College Degrees Earned and Unearned

The recent news about West Virginia University awarding a master’s degree (that she apparently didn’t earn) to the governor’s daughter, prompts us to look more closely at what degrees actually mean. And, it’s not surprising that some attention should focus on President George Bush. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Bush policies and whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or Independent you need to wonder how George Bush received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in history. His lack of knowledge of history is actually quite glaring and so I wonder how he ever got a degree from Yale. I wouldn’t have been graduated from P.S. 3 in the Bronx without knowing some very basic facts of history (to say nothing of geography) that Bush didn’t seem to know.
But, this is not about Bush or about Heather Bresch (the Governor’s daughter who received the degree from WVU). Rather, this is about education and the people’s right to know. Specifically, Yale and Harvard and probably most of the Ivy League actively recruit high-profile students—especially students who are the sons and daughters of famous (and rich) parents. Not only will these universities be in line for massive financial donations but they also get lots of publicity from presidents, senators, and the like who sport a degree from their institution.
The fact that George Bush had a degree from Yale likely influenced some voters—after all, it’s not unlikely that people felt comfortable voting for a person who went to one of the most prestigious universities in the world—surely he must be intelligent and knowledgeable. But, that turned out not to be the case and so we wonder how he got that degree from Yale. Very likely we’ll never know. But, we can do something so that this doesn’t happen again. The proposal is very simple: whenever someone runs for political office in the United States, his or her complete college record should become public information. Much like a candidate’s tax returns are made public, so should the candidate’s college records. There are several good reasons for this proposal:
1. Colleges would be put on notice that their degrees have to be earned.
2. The government, especially since 9/11, has access to phone records, bank accounts, tax returns, surveillance videos, Internet searches, DNA data, and a host of other information on the average citizen. Why shouldn’t the average citizen (the voter) know about the educational background of someone running for office?
3. The educational background—and here I mean courses taken, grades earned, papers written, SAT scores, attendance records—the whole nine yards—of a political candidate. We have a right to know this because this is part of who the candidate is and because this will influence what that candidate does in office which in turn will impact everyone of us. We have the right to information that is relevant to the choices we make, in this case who we vote for. Whether any individual chooses to use this information when he or she votes, is of course up to the individual; some will likely use it and some won’t.
4. When a college hires a professor, a committee (sometimes several committees) looks carefully at the courses taken, the letters of recommendation, the dissertation written, and lots more. This is information that is relevant to the job for which the person is being considered. Isn’t this information also relevant to our selection of political candidates? And, in the case of a potential president of the United States, isn’t this information essential?

1 comment:

maestra said...

In 1975, Congress established the Federal Election Commission which requires candidates for federal office to file disclosures of their personal finances. This applies to candidates for the House of Representatives, the Senate, the U.S. Presidency, and the US Vice-Presidency. To date, there is no such commission, or Supreme Court ruling, requiring that such candidates disclose their educational backgrounds (including their college transcripts, SAT scores, etc). Even in a country like India, where in 2002, the Supreme Court there ruled that educational background was one of three requirements for political candidacy, the requirement has been met with opposition, failure to comply by candidates leaving blanks on affidavits required for candidacy, and numerous lawsuits. But, the American voter is not concerned with candidacy requirements in other countries.

The media in the United States has been instrumental in obtaining and publishing the college grades and SAT scores of some political candidates, including those of our current president, George W. Bush. Former presidential candidate John Kerry’s college grades were only disclosed when, during campaigning, he made his military records available to the public. While many politicians, including these, have had bad college grades, and lower SAT scores, one might ask why VP candidate, John Edwards, refused to disclose his grades, even though he was an exemplary student at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Colleges and universities are permitted to publish directories with limited student information, such as a list of degrees awarded, but college transcripts and grades, as a rule, are not public documents and normally are protected from public access. Yes, most potential employers, including the federal government, require that job applicants supply college transcripts and proof that a degree has been issued to them. But do we, the American public, want to vote for candidates based on grades and test scores they received some thirty or forty years ago, or do we want to vote for them based on the historical and international knowledge they possess, their leadership qualities, their honesty and integrity, their critical and analytical skills, and their views on important issues? Yes, higher education should mean a certain level of intelligence and the possession of such knowledge and skills but, unfortunately, it does not always equate to these, as President Bush has made quite evident. And, yes the American public should question the degrees awarded by Ivy League Universities who have been noted for giving so-called “gentleman Cs,” or grades given to students enrolled there whose performances are less than satisfactory and probably warrant a D or an F. BUT, unless there is a ruling by the United States Supreme Court or by some commission related to the election process requiring that political candidates disclose all information related to their educational backgrounds, voters will have to rely on leaks to the media, or websites like Project Vote Smart, to learn the educational backgrounds of political candidates.