Urban planning and social capital

One of the things that first struck me when I came to Berkeley was how porous the campus culture was compared to Harvard. At the Kennedy School, I had spent a decade and never left the building.  This was partly because a large fraction of the decade was in the winter in Boston, partly because the Kennedy School has an inside restaurant, partly because it’s as big as a small college, and partly because the building had a big open central circulation space that discouraged elevator use and even corridors wide enough to stop and schmoose in.  In contrast,this or that project of collaboration among schools and units just kept failing for reasons no-one could put a finger on.

At Cal, on the other hand — granted that the Goldman School is too small to have a whole life in –  I have graduate student advisees and colleagues all over campus, and a hand or a toe in all sorts of cross-unit projects and enterprises. And not because I am especially gregarious or spend all my time out looking for them. This fall, I am teaching a course halfway down the hill in a program with which, though it sort of competes with ours, we just put on a “cowboy and the farmer should be friends” mixer for faculty and students.  The next-to-last meeting I attended had people from at least six administrative units.  It’s just conventional and easy to invite people into groups that cross administrative and disciplinary lines, so we all accumulate large, diffuse, networks.

I haven’t worked at Stanford, but every time I go down there, I have the feeling that it’s at least as stovepiped as Harvard was, without the excuse of climate. (Keith?) This morning’s otherwise forgettable example of economist self-parody includes this tidbit:

Q: You ended up meeting another Stanford professor who works 100 yards away – and you’ve now been together a year and a half. You couldn’t have just walked over there?

A: She may work 100 yards away, but we didn’t know each other!

My conjecture about Stanford is that it’s too big, not dense enough, and too flat.  Between buildings, each of which is a disciplinary or program ghetto of the usual sort, people circulate through a picturesque but sterile outdoors on bicycles, and very few of us have the courage, approaching  on bicycles, to stop and dismount in case the other person wants to chat: we get enough rejection without looking for it.  It’s the same reason a common room has to have newspapers and coffee, so we don’t risk going in hoping someone will talk with us only to find that no-one does.  Berkeley is small and climbs up a serious hill, so while lots of people commute in on bikes, we walk, and on a campus where going to see someone in another building doesn’t feel “far”. When we meet on a path, slowing down and making eye contact is much less of a commitment than getting off a bike, so a Schellingesque self-reinforcing equilibrium maintains itself.

Similarly, people don’t meet each other in the same high-rise building: strong social conventions forbid chatting when you are trapped in an elevator, with or without strangers.  And resistance is growing to the hi-tech bubbles whose businesses provide so much of life internally, with exercise rooms, food, cots, and whatnot, that the employees (who may be bused in from far away with the best will in the world, reducing automobile congestion and all that good stuff), never set foot on the ground in the streets outside.  When it comes down to it, there is no substitute for walking, outdoors in non-private space, with different stuff going on to look at and remark on. City streets and space uses that force people to be out and about in them on foot, that’s the recipe.

How low can we go?

Let’s just check the scoreboard here:

Cal football and men’s basketball have the lowest graduation rates of any FBS school.  Not PAC12, FBS: that’s national, baby!  The football team is 1-10 and a 31-1/2 pt underdog for Saturday’s Big Game; MBB is not ranked in either poll for this year.  The campus is on the hook for a third-of-a-billion dollar loan for a coaching office palace/booster party venue/conditioning center: losing programs don’t sell tickets.  The program is supposed to break even, but loses $7 to $10m per year, year after year.  One of the football players sent a teammate to the hospital a couple of weeks ago in a locker-room fight.

You might think our Intercollegiate Athletics Program, who get to sell the Cal logo for chotchkes and sweatshirts, has some kind of pervasive management problem, but you might be surprised to learn that they seem to have an even more serious morality problem. This billboard is glowing above our local freeway only a few miles from campus.  The pic is fuzzy, taken with a cell phone; if you can’t read the text, it says “we will sell drugs to our students, and everyone else, if there’s money in it for sports.” Mark says “Alcohol is not just a drug, but the archetypal drug: the drug most widely used and the drug that causes the most addiction, disease, and violence.” We have a real student drinking problem at Cal, and it seems to be getting worse.

Cal and Coors BillboardThe Associate Vice Chancellor, to whom an inquiry from one of our profs was bucked by the Chancellor, assures us

The Intercollegiate Athletics program has a master agreement to sell advertising and promotional space using Cal assets with a number of vendors.  Part of the overarching agreement includes a contract with Coors/Miller.

I understand your concerns, and will be talking with the vice chancellor of administration to discuss the alcohol ads and to explore ways to ensure that future promotions are aligned with the core values of Berkeley and our brand.

Discuss?  Explore ways to insure?  Am I missing something here; can this discussion take more than thirty seconds?

Which cigarette brand do we think will win the bidding to put a Cal logo on their packs?

Quality Assurance Program for Teaching

What would a quality assurance program for teaching at the higher-education level look like? We don’t have one now, nor even much to build on, but perhaps there are analogous programs we could adapt or copy. I think there are, and I will suggest an approach below. Continue reading “Quality Assurance Program for Teaching”

Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves

Bob Frank opens his reflections on teaching economics with a discouraging examination of how badly we get our students to understand the really wonderful content of his discipline. Why do educated people think it makes them appear witty to repeat a dumb bromide like “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”?   Statistics is in a similar position (“there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”).  This kind of joke, based in willful ignorance, is diagnostic of an affective failure, not an intellectual one.  Students are afraid of this material, not just bored, as something being done to them that will make them worse people in some way, against which they need to defend themselves.  How many people loved their intro stats course, and still remember the eye-opening realization that they had acquired powerful tools with which to understand and improve a complicated, random, changing world?

