Category Archives: Opinion

Free to Speak Against Oppression?

There was recently a dispute at the University of California, Berkeley, similar to the George Will controversy at Scripps earlier this year, regarding the school’s choice of commencement speaker. Bill Maher, a well-known liberal comedian, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley’s December graduation. However, on his show “Real Time” a few weeks ago, Maher criticized the lack of freedom of speech and restricted rights for women and for people who are LGBTQ in many Muslim countries. Maher said, “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” Bill Maher contends that liberals should be critical of those who do not afford free speech and human rights to all. The question he asked was, simply: why don’t liberals care about these issues in Muslim countries as much as they care about them in the United States?

Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?
Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?

In response, many students at UC Berkeley protested the university’s choice to have Maher speak at their graduation, and started a petition to disinvite him. According to CNN, the petition stated that “Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for…we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a bigot is “a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group),” and a racist is “a person who believes that one race should control all others.” Maher’s comments were critical of the discriminatory actions taken by some Muslims in the name of their interpretation of Islam, not with the doctrine of Islam itself. He did not indicate in any way that he hated, refused to accept, or believed he should have control over Muslims. Maher’s words do not “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment”—he spoke out against those who are opposed to open-mindedness and freethinking. In other words, Maher spoke out against intolerance; therefore, his support of individual freedoms is the polar opposite of bigotry.

April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 93
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 93
See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 25
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 25

Under radical Islamic governments, as Maher pointed out, women and the LGBTQ community have very few rights. A 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center confirms this, stating that, for example, 92% of Muslims in Iraq, 93% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 96% Muslims in Malaysia believe that “a wife is always obligated to obey her husband.” Furthermore, the Pew study found that a substantial number of Muslims believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia, two moderate Muslim-majority countries according to Maher’s guest Nicolas Kristof (author of A Path Appears), the Pew survey found that 95% and 94% of Muslims, respectively, believe that homosexuality is morally wrong.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 54
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 54

As Maher also stated, a large number of Muslims internationally believe that it is appropriate to kill anyone who leaves the Islamic faith. According to the Pew Research Center, many Muslims believe that Sharia law, also known as Islamic law, should be the official law of their country. Even in “moderate” Indonesia and Malaysia, 72% and 86% of Muslims believe, respectively, that Sharia law should be the official law of the land. Of the Muslims surveyed who support Sharia law, a large number believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who convert from Islam, according to Pew. Many Sharia Muslims also believe in honor killings, and believe stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 55
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 55

It is important to note that members of the Muslim faith are not alone in holding some of these opinions—as one example, only 41% of American Protestant Christians believed that gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable, according to a 2012 poll by Gallup. Bill Maher merely pointed out the double standard that is present when we condemn the Christians who hold these beliefs while simultaneously ignoring the very same injustices in Muslim countries. He did not claim that Islam is the cause of the beliefs; rather, he pointed out a correlation.

Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, with approximately 1.6 billion people practicing the faith. Like any large group of people, there is tremendous diversity among the world’s Muslim population, and there are many different interpretations among the group, some of which look quite different from the picture painted by the survey. According to Aiman Chaudhary (PO ’17), a practicing Muslim who grew up in Pakistan, the results of the survey are caused by the cultures of the various countries studied, not by Islam itself. “This largely has to do with the sociopolitical systems in place in the areas that this research has been conducted in. I think a lot of theology is often grounded in the culture and not so much scripture, in my own experience. I don’t think it’s a matter of religion anymore, I think it’s a matter of socio-cultural factors that you have been exposed to.”

Had the survey included American Muslims, the results would have looked very different, Chaudhary said. “I think American Muslims would certainly answer the questions differently—anyone who has been exposed to Western influences and the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism will answer these questions very differently. If you ask Muslims in America whether or not LGBTQ rights should be recognized, whether there should be marriage equality, or whether women should have the right to divorce and inheritance, I think a lot of these questions would come across as ridiculous to a lot of Muslims in America.”

