predictably depending on how many standard deviations they are from the mean SAT score or GPA?”

Colleges can hardly avoid provisional, working answers to that question. And there are cases in which nearly everyone either agrees with, or rejects, “mismatch theory.” If Harvard’s admissions team unexpectedly decided to admit ten students, never mind their race, who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the SAT, everyone would expect those students to fail. If Duke admitted 10 students of any race who scored a single percentile lower than the school average on the SAT, no one would expect that tranche of students to fail out of the university at a higher rate. Admissions officers regularly say about people of all races, “I’m impressed by this young person, but their ACT score and GPA make me wonder if they’d thrive here or be set up to fail.” Treating that commonplace as taboo is irresponsible. The only question is at what point academic credentials matter and to what degree.

With better information, colleges might learn that more expansive race-based preferences would not lower graduation rates; or that a subset of orchestra members or legacies or minorities are harmed by policies intended to help them; or that institutions can eliminate differences in graduation rates among students with GPA disparities by investing in specific types of academic support. Accurate, detailed conclusions could plausibly improve many thousands of lives, whatever they say.

Yet that isn’t the focus of the public debate. Why?

Scalia’s error was to talk carelessly and imprecisely about a predictably fraught subject. Contrary to his lazy characterization, proponents of “mismatch theory” do not believe that admission to selective colleges “does not benefit African ­Americans,” full stop, or that African Americans would benefit from “a slower track school.”

He ought to have made all of the following clear:

  • Many black students are fully qualified to attend the most highly selective institutions of higher education in America, and proponents of “mismatch theory” of course believe that this subset of black students benefits from doing so.
  • Professor Richard Sander of UCLA, who many regard as the foremost scholarly proponent of “mismatch theory,”and Stuart Taylor Jr. of Brookings, who co-authored the book Mismatch with him, “support the modest use of race in admissions but think very large preferences have harmful effects.”
  • It’s not about just about race. As Sander himself wrote last week in the Washington Post,“The ‘mismatch hypothesis’ contends that any person (certainly not just minorities) can be adversely affected if she attends a school where her level of academic preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate.”

While Scalia’s defenders contend that he was speaking in shorthand and referencing amicus briefs and scholarly research that convey the foregoing more clearly than he did, I do not think it overzealous “political correctness” to expect more carefully drawn words on this subject in a high-profile hearing, given Scalia’s prominence and the ugly, wrongheaded belief in black inferiority that persists in bigoted enclaves. A man of his position and intellect is capable of better. From a purely consequentialist perspective, he should’ve anticipated that his shorthand would add more heat than light to the debate. As Taylor told the New York Times, “Mr. Scalia’s lack of eloquence had made what he said sound worse than it was.”

If Scalia sometimes shows more talent for provocation than rigor, the press ought to understand how amplifying and denouncing his least careful words misleads readers, who are owed a careful exposition of the actual arguments to which he alluded. At Vox, Libby Nelson at least explained to readers, “Scalia wasn’t making up his objection from the bench. He was drawing from a frequent conservative argument against affirmative action: Students with lesser academic qualifications don’t benefit from being admitted to a more competitive college.”

But even she gives the impression that mismatch theory is persuasive only to conservative opponents of affirmative action and that it is safely dismissed. As she put it, “research has found this isn’t true. If anything, it’s the opposite—students benefit from going to the best college that will admit them, even if their academic credentials are a stretch, because more selective colleges tend to have higher graduation rates.”

Notes



Sander, who isn’t mentioned in her piece despite his prominence in the debate and an amicus brief in the case before the court, is hardly a conservative ideologue. He graduated from Harvard and chose, as his first job, volunteering as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago; he wrote his graduate dissertation on fair-housing laws and residential segregation; he worked on the effort to elect Democrat Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and served on his transition team; he has a track record of empirical research aimed at figuring out how institutions of higher education can best help struggling students to thrive; and he’s a tenured law professor at UCLA. None of those factors means that his theory is necessarily correct; but they certainly cut against innuendo that “mismatch” is rooted in conservative hackery or racism.

Sander’s initial paper on mismatch theory focused on law schools.

Proponents of mismatch theory––and some agnostics––also cite a study by Duke University’s Peter Arcidiacono, who found that affirmative action might cause its beneficiaries to drop out of the most difficult majors at disproportionately high rates. It is conceivable that such mismatches, if they exist, are particularly likely at law schools and in STEM fields, and less likely to be observed in other disciplines—or even that they vary widely by institution.

Other formidable scholars––Matthew Chingo prominent among them––have offered strong critiques of “mismatch theory.” I have no position to offer on the many questions on which these academics disagree. But perusing the critics, Sander’s most up-to-date defense of his scholarship and various attempts to characterize the overarching debate, I’m baffled that any journalists are treating it as settled, even as tenured social-scientists at top-tier universities declare that it deserves to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, can yet provide a precise answer to the question, “at what point do disparities in GPA, SAT score, or high-school quality start to matter,” even though everyone surely agrees that they matter at some inflection point.

It would be useful to know, whatever it is.

One reason for the stridency of the reaction to Scalia’s remarks is the long history of racial exclusion and discrimination in university admissions; some critics fear that “mismatch theory” portends a return to segregated campuses, making the question of mismatches based on race more fraught than it is with respect to preferences based on athletics. Fortunately, almost no one today favors race-based exclusions, and public universities in states like California, where racial preferences are outlawed, have proven able to maintain a large degree of racial diversity. The biggest risk of bungling the mismatch debate is likely leaving students at schools where they are less likely to thrive.

As an observer who is open to the possibility of “mismatch” proponents or skeptics having the better of the argument, the only thing that seems clear to me is that more study of this question is worthwhile. Why does anyone disagree? Nelson writes, “Mismatch theory is always brought up in the context of affirmative action. But universities admit less academically qualified students for all kinds of reasons—because they’re the children of alumni or donors, due to athletic or musical talent, and so on. There isn’t nearly as much concern about how those students fare, and some research has found they’re more likely to drop out than other students, including those admitted through race-based affirmative action.” Wouldn’t it therefore be salutary to have answers to the whole array of questions?

In Mismatch, Sander and Taylor advocate for one step as a possible middle ground. “Schools should provide any information they have available or can reasonably obtain on learning outcomes for past students similar to the admitted student,” they write. “For example, a student admitted to a college with a given SAT score and high-school GPA should receive its best estimate of the past graduation rates of comparable students, their college GPAs, and their rates of attrition from intended majors.”

In one of the most even-handed articles on the controversy, the National Review’s Reihan Salam, an agnostic on racial  preferences, offers a compelling endorsement of that narrow position:

The goal of transparency wouldn’t be to discourage students from attending selective schools. If Chingos is right, the news would in most cases be more encouraging than discouraging. Yet students with below average levels of academic preparation would have a clearer sense of the obstacles they face, and that they’d be wise to take advantage of enrichment resources on campus to keep up with their better-prepared classmates.


