Fascism is the union of government with private business against the People.
"To The States, or any one of them, or to any city of The States: Resist much, Obey little; Once unquestioning obedience, at once fully enslaved; Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, ever afterward resumes its liberty." from "Caution" by Walt Whitman

Saturday, July 28, 2012

2012-08 "A Matter of Degrees"

 by Thomas Frank from "Harper's Magazine"
Two hundred thousand protesters took to the streets of Montreal a few months ago, clashing with police and triggering the provincial legislature’s passage of Bill 78, which placed strict limitations on Canada’s traditional freedom of assembly.  What motivated this demonstration, among the biggest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history? Financial malfeasance? Another war in Iraq? No and no. What brought the vast throng to the barricades was a proposed increase in Quebec’s college-tuition rate, from its current annual average of about $2,100 to $3,700. 
Americans can only observe this spectacle with bewilderment. For decades, we have sat by while the average price of college has grown to almost ten times what it is in Quebec. At some U.S. universities, students pay twenty times as much as does the average Quebecer. Then again, Americans know something about higher education that Canadians don’t: the purpose of college isn’t education per se. 
According to a report issued last year by the National Survey of Student Engagement, American undergrads spend less time at their studies nowadays than ever. They are taught by grad students or grotesquely underpaid adjuncts. Many major in ersatz vocational subjects, and at the most reputable schools they get great grades no matter how they perform. 
But we aren’t concerned about any of that. Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order to obtain just one thing: the degree,  the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky.
Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred thousand-dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.  The question that naturally follows is: Given the rigged, rotten nature of the higher-ed game, why would self-interested actors continue to play by the rules? The answer, to a surprising extent, is that they don’t.
It is a simple thing to pop a “von”  into your name and pass as faded  Austrian aristocracy. It doesn’t cost  much to get one of those Bluetooth  devices and walk around with it  clipped to your ear all day like important  people do. It is also easy to  fake a college degree—indeed, there  is an entire industry out there ready  to help you do it.  We know how easy it is because  people are caught doing it all the  time, usually after a long career in  which the forged Credential attracted  no notice. Earlier this year, the  CEO of Yahoo! quit when it was discovered  that his degree in computer  science was bogus. In 2006, the CEO  of RadioShack stepped down amid a  similar scandal—he had exaggerated  his accomplishments at a California  Bible college. And in 2002, the CEO  of Bausch + Lomb admitted that the  MBA attributed to him in a corporate  press release was nonexistent.  (The company’s share price plummeted  on the dreadful news.)  Then there are examples from  government, like the high-ranking  former official in the Department of  Homeland Security who loved to  make her underlings address her as  “Doctor,” in recognition of the advanced  degree she had acquired  from a prominent diploma mill. Her  exposure led to a 2004 study by the  General Accounting Office that  scoured federal agencies for the  alumni of just three diploma  mills—three out of the hundreds of  unaccredited Web-based enterprises  that will issue you a degree in recognition  of what they call “life experience.”  The GAO caught 463 offenders,  more than half of them in  the Defense Department.  One might assume that academia  is practiced at sniffing out counterfeit  degrees. But if anything, prestigious  universities seem even more  prone to dupery than other institutions.  In April, the vice dean of the  University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate  School of Education was forced  out after it was revealed that he had  never earned the Ph.D. listed on his  résumé. Last year, two top officials at  Bishop State Community College in  Alabama also turned out to have  dubious doctorates. In 2010, a senior  vice president at Texas A&M lost  his job for faking both a master’s  and a doctorate. (He also garnished  his CV with a fiction about having  been a Navy SEAL.) And in what  may be the most satisfying irony to  come our way in many years, the  Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts  Institute of Technology—  the very person responsible for assessing  academic credentials and,  in fact, the author of a book of advice  for college-bound students—confessed  in 2007 that each of her  advanced degrees was strictly imaginary.