It is important to make a distinction between the Muslim faith and the politics of Muslim countries, particularly in countries like America where the two have little in common. In its 2013 Religion and Public Life Project, Pew Research states, “In their attitudes toward modern society and their relations with people of other faiths, U.S. Muslims sometimes more closely resemble other Americans than they do Muslims around the world.” The Pew Research Center assessed the beliefs of Muslim Americans in its 2011 report, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” It found that 90% of American Muslims either completely or mostly agree that women should have the right to work outside the home compared to 97% of the US population overall. It also found that 39% of American Muslims accept homosexuality while 58% of the US population accepts it. In contrast, 45% of American Muslims believe homosexuality should be discouraged compared to 33% of the US population. Regarding support for suicide bombing and other violent acts against civilians, 81% of American Muslims believe these acts are never justified and 8% that they are often or sometimes justified. In comparison, only 19% of Palestinian Muslims and 38% of Egyptian Muslims feel that suicide bombing and other violence against civilians is never justified, while 68% of Palestinian Muslims and 28% of Egyptian Muslims feel it is often or sometimes justified.

Though Maher’s opinions are not Islamophobic, a person unfamiliar with Islam or the differences in the attitudes of American Muslims and Muslims in the rest of the world could generalize Maher’s statements to the entire the Muslim community, which is Islamophobia. This, I argue, is deeply troubling. According to Gallup, there are only about 1.4 million Muslims in America (0.45% of the US population), which means that many Americans may not personally know anyone who practices Islam. The lack of interaction with Muslims makes it difficult for Americans to see and understand the difference between radical and non-radical Islam. The best way to gain a better understanding of the problems pertaining to radical Islam and the resulting Islamophobia that follows is to have an open dialogue examining multiple perspectives. Neither Bill Maher’s nor the UC Berkeley students’ criticisms are unreasonable, and for that reason it is important that both perspectives be respectfully considered. Much like Islamophobia, radical Islam is harmful and discriminatory, and protesting Bill Maher for speaking out against this is contradictory.

Berkeley released a statement in response to the students’ protest stating: “The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them.”

The Berkeley administration got it exactly right: Maher has the right to express his opinions, and the fact that Berkeley invited him to deliver the commencement speech does not mean that it agrees with him on this, or any other issue. Let the dialogue continue. As it does, let’s also ensure that college campuses educate students about Islam, and the manner in which it is practiced in different regions around the world, including the US. In this way, we might ensure that discussions about radical Islam do not propagate Islamophobia.

The Rotten Core of Scripps’ “Core I”

The required Core I class at Scripps College is marketed both to current and prospective students as a course in “interdisciplinary learning,” promising to teach the bright young women who walk through Scripps’ gates how to think critically. As both citizens in a complex world and women grappling with future career demands, the ability to think critically about the information and many hidden agendas we face is one of the most crucial skills to learn in college. Sadly, in reality, Core I is only a vehicle for promoting an ideological agenda.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 4.42.43 PM
Time to break out the hammer and chisel? Or the hammer and sickle?

According to the description on the Scripps College website, the Core Curriculum’s goal is to “expose students to some of the major concepts and dialogues shaping modern intellectual thought and challenge them to investigate and debate those issues by drawing from multiple perspectives.” This could not be further from the truth. Instead of exposing students to “multiple perspectives” on contentious and important issues, 250 Scripps first years are bombarded on a weekly basis with radically progressive ideological indoctrination by professors who allow very little room for opinions that differ from mainstream liberal thought, lest one be accused of “marginalization” or labeled a “bigot.

Scripps' Core I, Rotten to the Core
Scripps’ Core I, Rotten to the Core

The course, generally made up of one lecture and two hour-long discussions per week, has thus far covered the topics of American slavery, the seizure of America from the Native Americans, a criticism of the American prison system focusing predominantly on how the system oppresses women and racial minorities, and a sexually graphic novel by Jean Genet entitled The Thief’s Journal.

One semester isn’t enough time to study these litanies of oppression in any real depth. As a result, we have been lectured only about the (obvious) injustices inherent in these actions and institutions. Not once have we examined statistics or economic analysis, or the complexities inherent in the historical context of even one of these topics. Instead, our professors have presented us with narrow criticisms of the vast majority of “structures of oppression” that they believe keep the first world running, and the rest of the globe oppressed. These watered down Marxist clichés may be worth hearing, but if the goal of a Scripps education is to produce intellectually sophisticated citizens, it would perhaps be worth hearing competing theories, like those held by at least half of Americans, too. In my Core discussion class, our highly emotional discussions have primarily focused on the claim that students who are white, and presumed to be wealthy, need to learn to “check their privilege.”

