It Matters What Scholars Think (and Why They Think It)

By Aidan Donovan

November 17, 2020

Washington Post and Foreign Policy have published findings from TRIP surveys about presidential elections, impeachment, and American foreign policy strategy. Consensus support for a particular position among international relations (IR) scholars might be a strong rationale for policy action. We know that policymakers demand and utilize academic work under certain conditions. On the supply side, there is a push within the academy to increase the rewards for producing policy-relevant research. It matters what scholars think about international issues. The challenge is that the reasoning behind consensus positions within the academy is often masked by political differences and the format of traditional survey research.

Scholarly research is useful to policymakers when the underlying logic is coherent and when policy prescriptions are clear. Policy relevance is stronger when many scholars have similar scholarly suggestions. In areas where there is a consensus among scholars, we should attempt to understand the underlying reason(s) for scholarly agreement. Understanding the logic of their positions, and whether this is consistent among scholars, is just as important as the conclusion.

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For example, 83 percent of scholars opposed President Trump’s decision to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia. Some scholars likely believe that the treaty is an effective security tool, while others may view the treaty as ineffective (given alleged non-compliance) but view the departure as an unnecessary provocation.  Scholars’ consensus opposition is clear, but the survey does not provide information on how each of the scholars reached this conclusion. Policymakers can also learn from scholars on topics where there is not a consensus, such as the effectiveness of economic sanctions. It would be worthwhile to know if scholars consider the same or different factors in evaluating the effectiveness of economic sanctions.

It is hard to learn from IR scholars without understanding why they think the way they do.

Learning from scholars can be challenging because scholars are overwhelmingly liberal, compared to a more divided electorate and policy community. In our 2017 Snap Poll, only 11 percent of scholars identified as conservative on economic or social issues. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of international relations scholars self-identify as both economically and socially liberal. Survey questions and interpretations should reflect the complex relationship between ideology and expertise.

Scholarly credibility to speak on important issues needs to be accompanied by a coherent rationale for their consensus. On many issues, it is hard to know if the IR consensus is rooted in expert evaluation or political preferences. We asked scholars in 2017 whether President Trump’s unpredictable behavior has been an effective negotiation tactic, as he suggested in the campaign. Just 8 percent of liberal scholars say this has been effective, yet 45 percent of conservative scholars say it has been an effective negotiation tactic. There is both some theoretical support for projecting unpredictability or irrationality and a lot of skepticism from prominent scholars such as Stephen Walt. However, we are unable to determine whether theory and evidence, or politics, explains conservative scholars’ more favorable perspective on President Trump’s international negotiations.

“As a bargaining technique, the madman theory has a certain logical coherence to it … but the key lesson is that there is little or no evidence that the madman theory of diplomacy actually works” — Stephen Walt

The effect of politics on scholarly attitudes is exemplified by questions on the U.S. foreign aid budget. We asked in Snap Poll X (2017) whether the U.S. is spending too little, too much, or the right amount on foreign aid. The question did not mention any politicians by name, so respondents are more likely to report their genuine views on U.S. foreign aid. IR scholars overwhelmingly support greater spending on Aid. Overall, 82 percent of scholars thought the U.S. was spending too little and just 4 percent thought the U.S. was spending too much. Just 2 percent of liberal scholars and 16 percent of conservative scholars thought the U.S. should spend less on foreign aid. IR scholars supported increasing aid and opposed reducing aid regardless of political ideology. 

Do you think the U.S. is now spending too little, about the right amount, or too much on foreign aid? (October/November 2017)

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When we ask scholars to evaluate Trump’s performance specifically, just 3 percent of IR scholars report that he has done as well or better than Obama on “development and foreign aid” even though the U.S. aid budget as a whole has been consistent across administrations. The president’s rhetoric on aid and development may be somewhat significant in aid effectiveness, but the single biggest difference is that we are now asking about Trump (an especially unpopular figure among scholars) specifically. The average aid budget during Obama’s second term was $49.5 billion. The average aid budget from Trump’s first two years in office was just three percent lower at $48 billion. Aggregate aid has essentially been steady despite President Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. We asked in September 2020 whether Trump has done as well as or better than Obama on a list of issues, including “development and foreign aid.” Just three percent of scholars reported that Trump has even been equally as strong as Obama on this issue. Not a single self-reported Democrat answered affirmatively, and just 6 percent of Independents and 16 percent of Republicans did as well. A partisan-proof result is expected since Republican scholars are nearly evenly split between supporting Biden and Trump in the upcoming general election. The most likely explanation for these diverging results is that scholars considered their negative opinion of President Trump in evaluating his performance on foreign aid. If we asked the general 2017 question on the US foreign aid budget, we would likely find that substantive attitudes on aid have not changed much in three years.