It’s not just beneficiaries of racial preferences who’d profit from access information of this kind. So would athletes and benefits of other preferences, like legacy preferences and regional preferences. Indeed, I suspect all students would benefit from having some sense of where they stand in the pecking order. One often hears about students who resent the suggestion that they’ve benefited from racial (or other) preferences. Transparency could do a great deal to address these concerns. If I know that I’ve benefited from a preference, and I’ve made an informed decision about what that will likely mean for my academic prospects, I’d presumably feel far more secure. If I can’t stand the idea of benefiting from a preference, however, I might instead attend a school where I’d start at the top of heap. The ability to make an informed decision in accordance with your values is no small thing.

I suspect information of that sort would’ve better prepared me for the calculus course I struggled through as a Pomona College sophomore admitted with an SAT score that put me well above average in verbal skills and decidedly below it in math. It seems as though it would’ve benefitted Afi-Odelia Scruggs, whose powerful Washington Post op-ed about struggling at an elite college––and benefitting from going there anyway––serves as one powerful anecdotal retort to Scalia’s speculation. And the case for transparency dovetails with the demands of some student activists, who want more transparent data about how successfully institutions eager to recruit them to campus are serving them once they matriculate. Perhaps if lots of private institutions parted with such data, best practices would emerge.

Meanwhile, neither the right nor the left should stigmatize those who disagree with them on this subject. Careful proponents of mismatch theory and its most careful critics are both doing a service by advancing knowledge in an area where accurate information is highly likely to benefit that subset of students of all races who benefit from various admissions preferences, regardless of what the facts turn out to say. Journalists ought to be invested in the rigorous pursuit of that knowledge, and do harm insofar as they overstate what is known, or stigmatize earnest scholars on either side of a debate that won’t be settled without many more studies at diverse institutions.

As John McWhorter put it, this is “a complex matter upon which reasonable minds will differ. With the well-being of young people of color at stake, we can’t afford to pretend otherwise.” Stigma and insults help no one. But more knowledge will.

Is Affirmative Action Finished?


“If this Court rules that the University of Texas can’t consider race, or if it rules that universities that consider race have to die a death of a thousand cuts for doing so, we know exactly what’s going to happen,” Gregory Garre, the lawyer for the University of Texas, told the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. “Experience tells us that.” When the use of race has been dropped elsewhere, “diversity plummeted.”

You say that like it’s a bad thing, Justice Antonin Scalia in essence replied. “There are—there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a … slower track school where they do well,” he said. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer.”

Garre replied, “I don’t think the solution to the problems with student-body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools.”

Who Can Tribal Courts Try?


There’s a sample of Wednesday’s thoroughly unpleasant oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas. Fisher has become the Flying Dutchman of American law. “We’re just arguing the same case!” Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion the first time the Court considered it, said Wednesday.

The skeleton at the helm of the good ship Fisher is the Project on Fair Representation, a very determined conservative advocacy group; but the wind in its sails is the unrelenting hatred at least three, and probably four, justices feel for any program anywhere that uses race to advantage minorities in any way.

As Scalia’s remark suggests, ill feeling was on full display Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts scoffed at the idea that racial diversity had any educational value: “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?” Justice Samuel Alito in effect suggested that, by seeking more minority students than it already has, the University of Texas is belittling the minority students already enrolled. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as passionately pro-affirmative action as Scalia or Roberts is against it, pursued the Project’s lawyer, Bert Rein, with questions until he and she got into a barely civil shouting match.

The University of Texas is the state’s premier educational institution. Until 1995, UT allowed its admissions officers to use race as a “plus” factor in admissions. This is the method endorsed by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Bakke v. Regents of the University of California. It means that, when deciding among a pool of qualified applicants, a university can consider an applicant’s race along with his or her test scores and grades, and such things as extracurricular activities, athletic or musical ability, and special achievements outside school.

Notes



Bakke was decided in 1978. Conservatives hated it from day one, and battered at the precedent. In 1995, they convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to declare it dead, and to order UT to stop any use of race. The Supreme Court declined to intervene. Minority enrollment declined sharply.

In 1997, the Texas legislature created the “10 percent plan.” Under the plan, any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of a Texas public high school is guaranteed admission to UT. Texas is geographically, and thus educationally, highly segregated by race. Many high schools are mostly white; a smaller number, chiefly in urban areas, are mostly African American or Latino. Thus, not by coincidence, the 10 percent plan brought diversity numbers up, filling most of the entering class. The remaining 25 percent of in-state students were admitted by a traditional, “holistic” program that evaluates their entire record—not including race.

In 2003, however, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Bakke rule in a case called Grutter v. Bollinger. Race as a plus was back on the table. The University of Texas adopted a plan to use race as a plus in deciding whom to admit to the roughly 25 percent of its admissions that are not automatic under the 10 percent plan. The system seemed to be carefully designed to comply with Grutter: Race was not dispositive; racially diverse applicants weren’t given a fixed numerical boost in a scoring system; admissions officers did not track the number of minorities admitted during a given cycle, thus eliminating pressure to boost minority admits late in the cycle to meet a stated or unstated goal.

In 2007, a white high-school senior named Abigail Fisher from Sugar Land, Texas, applied to UT. She was in the top 12 percent of her class at Stephen Austin High School, below the cutoff, and UT didn’t take her as a holistic admit. She sued, arguing that the use of race in any part of the admissions program violated her rights. She couldn’t prove that she would have gotten in without the new program; her injury, she argued, was simply having to be judged by race in any degree.

In 2012, Abigail Fisher graduated from Louisiana State University. That same year the Court heard her case—even though, by then, the case was moot. Many people expected Fisher I to be the death knell for Grutter; but in 2013, the Court, 7-2, reaffirmed the Grutter rule.* It remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to make sure that Texas’s program really passed “strict scrutiny”—meaning, in essence, that it must further a “compelling” interest and that it must be “necessary” to do so. Was the UT program really necessary, in light of the top 10 percent plan and other circumstances? In 2014, the Fifth Circuit looked again at the program and concluded that it passed that demanding test. Now the case is back at 1 First St. NE.

The Texas plan, Rein told the Court, is unconstitutional because it is a quota; it doesn’t actually measure how many students it affects or have a target number for a “critical mass” of students; only a few students are admitted because of race, suggesting that the program’s not needed; and it’s impossible to know how many students are really admitted because the University doesn’t keep detailed records. But this is a Catch-22—if the program did define a clear target and measure and record its progress, then it really would be an unconstitutional quota.

