Democracy and the Rankings

Each year, the magazine U.S. News and World Report announces its rankings of colleges and universities. According to Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, the U.S. News website had more than 10 million visitors in the month the rankings appeared.

Many raise criticisms about the rankings, which use a one-size-fits-all set of measures to evaluate the immensely diverse ecology of colleges and universities. In a New Yorker magazine profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein, Botstein lambasted the rankings as a con game. "It's one of the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that's supposedly populated by the best minds in the country - theoretical physicists, writers, critics - is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine."

Frank Bruni, in an opinion piece, "Promiscuous College Come-ons," in the New York Times, described how the rankings contribute to "the glimmer of exclusivity" which is a powerful draw in our status-conscious society. Colleges seek to increase the numbers of students who apply so they can turn more of them away. Lowering the percentage of students who are admitted contributes to "student selectivity," a significant factor in the seven weighted variables which U.S. News uses to determine rankings.

Little noticed is the reality that rankings also weaken democracy. The controversies over the last several years over the rankings of Syracuse University illustrate.

In 2004, Nancy Cantor became Chancellor of Syracuse, after a distinguished career which included service as provost of the University of Michigan. At Michigan, she had been a key architect of the "Bollinger Brief," a framework which won over the swing vote of justice Sandra Day O'Connor in support of the law school's affirmative action plan.

Coming to Syracuse, Cantor made explicit her commitments to democracy, diversity, and community engagement. Cantor's vision statement included a commitment to "strengthen democratic institutions" and "educate fully informed and committed citizens."

Cantor pushed for changes in the tenure code to include emphasis on publicly engaged scholarship. She led in crafting new admissions policies which facilitated admission of students from the area, and backed these up with a coalition of local businesses which gave financial support that covered tuition of local students. She also helped to "bring the university down from the hill" above the city, creating a variety of partnerships with neighborhoods, businesses, schools and other colleges, cultural groups, and arts organizations.

The university "has helped refurbish parks, taken over an abandoned building where drug dealers once grew marijuana and turned an old furniture warehouse into a new home for academic programs in art, drama, and fashion design," wrote Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "The university is encouraging professors to focus their research on the city, while giving free tuition to local high-school graduates." The percentage of minority students at Syracuse rose from 18.5 % when she started to nearly 32 % by 2011.

These changes also ran afoul of the rankings.

On October 2, 2011, Robin Wilson authored a front page story in the Chronicle with the title "Syracuse's Slide," referring to the drop in the university's U.S. News and World Report rankings. The article featured critics of Cantor. David Bennett, a history professor, feared that "the university is moving away from selective to inclusive." The editor of the student newspaper, The Orange, echoed his views, worrying that "rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the diploma."

More inclusive admissions policies do, indeed, disadvantage colleges in the rankings. They also feed a hyper-competitive individualist educational culture, focused on "meritocratic excellence" rather than the ethos of "cooperative excellence" once central to colleges with a strong democratic identity and purpose. Excessive emphasis on individualist achievement turns higher education into a sorting mechanism for choosing "winners." It contributes to growing inequality, as I argued in an earlier blog.

A focus on local engagement also disadvantages the "academic reputation" of colleges. Academic reputation makes up 22.5 percent of the total in the weighted variables of U.S. News. Every year the magazine surveys higher education leaders, asking them to grade schools.

"Reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution's identity," explains Gladwell, in his New Yorker piece fiercely critical of the rankings system. "They are prejudices."

These are prejudices which work against local connections. The more involved faculty members are in local affairs, in their research or professional activities, the less they travel in the national and international professional circles or publish in the disciplinary journals where visibility contributes to "reputation."

More than 100 faculty wrote to the Chronicle in support of Cantor's reforms. More than 80 graduate students wrote collectively "to share our stories of engaged research, teaching, learning, and civic life as citizens of Syracuse, N.Y. and students of the university. Far from experiencing or perceiving a decrease in the rigor of our education experience, we acknowledge what a privilege it is to grow in our disciplines through sharing and co-creating knowledge with diverse and valuable communities."