Can we encourage evidence-driven guidance from scholars? 

Providing value-neutral questions and response options can encourage more substantive, and less political responses. In Snap Poll XI (2018), we asked scholars if the powers of the U.S. president have increased under President Trump, compared to the three previous presidents. This is potentially value neutral because a strong executive is not necessarily good, bad, liberal, or conservative. Liberal scholars were just slightly more likely than conservative scholars to answer that the president’s powers had increased under President Trump. Among conservative scholars, 5 percent say presidential power increased a lot and 15 percent say it increased somewhat. Among liberal scholars, 7 percent say presidential power increased a lot and 26 percent say it increased somewhat. 

Have the powers of the U.S. president under President Trump increased a lot / somewhatremained the same, or decreased a lot / somewhat compared to the previous three administrations?

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The poll also asked scholars if they thought President Trump overstepped the foreign policy powers of the Office of the President. While liberal scholars were only slightly more likely than conservative scholars to say that President Trump increased the power of the president, liberal scholars were overwhelmingly more likely to say that he overstepped his foreign policy powers. Just 13 percent of conservative scholars said President Trump overstepped his foreign policy powers, compared to 47 percent of liberal scholars. Scholars seem to be capable of putting aside their political values at times, but the question asked makes their political perspective more or less relevant to their responses. 

It may be reasonable to assume that substantive knowledge and experience does, on average, make scholars more liberal. However, liberal substantially outnumber conservatives in a variety of fields. At least 80 percent of academics in english, history, and psychology are liberal, suggesting that self-selection may explain IR scholars’ liberalism as much as their subject-matter expertise. Conservative scholars will therefore be in the minority among academics on most political topics. Scholars as a whole could benefit from investigating whether observed divides are substantive or political when conservative scholars are in clear disagreement with the rest of the IR academy.

TRIP surveys of scholars, journalists, and think-tankers strive to gather expert opinions rather than politically-driven responses. Therefore, our survey questions must be designed in a way that intentionally attacks the issue of ambiguity in survey interpretation. Questions must be carefully worded to cue political beliefs and reactions only when intended. In our most recent snap poll, we asked scholars the following question: “Regardless of the substance of their foreign policy agendas, how effectively you believe each candidate would be in achieving his respective foreign policy goals over the next four years.” The phrase “regardless of the substance of their foreign policy agendas” reminds respondents to take each candidate’s goals as a given, which should produce more substantive responses regarding the candidate’s foreign policy capabilities. 

Additionally, multiple-choice questions could be supplemented with open-ended questions requiring explanations allowing researchers to understand the underlying reasoning to their scholarly advice. Scholars are roughly split between thinking the threat of economic sanctions would decrease or have no effect on the probability of election interference from other countries. We know that scholars are also split on the effectiveness of sanctions overall. Asking for an explanation could elucidate if those the overall wariness toward sanctions, or something specific to election interference, is driving skepticism of the efficacy of using sanctions to discourage election interference. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business Economic Experts Panel is a useful guide. The survey provides on-the-record respondents the opportunity to explain their answers and identify their confidence level and the school tracks responses over time to allow for track-record evaluation. This methodology incentivizes substantive and thoughtful response and discourages and identifies unsound beliefs. 

Expert surveys are a useful way to synthesize the research and impact within peer-review academic literature and to highlight analysis that may be useful to policymakers and voters. The success of survey responses in fulfilling this role is directly related to the proportion of each response that is a product of subject matter expertise and experience (instead of personal beliefs and ideology). TRIP surveys recognize the importance of careful wording and interpretation and the majority of IR scholars undoubtedly seek to provide impartial responses. Nonetheless, the academy could benefit from surveys that provide stronger incentives for careful reflection and substantive response. Policymakers need to be careful in using the results of expert surveys as justification for action in cases where the underlying logic is not clear. If scholars come to similar conclusions based on different reasoning, policymakers need to understand the differences and how each might apply to the present (real-world) situation. Surveys like TRIP can encourage policy relevance in the academy by incentivizing substantive and sufficiently-detailed responses that are directly useful to policymakers and politically-active citizens. 

Aidan Donovan is a senior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in Economics and Government. He has worked as a Research Assistant for TRIP since February of 2019. His interests include law and economic policy, and he is particularly interested in understanding how scholars think and communicate with policymakers and the public.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire”… But We’re Not Putting It Out, Either: The COVID-19 Pandemic Seven Months On

by Mary Trimble

October 29, 2020

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If you have whiplash from this week’s, this month’s, or even this year’s news cycle, you’re far from alone. The sheer volume of events, that in any other year would dominate cable news for weeks at a time, is enough to leave one’s head spinning and inspire a rather morbid verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“Ayatollah’s in Iran, do we have a COVID plan?”). 