It is tempting to call this doublethink, but it’s not. The arguments aren’t meant seriously as arguments. There’s been a legal debate about “diversity” since 1978; everybody knows all the moves and nobody’s mind is changing. CFR’s real claim is that use of race to increase racial and ethnic diversity at institutions like the University of Texas is immoral, dangerous, and a violation of the equal-protection rights of whites. It can’t make that argument openly—Fisher I held that universities can use race. So it uses coded language.

The argument was as dispiriting to hear as it must have been to conduct. In the weird constitutional language of affirmative action, no one is allowed to say what they really mean. Under the Bakke rule, the only “compelling interest” a university can pursue is the benefit of “educational diversity”—that is, the idea that all students receive a better education if their classrooms include students of different racial and national origins.

Thus, a lawyer who argued that minority students deserved affirmative action, or received a special benefit from it, would lose on the spot. But the anti-affirmative action justices won’t play by that rule. Scalia now thinks minorities would be happier with their own schools. Justice Alito wondered why minority students can’t go on to have good careers if they go to lesser schools. (The orthodox answer is that Alito is asking the wrong question; he needs to ask how their presence benefits all the students.)

Here is a key question in this case: If the 10 percent plan already produces some increase in minority enrollment, why does UT need more?

Here are the unspoken questions in this case: How many minorities are “enough”? How many is too many? And when will all this affirmative action end?

Grutter said that we did not expect these sort of programs to be around in 25 years, and that was 12 years ago,” Roberts asked Greg Garre. “Are we going to hit the deadline? Is this going to be done, in your view, in 12 years?” The implication was clear: Affirmative action isn’t working; America is no closer to racial justice than it was a decade ago.

Let’s call the whole thing off.

That would be a bad idea, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the Court. Because admission to first-rate schools is the gateway to high-level careers, the nation needs to educate a diverse class: “The interest in ensuring that we have military officers who can lead a diverse military force is critical. The interest in having law-enforcement officers who are not just diverse but who can operate effectively within every racial and ethnic community in highly charged situations is critically important. Corporate America has told you that having a workforce that is able to function effectively in diverse situations is critical … These are the considered judgments of people who actually have the responsibility to ensure that the vital functions of the government protecting the country with the military and with law enforcement and the vital functions of commerce … are carried out.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who took part in the case as Solicitor General, has removed herself from the decision. If the remaining liberals win over Kennedy, the result would be a 4-4 split; the University of Texas, having won below, would be the winner. That seems unlikely. Kennedy does not like affirmative action and has never voted to affirm it. On the other hand, he has a horror of the kind of bright-line opinion outlawing affirmative action the conservatives would favor.

On Wednesday, he hinted that the case might benefit from another trip down to the Court of Appeals. No one else—justice or party—seemed enthusiastic about that idea. Nonetheless, the Flying Dutchman may sail again.


Related Video


At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, we asked a group of professors, activists, and authors to weigh in on misconceptions about race and racism.



* This article originally stated that the 2013 ruling of Fisher I was 7-2. We regret the error.


Congress Prepares to Launch a New Era in Education Policy


In the next few weeks, a bipartisan majority in Congress is likely to pass a law that, in various ways, repudiates the education legacies of both the Bush and Obama presidencies.

House and Senate negotiators last week agreed to a legislative framework replacing George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law, a landmark reform of K-12 education placing strict federal requirements on states and schools that proved unworkable over time and led to a culture of testing that drew criticism from liberals and conservatives alike. While some federal benchmarks for accountability will remain in place, the new bill gives much more latitude to the states and restricts the ability of the secretary of education to punish or reward them based on their progress.

The overhaul is years in the making—Congress has been due to reauthorize the underlying Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2007. And in the absence of action on Capitol Hill, the Department of Education has amassed even greater power by negotiating waivers with 42 of the 50 states to exempt them from the law’s sanctions, which included the potential closure of schools. Ultimately, the mounting frustration both with the original law and the waiver system that took its place propelled an alliance among Republicans, Democrats, and even the teachers unions that have battled the leadership of both parties over the years.

The Chicago Protests Aren’t Just About Laquan McDonald


The final bill is still being drafted, but a House-Senate conference committee approved its framework in an overwhelming vote—of the 40-member panel, only Senator Rand Paul voted against it. Despite concerns about the restrictions the new law would place on the secretary of education, the White House “is pleased with the framework,” said Roberto Rodríguez, an education adviser on Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. Advisers and advocates in both parties described the bill as a genuine compromise between a bipartisan plan that passed the Senate and a more conservative House bill that would have eviscerated the federal role in education policy and shifted more resources away from needy schools.

Praise has come from unlikely corners.

“It corrects what the federal government has gotten wrong in terms of policy, but it maintains what the federal government has right in terms of policy,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me in a phone interview. “Is it perfect? Of course not. But by doing those two things simultaneously, it’s a very big step.”

Unions have railed against the mandates for teacher evaluations that the Obama administration required in exchange for No Child Left Behind waivers, calling them an excuse to scapegoat educators. While the new law would keep in place requirements for yearly testing of students in grades three through eight and once in high school, it scraps the federal evaluation requirement. And instead of mandating that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” through test scores, the government would allow states to submit their own plan for accountability that could take into account factors beyond testing.

“Our bipartisan agreement will reduce reliance on high-stakes testing, so students and teachers can spend less time on test prep and more time on learning,” said Senator Patty Murray, the lead Democratic negotiator.

Democrats successfully pushed for what they called “federal guardrails,” or provisions that allow Washington to intervene if states don’t address schools performing in the lowest 5 percent or where more than one-third of students drop out before graduation. States will also be required to report data on the performance of key subgroups to ensure that disadvantaged students aren’t being ignored, and the law would cap at 1 percent the proportion of students with disabilities who could be excluded from the main state assessments.

“This is not an up-and-down conservative triumph,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The federal machinery of NCLB, while largely defanged, is still in place. From the administration perspective, that’s a win. They get to keep that machinery and the head-nodding toward Washington.”

Yet Hess said that overall, Republicans got 75 to 80 percent of what they wanted. They succeeded in their drive to consolidate about four dozen federal programs and shift the balance of power in education policy strongly back to the states. Many of the Democratic “wins” in the bill were about preventing even more conservative policies from becoming law, not advancing the vision of accountability-driven reform that Obama and his departing education secretary, Arne Duncan, promoted early in their tenure through competitive programs like Race to the Top. Duncan in particular has become a target of ire for conservatives, and Republican negotiators insisted on provisions that specifically rein in the secretary’s power to grant waivers in the manner that Duncan did.

“Never in my life have I seen major legislation driven as much by a desire to repudiate a Cabinet secretary and his way of doing business,” Hess said.

