Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Higher Education, Public Support, and Inequality

It has become axiomatic that US society is experiencing levels of wealth inequality not seen since the early stages of the 20th century, before the Great Depression. This is worrying a lot of people, none of them apparently policymakers or politicians, whose interest in the subject seems near zero.

Education is often touted as the antidote to inequality, and well it should be. If there is any opportunity for folks from lower socioeconomic to raise their standard of living, it will be through education that enables better jobs, better opportunities, better wages - and better education for their kids. Education feeds on itself - the more education you have, the better your kids' prospects both in school and in life.

Yet at the level of higher education, things have been getting worse, not better. In the early 1970s, about 40% of the top quartile of US households (by wealth) had a college degree; only about 6% of those in the bottom quartile did. Today those figures are over 70% for the top quartile but only 10% of the bottom. The rich are indeed getting richer (and better educated), while we've hardly moved the needle on the bottom end that needs it the most.

Over some - but not all - of that time frame we've seen a drop in public support for higher education, a subject I've commented on before. And while it's been de rigueur to blame universities themselves for the rising cost of education - everything from rock-climbing walls to "posh" dorms to gourmet food has been singled out - the fact remains that, in public universities where the vast majority of Americans earn their college degrees, there has been a massive cost-shift going on. Universities are non-profits; they can't give money away to shareholders, they for the most part don't stockpile it away in rainy day funds, and for all that faculty like to complain about how much administrators are paid your average university VP or president makes a small fraction of what similar positions in industry make. Simply put, if there's less money coming in from one source universities have to find it in another - which generally means tuition.

Now we get confirmation of the effects this has on the inequality equation. One of the strategies that public universities use to try to boost tuition revenue is bringing in more out-of-state students (who generally pay higher tuition rates). But when they do this, evidence shows that minority and low-income enrollment go down. Universities' ability to play the role of socioeconomic equalizer is directly undermined by the strategy of seeking higher-paying, "off-shore" students (out of state or out of the country). And that strategy is brought on in large part by the continual drop in public funds.

The broader argument that the marketplace will provide its own opportunities for the poor has so far been little more than a pipe dream. The great experiment in for-profit universities is coming to a screeching halt (as I've noted here, here, and here among other places), brought down by a combination of bad debt, unscrupulous actors, and short-term profit-seeking. There is little hope (and no evidence) that the marketplace is going to solve this problem.

The first question, of course, is basic: what kind of society do we want to live in? If we want a society with substantial inequalities of wealth, and the problems that go with it (see Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s), we're on the right path. If, on the other hand, we want a more broadly prosperous society - not one that enforces Orwellian equality but one in which there are greater opportunities for everybody (think modern Switzerland, Norway, or Korea), we need to do things differently. And shifting some of the burden of higher education back onto the public ledger is likely to be a part of that. We need to figure out what we want, and then put our money where our values are.

When Foreign Policy Isn't Foreign Policy

Folks who study foreign and defense policy (like my colleague Steve Saideman, who's written a lot of good stuff on the F-35 program) know that much of the time, foreign policy is really domestic policy in disguise. This can cause serious problems for those who want to see defense posturing and arms buildups as Realist responses to perceived international threats, rather than what they are: domestic politics by another name.

The latest case of this phenomenon can be seen here:
Congress wants funds for Abrams tanks Army says doesn't need
If there's one weapons system that's become nearly obsolete in the American arsenal, it's the main battle tank. Developed originally during WWI (but put to limited use), perfected in doctrine by the Germans in WWII, and further refined during the long years of the Cold War when the Fulda Gap was considered the most significant potential battleground in the world, the battle tank is designed for large-scale mechanized warfare over large swaths of territory where defined front lines and control of territory matter. Its last hurrah may well have been the 1991 Desert Storm operation, a classic retake-territory campaign that was so stunningly successful it surprised nearly everyone.

What's clear from this story is that the Abrams isn't a response to an ongoing threat or a tool to meet significant security concerns in the 21st century. It's a government-funded jobs program, pure and simple. And for all the Tea Party talk about shrinking government and all the Ayn Rand/F.A. Hayek calls to get the government out of the economy and let the market do its work, jobs programs that produce weapons still enjoy widespread bipartisan support. Where is the anger and outrage from the so-called fiscal hawks within the Republican party over this? One can only imagine the hue and cry if this were a bill to fund $500,000,000 worth of public school teachers that districts said they didn't need...

