Saturday, November 10, 2012

UW president's tactless "real job" comment to poor students

Since I'm basically a pundit, my main job consists of whinging about the failures of others and endlessly describing all the things that are wrong with the world. There are robust economic reasons for this: in terms of producing stimulating content, it's easier to tear down someone else's movie or book or statement than it is to produce my own. That is, derivative content is easier to produce than primary content (see for example here).

Fortunately for yours truly, there are plenty of asinine things said and done which merit criticism. A big one is President Obama's shifty/abusive use of drone bombings, which I wrote about (here) earlier this week.

Another, less horrific (but more local) controversy is U. Washington president Michael Young's comment at a Q&A Session following his annual address that poor students might need to get a "real job" if federal funding for Pell grants falls through.

Deepa Bhandaru et al responded (here) in the UW paper by criticizing Young:

We were appalled at Young’s insensitivity to the reality that undergraduates face, given the number of our students who work so hard at real jobs in order to make ends meet and put themselves through college.

They also discussed an ongoing dispute between the university and student employees who receive tuition waivers as part of their pay. Formerly, student fees had been included in student employees' pay, but at that same Q&A session president Young reportedly reaffirmed his intent to go to court in order to shed the UW of that obligation.

William Dow joined the kaffufle with his op-ed (here), which takes Young to task for his "real job" comment. Dow spends an awful lot of time unpacking the implications of this phrase, calling it "loaded with ivory-tower ignorance" and claiming that it signals that Young considers Pell grants a low-priority.

It was only slightly less insulting than when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney advised Ohio students to borrow money from their parents — “if you have to” — in order to start a business.

 But the proles could only beat up on their illustrious leader for so long before UW Associate Vice President Norm Atkins replied (here) with a defense of Young's remarks. Atkins claims that Young's statement has been taken out of context and its meaning has been inverted:

The comment about getting a job was inserted into the question as an option as undesirable as dropping out or taking out loans. These were presented as unacceptable options to a vibrant financial aid program that relies on federal Pell grants as its foundation. In no sense was President Young telling students to get a job — he was suggesting that having to get a job in lieu of financial aid would be an impediment to continuing their education.

The force of Atkins reply is somewhat diminished by problems with his evidence. He supplies Young's sentence in which the infamous "real job" phrase occurred (“I’d just embellish that by heaven forfend [sic] get an actual job.”), but since it's incoherent (at least in Atkins' op-ed), it's not particularly helpful in parsing out Young's meaning. Added 11/10/12 at 9:40pm: evidently "heaven forfend" is not an incoherent typo, but means "heaven forbid." (Whoops.) So Atkins' full-quote of Young's original sentence is coherent, but is also evidence of Young's snide contempt (not evidence of Young's benign intent, as Atkins claims). Atkins also supplies a link to a page which putatively shows video recording of Young's comments, but it's incorrectly formatted and doesn't work:

Your correspondent was unable to find Young's comments on Youtube via searching. And, as Dow points out, while Young's address is posted on the pivotal Q&A session is "conspicuously unavailable."

It's not clear at this point what Young actually said, or meant to say, or how he said it. But given Young's position of power, and given the coherence of his accusers and the incoherence of his defender, this does not prejudice your correspondent toward giving Young the benefit of the doubt or toward sitting on the fence. It sounds like an old, powerful white dude said something Romneyesque about poor people, and he needs to own up to it.

PS: Your correspondent's partner happens to be a Pell grant recipient at the UW. You can read his analysis of UW philosophy (here), and stay tuned to his blog for his thoughts on Young's comments (coming soon).

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