Museum in financial crisis, woop woop woop

Robin Pogrebin raises the alarm: the Met is cutting staff and putting off building plans! Look for cutbacks on the art side, “staff reductions [and] reduced programming”, and more effort on the not-much-to-do-with-art side, “a concerted effort to increase revenue in its restaurants and retail operations”. The deficit forcing these painful compromises is really scary, ten million dollars a year and going up.  Why, you only have to look at their financial reports to see flashing lights everywhere; this enormous institution has an asset base of only about $4b and more than half of that is restricted.

Wait a minute; $4b? The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be.  It’s not in their balance sheet, perhaps because if it were, Pogrebin might ask awkward questions about it.  Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever.  And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers, don’t be suckered by hard-luck stories like the one Pogrebin uncritically retails.  Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules.  When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

Why is it so hard to increase learning?

The single most important obstacle to improving student learning in college (I don’t know enough about K-12) is our terrier-like obsession with assessment and our faith in punishment and reward as the only motivators of any use. It’s all summative evaluation, that does nothing for performance because it’s delivered too late and in an affectively toxic context (like the critique you give a student paper after it’s turned in and the semester is over), and mentor/downward- rather than peer/360° framed. What improves quality is (1) formative, and evaluation is the least of it, and (2) collaborative. These are bromides of industrial quality assurance, but in higher ed, for teaching, we are still in the dark ages of the 1970s when GM thought it could make quality cars by doubling inspections and having a larger reject lot at the end of the assembly line where defective cars could be triaged into “scrap, rework, or ship”.

It’s also way over-focused on classroom performance, and what the prof does rather than what her students are doing. Learning happens while reading, writing, doing problem sets, group projects…not even mainly when being lectured at. Still, the most important single thing any dean or chair who cares about student learning can do is simply to set up a schedule with dates and names, whereby every prof visits five class sessions of colleagues every semester.

Here are some propositions implicit in the discussion of this issue, and in our practice, that need a lot more skeptical examination:

(1) Improving performance in an affectively fraught, improvisational, creative enterprise can only be accomplished with objective measurements of performance (thus, student test score mania). This is why we can tell from real data–total sales in money, square feet, or downloads–that Thomas Keane is a better painter than Vermeer, and that Britney Spears is a better singer than Renee Fleming. If you know Mariah Carey has a wider range than Ella Fitzgerald, there’s nothing to be learned by actually listening to them!  We all know that artists actually learn nothing about how to compose or paint in studio courses without written exams, nor just looking at/listening to each others’ work and talking about it. If they would only learn to use colorimeters and frequency analyzers, we could get some good art!

(2) Knowledge is facts, teaching is telling, and learning is recall (David Cohen), hence fact-recall tests are the unique measure of learning.

(3) The key, maybe the only, element of value creation is avoiding mistakes. Wagner’s greatness is owing to his low error rate; he never violated the voice-leading and harmony prescriptions of a standard textbook. This is why the best teachers always grade by taking off points from 100 for mistakes, instead of adding on points for successes.

(4) Teaching effectiveness is a trait, so a dollar spent assessing it (so you can promote good teachers and fire bad ones) is worth a hundred trying vainly to improve it. Also, firing and raises are quick, cheap, and allow us to get back to writing that journal article, something we know we’re good at. Quality assurance for teaching is complicated, time-consuming, subjective, and messy, so offload that stuff to unpaid staff (students via post-course evaluations) and maybe, checklist rubric scoring. Squeaky chalk? -10.

(5)Even if you don’t believe (4), and want to waste everyone’s time making teachers better at what they do,  money and fear are the unique motivators for teachers. Evidence: when have you seen a grade school teacher spend his or her own money for classroom supplies?

(6) Coaching is OK for people of modest intellectual chops performing mindless physical tasks. Like football players, opera singers, and, um, heart surgeons (cf A. Gawande). Collaboration and peer advice is essential for research but for reasons much too arcane and technical to actually explain, useless for teaching. In fact while peer review of research is the gold standard of academic progress, for professors to visit each others’ classrooms or kibitz on curriculum, assignments and homework is not only useless but a moral outrage, a violation of academic freedom. I know, it’s paradoxical: if you’re not a professor, you can’t understand. Deal with it.

(7) Coaching is always downward hierarchically, thus occasional visits by senior faculty to assistant profs’ classes at promotion time. We know from sports that the first requirement of a track coach is that he can outrun all his sprinters. Nadia Boulanger taught many of the most important 20c composers because she was the greatest composer of them all, in fact it’s a constant struggle to get her off symphony programs to make room for a little Aaron Copland.

Sexual harassment at Berkeley, cont.

Berkeley’s miserable sequence of sexual harassment cases continues: this week it embarrassed our men’s basketball team, as we fired an assistant coach for abusing a reporter in an episode that included a kidnapping and threats to damage her career — the day we were accepted into the national tournament with a very flattering #4 seed.  So in a calendar year, we’ve lost a distinguished chemist’s service as Vice Chancellor for Research, a top astronomer has left the campus entirely, a law school dean has resigned, and an otherwise (apparently) effective coach was fired.  At last report, we have 26 more sexual harassment cases in the pipeline.

