Free Speech and Campus Riots, a Long View

I started this blog entry early last week, before the horrifying events in Portland in which  two men were murdered and a third grievously injured in an altercation on public transit. The three victims were trying to intervene while the alleged perpetrator was harassing two young women. I don’t have words.

It’s spring, and when students turn their speakers outward toward the quads I often hear the music of my youth. Occasionally I hear the distinctive guitar lead-in to the hit song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Today’s undergraduates are the children of people born about the time “Ohio” came out, so they will have to ask their grandparents about the events that inspired the refrain “Four dead in Ohio.”  I was a 20 year old junior at Brown when four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State and I remember it well.

I went to many peace demonstrations, but none that turned violent or were suppressed with batons and tear gas. At Brown, classes were suspended and final exams cancelled in the spring of 1970. This course of action was decided at a faculty meeting, held in a building facing the college green. There was a public address system set up, and loudspeakers were placed out on the quad so all could hear the proceedings. It was a beautiful spring day. I remember it well. Eventually we chased ROTC off campus, a decision that Brown, like many other universities, came to regret. Students were given time off in the fall of election years to participate in the political process. I don’t know if that tradition endures to this day. Nobody I knew was sorry to miss final exams.

In other places demonstrations turned violent and many were suppressed by force. There was a major riot at Columbia. The events that inspired the CSNY song began with a riot in which the ROTC building was burned down. One reporter’s memories of the disaster at Kent State can be found here. The reporter was a Marine veteran, and his memories of the 60s are starkly different from mine and and those of many, if not most of my friends. He writes:

That some people today manifest a nostalgia for the Sixties ( which actually covered the last half of that decade and the first of the next) amazes me. It was a dreadful time. American society had come to resemble a shattered mirror still in its frame, the fissures between hawk and dove, left and right, old and young, black and white threatening to widen until the pieces fell out and broke into bits. The worst year was 1968: the Tet Offensive, one hundred thousand U.S. casualties in those twelve months; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the convention riots in Chicago, which had been rocked just months earlier by the race riots set off by King’s death, with half the west side destroyed in orgies of arson and looting, accompanied by gunfire.

By the time I got to Berkeley violent demonstrations had become commonplace. I remember looking for an apartment in the fall of 72. People who showed apartments invariably commented on their proximity to the “riot corridor.” If you were looking at an apartment with a really good location, you’d be told “You won’t get any gas here in the spring,” where “gas” meant tear gas. I remember once being told “There’s a bit of gas, but not too bad.” The riots and tear gas were a sign of the coming of spring, like the robins and the pussy willows. That’s what I heard, anyway, but by then things had quieted down.  In my time at Berkeley, there was no tear gas in town.

Now we are again seeing riots on campuses, with windows smashed and fires set. This is not easy for me to comprehend. Do we have a half million uniformed Americans in harm’s way, for no easily articulated reason, in a hostile, far-away place? No? Then what is it that leads to people to resort to violence of a sort that reminds an old guy like me of the days of the Vietnam war?

The riots have been provoked by speaking invitations extended to Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, representatives of the political right wing. The riots, or threatened riots, have led to withdrawn invitations and discussions of the legality and wisdom of limiting speech on campus in these cases. I don’t know anything about Mr.Yiannopoulos. I used to read Ann occasionally, many years ago, until I got bored with her. I read her columns because I had friends who were fans.

Attempts by one faction or another to suppress speech on campus are not new. During my time at Berkeley, the Associated Students of the University of California, or “ASUC” as the student government was known, proposed to have somebody monitor every class at Berkeley to make sure there was no teaching of “Shockleyism” or “Jensenism.” William Shockley was a professor of physics at Stanford and a Nobel laureate who embraced eugenics late in his career. I never knew who Mr. Jensen was. Whatever their positions, it was never made clear how to decide what constituted Shockleyism or Jensenism, but I thought at the time that it was possible that some ASUC-appointed monitor would sit in the back of the math class in which I was TA and examine what I said. Looking back on it, it’s clear that I needn’t have worried, but it was Berkeley in the early 70s, and you never knew anything for sure.

There was also a bit of a controversy on campus surrounding an incident in which a student was thrown out of a class on “Theory of Revolutions” for being disruptive. From the reporting in the Daily Californian, it appeared  that the student probably was disruptive. The instructor’s side of the story was that the student was expressing an incorrect view of some particular doctrine, and that “academic freedom is a bourgeois concept” anyway. You can’t make this stuff up.

