Friday, April 27, 2012

How Do We Measure Quality Teaching?

One of the hardest nuts to crack in academia is measuring the effectiveness and quality of faculty. This week's decision in Northern Iowa will probably only add fuel to the fire of that debate. Though the decision to disallow the use of student evaluations as the basis for merit raises was based on the legal issues of the union contract, not the merits of the issue, I think it's probably a better outcome anyway. And it opens up broader questions of how we measure the quality and productivity of faculty work.

There is one aspect of what faculty do that can be measured well: research and scholarship. It's very easy to develop metrics for both the quantity and quality of scholarly productivity - number of articles, books, or papers, citation counts, etc. These can be easily adapted discipline by discipline, while remaining rigorous and fair. Even the softer notion of "reputation" within the field is fairly easy to measure, which is why come promotion & tenure time we call on outside experts in the candidate's field to tell us this particular person's niche in their chosen pantheon.

Quantity of service is easy to measure - how many committees do you serve on? Given that most university committees produce little, and what they do produce is often at the expense of a great deal of time, quantity doesn't tell us much here. Quality of service is a much more challenging thing to measure. Over time, the true stars in the service field - those who can get things done, run efficient and effective meetings, and are critical to moving the institution forward - do emerge. Some of these get pulled into administration, where P&T measures don't matter as much. As for the rest, most faculty reward systems seem content to rely on a pretty minimal standard of "service" - so long as you're above that bar, there's no penalty, but there's not much reward for being far above it, either.

The real Gordian knot, of course, is teaching. This is what professors, in the public imagination, are primarily paid to do. At many universities, it is the primary mission - scholarly research being a somewhat distant afterthought (I have taught at such institutions). In today's economic climate, with the public and politicians demanding to see a "return on investment" in universities, what they mean is - are we doing a good job educating students for jobs, careers, and as productive members of society?

At the level of the individual faculty member, student teaching evaluations - especially quantitative measures - are a terrible means of getting at this. I don't mean that they lack value entirely; as a device to weed out the truly awful, they're great. But most professors, even those whose students may not be learning all that much, can manage to get at least passable marks on student evaluations. Some of them manage to get really good ratings, because they are charming and charismatic and popular (yes, there is a "popularity contest" component to student evals). 

This is not to say that student evaluations should be done away with - they can pick out the really bad teachers, and as a formative tool the comments that students write are very useful. I've used many student comments over the years to hone my own teaching, I think for the better. But when they are the only measure of teaching - as they usually are - they tell you next to nothing about what you want to know - who deserves the merit money this year and who doesn't?

Some years ago I was pulled into a debate, at both the department and university level, about how to measure faculty quality and productivity. Across the university there was very little consensus (in part because of deep philosophical and political divisions). Within the department, we all agreed that we had to have some additional measures beyond student evaluations. The only ones we could come up with were:

Quantity measures - how many students did you teach? (funny how that doesn't come up much - but as a measure of productivity, surely it matters) 

• Peer evaluation - which is time-consuming, and dependent on the peers doing the evaluating themselves knowing what good teaching looks like, but which adds a component of validity when done well.

To this we might have added interviews of graduating seniors, to ask them about specific faculty and their impact on that student's formation. That, too, takes time and effort to organize and perform - but I suspect that it would tell us a lot.

The fact that the productivity of teaching is so hard to measure is actually much to the liking of many faculty, because it is a means of escaping accountability. So long as I am teaching my classes and my students are passing, if you can't tell how well I'm doing it I am free to put as much or as little energy into it as I like. This is not universal, but it is more common in higher education than we faculty would like to admit publicly.

Where we have dedicated, energetic teachers - and there are plenty of those - it is because of their own internal motivation, not because their universities reward them for it. And that, it has always seemed to me, is a terrible shame. Systems tend to produce more of what they reward, and less of what they ignore. If we really want higher-quality and more productive teaching, we need to find a way to seriously reward it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Real Security is Hard; 100% Security is Impossible

Sometimes, the targets are too easy. We've heard stories for years of problems with the security screening network in the US; now comes this:
LA Airport TSA Screeners 'ran drug ring'
To calm a frightened public in 2001 and 2002, Americans were told that the "new" TSA and DHS would guarantee our safety. But there are no guarantees. TSA jobs are, by all accounts, frequently unpleasant and not all that well-paid. Oversight can be lax (no pun intended here). When that happens, you're bound to get things like this. And if you can bribe someone to smuggle drugs through, what else would they smuggle for money?

Too, there's the problem of "fighting the last war". In this case, we have poured billions upon billions into securing the air traffic network. Why? Because 9/11 involved airplanes, and because it looks like it might be doable. But the two largest terrorist attacks/attempts on US soil prior to 9/11 both involved rental trucks (one directed at the World Trade Center, no less) - did we go after the rental truck industry? Then there are boats, problematic border crossings, and all the rest of it.

The fact is that terrorism is all about asymmetry, which makes guaranteed security impossible. Moreover, in the grand scheme of things terrorism ranks far behind murder, traffic accidents, and any number of health issues as a threat to American lives. Yes, it's more economically disruptive - to a point. But those disruptions are incredibly rare - indeed, vanishingly so in recent years.

For the most part, terrorism isn't much on the public radar these days. The presidential candidates have other things to talk about that are more attuned to Americans' concerns. And it isn't that we don't need some kind of response to terror threats, just as we need systems for dealing with natural disasters, auto accidents, murders, and a host of other problems. Here's hoping that this year's president campaign doesn't wander into the silly territory of pandering, wherein candidates promise us complete immunity from terrorists. Because there ain't no such thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The "Mission" of College

For those of us in higher education, there is an age-old debate about what the primary mission of college is - to prepare students for productive careers, or to mold students into better citizens and community members. The tension is most keenly felt between the liberal arts and the professions. It's a divide that every institution experiences, either within itself (if they have both liberal arts and professional education on the same campus) or with the wider world ("pure" liberal arts schools have to constantly justify their existence to the outside).

Today the debate is as acute as ever. With a stagnant labor market, sluggish economy and high government deficits, universities and colleges are called on to justify the federal dollars spent on them in terms of their economic impact and contribution to the growth of business. As this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this is an ongoing conversation that affects all levels of the academy - all the way up to boards of trustees.

I should say by way of self-disclosure up front that I went to a "pure" liberal arts college, and loved it. I am a loyal alum, would not have traded that experience for anything, and hope that my kids get to experience the same. I got a first-class education there, and in the process came out a more developed person than I was when I went in - though the latter was more a function of learning to interact with my peers than through any formal college programming.

I also understand and agree with most of the arguments made by liberal arts programs about the potential value of those disciplines, both for career preparation and for making people better citizens and community members. Every year or so the New York Times writes another article about how businesses can't find employees who can write coherently, for example, underscoring the extent to which studying English really does give you an edge in the job market.

With all of that said, however, this latest conversation among trustees and university leaders about resisting the "pull" to "stray from their mission" of making better people instead of "just" doing job-training strikes me as a little disingenuous. It's not that these folks don't mean what they say - they are, I believe, largely sincere. The problem is that, if the "primary mission" of colleges and universities is to make "better people" instead of being job-training programs, there is precious little evidence that we're any good at it, and plenty of internal evidence that we have no idea what we're doing.

