This is a very tough post to write, because I have to confront a collision of legitimate values I hold strongly. I just received an invitation to sign the petition here. I am not going to sign, even though I am the world’s biggest fan of learning languages. I regret that among the six with which I have some competence, none is really foreign (to me, that is, non-Indo-European). I think real command of at least one foreign language, meaning conversational comfort, writing a business letter, and reading a novel, not passing a written exam, should be a graduation requirement at any college that respects the idea of a liberal education. Requirement, period. I deplore the feeble command my students have of languages they have studied for two and three semesters in courses. And by the way, every new language is easier than the one before. Continue Reading…
Those of us whose ceilings are not silicates mostly know that raucous protestors this past Thursday–some, though probably not all, students—prevented Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, and confronted him in ways that amounted to assault (injuring a professor who was with him) when he tried to leave.
There’s no lack of commentary on this; I have little to add to its substance. Like many, I think that judging Murray a poor scholar and a vicious racist (not far from my own opinion) does not constitute even a weak case for shouting him down or trying to beat him up. But less attention has been paid to how we talk about invited speakers in the first place.
Consider how Time described a letter from alumni, put out before the event, deploring the Murray invitation
In a letter published Wednesday, more than 450 Middlebury graduates called the college’s decision to host Murray ‘unacceptable and unethical.’
The college’s decision to host Murray. I understand how a tweeter or journalist trying to save words would say for short that Middlebury “hosted” Murray. (Later in the piece, Time similarly paraphrases Middlebury’s spokesperson as defending “the decision to host Murray”). But that locution is completely misleading and extremely pernicious.
Colleges and universities officially host commencement speakers and a handful of other speakers (e.g. when a speaker series is called a “university lecture” or is part of a “Presidential lecture series”). But otherwise, universities don’t host speakers at all. The hosts are, on the contrary, the independent entities that essentially do the actual educating at universities and to which universities supply, in effect, a common bureaucracy, some imperfect quality control, and a crucial brand. Those entities include academic departments; university- or grant-supported centers and academic programs; and—as in this case—student groups. Only such units, and not “the university,” should be held responsible for their diverse and independent judgments regarding whom they decide to invite. Continue Reading…
Over at The Incidental Economist, I have a post on “sweet spots” in public policy. When you understand sweet spots, you will know that many absolute policy positions many people adopt (e.g., More spending on schools will help children learn more, cutting healthcare spending doesn’t harm health, more cops reduce crime, increased incarceration doesn’t reduce crime etc.) are all, for lack of a better word, wrong. The same policy can be effective, ineffective or counter-productive depending on whether the current intensity at which it is applied is already in the “sweet spot” or not.
If you want to review examples of this phenomenon from education, crime, health and labor policy, please see the TIE piece. What I am writing about here is why the sweet spot reality is so underappreciated when people argue sincerely about public policy (I emphasize sincerely because of course some people know about sweet spots and ignore them anyway to further their own agenda, but here I am talking about people who truly believe what they are saying).
Our cognitive system has frailties. Kahnemann and Tversky showed how vivid, easily-recalled examples seem more representative than they are. Someone may “know” that more education spending always helps kids because they had a highly memorable experience of seeing a crumbling, underfunded school being turned around by additional investment. In contrast, a different person may be aware of a vivid example of where massive spending (e.g., Mark Zuckerburg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark’s school system) didn’t help kids learn at all. By definition, single examples are going to be sampled from a range of possibilities that may or may not be in the sweet spot for a given policy, and because we are prone to misjudge such easily recalled instances as representative, we are often insensitive to counter examples that fall outside the range whence our example comes.
