In anthropology there is adage that is well worth following: Listen carefully to what a person says, but pay very careful attention to what a person does. Is there consistency between a person's rhetoric and his or her behavior? For some time now I've been applying this test to the words and actions of President Obama, an exercise that has resulted in a slow burn of disappointment.
When Barack Obama came upon the stage, I, like millions of other Americans, got very exited. Here was different politician. Unlike most of our public officials, Barack Obama had lived in another society and had grown up in multiethnic environment. He was cultured, smart, articulate and worldly. What's more, his mother was an anthropologist, which, for me least, meant that his worldview was profoundly cross-cultural. His nomination thrilled me, but I never thought he or any another other person of color could ever be elected in America. His election proved me wrong. For the majority of Americans, President Obama's election created a groundswell of hope for the future.
Events and actions have dissipated much, if not all of that hope. Sure, we can celebrate the positive social change that the Affordable Care Act will generate. But more often than not the lofty rhetoric, I am saddened to suggest, is at odds with action and policy. President Obama has touted government transparency as he has broadened the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance operations that monitor our phone conversations and emails. He has spoken about the importance of the middle class, but has done little to curve the destructive power of Wall Street, which continues to practice "business as usual." Mr. Obama speaks of peaceful relations, but has expanded a drone program that despite some successful "kills" has resulted in the deaths of innocent women and children who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are many more trust diminishing mismatches between the Obama administration's rhetoric and behavior, but here I want to focus on President Obama's proposed plan to create a ranking system for our colleges and universities. It is a plan that would putatively ensure that students and parents would get a good return on their educational investment. Put another way, the Obama administration, which says it wants to promote quality education, is adapting a one-size-fits-all education business model that is likely to weaken our highly diverse set of college and universities. Administration officials are steadfast in their belief that the ranking system is a solution to the considerable challenges that our colleges and universities face.
Jamienne Studley, who is a deputy under secretary at the Department of Education, recently made a statement that sheds light on the Obama administration's business model approach to higher education. Ms. Studley suggested that ranking a college or university is similar to rating a household appliance. In November 2013, as reported in the May 25th edition of The New York Times, she told an audience of college presidents that evaluating a college is "...like rating a blender... This is not so hard to get your mind around."
In the same New York Times article, Michael Shear wrote:
The rating system, which the president called for in a speech last year and is under development, would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating. Ultimately Mr. Obama wants Congress to agree to use the ratings to allocate the billions of federal student loans and grants. Schools that earn a high rating on the government's list would be able to offer more student aid than schools at the bottom.
College presidents have been quick to condemn an approach that promotes financial issues over intellectual concerns. They have suggested that students at liberal arts colleges and universities would be unfairly punished because jobs in social work or teaching, for example, don't pay as well as those in information technology or engineering. Such a scheme would create a skewed ranking system.
Despite these widespread concerns it is clear that President Obama wants to use the ranking system to change higher education in America. Cecelia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, underscores President Obama's determination. In the same New York Times article, Mr. Shear wrote:
Some college presidents accused Mr. Obama of being obstinate.
"This is a take-it-or-leave-it approach," said Tracy Fitzsimmons, the president of Shenandoah University in Virginia.
Ms. Munoz countered that Mr. Obama had no patience for anyone who attempted to block the effort.
"For those who are making the argument that we shouldn't do this, I think those folks could fairly have the impression that we're not listening, Ms. Munoz said. "There is an element to this conversation which is, 'We hope to God you don't do this.' Our answer to that is: "This is happening."
What ever happened to reasoned discourse in an educational environment? When you apply one-size-fits-all "blender" models to "fix" colleges and universities, the quality of university intellectual and creative life quickly takes a back seat to bureaucratic procedures that process expediently educated students into the job market. These processes, in turn, "ensure" a good return on investment.
If the university becomes a blender, how many of its essential nutrients will get lost in the mix? Does the blended recipe of the ranking system consider immeasurable capacities for critical thinking, planning and executing original research, or writing prose that is clear and compelling? Does it include rewards for thinking outside of the box?
The wrongheaded Obama college-ranking system, I'm afraid, is yet another example of how the gulf between rhetoric and behavior develops widespread disappointment and disillusion. It has taken a long time for the slow burn of disappointment to develop in the gut of this once avid Obama follower. Am I the only supporter who is no longer excited to receive e-mails from Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and Organizing for America, e-mails that ask yet again for financial support?
Am I the only person who believes that the slow burn of disappointment is one consequence of not saying what you mean or doing what you say?