Take one of the more visible aspects of "good citizenship": voting. It is true, within any given election in the US, that the more educated you are the more likely you are to vote. See, the universities might say - a college education makes you a more engaged citizen! But this only makes sense if you ignore two really big trends over the last few decades: the substantial expansion of higher education (far more people go to college today than in the 1960s) and the long-term decline in voting (far fewer people vote today than did in the 1960s). If education is going up over time, why is voting going down?

It is also easy to point to examples of college-educated people being really horrible citizens and community members (Enron, anyone?) And there are certainly areas of the academy (MBA programs, perhaps?) that have some questions to answer about how people with their degrees so frequently seem to end up crossing ethical lines (the Wal-Mart bribery scandal being just the latest in a long string). Usually, the answer is, "well, that's not our fault - just a few bad apples!"

But in truth, we don't have any evidence that a university education systematically contributes to people becoming better citizens and community members. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't - but if we want to claim that this is the "primary mission," you would think we would want to gather the best data available. Yet studies of this sort of thing are few and far between, and data hard to come by.

Moreover, faculty have no real idea how to do this kind of education. Scholarly organizations may have small corners in which discussions about "citizenship education" take place, but by and large they are ignored by the rest of us - and that's in political science, where some of the most vocal public arguments are made. Promotion & tenure processes don't reward "citizenship education" even remotely. Teaching & learning centers on campuses don't have workshops about it. There are neither incentives nor resources for faculty to engage in this kind of education, and so by and large we don't.

There's a legitimate argument about whether this is a bad thing, or whether things are OK the way they are. But universities can't credibly claim that educating people to be better citizens and community members is the "main mission" without evidence that we're actually doing it, or without spending any time and energy seriously trying. If we really want to be "educating the whole person," shouldn't we be able to demonstrate that we actually are?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to Keep a Good Faculty-Administration Fight Going

If you are looking for a blueprint for a way to continue a running faculty-administration conflict, Idaho State appears to be writing the book.

Idaho State U. to Hold Faculty Senate Elections on Administration’s Terms

First the administration disbands the faculty senate, then installs an interim body with an expiration date. Then it imposes elections for a new body - which apparently doesn't have a constitution yet - and bans anybody who served on the previous two bodies from running. That's quite a string of decisions.

I have no idea about the specifics of this case - I don't know anybody at Idaho State. It could be that the faculty have been (to borrow a phrase often applied to Harvard faculty) "ungovernable". It could be that the administration is power-crazed and unreasonable. But in this case, I don't have to know who's right and who's wrong to know what will happen next.

Any body elected to represent the views of the faculty at large will either represent those views or it won't. At this point, it's a good bet that there's a healthy amount of anti-administration sentiment among the faculty there. It's likely that the reps who served on the disbanded senate, and possibly the now-expired one, represented those views faithfully. Maybe the administration hopes to eliminate those views from a new senate.

But that's where this is guaranteed to continue the fight. If anti-administration sentiment is significant, one of two things will happen. Either the faculty will find new people to elect that represent that view, or the administration will get its wish of a pro-administrative senate. In the latter case, anti-administration faculty will feel disenfranchised, and deny the new senate (and any new constitution) legitimacy.

This is the thing about university conflicts. Unlike the world of civil wars, there is no "winning". You can't beat the other side into submission, especially if you're the administration side. Every once in a while, a faculty manages to run off a president - though serious problems in administration usually go deeper than one person. But in generally, there is no equivalent of a "military victory". The only choice is finding a way to get along with the other side, and get done what needs to be done.

Sometimes, of course, that's not possible, and so the conflict continues. Idaho State may very well be stuck right now in that kind of impasse. If so, they will stay there until a solution is worked out that is acceptable to all sides - whether that takes a year, or five years, or twenty. There are no alternatives - only longer and shorter conflicts, and more or less cost to the institution.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Keeping Government Waste in Perspective

A brief response to an article in today's Chronicle on Congressional earmarks for university research:

I'm as much against government waste as the next person - heck, I probably regard a broader range of government spending as "wasteful" than many. But $44 million is, in all senses, chump change. Obviously, from the perspective of the US government budget (north of $2 trillion and rising), this is a rounding error. But even for universities, it's almost nothing. My own university, a mid-sized state institution that does a reasonable amount of research, pulls in nearly $40 million per year in competitive research grants all by itself. There are dozens of institutions like mine across the country. Large, major research universities - and there are a goodly number of those - pull in ten times as much or more.

I've always been uncomfortable with legislative earmarks - they are basically spending public money at the behest of a particular legislator on some pet project. A previous college I worked for got a chunk of money this way from a state legislator who was retiring. I can't say that the state in question got any public good for its expenditure of a half a million or so taxpayer dollars - especially given that the institution in question was a private school, and had no clear plan for what to do with the money. That always struck me as shady - a means by which an outgoing legislator could thank his friends.

So I'm no fan of earmarks, especially for colleges and universities. But if we've gotten down to only $44 million in research earmarks, we should be celebrating. After all, how often is it that government measurably improves its performance?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Growth of Higher Ed Administration, Part II

A little while back, I wrote a blog about the cost of administration in higher education - and how a lot of forces drive it. Undoubtedly heartening to all of my Republican friends, one of those forces is clearly government regulation. When governments create new regulations for the higher ed community, administrative costs go up to comply with those regs.

I came face-to-face with a real-life example of this just a couple of days ago. My institution, and likely every other university larger than a small college, has been forced to add at least one full-time staff person to its academic affairs division - not because we like hiring more administrators, but because the world just got more complicated.

The background to this new regulation has been widely covered. The number of for-profit universities has skyrocketed in recent years, most of them relying heavily on online education. A few, like the University of Phoenix, actually put a physical presence in places where they teach; many do not. And in that sector, there have been some serious abuses - universities enrolling very poor students who could get large, federally-subsidized loans and then delivering substandard education in return. A few of the most egregious cases likely crossed the line into outright fraud.

To combat this problem, the federal Department of Education created a new set of rules regarding on-line education. Of course, when you create a rule about something you affect everybody who engages in that something. On-line education has been growing in the non-profit sector, too, especially in certain fields like nursing and business. Much of this activity is quite legitimate, high-quality education. But the law is the law, and we all have to follow it.

The crux of the new rule is that universities have to have permission to do business (that is, to teach students) in every state in which their students reside. So if I, at an Ohio institution, want to enroll a student from Arizona in my on-line program, I have to get permission from the state of Arizona. So far, this seems reasonable.

The problem comes in actually complying with the rule. No matter where you are, there are 49 other states that you could potentially have to seek permission from. Every one of those states defines "education" a little differently. Every one requires a different paperwork process to file for permission, some of them quite lengthy. Many of them charge fees - some of them quite hefty fees, $15,000 or more. Some of them require permission by program, with a separate fee (up to $5000) for each program you want to offer to the residents of that state.

Now imagine the task of looking up all of those laws and regulations; contacting the relevant state officials in all 49 states that aren't yours; re-contacting them when they don't get back to you in a timely fashion; filing out the necessary paperwork; tracking down which programs within your own institution have students in which states; arranging payments to each state as needed; and then tracking all of this going forward in time, because many states require re-registration after a given period. That, in and of itself, is a full-time job for a professional staff person, even if your university only has a dozen or so online programs. If you're a really big university with a lot of online programs, you might employ two or three people doing this.