I believe strongly that the bounds on acceptable speech on campus should be set very wide. Attempts to restrict speech at Berkeley never came close to success. At Brown, I remember listening respectfully to a government official who came to speak in favor of continued US military involvement in Vietnam. I doubt he convinced anyone, but we heard him out for his entire talk.

I don’t know about Milo Yiannopouos, but I see no reason to exclude Ann Coulter from campus discourse. She was U. MI law review and knows how to construct an argument. The university community can be trusted to decide whether her arguments are sound, whether she has quoted facts correctly and whether she has omitted important considerations. We’re not even talking First Amendment here. We’re speaking to the mission of the university to explore ideas and their consequences in every aspect.

 

 

The “March for Science,” for the Last Time, I Hope

Last weekend thousands upon thousands of people, some of them my friends and colleagues, “marched for science.” Here in the little burg of Corvallis Oregon, the occasion gathered some 5,000 marchers, give or take. As I understand it, the major message conveyed was twofold: We love science; We hate Donald Trump, not necessarily in that order. The official statements of support for the march by organizations such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU) all said that the march was intended to be nonpartisan, but the partisan nature was evident from the git-go. The headline in one piece in the Guardian was “Science strikes back: anti-Trump march set to draw thousands to Washington.” The item in the Washington Post was a bit more circumspect, but not much. It appeared over the heading “The March for Science could Save Lives.” It begins with a long description of how scientific study of the spread of ebola may well prevent thousands of deaths. OK, scientific results can translate into lifesaving action, but it’s not clear at all how the march will save lives. From ebola, the Post article segues into:

Many of those organizing and participating in the March for Science say it is a statement of belief in the power of empirical discovery, and not an anti- Trump protest. It is fine to remain nonpartisan, but that should not mean being blissfully ignorant of the realities of politics. The battles to come in Washington over spending priorities could determine whether the United States will remain a global leader in scientific research.

As far as I can tell they are saying that the message of the march should be “We hate you! Give us money, you bastard!

We need to make the case that a vibrant, active and productive scientific community is an essential component of a vibrant American society, and a critical component of American leadership in the world. I believe that most scientists are confident that they can make that case. I have gone to Congress, as part of AGU Congressional Visits days,  to advocate for increasing funds for basic research, and was well received. Not that long ago, that proposition had broad support in the land. I think I said in an earlier post that, at the briefing for Congressional Visits days, we were told that sometime around the turn of the 21st century Congress passed, with overwhelming bipartisan support, a joint resolution to double the NSF budget in ten years.

So, given my dim view of the march, what do I suggest? Our only option is the long game. We must patiently make the case that support of science has been an extremely fruitful investment of public resources. Cutting support for science in order to save money is tantamount to killing the goose that has been laying golden eggs in copious quantities for a long time now. Heaping abuse on Donald Trump can’t possibly help.

An even more skeptical view of the march appeared in Slate. You can find it here.

I know I’ve spent 4 posts on the march, but at the end of the day I shouldn’t really complain. It’s Tuesday and a quick google search for “March for Science” shows nothing dated today. The overtly partisan nature of the march seems to have faded, and wasn’t news in the first place. The AGU on its website seems to embrace the long game, with a five week action plan, of which week three is, you guessed it, “Urge your members of Congress to support science funding in next year’s budget.” If engagement can be sustained for five weeks it can probably be sustained longer. Besides, marches are fun. I know, I remember the peace marches of the 60s and 70s. If my colleagues had a good time on a spring day, well, more power to them.

 

“Publish or Perish,” 21st Century Version

With “science” as a political entity in the news these days as a runup to the ill-advised “March for Science” this weekend, we hear much of the idea of peer review, which is so much a part of the practice of science. Having submitted dozens of manuscripts for peer review and written hundreds of reviews of submitted manuscripts, I can say that I know a thing or two about the peer review process.

These days the process is conducted through the internet. I might receive an email from an editor asking that I review a submitted manuscript and giving me a timeline for submitting my review. There is a weblink for downloading the manuscript if I agree to review it, along with the option of declining the request for the review. My eventual review would then be submitted through a weblink, usually with checkboxes for accept as is, accept with minor revisions, accept with major revisions or reject. Colleagues from the same institution as the author of the manuscript are almost always disqualified. I usually choose to remain anonymous, but I am careful to write only what I would say to the author face to face if the author somehow learned my identity. I have written about this in earlier posts.