I attended a BeHeard forum at Scripps on the subject of “Marginalization on Campus” following the difficult conversations occurring in the Core I discussions. I went to raise the question of how a student with politically conservative views can participate in a Core discussion without immediately being attacked by the student body and professor. When asked how to combat some of the uncomfortable conversations going on in the Core I discussions, one student said that she believed most of the tension was stemming from “students being confronted with their privilege in a way that’s uncomfortable.” She went on to say that she felt totally okay with students feeling uncomfortable and picked on in class as long as they were the “rich, white students” because they have never felt oppressed before.

By her definition, it seems that the goal of Core I is not interdisciplinary learning or critical thinking, but instead some kind of twisted revenge fantasy where students who are assumed to have never encountered any kind of hardship are put in situations where they feel “oppressed, marginalized, uncomfortable, and violated.” In what world, I wonder, is a classroom fueled by such resentment and hostility toward a certain demographic of students conducive to an effective, let alone healthy, learning environment?

Later in this same forum, I asked how a student who has a different opinion about the merits and virtues of a particular “system of oppression,” such as capitalism or the American prison system, could respectfully express a different opinion. How can students with views that don’t share the liberal premises of the curriculum or professor be given a fair chance to express their opinions when it is instantly assumed that they are not just misguided, but actively perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism? My question was met by the inquiry of another student, who asked if I was saying “that I did not support equality” – apparently unaware of the comment’s irony. The student went on to assert that the discomfort I feel in a hostile classroom setting is not actually related to the suppression and distortion of political disagreement with the curriculum, but, rather, to my white guilt of having to confront my presumed privileges.

My argument had not just been dismissed as oppressive, but also irrelevant and unworthy of a thoughtful response, because it was actually just a manifestation of the guilt that I am supposed to feel in encountering such texts. When students can no longer see the difference between disagreements born out of reason and those born out of malice, they must believe that there is only one correct opinion – namely, theirs. And if having an opinion other than the correct one is oppressive, as is taught in Core I, then Core I is not so much about students critically examining their own thoughts and ideas, but instead about making sure everyone conforms to the same progressive ideology. Students are encouraged to verbally attack those who believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility, the pillars of thought upon which this country was built. It is clear in the Core I Curriculum that, while race, class, and gender marginalization are condemned, ideological marginalization is not only fair game, but encouraged.

The Not-So-Grand Jury

Recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, have – quite literally – wreaked havoc across the nation. Two separate grand juries decided not to indict police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. Both decisions led to uproars and protests on several college campuses, including the Claremont Colleges.

On Wednesday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) responded by introducing the Grand Jury Reform Act, H.R. 5830, which “prohibits the use of a secret grand jury process when determining whether a police officer should be prosecuted for wrongfully killing another person while in the line of duty.” The law would appoint special prosecutors to conduct probable cause hearings that are open to the public and require local law enforcement agencies to comply with the new process to receive federal funding.

The grand jury system isn’t perfect. In fact, there are deeply troubling concerns about its undemocratic process that, as Rep. Johnson points out, warrant a closer look. But is his reform an effective solution?

Why are grand juries problematic?

When the Framers included the grand jury indictment clause in the Fifth Amendment, they sought to provide a “check” on government by allowing ordinary citizens to curb ill-conceived indictments and prevent prosecutorial misconduct. In modern day proceedings, it has been argued that this constitutional “check” is either weak or largely absent.

According to the Cato Institute, government prosecutors now have complete control over the grand jury process: they decide what will be investigated, what charges will be included, what subpoenas will be issued, what evidence will be introduced, and what witnesses will testify and receive immunity. The defense counsel is barred and no judge is present to provide oversight. Ralph Rossum, professor of constitutional law at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), noted, “There is a famous line that ‘prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.’ To the extent that that’s the case, it represents a failure in the grand jury system because that means ordinary citizens are being manipulated by the prosecutor.”