The momentum of regulation, of course, is always forward and upward. Governments almost never take rules away; they just add more. So the addition of each new rule will add another few staff to every university. It's a sort of back-door jobs program for university administration. And over time, it does tend to tilt the proportion of resources away from the delivery of academic programs and towards the administration of them. Just don't blame it on the greedy, evil administrators. Blame the folks in Washington, and the 50 state capitols, who are telling your universities how to spend their money.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why I Am a Self-Defense Pacifist

I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and teaching about conflict. Much of the writing and teaching has been about the use of force - our polite academic term for violence or, more bluntly, killing other people. I think that at some level, you can't spend that much time thinking about this topic without developing a personal philosophy - because to study violence is to confront the question, when would I be willing to use violence?

Some years ago, I was struck by this quote from Elbert Hubbard, an American writer in the late 19th & early 20th centuries who died when the Lusitania went down:
“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.” 
Political scientists sometimes define government as the thing that holds "a monopoly on the legitimate use of force", but that's never true for two reasons. First, very few governments prohibit force in direct self-defense. And second, "legitimate" is a circular claim: if a government does it, it's legitimate, because "legitimate" and "legal" are generally synonyms. And who stops the government from illegitimate actions? When has a government ever admitted to illegitimacy? 

Every government defines its wars as legitimate, regardless of how they are entered into (when is the last time the US Congress declared war per the Constitution?), how they are conducted (Abu Ghraib? Afghanistan? My Lai is apparently not so far behind as we would like), or how much support they do or don't have from the public. Governments have always used force in patently illegitimate ways - think of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II. This isn't going to change.

And because governments set this example, others will follow it. The latest headline-grabbing case is Anders Breivik in Norway. His claim is that he was acting as a patriot, to protect the "legitimate" claims of the "Norwegian nation" against a government that had sold his nation out. He insists that he was justified, and that he would do it again if given the chance.

Very appropriately, we want to put both his argument and his actions beyond the pale. The moral high ground, it seems, is easily found here. But it's harder to claim that ground when we condemn the killing of civilians in some contexts and condone it in others. Our willingness to erode a host of protections - one recent example being a legal opinion within the White House that it would be OK to kill a US citizen abroad without trial - in the name of "security" just blurs the line further. As Gandhi reminded us,
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
The more different justifications we come up with for killing, the more individuals and governments will find ways to twist those justifications to perverted ends. I do not believe we are likely to get a societal consensus on who we think should be killed and why - but at the very least, I wish more people would seriously confront the question.

The confusion, the blurring of lines, the stretched justifications for me cry out for a simpler answer. I do see legitimacy in using violence to fend off an attack, provided you are actually being attacked. Pre-emptive violence against those who might attack later, or retributive violence against those who did something bad before, or violence against metaphorical attacks against "honor" or "purity" - all of these open a door to very dark places time and again. Instead of contributing to the problem, let's draw a line where we can all see it and agree upon it - and let's hold ourselves and our representatives to that line. If we want to lay claim to being a civilized and peaceful people, the way we want to understand those words, it's the least we can do.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Politics Makes Idiots of Us All

I'm sure this isn't the last of these kinds of stories we'll see this year - it is an election year, after all:

Stung by gas prices, Obama seeks new oil market crackdown

There is lunacy on both sides of the aisle here. On Obama's part, this is both bad politics and bad economics. It is lousy economics, because the underlying reality is that oil is traded on futures markets on the global stage, and fuel (gas, diesel, etc.) is traded similarly both globally and within the US. You can't eliminate everything that looks like "speculation" from a futures market, because futures markets are essentially gambles - people bet on which direction the price will go. Some win and make money, some lose and lose money. Prices are affected by the sum total of those bets, but only where one actor controls a substantial amount of the supply (creating a monopoly, or a cartel) does it really matter - and there are already laws against that sort of thing.

This may or may not be the most efficient means of distributing these particular resources in the marketplace, but no President or Congress can make "speculation" go away with a wave of the hand. And the chances are good that any real attempt to do so would have all sorts of unintended consequences that will cause lots of pain for other folks, who will then get angry at the President anyway.

As bad as the economics here is, the politics aren't much better. There is a near-zero chance that these proposals will actually get passed by both the House and the Senate - a fact that is patently obvious to anyone paying attention. This looks, therefore, like a typical politician "do something" response - pretend to do something and blame your opponents for blocking it. It's political Kabuki theater. I'm tempted to say that insults the intelligence of the American voter, but that's an empirical question for another day.

Finally, the timing here is terrible. Obama is worried about the election in November. By the time we get to fall and people really start paying attention, nobody will remember this particular charade. Gas prices will do what they will do this summer regardless of this or that form of posturing, and how people feel about that in October is unlikely to be much moved by a poorly-researched press conference in April.

Of course, Obama would be less likely to engage in this kind of foolish pandering if the Republicans weren't already demonstrating their awful grasp of economics. The argument that "gas prices are the fault of Obama's energy policies" makes as much sense as claiming that the Easter Bunny will determine this year's World Series winner. But just as there is a base on one side that will lap up the "evil speculators" argument, there is a base on the other that will eagerly buy the "everything is Obama's fault" nonsense. It's sad to see a political party that prides itself on a free-market ideology throw its understanding of the free market under the bus for its own political gain. But then, that's American politics for you.

It being April, none of this will likely matter anyway. By September and October - the point where people really begin paying attention - things will be what they will be. Obama's ability to influence the trajectory of the economy for the better between now and then is vanishingly small. Luckily, the GOP's ability to trash the economy in the same time frame (and if you don't think some of them would just to gain electoral advantage, go read some Karl Rove) is equally small. In the meantime, it will be a long, hot summer of nonsense.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Science, Public Opinion, and the Never-Ending Battle

Much is being made of the latest law in Tennessee aimed at opening space in science classrooms in that state for "alternative theories" on evolution and global warming. The fact that organized forces behind these two issues - which otherwise have nothing to do with each other - have joined together in this case tells us what we already know: that this is about politics, not science.

In point of fact, it's always about politics first. That is the nature of things. Because we have, at root, two fundamental systems in play here. The first is the system of science, which at its heart is not about this theory or that but about a basic set of rules - evidence, hypothesis testing, replicability, peer review. Evolutionary biology is the result of the scientific method. In this sense, a law which allows teachers to consider alternative evidence and hypotheses is, on its face, not anti-scientific - which, I'm sure, is why it was written that way.

The problem comes in the context of school classrooms, because schoolchildren are at an inherent disadvantage. There is no peer review in school, because the teacher is an authority figure and the students in little position to argue. Classrooms, especially in elementary and middle schools (but to a substantial degree in high schools as well) are not about doing science (following the scientific method), but about teaching the results of science - that is, what other scientists using the scientific method have found. This is what "state standards" are about, because standardized tests do not (and cannot) get at whether a child has learned to think like a scientist - only whether he or she has learned a body of material already gathered by other scientists using that method.

So this latest round of the debate in Tennessee is really about muddying the issue. By trying to pretend that sixth or eighth graders are scientists (not consumers of the results of science), folks with particular agendas (political, theological, or otherwise) hope to use the confusion to win what they cannot otherwise.

And this is where the system of science (the development of knowledge) and science education (the transmission of that knowledge) run headlong into another system: democracy. Our system of public education is founded on democracy - indeed, as Mark Twain put it, "public education is democracy".

But that has meant, historically, giving the local community substantial control over the curriculum. The alternative - to put control over the curriculum into national hands - is to centralize power, the results of which depend very much on who wields that power. It is anti-democratic, and contrary to the founding principles of the Constitution.