For years, Duncan has prodded Congress to fix the law, and he has repeatedly said that the waiver system was intended as a “stop-gap” to prevent schools from being hit with sanctions under No Child Left Behind. And while the administration is not happy with what it considers ideologically-motivated provisions that seek to curb the secretary’s authority, Rodriguez said the White House was pleased that the new law would affirm the federal role in regulating education policy in many areas. He also said the agreement achieves key administration priorities by providing $250 million in annual funding for early childhood educations and by rejecting a House Republican proposal for “portability” in education dollars that Democrats worry would drain resources from schools in poor neighborhoods.

Passage of the new law could coincide neatly with Duncan’s departure as education secretary next month. But officials said the desire to finally get something done had more to do with the next president. Republicans want to do away with the waiver system, while even Democrats who backed Duncan are worried about what a GOP president could do with the authority the Obama administration has used. Privately, those who support accountability-based reform are also unsure of how a President Hillary Clinton would use the waivers, given her alliance with teachers unions and her recent endorsement by the National Education Association.

The agreement was reached just a few weeks after the Obama administration made a high-profile announcement that it would encourage schools to reduce the frequency of student tests, a move seen by critics as a mea culpa for a climate blamed in part on its policies. Advocates in both parties said they hope the new law will relax the test-prep classroom culture without abandoning accountability, but transferring power to the states offers few guarantees, and there are concerns about what the shift will mean for states that have had a persistently high achievement gap.

“What educators and parents are going to look for is, do we have some latitude to help our kids succeed? And do we have the tools and conditions that we need to help children succeed?” Weingarten said. “Or is it just going to be doubling down on federal policies, but on a state level?”


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The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities


Over the past 20 years, black enrollment in colleges and universities has skyrocketed. It’s a huge success story, one that’s due to the hard work of black families, college admissions officers, and education advocates. But at top-tier universities in the United States, it’s a different story. There, the share of students who are black has actually dropped since 1994.

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

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This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically.

This statistic put the recent campus discussions on race in a different light: less a spontaneous uprising of discontent, and more an inevitability.

“When you already have an issue around inclusion … these incidents of late heighten that perception and confirm that perception,” said Tyrone Howard, an associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA and director of the university’s Black Male Institute. “It gives some students of color some pause—do I really want to go to a place that, at least from the optics, suggests they’re not inclusive?”



Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994.

Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.

But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years. (It’s less than half of what their share of the population might suggest; the Census reports that 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 are black.) While some schools have had success—the University of Missouri’s main campus has actually increased its black share by 3 percentage points since 1994—the median school barely budged.

(At Harvard, for example, 6.5 percent of undergraduates were black in 2013, down from 7.4 percent in 1994.)

Researchers say top-tier schools have left black students behind in their push for ever-more-selective admission rates. Many rely heavily on measures that disadvantage minority students, including standardized test scores. The greater emphasis on such criteria has left high school counselors in predominantly black schools underprepared to respond. And tighter admissions may have prompted high school counselors to steer black students toward less selective schools.

“Those schools don’t have as much support around college prep as they should. As a result, those students are woefully in the dark about their college options,” Howard said. “If a student shows he or she has a profile that would be considered at UCLA or Berkeley, if no one at the school or a counselor or an administrator helps the student to recognize it, that student shoots for a [less-selective] state school instead.”

But simply admitting more black students isn’t enough. Persistently lower graduation rates among black students show that promising enrollment numbers alone won’t build an inclusive campus. The curriculum matters, academics say, as does support. So does the diversity of the faculty.

“Even at places that are impressively diverse, students still feel very much on the fringes,” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “Simply having more students of color on a college campus does not ensure that they are going to feel included and respected.”

There’s no question that top-tier schools are becoming more diverse. White students made up 58 percent of the student body in 2013, down from 72 percent in 1994. Universities have also recruited more Hispanics, the United States’ largest minority group.

But indifference to black students isn’t an issue colleges can afford to take lightly. “Young black folks are refusing alteration or the mollification of conformity and are simply demanding justice,” the New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote. And the numbers are their side.

Being Muslim on Campus


Even before the Paris Attacks, Muslims on American college campuses were often the targets of hatred or violence. In November, Virginia Tech responded to a threat that claimed “I will kill all Muslims,” and Islamophobic posters were hung at American University. And it’s only gotten worse since.

“People are a little more careful traveling alone, going out at night, walking to their cars,” Adeel Zeb, the Muslim Chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University, told me. And that reality plays an important role in the everyday lives of students.

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Across the country right now, students are walking out of classes, demanding administrators’ resignations, and staging protests to draw attention to prejudice on campus—and to press for greater inclusion. Most of their focus, though, has been on race. Where does pushback against Islamophobia fit in?

Many Americans, including some presidential candidates, draw little distinction between the violent ideologies of extremist groups and mainstream Islam. As a result, there is often an anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of attacks, despite overwhelming condemnation of terrorism and the use of the Quran to justify mass murder among practicing Muslims. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf points out:

Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked tremendously after 9/11. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased too. In Britain, hate crimes soared after the London bombing. And after the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, The Independent reported that “twenty-six mosques around France have been subject to attack by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence.

The university atmosphere acts as a social laboratory of sorts, a model written into the mission statements and strategic plans of many schools. That’s why, like many other cultural groups, Muslim organizations use resources—in the form of student activity fees or membership dues—to stimulate intercultural interaction. Zeb explained that Muslims are among the most active participants in the university’s interfaith community. A principal goal is to foster understanding and respect among people who may have never been exposed to significantly different beliefs and practices.

For Muslim groups, the uncomfortable reality is that the starting point is often showing that their values are rooted in love and kindness—that they’re “not terrorists.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that, because of international events, a lot of young Muslim students are looked upon to answer questions about these types of things—as if they have a Ph.D. and a 20-year tenure of answering these questions—when they’re simply just trying to get past organic chemistry so they can get into medical school,” Zeb said. “They happen to be Muslim and perhaps a terrorist happened to be Muslim as well, so there’s somehow a correlation, and an onus to condemn the terrorism—or you’re assumed to be complicit in it and I don’t think that’s very fair.

Fatima Koli, a student at Columbia University, told me that this burden puts her in a difficult place. “No matter what we do, we are always left in the weaker position, always reacting instead of paving our own way,” said Koli, who is also the president of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia. “Why do we always have to wait to have our hurt acknowledged? Why do we always have to step back and accept that our lives aren’t valued in this world?” she asked me. “Muslims are always at the back of the line for that compassion.”

Koli rejects the notion that she bears a personal responsibility to take an active role in combatting prejudice against peaceful Muslims. “While I highly respect individuals and organizations that do the work of dispelling misconceptions, I can’t do that kind of work,” she said. “We need to cultivate our own spaces and have productive and meaningful discussions within our own community, and the work of educating the ignorant can take a step back for once.”

