William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Too Many Kids Go To College: A Third Conversation With Myself

Links to the first and second conversation with myself about teaching. I am away from the computer until Monday, 25 October.

William Wasn’t this your week for midterms? How’d they go?

Matt Better than I had hoped. You know I was pushing the kids, trying to make them work harder. Most scores improved.

William I can see your smile. But you said, “most.”

Matt I have the problems all professors do. I’ve given two tests and in all classes some students have not taken either test. I don’t recognize their names, either, and they’re not coming to class.

William No class is perfect.

Matt The school’s withdraw deadline is coming, and after the exam, I had a line out the door of students who had done poorly wanting me to sign a permission slip, so that they could receive a “W” for the class and not a letter grade.

William You probably frightened half of them half to death.

Matt It’s true that before the midterm, I had a difficult time convincing students to come to office hours. Oddly, now that most are doing better, my office is rarely empty.

William If you didn’t wear those suits, you’d seem easier to get along with.

Matt I’d also look less professional. Forget that, and let me tell you why kids want to withdraw.

William Any mention your ties?

Matt Skip it. Several told me that they had to drop to maintain a grade point average above 3.2 or thereabouts. I asked why and they said that the school gives them an “award” of about $2,500 for having good grades.

William A financial incentive for studying can’t be bad.

Matt Can’t it? I asked these kids if they wouldn’t have to retake the class because it was a requirement for their “Business” majors. They agreed that they would. I then asked, “How much does it cost to take a course?” It’s about $1,100 to $1,200.

William That’s not so harsh; other schools charge double or triple.

Matt Not the point. I asked the leading question, “Well, if you’ve paid for this class already, and you’ll have to pay for it again, how much is that?”

William They’d still come out ahead re-taking.

Matt Just barely; and only if time costs nothing and they passed with a high grade the next time.

William It’s still better to receive a “W” than an “F”.

Matt That’s only assuming they would fail, which some of them wouldn’t if they applied themselves. One student was very upset with me when I asked why she was dropping. She said, “I’m going to retake the course with another teacher and get an A.” I asked, “Is that so? How do you know?” She said, “I’ve always been good at math, and this is the first time I ever did badly.”

William You are a taskmaster.

Matt I said to her, “Well, you’ve always been told you’re good at math. But how do you know?” She couldn’t fathom an answer, and told me she just wanted to drop.

William Statistics isn’t math, anyway. Not any more than physics or chemistry is, and probably less.

Matt Don’t I know it, but that’s a subject for another day. And don’t let’s forget that almost all students did better on the second exam. I reminded the student of that, too. But she still wanted to drop, so I let her. And then I had a calculus student come in, somewhat bashful.

William I thought you liked the calculus class.

Matt I do. But no matter what the class, before I let anybody withdraw, I look over their old exams so that I can see how they handled the material. If they had no clue, I never argue about signing. But if they have made simple mistakes, or were just lazy, I try and talk them out of it; I also tell them they have to work harder.

William If you weren’t so demanding, you wouldn’t have so many kids wanting to withdraw in the first place.

Matt What a rotten argument. This kid couldn’t, for instance, remember how to integrate simple polynomials. His algebra skills were no better. Errors like x2 + x5 = x7.

William A common mistake.

Matt For high school freshmen, sure. I asked how he did in his earlier calculus courses. He said that he had taken the last with a math education professor who insisted that the class buy a fancy calculator that could actually do integrals. Type them in and out would pop the answer. He said that because I didn’t allow calculators, he was having a difficult time.

William What’s wrong with calculators?

Matt Nothing, for somebody who knows what he’s doing and is just trying to save time. But they ought to be forbidden to students. Using that calculator, I told him, was no different than coming to me with a sheet of integrals and having me do them for him. A machine is a machine. He hadn’t learned anything except how to punch buttons.

William For once, I think you might have a point.

Matt I told the student that I was sorry for him, but that it might be a good idea to retake not just my class, but a lower-level course, too, one in which calculators couldn’t be used. He is an engineering major and he would need the math skills, or he would never make it.

William But you are happier, right?

Matt Let’s hope it stays this way.