So we praise the democratic system that allows local communities substantial control over what their children are taught. But what then if the majority of some local community wish their children to be taught strict creationism, or that the world is flat, or the political dogma of this or that political party? If the community as a whole feels strongly enough about it, that is what will be. Will the children in question suffer? That depends very much on your point of view - for some, ideological purity will seem more important that openness of mind and an ability to move from the reception of scientific knowledge to the creation of new knowledge.

Historically, democracy itself has provided the mechanism for balance. A few years ago, proponents of creationism briefly won control of the Kansas Board of Education - only to get swept out of office in subsequent elections. The same happened in Dover, PA, after a highly-publicized court case. It seems that, when push comes to shove at the ballot box, a majority of Americans even in otherwise-conservative areas prefer to let science run its course than to overrule it with ideology. So it may well be in Tennessee. And if not - if Tennessee becomes the anti-science state - there are 49 other states that will be more than happy to take up the slack.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Syria's Grim Truth; Our Peter Parker Complex

My friend and co-author Steve Saideman has published an excellent piece on Syria, titled "Why the Violence Will Go On". On his own blogspace, he was even more blunt: "Hope is not a plan but we have no plan". Steve is a better conflict scholar than I, and he's spot on here: everything we know about civil wars and violent conflict inside states indicates that, Kofi Annan's efforts aside, things will get worse before they get better. Jawboning doesn't end wars, and that's about all we've seen or are likely to see in the foreseeable future.

This will lead, and had already led, to a certain amount of hand-wringing in the US and Europe. I've written previously about the tendency for politicians to always want to be seen doing something. And I've no doubt that Mitt Romney will at some point give a speech about how ineffectual Obama's "Syria policy" is - the implication being that if he (Romney) were President, he would have this whole Syria mess straightened out in no time.

We have this debate, of course, every time some conflict gets big and visible enough to be on CNN. There was Lybia last year, and Kosovo before that, and Bosnia before that, and Somalia before that (and again recently), and so on.

Part of the "do something" force is undoubtedly tied to humanitarian instincts, which is why conflicts where the suffering can be seen on TV are more likely to get policy attention than those that are out of sight. But a big part of it is the "Peter Parker Principle" of US foreign policy - the core, largely unexamined, notion that "with great power comes great responsibility".

This principle is at the heart of American internationalism for the last 60 years. It is a unifying theme - one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on (the debates tend to be about tactics, not priorities). And like most unifying themes it stands unquestioned, even unexamined, nearly all of the time. Which is almost certainly not a good thing.

There are two questions that should be raised about the Peter Parker Principle. I don't have definitive answers to either, and the answers may depend on context - but they should at least be asked:

1) Do we in fact have the power to do what we think should be done? Just because we have "great power" does not make the US omnipotent - just as saying "If we can put a man on the moon, we can ..." is a logical fallacy. Some things are not doable with any amount of power; others cannot be done at a cost we are willing to bear. Applied to Syria, this is a very serious question: stopping the violence in the short run is likely to cost more than anyone is willing to pay, while creating a stable and peaceful regime that respects the rights of all Syrians in the long run is probably beyond the power of anybody except the Syrians themselves.

2) What is the extent of our moral obligation to try to help others? Devotees of Peter Parker policy often use the analogy of the drowning child; if you could save a drowning child, wouldn't you? Of course you would - because that's a choice made in isolation, without consequence for anything else. But resources spent trying to solve problem A cannot be used to address problem B. In a world where there are more problems than resources, how do we prioritize? On the basis of lives saved? (If so, what was the point of the Iraq war, which killed massive numbers of Iraqis? Whose lives matter?) On the basis of economic interest to us? (Why, then, Afghanistan?) Or do we simply respond to things in a knee-jerk fashion as they come up - in which case, why pretend that there's a coherent policy behind this at all?

The reality, of course, is that policy is generally determined by a combination of forces, many of them narrowly self-interested, pushing and pulling on the policy apparatus of the US government. We very much want there to be a conversation about "the National Interest", but we don't get one - haven't had one for at least 20 years or more. Instead, we get policy by sound bite - and for Americans, the Peter Parker philosophy seems to work pretty well. It's a powerful illusion that makes us feel good about ourselves - that we are both powerful and caring.

I don't know what the "policy response" will be to Syria - though I agree with Steve that it's not likely to do much good anytime soon. I think Syria poses yet another problem where our power to affect the outcome is limited at best, and our moral obligation is murky at best. Would that we could find a way to get our politicians to understand that life isn't as clean as Marvel comics.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Guns, Self Defense, and Our Conflicted Ideas

As the Trayvon Martin shooting morphs into a broader debate about self-defense in the US, and as the usual players (the NRA, both political parties, the Brady Campaign, etc.) all stake out familiar forms, ordinary Americans (you and me) are being poked and prodded from all sides on an issue that isn't just about guns. It's about violence, the use of force, and protection of life and liberty. We just refuse to talk about anything but guns.

Today we find a Reuters poll showing that a strong majority of Americans favor a right to use deadly force (aka guns) for self-defense. The same polls also shows pretty strong support for the NRA as an organization, and yet VERY strong support for restrictions on who can buy guns. The Brady Campaign's original central battle to establish background checks as the sine qua non of gun ownership appears to have been won.

Gun ownership and restriction are important public policy issues. But the more we equate "self-defense" with "guns", the more we increase the likelihood that people will die needlessly. We need to move this debate away from particular technology and talk about what we really need to talk about: the range of options for self-defense, and what responsible self-defense looks like.

Those who say that guns are the only way for the weak to stand up to the strong might want to check out the story of an 11 year old girl in Britain who foiled an abduction by a man twice her size. Or the 4'10" 12 year old who stood up to the mugger who wanted his phone. Or the 77 year old woman who stopped an armed robber (armed with a gun, no less) using pepper spray.

The truth is that there are LOTS of ways to defend yourself, in all sorts of situations, that don't involve using a gun. They are widely available to everyone regardless of age, size, gender, or ability. Every year, millions of dollars are spent on pepper spray, mace, tasers, and similar non-lethal devices. And every month, thousands of Americans of all ages and sizes go to karate and martial arts studios to learn and to train.

As is so often the case, the law is not the issue here. As I have pointed out before, even the Florida law that has come under withering attack has the word "necessary" firmly embedded in it. If it was not necessary to kill someone to prevent your own death or serious harm, the law shouldn't shield you. If the law is interpreted otherwise by gun-happy Sheriff's departments, they should be voted out and replaced by people who can read.

So by all means, let's talk about self-defense. And let's consider realistically the range of threats Americans face, and the appropriate moral and ethical responses to those threats. Let's try to shape our laws to reflect those understandings. But let's stop pretending that the only way to defend yourself is to kill someone else. That road leads to very terrible places where the security of everyone is called into question.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Normal" Fears and the Asymmetry of Terrorism

I heard about the rash of bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh for the first time yesterday. This is a little surprising, in that I still have family in Pittsburgh, but none are associated with Pitt. I don't often hear the Cathedral of Learning - Pitt's 42-story grand tower - referred to on the radio, so it caught my ear.

What's perhaps a little more surprising is that this has been going on since mid-February - nearly two months. To date, there have been well over 50 bomb threats resulting in building closures. This is a massive level of disruption, all the more remarkable in that it has involved no actual bombs.