But those who do choose to take an active role on that front say that it usually just takes a simple, positive interaction. “Until a Muslim from within the community speaks up to reaffirm these beliefs, many of my student peers are not as confident about explaining such misconceptions of Islam to others or confronting those who are perpetrating hateful speech,” Afrad Khan, a student at New York University, told me.

The most violent instances of backlash haunt many Muslims. Zeb referenced the murders at the University of North Carolina in February during our conversation; Koli recalled a woman in London who was pushed into the path of a train. But Islamophobia manifests in nonviolent ways, too. Yik Yak on campuses is often inundated with vitriolic anti-Muslim slurs, and xenophobic distaste commonly manifests in subtle ways—as microaggressions against “visibly Muslim” people.

And sometimes, the hostility comes from professors. Khan told the stories of a student who heard a professor say in class that the Prophet Muhammad hallucinated on fumes in a cave—causing him to believe he had talked to God—and of another student who was told that she is “too pretty to be wearing a hijab.”

An exceptional case—where Islamophobia and campus free-speech concerns are colliding—has been unfolding this year at my alma mater. In January, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a Vanderbilt law professor, Carol Swain, wrote that “Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children” in an op-ed for the Tennessean, adding that “Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha’i and other world religions.” Student activists of all faiths (and of none) denounced Swain’s words and organized protests and other events to push back. When some activists began to call for Swain to be sanctioned or fired, a debate about free-expression and safe spaces ensued (to much the same tune as the recent conflicts at Yale and Mizzou). Last week, a student-drafted petition to suspend Swain reached over 1500 signatures. The chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, released a statement pointing out that Swain’s views are not consistent with the university’s, but affirming the school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Days later, terrorists struck Paris, and Swain took to Facebook to reaffirm her stance: “I rest my case,” she posted, later adding:

I am astonished by the timing. My “controversial” essay about Islam was published after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The second massive attack in Paris occurs in the midst of the turmoil at Vanderbilt which accuses me of hate speech for an essay published in January that pointed out a problem with Islam. It’s Ironic that some people see Christianity as a threat. I am afraid we have made it easier for terrorists to attack us.

It’s an exceptional circumstance; not many tenured professors around the country espouse views (at least not publicly) that marginalize an entire faith. But the response Swain provoked at Vanderbilt illustrates that student activism doesn’t stop at Black Lives Matter, and that battling Islamophobia is part of the growing demand for inclusivity at colleges and universities.

That movement for inclusivity, though gaining steam, faces uncertain prospects. At the tensest moments—when genuine breakthroughs seem possible—the core demands made by activists have often been overshadowed by concerns about the methods they employ. In the short term, the headlines about intolerant activists and the suppression of free speech may garner the most attention. But those activists are trying to expose deep-seated prejudices that matter far more in the long term. And for Muslim students, that task now seems particularly urgent.

Spreading the Free-Market Gospel


Last year, a staffer for Charles and David Koch’s network of philanthropic institutions laid out the billionaire brothers’ strategy to spread their views on economic freedom.

Political success, Kevin Gentry told a crowd of elite supporters attending the annual Koch meeting in Dana Point, California, begins with reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power.  

“The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,” he said.

“So you can see how this is useful to each other over time,” he continued. “No one else has this infrastructure. We’re very excited about doing it.”

These quotes come from an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Center for Public Integrity (which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic) from the producers of the web-video program “The Undercurrent.”

Higher education has become a top Koch priority in recent years. And their funding—as well as pushback against it—is increasing. During 2013, a pair of private charitable foundations Charles Koch leads and personally bankrolls combined to spread more than $19.3 million across 210 college campuses in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Internal Revenue Service tax filings.  

That represents a significant increase from the $12.7 million the Koch foundations distributed among 163 college campuses in 41 states and the District of Columbia during 2012. It’s also exponentially more than what the Koch foundations together spent directly on higher education a decade ago.

A review of hundreds of private documents, emails, and audio recordings—along with interviews with more than 75 college officials, professors, students, and others—indicate the Koch brothers’ spending on higher education is now a critical part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.

* * *

It is well-known that the Kochs’ network has invested hundreds of millions of hard-to-track dollars in conservative political nonprofits that influence elections. The brothers, who earned their billions leading private oil, chemical, and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., were dominant forces in recent election cycles. They’re now poised to rank among the most influential Americans shaping next year’s presidential and congressional vote. Much less well-known are their activities on college campuses.

The Kochs are among many wealthy political patrons who give money to education, including conservative Robert McNair, independent Michael Bloomberg, and liberal billionaire financier George Soros. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds.)

The Kochs’ giving, however, focuses on an ideological approach to free-market economics in a way that’s distinctive among political mega-donors. Koch officials routinely cultivate relationships with professors and deans and fund specific courses of economic study pitched by them.

Detractors argue the Koch brothers’ college-focused money, by helping advance a philosophy of economic liberty, is eroding a fundamental aspect of higher education: academic freedom. Their defenders, however, consider the Kochs’ investments in higher education a much-needed counterweight to an American higher-education system that historically tilts leftward.

“Since the ‘60s, they’ve been imbued with the sense that the world would be a better place if the country instituted their libertarian values,” Brian Doherty, the author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement and senior editor at Reason, said of the brothers.

“For Charles, his time horizon, as he gets a little older, has become a little shorter. He has lots of money, and he wants to see action in his lifetime,” continued Doherty, who’s interviewed both Koch brothers.

“I’m not doing anything I’m ashamed of,” Charles Koch himself told Forbes last month. “You’ve gotta change the hearts and minds of the people to understand what really makes society fairer and what’s going to change their lives. And it’s not more of this government control.”

The Kochs educational giving, while rarefied, isn’t the most abundant in the United States. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, with his wife Betty, this year pledged $100 million to the California Institute of Technology—and offered to let the school to spend it as it sees fit.

Koch defenders also note, accurately, that the pair has donated generously to educational causes not necessarily animated by political considerations: the Smithsonian, public television, media organizations, music scholarships, medical research and a variety of others. David Koch, for his part, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into medicine and the arts over the years.

But it’s clear where there is an ideological bent to their giving: Tax returns, as well as emails and private documents exchanged among Charles Koch Foundation officers and various college and university officials, indicate the foundation’s commitment to funding academics is deep and growing. Koch education funding, which is almost singularly focused on economics, also sometimes comes with certain strings attached.

* * *

At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit—and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.

It sought, for one, the names and email addresses—“preferably not ending in .edu”—of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship. The stated purpose: “to notify students of opportunities” through both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.