For those of us who fear big government, giving the government the immense power to essentially pick and choose who does or does not get indicted without any oversight sounds like our worst nightmare. And this is especially problematic in cases that involve law enforcement.

On the state level, our current system expects district attorneys to prosecute the same police officers who closely work with them on cases on a daily basis. Worse, district attorneys depend on these officers politically, since police union endorsements are critical for their re-election. Rossum points out, “The use of grand juries at the state level precedes police unions and the organized support of candidates for the district attorney’s office.” Given this modern political reality, it is unsurprising that grand juries indict police offers in only around 40 percent of cases, compared to having a near 100 percent indictment rate for all federal cases.


Hannah Graphic


Are preliminary hearings a better alternative?

America is one of few countries that require grand juries for federal capital crimes, but they are not required at the state level. Only about half of states choose to use them. Others opt to use preliminary hearings, which are adversarial (two sides argue before a judge) and open to the public, like normal court proceedings.

Rossum asserts that preliminary hearings are just as bad, if not worse, than grand juries. “In preliminary hearings, the defense typically chooses not to present anyway, since the burden of proof – probable cause – is so low. They expect probable cause will be found and don’t want to reveal their defense strategy, so the alternative to a grand jury doesn’t protect all that more.”

He continues, “Ethically, you get more protection from a grand jury because what stands between you and an indictment is not two government employees – the prosecutor and the judge – but one government employee [the prosecutor] and a group of ordinary citizens.” To require preliminary hearings in lieu of grand juries would do little, if anything, to mitigate potential bias towards law enforcement.

Should we appoint special prosecutors?

The Grand Jury Reform Act seeks to reduce this potential bias by appointing special prosecutors to handle all police-related cases. Another way to guard against bias is to assign police misconduct cases to prosecutors in a special division within a larger prosecutor’s office. CMC government and ethics professor Joseph Bessette recounts his experience in the early 1980s at the State’s Attorney’s office in Cook County, Illinois – the second most populous county in the country, following Los Angeles. (What Illinois calls state’s attorneys most states call district attorneys.)

“In Chicago, we had 570 attorneys in the prosecutor’s office. They were divided up in all different kinds of ways: some were assigned to juvenile courts; some only did appeals; some only did felony court,” Bessette said. “We had a special division called the Public Integrity Unit with about 10 to 20 prosecutors. All they did was public corruption or police-related cases – they weren’t the same prosecutors that worked with police officers every day. They worked in a special division so that they would have freedom and fewer conflicts of interest.”

Bessette saw this division to be beneficial for both regular prosecutors and police officers, as well as the system as a whole. “Local cops and prosecutors had a camaraderie that would have been difficult to maintain if the same prosecutors were investigating and trying cops for misbehavior. Similarly, the prosecutors who did investigate and try cops didn’t have to worry about unsettling long-standing relationships with the police.”

“So you could have good relationships at that level. You wouldn’t have the same person working closely with a cop one day, and then indicting the cop’s buddy the next day.”

Despite these benefits, Bessette remains hesitant to reform the current system to require special prosecutors for all police-related cases. “There are concerns about special prosecutors that people should have as well,” he warned.

“At the federal level, we don’t have a very good record of special prosecutors. When the Ethics in Government Act was on the books between 1978 and 1999, independent counsels often took many years just to decide not to prosecute,” he observed. “Sometimes they ignored standard Department of Justice policies and occasionally issued stinging public reports about the subjects of their investigations even though they filed no formal charges. So I’m not automatically a fan of special prosecutors, though I have never studied their use in police misconduct cases.”

Rossum echoes Bessette’s reservations. “Typically, prosecutors have more crimes than they can possibly prosecute, so, with their prosecutorial discretion, they allocate their resources in a way that seems most efficient by only pursuing cases that are likely to result in a conviction.” The same restrictions do not apply, however, to special prosecutors.

Rossum refers to the Supreme Court case Morrison v. Olson (1988), looking specifically at Justice Scalia’s dissent. In the case, independent counsel Alexis Morrison was appointed to investigate government official Ted Olson.

