Joe Bob's America

Why I’m Suing Vanderbilt University

October 28, 2016

Multiple Pages
Why I’m Suing Vanderbilt University

PALM BEACH, Fla.—Maybe you missed this little item, but last month Obama shut down 130 colleges in a single day.

That’s one-three-oh campuses in 38 states that failed to open for the fall semester even though everybody was already enrolled.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anything even remotely similar to this has ever happened in the history of the Republic. Education is the religion of the country. It’s the one thing that all politicians put on their list of bromides (always saying we need more, not fewer, colleges). Education ranks right up there with sick babies and flogged pit bulls for things people will donate money to. If Obama had shown up in, say, Dayton, Ohio, in 2008 and said, “By the way, part of my platform is that I might shut down 130 colleges,” I think he would have needed a security escort to get out of the Wright Brothers Banquet Hall.

So why are there no riots?

Because the victims of this Orientation Day Surprise are all students at the ITT Technical Institute.

ITT Tech is one of those for-profit chains that offer degrees in rarefied skills like automobile mechanics and refrigeration repair and medical billing—they’re not afraid to get specific with their curriculum—but historically it’s the Oxford of that group. It grew out of an Indianapolis company called Howard W. Sams that was a publisher of electronics textbooks and service manuals. Sams Technical Institute was formed in 1963 to teach electronics to students who wanted to forgo the typical liberal-arts curriculum of the day and learn how to work with emerging technologies, usually in the service end of the business, and it proved so popular that STI soon merged with Teletronic Technical Institute in Evansville, Acme Institute of Technology in Dayton, and another Sams in Fort Wayne, before being acquired in 1966 by ITT, the diversified international conglomerate that got started in the ’20s by consolidating phone companies.

“This guy didn’t care what the federal government wanted for his life. He wanted to sit in the goddamn romantic-poetry seminar and parse Shelley.”

In the ’60s and ’70s these were sneered at as “trade schools” or “vo-tech schools,” but ITT turned them into actual colleges, a fact recognized in 1973 when the original ITT Technical Institute in Indianapolis became the first “nontraditional” school allowed into the federal tuition loan and grant program. It was considered good policy, since these programs were extremely popular with Vietnam War veterans trying to reenter society. ITT Tech expanded rapidly in the ’70s, pulled back slightly in the ’80s, expanded again in the ’90s, then became publicly traded after the Starwood hotel group bought ITT and decided it didn’t want to be in the education business.

By that time ITT Tech’s curriculum didn’t look that different from any business-oriented college, offering degrees in industrial design, paralegal studies, hospitality management, a slew of engineering specialties, software development, various technology fields, information technology, criminal justice, project management, and business administration. These schools were not so “nontraditional” anymore, but they had nontraditional undergraduates—usually a little older, a little more burdened with responsibility, a little bit more anxious to “get on with it.”

Well, they won’t be getting on with it anymore, because on Aug. 25 the Secretary of Education invoked something called the “Gainful Employment Rule,” decreed in 2014, invented out of thin air, designed to punish schools offering courses in “occupations for which there are simply no job opportunities,” leading to “crushing student loan debt.” Students at the 130 schools of ITT Tech would no longer be eligible for federally backed student loans or federal scholarships. ITT would be required to put up hundreds of millions in cash to cover the possibility of future loan defaults. Decreed. Done. Over.

The next day the stock price of ITT Tech plummeted. A few days later the company declared bankruptcy and told its student bodies there would be no fall semester. After 53 years, the school was dead.

So what were the mortal sins of ITT Tech? According to the government, there were two of them.

First, grade inflation. ITT was giving out too many A’s and B’s. In the opinion of the Department of Education, this was an attempt to keep the students eligible for federal aid and scholarships. It was fraudulent. How could that many students at ITT Tech be doing that well?

And yet, if you want to seek out the most notorious grade-inflated school in America, you would go to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a faculty member asked the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at a famous 2013 meeting, What is the median grade at Harvard?

“I don’t mind telling you,” replied the dean. “It’s an A-minus.”

Let me put this in perspective. There is no A-plus—Harvard doesn’t award those. So if you distribute A, A–, B+, B, B–, C+, C, C–, D+, D, D–, and F along a grading curve that assumes a 65 is failure, you have eleven passing grades from 66 to 100. That would make an A-minus, at the least, a 96. This is the average grade at Harvard, so obviously John Houseman’s performance in The Paper Chase was totally bogus. It’s easier to make an A at Harvard than at Chico State. Where’s the Secretary of Education? Strip these fakers of their $288,000 scholarships at once! (And I’m not making up that number. The cost of a year at Harvard is $72,000. With 70 percent of the student body receiving financial aid, who’s more likely to have “crushing loan debt”?)

And then there’s the second reason for shutting down ITT Tech: The recruiters at the various campuses “misled students about their job prospects.”

People graduated and didn’t get a job. Many of them are now suing ITT Tech to get their money back, or their loans wiped out, or some combination of the two.

I have to say, I’m appalled that ITT Tech didn’t have the courtesy to post a Daddy Warbucks in the wings of the auditorium so that students could be hired as they descended the commencement stage. And in solidarity with the now-forever-screwed alumni, I am this week formally filing suit against my own alma mater, Vanderbilt University, which, now that I think about it, not only didn’t get me a job, but didn’t train me for anything remotely resembling a marketable skill.