And the foundation certainly did not want the College of Charleston to speak to news reporters about its Koch-funded programs without prior consent from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The Center for Public Integrity


“[I]f you intend to engage in press releases or other media outreach associated with programmatic activities, please notify us in advance,” Charles Koch Foundation officials Charlie Ruger and Derek Johnson wrote to Peter Calcagno, the director of the College of Charleston’s Center for Public Choice and Market Process. “We consider media outreach a collaborative effort and would appreciate the opportunity to both assist and advise.”

Donors are often sent unpublished press releases about programs they fund “as a courtesy so that they will know the contents,” school spokesman Mike Robertson said.

At Florida State University, one of the nation’s top educational recipients of Koch foundation money this decade—about $1.38 million from 2010 through 2013— a similar request is more direct.

“FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of CKF,” reads a memorandum of understanding signed between the university and foundation in 2013.

Such provisions aren’t new at Florida State University: the Center for Public Integrity last year reported that the Charles Koch Foundation first attempted in 2007 to place specific conditions on its financial support of the school, when it initially considered providing funding.

Among the proposed conditions: Teachings must align with the libertarian economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the Charles Koch Foundation would maintain partial control over faculty hiring and the chairman of the school’s economics department—a prominent economic theorist—must stay in place for another three years despite his plans to step down.

Florida State University ultimately didn’t agree to the initial requests when, in 2008, it reached a funding agreement with the foundation. It’s also tightened and clarified policies that affect private donors’ contributions to the university.

* * *

Today, the Kochs’ friendship with Florida State University appears stronger than ever.

An email written in September 2014 by Jesse Colvin, Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy development director, indicates the Charles Koch Foundation is committed to funding the work of economic-department doctoral students “during 2015-2016 and in subsequent years.”

A series of other meetings and conversations between John Hardin, the director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, and Florida State University officials followed, documents indicate.

In November 2014, Florida State University officials huddled in the office of the newly installed University President John Thrasher for a meeting entitled “Koch briefing.” Schnittker, the university spokesman, said the meeting was an “opportunity for our new president to be briefed by university staff about a gift agreement that obviously preceded his tenure.” Hardin was not present, Schnittker said.

Meanwhile, when officials at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice went hunting for funding, the Charles Koch Foundation factored into their strategy.

The Koch brothers, after all, were telegraphing their intent to make criminal-justice reform a personal priority, reasoning that “overcriminalization,” like overregulation of industry, is resulting in more Americans enjoying fewer economic freedoms.

Not everyone at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice appeared thrilled at pursuing Koch cash. “I know you really hate them, but we really need to send them some stuff,” then-Chairman Allison DeFoor wrote Executive Director Deborrah Brodsky late last year. “They have money. We don’t.”

Reached separately by phone last week, DeFoor, a committed conservative, and Brodsky, a Canadian whose politics are more liberal, both laughed off the exchange as comedic banter between longtime colleagues.

But they confirmed they had pursued the Charles Koch Foundation. It hasn’t yet funded the project but did provide the organization “strategic support,” including co-hosting a forum on criminal justice.

DeFoor would conclude, following presentations in Washington, D.C., to both the Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, that Koch interest in issues the project researches “is sincere, potentially aggressive and deep.”

As a small, three-year-old “research- and evidence-based” program, the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice will gladly take money from most anyone along the ideological spectrum who’s dedicated to its study of and work on criminal-justice system reforms, Brodsky said. She counts liberal lions such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Human Rights Watch as partners.

The Charles Koch Foundation executives declined to be interviewed individually. Trice Jacobson, a foundation spokesperson, instead provided a statement that she said “captures what we all hope to share for this piece.”

“Like many charities, the Charles Koch Foundation recognizes the importance of supporting a diversity of ideas so scholars and students can continue to push the frontiers of knowledge and help people discover new and better ways to live fulfilling lives,” the statement read. “Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal-justice reform to corporate welfare.”

In a separate statement of its “academic giving principles,” the Charles Koch Foundation asserts that it is “committed to advancing a marketplace of ideas and supporting a ‘Republic of Science’ where scholarship is free, open and subject to rigorous and honest intellectual challenge.”

It also notes that scholars and students “who are free to teach, learn, research, speak, critique, and receive support for their work without interference” are in the “best position to discover the advances that will help improve well-being.”

* * *

Nowhere is expanded Koch involvement in higher education more evident than at George Mason University, which receives more funding from the Kochs than any other school.

The large, diverse public university in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., with a population of more than 33,700, today houses and lends its name to what’s effectively Charles Koch’s personal academic workshop. The Charles Koch Foundation in 2013 donated more than $14.4 million to George Mason University and the research centers it hosts. That’s on top of tens of millions in Koch dollars that George Mason University and the affiliated research centers have collectively received in recent years.

Charles Koch himself is a George Mason University fixture. He’s the recipient of an honorary doctorate in science from the university. He is a director of the university-based Mercatus Center—Mercatus means “market” in Latin—that Charles Koch Foundation Vice President Ryan Stowers described at the 2014 Koch gathering in California as “critical” to advancing policy priorities.

Koch also enjoys the company of several current and former George Mason University affiliates who play multiple roles across the Koch brothers’ sprawling educational, corporate, and political network.

Chief among them is Gentry, who presided over the Koch’s closed-door higher-education workshop last year.

Gentry possesses unique knowledge about the interconnectivity of the Koch’s various interests and operations because he embodies its reach. He’s a Charles Koch Foundation vice president and a key fundraiser for the Kochs’ political action arm. He’s a former vice president of both the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. And today, he’s also the Eastern vice chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Brian Hooks, now president of the Charles Koch Foundation, is another key Koch network player. Hooks served as the Mercatus Center’s executive director and chief operating officer from 2005 until 2014 and remains a Mercatus Center board member. The year Hooks took over, the Mercatus Center posted $4.9 million in total revenue, according to tax filings. The year he left, it posted nearly $20.7 million.

“Our job is to make sure that we’ve got a strategy for our work to have a disproportionate impact,” Hooks said at the Kochs’ conference in 2014, noting that the Mercatus Center is the “largest collection” of “free-market faculty” at any university in the world. “These guys are producing research that groups in this network can rely on to advance economic freedom every single day.”

Scholarly research performed by academics at Koch-funded schools and programs is indeed sometimes used by Koch-backed nonprofit organizations that, in turn, overtly advocate for political candidates and causes.

For instance, to support assertions made in a recent, 67-page policy paper, Koch-supported American Encore regularly cites and quotes Mercatus Center research and mentions the center nearly a dozen times.

Among the academic work American Encore’s paper highlights: a 2014 Mercatus Center study by Keith Hall, a senior research fellow who had previously served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a 2014 commentary about a federal regulations tracking and measurement tool by Patrick A. McLaughlin, another senior research fellow.