It's a fool's errand, of course, to look for consistency on Capitol Hill or to ask politicians to hold logically coherent positions. We expect that from our elected officials. We just need to remember that the next time they come peddling some one-size-fits-all, solution-to-everything dogma. Look at their behavior; it's clear that they themselves don't believe it, so why should we?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Narrow-Minded Politicians and Higher Education

Across the history of higher education in America - as with any other institution, at any other time - there have been incidents in which the Powers That Be have sought to meddle in the substance of what's taught. We see this all the time in K-12 education, as battles are fought over science standards or the teaching of American history. But for the past few decades, despite occasional complaints, politicians have to a substantial degree left higher education alone.

In an era of tightening budgets (in many states, public allocations now account for as little as 5% of state universities' budgets, as I've discussed before), some legislators still think that the pittance they're handing out gives them some say in what universities say and how they say it. Onto this field steps Jim Geddes, Congressman and member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, who apparently thinks that Colorado should make a deliberate effort to hire more conservative professors.

Were I inclined to take a liberal tribalist position in response to Geddes' conservative tribalism, I could go off on a rant about the sanctity of higher education and how dare this low-brow conservative butt his head into our business. There's some truth to that, of course - this is a little like me trying to tell a major hospital how to hire its nurses (note: I am not a medical professional of any kind). But there is also data that suggests that, if you survey faculty, more of them tend to be liberal rather than conservative. Whether this means anything or not is another question.

The real mistake that Geddes is making here is not his suggestion, it's the premise which underlies it. He is assuming that "liberal" and "conservative" are the categories that actually matter in what gets taught and how. This is the kind of arrogance only a true politician could evince. He is so wrapped up in the political world of Republicans and Democrats that he assumes, like the blind man and the elephant, that the part of the world he sees is the most important and defining part.

This is, of course, unmitigated nonsense. I teach political science, and even in my area (international relations/foreign policy) the labels of "liberal" and "conservative" as understood by Geddes have essentially no meaning. Step outside the narrow realm of US electoral politics and you discover that the things people argue over don't map - at all - onto our tribal party system. And if this is true in important swaths of political science, how much more in Biology? Neuroscience? Accounting? Computer Engineering? Should all of those departments also hire more "conservatives" to "balance" their teaching?

Sadly, this kind of numbskullery is increasingly associated with American politicians - and, it must be noted, with conservative/Republican politicians in particular. I don't know what outcome Geddes wants, but no amount of "conservative affirmative action" is going to get him there. In this era of vast communications, students of any stripe can get all the exposure to all the opinions they want. If that matters to them, let them watch Fox or MSNBC or whatever they like. In the meantime, let's keep hiring professors on the basis of their expertise, rather than to fill some nonsensical ideological quotas at the behest of interfering politicians.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Threats and Violence: The Demons Are Never Far From the Surface

Focus has turned to the hardest question in the Boston marathon bombing case: why? We have a living suspect (very likely guilty by the existing evidence) as well as a wealth of information from social media, witnesses, friends, and family on both him and his brother. Yet despite all of this information, understanding why two people would do something so obviously heinous and evil is never an easy thing. We may never have a fully satisfactory answer.

But while we find acts of wanton violence incomprehensible, there is more violent thought in our midst than we would care to admit. This is not news; in the 1960s and early 1970s Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments that showed us just how easy it is to move people across the line to otherwise unacceptable behavior.

A recent story from higher education has brought this to mind again. Earlier this week Dartmouth College cancelled classes after a public protest on campus sparked a nasty, even vicious backlash of rape and death threats in online fora. I'm sure additional details will emerge; you can read the initial news story in the Chronicle here.

What interests me isn't the initial protest, which was poorly targeted (a presentation to prospective students?) and probably counter productive. What I find more interesting is the response, apparently from other Dartmouth students who took to anonymous online discussion forums and expressed a desire to either kill or rape the protesters. One quoted example:
"Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those [expletive] hippies away,"
Clearly there's a logic in anonymous online environments that is different from the real social world. It's almost certain that, if you gave that particular author a shotgun and put him in that room during the protest, he probably would not have pulled the trigger and shot anybody. I say probably, because in the heat of a passionate moment people are known to do things they later regret. And I suspect that most of the other authors of similar comments are unlikely to actually commit murder or rape in their real lives, either now or in the future.

That said, I don't find it very satisfying to write this off as simply "harmless online chatter blowing off steam". As Richard Weaver famously wrote, ideas have consequences - our actions flow from the ideas in our heads. I blogged just last week about the hard questions surrounding violence and the relationship between our ideas (or our emotions) and our willingness to justify one kind of violence or another. Sooner or later, philosophies of violence become actions of violence - often when and where we least expect it.

