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.