The problem is that a scientist’s success is often highly dependent on the number of peer-reviewed articles the scientist has published. It can be very difficult for hiring committees and promotion and tenure committees to judge the quality of a scientist’s published work. I once served on a promotion and tenure committee in which I had particular responsibility for evaluating the work of a colleague who worked in a different field from mine. I was able to read and understand a few of his papers, and I remember liking them, but I didn’t feel I could pass judgment on their quality because I didn’t know the field, and had no way of knowing how innovative they were.

So we count numbers of papers as a measure of a scientist’s productivity. As a result, some I’ve heard people evaluate the prospects for success of a project in terms of least publishable units, “LPUs.” So I might propose that a colleague collaborate with me on a project, and my colleague might ask “How many LPUs?”

Last month “The Economist” published a piece on scientific publishing. You can find it here. In that article they point out another feature of the publication routine that can be harmful, viz. the incentive to withhold results. In my experience this is mostly to prevent others from poaching on a researcher’s territory. I remember, as a young postdoc at NIH, finding out that if I walked into a lab, introduced myself and asked a question about what they were doing, I wouldn’t get an answer unless I was somehow vetted. At worst they’d hand me a reprint (that was the pre-internet days, when publications were all on paper). Actual publication on glossy paper usually happened at least a year after submission, and you only submit manuscripts on work you have done, so handing me a reprint was, in effect, telling me what they were up to maybe two years ago. The article in “The Economist” points out that

The incentive to withhold results for months or years until research is published is therefore powerful. But such delays can do real harm: during the Zika crisis, sponsors of research had to persuade publishers to declare that scientists would not be penalised for releasing their findings early.

The article in “The Economist” suggests three reforms of the system:

Step one is for scientists to put their academic papers, along with experimental data, in publicly accessible “repositories” before they are sent to a journal.

Such a repository exists. It can be found at https://arxiv.org. It also allows scientists to put in corrections of errors in published research that somehow got past the referees. It does not help people who wish to prevent poaching.

Step two is to improve the process of peer review. Journals currently administer a system of organising anonymous reviewers to pass judgment on new research. But this process is murky. Better that reviewers are named and that the reviews themselves are published.

I usually prefer to remain anonymous. It is true that some reviewers hide behind anonymity to be snarky, petty or just plain rude. I have commented on this before, here and here. Still, very few people take criticism well, and nobody wants to make enemies. Publication of reviews isn’t a bad idea in itself, but it might have the unintended consequence of slowing up the process since most of us would polish our reviews carefully if we knew they were themselves to be published. Final wordsmithing takes time, the review process is slow enough as it is, and many more people would decline requests for reviews if they knew they would have to take the time to write prose for the light of day.

Many journals had, and maybe still have, a section for “Notes and Correspondence,” for short articles or comments on published work. The notes and correspondence are usually themselves reviewed, and, if they refer to a specific article, the author is given a chance to reply. I recall that in at least one statistics journal, published conference papers are accompanied by notes from the discussion at the conference. The conference papers and the notes from discussion are refereed. I list one such “Discussion” item in my CV. These are all good things. More journals should include “Discussion” sections. People should make more use of existing “Notes and Correspondence” sections of journals, but getting them to do so would involve a change in the culture of science, and such changes come very slowly.

Last, science needs to stop relying so much on journal publication as the only recognised credential for researchers and the only path to career progression. Tools exist that report how often a preprint has been viewed or whether a clinical data set has been cited in guidelines for doctors. Universities and government agencies that pay for research should use them.

Promotion and tenure committees have long looked at the number of times a candidate’s work has been cited, as well as the raw number of publications. When I was in grad school in the early 70s, one of my mentors told me that 90% of published articles in mathematics are never cited by anyone but the author. I remember how happy I was when I saw the first citation of my work in that of another scientist.

There is a publication called “Science Citation Index,” which lists the citations of most published articles. Long, long ago, I promised myself that I would never look myself up in Science Citations. It’s hard to avoid the temptation these days when automated services like research gate keep track of readings and citations but I try not to pay too much attention, and I don’t add anything to my record on research gate beyond what my coauthors add and what the research gate algorithm can find. There is no system that can’t be gamed, and I recall seeing lists of ways to increase one’s total number of citations, but it’s probably a good thing that hiring committees and promotion and tenure committees look beyond the simple number of publications.