Utilitarianism, Halloween, and Phantasm

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Benthem
Tall Man
The Tall Man

Halloween is coming, and that means it’s time to consider frightening things. And what over the past two centuries has been more horrific than the idea of utilitarianism? Because of it, parts of the Twentieth Century were as bloody as a John Carpenter movie. Thus, can be it be a mere coincidence that Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism resembles the Tall Man from the horror flick Phantasm? Stick with me here; it’s Friday, the day when regular rules of logic are relaxed.

In the Phantasm movies, the Tall Man’s mission, as far as anyone understands its bizarre plot, was to enslave the human race, to turn them into squat, mindless laborers, as dead as they were alive. Now, if that doesn’t sound like socialism—which requires for its existence the philosophy of utilitarianism—I don’t know what does.

There are many refutations of utilitarianism. As far as I know, its resemblance to a 1970’s horror film is entirely new. But this criticism is so novel, that I fear it will be misunderstood. So, here is a (crude, Friday-style) example of a well known objection.

Suppose you and I, and our compatriots, like the Tall Man, decide to make a certain beautiful woman our slave. “Slave” has to be defined: we can be somewhat loose here, but let’s say in the sense of a Roman household slave.

Now, Sally, our slave girl, won’t be happy about her new career trajectory, but she might gradually come to accept—never like, merely accept for the sake of mere survival—her role. But you, I, and our compatriots who have use of Sally’s services will be supremely happy by the turn of events. Oh, sure: some of us might have the occasional qualm, but these will pass in time as we are all convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Is our making Sally a slave wrong? Depends on what you mean by “wrong.” A utilitarian must look at the act and see how it plays out in terms of the happiness of “all” humans. All is a lot: does is mean all living humans, and all those to come, too? How many is that? Does it include infants, the senile, and Sean Penn? Just the people that know us or Sally, or will come into contact with us or Sally?

And just how do we measure the “happiness” of these people? Can we extract from a person their exact and current level of happiness, measure it without error or ambiguity, and also predict how it will evolve in the future? It doesn’t have to be “happiness” whose utility we seek to maximize. It might be “well being” or some other measure of satisfaction. Whatever it is, the problem of satisfactorily gauging it across “all” humans remains.

It is not entirely clear whether this is even logically possible (I say it is not). Clearly, it is not practically possible. However, socialist theory takes this as a premise. A strict Benthamite would say that it is possible to define “all” and “happiness” (or whatever) and to measure it, too. Perhaps not precisely, but well enough to input the figures into a hedonistic calculus, a formula the output of which will tell him the “right thing to do.”

Back to Sally. Her slave-girl status will make her unhappy, but our slave-owning rights will make us happy. How many of us will it take so that our happiness outweighs Sally’s sadness? Human sadness is not infinite; nor is human happiness. This means that there must come a point at which as we add bodies to the slave-holder list, the happiness of owners will sum to a number greater than Sally’s sadness. It probably won’t take too many slave holders, either.

It can be argued that Sally’s slave status will negatively affect the happiness of the non-owners, but that is beside the point. We can always fix up the scenario so that others do not know of Sally.

And we don’t have to settle for just one slave girl: we can work the calculus so that we have many. Especially when we consider that we, the slave owners, are more valuable to humanity than are the slaves; thus, our happiness or well-being counts for more. History reinforces this idea: have you ever met a socialist who did not feel that they were more equal than others?

Well, you get the idea. All sorts of evils can be committed in the name of utilitarianism, as long as you can make the numbers work out “proving” everybody will be better off.

That is why this Halloween, I will dressing up as Jeremy Bentham. To the trick-or-treators, instead of candy, I’ll be handing out copies of his The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind. And if anybody mistakes me for the Tall Man, I’ll set them straight with a lecture on the greatest happiness principle.


The Corporatization of the University: Part III — Guest Post By Agnes Larson

Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part III of a three-part series. Read Part I, Part II.