Here’s a quick recap of what has happened in 2020 so far: the assassination of an Iranian general and its fallout (remember that?), an impeachment (almost forgot to include that one), a hotly contested election, a pandemic (which created an economic recession), protests for racial justice, the passing of a legendary supreme court justice, a subsequent nomination fight, and the President of the United States being diagnosed with a potentially fatal respiratory disease (see “pandemic,” above) which, by the way, could have triggered a constitutional crisis. It seems like the only constant in this year— and the thing that has affected all of us, somehow (even scholars in the Ivory Tower)— has been the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Naturally, TRIP asked international relations (IR) scholars to try to untangle the Gordian Knot that is the state of 2020. In the fourteenth edition of TRIP’s Snap Polls of IR faculty, 706 IR scholars responded to questions about the upcoming election, foreign policy, and, of course, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Because covering all of their responses would probably require several thousand words and a few degrees that I don’t have yet, we’ll deal here only with scholars’ responses on the pandemic (the people with the degrees have covered the rest of it in this article in Foreign Policy). In Snap Poll XIII, in May 2020, scholars weighed in for the first time on COVID-19 and the US and international response (see the full results here, my take here, and RA Maggie Manson’s analysis of protests in the COVID-19 era using Snap Poll XIII data here). 

It goes without saying that much has changed in our understanding of COVID-19 and governments’ containment and mitigation policies since May. Europe and the United States have, for the most part, emerged from a “strict lockdown,” with limited success (and some are locking down once again in the face of a significant second wave). Scientists are scrambling to develop a vaccine, but with flu season approaching and COVID-19 cases rising to record-breaking levels around the world, it doesn’t seem like 2020 is going to end much better than how it started (and it started with the threat of WWIII). 

The last six months seem to have been enough to convince most scholars of the serious implications of a pandemic. While in 2017, the overwhelming majority of IR faculty did not believe that infectious diseases were currently a major concern or would become one in the next ten years, this time around, 75% of scholars believed that “the spread of infectious disease poses a major threat to the United States.” (For what it’s worth, this survey was in the field prior to news of the President’s COVID-19 diagnosis.) 

To that end, scholars also chimed in on how they felt governments and institutions had managed that threat. Whereas in May, 63% approved of the World Health Organization’s handling of the pandemic, in Snap Poll XIV, only 55% responded that the response had been at least “somewhat good,” with 32% saying their response had been “somewhat bad.” Perhaps this dip is simply a function of there still being a pandemic all these months later, or perhaps President Trump’s steady drumbeat of negative rhetoric on WHO, including withdrawing US funding from the organization, has penetrated the zeitgeist. 

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Scholars had a resoundingly dismal review of the US response. Nearly 87% of respondents believed that the US had done a “very bad job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.” They were much more bullish, however, about the EU’s handling of the outbreak, with roughly 72% saying that the EU had done a “somewhat good” or “very good” job managing the virus. 

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It’s clear that the Trump Administration has been dismissive of the virus, downplaying the health threats associated with the disease, discouraging public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing (including and especially at the rallies and events the President has held throughout the pandemic across the country and at the White House), and opposing lockdowns and school closures. In contrast, EU officials have consistently acknowledged the threat of the virus, even when there wasn’t a clear, pan-European consensus about how to handle it.

However, it’s also true that the EU didn’t have immediate (nor consistent) success at handling the virus, by their own admission. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, scolded member states on March 26, 2020, for their failure to coordinate their responses. “And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a ‘fair weather Union’, too many initially refused to share their umbrella,” she said, referencing border closures throughout the Schengen Area and widespread stockpiling of medical supplies by national governments in the early days of the outbreak that disadvantaged other members, including Italy, which was the first European country to see a severe outbreak. Let’s not forget, too, the “corona bonds” crisis that once again pitted Northern and Southern European states against each other. 

Yet, in midsummer, when Europe seemed to be past the worst of the virus, the US was seeing its highest case numbers so far. It seemed clear that, at least by the numbers, the EU had gotten something right. Today, the picture is hazier. 