But in 2013, the chair of the Syracuse board of trustees appointed a commission to study "Syracuse's slide." Cantor, feeling she had done what she could over a decade as president and not wanting the measures she had championed to become overly personalized, announced her departure. The University of Rutgers at Newark, a highly diverse urban university, sought her out to become president and chancellor.

And what happened at Syracuse?, a local on-line paper, reported recently on developments. Kent Syverud, the new chancellor, rolled back many of the initiatives of the Cantor years. Four student protests erupted this fall in the space of two months, including a student sit-in. More than 8,000 signatures from students and alumni called for reinstatement of the Advocacy Center, a support center for victims of sexual assault. Students said that the decision to close the Advocacy Center illustrated a pattern of decision making excluding broad input. Among their other grievances were the administration's elimination of "community engagement" and "strengthening democratic institutions" as university goals.

The Syracuse story dramatizes how the rankings of U.S. News and World Report block the advance of democracy.

In a national and international environment where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, it is crucial to push back. We need to build the democracy movement in and around higher education. One task is to overturn the rankings, a new tyranny which holds us all in thrall.

Harry Boyte is editor of the forthcoming Democracy's Education, a collection with many stories drawn from the democracy movement in and around higher education (Vanderbilt, 2015)

Input Needed on Draft U.S. Public Participation Playbook

The White House’s Open Gov Initiative announced on Tuesday that it is opening up a draft “Public Participation Playbook” for edits, additions and comments.

A team across the government is now working side-by-side with civil society organizations to deliver the first U.S. Public Participation Playbook, dedicated to providing best practices for how agencies can better design public participation programs, and suggested performance metrics for evaluating their effectiveness.

I encourage NCDD and IAP2 members to add their input to the draft Playbook asap, as submissions must be made before December 17th. I’ve been assured that this is very much a draft document — not something that is being simply displayed for comment after decisions have been made.

The Playbook has been posted to Madison, an open source tool created by the OpenGov Foundation to help people collaboratively craft legislation. The OpenGov Foundation’s director, Seamus Kraft, is a supporting member of NCDD.

To participate, go to:

“The playbook is not limited to digital participation, and is designed to address needs from the full spectrum of public participation programs,” wrote Corinna Zarek, senior adviser for open government for the U.S. chief technology officer, and Justin Herman, the SocialGov lead for the General Services Administration who is also managing the U.S. Public Participation Playbook project.

Yet the current draft is certainly heavy on examples and language relevant to digital tools, platforms, and strategies for public participation. It clearly needs some TLC from the face-to-face public participation experts who are involved in NCDD and IAP2 — as well as further input from those of you who focus on online engagement.

What is a playbook, you ask? Check out the Digital Services Playbook for an example. Playbooks are compilations of best practices (or “plays”) that government agencies can borrow from and help guide their efforts. In this playbook, extra emphasis is given to performance metrics for public participation. The playbook “reflects the best ideas and examples for agencies to use in developing and implementing their programs with public participation in mind.”

A formal version of the initial playbook is expected to be released for piloting by agencies by January 2015.

Video Explains the Importance of Subsistence Land Commons

Participants in a workshop hosted by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and the German Institute for Human Rights are featured in a nicely done five-minute video, “A Commons Conversation.” (Tip of the hat to Silke Helfrich.)  It’s a thoughtful introduction to subsistence and traditional commons, especially in Africa. The focus is on secure land tenure and food security.

The July 2014 workshop is in the midst of producing a “Technical Guide on Tenure Rights to Commons” (or “TG Commons,” for short) at the request of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  The guide seeks to support the adoption of “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT).” 

According to the workshop, the TG Commons will:

provide strategies to overcome the challenges inherent in the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons. The overall objective of the guide is to contribute to national food security, to secure access to natural resources (especially for marginalized and vulnerable groups), to support human well-being and livelihood, sustainable resource use, and ecosystem functioning. This is particularly timely, since today about three billion rural families’ livelihoods depend on common lands, forests and fisheries. 

The TG commons guidebook is focused on “providing concrete strategies to achieve the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons."

read more


Method: Sociocracy

Sociocracy is a whole system design for organizational governance and structure. It is applicable to and useful for any group of people who want to accomplish something together. The "socios" in sociocracy are the "colleagues" or "companions" - people with a social relationship and some identified common aims. Values of...

