Simply Criticize Jill Biden’s Doctorate
And what about that degree?
Given that the centerpiece of a doctorate is the doctoral dissertation or thesis, it is fair to look at Biden’s dissertation/executive
position paper, submitted to the University of Delaware when she was 55 years old, as evidence of her oft-touted “hard work” and “expertise.” Epstein had not commented on the thesis except to say that its title, “Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs
,” was “unpromising.” In fact, the whole more than lives down to the title.
Warning: what follows is probably far more than most readers will want to know about Biden’s thesis.
Perhaps mercifully, Biden’s discussion of student “retention” at Delaware Technical and Community College, where she taught for many years, is short: 79 pages of double-spaced text, not including the bibliography, the surveys (of students, general faculty, counsellors, and English faculty) and sets of interviews. These bring the whole to a mere 130 pages. Such a brief offering would not have been considered anywhere near sufficient for the awarding of a doctorate in any of the academic departments I have worked with and for. (My PhD, though, is in English, not Education).
More seriously, the content is not intellectually rich, well-written, or even coherent (more on this later). Its key idea, successful student “retention,” is never defined. What is a reasonable retention rate, and how do we know? Is it assumed that all students have the ability to succeed at a community college? Is there a necessary trade-off between high standards and high retention? Such questions are not even broached.
Though the dissertation uses a few terms specific to the discipline of Education, such as “institutional alignment” (the process by which students come to feel connected to their school), the argument, if it can even be called one, is shockingly simplistic: students succeed at college when their “needs” (not only academic but also social, psychological, and even physical) are met. No ranking of needs is attempted, and no other educational theories are considered. The conclusion is that Delaware Tech should track each student’s successes or difficulties by surrounding him or her (pronouns were not yet a thing) with a team of supportive instructors, counsellors, mentors, tutors, and advisers, and by providing opportunities to socialize, exercise, interact, and seek advice.
Not all dissertations are truly original (most aren’t), but Biden’s isn’t even adequate. Her literature review notably fails to identify any disagreements or debates in educational theories of retention. In explaining her methodology, Biden shows no critical awareness of the biases or limitations of her approach. At the center of her dissertation is discussion of a survey she gave to evaluate how well students’ needs were currently being met at Delaware Tech. The major assumption of the survey—that first-year students know what their needs are—is never interrogated or even defended.
Many of the questions in the survey were leading ones, and Biden’s interpretation of the answers is not always strictly accurate. Accuracy matters a great deal in a thesis claiming to be grounded in students’ and instructors’ lived perspectives. For example, a question was asked about the benefit to students of having a psychologist on campus: “In your opinion, would a campus psychologist be helpful to students?” (p. 43). The only two possible answers were yes or no. It would take a rather determined, even willfully disagreeable, student to decide that no one—ever
—would find it helpful to consult a psychologist. But it is hard to conclude with Biden that “When pre-tech students were asked if a campus psychologist was needed, 123 out of 159 (77 percent) responded affirmatively.” To say that something offered could be helpful is not the same as saying it is needed. The same applies to the leading question about the utility on campus of a Wellness Center.
Discussion of a separate survey about students’ experiences with advisors was also less than convincing because of interpretative imprecision. Biden made much of the fact that students tended to rank advisors at the low end of the scale when asked about personal interactions, such as whether the advisor “encourages their growth and development as an individual” or was interested in “discussing long range goals” (p. 52). It’s not clear, though, whether students (or the college administration) clearly expected or had any right to expect advisors to demonstrate such personal and holistic interest. In particular, Biden’s conclusion about the students who rated the advisors on the low end of the scale that “These students are the alienated students who could be addressed through early intervention” was not evidently accurate or justified (p. 55).