The world is awash with fake degrees,”  says Les Rosen of Employment  Screening Resources, a leading  background-check outfit. In several  of the examples cited above, the fakers  actually studied at the institutions  named on their résumés—they  just failed to graduate. Others conjured  their accomplishments out of  thin air. Still others simply purchased  their Credentials from unaccredited  institutions. All three approaches  are undoubtedly on the  rise. A consultancy in Wisconsin  has for many years maintained a tally  of educational whoppers told by  the various job applicants it is asked  to investigate; the resulting “Liars  Index” (a term the consultancy has  trademarked) reached its highest  level ever in the second half of 2011.  Just how widespread is the problem?  Rosen estimates that some 40  percent of job applicants misrepresent  in some way their educational  attainments. And he reminds me  that this figure includes only those  people “who are so brazen about it  that they’ve signed a release and authorization  for a background check.”  Among those who aren’t checked—  who work for companies that don’t  hire a professional background  screener, or who refuse to sign a release—  the fudging is sure to be even  more common.  In view of the potential rewards  to be gained, the prospective faker  is well advised to avoid outright  lies. The more rational choice may  be a diploma mill. A British firm  that tracks such rackets reports that  the number of mills rose 48 percent  in 2011 alone, and other sources  suggest that they may generate revenues  of as much as a billion dollars  per year.  The entrepreneurial view of higher  ed is a commonplace among these  spectral institutions. “Every additional  degree earned assures the  recipient a lifetime return on their  investment,” the website of something  called Amhurst University reminds  the aspiring applicant, who  will be offered an extraordinary  range of vocational degrees, from  “Acquisition Management” to  “Quality Assurance.” The graduates  of such schools, who congregate on  networking sites like LinkedIn,  sometimes comment on the soft stupidity  of traditional-college grads  and on the utility of their own degrees  as they climb the ladder of success.  Some graduates, of course, wax  bitter about the humiliation they felt  when they were told their degrees  were worthless. But these remorseful  buyers should take heart: the fakedegree  biz has set up numerous fake  accreditation agencies to attest to  its genuineness.  Meanwhile, a parallel industry  has sprung up to police the boundaries  of educational legitimacy, and  it, too, was growing explosively before  the recession began. Over the  past decade or so, it has developed  ever more efficient ways of checking  an applicant’s collegiate record electronically,  through what is called  the National Student Clearinghouse.  And as we might expect, the  industry has demonstrated its intellectual  seriousness by starting a  trade group, the National Association  of Professional Background  Screeners, to prevent just anyone  from claiming to be a background  checker. The NAPBS has lobbyists,  conferences, best practices, and  even seminars on, say, the Fair  Credit Reporting Act.  It takes only a few hours researching  diploma mills to make you wonder  about the swirling tides of fraud  that advance and retreat beneath  society’s placid, meritocratic surface.  And eventually you start wondering  about that surface, too, where everything  seems to be in its place  and everyone has the salary he or  she deserves.  The diploma mills hold up a mirror  to the self-satisfied world of  white-collar achievement, and what  you see there isn’t pretty. Think  about it this way: Who purchases  bogus degrees? Judging by how the  industry advertises itself, the customers  are desperate people whose  careers are going nowhere. They  know they need a diploma to succeed,  but they can hardly afford to  borrow fifty grand and waste four  years of their lives at Frisbee State;  they’ve got jobs, damn it, and families,  and car payments to make.  Someone offers them a college degree  in recognition of their actual  experience—and not only does it  sound attractive, it sounds fair.  Who is to say that they are less deserving  of life’s good things than  someone whose parents paid for  him to goof off at a glorified country  club two decades ago? And who,  really, is to say that they know less  than the graduate turned out last  month by some adjunct-run, beersoaked,  grade-inflated, but fully accredited  debt factory in  New England?
