Accrediting Higher Learning; Credentialism; and further discussion of Aaron Swartz


View 758 Tuesday, January 15, 2013


The Wall Street Journal has an editorial article of some importance today.

The Rise of the Accreditor as Big Man on Campus

The gatekeepers of federal student aid wield too much influence in higher education.

Who’s in charge of our colleges and universities—their boards of trustees or the accreditation organizations that are the gatekeepers of federal aid? That’s the question I’m left asking after a decision by the Southern Association of Colleges (SACS), one of six regional accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, to put the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by no less than Thomas Jefferson, on "warning."

As US higher education gets more expensive it also gets more useless; but it is able to do that because of its control of credentials. Now it appears that the bureaucracies that control accreditation of the colleges have become more active in forcing both the increase in expense and the ritualism that makes the education itself worth less. It’s a vicious circle with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy in control.

In 2007, when the University of California regents attempted to deal with runaway administrative costs through modest salary and benefit changes, they found themselves spending precious time responding to accreditor complaints that trustees were "unnecessarily harsh" with administrators. These are not isolated incidents. Across the country, boards of trustees are being effectively sidelined in their oversight responsibility, in deference to accreditor pressure.

The remedy of course is to change the whole notion of credentials and accreditation: judge the worth of an institution by its results. By their fruits you shall know them, Jesus told His followers; and it is splendid advice to follow in bureaucratic situations. Setting up procedures which, if followed, give you high accreditation marks even if you turn out students who can’t read – and there is increasing evidence that the number of students who graduate from accredited colleges functionally illiterate is rising – is a sure way to ruin.

In my early stories in which I postulated a spacefaring nation by 2010 I also assumed that major companies would have their own education programs turning out graduates who would be useful to the company. That was at one time happening. It can and should happen again.

When I first went into the Boeing Company nearly half the aeronautical engineers at Boeing were not university graduates: they began as draftsmen right out of high school and over the years learned the job. The other evening I saw my old friend Paul Turner, one of the last non-degree engineers from the space program. He retired from North American Rockwell as project manager of a small but significant station in Shuttle. You don’t have to have an expensive university degree to be a good engineer. It often helps – we used to have the slogan that the half-life of an engineering graduate was about seven years – but it also helps if you acquire the habit of staying current in your profession. The non-degree engineers always did. The best of the university graduate engineers did also, but there was also a significant number who stopped learning when they left university, and their half life was indeed about seven years.

The United States has the capability of regaining its position as the leading academic nation on Earth; but we have to change the accreditation system along with the whole notion of academic control of credentials. We need to get back to the notion that the best credential for doing a job is the ability to do it well. That particularly applies to teaching the young: our colleges of education, fully accredited, are shameless messes producing illiterate children. Shame.


Anonymous hacks MIT after Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Hacktivist group defaces university pages after the school promises a full investigation into MIT’s role in events leading up to the Internet activist taking his life.

After calling the prosecution of Swartz "a grotesque miscarriage of justice" and "a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for," Anonymous outlined its list of goals under a section labeled "Our wishes:"

  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.

Of course this was to be expected – whether by Anonymous or some similar group. It shows very clearly the state of law and order in the electronic frontier, and its similarity to Deadwood or perhaps Dodge City without James Arness or even William Conrad.

This shouldn’t be taken as approval of the Anonymous action, but it’s fairly easy to sympathize with their view. The US Attorney in the Swartz case has famously said “Stealing is stealing!” and that Swartz deserved punishment. One can agree with that without approving her threatening him with 35 years imprisonment for a crime in which no one was harmed and nothing was actually republished.

Moreover, Swartz called attention to something important here: of the millions of documents he “stole” by downloading and recording copies of them (while of course leaving the originals in place for anyone else to download) the vast majority were reports of publicly funded studies and projects. Why ITHAKA, a non-profit whose executives are paid in excess of $200,000 a year (the CEO makes over $300,000), should have a monopoly on control of access to those documents, and be able to charge quite large fees for doing it, is not entirely clear: I would bet you that if there were some competition in the journal publishing business it could all be accomplished for a heck of a lot less than ITHAKA’s JSTOR charges. If I am incorrect I invite someone to defend the current situation.


My liberal friend Francis Hamit has some experience in this matter.

The Swartz case

Dear Jerry:

I have to say that the Arron Swartz case leaves me with mixed emotions. You will recall that I had a big copyright infringement case several years ago against a publisher that sold 99 articles of mine to several databases. I sued not just the publisher but ten of their customers. It was an extraordinary and expensive measure that produced results, with the case being settled in my favor for a sum I am not allowed to disclose. I’m not particularly sympathetic towards people who rip off copyrighted material under the theory that information should be free.

But the prosecution of Swartz mystifies me. I asked the U.S Attorney in Los Angeles to take a similar measure on my behalf and spent a couple of hours explaining the multiple infringements of one article on several databases to a FBI agent who claimed to be a CPA and a "cybercrime" expert. They weren’t interested. The FBI said it seemed like a Civil matter to them and that not all laws were enforced. I pointed out what the law is and expressed my disappointment with their lack of action. I said at the time that the Copyright Act only got enforced when there were headlines to be made to show that the FBI and the U.S Attorney were on the job. And that only small fish were ever prosecuted. Never large organizations with political power.

I suspect that was the case here. The offense was too large to ignore. Five million articles seems like a lot, but as someone who publishes that kind of material online and has researched actual database usage by libraries, I can tell you that the losses were minimal. That U.S. Attorney is perfectly correct. Stealing is stealing. But she could have offered the kid a plea deal and been done with it. A big fine would have made the point. Instead she terrified him with the threat of a huge jail sentence. The case had not even gone to trial. So his act was a permanent solution to a temporary problem which could have been negotiated down.

It’s a tragedy. The punishment did not fit the crime. But there is blame on both sides.


Francis Hamit

I would have thought that even a moderate fine and perhaps thirty days in the clink would have been enough to discourage repetition of Swartz’s crime, while also allowing there to be a trial. Forcing a trial was the point of his action; and a month or two in the clink should be a high enough stake. After all, to the best of my knowledge there has never been any debate of the wisdom of giving this monopoly over reports of publicly funded research to ITHAKA, nor of whether the current costs of public access to publicly owned data can’t be improved. I suspect I could staff such an enterprise for a lot less than JSTOR/ITHAKA charge.

I don’t subscribe to the information ought to be free notion, but I do subscribe to the notion that the public owns what the public has paid for, and that includes publications intended for wide distribution. Yes, there needs to be attention to just what rights the authors of reports of publicly supported research should have. I do note that many academics, paid for from the public purse, owe their promotions and for that matter their tenure to widespread publication and aren’t so much interested in being paid for their writing as in having it cited in other publications.

There is a great debate require here, but it won’t happen if the only way for that to take place is for someone to risk life imprisonment.

And where you see nothing but blame in Swartz, I see some glimmers of heroism. The liberal credo is that intentions matter more than actions; certainly Aaron Swartz meant well – and he caused no one any real harm. The government suppressed a needed debate by making the price of a trial his risking 35 years in jail. Her could have got off lightly if he had pleaded guilty, but what would that have accomplished? We’d still be paying too much for access to publicly owned documents, and paying ITHAKA executives $300,000 a year and more for running this show.


My thanks to all the readers who have written me to assure me that modern cataract operations are fabulously successful, and a great deal less complex while highly effective than was my experience in my youth. I appreciate your concern. I am also happy to report that I don’t need such an operation just yet. although tomorrow they will give me one more exam to be certain.  Thanks to all of you for both the information and the concern.






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