“College men from LSU…

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.