Theology you can use

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. 

Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics at a[nother] Crossroads

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:

Continue reading “Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics at a[nother] Crossroads”

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

The new Berkeley Aquatic Center

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.




Giving management a bad name

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?”


The Oddity of College Affordability for the Non-Rich


The above chart presents the affordability rankings of national universities based on students receiving federal financial aid (Pro Public Ranking) or based on students with families with incomes under $75,000/year (Washington Monthly Ranking). In both cases the goal of the analysis was to determine what universities are most affordable to non-wealthy families.

If you want to understand how an Ivy League School could rank alongside a place such as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as well as grasp why calls for abolishing tuition are actually calls to massively subsidize wealthy families, check out my latest piece in Washington Post.

The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Paper Chase

As school resumes for many of us this week, I’m re-posting my review of The Paper Chase. It’s a wonderfully poignant reminder of how best—and how best not—to approach one’s studies. Enjoy!


While the opening credits roll, we watch the latest batch of first-year law students find their seats in the classroom at Harvard Law School. Rather than beginning the first lecture with some cliché about how only one person is ‘cut out’ to graduate from law school among the one in your seat and the two on either side of you, Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman, dives straight into Hawkins v. McGee—the infamous ‘hairy hand’ case. In Kingsfield’s contracts classroom, there are no prefatory remarks, no congenial introductions, and no easy questions. There is just the law. Those who can keep up are welcome to James Bridges’ The Paper Chase (1973). Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Paper Chase”


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened last week after a couple of years expanding the building, to what is now the largest modern art museum in North America. SFMOMA has been  decades behind the big money and cultural insecurity that built top-rank arts institutions in Los Angeles, and further behind the establishment and collecting of the major east coast museums. Though its photography collection is grade A, it seemed impossible to stock up with a world-class all-media collection until recently, especially in the face of the current bubble in art prices and one-percenters socking so much of it away for speculation.  Happily, after a complicated dance with the Fisher family to acquire their collection on a 100-yr loan (whatever that really means in practice) and a $600m fundraising binge, it has come out not only with an excellent physical plant, but also a collection that at least covers the last 30 years with international scope and depth.

The question now is, what will they make of all that in terms of human engagement with art?  Getting a lot more on the walls, and more people in the door, is good, but what happens when people are actually standing in front of the objects? My strong view is that there’s a lot more to proper stewardship of the plastic arts patrimony than display by the usual museum conventions, and here the prospects are promising but mixed.  On the up side, the building has all sorts of spaces for events and innovative kinds of presentation. It even has an wonderfully titled Assistant Curator for Public Dialogue, whom I know to be all about exactly that, pushing back boundaries of habit, enlivening art engagement, and making actual artists integral to the enterprise. They were nice enough to put on a preview event for higher education faculty and seem to be genuinely anxious to make the museum a resource, in more ways than one, for us chalk-dusted wretches and our students. And it’s easily accessible by public transportation, right downtown in the middle of a very large daytime population. Continue reading “SFMOMA”

Kids today…

have it too easy, as every generation has realized as it gets near senior status.  I, for example, commuted fourteen miles to high school each way.  Carrying all my content in heavy physical books! And a slide rule with an unlighted display and no keyboard; I had to personally keep track of the decimal point myself!  OK, not in the snow uphill both ways in flipflops, actually on the Woodlawn IRT train, against rush hour, doing my homework. But still…

Well, that whole routine is now retired forever.

students on ladder