“When the decision was made to focus on Ted Olson, Alexis Morrison had an unlimited amount of time and budget to go after him, which means that resources weren’t going to, let’s say, six or seven other cases,” Rossum said. “It distorts the allocation of scarce resources because the special prosecutor gets to work as long and as much and at whatever cost the special prosecutor wants. That puts whoever is the subject of that kind of investigation in a situation different from every other potential defendant. With special prosecutors, you put all of the state’s resources more concentratedly against a single individual.” In this respect, special prosecutors seem less accountable and more prone to misconduct than normal government prosecutors.

What happened in Ferguson and Staten Island?

In these cases, the prosecutors in the two jurisdictions did not think that there was a crime, and they were not actively trying to get the grand jury to return a bill of indictment.

“It seems that in the Ferguson case – to the best that I can tell – the prosecutor acted in an upright fashion. He let the grand jury see everything and let them decide what happened. I don’t know why, in principle, that would be a bad thing,” Bessette said.

“If the grand jury is given unfettered access to every witness, every police report, and all of the physical evidence, and you still can’t get 9 out of 12 jurors (the rule in St. Louis County) to agree that there is probable cause that a crime was committed, then why would you think that the same evidence would convince every member of a trial jury that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?” he asked. “It is considered unethical for a prosecutor to take a case to trial if he or she does not believe that a conviction is likely. Otherwise, the trial process can become a way for prosecutors to harass, and perhaps impoverish, defendants.”

Rossum added, “From what we know from the evidence, to actually bring Darren Wilson to trial and bankrupt him in the process would not be justice: there is no way a trial jury would have unanimously convicted him.”

For Ferguson, the prosecutor released all of the evidence online; whereas, for Staten Island, the prosecutor was only authorized to disclose a limited amount of information.

“I found the Staten Island case much more problematic, in part because the prosecutor has not been as forthcoming with the evidence,” Rossum said. “What I found impressive about Ferguson was that the prosecutor said ‘if the grand jury acted badly, let’s release all of the evidence and let ordinary citizens decide for themselves.’”

Bessette concurs that the Staten Island case is more suspicious. “There seems to be more questions raised in the Staten Island case about whether the prosecutor proceeded properly than in the other case. One reason for that is that apparently the prosecutor gave immunity to all of the police officers, except for Daniel Pantaleo. Now, that seems a bit odd.”

Prosecutors usually grant witnesses immunity in exchange for their testimony. But in the Staten Island case, the grand jury already had direct footage of the incident. During the incident, Daniel Pantaleo put his arm around Eric Garner’s neck and four other officers restrained him by compressing his chest and forcing him to lie face down on the sidewalk. While on the ground, Garner repeated “I can’t breathe” multiple times.

“It seems odd to grant immunity here,” said Bessette. “Why not have the grand jury look at all of the evidence for all of the officers – especially if sitting on top of [Garner] when he said he couldn’t breathe might have been more of a contributor to his death than the actual takedown?”

Without the full release of evidence, it is difficult to determine whether the prosecutor acted wrongly in the Staten Island case. But from what we do know, it’s hard not to be critical.

Should we reform the system?

With preliminary hearings as a mediocre alternative, and special prosecutors carrying their own set of issues, what should we do about the current system – if anything at all?

“I certainly don’t have enough evidence right now that shows that there is something wrong with the way it works,” Bessette said. “Do we have cases of prosecutors covering up for others? Do we have cases of prosecutors ‘indicting ham sandwiches’ – or the equivalent of indicting innocent people?”

“We don’t hear much about grand juries in the news, and that’s because there isn’t much controversy on a day-to-day basis. We’re hearing all about them because of these two famous cases,” he continued. “But I need to see more evidence. I don’t have any reason to believe that we have some sort of crisis in the grand jury system, especially since it isn’t used that often at the state level for typical crimes.”

Effective reform requires prudence and careful thought about a variety of constitutional, political, and practical questions. These questions do not, by any means, come with easy answers. Without conclusive evidence, the Grand Jury Reform Act is premature, but a national dialogue has started about grand juries that could – for better or for worse – change their future course.

Image Source: Flickr

Claremont School of Economics

An annual topic of conversation in the Ivy League world is the rise of the economics major. As Kevin Roose points out in New York Magazine, economics has been the most popular major at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale for several consecutive years, with between 11 and 15 percent of degrees conferred in that subject at each school. The major is even growing in popularity at the usually unconventional Brown, where the proportion of students graduating with a degree in economics has risen from 4 to 14 percent from 2003 to 2013.