With our intercollegiate athletics department’s typical management finesse, we extended our football coach’s contract about a year ago…and fired him this week. He walks away with about $6m in severance, but that’s OK because we’re just finishing up the zillion-dollar severance payments for the previous coach, and the AD who is now at Penn State, so there’s lots of money just lying around that would otherwise be wasted on fixing classrooms, or scholarships for non-athlete students who just play sports for fun and don’t put any eyeballs on TV commercials. The intercollegiate athletics program at Cal costs about $30m a year (net), a sixth of a $180m campus deficit; a task force of alums, faculty, and staff is working on proposals to fix this.
The athletic director shares a set of insights that deserve attention, and translation:
We are continuously evaluating our program and looking for ways to make it better – whether that’s through additional academic support, recruiting, facilities, staffing, culture, leadership or anything else that can help our football program succeed.  Primarily, we want what’s best for our student-athletes  and have a head coach in place who is fully committed to our program and our university .
….Our objective is long-term financial sustainability for our department. In order to do this, we understand that investing in football is critical . We believe that this change will reinvigorate the program, stimulate lagging ticket sales and renewals, and energize our donor base. 
….We want to win championships. The success of our football program is vital to both our department and our university community , and its influence can be felt well beyond Berkeley.
1: Almost everything in this list costs money, and we intend to keep spending it no matter what that task force says, or what weird mission the outgoing or incoming chancellor thinks a university has. It’s our tradition of a decade here at Cal to keep throwing money at a mediocre football program, and we take our traditions seriously. Sooner or later, maybe as little as $6m later, inshallah, the larger forces of big-time college sports will abate, the bleeding will stop, and we will reach some sort of equilibrium, right?
2: To be clear; we retain the services of the conditioning coach who killed one football player, sent another to the hospital, and cost us $5m in a liability settlement. We certainly aren’t going to rein in practice times so they can sit around in classrooms or labs, or do a bunch of wussy problem sets. “What’s best for our student-athletes” is not what people outside the cult might think the phrase means.
3: This is just sports PR blather, of course, the language of press conferences and after-game interviews; $3m college coaches are fully committed to their careers and if anything, expect their employers to be committed to them with limitless staff, facilities, money, and perks. Pete Carroll’s effortless leap to the Seahawks from the shambles he left at USC is instructive.
4: Chronicle reporting is occasionally sloppy, and in this case we are not informed whether Williams clicked his heels together three times and closed his eyes as he said this last. Nor whether the “we” actually includes any living person on earth with a three-digit IQ.
5: This combines a statement of fact with a religious utterance based on faith. No, it’s not vital to the community, not even close, though its ruinous cost certainly inflicts a lot pain on the rest of us. My department just completed a faculty search and not one of the candidates asked about the prospects of the football team or even knew our record. We lost a prof to Stanford a few years ago, and in all our discussions of his move he never once brought up Stanford/Cal football. I have talked to dozens of undergraduates and grad students over the years and not found one who came to Cal because our football (or men’s basketball) teams were better than those at other schools to which they were applying. I have been here semester after semester, talking to colleagues in social science, humanities, and hard science across that university community, and the salience of football in our socialization, community spirit, and plain water-cooler schmoose is similar to the salience of pro wrestling. Big-time sports may be ‘vital’ for Clemson or Florida State, but not for us.
What can we expect in the near future? The new coach will need to do some really desperate recruiting of defense players at the least, and develop a quarterback (unless he decides to bring in a graduate transfer ringer as Dykes did this year). The program will be even less attractive to high school stars, however, so I have probability of about 0.3 that we will be reading about recruiting violations of the type fictionalized in the memorable movie Blue Chips, or recruiting and oversight failures of the type that recently humiliated Baylor. Meanwhile, ticket sales will keep going down, the athletics deficit will grow, and the new chancellor will find his feet stuck in the big muddy from his first day.
On a brisk autumn evening, I was about to cross Campus Drive when I noticed an acquaintance waiting for the shuttle. He was a retired Eastern European diplomat and consequently had something of an old world feel about him. After we shook hands and started chatting about politics, another acquaintance happened by. She was a graduate student versed in women’s studies.
