For-profit universities: the Yugos of higher education

For-profit universities (FPUs) have been spreading like wildfire the past few years, thanks to the growth in Internet access, aggressive marketing, and, as we’ve learned recently, government-subsidized student loans. Some of these “universities” are enormous, such as the University of Phoenix, with over 400,000 students. The U.S. government has recently figured out that students at these universities are failing to repay their government-subsidized loans at alarming rates, and it’s planning to impose stricter rules on these loans. This has spurred a frantic lobbying campaign from the FPUs. Today’s Washington Post, for example, has a column by former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, now a consultant for the FPU industry, in which she claims the government is trying to “restrict access to a full range of education providers,” cleverly avoiding any mention of what she really wants: continued access to the cheap government loans that prop up these out-of-control institutions.

As a college professor, I’ve been following the growth of these companies, and here’s this professor’s blunt conclusion: they offer low-quality, almost worthless degrees. They have virtually no academic standards. They will accept anyone who can pay, and they seem to care primarily about the bottom line. They also haven’t addressed (and virtually never mention) the elephant in the room: many online students are probably cheating to pass their courses, which aren’t very demanding in the first place. As a result, degrees from FPUs are not highly regarded by employers, who are right to view them with suspicion.

Like it or not, an important part of any college diploma is the reputation of the school that awards it. The Yugo was indeed a car, but would you really want to buy one?

Stem cell heroes and villains

Stem cell research in the U.S. has been on a roller coaster ride the past few weeks. First, federal judge Royce Lamberth surprised everyone on August 23 by calling a halt to all federally-funded work on embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Hundreds of NIH-funded scientists learned overnight that their funding was about to be cut off, halting work on cures for a wide range of incurable diseases and conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord damage, Lou Gehrig’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and others.

Then, this past Thursday, a federal appeals court announced a temporary stay on Judge Lamberth’s ruling, which allows the funding to continue. However, the court gave both sides only until September 20th to make new arguments, and the research could again be called to a halt before the month is out. Many scientists, including this one, hope the appeals court will throw out the case and let the research proceed.*

Stem cell research is one of the most promising opportunities for truly revolutionary breakthroughs in human health that we’ve seen in decades. Unfortunately, its progress has been slowed dramatically in the U.S. due to objections from the religious right, which mistakenly confuses stem cell research with abortion. Many of these opponents don’t seem to know that thousands of fertilized human eggs are discarded every year, perfectly legally, by fertility clinics, and their opposition to embryonic stem cell research only serves to hamper progress on life-saving cures.

So who is the villain in this latest battle? Much of the media attention has focused on Judge Lamberth, whose interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment has been disputed by many legal and medical experts (for example, here and here). I don’t want to re-hash those arguments here. Instead, let’s take a look at the so-called scientists who filed the case, and examine their claims.

Virginia's war on science and academic freedom

The attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, is waging a war on science. Earlier this week, a federal judge dismissed Cuccinelli's lawsuit against the University of Virginia, but Cuccinelli has already announced that he will appeal the decision. This battle threatens not just climate researchers, but any scientist working in the state of Virginia.

Cuccinelli is a disturbingly right-wing politician whose primary actions since taking office have all been designed, seemingly, for his own political gain. He doesn't seem to mind wasting the tax dollars of Virginia's citizens as long as he can get his own name in the headlines.

His current battle is against global warming. Back in May, he announced with great fanfare that he was suing the University of Virginia over the work of climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. It appears that Mr. Cucinelli disagrees with Prof. Mann over his findings about global warming. Prof. Mann is one of the world's leading experts on global warming, and he co-authored the study that produced the "hockey stick graph" showing a dramatic increase in temperature in recent decades:

The conclusions that the Earth is warming up, and that humans are one of the main causes, are no longer controversial within the scientific community, especially after the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) issued its report a few years ago. Nonetheless, many global warming denialists, including Mr. Cucinelli, continue to dispute them.

But Cucinelli isn't just a global warming denialist. He's also the attorney general of Virginia, which gives him quite a bit of power within that state. He's not a scientist, but that didn't stop him from suing the University of Virginia. His legal "trick" - what allowed him to use his power to go after Prof. Mann - hinges on the fact that Prof. Mann formerly was a professor at UVA, and while working there, he received a small grant from the state to support his work. (Never mind that the vast majority of his funding came from the federal government.) This was enough for Cucinelli to sue UVA, claiming that Prof. Mann had committed fraud by misusing state funds.

Cucinelli demanded that the University release all documents related to Prof. Mann's work, including all emails, laboratory notes, and any other correspondence since 1999. (This was a classic "fishing expedition: he didn't say what he was looking for.) To its credit, UVA refused, citing academic freedom, and challenged Cucinelli in court. The judge who dismissed the case pointed out that Cucinelli's suit was so vague that it didn't even specify how it was that Prof. Mann committed fraud. Apparently Cucinelli was unable to come up with a single concrete example of fraud.

Academic freedom is often cited in defense of questionable behaviors, but this case goes to the very heart of what academic freedom is all about. University professors - scientists, economists, historians, all of us - should be free to pursue the evidence wherever it takes us, and to write about our findings without fear of retribution. Even if his lawsuit fails on appeal, Cucinelli's lawsuit threatens to cast a chill over research in Virginia. Will scientists at UVA or other state universities, perhaps concerned about lawsuits, word their findings more carefully in the future? Will they simply avoid research on controversial topics, even if those topics are important to society?

The Virginia attorney general's groundless lawsuit, based on his purely political views and ambitions, is clearly intended to intimidate academic scientists at Virginia universities. Prof. Mann himself called the case "criminal harrassment." This kind of political threat is reminiscent of the oppressive regimes of the Soviet Union, whose scientists only published findings that met with the approval of their political masters. Political threats are a recipe for bad science.

UVA is a great university, but I'm glad I don't work there right now. If I did, I'd probably be looking to move.