This is one of the many trends that author and notable higher-education critic William Deresiewicz laments in his recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz sees the rise of the economics major as a symptom of what ails academia: students at elite colleges are no longer incentivized to pursue their passions or cultivate potential interests (particularly in the humanities), but instead believe they must do whatever will land them the most prestigious and highest-paying job upon graduation (such as by majoring in economics).

As the cost of higher-education tuition skyrockets around the country, and as more students become saddled with burgeoning student-loan debt, it is difficult for students not to perform cost-benefit analyses of their educations. According to Deresiewicz, these sorts of external, market forces have transformed the university into little more than a stepping stone for the professions, not an opportunity to find one’s true “self” or passion or calling in life.

Deresiewicz’s bête noire in the book is undoubtedly the Ivy League. (He holds three degrees from Columbia, where his father taught, and spent a 10-year stint teaching at Yale himself.) In this respect, Deresiewicz is not straying far from the norm; popular critiques of higher education – such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative cult classic God and Man at Yale, Nathan Harden’s follow-up Sex and God at Yale, and Ross Douthat’s Privilege – often have the Ivies in their particular crosshairs.

But Deresiewicz is also more than familiar with Claremont McKenna College and its students. He spoke on campus most recently Nov. 17 (his third visit in as many years) to promote the book, for which he even spent a month researching at CMC. While the majority of his criticisms are supported with statistics or anecdotes deriding the Ivy League, it is perhaps not surprising that much of what Deresiewicz has to say can easily be applied to CMC. Actually, if one takes the Ivy references and general focus out of Deresiewicz’s work, Excellent Sheep reads as though it were written specifically with CMC in mind.

Take, for instance, what Deresiewicz writes about the trend in higher education to characterize its central mission as one of creating “leaders”:

What they mean is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm, or running a department at a leading hospital, or becoming a senator or chief executive or college president. Being in charge, in other words: climbing to the top of whatever greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to.

Harvard and Princeton may say that they are creating the “leaders of tomorrow,” but can their students actually take courses or graduate with a sequence in leadership? While the Ivies may promote the idea of leadership – in Deresiewicz’s view, a false one – CMC is obsessed with it.

Data Source: CMC Registrar
Data Source: CMC Registrar

As for the rise in economics majors: while Brown and Yale see 10 to 15 percent of their student bodies enrolling in economics and wonder if that represents an educational crisis, more than 27 percent of CMC graduates last year held either a single, dual, or double major in economics (Figure 1). And including multi-disciplinary majors that incorporate economics, such as Econ-Engineering or Econ-Accounting, nearly 50 percent of graduates in the class of 2014 received a degree that had the word “Economics” on it (Figure 2).

Data Source: CMC Registrar
Data Source: CMC Registrar

All this is to say, perhaps CMC is simply ahead of the curve – what Deresiewicz and others are afraid the Ivies and higher education in general are quickly becoming. But comparing CMC to the Ivies or even to other liberal arts colleges is not particularly apt. Deresiewicz put it very succinctly to a student questioner during his Nov. 17 talk: “CMC is a liberal arts school in name only.” Although he probably meant that somewhat condescendingly, there is some truth buried beneath the sneer: CMC is not a typical liberal arts college.

Like many other liberal arts colleges, CMC sees its mission as creating members of society fit to act with the virtues and skills necessary for responsible citizenship and, yes, leadership in a free-market democracy. But, unlike other liberal arts colleges, CMC has sought to fulfill this mission by focusing on the liberal arts that more closely relate to public affairs, such as government, international relations, and economics. CMC has always taught the traditional liberal arts, but it places a special emphasis on those subjects it deems to be more adaptable and “pragmatic” to life beyond the ivory tower. Because of its history as a liberal arts college rooted in public affairs, CMC tends to attract students who are actually interested in those areas of study, who are not necessarily selling-out by taking courses in fields like economics, as Deresiewicz believes is happening around the country.