The president of the university and our chancellor and provost are all over this, of course, and in an email to everyone, the two campus officials “acknowledge that some recent decisions in cases of sexual misconduct have exacerbated these concerns, and…profoundly regret any and all errors of judgment on our part.” The president is setting up a panel to review all sanctions imposed on senior university leaders, presumably to make them tougher in cases like Choudhry’s; the chancellor is standing a similar body up for Berkeley.  Our state-mandated biennial two-hour on-line training, (which didn’t prevent the 30 current cases), is being revised, and spread out to cover all employees, including student employees. As the expanded reach does not include all students, who were the victims of the egregious Marcy case and many others, it is presumably directed at potential perpetrators and not victims;  a big mistake.

Unfortunately, I think the leadership response to date–mainly asserting concern, sitting us down for more training, and cranking up the punishment for perps–is poorly-designed, even though the last part, on the evidence of the Marcy and Choudhry cases, is overdue. Continue reading “Sexual harassment at Berkeley, cont.”

Police effectiveness, police accountability, and the “Ferguson Effect”


Heather Mac Donald objects to what are, in her view, mischaracterizations what she said. See comments.


Kevin Drum does a good job deconstructing Heather Mac Donald’s latest attempt to blame what she calls “anti-police progressives” for this year’s spike in homicide rates in a number of major cities. Inconveniently for Mac Donald, her piece came out just before the New York Times reported that New York City homicides, having been up noticeably early in the year, will come in for the whole year at about last year’s levels, with overall crime still going down.

On the other hand, Mac Donald does a pretty good job of deconstructing the what-me-worry analysis presented by the Brennan Center, which is fairly typical of respectable liberal opinion on the question. With homicide up about 16% on average in the 60 largest cities, it’s just a little bit too glib to report that “reports of rising crime across the country are not supported by the available data.”

Kevin points out that, because homicide is relatively rare, homicide counts – especially for limited geographic areas and time periods – are statistically noisy. But it’s worth noting that the previous big-change years he points to were all with the established trends – big jumps before the 1994 peak, big declines since. The 2015 change was a reversal of trend; the baseline expectation for the year wasn’t the 2014 rate, but 2014 minus the trend (roughly 5% per year). So the count presented by (again, in an article spun against claims that homicide was increasing) suggests that there were nearly 20% more homicides in those 60 cities through the first nine months of the year than we would have predicted at the beginning of the year. That’s not something to be complacent about.

So what explains the unwillingness of people who proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter to sound the alarm about a substantial rise in the rate at which mostly Black lives are being lost to criminal violence? I think Mac Donald is right that part of the explanation is the fear that the acknowledgement of a real problem will be exploited by … well, by Heather Mac Donald, for example. Continue reading “Police effectiveness, police accountability, and the “Ferguson Effect””

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Office Christmas Special

No Christmas would be complete without a themed RBC movie review – but this season, instead of the usual film recommendation, we’re going with a straight-to-telly BBC Special. It’s the beautiful, bittersweet, and downright painful final send-off to the UK version of The Office. To enjoy the Christmas special it’ll be fine if you haven’t watched the first two seasons (even though you must have been living under a rock). But everything about this powerful ending to the show plays with the investment an audience has made with each of the characters—whether out of sympathy or pity.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 19.04.28

Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Office Christmas Special”

The Marcy case III

Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. [15/X/15: the Daily Cal has a good long wrapup here] Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.

I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome.  Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.

What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:

Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester.  That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.

Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.

A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.

The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.


Two doctors

Laura Esserman, shaking things up in a men’s world to improve the health and increase the happiness of her patients, and other people’s patients. Evidence-based medicine and courage.  Rockstar! You go, doc!

Patricia Horoho, [link corrected 29/IX] smoothing things out in a men’s world to improve the comfort of officers at the expense of her patients (students who aren’t officers yet). Evidence-suppressing management and craven servility.  Flack in scrubs costume, and not such a great officer come to think of it. Hang up your stethoscope, doc, and maybe park your stars in the kitchen junk drawer too.

Volkswagen tötet Babys

A rough estimate of the deaths caused worldwide by Volkswagen’s emissions scam: 1, 450 to 5,800.

(h/t to a famous campaign of the 1970s against Nestlé’s marketing of baby formula in Africa)

How many people did Volkswagen kill with their conspiracy to rig the diesel emissions tests? Kevin Drum has come up with a back-of-the envelope estimate of 12 in California. For the world, it’s much, much higher.

Step one: VW have admitted that the engine controllers may have been fitted to 11m vehicles worldwide. The Guardian has estimated the excess emissions:

A Guardian analysis found those [482,000 VW and Audi] US vehicles would have spewed between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual US mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tonnes of NOx each year in total. The company admitted the device may have been fitted to 11m of its vehicles worldwide. If that proves correct, VW’s defective vehicles could be responsible for between 237,161 and 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions each year, 10 to 40 times the pollution standard for new models in the US.

Step two: translate that into excess deaths. Continue reading “Volkswagen tötet Babys”

More on how museums [under]use their collections

Virginia Postrel (who has engaged the question, “shouldn’t museum holdings be where people can see them?” in the past)  riffs on my Democracy article in Bloomberg View; there was a podcast on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk last month. I’m not sure why this issue seems to ring bells in right-wing circles, but I like the idea that the sort of people likely to turn up at museum trustee meetings are coming upon it.  Maybe they will start to ask the kind of questions tough-minded captains of industry are supposed to be good at, like “how do you expect to run this operation properly if your balance sheet leaves out most of your assets?”

Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.