Beware the Academic Cartel

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In a fascinating interview with Harmut Kliemt in 2000, the renowned economist and political philosopher Anthony de Jasay recounts a personal story from his childhood in communist Hungary that was to profoundly influence his later political and economic thought. In the story, de Jasay recounts that he had been forced by his extreme poverty and unemployment at the time to visit a local communist who possessed "the power of patronage"; that is, the communist was in the uniquely privileged position to either give or withhold jobs from people based solely upon his own judgment or whims. In response to de Jasay’s desperate request for a job of any kind, the communist replied, "You and your kind will never get a job in this country." The encounter wounded de Jasay, but it also taught him an extremely valuable lesson about power and state involvement in the economy:

"What it meant to me is that the state can starve you if it has sufficient power over jobs; over the economy. Because it can decide that you will not get a job, because all jobs depend, directly or indirectly, from [sic] the state. If there is enough nationalization, if there is enough state influence over the economy. If there are not, as Schumpeter put it, "great private fortresses in the economy" to which you can flee from the state. When all these private fortresses are demolished, then you are utterly delivered to the state, and that is something that has marred me, and that kept working under my own skin."

Over the past nine months I have often contemplated Anthony de Jasay’s poignant personal story, because I, too, have been forced to confront a powerful and insulated group of people who, thanks to their dependent and groveling relationship with government, possess an astounding amount of discretion about my future. Members of this privileged group, which has been perceptively called "the academic cartel" and "the academic guild" by Gary North and which we might also label, rephrasing Schumpeter, as one of the "great socialized fortresses in the economy," quite literally hold my academic and professional future in their hands. The members of this group have decided, moreover, in very much the same fashion as Anthony de Jasay’s communist nemesis, to exercise their state-supported and boundless discretion in a manner that has damaged both my academic and professional future. I offer my story here as a cautionary tale not just as it applies to the putrid, socialized system of higher education in America, but more generally as an example of the predictable outcome that shielding certain groups from the purifying competition of the market will have. Here, then, is the story of my battle with the academic guild at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Until May of last year I was a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had decided, however, to leave the PhD program with a terminal Master’s degree after successfully defending my PhD qualifying paper earlier that semester (which you can read here, or in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies), and after consulting with my advisor, who felt that I would probably be better suited in a department of economics. I wholeheartedly agreed with his opinion, and I left the program expecting to receive my Master’s degree in due time.

After months of waiting for my degree to arrive, however, and after weeks of correspondence with numerous professors and bureaucrats in the school, I was told that the department was not going to issue my degree, because the department was disputing a methods course that I had taken at San Diego State University in 2004. Instead of issuing my degree, therefore, the Department of Political Science was demanding that I come back to school in order to repeat this introductory methods course.

Why were the members of the Department of Political Science disputing the course I took at San Diego State University? It wasn’t because this course was not accepted for credit on my transcript; on the contrary, the course was applied to my transcript last May, and indeed still appears on my transcript. Instead, the members of the department were arguing that they were absolutely impotent to determine whether or not the course satisfied the Department’s methods requirement — despite the fact that I had provided a copy of the syllabus for the course (it was a graduate-level methods course entitled "Research Design and Analysis in Political Science," which was taught by the Oxford-educated Chair of the Political Science Department at San Diego State University), and I offered to have the professor contact the department to answer any questions they might have about the course or my performance in it. So, what is it about this course that supposedly renders it totally impossible to evaluate? The only answer, according to the Department of Political Science, is that I cannot provide any written work from the course.

Interestingly, however (as I was explicitly informed by the huffing and indignant Chair of the Department), the Department of Political Science does not actually have any objective criteria for evaluating substitute courses. The criterion they employ is simply "we’ll know it when we see it." Even more interestingly, the department has claimed that I can take a number of different statistics classes (even a geography methods course, of all things), to satisfy this requirement, by simply forwarding a syllabus for perfunctory approval. Apparently, the Department of Political Science possesses the miraculous ability to approve substitute courses before they are taken by simply looking at syllabi, but they equally miraculously lose this ability if the course has already been taken. It is absolutely fascinating that the people who subscribe to empiricism in their work, and claim to be able to discover truths about the political world by investigating empirical evidence alone are the very same people who apparently have no ability to evaluate a course by looking at empirical evidence simply because the course has already been taken. Empiricism, I am meant to presume, runs into a wall when evaluating courses after they have already been taken.