There are, I think, a couple of lessons here. First, if your objective is to disrupt normal systems and engender a certain level of fear, that is remarkably easy to do. Occasionally a high school kid pulls something like this to get out of an exam; he is almost invariably caught within days, if not hours. This has been going on for weeks, and the full resources of the FBI have as yet turned up nothing.

This illustrates a key point that a lot of experts make about terrorism: its inherently asymmetric nature. Whoever is doing this is armed only with a laptop and knowledge of how to stay undetected. Granted, disrupting a large university is not the same as blowing up a major landmark. But what if you did this to the ten largest universities in the country? Or to a series of government offices, or the major businesses in a metropolitan area? The potential is clearly there for significant disruption at nearly zero cost. Which is precisely why "terrorism" (an extremely broad category) is so popular as a means for the less powerful to fight against the more powerful.

Second, I find it at least a bit remarkable that it's taken nearly two months for this to show up on the radar screen. I suppose the fact that no actual bombs have gone off has something to do with that - there is no "bleeding" to "lead" the headlines here. But does this say something about our having come to terms with a "new normal" of security precautions? It used to be that a bomb threat campaign of this magnitude would be national news. Now it just rates an article in the Chronicle? I don't know whether that's good, bad, or indifferent - though much of what we see as "news" is surely less significant than this.

I don't have any conclusions here. I do feel for the Pitt students & faculty - for them, this is a major, life-disrupting problem. Let's hope - given that hope is all we have - that this particular problem doesn't spread itself farther than it already has.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"One Shot, Two Go Down"

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I met a neighbor in an apartment complex laundry room. He was an earnest, cheerful African-American man who struck up a conversation when he noticed I was carrying a Bible. While our church backgrounds were different, there was a good bit of common ground in our faith and views on life.

His experience, however, was very different from mine. While living in a fairly decent corner of Columbus (just outside the posh Upper Arlington neighborhood), he spent a great deal of his time working with inner-city youth in the tougher corners of Columbus. Kids he worked with knew violence - including gun violence - in a very intimate way. Nearly all knew somebody who had been shot; some had been either shooter or victim themselves; and most wanted to possess a gun, if they didn't already, for self-defense.

My neighbor's take on this set of problems had a remarkable practicality to it. His message to these kids was simple: you may think that every shooting has two different kinds of people - the shooter and the victim. But in reality, every shooting has two victims - the person being shot, and the person holding the gun. The phrase he used was direct: "For every one shot, two people go down".

By this he didn't mean that violence begets violence - although it does - and that if you shoot someone, sooner or later someone else will come and shoot you. He meant that, at the moment of the shooting, the lives of both people involved are ruined. He had known enough people who had done the shooting to understand that once you shoot someone, your life is forever changed, mostly for the worse. He had worked with kids and young men who had to live with that. They may not have the physical wounds, but they were wounded nonetheless - many scarred for life.

That phrase - "one shot, two go down" - has stuck with me for the last 20 years. Recently it's come to mind again as the Trayvon Martin shooting case continues to play out. Even before the latest revelations about George Zimmerman's current state, the logic was clear: Zimmerman's former life ended the night he shot Martin.

Whatever punishment the criminal justice system does or does not mete out to him, he will live under threat for the rest of his life from those who believe in eye-for-an-eye justice. And perhaps worse still, he will live with the knowledge of what he has done - that he shot and killed an unarmed kid. All the research on violence and war - which we would do well to read more often than we do - indicates that Zimmerman will likely be haunted by that night for the rest of his life.

Whether this is "enough" or "proper" punishment is a question for the justice system, and for public opinion. I'm sure there are some who will think that he will suffer too much, even if he escapes jail, and there are others who think that he should be made to suffer far more. But regardless of what prosecutors and lawyers and judges do, George Zimmerman is already being punished by the universe for his actions. And whether his official sentence ends up being 100 years or none, he will endure that punishment for the rest of his days.

Those quick to champion guns and lethal force as self-defense need to understand this: as my long-ago neighbor understood, like George Zimmerman those who seek to save their lives with a gun may lose them instead.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Real Estate - Stuck Firmly in the 20th Century

There's something that has bugged me a while about real estate agents. Actually, there are several things, but structurally I keep wondering - why do we still have them? Why haven't they vanished from the earth?

One analogy - at least, it seems analogous to me - is travel agents. There used to be lots of travel agents. Once upon a time they performed a basic but important task - they gathered and consolidated a lot of information about airline flights and presented it to buyers. In so doing, they took a small cut of the transaction, basically as market makers.

While this operated, it made sense for buyers - it was much easier to call a travel agent than to call every airline and get their flight schedules and prices for flights from A to B. Travel agencies even built a special, proprietary database of flights, and that product gave them value in the market.

Of course along came the internet, and with it Expedia and Travelocity and silly commercials starring William Shatner, and suddenly travel agents largely vanished. Because the internet is an outstanding means of transmitting information between sellers (airlines) and buyers (us). Yes, travel websites do some consolidation for us, for which they take a small cut (usually about $5 per transaction or ticket). But they have, essentially, replaced travel agents - for a much lower cost.

Along the way, airlines learned that it's cheaper to sell us tickets online, so they've benefited too. Technology cut out the middle man, and the rest of us are better off for it.

So a part of me wonders - why haven't real estate agents followed travel agents into oblivion? The function is essentially the same - RE agents act as information transmitters between sellers and buyers. In the realm of information transmission, the internet is vastly superior to relying on an agent as a consolidator. Even the proprietary database agents have (the MLS system) is now available, at least to buyers, for free.

To be fair, RE agents do perform a few other functions - they have a system that allows access to houses (via lock boxes) to permit secure showings, they (supposedly) negotiate on behalf of their clients, and they run some of the paperwork involved in the transaction. They have the 'keys' to putting your house on the MLS in the first place. These things do have value.

But it is very difficult to see how this value amounts to the 6-7% - thousands of dollars - they usually take out of the transaction. Individually, many of these services can be bought from other providers for a fraction of the cost. A lawyer will draw up a purchase contract for you for a couple hundred bucks - and it's likely to be a contract more suited to your interests than the "standard" form that RE agencies use. For a couple hundred bucks more, the lawyer will even negotiate on your behalf. And websites like Zillow provide as much information - sometimes more - as any MLS listing, for free.

About the only thing that's not replaceable is the lock box system - but surely there's a less costly way of running that service as well. So what keeps RE agents in business?

I think there are three things that stand in the way of the logic of the marketplace here. First, agents have cleverly structured that 6-7% cut so that it appears to come only from the seller. This allows them to advertise what we all know in other contexts to be nonsense: that there is such a thing as a free lunch, because the "services" of the "buyer's agent" are "free to the buyer".

Economists know that free lunches are really illusions, and in this case the slight-of-hand is easy to see. The buyer's agent is paid their slice out of the seller's proceeds. But the seller's proceeds come directly from the buyer. If the seller has to pay a buyer's agent $5000, that simply adds $5000 to the price of the house, which comes back out of the buyer's pocket. All of a sudden that "free" service costs you a pretty penny - but you will never get a RE agent to admit this. (I've tried. Many just don't get it.)

Second, RE agents have managed to make the MLS database system indispensable - and they control access to it. Airlines (the sellers of flights) have direct access to put their flights and prices into databases or websites that buyers can see; house sellers can't do the same with the MLS. You the seller need somebody to put your house into that database, and absent a low-cost alternative you're stuck with RE agents.