As of October 16th, the EU/European Economic Area (which includes the EU-27 and Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland) and the UK reported 198,886 deaths (that’s roughly 40 deaths per 100,000). On the same day, the US reported 217,987 deaths total as a result of the pandemic (around 68 deaths per 100,000). In the last week, both the US and the EU have seen significant spikes in the rolling average of new cases. On October 22, the EU and UK saw a 7-day rolling average of 125,571 new cases (25 new cases per 100,000, roughly four times higher than at the peak of the first wave in the spring), and the US reported a rolling average of 59,699 new cases (roughly 18 per 100,000) just under its existing high watermark.

Newsweek reported last week that certain countries in Europe, including Belgium and Spain, have surpassed the US in the number of deaths per one million people. (Moreover, on October 22nd it was announced that former Belgian PM and current Foreign Minister, Sophie Wilmès, was admitted to the ICU after testing positive for the virus.) These numbers suggest that, while perhaps the EU had things under control during the summer, that is no longer true. 

Let’s unpack this seeming contradiction in scholars’ opinions and the situation on the ground. First, this poll was in the field between Sept. 16 and 24. At this point, both Europe and the US were experiencing an uptick in cases, but it was much more significant in the United States. We’ve already established that things were looking better in Europe over the summer, while stateside it was nothing but bad news. US scholars are probably also over-exposed to US news, so perhaps no or little news from the EU was taken as de facto good news. So, scholars may have answered based on general and lingering impressions from the situation over the summer. If only to have a reason to use the word “zeitgeist” again, it’s worth reiterating that President Trump’s rhetoric, which has been so consistently at odds with science and public health recommendations, may have contributed to a panic that made anything look better by comparison, even to highly educated, extremely reasonable IR scholars.

IR scholars got it (mostly) wrong this time, it’s true. In fairness, public health science is not necessarily their area of expertise. More importantly, their miscalculation highlights all that we don’t know about this pandemic— the US and the EU took very different tacks in handling the virus and ended up in roughly the same situation. Here, however, is what we do know: masks work, social distancing works, hand washing works. Let’s do those things. 

The election is rapidly approaching, and scholars predict that a Biden administration would be vastly different to a second Trump administration in its policy on global public health, among other foreign policy concerns (they predict, too, that Biden would be more effective at achieving those goals). Perhaps that means more collaboration with the EU and others for the development of a vaccine, data sharing, or something else. Beyond that, though, it’s evident that we are far from free of this pandemic, here or across the pond. What’s worse: perhaps we need to evaluate and adjust our and scholars’ standards for what constitutes “success” and “failure” in the context of a pandemic before we have any hope of putting out this fire. 

Mary Trimble is a sophomore at the College hoping to double major in European Studies and French and Francophone Studies. Mary began work at TRIP in February 2020. She is also an associate news editor for The Flat Hat student newspaper and a Tribe Ambassador with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Her interests include US-EU relations, national identity, and the rise of populism and far-right nationalism in the US and abroad.

MENA Integration: Legacies & Suggestions

by Maggie Manson

September 23rd, 2020

In the TRIP 2017 Faculty Survey, scholars in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon were asked “What are the three most important foreign policy problems facing [Respondent Country] today?” A significant issue that was present in each country’s top three response options was the issue of regional disintegration, with 100% of scholars noting this issue in Egypt, 60% in Jordan, and 25% in Lebanon. Regional disintegration refers to a lack of cohesion or shared identity between states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Regional integration has been very important in the ancient and modern political history of the MENA, and the region’s current lack thereof is clearly an issue of great importance to scholars in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.  To understand the extent and importance of this disintegration, I’ll analyze past attempts at regional cohesion throughout  MENA, possible reasons for current disintegration, and offer my thoughts on what a potential regional conglomerate could look like in the future. 

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Egypt 2017 Faculty Survey Responses
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Lebanon 2017 Faculty Survey Responses
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Jordan 2017 Faculty Survey Responses

Historic integration of the region stems from the first Islamic state: the Rashidun Caliphate, which ruled the region from 632, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, to 661 CE. The three other most prominent Caliphates include the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman Caliphates, with the Ottoman being the last, collapsing in 1923 under the pressure of Western interference post-world war one. The roots of modern regional integration in the MENA begin in 1928 with the founding of the Islamist group: the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Egyptian teacher Hassan al-Banna. The organization rejected western influence and imperialism, seeking the rise of a free Islamic state as the solution to regional instability. However, with the rise of the Free Officers Movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was coopted by the movement as they provided support for the 1952 coup d’etat but then were forcibly secularized once Free Officer Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power. Nasser’s political movement of Pan-Arabism, which integrated concepts of Arab nationalism and socialism, advocated for unity between Arab states against western influences. While the movement originated from the Syrian Ba’ath Party, it was popularized by Nasser who made Pan-Arabism policy in Egypt and helped to spread the movement throughout the region through diplomatic partnerships and alliances with other MENA countries. With the fall of Nasser in 1970, the subsequent end of Pan Arabism, and extensive foreign intervention in the region, a fractured MENA has emerged and scholars in three of these countries clearly see this as a significant foreign policy issue.