“Yet another study has confirmed what we already knew—states with lower taxes do better,” read an article by the Kochs’ flagship nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity, about a study published July 7th by the Mercatus Center. “Overall, the rankings provide more evidence that economic freedom works, and bigger government means bigger trouble.”

And the 60 Plus Association, a retiree-focused nonprofit that’s benefited from tens of millions of dollars of the Koch brothers’ money over the years, for a time tapped Walter Williams, a George Mason University economics professor, syndicated columnist and Rush Limbaugh Show fill-in host, as a member of its “truth squad.” His mission: to “battle” against Democrats on  Social Security and Medicare programs.  

* * *

Congress is also paying more attention to the Mercatus Center, which from 1999 to 2008 was mentioned by name 32 times in either the Congressional Record or congressional committee reports. Since 2009, it’s been mentioned 93 times, often in reference to Mercatus Center faculty who were testifying before Congress.

This year, Congress even cited Mercatus Center research in the text of budget bills. House Concurrent Resolution 27 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 note that a Mercatus Center study “estimates that Obamacare will reduce employment by up to 3 percent, or about 4 million full-time equivalent workers.”

Mercatus Center Vice President Carrie Conko, while declining to address critics’ “ad hominem attacks” of Charles Koch, stressed that the institution’s work is the product of hard work and high standards—not the whims of some patron puppet master.

“As a university research center, our scholarship is independent and subjected to rigorous peer review,” Conko said. “Our researchers are interested in understanding what shapes societies and economies, and that covers a spectrum of research from the history of economic thought to the application of economics to questions of public policy.”

Conko also noted that the Mercatus Center abides by a strong conflict-of-interest and research independence policy, which she described as “stronger than those of most found with typical academic centers or departments.”

Mercatus Center officials note that the center isn’t part of George Mason University the same way as, say, its chemistry or psychology departments. Instead, it’s organized as a stand-alone nonprofit, and as such, George Mason University isn’t directly responsible for it.

The Mercatus Center doesn’t receive direct funding from George Mason University, Conko said.

But George Mason University and its students do receive millions of dollars in annual financial benefit from the Mercatus Center, according to federal tax filings.

That alone is a major incentive for a public university in Virginia, where state funding of higher education is dwindling, to host a privately funded operation on its campus—today, a fairly common practice among public schools.

The Mercatus Center spent $3.64 million during that time to “support graduate students at George Mason University” by “training future scholars and decision-makers to advance and apply a research agenda for understanding institutions and change,” according to a tax filing.

The Mercatus Center helped fund $1.82 million worth of communication efforts that included promoting its research and ideas “to the media and opinion shapers.”

And it made a $10,000 grant to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which operates a “global network of more than 400 free-market organizations.” They include several Koch-backed nonprofit groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Tax Reform.

* * *

The Mason-Mercatus-Koch nexus may seem like rich fodder for a Democrat such as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, whose national party brethren makes demonizing the Koch brothers a central strategy of their electoral and fundraising agenda.

McAuliffe’s own political committee, Common Good VA, bashed  the “ultra right-wing Koch Brothers” in an email earlier this month, accusing them of working against “expanding health care for all” and “ensuring a living wage.”

But McAuliffe—the outspoken former chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—declined Center for Public Integrity requests to discuss George Mason University’s relationship with the Koch brothers.

George Mason University’s top undergraduate leader, Student Body President Khushboo Bhatia, also declined comment.

A university spokesman, Michael Sandler, explained that George Mason is among the nation’s most diverse campuses, and “this notion of diversity and inclusion that is so central to our mission applies to our donors, as well.”

Sandler said the university appreciates the Charles Koch Foundation’s donations, as well as those from thousands of other donors.

“While we are grateful for all of the gifts we receive, we value academic freedom above all else,” Sandler said. “This freedom allows our faculty and researchers to ask questions and make discoveries that others wouldn’t otherwise pursue, and we will not compromise that freedom for anything or anyone.”

Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of politics at George Mason University who specializes in how individuals and groups influence government, is skeptical.

George Mason University’s marriage to an ideologically motivated donor with a policy agenda to achieve “raises some eyebrows,” Victor said. “I don’t really see what Mason gets from them, and I don’t think the situation is healthy or consistent with the university’s teaching mission.”

* * *

Some college officials such as Sandler are willing to discuss the financial support their schools receive from Koch-run private foundations, with many emphasizing that gifts from donors, whether liberal or conservative, don’t affect coursework or the manner in which students learn. They also note that their schools receive hundreds, and sometimes thousands of contributions each year from individuals, private foundations and the like.

But it’s not uncommon for other school officials to be more circumspect. Victor Nakas, a spokesman for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., answered a series of questions about the $215,000 the university received in 2013 from the Charles Koch Foundation, emailing a pair of dated press releases announcing grants. “We will be unable to provide you with more than links to these announcements,” he said. Michael Schoenfeld, the vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, declined to say how the school used the $37,000 it recently received from the Charles Koch Foundation. “As a rule, we do not comment on individual donors or contributions without the donor’s permission,” he explained. Officials at Oklahoma State University likewise offered no details about how the school used the $69,000 the Charles Koch Foundation recently gave it.

Why the reluctance to elaborate? An email exchange between two Florida State University officials, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, offers a measure of explanation. In it, the officials indicate deep concern about the potential effects of releasing more information about the school’s moneyed donors in response to activist demands. “[R]equiring donors to disclose more than they already do will likely result in fewer gifts and smaller gifts, and it will impose an additional administrative hurdle for the university,” wrote Thomas W. Jennings, vice president for university advancement, to David Coburn, Florida State University chief of staff.

Revealing donor gift agreements, even for donors who have not requested anonymity, might “have a negative effect on FSU’s relationships with many of its donors, who don’t want that kind of attention,” Jennings continued.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill received $115,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2013, one of nearly 100 schools that year to receive a five-figure contribution from a Koch foundation.

But that’s information not easily accessed by students. Whether by design, happenstance or ignorance, “most individuals don’t know where any of the university’s funds come from,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Student Body President Houston Summers said.

University spokesman Jim Gregory confirmed the school received $110,000 for the Charles Koch Visiting Scholars Program in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, conducted in collaboration with Duke University. Donors are allowed to remain anonymous, if they choose.

However, some universities are facing blowback over scant information about school donors from increasingly organized anti-Koch groups and activists.

The umbrella group UnKoch My Campus, for one, has staged protests, demanded meetings with administrators and launched chapters at George Mason University and Florida State University, among others. The organization accuses the Kochs and their allies of undermining issues many students care about, such as environmental protection, workers’ rights, health-care expansion, and public education.

