Author: Sarah Waldeck

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Are They Loaded?

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Barack Obama caught plenty of heat for his comments about clinging to guns and religion, but listen to Grover Norquist quizzing the six candidates running for GOP Party Chair about their conservative credentials.

Well, I guess it appeals to the base.

(photo by J.M. Griffen)

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A Skyrocketing Bar Passage Rate

The New York Times has reported on the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Donald Guter, who had been dean of the Duquesne Law School for three years. The story also has been covered on Law.com and other legal blogs. One detail from the reports is particularly striking: under Guter’s leadership, bar passage rates increased from 68 to 97 percent.

This seems like an extraordinary increase for a three-year time period. If anyone wants to explain how Duquesne managed to do it, I’d be interested. (Or if this kind of increase is more ordinary than I think, I’d appreciate learning that as well.)

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Just Turn Off Your Phone!

T’is the season and all of that, so I’ll begin by noting that last year my husband gave my mother a hands-free cell phone kit. I thought the gift was motivated by a concern about her tendency to talk on the phone when she’s making the 90 minute trip to and from our house, but maybe the gift was more nefarious than I realized. Last week’s Economist is reporting on a study that shows even hands-free phones can dangerously impair driving skills:

Melina Kunar of the University of Warwick, in England, and Todd Horowitz of the Harvard Medical School ran a series of experiments in which two groups of volunteers had to pay attention and respond to a series of moving tasks on a computer screen that were reckoned equivalent in difficulty to driving. One group was left undistracted while the other had to engage in a conversation about their hobbies and interests using a speakerphone . . . . Those who were making the equivalent of a hands-free call had an average reaction time 212 milliseconds slower than those who were not. That, they calculate, would add 5.7 metres (18 feet) to the braking distance of a car travelling at 100kph (62mph). The researchers also found that the group using the hands-free kit made 83% more errors in their tasks than those who were not talking.

To try to understand more about why this was, they tried two further tests. In one, members of a group were asked simply to repeat words spoken by the caller. In the other, they had to think of a word that began with the last letter of the word they had just heard. Those only repeating words performed the same as those with no distraction, but those with the more complicated task showed even worse reaction times—an average of 480 milliseconds extra delay. This, the researchers suggest, shows that when people have to consider the information they hear carefully, as they might when making decisions about a business deal, it can impair their driving ability significantly.

Different studies have suggested that two other driving past-times—chatting with passengers and listening to the radio—do not have the same negative effects on driving. Researchers speculate that talking on the phone competes for the brain’s resources in ways that these other activities do not.

Read More

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Deferred Debt and Alumni Giving

A recent New York Times article by Ron Lieber asked whether alumni will give to colleges and universities this year, particularly if the institutions have mega-endowments. As Lieber put it:

Against the real likelihood of financial doom for so many people, it feels almost unseemly to consider a donation to a college or university. Surely there must be a food bank or job retraining program that is more deserving.

If past experience is any guide, don’t expect the food banks and job retraining programs to win out. One persistent trend in philanthropy is that groups providing social services tend to receive a smaller slice of the charitable dollar than both educational and arts organizations. Perhaps this year the needy are so salient that these patterns will shift a bit, but old giving habits die hard.

Lieber writes that for him, debt is the most persuasive reason for continuing to give to his alma mater; his education was made possible by generous scholarship support. Almost every college student has this sort of debt, because at most places not even full tuition covers the total cost of an education. Most alums are at least vaguely aware of this and, for some, it may provide an adequate reason to give.

But I wonder how long the notion of a deferred debt will continue to have practical or rhetorical force. With tuition rising at a rate that outpaces inflation and students and their families feeling increasingly strapped, tomorrow’s alums may conclude that even if tuition didn’t cover the cost of their education, it should have. The gap between what higher education costs and what students actually pay may soon be seen as more symbolic of the runaway costs of higher education than of an institution’s generosity towards its students.

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Thanksgiving Entertainment

Regular Co-Op readers may have realized that I am a big fan of the radio program This American Life. Here’s the link to one of my all-time favorite stories: Opening Night. There’s not a legal connection; there’s not even a Thanksgiving connection. It’s just flat-out hilarious.

Best Thanksgiving wishes to everyone, with a special thought for those who may feel less fortunate than they did last year.

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Simulated Disorder in the Netherlands

While the broken windows theory of crime control has much intuitive appeal, empirical support has always been a bit thin. Now researchers in the Netherlands have conducted a series of experiments which seem to confirm the core hypothesis that visible signs of low-level disorder increase the likelihood that people will violate behavioral norms. The experiments showed that disorder not only increased the possibility that individuals would engage in mildly anti-social behavior (like littering), but also more serious criminal behavior. As described by the Economist:

The most dramatic result . . . was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Even if the post box had no graffiti on it, but the area around it was littered with paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and empty cans, 25% still took the envelope.

My own reaction to these experiments is mixed. On one hand, of course, it is satisfying to have empirical data that tends to confirm a hypothesis that has helped shape policing over the course of the last 25 years. But other empirical work tends to disprove the broken windows theory, most notably an analysis of crime data in New York City over a ten-year period, as well as results from the Moving to Opportunity experiment, in which individuals from areas with high levels of social disorder moved to more advantaged and orderly communities.