When I was starting out, I was apprehensive about submitting manuscripts for peer review, sort of the way one might worry about enduring a tax audit, however confident one might be. (Taxes were due yesterday, I have them on my mind, sorry.) Eventually I came to view the peer review process as my friend. I was the victim of many attempted, and occasionally successful muggings, but most of my published work was much improved by peer review.

I Wasn’t Going to Write about the Scientists’ March Again

Well, I wasn’t. I might not have written as much as I did had I seen the article in the January 31, 2017 issue of the New York Times entitled “A Scientists’ March on Washington is a Bad Idea.” In it, Robert Young, professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University says much of what I’ve been trying to say. Professor Young writes:

…trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.

…and “their own ends” strongly implies getting a larger share of public money, as well as advancing progressive causes. After describing his own experiences with the legislature, he continues:

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

There, couldn’t have said it much better myself, but he didn’t go far enough. The issue is bigger than the matter of driving a wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate. As those to the right of center should not view the scientific community as adversaries, neither should the left think that we are somehow on their side. The point is not that we are somehow unbiased. We, as citizens, are not. The point is that we, as scientists, are playing a different game. If we are to continue to serve the public as well as we have for a very long time, we have to continue to work toward a deeper understanding of the working of nature, without regard to political advantage or disadvantage of one group or another. If we become uneasy with the political implications of a particular scientific line of inquiry, we’re best off finding other stones to turn over. If, on the other hand, we go into a particular line of research thinking “I’m going to show that this or that policy is the right one,” then we risk doing bad work by seeing what we want to see. Twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman said, in this context, “Don’t fool yourself. You are the easiest person to fool with your own ideas.”

Professor Young continues a paragraph later:

Al Gore, bless his heart (as we say in the South), was well intentioned when he made “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. But he did us no favors. So many of the conservative Southerners whom I speak to about climate change see it as a partisan issue largely because of that high-profile salvo fired by the former vice president.

Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide.

There, he said it. “…marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president …” In other words, as I put it in an earlier post, “We hate you …” Despite claims that the march is intended to be nonpartisan,  the conclusion that its aim is to oppose President Trump is inescapable.

When I meet people outside the university context, I often have this conversation:

“What do you do?”

“I work at the university.”

“What do you do there?”

“I’m on the faculty.”

“What do you teach?”

“Oceans and atmospheres.”

“So, is global warming for real?”

“Yup.”

“And we did it?”

“‘fraid so.”

“Al Gore is a [NSFW]” That’s the way these conversations always end, and I’ve had a number of them.

 

The “Student Culture of Helplessness,” and the Frustrations of Teaching Undergraduates

Recently a friend kicked an article into my Facebook feed on “The Culture of Helplessness,” from Inside Higher Ed. The author begins with an anecdote about a student that sent her an email asking the name of the author of a book that had been discussed in class. The exasperated teacher, having seen the student with a copy of the book, suggested that she look on the front cover. She suggests that emails and texts asking such obvious questions were signs of increasing “helplessness, … part feigned and part real … that is eroding academe.”

She has an interesting angle on the process:

It becomes like a game of tennis, this batting around of responsibility. We serve an assignment over the net with clear guidelines and expectations, and they either let the ball drop, claiming they somehow weren’t prepared (I didn’t know … You never told me … The assignment sheet didn’t say …) or they question whether the ball was even fair in the first place (Too long! Too hard! Hey, out of bounds!).
We then serve it again, and again, to our great fatigue, but perhaps resolve that next time we won’t bother to serve at all. Maybe next time, we think, we’ll just hand the ball to the students and thereby absolve them of actual effort. We’ll put the students in charge of the game; we’ll forfeit, give up.
Which is probably just what many of them are angling for.

She ascribes at least some of this to the ease of electronic information processing. Students no longer need to look through library catalogs, type papers on typewriters or take handwritten notes in class. They expect everything to be at their fingertips, and, for the most part, that expectation is reasonable.

The 21st century revolution in access to information has certainly made it easier for students to play the tennis game she describes, but the attitude she describes as “helplessness” on the part of students is nothing new. I once had a class of junior engineering students insist they had never seen the equation “F=ma.”