I am a little surprised that someone hasn't set up a discount seller's RE service - we'll put your house on the MLS and hang a lock box on it, and that's it. Such a business would be cheap to run, and wouldn't need to take thousands from each transaction. But despite the economic logic, such businesses haven't taken off.

The third factor - the barrier to developing that low-cost alternative - lies in two perceptions. The first is the perception that a seller's agent can actually do something, other than listing a house on the MLS, that will increase the probability of a sale on your house. This is, to a substantial degree, a fiction: seller's agents have about as much ability to affect the market as day traders have to move stock indexes up or down. The market is going to do what it does; buyers who are likely to buy a particular house are either there or they're not. If they find the house, it won't be because of anything the seller's agent did - other than post the house on the MLS database.

The second perception is the "free lunch" fallacy above. Because buyers think that "their" agent is free, most will get one. And so it is buyer's agents who have the ability to influence what buyers do - which houses they see and, to a small degree, how those houses are presented.

This suggests that a low-cost seller's service would be problematic, not because it isn't efficient but because buyer's agents (who are generally drawn from the same pool as seller's agents; many are both) are likely to see such a service as a threat, and steer buyers away from those houses. In other words, RE agents have enough control over the perceptions of buyers and sellers to continue to dominate the market, even though there ought to be better economic alternatives.

Ultimately, none of this is that surprising. For all that we like to praise the "hidden hand of the market", the market is often filled with inefficiencies that keep it from acting in the nice, rational, efficient manner that economists tell us it should. People will do things - perpetuate myths, manipulate others' behavior - that advance their own individual interests, even if the result is inefficiency. Nor is there much of an argument here for outside intervention to "fix" the market - government intrusion would likely be even worse, because buying homes is a highly individual decision not easily reduced to common denominators.

There is a hidden lesson in here about the housing market. Basic economics tells us that the higher the transaction costs of an activity, the less of it you will get. For most folks, the transaction cost of buying and selling a home is higher than just about any other purchase - both in absolute dollars and as a percentage. This is an enormous inefficiency - essentially, a hidden tax that produces few public goods - that clearly hampers a recovery in the real estate market. And it's unlikely to go away anytime soon.

So the next time you're listing the villains of the real estate bust - banks, mortgage brokers, Fannie, Freddie, etc. - don't forget to throw in RE agents. They deserve their fair share, after all.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Google Glasses and the March (Stumble?) of Technology

There are lots of articles coming out on Google's latest project, Google Glasses (though I like "Google Goggles" better as a name). It isn't entirely clear what these things will do, but the idea seems to be that they will display information to you in real time, based on all of the tons of info out there in various cloud-based forms.

On the one hand, the tech geek in me says that these sound really cool - who wouldn't want a heads-up display in their glasses? But I'm also kind of ambivalent - all sorts of questions suggest themselves:

• Will people wearing these things have a tendency to walk into walls, or each other, because they're watching the data and not where they're going? Will we get more videos of people falling into fountains?

• Rumor has it that these things will have cameras built into them. If so, will they be tied to face-recognition software, so you get info on who you're looking at? If so, will it bring up that person's FB profile? Public arrest records? Contact information? Will this be the end of the anonymous crowd? This seems a little creepy to me - sort of Minority Report-ish.

• Ironically, will face recognition software still work if everybody is wearing big glasses?

• Will they have GPS/location tracking built in, such that you are essentially on Foursquare all the time? If so, how much more privacy would you be giving up while wearing them? It's already been discovered that law enforcement is getting cell phone tracking info without warrants; but do we really want more "Girls Around Me" style apps?

• Will these become a "must have" technology? I used to scoff at GPS units, because I'm pretty good at reading maps and navigating on my own - but now that I have one, I really like having it (more as a trip computer than as a navigator, although the later feature is sometimes useful). If they become "must have", will everybody start to wear glasses? If so, will "two eyes" become the new insult?

• At what point do we reach information overload? Do I really need to see review data on every restaurant I look at? At the very least, there will have to be a LOT of selectivity, because it would be really, really easy to get over-bombed with info, especially in crowded public spaces (will they short out in Times Square?)

• Fashion designers are going to have a field day with this. I'm sure the high-end eyewear makers are already in talks (or desperately trying to be) with Google, and I'm sure there will be some early-adopter Hollywood celebs (much like Arnold Schwartzenegger back when he bought an early-model civilian Hummer). How long until these things are available at Wal-Mart?

• Or is all of this just a fad, where people will decide that the expense (both equipment and a "data plan") and hassle of wearing glasses isn't worth it?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Administration & the Cost of Higher Education

I'm probably unwise to take issue with my friend and co-author Steve Saideman, who has posted a few thoughts in his latest blog about administration and the cost of higher education. Steve did, after all, get all the way to the Sweet 16 in Twitter Fight Club. So I'm risking picking on somebody bigger than me (in internet writing terms). If I'm lucky, he won't notice.

That said, the article Steve makes reference to, although it makes some reasonable points, is a bit of an oversimplified trope. It's become standard for both students and faculty to complain that the rising cost of higher education - which in America, as in Canada, has well exceeded the rate of inflation for decades - is largely due to the rise of the bureaucracy and central administration. As Steve puts it:
It makes perfect sense--those who make the decisions spend more and more on themselves and those who enable them.
He does go on to admit that "21st century universities are harder to administer and require more resources". And I think the bottom line conclusion is reasonable - that administration as well as faculty need to find ways to do "less with more".

But what's missing from the conversation is a better understanding of just where the growth in administration is coming from. It's easy to look at the broad numbers and assume that this is simply human greed - that university administrators are academic versions of Goldman Sachs or Enron VPs, finding ways to feather their own nests while sticking it to both their employees and their customers. That's a tempting story, especially today. But it misses a lot of the truth.

I can't possibly catalog all of the complexities that drive growth in administration in one blog post - even if I wrote a book, I'd probably miss some. But here are some of the major factors as I see them - from the point of view of someone who has been on both the faculty and administration sides of the fence:

1) Power Maximizers: Let's give the Goldman Sachs theory its due. There are administrators out there for whom "being in control" is the central motivation for them to get into administration. They seek power. And as the Realists tell us, power maximizers are never satisfied. I've worked for my share - some might say more than my share - of administrators who really are like this. These are people who will grab as much budget and add as many staff as they can to their own empires. And I stand with faculty and students in wishing that there were more effective ways of keeping such people in check. I would make only one observation to that end: this kind of behavior is, at minimum, enabled (if not encouraged or led) from the top.

2) Government Regulations: It sounds like a Republican talking point, but it is in fact true that over the last 20-30 years, government regulation (at both the state and federal levels) of higher education has increased substantially. Every time there's a new rule, you need more manpower to enforce that rule in each university. Case in point: in the US, there is a new financial aid rule that students must complete at least 67% of the credit hours they attempt, or lose their eligibility for Federal financial aid (which, at this point, is a large slice of the aid market). Who is going to keep track of that for the thousands of students we have? More financial aid office staff, of course. Every new federal or state mandate carries that cost with it. And these are not optional - if you don't enforce the rule, your students don't get aid and pretty soon you have no students. There is a real need - outside of any party's political agenda - to consider the cost of regulation. But nobody ever does.