I’m not gonna tell this to the court, but I partly blame my freshman roommate, a hippie from Muscle Shoals, Ala., who talked me into joining him in a political-science course called “The Soviet Political System” and, to make sure we were both enmeshed in insanely abstruse pursuits, a 16-hour-a-week ordeal called, simply, “Russian 101.” I lasted only two weeks trying to draw the Cyrillic alphabet before I exploded one night at Rotier’s beer hall and said, “George, this is madness. We can’t go to Russia, there’s no one to speak Russian to, and I can’t sit eight hours a week in a lab making those terrible sounds.”

By that time George had taken up Mandarin as well as Russian, so I branded him a borderline lunatic and dropped the course. I continued, however, to puzzle over the annual photograph of the Politburo so I could write dense papers about the suppression of twelve-tone composers caused by the elevation or demotion of various apparatchiks in the Kremlin.

I mention these two courses—I hated one and dropped the other—because they happen to be the only two courses I took during my four years at Vanderbilt that could have possibly led to gainful employment. Soviet analysts weren’t that common at the time. Russian-speakers in America were rare. But no one told me, “Stay in political science, there’s money to be made!

Instead I ended up with a degree in English literature and classical studies, primarily Latin. Obviously my college was failing to tell me the truth about the viability of translating Catullus for a living.

Additional evidence that I was consistently lied to and programmed for failure:

(1) I was never informed that the 18th century is meaningless. Therefore I wasted hundreds of hours reading Alexander Pope, Samuel Pepys, Jonathan Swift, Addison & Steele, and the dreaded Shaftesbury. I was stunned when, at my interview for a clerical position at IBM, I was stopped after reciting only two lines:

What dire offense from am’rous causes springs,

What mighty contests rise from trivial things….

They could have simply informed me right from the beginning: No one likes Alexander Pope. He’s like a bad pop song you can’t get out of your head. I’m sure that Alexander Pope didn’t even like himself.

(2) The ability to speak Middle English with the proper accents and vowel sounds has a limited effect on Department of Human Resources algorithms, even when the HR guy knows Chaucer.

(3) Dr. Weatherby was wrong and mean-spirited when he took five points off my grade for using the word “lifestyle” in a paper on “My Last Duchess,” going on in the margins about how this sort of contemporary compound semiliterate jargon is all too frequent among lazy undergraduates. I can prove he was wrong: Ultimately one of the many low-paying jobs I did land was working for the “Lifestyle” section of a newspaper.

(4) Cardinal Newman, Tractarianism, and the Oxford Movement, stultifying in their power to turn football weekends into a series of 15-minute naps as you try to fight your way through Apologia Pro Vita Sua, are topics that brand you as an unhireable nutcase when introduced into any conversation.

(5) The Vanderbilt English professors were all descended from a tradition called the New Criticism, whose first principle involved textual analysis without regard for history or biographical context. This is a recipe for social and professional disaster when entering the age of political correctness. I was never told that expressing admiration for Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” without also condemning him as a fascist propagandist, or giving a positive opinion about Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” without also talking about what a horrible racist he was, are positions that lead straight to a freelance career.

(6) No one cares about Gerard Manley Hopkins or “The Windhover.”

(7) No one cares about “Dover Beach,” even people who live near Dover Beach.

(8) German literature sucks, especially in translation, and has no employment value even for people moving to Dresden.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. Obviously no one at Vanderbilt had the slightest regard for my future. Fortunately I had a scholarship sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Association, and horse breeders don’t care about being repaid, so there was no crushing student-loan debt. But the school was obviously in violation of the Gainful Employment Rule and should have all its federal incentives revoked.

And while we’re at it, let’s apply the Gainful Employment Rule to 100 percent of the students enrolled in the Philosophy Department, 110 percent of the students studying ballet, and 140 percent of the unfortunate souls convinced that their art-history degree will result in employment at the Metropolitan Museum.

I remember this guy who used to come to the romantic-poetry seminar—Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, twice a week, eight people around a table—and he was from eastern Kentucky, wearing homemade shirts, with a drawl so thick you needed a chain saw to cut it down to a mere twang. He never spoke unless he had to. Then he would say something really brief and really simple like “If you look at the meter in line 3, it’s a death meter.” And, despite the drawl, he could read Wordsworth like a son of a bitch.

I can’t help thinking that the Gainful Employment Rule is designed for guys like that, with bureaucrats assuming that, because they grew up barefoot on dirt floors in Appalachia, they need somebody to tell them what to do with their life. But this guy didn’t care what the federal government wanted for his life. He wanted to sit in the goddamn romantic-poetry seminar and parse Shelley.

And that’s the fatal flaw in the arrogant government move against ITT Tech. Everybody going there chose to roll the dice and go with the career they loved. It doesn’t matter if the major has “no job opportunities.” Maybe that’s not why they’re going to college. And even if it is, I might be the exception.

With apologies to Dr. Weatherby, all those ITT Tech students should be saying to the all-knowing, all-wise Department of Education: Screw you, it’s my life.

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