…went in dumb, come out dumb too.” LSU is doing its best to make Randy Newman right about this, with a remarkably ham-handed firing to shut up one of its most distinguished faculty (more here). Apparently, like so much of Louisiana, they would rather have a nice steady flow of federal money coming into the engineering school than actually know anything.
Everything is wrong with this history, right back to the Bush-era Corps of Engineers trying to muscle the university at an awkward time (post Katrina) for the Corps. This is suicidal behavior in the long run, because when a science and engineering-dependent agency like the Corps goes into the policy-based evidence business, the reality system can bite back hard and, like, drown a lot of people.
LSU’s first line of attack on Ivor van Heerden [if you’d like to send him a hug, he’s at ivor [at] hurricane.lsu.edu] was to tell him to stop talking to reporters outside his area of expertise, which they defined by his degrees. Indeed, van Heerden does not have a PhD in ‘levee engineering along rivers whose names have four S’s in them’; his degrees are in marine science and environmental management. His qualifications to talk about levees are merely based on his whole career since he stopped taking courses. This one really gives me hives, partly because I haven’t done my own academic work within the narrow bounds of my degrees since pretty early in my first appointment, indeed I was talking to reporters only last week about biofuels and food markets, which is pretty far from architecture and structural engineering.
There is such a thing as dilettantism and superficiality, and there’s plenty of it around. But the much greater danger is the gradual closing of professional or institutional perspective when formal qualifications substitute for actual thinking. Did General Motors have too many, or too few, executives and engineers from other car companies, or other industries, over the last thirty years? Many of the most important insights in any field wander into it with auslanders and refugees from another. The most-cited article ever in Econometrica was written by a pair of psychologists, and has caused no end of trouble in economics ever since. If the LSU engineering folks had been in charge, you can be sure “real” economists would have been protected from this awkwardness, yessir.
When van Heerden’s book about Katrina came out, they took him out of the classroom, I guess to protect LSU engineers’ matriculating dumbness.
The LSU Engineering dean, David Constant, hscons [at] lsu.edu, really needs some enlightenment on several scores. In the first place, he has the absolutely remarkable idea that he’s entitled to vet his faculty’s communications with the outside world. In the second place, he has a cowardly way of hiding behind a flack and a personnel-matter-confidentiality “rule”. In the third place, he seems to have his head completely backward about balancing the comfort of Important $ources against the mission of a university and, in this context, the welfare of the taxpayers who pay him, especially poor ones who live in low-lying places. His new boss, Michael Martin, might welcome enlightenment as well at mvm [at] lsu.edu, as this is a spectacularly bad way to start a gig as chancellor.