Previous bodies that have strived to create unity between Arab or MENA states include but are not limited to the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Maghreb Arab Union,  the Pan-Arab Free Trade Agreement, and the Agadir Agreement. The Arab League¹ was founded in 1945 with the primary goal to strengthen relationships and coordinate policies between the MENA countries. The goals of this body have not been achieved due to two major roadblocks; arguments over leadership, and conflicts between member countries due to the large scale of the group. The Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC)², a smaller more homogenous group,  was founded in 1981 as a political and economic alliance between Gulf states. The GCC can be seen as one of the most successful regional bodies in the MENA, due in part to the close geographic proximity, similar governments, and similar socioeconomic situations of member states. The Maghreb Arab Union³, founded in 1989, sought to achieve policy coordination, a shared identity, and free movement of people, goods, and services between member states. It was ultimately ineffective in achieving these goals due to Morocco-Algeria tensions, Libya-Mauritania tensions,  and the continuing issue of Western Sahara sovereignty. The Pan-Arab Free Trade Agreement, founded in 1997, aimed to decrease barriers to trade between countries to improve their economies, but despite increasing inter-regional trade, it ultimately had little impact on each of the countries’ individual economies. The Agadir Agreement founded in 2004 acted as a free trade agreement with the main goals included establishing free trade between member states and eventually creating a Mediterranean-European Free Trade Area by cooperating with the EU. These goals have not been achieved due to member state conflicts and blockades to a free trade area by the US. 

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Regional Membership of Surveyed Countries

In recent years any semblance of regional integration can be seen to be split down the middle with many states in the MENA taking sides in the Iran v. Saudi proxy conflict, that has primarily played out in the Yemeni civil war. To provide context for this regional rivalry, Iran (a majority Shia Islam country) and Saudi Arabia (a majority Sunni Islam country) have an ongoing sectarian-based conflict that has yet to devolve into all-out warfare directly against each other but has resulted in neighboring countries picking sides and regional meddling in order to exert influence. The Arab Spring uprisings in a few countries have exerted significant influence over this proxy conflict, as they have often acted as battlegrounds for this conflict to play out. In Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia have aided and armed opposing sides of each uprising, arguably contributing to the escalation from protest movements to full-blown civil wars in some cases. This rivalry is also another major barrier to full regional integration that will need to be overcome to foster future collaboration. 

The future of MENA regional integration may look grim, but there remains great potential for strong economic regional cooperation. A key economic suggestion for overcoming historical obstacles to large-scale collaboration would be for Arab countries to work on coordinating a cohesive trade policy for intraregional and interregional trade. Intraregional trade policy should focus on essentially eliminating all tariffs, quotas, and non-tariff barriers to trade between these countries, while still fostering some protection of vulnerable industries within the region from competition with more developed countries on global markets. Any Arab trade conglomerate would hopefully not advocate solely for protectionism which would be to their detriment, but instead, advocate for strategic protectionism that still allows consumers access to global markets, but still allows Arab industries to compete (think infant industry protection- A. Hamilton). Additionally, Arab states should strive to form a strong voting/negotiating coalition among them for World Trade Organization rounds/ ministerial conferences in order to approach these meetings with common regional stances, allowing them to actually pass rules/treaties that favor Less Developed Countries/benefit the region. Solutions across economic dimensions do not necessarily solve the barrier to integration that is the Saudi/Iranian rivalry, based on religious/cultural divides. However,  I believe that focusing on full economic integration first would help eliminate barriers to further integration such as the aforementioned conflict and commitment problems, as well as facilitate future collaboration through issue-linking and regulating repeating interactions between states. There is still much work to be done in order for these states to actualize integration, but the legacies of the Caliphate, Pan-Arabism, and contemporary economic collaboration, regional integration is both possible and realistic in the Middle East and North Africa.

¹Member countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen

²Member countries include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

³Member countries include Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia

Member countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen

Member countries include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia

Maggie Manson is a junior at William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies.  She began working at TRIP in September 2019. Her research interests include Border Disputes, Colonialism, Global Development, International Security, Middle Eastern Politics, Nuclear Politics, and Political Islam. On campus Maggie is Assistant Chair of Administration for the Undergraduate Honor Council, a research assistant for Professor Grewal’s Armed Responses to Mobilization Or Revolution (ARMOR) project, and Political Correspondent for the Flat Hat student newspaper.