Back in the 80s I spent a few hard years teaching freshman calculus, and I can tell you that one of the most common responses I got when I called on a student was “We didn’t have that in high school.” The less they could convince me that they knew, the less new material they would have to learn. This extended to the upper classes. I once gave an exam to a class of junior math majors in which they had to use the elementary formulas from trigonometry. I even gave them the formulas. For the record:

sin(a+b)=sin(a)cos(b)+sin(b)cos(a)

cos(a+b)=cos(a)cos(b)-sin(a)sin(b)

Nearly all of them insisted that they had never seen anything like that before. One student came to my office and asked “Did you really expect undergraduates to know that?” In the iciest voice I could muster (I don’t do “icy” very well) I said “Trigonometry is a high school subject.” He looked at me and said “It’s not listed in the prerequisites.” I replied “This is a junior level math class. All of high school math is prerequisite.” He complained to the dean, who, I’m sorry to say, backed him up and demanded that I give a new test that did not contain such advanced material.

The students are not helpless. Neither are they lazy or stupid. Immature, yes, and it’s our job to deal with that. They are young and strong and drowning in hormones. Most are beyond parental supervision for the first time in their lives. They want what they want, and they have their way of trying to get it.

What are they doing at the university? You can ask them, but they will give you the answer they think you want to hear. They are very, very good at that. They might not know themselves. They know that a college degree will bring career opportunities that would be closed to them without one. They know that they need a good grade point average to be a doctor or a lawyer or a CEO. They don’t see that doing lots of math problems has anything whatsoever to do with being a doctor or a CEO and there is no convincing them otherwise. It’s not just math. Friends in the English department told me similar things.

An old friend tells me that he says to his classes “How many pushups do you think an NFL quarterback can do? A whole lot, right? Does he do lots of pushups? Of course he does, pushups or bench presses or the equivalent. Does he take the snap under center, drop back  seven steps and do pushups?” I would have stolen my friend’s riff, if I hadn’t been retired when he first told me.

So their objective in any given class is to do the least amount of work while, at the same time, maintaining a high grade point average. Thus the helplessness, the feigned ignorance, the hope that you will only ask them to do the easy stuff. I’m not unsympathetic, really I’m not. We all want to be efficient, don’t we? How are classroom teachers to deal with this attitude, when our objective is to teach, rather than to punch tickets? In my years of teaching, I never figured that out.

We Hate You! Give us Money, You Bastard!

The title of this post will not win the 2017 prize for effective slogan of the year, but pleas to the contrary, that’s the message to be delivered to Washington on April 22 of this year by my fellow scientists who plan the ill-advised “march for science” referred to in the last post. “We hate you …” might not be the intended message — but it is certain to be the message received. The organizers of the march, such as they are, deplore “The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence,” but the effect will be exactly that. Many scientists who will march are experienced teachers, and every classroom teacher knows that what you say and what your class hears can be two very different things.

The organizers of the march may well be sincere in believing that their movement such as it is will be tolerant of all political viewpoints, but an article on the Vox website notes:

[U. WI professor Dietram] Scheufele foresees a problem that the march organizers can’t avoid: what messages the marchers bring with them. If marchers show up wearing “I’m With Her” T-shirts, or if large numbers come with signs advocating for abortion rights, for instance, conservatives who read news coverage about the march may be more inclined to dismiss it.

It won’t matter if there truly is a diversity of views on display during the march. All it takes is one photo to solidify an impression.

When I google “March for Science” it’s clear to me that most people writing on the subject regard the march, like the women’s march before it, as a protest against the legitimacy of the Trump administration. This is particularly ill-advised in the present situation, in which the bottom line from the point of view of the scientific enterprise is that science is starving for support, and by “support” I mean cash. And from whom do we want cash? Why the federal government, of course, that would be the organization whose highest ranking official is … guess who?

This is serious. Most of us in the world of science believe that American science is starving. Some time around the turn of the present century, Congress passed a joint resolution favoring the doubling of the NSF budget within a decade or so. The vote in both houses was nearly unanimous. When I attended AGU Congressional Visit Day in 2005, I was told that Congress was on track to do just that. After the economy tanked in 2008, that changed. At a recent meeting of the faculty of my unit at Oregon State, the dean said “Flat is the new double.” Budgets have been flat for some time now.

