Taking a closer look at the New York Times’ Missouri story

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Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri [Zachary Reger]
UPDATE (7/11/17): School administration has replied to the New York Times’ story. In an official statement, university leaders denote specific material omitted from the Times’ report, which, had it been included, may have provided much-needed context.

UPDATE (7/10/17): MU Student Body President Nathan Willett has addressed the New York Times’ story in a guest commentary for the Kansas City Star. Willett says the report paints “an unreasonably and inaccurately bleak image” of the university.

Sunday night, the New York Times released an interesting piece cataloging the recent decline in enrollment at the University of Missouri, linking it to a series of racially motivated protests that occurred on the campus in fall 2015.

The result is a decent article, but I can’t help but think the Times is oversimplifying the issue to fit a preordained narrative. (For transparency’s sake, it should be noted that I just recently graduated from MU’s journalism program, myself.) That’s the difficulty a national outlet faces when covering a local story, especially one as controversial as this.

Regardless, the Times is correct in noting the financial trouble MU now faces, and that this strain was brought about in large part from a decline in student enrollment following the tumultuous protests.

But lower enrollment could have multiple (and concurrent) causes, including:

1. A decrease in statewide high school graduation totals (link)
2. Cuts to higher education funding from the state legislature (link)
3. A perceptual deficit, stemming from years of enrollment growth followed by backsliding (link)
4. Losing sports teams (seriously: link)

The public — and journalists, too — should be careful in implying direct causation from a mere surface-level correlation when many variables ought to be considered in tandem. Context is key.

What is the Missouri Plan?

A view of the south side of the Missouri Capitol building in Jefferson City [Zachary Reger]
Missouri’s most notable claim-to-fame in modern legal philosophy is often overlooked.

The state’s constitutionally guaranteed system of merit-based judicial selection — the “Missouri Plan,” as it’s often called — marked a seismic shift in the process of court appointment, one that swept the nation in a grand revision of how we populate many of our appellate and high courts.

By forgoing popular alternatives of direct election and nomination-confirmation of state judges, Missouri ushered in a new “nonpartisan” era of judicial selection.

After the Plan’s initial adoption in the mid-1900s, dozens of states followed, creating merit-based systems of their own. Newly democratic nations across Europe and South America drew inspiration from the Plan in writing their own constitutions, as did even a few established democracies during historic reformation votes.

And Missouri started it all.

What follows is a brief overview of the philosophy and origins of the Missouri Plan, a lightly edited excerpt taken from my undergraduate thesis work at the University of Missouri.

Continue reading “What is the Missouri Plan?”

Is ‘this Trump thing’ sustainable?

CC BY-SA 2.0 Gage Skidmore

A piece in the Washington Post explores a freshman Kentucky congressman’s recent recess in his heavily Trump-supporting home district.

Read until the end. It’s worth your time.

What is free will — and do we have it?

“The Thinker” at Columbia University [Zachary Reger]
Free will, in the folk sense, entails a requisite amount of control over one’s activity, enough so that an agent maintains moral responsibility for the resulting consequences. Yet contemporary philosophers disagree on whether humans have the amount of self-mastery necessary for this type of freedom. Central to the debate is another question: Is determinism, or the notion that past events plus the laws of nature fully determine one possible set of future occurrences, compatible with free will? Thinkers divide on this point, as well — those answering affirmatively we call “compatibilists,” while those in dissent are named “incompatibilists.”

A large number of current free will theories can be sorted into one of three major categories.

The first camp, libertarian-style theories, are incompatibilist. Because determinism is false, however, we can be confident in the possibility of human agency in at least some circumstances. This is due to the believed indeterminate nature of quantum particles in the human brain. These probabilistic states can be sequenced to transfer indeterminacy to higher levels, such as the mental arena of human decision-making.

However, opponents of libertarianism point out that, even given the assumption this amplification actually occurs, indeterminism seems to be just as problematic for free will as determinism. If an event’s occurring is merely probabilistic, they say, isn’t it up to sheer luck, not human choice, whether it happens?

The second group, compatibilist-style theories, state that determinism and free will are compatible, despite the intuition that an absence of supposed “alternative possibilities” denies this freedom. To illustrate this, compatibilists have composed thought experiments in which a person lacks alternative options, but is still seemingly morally responsible for her decisions because she never sought to pursue another path.

Opponents of these theories say this process of intuition revisionism is either unreliable, incomplete or based on false assumptions. The agent who lacks alternative possibilities may in fact be acting freely — but only if one first assumes the compatibilist mantra. That would be invalid, a form of circular reasoning, they argue.

The final variety, hard incompatibilist-style theories, is the only group to deny the likelihood of free will’s existence. (Although some are simply agnostic on the point.) The lack of human freedom is a given because both determinism and indeterminism are incompatible with it, they say. If there is one possible future that cannot be altered, human choice must be mere illusion. If our actions are only up to chance, we have no control over the result. Thus, regardless of the truth value of determinism, humans must not have free will.

But hard indeterminists have detractors as well — they usually fall into one of the other two camps previously described.

So it seems that, in the horse race of free will theorizing, the final crown is yet to be claimed. Such is the fate of the current philosophic landscape: passioned debate and reasoned disagreement continue to abound.

Of that, at least, we can be certain.

Republicans went nuclear — now what?

1946 nuclear test at Bikini Atoll [Public Domain]
After a Democratic filibuster of Neil Gorsuch, Congressional Republicans have exercised the “nuclear option,” dismantling the requirement of a 60-vote cloture movement before voting on Supreme Court nominees. Gorsuch can be confirmed with a mere 51 supporting senators, an up-or-down vote scheduled for Friday.

So what now?

Two law professors write in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that we should “stop worrying and learn to love the nuclear option.”

On the other hand, an opposing law professor writes a piece for U.S. News arguing that to kill the filibuster is to “kill trust in the court.”

When all is said and done, at least one thing is certain — it will have been an excellent day for C-SPAN ratings.

5 leading French presidential candidates face-off in first televised debate

Bored? Mildly curious about French politics?

Then here’s an English-dubbed version of the first French presidential debate.

In the televised debate, held Monday afternoon, five leading candidates discuss politics and policy ahead of the first round of voting on Sunday, April 23. Assuming no candidate passes 50 percent, the top two vote getters will proceed to a direct run-off on Sunday, May 7, where the winner will assume the presidency.

The five candidates, in current polling order:

  1. Marine Le Pen, far-right populist
  2. Emmanuel Macron, centrist EU supporter
  3. François Fillon, center-right former prime minister
  4. Benoît Hamon, left-wing socialist
  5. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, far-left member of the European Parliament

Watch the entire video if you dare — longer than its American counterparts, the debate clocks in at a healthy three hours and 18 minutes.


UM System audit reveals millions in ‘inappropriate’ payments

“Inappropriate” bonus payments to university employees — totaling over $2 million — were sometimes marked as incentives but had no specific criteria, according to the Missouri state auditor in a report released Monday.

Funds were also dispersed for luxury vehicle allowances, even though a mileage reimbursement system might have been more efficient.

Read the full story from the Columbia Missourian, KOMU 8 News and the Columbia Daily Tribune.