Oct 30, 2011

Should grad student stipends be tax exempt?

There's a petition on the Whitehouse website to make grad student stipends tax exempt. Stipend amounts that go to educational expenses (tuition, books, etc.) are already exempt, so this change would affect the remainder of stipend income. The motivation for the petition is apparently to encourage more people to attend graduate school.

I find this very hard to understand. What evidence is there of a supply shortage of graduate students? Even average grad programs get 10, 20 or 30 times more applicants than they can admit. Since federal taxes on grad stipends are in the area of 10% per year, removing those taxes would only increase grad student income by a small amount. That means that the applicant pool would at best be increased very slightly, and there would probably be little to no impact on the quality of the applicant pool overall.

While there is no supply shortage of graduate students, there is obviously a supply shortage of academic jobs for graduate students relative to the demand for those jobs. Making grad school more attractive-- which is what the petition would accomplish if successful (which I doubt, as explained above)-- would only make the problem worse, or at least not make it better.

Why should a graduate student making $30,000 a year should be exempt from income tax when a high school teacher, bank clerk, or secretary making the same salary receives no such exemption?

The petition has some vague rhetoric about needing to increase interest in grad school to remain competitive in the sciences, but it's difficult to see where the problem is. Top American research universities-- places like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Cal Tech, etc.-- are among the best in the world, and American students considering an advanced degree in a science or engineering discipline rarely choose foreign universities over these elite domestic ones.

What about students who are deciding between pursuing a science or engineering degree and entering the workforce in one of those fields after obtaining their Bachelor's? Again, what evidence is there that too many students are taking jobs rather than getting advanced degrees in science or engineering? And what evidence is there that science is being held back by some Physics majors getting jobs in finance or consulting rather than pursuing graduate degrees?

The only reason I can think of to worry about the supply of grad students is in attracting non-American students to American graduate programs. But that issue seems to revolve much more around immigration issues (like how difficult it is to obtain the right kind of visa) than around salary. Anyone even thinking about a technical advanced degree will already be considering American universities. If the visa issues are resolved, I don't see the added benefit of making grad stipends tax exempt.

You can read the text of the petition yourself, and see what you think. From where I stand, it's a non-solution in search of a problem.

Oct 29, 2011

The Morality of Deception in Academia

It's common knowledge that letters of recommendation for academic positions are generally inflated. This gives rise to some concern about how the letters are to be interpreted, as one must "discount" the praise for a candidate in some way in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. There is less concern, however, about the morality of this practice in general.

Compare another case. Suppose that before sending out a transcript in support of a candidate's application, the registrar's office inflated each grade on the transcript by a small amount- changing each A- to an A, for instance. It's quite obvious that this is deceptive and mendacious, whether one school or every school is inflating transcripts. This means that the "everyone is doing it, so it's not a problem" defense of inflated letters is nonsense. If inflating transcripts is wrong, so is inflating letters.

Another reason one might give for inflating credentials is that once one school does it, the rest have to do so in order to compete. Again, this has no plausibility in the case of inflating transcripts, so it shouldn't have any plausibility in the case of inflating letters. Having a need to compete doesn't license any kind of competitive behavior whatsoever. Surely academics, especially those who rail against competitive economic markets, should be suspicious of this kind of rationalization! There is a constant chorus from academics in favor of transparency in government and corporations; by the same token they should be advocating greater transparency in academia.

One might object that grade inflation, carried out by professors rather than offices of the registrar, is also deceptive according to my argument so far. Indeed, it's hard to see how it is not. Why would it make a moral difference whether the agent of deception is a professor rather than an administrator?

An honest letter or transcript has a potential cost-- making the candidate seem relatively less attractive-- but also an important benefit, in that letters that aren't gushing and transcripts that aren't inflated tend to create a situation of greater trust. It may be more beneficial for one's letter writers to be forthright but trusted than to have gushing letter writers who are not trusted by their peers.

While philosophers enjoy theorizing about the ethics of various professions (lawyers, doctors, soldiers, etc.), there is much less discussion of the ethics of being an academic or an academic philosopher, though the ethical issues pertaining to the latter are just as important.

Oct 9, 2011

"Mixed Actions and Double Effect"

In March I wrote a short post here tracing the history of double effect back through Augustine, Proclus, and Aristotle.

In particular, I mentioned that Aristotle's discussion of mixed actions contains some seminal aspects of double effect. Not being an Aristotle scholar, I didn't pursue this suggestion further, but I see now that Michael Pakaluk has published an article called "Mixed Actions and Double Effect" that presents a thorough look at the question.

The article appears in a volume entitled Moral Psychology and Human Action in Aristotle (OUP, 2011), edited by Pakaluk and Giles Pearson.

This is one of the only pieces I am aware of that makes a serious attempt to understand the origins of double effect prior to Aquinas.

Sep 14, 2011

One Year Wiser?

I started this blog a year ago today, and have been very lucky to have some terrific readers and commenters: thank you! 

I should also thank my wife Kirby, who encouraged me to stop talking about blogging and start actually blogging

Feel free to lift your mouse or keyboard for a virtual toast.


Aug 5, 2011

Gendered Role Models in Academia

This article from the Chronicle has taken some flack, much of which targets the author's claim that he had a hard time seeing female professors in his department as role models while he was a graduate student. Here's a choice quote from the article:
"It's not that I don't respect anyone. It's just that very few of those I do respect are English professors.
Partially, it's a gender problem. I can't use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I've talked to. Much of what I've heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what's on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I've known were quite angry about those issues. 
While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models."
He then goes on to discuss his difficulties connecting with the motivations of the male faculty as well. While the phrasing here is overblown-- should he really "discard" the female faculty from the realm of potential role models just because he doesn't share the motivations he attributes to them?-- the basic sentiment seems reasonable. After all, one of the arguments in favor of having a gender-balanced professoriate is that it helps students of any gender find role models among their professors. If it's not problematic for female undergrads or grad students to want a female professor as a role model, why is it problematic for a male student to want a male professor for a role model? Notably, the author of the Chronicle piece doesn't say that he only wants male professors as role models; that is a position I would take issue with. The issue seems to be with the motivations of his professors, rather than primarily with their gender, and he doesn't make any sweeping or essentializing generalizations about female English professors at large, just some local observations about those he was in contact with.

None of this is meant as a defense of the article, just a rebuttal of one kind of criticism that has been made of it. It's absurd to have a double standard whereby caring about the gender of one's role models is only appropriate for some people but not others!

Aug 3, 2011

The Future of Philosophy Publishing?

Sympoze is a new open source journal with crowd-sourced peer-review.   

Scholastica is an even newer system, not yet up and running but you can sign up for the beta version. It promises a more efficient peer review system for existing journals, along with incentives for reviewers who submit high quality reviews on time. Details are still sketchy, but it looks promising.

Anyone know of other innovations in philosophy publishing in the work? What are the challenges facing these new models? Obviously there's a lot of inertia in the system, since it's risky (especially for younger scholars) to publish in newer, unproven venues.