In this sense, Dartmouth College's reaction (cancel classes) is probably a good one. The online threats are serious, not just because they make the targets of the comments feel unsafe, but because they ought to make everyone feel unsafe. There are, apparently, people within the Dartmouth student population willing to entertain the notion that private, person-to-person violence should be used against people you disagree with. This is not just wrong, it's barbaric to a degree that stopping classes for a day to discuss it seems a measured response.

I doubt that the interrupted day will change very much by itself. What the exchange at Dartmouth has done is remind us that the demons of violence are never far from the surface of our collective thoughts. Take any population - even one as wealthy, privileged, and safe as Dartmouth's is - and you will find them skulking in corners waiting for a chance to peek above the surface. If we really want to make headway in banishing the barbarism within ourselves, it can't be done only in response to crises - it must be an ongoing, everyday conversation.

In the course of living our lives we form, test, and entertain ideas about conflict and force and violence nearly every day. Most of the time we don't pay attention to the paths our thoughts travel - and that is the demons' opportunity to sneak in and take up residence. Let's hope that folks at Dartmouth - and everywhere - will start paying more attention to their own thoughts and attitudes, before the demons become actions.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fun With Academic Politics: The Kabuki Theater of Faculty No-Confidence Votes

As I have been reading the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, I've been noticing a lot of faculty no-confidence votes directed at university presidents in the last year or so. I started to wonder whether or not this might be a trend, or at least an increase. Sure enough, Inside Higher Ed has published an article on the subject confirming the trendiness of the no-confidence vote.

The article points out that these votes have little impact. That's not surprising; it's hard to find cases where a no-confidence vote, in and of itself, has had significant impact. It is just what the name implies: a statement that a faculty (or, as the article above points out, part of the faculty) don't have confidence in the leadership of a particular president. Given that presidents are hired and fired by governing boards, on its face this doesn't really matter much.

While there are occasions when such a vote contributes to a presidential firing - some credit the 2005 vote by the Harvard faculty for helping to oust Larry Summers - cases of "success" usually come at the end of a string of problems in which support for the president has already eroded among multiple constituents. If the faculty don't like the president but everybody else (students, trustees, alumni, donors) does, the faculty just look petulant in picking on someone whom everyone else thinks is swell.

This is true in large part because a no-confidence vote, while a great way to get headlines, is an extremely blunt instrument. It doesn't signify a willingness to talk, and it often doesn't do a very good job of explaining what the problem is to non-academics. Yet a no-confidence vote is, like any other attempt to influence organizational outcomes, a political act. And faculty, by and large, don't understand politics very well (even, in my experience, political scientists).

Good political analysis starts with understanding the goal (get the president fired? change certain policy decisions? alter the process to have more input?), the players (administration, trustees, students, alumni, donors, others), and who controls or influences what (who's got what power). The truth is that, on many matters, faculty are often largely powerless unless they can develop what Joseph Nye called "soft power" - the ability to influence and persuade without carrots and sticks. If you don't have much power yourself, you need to figure out who does and how to convince them to use their power in the service of your goals.

This is Politics 101, but too often faculty and administrators both ignore it. Faculty do wield tremendous power over some things, especially the curriculum and its delivery - which is the basic "product" of the university. No administration will get much done if the faculty simply refuse to cooperate on building new programs or expanding existing ones. Yet faculty rarely create issue linkages that would exploit that power.

It would be optimistic, but probably wrong, to suspect that faculties will learn to stop doing something that is mostly useless emotional catharsis. But smart faculty leaders would do well to apply the analytical skills we learn in our disciplines to this particular problem, and figure out better ways to influence their universities than holding no-confidence votes.

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Terrorism", Crime & Punishment

Events continue to unfold in Boston, as we eagerly await answers to the most pressing question about the attack on last week's Boston marathon: Why? We now know (with some degree of certainty) who, although there are some lingering questions about whether there might be connections to other networks of terrorists (so far, there's no evidence that there are).

Of pressing interest now is the eagerly anticipated questioning of the remaining suspect, who remains in serious condition in a Boston hospital. As we wait for him to be well enough to answer questions, a new controversy has arisen: whether to question him as a criminal suspect (with the usual Miranda legal protections attending) or whether to designate him an "enemy combatant", which strips away those protections (including legal counsel and protection against self-incrimination).