After I had introduced them, the diplomat whipped off his glove and extended a hand for her to shake. He had kept his glove on while shaking my hand, and the female graduate student noticed the difference.
The women recoiled from the gendered micro-aggression and lambasted the diplomat: “Do you think women are too frail to touch a gloved hand or is this some kind of creepy come on?!!”.
The diplomat’s face registered shock and he began stammering “I didn’t…I don’t understand..”
The student continued “Well you should understand and it’s not my job to educate you. I don’t have to put up with your patriarchal bullshit!”.
Red-faced and near tears, this gentle, cultured man apologized repeatedly to both of us and retreated down the sidewalk, so upset that he forgot his briefcase on the shuttle stop bench as he fled.
Great news: the theologians at Liberty University are about to answer the great question of our time:
what kind of gun would Jesus carry?
The problem up to now has been that theoretical findings, in the ‘queen of sciences’ as in any research, always need empirical, experimental confirmation; now these scholars will be able to go out on the range and do real lab work. I was going to stock up on a variety of pieces, just to be on the safe side, for the looming bad times, but it won’t be long before we can pack certified Christian heat.
As a side benefit, we may also see that wussy “turn the other cheek” stuff replaced by a moral principle real Americans can stand behind, first articulated by Roger Miller in the magisterial Blake Edwards opus Waterhole #3 as the ‘code of the west‘:
do unto others before they can do unto you.
With proper accounting for facilities operation and maintenance, Berkeley’s Division I Intercollegiate Athletics program costs the campus about $30m per year. As the school is facing a very sobering $180m structural deficit, this has finally attracted the serious attention of our administration, and the chancellor has appointed a task force to suggest ways to get it under control. I have been a regular critic of this operation for several years (search “athletics” on this blog for examples) and the task force was gracious enough to ask me for input on their project. Special for Cal faculty: the task force has scheduled a Town Hall listening session Mon., December 5, 2 to 4 PM in Sibley Auditorium.
Here is a compilation of the rather bleak recommendations I provided to the TFIA when I met with them:
This is not the republic of my imagination.
–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)
At least every few months, the Intercollegiate Athletics (IA) enterprise at my school gives us something new to be ashamed of. This fall, it’s the opening of a new aquatic center, for about 120 letter athletes only, that commits a whole catalog of the typical sins of that firm [sic: it has it’s own .com website], and the injuries it inflicts on the university.
To start with, it’s in the wrong place, a large lot on a corner close to downtown that badly needs street activation, across the street from land uses (a track stadium and the existing aquatic center) that also don’t generate any foot traffic. The city fathers are furious that the university used this valuable lot for something that could have gone anywhere. For more on the location mistake, see Sam Davis’ takedown.
It has been touted, at a time when the cost of the IA program is attracting serious criticism, as being completely funded (about $15m) by the generous donors, and here we confront one of the most persistent qualities of IA, which is its insouciant, arrogant, mendacity, especially about money. A building like this needs to be cleaned, heated, repaired and maintained. It is actually rather expensive to keep a great big pool of water warm enough to swim in, outdoors in the climate of the Bay Area, and there are light bulbs to change, etc. A rule of thumb some institutions use for planning this is that maintaining a building requires an endowment approximately equal to the cost of the building itself. At 5% return on such an endowment, the new pool will cost the campus about $750K per year to keep the lights on and the doors open, or about four full professors. Those light bulbs and gas bills will be paid for with real money. You might think IA would pay for this, but that operation is already costing us about $30m a year in net subsidy, so even the part they might pay for directly just comes right back to the campus.
Completely funded by the donors? Let’s look at this again:
Donors gift (thank you) $7.5m
State and federal funds* 7.5m
Campus gift of land (10m)
Operation and maintenance (15m)
Total net ( $10m)
So “completely funded” actually means “paid less than a fifth of the cost, reached into our pocket and the taxpayers’ for about $17.5 million, and put a $750k/year tapeworm in our lunch.” Talk about leverage! Don’t you wish you could muscle your public agencies to house your hobbies at better than 5:1?