Prevalence of Differential Wage

Corporations are frequently under fire for introducing or adhering to a differential wage that splits the workforce. The famous example is Henry Ford’s “$5 a day”, but if a worker happened to be a minority, the high wage did not apply. Universities are well-know for fragmenting their teaching workforce by relying on graduate students and adjunct faculty to carry the heavy load of teaching. The dependence on graduate students fits in nicely with the Babbage principle of never paying more for skill or force needed to do the job. Diverting precious time from a high-wage, productive researcher into the classroom is not cost effective.

Often at universities there is a wage differential, but since we are gentlemen and gentlewomen, it is not discussed. There are faculty, of various ranks and experience, some who carry extra administrative duties, and some who don’t. There are lecturers and instructors. There are grad students who have a TA or RA stipend. There are staff, again, various ranks and years in service. Largely, universities are not unionized, but sometimes faculty are, and sometimes staff are. Universities have different views of equipment, such as computers, and what fund pays the bills. All faculty members are not created equal, and some seem to attract many more resources than others.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

In corporations, entrepreneurship is code for having workers fend for themselves. For instance, the reliance on temporary or contract workers is a suitable illustration of the entrepreneurial workforce. Some minor faculty members without a tenured appointment need to cover not only their own salary, but that of their staff, are classic entrepreneurs. The university only acts as their banker, as a place where the checks can be routed, tax-free. But in reality, it is the employee who is covering the entire cost of his wages, his health insurance and other benefits.

The Profit-Driven Enterprise

Corporations have customers. Universities have students, who are regarded by administrators as consumers, instead of willing vessels to be filled with knowledge. The consumer model changes the dynamic in the classroom. One professor told me that it used to be that students were afraid of not doing the work and disappointing the professor, and perhaps, even failing the class. Today, this professor is afraid not to pass his student-consumers, regardless of knowledge attained or material mastered. Another feature that the university shares with its corporate counterpart is the encouragement of its student-consumers to take on debt in order to buy their product.


Another earmark of the corporation is the adoption of Taylorism, that is, the insistence of the separation of the “brain from the hand.”1 At first blush, it seemed that Taylor’s principles would not find a home in an academic environment. With e-learning, management can easily take what is “under the cap of the worker into the hands of management.”2 And often, the “taking” is done with the worker’s full knowledge and cooperation.

One e-learning enterprise approached a number of faculty with the idea that they would develop on-line courses based on their teaching material. In step with Taylor’s First Principle, faculty, flattered, turn over their material. The worker-knowledge that management used to have to deliberately observe, collect, and root out of workers is freely given by academics. Taylor’s Second Principle is that all “brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying out department…”3 This is also quick work, with the material safely in the hands of e-learning development team. Taylor’s Third Principle has to do with the monopoly of management knowledge and management’s control over each step of the labor process. Once the course materials have been developed into an interactive web-based learning tool, management plans when the classes are. Management hires instructors, who are not the faculty members who developed the material. Faculty may make recommendations of who should teach the courses based on his material, but the decision to hire freelance instructors is with the e-learning enterprise. What used to be the faculty’s skill and trade—teaching—has been effectively debased, and to a degree, outsourced. The web courses are delivered on the student’s own time, on the student’s schedule, but there are occasional allowances made for groups to log on at the same time and discuss the material. While the student seems to make some choices, the e-learning organization is in control of the entire learning process.


The university as an entity as at a crossroads. The introduction and improvement of the online technology brings with it fundamental questions. What is learning? What is education? What is the role of the university? What is the role of faculty? If a student can cruise through 120 credits online, is the residential institution a necessity? Will the big schools become more like the for-profits? Many colleges have the ability to offer or accept some online credits. The wall, for undergraduate education, has been breached.

The implications for graduate education is heavier, as the mentoring relationship between faculty and student serves as some kind of quality control. Will universities be graduating Ph.D. candidates who have never had a face-to-face encounter with their professor? Will new professors be necessary if the old guard has already prepared canned presentations of the sum of human knowledge? Will knowledge acquisition slow down?

These are very serious questions, and the trouble is that they can be dealt with in a frivolous manner, or in an attempt to maximize the bottom line, that can cause harm to us all.

Update All those who are incensed that Agnes’s lament did not include concrete solutions are welcome to submit guest posts of their own outlining their own ideas of How To Fix Higher Education. matt@wmbriggs.com


1Class notes.


3Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press, 1998.


The Corporatization of the University: Part II — Guest Post By Agnes Larson

Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part II of a three-part series. Read Part I, Part III

Layoffs and Workforce Planning

A time-honored corporate method of reducing short-term costs and plumping up the bottom line is to institute layoffs. The modern university is no different. In 2008, ahead of misery that was to be commonplace, University of Florida did the unspeakable—in addition to letting go 118 staff members, they gave 20 faculty members their hat. The reasoning was by letting go of some, they would have the resources to hang on to others whom they feared would leave to “greener pastures” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

2009 was a bad year to be a university, so the story goes, with sorry returns on endowments and richer alumni having their own money troubles (and less left over for sizable donations). Harvard saw fit to layoff 275 staff due to the drop in the endowment (never mind that there were still billions in reserve) in addition to the 500 who took voluntary retirement. Princeton’s knife was duller, cutting only 43, with 45 retiring. Caltech had to let go 100 staff. MIT cut 175 between January 2009 and June 2010. Cornell laid-off 150 and 432 took the early retirement package. University of Michigan planned to consolidated classes and layoff lecturers, the lowest man in the pecking order. Yale had 300 on the cutting block (including voluntary retirements).

While faculty have had to be let go at several institutions of higher education, it is more often the staff that bears the burden of doing the work of others. However, the faculty’s importance vis-à-vis the student body is duly noted. But as universities increasingly engage in activities that are not directly related to the core of teaching, faculty may find themselves in untenured waters.

Since 2001, Cornell has been upfront about its Workforce Planning Initiative (Link). The Ithaca Journal quoted Carolyn Ainslie, then vice president for planning and budget (and now at Princeton), as saying, “We are not going into this with a plan to initiate layoffs.”1 In the fall of 2002, in a speech to staff members, President Hunter Rawlings declared, “Workforce Planning was not conceived to deal with the short-term problems…It is intended to provide resources to accomplish the university’s academic program priorities and to ensure a balanced operating budget for the long term.”2 Rawlings continued in this vein, “We expect workforce planning to lead to more clearly defined roles, responsibilities, standards of performance and accountabilities…We think our support systems will become more agile and responsive to the changing needs and that staff workload will become more reasonable, rewarding personally, and well compensated.”3 “Agile” and “responsive to change”” are in the lexicon of the contemporary corporate. Hunter Rawlings was no different.

The recent layoffs and hiring freezes give universities some time to rethink their workforce planning, even at places that are not as transparent as Cornell. With an eye on budget issues, universities are consolidating or eliminating departments and functions, slimming and trimming as any enterprise does in order to get sleek for a potential merger or to be more attractive to shareholders.

A small note: In China, universities are routinely listed on the stock exchange. In fact, an enterprise known as EDU is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The owner of EDU is Beijing-based New Oriental and Education and Technology Group, Inc. The aim of the company is to help Chinese students be admitted to US universities.

Clericalization of Professional Work

One emeritus professor likes to say that in the 1960s, his Ivy League institution used to have ‘secretaries running around everywhere.” As discussed above, when the university undergoes layoffs, support staff are the first to be released. This leaves faculty without secretarial support.

Younger faculty are not necessarily in need of heavy administrative support. Maybe they need help with processing paperwork, but they are able to handle the computer environment without any extra help. For those who had their training in the 1960s-1970s, they are less sure. Some older faculty still turn over longhand notes to their assistant to decipher (this is how they conducted business 30 years ago) or are more comfortable dictating emails. This population will always be blessed with administrative support. Their younger colleagues are not so lucky. There is one man who was hired in the mid-1990s and he asked the office manager discreetly about clerical support. She pointed to the computer and said, “There it is.”

The norm is shared clerical support for faculty. That means one clerical worker will be shared by two or three faculty. Problems arise when someone feels that his or her work is being shortchanged or neglected. One faculty member, who has support, does all of his own clerical work because “it is just easier.”


1Campi, Esther. “CU to examine staffing levels.” Ithaca Journal, March 15, 2002.

2Powers, Jacquie. “Rawlings tells staff: CU remains strong despite challenges.” Cornell Chronicle, October 24, 2002.


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