“the self is moral”

Summarizing a body of empirical research, the Duke psychologist Nina Strohminger argues that what constitutes our identity is our moral character, not (for instance) the memories that we have stored so far. Asked what characteristics a soul would hypothetically carry into another body, subjects choose the soul’s moral character. Asked which psychological changes would make someone into a new person, subjects select moral changes above total amnesia or an inability to recognize moral features. Given a chance to improve their own moral character with an imaginary pill, people say they would decline because that would mean abandoning their selves.

According to Strohminger, “moral features” constitute “the most important type of information we can have about another person.” She continues:

So we’ve been thinking about the problem precisely backwards. It’s not that identity is centred around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’être. … What is it to know oneself? … When we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favourite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.

I would like to connect this discussion to psychological research on how we perceive the identities of ordinary objects, such as apples and chairs. (This link may have been made already; I have not looked.) According to experiments by Sloman, Love, and Ahn, people perceive as integral or essential those features of an object that could not change without affecting many other features. Therefore, a network model is useful. Think, for instance, of the many features of an apple (its crunchy texture, sweet taste, origins on a tree, function of protecting seeds, color, size, role in Greek myths, etc). These features can be seen as nodes in a conceptual network. The nodes that we see as more definitive of appleness are the ones that have higher network centrality.

Likewise, I would model any person as holding many ideas in his or her head at any time. The individual ideas are all subject to change. Some are linked to others, forming a large, complex, and evolving conceptual network. Some of the nodes are moral ideas, however you define morality. When we think of another person’s identity, we should not cite just one or a few clear-cut principles or virtues. That would reduce the complex person to an abstraction. But we should have in mind a cluster of connected–although not always mutually consistent–nodes that are relatively central to that person’s whole network. These nodes cannot change without setting off a cascade of other changes that may be sufficient to alter the person’s whole character.

In short, as Strohminger writes, “the self is moral”–and I would add that the moral self is a network of ideas defined by the cluster(s) of relatively central nodes. That is what our souls would take with us into new bodies or a new life.

The post “the self is moral” appeared first on Peter Levine.

It’s Not About Ferguson

I wasn’t sure what to write today. I’ve had a hard time finding my words.

Ferguson is all that’s on the news, and with good reason. A grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old, black man.

I could write about how the role of a grand jury is to evaluate a case by the low bar of whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed – advancing the suspect, still presumed innocent, to face a trial.

I could write about how incredibly rare it is for a grand jury not to indict, how of the 162,000 federal cases U.S. attorneys prosecuted in 2010, grand juries declined to indict in only 11 of them.

I could write about how the jury which failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson was composed of nine white and three African-American jurors.

I could go through the thousands of pages of evidence, giving my own lay opinion of what it all means.

But none of that feels sufficient. None of that is enough.

What happened in Ferguson was shocking, but not surprising. It was horrifying but routine. It was a noteworthy moment, but a moment of little note.

The thing is – the true, deep, terrifying thing – is that it’s not about Ferguson.

In that moment, in that place, the details, of course, are everything. But in the grand scheme of things – it doesn’t really matter whether Officer Wilson genuinely felt threatened or whether he had genuine cause to feel threatened. It doesn’t really matter what the evidence indicates in this specific, individual, case. I mean, it matters a lot, but it also – it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that black men and women face a dramatic difference in life expectancy than white people do.

What matters is that black men and women are hugging their children tight, desperately praying for their safety. I don’t know whether Officer Wilson was genuinely threatened, but I know that my black brothers and sisters are genuinely threatened.

I know that black people are disproportionately more likely to be shot by police officers.

I know a 12-year-old black kid was shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun.

You see, that’s the insidious thing about institutional racism – there’s always a reason why its “not about race” this time.

A police officer is trained to react a certain way, to anticipate a certain danger in order to stay alive. Can you really blame a white officer for feeling seriously threatened by a black man? It’s almost easy – especially as a white person – to look at the details and rationalize the injustice away.

But not everyone has that privilege.