A quick survey of the blogosphere suggests that the headline for the Netherlands experiment is “Broken Windows Works!” or some similar variant. A survey of all the empirical evidence, however, suggests that the story is not nearly that tidy. Moreover, as I’ve previously written on this site, many unanswered questions remain, such as whether constraining disorder is the best use of limited police resources, or how the police choose their targets in a public order campaign, or whether addressing disorder can ever mean more than moving it to a less visible place.

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Volume Liver Transplants

Of all the issues raised by the Wall Street Journal’s recent reporting on volume liver transplants, those concerning property law may be the least salient. But the questionable behavior of Amadeo Marcus, the former director of clinical transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), reminded me of the infamous Moore v. Regents of the University of California. In Moore, the California Supreme Court decided an individual has no property right in his excised cells. Moore helps introduce students to questions of commodification and inevitably leads to discussions about whether people should be allowed to sell organs and other bodily materials. Regardless of their position on this question, students sometime need to be reminded about the extent to which such bodily materials have already been commodified. The next time I teach Moore, I’m going to use recent events at UPMC to amplify this point:

The transplant program is a source of both profits and prestige that UPMC leverages to attract star doctors and build its other businesses, which include a health-insurance arm. Hospitals charge $400,000 to $500,000 for a liver transplant. UPMC’s transplant program produced $130 million of revenue in its latest fiscal year . . . .

Liver-transplant volume in Dr. Marcos’s first full year [at UPMC] jumped to more than double the volume in the year before he came, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. But the way he boosted it raised questions for some colleagues.

A shortage of transplantable organs from cadavers is a perennial constraint on the number of liver transplants. Dr. Marcos overcame this in part by using organs from so-called expanded-criteria donors — deceased people who had been older or sicker than preferred liver donors. . . . Dr. Marcos put some of these organs into patients who were in the early stages of liver disease. . . . These were patients, [some experts say], who sometimes didn’t need a transplant. . . .

Besides using more expanded-criteria livers, Dr. Marcos sharply increased the number of transplants from living donors. In these, part of the liver of a healthy person is cut off and grafted into a sick patient. If all goes well, both pieces eventually grow to normal size. The procedure is controversial because it could be risky for the otherwise healthy donor.

UPMC did 150 such surgeries while Dr. Marcos was there, according to UNOS. No donors died. However, in 69% of the cases, the recipient had [various medical indicators suggesting] that UPMC was putting some living donors at risk to do transplants on patients in which the risks of the operation may have outweighed the benefits.

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Introducing Mark Edwards

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I’m pleased to welcome Mark Edwards, who will be a guest during the month of November. Mark has been an associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law since 2007. Prior to that, he was a clinical faculty member and fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Mark also practiced law for five years and clerked for Judge Barbara Crabb in the Western District of Wisconsin.

Mark’s scholarship approaches law as a social practice, with a particular focus on the relationship between law and social relations. An example of his approach is Law and the Parameters of Acceptable Deviance, which was published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology . You can read it here.

Welcome, Mark!

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Decreased Giving at Colleges and Universities

Last week I wrote about how the ongoing financial crisis makes it unlikely that Congress will impose mandatory spending requirements on universities and colleges, at least for now. As a political matter, the passage of mandatory spending requirements depends in part on how tuition has increased even as endowments have ballooned. This year, however, endowments are not going to earn impressive returns.

Endowment growth also depends on new gifts, so educational institutions can compensate for decreased yield with aggressive fund-raising. But yesterday’s New York Times contains evidence that gifts are already drying up, as the “financial straits of big boosters hit athletic departments.” I won’t lose any sleep over a university’s inability to “remake its facilities into a Shangri-La for . . . sports, complete with an indoor practice center and new facilities for baseball, equestrian, soccer, tennis, and track and field.” But this is an initial sign of the fund-raising difficulties that universities will face in the upcoming months. With lower (negative?) returns and decreased giving, endowment growth will be down, perhaps dramatically so. This makes the case for mandatory spending requirements all the more difficult.

Of course, it is also true that the financial downturn and the tightening of credit markets will increase the burden of paying for a college education. Therefore Congressional calls to increase voluntary spending are likely to continue, particularly for the nation’s wealthiest colleges and universities.

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Why Would An Admitted Freshman Retake the SAT?

In keeping with the U.S. News topic that Geoffrey Rapp is blogging about, here’s a reminder that just when you think you’ve seen every imaginable ploy for gaming the rankings, something new comes along. As reported by the New York Times:

Baylor University in Waco, Tex., which has a goal of rising to the first tier of national college rankings, last June offered its admitted freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points.

Of this year’s freshman class of more than 3,000, 861 students received the bookstore credit and 150 students qualified for the $1,000-a-year merit aid, said John Barry, the university’s vice president for communications and marketing. . . .

The offer, which was reported last week by the university’s student newspaper, The Lariat, raised Baylor’s average SAT score for incoming freshmen to 1210, from about 1200, Mr. Barry said. That score is one of the factors in the rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report.

I bet that even as I type this last sentence, someone out there is already trying to figure out whether a law school could use a similar strategy to raise its LSAT scores.