Its immediate goal, beyond convincing colleges to de-Koch themselves?

“Transparency, because students should have the capability to be more aware of who’s funding their school and their education, and where funding might conflict with student interests,” said Kalin Jordan, an UnKoch My Campus organizer. “The universities—most don’t do a good job of informing students at all.”

Colin Nackerman, a student activist at George Mason University said, “You should know, if you’re going into a classroom, that $30 million is going into your school from someone who wants you to think a certain way.”

Largely silent in the past, the Charles Koch Foundation has begun to push back at such dissenters.

“They don’t want students and scholars to expand their educational horizons,” Hardin, the foundation’s university relations director, wrote in a May 26th, Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Rather than engage in a vigorous and civil debate about the merits of different ideas, they seek to prevent those with which they disagree from ever being heard.”

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If George Mason University is most representative of Charles Koch’s academic investments, Bard College is George Soros’s, a multi-billionaire whom many view as the Koch brothers’ pre-eminent liberal foil.

The tiny New York liberal arts school nestled along the Hudson River is renowned for both scholarship and hippy-dippyness. It received more than $11.2 million from Soros’ private foundation in 2013—part of a $60 million, multiyear commitment.

But there is an interesting difference: Soros’s contributions to Bard College aren’t generally earmarked for core academics or domestic political considerations. Instead, Soros’s money mainly helps fund Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement, which houses a broad portfolio of both U.S. and overseas programs aimed at “advancing the ideals of an innovative, hands-on, liberal-arts education through a myriad of opportunities across the globe.”

This tracks with Soros’s broader tack on educational giving: The vast majority of his tens of millions of dollars in education-related contributions fund foreign schools and programs, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. (Soros lived his early life in Hungary, where as a Jew, he survived Nazi occupation before emigrating.)

Among the U.S. schools Soros does aid, many of his most sizable grants are earmarked for programs with international goals, such as $500,000 to Harvard University funding a project on economic growth in Albania, and $159,834 to The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to “develop effective and influential public policy leaders in Central Asia.”

Soros’ foundation even gave George Mason University more than $22,500—not to fund economics programs, but to organize meetings in Mexico and Peru about conflict reconciliation. “As a general rule,” Soros said in 2011, “I do not support higher education in the United States.”

Soros does make exceptions. An avowed advocate of campaign-finance reform, Soros has used his private foundations to fund certain domestic college initiatives squarely rooted in American politics and elections. One Soros foundation, for example, gave New York City’s Fordham University $200,000 in 2013 to study the “role of money in democratic process.” The money is part of a $1 million, multi-year grant to determine how disclosure of campaign money influences voters—an awfully political endeavor by any measure. But school officials say the research they conduct is free of outside influence and subject to the highest academic and legal reviews and standards.

“None of this work is ‘political’ per se in terms of any ideological dimensions … it is all strictly nonpartisan,” said Costas Panagopoulos, the director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, who is leading the program. Penn State University’s economics department in 2013 benefited from $150,000 in Soros money to help build a research center focused in part on “interactions between new media and society.” And the Ohio State University Research Foundation received $50,000 to conduct a research project aimed at better understanding the role independent expenditures play in federal elections and “how those expenditures influence the legislative process.”

Bard College officials do hear their share of criticism for taking a massive amount of money from Soros’ private foundation, said Jonathan Becker, the school’s vice president for academic affairs and director for civic engagement.

But, similar to some of the schools that accept Koch money, the school’s tenuous budget situation means that it’d take funding from just about anyone so long as the transaction was legal and wasn’t intended to fund an initiative “antithetical to our vision,” Becker said. That vision, in the words of its student handbook, imagines a “supportive, intellectually rich environment where students can engage themselves to the fullest while respecting all members of the community.”

So what if the Charles Koch Foundation wanted to donate $1 million to Bard College? Or $10 million? “We would say ‘thank you,’ and we would cash the check quickly,” Becker said.

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Unlike the Kochs, Soros and many other prominent political donors, both left and right of center, have charitable agendas that largely diverge from their domestic political agendas.

Robert McNair, the Houston Texans owner who this year alone has spread $3 million among five super PACs backing several Republican presidential candidates, used his private foundation to give millions of dollars to various medical schools and a scholarship program for doctors performing research in areas such as breast cancer, juvenile diabetes, and neuroscience.

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, two other top Republican donors whom 2016 presidential candidates have endlessly wooed, directed almost all of their university-related private foundation funding—millions of it in 2013—to medical research.

A private foundation co-run by former World Wrestling Entertainment honcho Linda McMahon, a major GOP donor who herself twice unsuccessfully ran self-funded U.S. Senate campaigns, gave its most sizable, six-figure contributions to substance abuse help group Liberation Programs.

Then there’s the late Republican superdonor whose philanthropy has been at war with his political giving: Harold Simmons. The Texas businessman bankrolled his eponymous foundation, but his liberal daughters run it. In doing so, they saw to it that Planned Parenthood—the ultimate Republican scourge of late—received more than $300,000 of his money during 2013. It’s also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based money-in-politics reform group also supported in 2013 with $300,000 from a private foundation led by liberal hedge-fund manager Jonathan Soros, son of George Soros. Money the Harold Simmons Foundation did give to colleges in 2013 mostly went toward infrastructure and general operating expenses.

* * *

While more schools than ever are engaging with Koch foundations, at least one school—the University of Dayton in Ohio—has seemingly soured on Koch cash, which it has previously accepted in five-figure amounts.

Jay Riestenberg, a research analyst at campaign reform advocacy group Common Cause and University of Dayton alumnus, earlier this year emailed the school’s Interim Provost Paul H. Benson, asking him if the University of Dayton is still funded by, or seeking new funding from Koch foundations.

Attached was an op-ed Riestenberg has written for the school’s student newspaper. In it, he explains that his education at the small Catholic school inspired him to care about other people, protect the environment and fight for social justice. “UD accepting Koch funding is in clear violation of the institution’s Catholic Marianist values,” Riestenberg wrote in the April 28th email. Benson replied later that night. His answer: The University of Dayton no longer accepts Koch cash, and it will not in the future—despite the efforts of Koch-backed organizations. “There have been instances in which other foundations who are funded in part by the Koch Brothers have tried to interest us in establishing centers at UD,” Benson wrote Riestenberg. “We have not supported those proposals, precisely for the reasons you cite.” Benson declined an interview request by the Center for Public Integrity.

In a statement, University of Dayton spokeswoman Cilla Shindell explained that the school did reject a recent proposal from a “foundation that is in part funded by the Koch family” because it “would have been structured in a way that would limit oversight by the university in such areas as curriculum and faculty hiring.”

She did not name the foundation.


This story was produced in collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity.