UPDATED – The Paul Campos higher education column fiasco – what was The New York Times thinking?

Professor Paul Campos thinks of himself as a kind of liberal (despite taking up the anti-lawyer rhetoric of the reactionary right wing Cato Institute – at an event held in the Hayek Auditorium no less – and serving as an “expert” for the Federalist Society). After all, he is a leading blogger at a website that touts a traditional far left line at almost every point, with endlessly boring posts about, for example, a labor history that has long been forgotten in post-industrial America. (And I say this as someone who has been a strong supporter of organized labor for many years.)

And since Campos has generated a small but dedicated following among disgruntled former law students with his vituperative but often wrong headed attacks on law schools (including the one he teaches at), it probably occurred to the liberal editors at The New York Times to task Campos with the responsibility of analyzing what ails all of higher education.

Big mistake.

Campos wanted, it seems, to argue that recent conflicts between state governments and University officials are misguided because the real problem is not a decline in state funding of education but an increase in the salaries paid to “administrators.”

It is, of course, true that there has been a significant increase in non-teaching professionals hired by colleges and universities over the last few decades. It is also the case that often (though not always if one includes community colleges, for example) the salaries paid those professionals have increased significantly and at rates higher than the increases awarded to teaching and research faculty and non-professional staff.

But it is not at all clear that these trends are linked to a decline in the quality of education provided by colleges and universities (an issue Campos ignores). And it is, in fact, quite clear that when one moves beyond the absolute numbers that Campos oddly relies on to more meaningful per student expenditures the picture changes. As Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute pointed out in response to the Campos column:

After adjusting for inflation, state appropriations per student were 18 percent lower in 2013-14 than they were thirty years earlier, and 29 percent lower than their peak in 1988-89. Over the past decade, state funding per student declined by 14 percent.

In contrast, institutional expenditures per student rose by a total of 6 percent at public doctoral universities over this ten-year period, and by 3 percent at public master’s universities. Community colleges spend 7 percent less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did a decade ago. So there has not been a rapid rise in spending on public college campuses that could be the primary driver of tuition increases.

It is not rising expenditures, but declining state revenues that account for most of the pressure on state institutions to raise tuition.

In other words, it is far too simplistic to conclude that the battle ongoing between liberal Democrat Janet Napolitano, the President of the University of California, and liberal Democrat Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, is simply about Napolitano trying to defend the turf of her administrative team.

The furor over the article soon spread beyond the comments section of the Times, as Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago noted on his blog, to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education and Slate. Now the criticism has spread to blogs like Crooked Timber, a home for liberal academics that one would normally assume would be supportive of criticisms of “administrative bloat” in higher education.

At every turn the Campos piece was criticized for being badly written, incoherent, and not fact checked. It is a bit of a mystery, then, why the Times would sacrifice very valuable real estate on such a critical issue of public concern for an individual who has no serious background in the field. As Professor Leiter noted, Campos has trouble with long division. Those of us who have tried to disentangle Campos’ often convoluted and thoughtless comments on the law school world already know about his limitations particularly when he tries to handle data. A bit of diligence by the Times might have saved them the embarrassment this piece has caused and perhaps a responsible contribution to this important and complex issue could have been made.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has joined the list of critics of the Campos piece while the digital media site Talking New Media says the Times is “taking it on the chin” for the piece.

UPDATE 2: Even academics who profess to like Campos found the piece “misleading.” Other commentators have been less, well, friendly. The AAUP’s Academe blog weighed in as well saying it would be generous to say Campos gets the story “half-right.”I did, after a diligent search, find a single solid fan of the Campos post here at a blog called International Liberty run by Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at – you may have guessed it – the Cato Institute. Mitchell is proud that the UK Guardian calls him “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.”

UPDATE 3: Campos may not be able to retain his liberal credential after this assessment of his column by the think tank Demos. They called the op-ed “terrible,” “unbelievably misleading,” “badly wrong,” “irresponsible” (for ignoring per student expenses), and, finally, “outside” of “evidence-based reality.” No wonder they ask the same question I did and that, as of yet, has gone unanswered: how did this piece get by the Times’ fact checkers?

UPDATE 4: The Times has run several letters, mostly critical of Campos, here. This hardly makes up for their mistake but perhaps the Public Editor will take a closer look at what led to this debacle, as I suggested to her yesterday.