If American science is to maintain its vitality, we must make the case that supporting us is an enormously productive investment in the public good, no matter who is in office. Policy decisions are tradeoffs. One policy alternative is chosen over another based on balancing gains on the part of some people against losses on the part of others. We need to make the case that advances in science work to the benefit of society as a whole, and science can give policy makers better understanding of the consequences of their decisions, whatever their decision-making goals might be. Standing up as a group and telling the folks that currently run things that we oppose their very existence can’t possibly help.asksanta-001

 

A Scientists’ March? Really?

In this craziest of political times, one of the very worst ideas I’ve heard is a march of scientists, modeled on the women’s march the day after inauguration day. Scientists have their political views like anyone else, as they should. Scientific research, like any creative endeavor, is intensely personal, so it’s understandable that scientists often don’t see a clear boundary between their work and their other activities. Still, there really is such a boundary, and scientists should be careful separate their policy preferences from their scientific work, which is vetted by peers and not judged, or should not be judged on the basis of who is penalized and who benefits.

There are legitimate concerns about changes this new administration will bring, but marching and carrying signs, in this case at this time, is not the way to express them. Whatever message the organizers or the marchers themselves wish to convey about climate change, evolution or any other scientific contention, the only message that will be received is “We hate Donald Trump.” Marching on Washington and other cities will only encourage the belief that the scientific community is yet another liberal advocacy group, whether or not this is the intent of the organizers.  Such an outcome would damage the credibility of the scientific community, and diminish its capacity to contribute to inform the public and to contribute to informed policy decisions. I have said there are no win-win situations in the real world, but this is a lose-lose situation. I can’t think of any winners.

Trying to get some perspective on the costs of higher education

When I thought of this blog, one topic that I wanted to talk about was the purpose of the university, as it might be understood by interested parties. Exactly what are universities for? The people paying the bills have a right to ask.

As I think I said before, given the baggage I carry in life, the TV show The Big Bang Theory makes me cringe. Friends of mine are big fans, and they occasionally tell me things they found particularly funny on BBT, even though they know that I will usually squirm but one thing, repeated to me over lunch, did make an impression. In one episode, the president of the university asks the group of brilliant scientists “What is the purpose of the university?” They huddle, and answer “Knowledge.” “The purpose of the university,” the president replies, “is money.” “Told you so,” says one of the scientists. Within the last few days the Oregonian reported (the link should be here) that Oregon’s public universities delivered a message to the newly-elected governor that they need another $100m to forestall a situation they describe as “dire.” Told you so.

I don’t know how the writers of BBT came up with this, whether they are cynical alumni, having seen their mailboxes, paper and electronic, fill constantly with appeals for more and more contributions, or whether they have seen the workings of academia  up close. Either way, there is no doubt that budgets direct universities’ quest for knowledge in ways that might well make some uncomfortable.

So before I take on the question of the purpose of the university, I’ll look at the easier question of what it costs, and what the returns on investment might be. Tuition and fees at state schools in the Pac 12 athletic conference run about $10K in state and about $30K for out of state students, give or take. Living costs vary widely from about $13K – $20K. It’s much more expensive to live in Berkeley than in Corvallis. So, in round figures, four years at a state university in the western US costs about $100K. People have summer jobs, and some work part time during the school year. There’s usually some help from family, and often from the university itself. According to what I’ve found on the web, the average debt runs about $35K.

Nationwide these numbers add up big time. Student debt is about $1.3 trillion — that’s “trillion,” with a “t.” By comparison, total credit card debt is only — only! — about $800 billion. Auto loans total about $1.1 – $1.2 trillion. So we’re talking very serious money here.

Last December, the Washington Post published an editorial over the title “Higher Education is a Solid, Long-term Investment.” You can find it here. According to the article, Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen said, in a speech she gave at the University of Baltimore, that college confers upon graduates a large advantage in lifetime earnings over those with only high school diplomas. She said that after only a few years, the advantage amounts to nearly $18,000 per year.

For the student with the average debt of about $35,000, that would make higher education a worthwhile business proposition indeed. According to one of the many online financial calculators, the monthly cost of carrying a loan of $35,000, with a 20 year term at 5% interest would be $230.98, easily covered by the $1,500 per month advantage gained. So it is hardly surprising that, according to that same article, 40% of student debt goes to financing graduate and professional degrees, e.g., MBAs, MDs and law degrees.