3) The Hidden Cost of Technology: The advent of computers has made us vastly more productive. But just how much more depends very much on whether you consider the total cost of that technology. 20 or 30 years ago, most universities still kept their records by and large on paper. What computers they had were fairly simply mainframes that could be maintained by relatively small numbers of staff. Today, every university has a vast and complicated central database system. Go into any administrative office anywhere, and you will hear complaints about these systems - they are rigid, inflexible, confining, and often counterintuitive. They are also expensive, both to buy and to maintain. Universities have to hire staffs of programmers to keep the things working, and to adapt them every time something else changes (see above, on new regulations). Shiny new technology often comes with great promises of what it "could" do - but actually making it do those things costs a lot of money. I'd love to see data on the growth of IT staffs over the last 20-30 years. And again, this isn't considered optional by most folks - especially faculty, who are often the loudest complainers about how this or that technology doesn't work they way they want it to.

4) Mission Creep: Over the last 30-40 years, the mission of higher education has expanded substantially. Much of this is to the good - a college education has become far more accessible to the middle and even lower classes than it once was. But that expansion of opportunity has been accompanied by an expansion of responsibilities. As the student population has grown more diverse, the agendas, demands, and needs of the students have grown as well. How many universities 30 years ago had an office dedicated to support of GLBTQA students? (or would even have understood what that means?) How many had a Director - much less a Vice President - of Multicultural Affairs? As the understanding of "college" has grown beyond classes to the entire "co-curricular" experience - "educating the whole student" is a popular phrase - so have the resource needs of universities to grow and administer such programs. These demands don't come from "greedy administrators" - they come from students, from faculty (who frequently want their universities to reflect their own agendas and points of view), and ultimately from the larger societies we serve.

5) Sports: There's a risk here of another oversimplified trope. But there are some basic facts. Running sports programs, at nearly any level, is expensive. And despite the vast amounts of money floating around in top-level college sports, only a very small handful of Division I teams actually make money on these programs. In part this is because sports are more expensive than you might think, especially if you're trying to live up to today's standards of professionalism. And in part it's a hidden cost of another Federal regulation (see above) driven by another otherwise-laudable agenda (see above): Title IX. Nobody wants us to repeal gender equity in college sports. But that equity comes with a price tag. And very few universities can get away with cutting back on their sports programs, lest the alienate alumni and donors - even though the money those folks give often doesn't entirely cover the cost of running the programs in the first place.

The broad numbers - how much is spent on "faculty" and "central administration" - are easy to get, and easy to project simple stories onto. What we need is a much more complex analysis that traces the roots of cost increases all the way back to their source. We may find, as Walt Kelly told us many years ago, that we have already met the enemy - and that he is us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trying (Too) Hard to Relive the 1960s

This story may not get much beyond regional coverage, but for those of us in higher education, it's an interesting one:

About 100 students protesting a plan to offer high-priced courses at Santa Monica College this summer tried to storm into a meeting of the college's Board of Trustees on Tuesday evening. 
A handful of protesters suffered minor injuries as campus police tried to prevent dozens of students chanting, "Let us in, let us in" and "No cuts, no fees, education should be free," from disrupting the meeting during a public comment period.

There are a number of notable items here. What's not so surprising is that a group of people, obviously quite exercised about a decision being taken by the college's board of trustees, decided that their disagreement gave them a right to try to disrupt the proceedings.

In the heat of the moment, there is an admittedly fine line between "my voice should be heard" and "I can shout you down and stop you from doing what you're doing". But that line is there, and anybody trying to protest against somebody else's decision needs to understand their core options. Either you persuade those who have the decision-making power to change their minds, or you force them to do something other than what they intended. The latter almost never works in our society, because groups of protesters rarely have the power necessary to force a different outcome - if they did, they would use it. But sometimes, people lose sight of that distinction and try to force the outcome they want anyway.

Persuasion, of course, can sometimes come from gathering a crowd and loudly proclaiming an opinion. But it's not as successful as you might think. It helps if that opinion makes sense. Shouting "education should be free" persuades nobody; you might as well shout "the sky is green". Nothing is free.

The real argument is, who should pay for it? If students want to argue that they should not pay for their own education, they had better be able to articulate a really clear vision of who will, and how that is going to come about. You have to convince other people with money that they should pay for your education. I'm not saying that's impossible - but it's not very easy, and shouting at a board of trustees isn't going to get it done. Contrary to some popular belief, boards don't conjure money out of the air.

Finally, it's worth noting the response of the board to this particular protest [emphasis added]:

No arrests were made
The meeting room was cleared and trustees adjourned to another room. Santa Monica police were called in to secure the perimeter of the building. 
President Chui Tsang said the small boardroom wasn't able to accommodate all of the students who wanted to speak and that an adjacent room had been provided for the overflow. 
When the meeting resumed, most of the students were allowed to address trustees from an adjoining room. Many urged the board to find other solutions to maintain access. 
Board Chair Margaret Quinones-Perez announced at the end of the comment period that the college would pay medical bills for any students who suffered injuries during the disturbance.

Here's a lesson in calm crisis management. The board continued its meeting safely. Everyone who wanted to speak was allowed to. And anyone hurt in the fracas - even if their injuries were the result of their own behavior - would be treated at college expense. For a college in financial trouble, this sends a powerful signal: yes, we're listening. Even when those doing the talking cross the line of force, we're still listening.

This won't be the last time that a college faces these kinds of tough choices, or that students want to express their opinions about them. Hopefully both students and boards will learn from this incident. For students: stop pretending that quasi-violent mass action will get you somewhere - it won't. For boards: remain calm, and be the adults in the room even if the students aren't.

The lesson to both is simple: persuasion is built on respect. Treat the other with respect, and you are much more likely to get what you want - or, at least, closer to what you want than you might otherwise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kony 2012 and the "Do Something" Impulse

I will confess to being taken rather by surprise by the Kony 2012 video phenomenon. What surprised me was not the revelations about child soldiers in Africa, or the brutality of the Lord's Resistance Army movement in Uganda. What surprised me was that these things, which have been going on for a long time and have been well-documented, suddenly caught the attention of a lot of people who "discovered" what others had known for a long time. In this information-rich age, it's interesting to see that there is so much that many of us still don't know. (Granted, I'm a "conflict geek", having studied this stuff for years, so I tend to be more up on war-related atrocities than your average Joe).

So one takeaway - prepare for a shock - is that young people are more likely to pay attention to a viral Youtube video passed around among their peers than to watch CNN. No news there, though we don't usually see that gap quite so vividly.

The other dimension that the sudden interest in Kony and the LRA has raised is the "Do Something!" impulse. I was struck by this in reading a BBC article about an upcoming sequel to the original Kony 2012 video promised by the group Invisible Children. The article included this nugget in the middle: 

"All three of my kids, in different context and different times have said: 'So what are you doing about Joseph Kony and the LRA?"' Senator Chris Coons told the Associated Press in a recent interview.
Mr Coons is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee. He has travelled to Africa to hear about the issue firsthand.
The dominant response here might be to say, "Great! It's working!" After all, this is the point of "awareness" campaigns - to bring problems to the attention of powerful people who are otherwise likely to be unaware of them, in hopes that they will ... well, do something to solve the problem.

And it's this last bit that I find a little troubling. Very often, there is precious little that can be done to "solve" the problem. Short of sending a large invasion force to root out and arrest Mr. Kony, what exactly is it that the US Congress is going to do?