But just because CMC should not take everything that Deresiewicz says to heart because of the unique niche that it fills in the liberal arts tradition does not mean that his criticisms are completely inapplicable to the school. While economics is and always has been a central aspect of CMC’s curriculum, it is quickly becoming the curriculum – especially, it appears (although correlation does not equal causation), at the expense of governmental studies. While CMC’s dual pillars of economics and government each sat at around 25 percent of all majors in 2004, there is now a nearly 14-point gap between the two (Figure 1). That disparity increases to about a 20-point gap when one includes multi-disciplinary and related majors into the discussion – again, from a relatively equal footing in 2004 (Figure 2).

There are several potential reasons for this apparent shift toward economics and away from government. Two major events that have colored our generational lens to this point are the election of President Barack Obama and the Great Recession. Although one might have anticipated a boom in political interest with the election of a charismatic president like Obama, young people to this point have been dissatisfied with the president and his promises for change. This may have created a greater sense of political disinterestedness in the pool of applicants to CMC in recent years.

“There was a burst of excitement around the election of President Obama,” CMC Government Professor John Pitney said in an interview. “But that’s long since dissipated.”

Couple that political apathy with the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which has heightened students’ anxiety about the future – in addition to providing thesis fodder for many an economics major – and a growing disparity between economic and governmental studies at CMC seems like a very natural, short-term phenomenon.

There are also institutional practices at CMC that may be fueling this growing divide – to which Deresiewicz’s criticisms more neatly apply. As Deresiewicz points out, the rising cost of attending college and increasing student loan debt, which undoubtedly motivate more students to think of their education as an investment and select majors that maximize the return on that investment, are obvious factors. But more compelling is the influence of CMC’s Robert Day School, which partially subsidizes the tuition of a select group of students (to the tune of roughly $15,000), who must in turn take courses in economics, finance, and accounting. There is good reason to be suspicious of the influence of RDS, which was founded in 2007, right about when a major uptick in economics majors and a major downturn in governmental studies began (Figures 1 and 2).

“If you look at graduates, the number of government majors is definitely down; one cause is RDS,” Pitney said. “It’s a basic rule of thumb that when you subsidize something, you get more of it, and if you subsidize economics majors, you get more of them. People who otherwise might have majored in government are majoring in economics.”

Although students do not have to major in economics to become Robert Day Scholars, if one is already required to take a certain number of economics-related courses in order to qualify for the scholarship, then it makes little sense not to add at least a dual or double major in economics to one’s degree. Furthermore, while $15,000 is probably not enough to convince students passionately interested in unrelated subjects, such as the humanities, to major in economics, for those at the margin – debating between, say, economics and government, which are subjects that overlap in many ways – the financial incentive and the resulting prestige associated with becoming a “Robert Day Scholar” may be enough push them over the edge.

“I know people who were motivated to go RDS because it was a lot of money and their families needed the money or they needed the money,” CMC Philosophy Professor Paul Hurley said in an interview. “And if that person is doing RDS instead of being a government major, that’s a problem; they should be choosing the course of study that’s best-suited to their interests, not the course of study that’s best-suited to immediate financial incentives.”

Yet, while some students are undoubtedly incentivized by financial considerations provided by RDS to change or alter their major toward economics, perhaps that is not the primary method by which RDS has transformed CMC’s student body.

“I think, if we get rid of the external world around us, the incentive to major in economics or STEM-related activities, I think that the fact that there are more faculty around to teach economics classes, classes in a great diversity of economics, I think that’s more important than the financial incentive,” CMC Economics Professor and Dean of the Robert Day School Brock Blomberg said in an interview. “I’d say about half of the increase is due to the interest in more practically focused education, and the other half is that we’ve been able to hire more faculty to interest students.”

Although the narrative that the Robert Day School drives students interested in literature and philosophy to become economics and accounting majors against their better judgment is the more compelling argument for the School’s critics, perhaps the more persuasive one is that RDS has given CMC a certain image to prospective applicants. RDS, especially with its B.A./M.A. program in finance, is a very unique and visible institution, one not readily available to students at other colleges. With the creation of the Robert Day School, perhaps CMC has become a Mecca of sorts for students interested in economics; perhaps high school seniors interested in economics are simply taking notice and applying to CMC in greater number. Even more, once students get here, they may be more interested in taking a diverse array of economics courses – such as those related to environmental and political economics, rather than your run-of-the-mill micro- and macroeconomics courses – offered by an impressive array of RDS professors.