Statistics and economics university departments are also similar in being tasked with “service” courses for students in other majors and general education introductions, as well as professional apprenticeships for people whose careers will be in creating new methods in the disciplines themselves. As a consumer of the former service–those introductory courses are an input to my teaching production function–I often have occasion to weep, gnash my teeth, and rend my academic regalia, even though I am only hoping for student command of the few big ideas Frank claims should constitute the entire curriculum of an introductory course.  But as a disciple of Deming, I discount absolute-scale measures and prefer to manage on the derivative: no matter where we are now, could things be [even] better? how? Continue reading “Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves”

Fogey-Filled Faculties are a Barrier to Diversity

The main problem with older faculty who hang on too long is that they impede the diversification of the faculty

In today’s economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization’s needs and costs a lot in the bargain?

Those are the words of Mark Bauerlein, who thinks that tenure locks universities into having too many codgers around who teach subjects that few people care about anymore. For example, where will a university language department find the resources to respond to the rise of China if all its salary dollars are locked up in 75-year old professors who — between frequent naps — teach the few students today who wish to major in French?

This is not an issue we generally face in medical schools, where tenure is rarely granted and means little when it is. Massive salary cuts, even down to a salary of zero, are possible for unproductive tenured faculty in academic medicine (As we say in the business “All that is really tenured is your title”). A concentration of tenured older faculty may however be a significant influence on the fate of a school of arts and sciences, education or the like. But I am worry about that for a reason different than the one Bauerlein cites.

Bauerlein doesn’t convince me that undergraduates are worse off having a course taught to them by, say, a 70-year old professor who could retire but teaches for the love of it, versus, say a stressed out 30-year old assistant professor with two young kids who knows that his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction. However, the students and their university may be worse off on the diversity front when the faculty is dominated by Methusalehs.

The critical demographic fact about professors who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s is that in virtually every field, they are overwhelmingly white men. Meanwhile, the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market has a much higher percentage of women and people of color. If you want to diversify your faculty, the time to go fishing is right now while the lake is stocked.

But you can’t bring in these exciting, diverse young people if most of your resources are tied up in old white guys with high salaries. The decision to get rid of the retirement age, whatever its virtues in other respects, was a decision to help older white male professors at the expense of younger women and minority would-be professors.

It may be unfashionable to say this, but the situation is also unfair to young white male would-be professors, whose generation is often expected to bear the entire burden of reducing the over-representation of white men in the academy. That’s a cost that should fall on the old boys who have enjoyed decades of privilege rather than some 27 year old who got his degree in a much more gender and racially balanced world.

More advice for Janet Napolitano

Mark’s gracious rejoinder to my letter to Janet Napolitano as she takes the reins of the University of California reminds me of an old joke:

A rabbi of Chelm is assailed by two neighbors demanding he settle a dispute.  The first presents  a devastating indictment of the second’s housekeeping, garden management, child-rearing, and more.  He listens and says, impressed, “You’re right!” The second woman denies all these assertions, and then accuses the first of setting a terrible moral example for the neighborhood, entertaining strange men at all hours, dressing inappropriately, and the like.

The rabbi says, “that’s terrible, you’re absolutely right!”

His daughter says, “but Daddy, they can’t both be right!”

After reflection, he says, “you’re right, too!”

Yes, we can.  Mark is right that the president of ten campuses, each with a chancellor, isn’t in the same position as the president of a one-campus institution. Much of what I said to Napolitano is, as Mark suggests, more directly relevant to the chancellors, though they are always academics and not new to the business. It’s also true that if Napolitano doesn’t take on Mark’s charge to get the funding tap reopened, she’s not doing her job. But doing that is not, in my view, just a matter of reciting the facts about UC’s importance to the state and society, and glad-handing important pols. The citizens of California have withdrawn their traditional support for us, admittedly through very noisy and flawed political machinery, because they do not see us as creating net value for money. Without rebuilding that support, neither smooth lobbying craft skills nor “radical political action”, whatever Mark means by that, will work. Continue reading “More advice for Janet Napolitano”

Letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world.  I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses.  You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm.  Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues.  A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making  the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.  Continue reading “Letter to Janet Napolitano”

Oh, Bears!

Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup.  Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring.  It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense.  (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars)
Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).
A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet.  The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising. Continue reading “Oh, Bears!”

Cal sports update

The guiding principle of the University of California’s Berkeley campus intercollegiate athletics program is something called comprehensive excellence, an idea or at least a slogan originating in a report from decades back (that I now can’t find) that has resonated through years and years  of pointing with pride and viewing with alarm. The idea was that if we were going to have big-time sports, we should do it well both academically and on the field, with team rankings to match our campus status as the best public university in the world and scholar-athletes pulling A’s and B’s in hard courses while they pulled down touchdown passes.

There’s a social justice angle to college sports as well, and here our mantra is that scholarships for the best athletes allow [minority] kids to get a Berkeley education who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it; sometimes the word in brackets appears, sometimes it doesn’t. This principle asks for some definition of the phrase Berkeley education, because you can drive a largish truck between having a 40-hr non-intellectual manual labor job in a town that has a college (as long as you can do the work better than the next piece of blocking fodder and don’t hurt yourself) and getting a bachelor’s degree and learning what college graduates are assumed to know. For some reason, the impulse to return this favor by gifts from the few alumni athletes we qualified for zillion-dollar pro sports careers has been in the minimal-to-invisible range, as far as I can tell.

With the Penn State episode of entitled, arrogant, secretive, out-of-control athletics transitioning from Sandusky’s conviction to the incoming Freeh report and a tidal wave of civil litigation, and UVa’s recent demonstration of how not to do higher education governance, it’s worth a look-in at how comprehensive our excellence is. The news is pretty grim. Continue reading “Cal sports update”