For doctors, lawyers and MBAs, one might well ask whether they are any more deserving of  help from the public sector than any other business. A sandwich shop in a strip mall would be capitalized at a much higher value. One could make the case that we need more doctors, lawyers and MBAs, so society should help them out financially to give people with energy and initiative incentive to enter those fields. That’s a policy question. As many people, myself included, have said, numbers can inform policy decisions, but policy decisions are always about winners and losers.

What about the other 60%? According to the piece in the Post, Dr. Yellen pointed out that “government data shows that the vast majority of student borrowers who complete their degree programs find work that allows them to keep up with interest payments and eventually pay off the principal.” A few sentences later the Post editorial continues “In fact, debt distress is disproportionately concentrated in certain segments of the market, including professional schools and for-profit four-year colleges.”

None of these hopeful-seeming statistics helps poor souls who find themselves with minimum wage jobs and $230 monthly loan payments they can’t afford, but the numbers suggest a focused approach rather than the “free college for all” slogans that we hear during campaign seasons. We all know that nothing is free.

“For where your treasure is …”

A recent piece in the Oregonian gave the salaries of the 22 highest paid state employees. All were employees of one public university or another. No employee from any other state agency made the list. At number 22, a senior vice president at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), the state medical school, came in at $450K. The governor, by comparison, earns about $100K. She, of course, gets other perks, but still. Athletic coaches and officers at OHSU made up nearly all of the top 22, the only exceptions being the presidents of Oregon State University (OSU; #14 @$545K) and the University of Oregon (UO; #10 @$660K). The president of OHSU comes in at number four, just south of the $1million mark, nosing out the OSU head baseball coach (a perennial national contender) at $800K. The top three are football coaches, the head coaches of OSU and UO, and the recently fired head coach of UO, whose crime was losing the annual Civil War football game to OSU (I’m showing a bit of Beaver pride here). Gary Anderson, the OSU coach, comes in third, just north of $2.5m, quite a jump up from number four. First is the new head coach of UO at $2.9m. It says something that the piece as it first appeared in the Oregonian led with a quote from the Bible, Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Medical doctors are among the highest paid professionals, and rightly so. It’s only reasonable that high level officials at a medical school should command high salaries. As to athletic coaches, well, there is the matter of supply and demand. A coach with a winning record at a money sport will not come cheap. Career academics like me might wonder whether a state institution with severe recurring budget problems that necessitate steady tuition increases should be playing at that table.

It may well be that athletics are in fact where our hearts are here in Oregon. I recall an incident many years ago, when I, along with a group of raucous runners, piled into a bar in the state capitol city of Salem. It was an election year, and the bartender conducted a straw poll on how her customers would vote. There was a measure on the ballot at the time that would have established regular state funding for intercollegiate athletics, and it lost decisively among patrons at the bar (It also lost that November). The bartender  was shocked. “I have a son entering OSU this year,” she said.

“Does he play on a college team?”

“No.”

“Then why do you care?”

I don’t recall her precise response, but she was decidedly unhappy. I would note that I was the only academic in my group that made up a goodly proportion of the patrons.

 

 

Economy

The title of this post refers to the first section of Walden. A few days ago I picked up Walden, intending to read it through, for the first time since I read it as assigned reading as a junior in high school, more than half a century ago. Back in the day, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD invariably achieved single digit ranking among public schools nationwide. My own experience was that teaching quality ranged from the merely excellent to stellar. I thought so at the time.

Mrs. Johnson, my superb 11th grade English teacher, figured Walden would get a rise out of my small and eager class with passages like this one in the opening paragraphs of Economy:

 I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downwards, over flames; … even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules are trifling in comparison with those my neighbors have undertaken …

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of … Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?

Back in academic year 1965-66, the ferment of the 60s was barely underway. The term “hippie” had only recently entered the language. The first demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war had taken place, but the nation was still uncertain. The editorial page of the Washington Post was still in favor of the war.

Mrs. Johnson had skin in the game. Her son was in training as a Marine at Camp LeJeune. The one time I heard her speak of him was the only time I ever saw a schoolteacher lose her composure.

I can see Mrs. Johnson leaning on her hands on the table in front of the class, looking at us, saying “This is very subversive stuff. Can’t you see that?” We looked back at her, not comprehending. I could feel her frustration at the time but still didn’t understand. Now, as I reread Walden, I can’t imagine how we all could have been so thick. Everyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom knows the experience of looking at a room full of blank looks and thinking “How can you not see what’s right in front of your face?”