A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/us-college-admissions-scandal-corruption-rigged
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here:https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/ and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here: https://quadblog.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/the-sailing-case-and-our-resolve/

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.

Sincerely,

Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

Do We Need Silicon Valley Anymore?

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful place between a blue bay and a big, cold magnificent ocean. There were lots of trees and mountains, and before the white man converted or killed them off, lots of Native Americans. Over time, this beautiful place was settled, and a robber baron who made his fortune in railroads built a university with striking Italian-Spanish architecture in honor of his only son who died as a teenager. The climate was such that brilliant innovative scientists were able to build and create various technologies, such as silicon chips, which were used inside amazing new devices. There were two guys who built a company in a garage, and then a company that hyphenated their last names together. Then later, two guys named Steve radically created a computer that would become a household name, called after a common fruit. One of the Steves even took it further, and, along with a team of brilliant innovative scientists, created devices that people could use to listen to music wherever they wanted, telephones that allowed people to do more than talk, and invented screens that would respond to you at the mere touch of a finger. There were programs on these computers that allowed you to search for any information in the world without having to set foot in the library. And there were still more people who invented, designed, created, and innovated all kinds of tools that human beings used to change their lives. It made the place between the blue bay and the big, cold magnificent ocean attractive to all kinds of interesting people from all over the world.

And then what happened?

I would argue that Silicon Valley’s social capital or utility can be represented by a diminishing returns curve. With the heyday of hardware and even beginning stages of software, Silicon Valley was at the peak of the curve. But now, are there are more social problems and negative impacts on society than benefits?

The San Francisco area has always been prone to earthquakes, as well as a “gold rush” get rich quick mentality. The area is also, on a positive note, one of the most open-minded places in the world. It has been a haven for people of all shapes and sizes and beliefs. No matter who you are, you can be yourself there. If you have new ideas and are forward thinking, you are especially welcome: this is quite novel, when you think about how stodgy and traditional other parts of the country – and the world — can be. Nature is everywhere, from magnificent redwoods to open hills to water on all sides. And when so much of United States suffers from extreme climates, a place with year-round temperate weather is a welcome haven. Of course such an area would be in demand!

But over the past two decades, there has been a shift from hardware and physical goods produced to software and non-tangible technologies, such as websites and apps. Social media is the name of the game. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can comment that the impact of this shift in technology seems to be not extremely socially useful. Yes, governments and businesses use Facebook. Yes, Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring. Social media can potentially unite people, enabling a grandparent in India to see their grandchild on FaceTime, or a long-lost friend to be found after half a century. We all want more ease in our lives, and apps can certainly do that. But we must ask ourselves, what is the social value of this software or social media? How much of it is truly life- saving or life-changing? Is Instagram really there to change our lives? Do we really need an app to tell us where to eat, what to wear, which way to swipe if someone is “hot,” where to get the best price on that frivolous knick-knack we want but don’t need? What is the purpose of “social media” anyhow, when really we should be spending time communicating with each other directly?

Consider the following. The sharp rise in the IT industry has driven up the cost of real estate, driving out residents who have lived in their homes for decades, or working poor or immigrants from their apartments (by the evil Trion Properties private equity firm), as was reported recently in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/21/silicon-valley-eviction-facebook-trion-properties
Gentrification has made San Francisco unaffordable, and rent control seems to be a thing of the past. San Francisco has almost become the most expensive city in the U.S. (just closely behind New York).

Diversity is also lessening, both ethnically and economically, as only the elite professionals (often white and middle- or upper-middle class, from Ivy League schools or at least well-educated) can afford to buy or even rent property. With such an imbalance in careers, those who work in other fields, such as education and the arts, whose services are crucial to society (such as the children of these IT people) flee the area. There is also a gender imbalance, leading San Jose to be dubbed “Man Jose” due to the high proportion of men there. But this goes beyond mere physical gender: this is an imbalance of masculine energy and traits, and that which is uniquely or traditionally feminine (be it careers or personality qualities) is diminished. The high rollers in Silicon Valley are not social workers or ballet dancers, and women who want to succeed need to play like a man. Recall Marissa Mayer’s telecommuting ban at Yahoo. This is no surprise when a female CEO is very cold and masculine (I have it on inside authority).

There is also the lesser-important issue of how the tech industry has effected language change. Text English is its own dialect, and auto correct has all but eliminated the need for young people to learn proper grammar and spelling. Do people know how to use your vs. you’re? Everything is reduced to an abbreviation, a single syllable, a precious, clever spelling change (lift with a y for a ride service). Have any of these techno-geeks studied philology? Linguistics? Their sense of history seems to be in years, not even decades and certainly not centuries or millennia. And let’s not even get into how children’s cognitive development is going to be affected a decade later.

What we have here is a population of people that is social and morally underdeveloped with too much money, no history, no ethics or taste. They lack the sense of psychosocial development that comes with learning slowly and with understanding society and culture and history, how to handle money, and how to deal with people. How laughable was Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 declaration on his Facebook page that: “My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” Apparently, his Harvard education had been wasted until then. If this is the type of citizens top universities are churning out – shortsighted, tech-focused, money-grubbing students – maybe it’s time for them to reevaluate. One retired Stanford professor told me “Silicon Valley is like a cancer on Stanford.” Or conversely, Stanford has become the handmaiden of Silicon Valley.

There is nothing wrong with technology and innovation. We are all on the social media grid, so to speak, all use our smartphones and rely on our computers. The problem comes if there is an imbalance, and if the traditional elements of education are cut, and when people become greedy and exploit, however unknowingly, others. Oddly, there was huge support for Bernie Sanders when he was seeking the nomination for Democratic Candidate for President. This is all good and well, but these people need to be personally fighting for justice for the underprivileged in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, not allowing rents to be raised exorbitantly and traditions to be destroyed. In other words, they need to be equally concerned with creating social capital and solving social problems. Unfortunately, there is no app for that.

Fighting Fair: Military Technology and its (Mis)uses–Guest Post

Today, I will comment on something completely different—-politics and power. Some might argue that war and military conflict are inevitable, that warfare has existed since the beginning of humankind, and that rather than try to eliminate it, we must set conventions in order to “fight fair.” Certainly, numerous treaties, conventions, rules, and organizations exist, such as NATO. And yet, there are always those who will choose to violate or ignore the guidelines set by international organizations or national governments. For example, the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines has not been signed by 40 countries—-including the United States!—-and this has certainly been a point of controversy. This leads us to ask, Why does our foreign policy often not stem from a more comprehensive, international perspective? That is, can the United States not benefit from incorporating other countries’ point of view when making our own security and defense decisions?

I now turn the discussion over to Professor Priya Satia of Stanford University, to share with readers her own thoughts on the matter, and have included a link to her latest article on publicserviceeurope.com
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I am a professor of modern British history at Stanford University. My first book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008), explored the origins of the British “air control” schemes in the Middle East after World War I. It was published just as the United States began pursuing aerial approaches to counterinsurgency in the War on Terror. The British past sheds fascinating light on today’s strategy and its chances for success–that has been my motivation in writing and speaking about drones in recent years. My academic work has also appeared in several edited collections as well as journals such as the American Historical Review, Past & Present, and Technology and Culture. I have also written for popular media like the Financial Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Nation. Currently, I am working on a book on the gun trade in the eighteenth-century British empire as a way of understanding the role of the state and war in the industrial revolution.

http://www.publicserviceeurope.com/article/2741/lack-of-public-debate-on-us-drone-programme-is-dangerous

Priya Satia is associate professor of history at Stanford University