The question going forward is how CMC should adapt to change: If one believes that the rise in economics majors poses a problem to CMC’s intellectual diversity and public affairs tradition, then how should the administration react? Is the answer to curb RDS’s influence? How? And by how much? Should the response to uneven growth be to cut everyone down to the same level?

Or should departments feeling squeezed-out by RDS respond by trying to broaden their appeal to students?

Programs such as the Dreier Roundtable, which may have the side-effect of increasing student interest in governmental studies and attracting more applicants who are interested in politics – in addition to its other missions on campus – may go a long way toward evening out the balance at CMC. But $200 million is a difficult threshold to overcome. (Congressman Dreier’s goal is to raise $1 million for the college over several years.) How do we ensure fair competition without punishing success?

Seems like a question for an economist.

How “Women’s Issues” Belittle Women

What does a group of scantily clad male models have to do with politics? According to women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, it’s the perfect way to involve college-aged women in the political process and save them from those who would take away their rights if elected. Halloween may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean certain political parties haven’t used some of the scariest tactics around to try to convince young women to vote for their candidates.

Cosmopolitan’s Election Day competition awarded a party bus to students at North Carolina State University to take student voters to the polls on Election Day. The ploy, which included male models, as well as snacks and “swag” on the bus, was intended to encourage young women to participate in the political process and vote for issues that matter to them. But instead of encouraging thoughtful debate about politics and some of the greatest issues facing our country this midterm election cycle, Cosmo endorsed 10 Democratic candidates based on their views on issues they believe are important to women—contraception, abortion, and equal pay.

Self magazine, another publication directed at women, published an article entitled, “Why You Should Definitely Count Yourself In When It Comes to Voting,” which stressed how important it was for women to vote in this election to protect their interests when it came to reproductive rights, paid family leave and sick days, and education.

Both of these articles, and many more directed exclusively at women, emphasized how important this election was to women and how a Republican majority in the Senate would harm women and set back “women’s issues.” This fear-inducing rhetoric on “women’s issues” came directly from the Democratic Party, which has claimed to side with women on issues that are important to them, unlike the “old, white men” of the Republican Party.

Jen Graphic 1
Women’s Issues, According to Democrats.

But what are “women’s issues”? The availability of contraception? The right to an abortion if one chooses? Education policy? Equal pay and paid family leave? Politics have stereotyped women into these narrow categories, assuming that, because we are women, we care only, or primarily, about reproductive rights, children, and gender equality.

Jen Graphic 2
Not Women’s Issues?

False. I am a woman, but I refuse to be pulled and twisted to fit into the tiny box labeled “women’s issues.” Yes, I value my reproductive rights and my right to fair pay and equality, but I refuse to completely ignore some of the greatest issues facing our nation. We are still struggling economically, and our national debt is sky-high and growing every day. We have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and our national security is threatened by global chaos. I am a woman and these are issues I care about.

I know I am not the only woman who refuses to be talked down to about how important “women’s issues” are to me. I know this because Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Governor in Texas, who gained national attention for her 11-hour filibuster of a bill that would have banned abortions 20 weeks after conception, lost the women’s vote to her Republican opponent, 45 percent to 54 percent, according to CNN exit polls. Davis was the ultimate “women’s issues” candidate for the Democratic Party, and she still didn’t win over women in Texas, meaning either not all women agree with her stances on these issues or women sided with her Republican counterpart on issues they believed were more important to their state than just “women’s issues,” or some combination of the two.

Don’t get me wrong. The issues that political parties use to capture the traditional women’s vote are important to me, but I don’t believe they are intrinsically more important than any of the other hot-button issues facing America this year. Personally, I find it insulting that politicians and political parties automatically assume these issues are all that matter to me when I check the little box that says “female,” and so should you. We are all strong, smart, thoughtful, independent women, and it is up to us to change the way we are treated by political parties. Don’t let them put us on a bus with a bunch of male models and convince us to vote for a candidate simply because she is pro-choice, because there is so much more to politics than so called “women’s issues.”