The United States is not the  only nation to police the Credential  with such zeal. Two years ago, Pakistan’s  government attempted to  revive a defunct 2002 law that required  members of Parliament to  certify that they were college graduates—  not a requirement for members  of the United States Congress,  by the way, even though we turn out  three times as many college graduates  per year. According to news reports,  even the bachelor’s degree of  Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari  was called into question.  Still, Americans do these sorts of  things with a special élan. Perhaps  the single most spectacular case of  résumé fraud to make headlines recently  was that of Adam Wheeler, a  young man who first cheated his  way into Harvard as a transfer student,  then cheated his way straight  to the top of its internal meritocracy,  winning honor after honor with  fake transcripts, fake grades, and  plagiarized essays.  Like the story of the diploma  mills, Wheeler’s tale has a peculiar,  funhouse-mirror relationship to the  conventional annals of American  achievement. What he produced  was a kind of parody of East Coast  striving. In his application to Harvard,  he claimed to have taken sixteen  Advanced Placement tests; to  have gone to Andover rather than  the middling public high school he  actually attended; to have briefly  attended MIT; to be public-minded  and community-conscious in every  imaginable way.  And that was only the start. Having  crashed the gates of the temple  in Cambridge, Wheeler later sent out  résumés asserting that he had coauthored  books with his professors,  that he spoke “Classical Armenian,”  and that he had written a scholarly  study on “maps of ideology”—  apparently as hot a subject today as it  was when I was in graduate school  two decades ago. Such preposterous  claims were closer to satire than to  fraud. Yet Wheeler was able to fool  one of the world’s most exalted citadels  of higher learning by feeding it  back mangled bits of its own jargon.  Of course Harvard didn’t catch on—  it just kept showering the con boy  with awards and scholarships.  We know as much as we do about  Wheeler thanks to Julie Zauzmer  and Xi Yu, who covered the story  for the Crimson, Harvard’s student  newspaper. Zauzmer’s fascinating  book-length treatment of the same  subject, Conning Harvard, will be  published this fall. Perhaps not surprisingly  for something penned by a  Harvard undergrad, her account is  suffused with reverence for the legitimate  meritocracy. Bowdoin College,  which the villain Wheeler attended  before Harvard, “routinely  picks up awards for the best college  food in the country.” MIT, which  Wheeler claimed to attend, “routinely  appears among Ivy League schools  at the top of the U.S. News & World  Report rankings of colleges.” And  the Harvard admissions office, the  ultimate custodian of merit, gets  the highest praise of all. This “finely  tuned, carefully guarded machine”  is “intensive, rigorous, and  deeply admirable in its thoroughness  and its thirst for excellence of  all stripes.” It is, in other words, a  thing to be celebrated and defended,  not tricked and trashed in the  Wheeler manner.  After Wheeler was exposed,  Harvard threw the book at him.  The brand had to be protected—  just think of the people who had  paid all that money for a Harvard  degree. And so Wheeler was prosecuted  for identity fraud and larceny,  ordered to repay the $45,806 in  scholarships and financial aid he  had won, and sentenced to two and  a half years in jail. His sentence  was initially suspended—but late  last year, Wheeler was behind bars  again, having violated his probation  by listing Harvard on his résumé.  That’s what you get, I suppose,  when you fool Harvard.  When Harvard fools you, a different  set of incentives applies. As Jim  Newell points out in an essay about  Wheeler in the latest issue of The  Baffler, the school’s legitimate graduates  and grandees—the very cream  of the meritocracy crop—count  among their number many of the  folks who engineered the subprime  disaster and the bank bailouts that  haunt our economy still. They  haven’t paid for those crimes of misrepresentation  and fraud, nor will  they ever.  Never has the nation’s system for  choosing its leaders seemed more  worthless. Our ruling class steers us  into disaster after disaster, cheering  for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled  by Enron and Madoff, missing equity  bubbles and real estate bubbles and  commodity bubbles. But accountability,  it seems, is something that  applies only to the people at the  bottom, the ones who took out the  bad mortgages or lied on their résumés.  The pillars that prop up the  system, meanwhile, are visibly corrupt:  the sacred Credential signifies  less and less each year but costs  more and more to obtain. Yet we act  as though it represents everything.  It’s a million-dollar coin made of pot  metal—of course it attracts counterfeiters.  And of course its value must  be defended by an ever-expanding  industry of résumé checkers and  diploma-mill hunters. The boundaries  are artificial, and that is precisely  why they must be regulated so intensely:  they are the only thing  keeping the bunglers and knaves  who rule us in their jobs.

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