Just to add insult to injury, IA is going to give about a third of their exclusive time at our existing pool back to the other 40,000 citizens of the university for recreational use and physical education.
*the gift is a charitable deduction against state and federal income, and the donors are certainly in top brackets.
My graduate school at UC Berkeley has raised some funds and we are embarking on a new building. This morning a group of staff and I met to kick off the programming process, the critical stage in which what we want to do in our new space, and how we want to do it, gets translated into something we can give an architect to start with. Inevitably, this needs to specify named functional spaces with sizes along with narrative material describing how we want to do our work.
There is an office high up in our organization chart called “Space Management and Capital Programs”. As an architect who has been at the intersection of building users and designers more than once, I would welcome guidance from such a unit such as “How to decide whether you want cubicles plus a lot of small conference rooms, or private offices” or “New options for classroom design: thinking outside the lecture hall box.” No such luck; instead we were provided this remarkable document, new since our last building project more than a decade ago (that has been widely admired as a big success). Apparently the campus administration intends it to be regulatory, not advisory. Not surprisingly, no-one was willing to put his or her name on such an ill-informed, incompetent exercise of mindless bureaucratic pound-foolishness.
The authors obviously hail from a ruthlessly hierarchical private sector culture, where the size of one’s workspace must precisely indicate one’s place in a pecking order. One would think the right question would be “how much value would an additional square foot of space for someone doing job X add to the organization”, but one would be wrong. Professors are all alike (not to be confused with adjuncts and lecturers, who do more teaching and actually meet with more students in office hours), they all do the same thing, and what bricks and mortar are for is to indicate precisely how much better and more important they are (50%) than than the staffer who manages their research funds or gets students enrolled in their courses.
This document describes a world in which all meetings are held in the office of the senior person attending, are populated in proportion to his rank, and in which peers never need to collaborate; don’t even ask about faculty meetings with student groups. That is not the world we live in, Mr. Space Management bean counter.
The rigidity of this absurd effort by central administration to tell us how to do our jobs — jobs that differ widely across individuals, departments, and units — and its insistence that we use the precious resource of physical space to pointlessly signal status are not, however, the worst part of this fiasco. The worst part is its relentless, insistent, ignorance of the real benefit-cost facts that reasonable people would use to make decisions like, duh, “how big should whose office be?” I railed about this a few years ago, and see no reason to revise the analysis. All of these standards are — put aside their mindless rigidity — much too stringent. Building space by these rules sabotages everything we do, from research to student learning. If there is such a thing as government waste, and abuse of personnel and citizens, this is what it looks like.
I haven’t seen the corresponding classroom design standards document, if there is one, but I await its appearance with real alarm.
We are currently under really severe financial pressure owing in part to some reckless, foolhardy, and uninformed investments in intercollegiate athletics facilities and in part to our failure to educate our legislature about how central higher education is to the welfare of the state, now and in its future. One meme constantly rolling through our discussions is that our senior administrators seem to be paid an awful lot, and there seem to be more and more of them. I teach management and I do not tolerate mindless disrespect for public officials and people who make organizations work, but a document like this is a problem for me, because it makes a prima facie case that at least some of those very well-paid senior administrators suck at what they do.
It’s apparently news to at least some of our managers that the purpose of overhead agencies and administrators is not to save money! If that’s what we are about, we can just shut down and save it all. Guess what, folks: your job is to help shop-floor workers create the most possible value for the resources we consume, and when you get this mixed up, you do a lot of damage. And another thing: this is a research university, and our duty to society is not to see what everyone else is doing and copy it (“based on …space guidelines from other higher education institutions and the private sector”), it is to learn from others (of course), and do our own thinking and push boundaries of habit and convention. If you don’t like that duty, please go work somewhere else, and if we’re stuck with you, well, I’ll quote Randy Newman:
“…if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”