Not everyone has the luxury of turning off the news with a sigh, saying this news has nothing to do with me. Not everyone has the privilege of feeling safe walking down the street in their own neighborhood.

Not everyone has that privilege. But everyone should.

As a white person, it seems so obvious, so assumed, that a person would have that safety. But my Facebook feed is full of people of color wondering which of their family members they might lose. My neighborhood is full of black men who look at me askance and hustle on their way – fearful I might find them a threat.

That reality is simply not okay.

I’m not interested in getting into a fight about evidence or laws. I’m not interested in picking apart the details or analyzing every action that has happened in Ferguson. What’s happening there has meaning, but it’s not the details that matter.

Black lives matter.

Black lives matter.  We cannot simply breath a heavy sigh, finding just enough compassion to calm our conscious. We cannot keep rolling our eyes, assuring ourselves that it’s not really about race this time. Assuring ourselves that we are not racist, or that there is no privilege which comes with being white.

We cannot let people of color fight this battle alone, and we cannot, we cannot – we cannot let our fellow man continue to die because of the color of their skin.


sometimes it’s better to listen

Sometimes you should recognize that your own voice doesn’t have any special value and concentrate on listening and learning instead. (Perhaps the president should have thought that way before he made his brief and palid address last night.) I have been thinking about Ferguson today, but I would yield my time to others more eloquent and better placed to comment than I. For instance:

The post sometimes it’s better to listen appeared first on Peter Levine.

Resources for Dialogue After the Ferguson Decision

With yesterday’s announcement of a grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the need for dialogue in our communities about race, police, deadly use of force, and our criminal justice system is high. In moments like these, it is hard to know where to even begin with these kinds of conversations, so we want to offer some resources to help those of our NCDD community who may be working to facilitate conversations about the issues swirling around Ferguson.

NCDD’s Director, Sandy Heierbacher, put together a great list of NCDD resources as well as a few more from our network earlier this summer, so we encourage you to look back at her post for that list, which you can find at We especially recommend that you check out the Race Issues tag in NCDD’s Resource Center of nearly 3,000 resources for D&D.

We also recommend a couple of great blog posts on the subject from our partners at Everyday Democracy:

And for those looking for reflections on how to navigate difficult conversations about the surrounding racial issues with white folks, Janee Woods Weber wrote a powerful piece with some advice called “Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder” that can be a good place to start.

We wish all of you having these challenging conversations the best of luck, and hope you will remember to take some of the reflections and lessons from them with you to the upcoming meetings between NCDD members and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service next year. They will certainly help us find ways to try to keep moving forward together.

The Grind

There’s an important moment when strength training and getting into heavier weights. It’s just about halfway into the movement – when you’ve gotten past the initial push but haven’t made it to the smooth sailing of the top.

That middle ground is the toughest.

It’s somewhat cartoonish, actually. Everything seems normal as the initial effort gets you started, but then – you just stop. Midway. Stuck. It may be impossible to move the weight any higher.

That moment feels like an eternity. In my mind, I look at the weight, I look at myself…and I look at the weight. I have a whole inner dialogue about whether I’ll be able to get the weight to move any further. Do I have it, or is this it?

The world ceases.

But, really, I’m just standing there silently, straining to hold a weight in midair. Trying to figure out if I can make the weight go up, or if I should just let it down.

It’s a subtle, but important decision.

You see, trying too hard when you don’t have it in you will almost certainly lead to injury. It’ll almost certainly slow progress towards your goals. It is foolish to push past your capacity. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.

Better then to just walk away.

But you shouldn’t be a quitter, either. The only way you’ll get better, the only way you’ll get stronger is to push yourself as hard as you can. If you stop whenever you get tired, you’ll never get anywhere. You have push through the discomfort and give it all you’ve got.

It’s a fine line between these two states, but you learn to feel your way through them. Every day is different and every workout is different. A weight that feels manageable one day may as well be the weight of the world the next.

You just have to feel it out. See how it goes. Do your best, but know when to walk away. You may not get it today, but you’ll probably get it to tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that.Just keep pushing. Grind through. Wait for the right moment, but never back down.