There is no end of possible measures that will likely do little to change the behavior of the LRA, but will make us feel good about having "done something" so we can move on to the next issue. Half-baked measures - usually some form of sanctions - rarely have their intended result, and often have unintended consequences that either make the problem worse or cause "collateral damage" to others. Simply scolding the bad guys is just as pointless; as comedian Bill Maher recently pointed out, "awareness" without effective action is, well, just silly.

And what about all of the other horrible problems and crises around the world that haven't (yet) had viral videos made of them? As bad as the LRA is, there are other things going on in other parts of the world that are just as bad, if not worse. Will we solve those problems, too?

Eventually, a form of political fatigue sets in. People get tired of being outraged. Energy shifts elsewhere. And in the meantime, little of lasting value has been accomplished.

At root, the problem is the the US has never quite decided what its role in the world should be. Given the chaotic nature of our democracy, this isn't surprising - isn't even necessarily a bad thing. But what we tend to get, in the absence of a coherent idea of what our capabilities are and what we should do with them, is foreign policy by outrage - a random set of actions fueled by the video of the moment. There's an argument that the ultimately ill-fated Somali adventure of 1992-3 (spanning two Presidents) was of this kind.

Ultimately, I don't expect the US government to solve this question. Politicians will always respond to the "do something!" impulse, because they can't afford to be seen as doing nothing. But what we could use, instead of a sound-bite fixation on the celebrity crisis of the month, is a broader conversation as citizens about what kind of problems we should, and shouldn't, try to address. Our resources and capabilities are limited, and our moral and ethical commitments complex. It's time we stopped turning to our "leaders" with a cry of "Do something!" and turned to each other to figure out what we should and shouldn't do, and who we want to be when we grow up.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Higher Education Costs & Incentives: Nobody Gets Rich Doing This

A substantial kerfuffle was set off a little over a week ago by David Levy's Washington Post op-ed, "Do college professors work hard enough?" For those of you who don't want to read the original, the punch line is pretty simple: his answer is "no". In writing this particular piece, Levy has joined a long line of folks raising this question and reaching this particular conclusion. That Levy has himself been a faculty member once upon a time makes this particular iteration a little more interesting - but not much.

The fact that he tries to address this in an op-ed is warning sign enough: no complex subject can be thoroughly answered in the 800 or so words of a typical op-ed article. Even if the paper is manifestly generous in granting 1000 words, that's still barely enough to raise a question - not nearly enough to explore it or answer it with any conviction.

A proper answer to the question would have to dig into the complexities of efficiency vs. effectiveness in teaching, the role of research, and the value of "service" as performed by faculty. These things vary so widely across both institutions and disciplines that trying to make generalizations, as Levy does, in a single page is almost worthless - especially as a guide to public policy.

But one of Levy's 'facts' bears bringing out, because it is a classic trope of the op-ed argument. He claims that 'senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000 annually'. This is true as far as it goes - but what does it really mean?

For the average American - even the average WaPo reader - that sounds like a lot of money. But 'senior faculty' status generally only comes after 20-25 years of labor, during which time the faculty member in question works very hard indeed and for far lower wages. Moreover, it is those 20-25 years when financial needs are likely to be greatest - those are the years that people get married and have & raise children. By the time that coveted 'senior status' rolls around, the kids are frequently out of the nest. Try raising a family on an assistant professor's salary sometime and you'll have a very different picture of the work/reward balance for your average faculty member.

Moreover, that $80 - $150k spread exists because of differences in fields. And those differences exist because of much broader market forces. Senior faculty make the bigger numbers only in business, engineering, and the sciences - fields in which, with much the same education and skill set, they could go into the private sector and make at least that much money if not more, and much earlier in their careers. You might read Levy's article and think that $150,000 gets you a tweed-jacketed English professor ruminating about Chaucer. In fact, it gets you a very bright engineer who could double his money working for Lockheed Martin, but who is instead teaching the next generation of engineers. At that rate, it's a bargain.

Having been a university administrator, Levy should know better. There are a host of cost factors that drive up the cost of higher education - not the least of which is that, with minimal incentives for efficiency, most universities have no idea what it really costs them to produce a graduate. Soaring faculty salaries are pretty low on this list. The brainpower and motivation to be a university professor, at least as measured by the level of education needed, are at least equal to those needed to be an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor - all of which are paid substantially more.

Ultimately, markets really do sort these things out. If enough people think higher education is too expensive to be worth it, they will seek alternatives - and universities will be forced to find ways to be more efficient. If enough people think that watching football live and in person is important, they will shell out significant money to freeze on hard seats in a stadium somewhere. And it isn't clear, given taxpayer subsidies for stadiums and similar things, which of those markets gets more public subsidy dollars. But you don't see the President, or the Washington Post, fulminating about how much Tim Tebow gets paid to be moved from team to team.

People ultimately choose career paths in life based on a combination of things: money, interest, skill set, geography, family. We live in a system where, if you don't like the result of your choices, sometimes you can change them - many do. Once you have a WaPo op-ed or two, maybe a book or a good resume, you can become a public speaker - which pays $5000 minimum for talking for an hour or two. Former university presidents rake in substantial sums in "consulting fees". Does David Levy partake in any of this? I have no idea. But I'm guessing that he probably doesn't want us looking at his compensation - why he feels he needs to attack the money made by his former employees is beyond me.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Perspective on Questions of National Security

I first got interested in international politics in the mid-1980s. Back then, the Cold War was the question in international relations. This was partly because we were Americans, and the Soviets were our chief concern, and this caused us to overlook all sorts of other issues going on around the world (poverty and development, growing environmental problems, regional conflicts) that weren't related to the Cold War rivalry. But it was also because the question at the center of the Cold War was fundamental: the survival of the human race or its extinction in a nuclear war.

It seems almost quaint now, but the IR field back then was dominated by the question of interstate war and the logic of nuclear deterrence and escalation. We argued about arms control and deterrent force structures and the nature of crises because we had the feeling that if leaders got any of these things wrong, we could all die. And we weren't wrong about that - it was true.

I just redrafted the syllabus for my international conflict class the other day - a course I've been teaching, in one form or another, for 15 years. Like everything else, academic fashions change alongside broader social concerns. Nobody writes about nuclear war, or even interstate war, much anymore. There's a lot about terrorism, and conflicts over resources, and refugees, and a host of other things. In a sense, that's as it should be - although I do have to remind my students that the nuclear weapons are still there in abundance, even if we don't do duck-and-cover drills anymore.

What I find more interesting than the change in scholarship, however, is the lack of change among politicians. In this election year, presidential candidates have been falling over each other in an outbidding effort to be the "tough guy" who can handle the life-threatening crisis of the day. Their chief concern? Iran.

Iran? Seriously? Although the level of rhetoric that accompanies these thundering speeches about how Iran threatens the stability of the world is little changed from the rhetoric 40 years ago about the Soviets, it no longer makes sense. The fate of the human race does not hang in the balance. A conflict with Iran - even a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel, the worst scenario being discussed - would be an epic tragedy, but would not come close to threatening life across the planet as we know it. It's not that there aren't high stakes here - they're just not nearly as high as they used to be.

So the next time you hear some politician shouting about the "greatest foreign policy crisis of this generation" or some other such nonsense, pause for a moment. Hit the mute button. And recall that there was a time, not so long ago, when the threats were a heck of a lot more serious. Then turn the sound back on and continue laughing at the unintended comedy show of politicians who have lost all perspective.