At first glance, the reasons for this denial of my degree on such dubious grounds might seem perplexing. It is important to remember, however, that this department, like all departments in socialized universities, receives its funding from the state. And funding for departments is inextricably tied to the number of PhD students enrolled in a department’s program. I hope you will not be terribly surprised to learn, therefore, that the Department of Political Science has been listing me as a PhD student for the entire year that I have been out of school. How convenient for them! The department is also insisting that I attend a methods course at the University of Colorado, Boulder. All other methods courses in the entire world are apparently unsuitable substitutes — even the methods course that is being offered at the University of Colorado, Denver this summer. (If only we could get word out that the methods courses at CU, Boulder are unrivaled by all other methods courses in the entire world!) Perhaps, however, the real reason for insisting that I take the course at CU, Boulder has something to do with the fact that it will enable them to list me as a PhD student until December. My request to satisfy the requirement through independent study with my father, Dr. Robert A. Crovelli (who even wrote an undergraduate statistics textbook), was dismissed out of hand. It was truly a mistake to have even thought that it would be possible to personally study with a man with a PhD in statistics, instead of taking a statistics course taught by a hack masquerading as a professor of statistics teaching a methods course unrivaled by all methods courses in the entire world!

Hoping to find some redress for this ridiculous denial of my degree, I made a formal appeal to the Graduate School in March of this year. I argued that the procedure in the department was blatantly self-contradictory and unfair. I knew in advance, however, that an appeals committee composed almost entirely of professors was unlikely to side with me on the issue. Indeed, before filing the appeal I asked the Chair of the Appeals Committee if there was some other appellate procedure open to me, since virtually the entire committee was composed of professors who had a professional interest in denying my appeal and ruling that professors can do whatever they damn-well please with their lowly graduate students. The Chair of the Appeals Committee agreed that this was an important question, but he assured me that he would be fair (I was more than a bit concerned, though, when the Chair of the Appeals Committee wrote "Thanks Ken!" in an email to the Chair of the Political Science Department). I wasn’t surprised in the least, therefore, by the decision of the appeals committee when they nonchalantly dismissed my appeal by claiming that they lacked jurisdiction. In an act of appalling cowardice, my claim that the procedure in the Department of Political Science was self-contradictory and unfair was (miracle of all miracles!), deemed by the committee not to be a procedural issue. Apparently black is white and procedural issues are not procedural issues!

So, there you have it — the story of my bitter battle with members of the academic cartel. There is now no appellate procedure open to me to receive my degree, and no one at the University of Colorado even cares to even answer my questions about the ruling. The Chair of the Appeals Committee has refused to answer my question saying he "won’t even try" to explain anything to me, and the Chair of the Department of Political Science has told me to "get on with my life." (I would love to, if they would simply issue the degree that I’ve earned!). This is not surprising in the least. A group of people who have lifetime jobs, whose funding has nothing at all to do with satisfying their supposed "customers" (although the term "slave" is probably more appropriate for graduate students vis–vis professors), who have the singular ability to literally make up rules that suit their whims as they go along, and whose rulings cannot be questioned by anyone else can hardly be expected to act in any other manner. What is surprising is that the general public does not view this arrangement as problematical in the least. We rarely hear calls for privatization of the elitist, suffocating and bloated state universities in America. We rarely hear chants calling for throwing this tax-sucking cabal out on the free market where its members might actually give a damn about serving their consumers, and might actually produce work that is of use to people who don’t have lifetime jobs and who have to earn their daily bread with labor that is paid for voluntarily. For, unless or until we deny the tax-funded teat that feeds this unholy cow, we should expect to be treated by this privileged cartel in exactly the same manner that I have been treated.

P.S. If you have a personal story of maltreatment at the hands of the academic cartel, I would be honored if you would share your story with me. Also, if you feel so inclined, I would greatly appreciate an email sent on my behalf to the President of The University of Colorado, Mr. Bruce Benson, respectfully requesting that the University of Colorado issue my degree.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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