This is as much a political question as a legal one. The law, I suspect, will be fairly clear on this, and it may be that those raising the alternative "enemy combatant" option are doing so for political grandstanding purposes. Such demagoguery has never done the Republic any good, however, and so deserves the most careful consideration.

H/t to my colleague Will Moore for an excellent piece on this. Amidst a long(and sometimes shameful) list of past cases, Will invokes the words of John Adams from the trial of British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (Adams was the soldiers' defense attorney):
It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. 
But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.
This is not a politically popular view, but it is an important one in an era in which politicians are likely to bay for blood at every opportunity in an effort to pander for votes. The loose use of the term "terrorism" is particularly problematic here - if we can apply a separate (non-Constitutional) set of rules to every case we slap the "terrorist" label on, we will make politics the master of the legal system.

Why, for example, do explosions get labelled as "terrorism" but gun violence does not? Should James Holmes be labeled a "terrorist" for the Aurora, CO shootings? What about Adam Lanza? Even Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were tried under standard criminal rules, despite having perpetrated what was in 1995 the largest terrorist bombing attack on US soil in history.

As conservatives are fond of warning us (and then conveniently forgetting when it suits them), we should be careful what powers we give to the government. Do we really want to give this and every future President the power to label crimes as "terrorist" and shunt them to an entirely separate legal system outside the Constitution? Who gets to decide what counts as "terrorist" and what doesn't? Right now there is no standing legal definition in the US; the term is entirely political. How long before "terrorist" becomes simply "stuff I don't like"?

These kinds of problems are, of course, why nations create Constitutions - to set the rules up ahead of time on the most fundamental issues. Crime & punishment has always been on the top of that list, which is why fully five of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights deal with it in some way. Adams and his contemporaries saw the dangers of allowing a system to be governed by the momentary passions of the mob, who would likely have lynched those British soldiers on the spot. I hope that our leaders today can recover that same wisdom and let the criminal justice system do its work.

Update 4/22/13, 3:30 pm EDT: It appears, based on this news report, that the White House has ruled out the "enemy combatant" road. The suspect has been charged and will be handled by regular criminal courts, at least according to this account.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Oops! We Take It Back!

One of the often-invoked rules from my childhood was "no backsies!" This was usually said by one child who had traded places with or otherwise given another child something, and didn't want it back. The basic social logic was clear: you took it, you're stuck with it.

The internet has reinforced this rule by providing a space in which stuff is recycled, recirculated, re-tweeted, and archived, such that very little ever actually dies. Because of that, the following attempt by a couple of groups to "take back" what they said probably isn't going to work very well:
Groups Retract Paper That Criticized Faculty Workloads
When this report was first released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in March, it caused quite a stir with its main contention that tenure-track faculty teach a lot less today than they did 20 or so years ago. That this argument was made publicly, by an organization representing one side (Trustees) of the classic higher education labor-management divide, immediately set off a round of angry recriminations and blaming. Anti-faculty forces (both within higher education and in the conservative public sphere) were quick to use the report to blame faculty for the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Pro-faculty groups fired back angry responses with varying heat/light ratios.

But then a funny thing happened. Some faculty, being researchers and scholars, dug into the data and the methods of the report. They discovered that the conclusions the authors drew are not in fact supported by the data or the methods. This, in itself, is not that surprising - stretching data to try to fit pre-existing conclusions is practically a literary genre of its own these days. But in this case, the stretch was a few bridges too far, and now the groups who wrote the piece are trying to retract it to save some semblance of credibility.

The damage, of course, has already been done. The next time either the Trustees' group or its partner, Education Sector, release a report on this subject people aren't going to take them very seriously. To his credit, the study's lead author (Andrew Gillen, Education Sector's Director of Research) takes personal responsibility. But most people won't read his statement; they'll see the headline and move on.

There's a cautionary tale here for both academics and those who want to enter into academic policy debates. There's not a lot of room for sloppiness in this arena. You need to bring your A game, or tread very cautiously, because the people looking over your work are very smart and they will find your mistakes. And maybe the next time someone decides to argue a pre-determined truth with a ginned-up study, they'll think twice. At least, we can hope.

Boston & Texas: Why Meaning Matters More Than Numbers

On Monday, two bombs went off in a crowd of spectators near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious sporting events. Three people were killed and over 180 injured, some seriously. The event was quickly labelled an act of terrorism.

On Tuesday, a large explosion leveled a fertilizer plant in near Waco, Texas. With reports still coming in, the blast injured about 160 people, killed up to 15, and leveled dozens of buildings and homes including 60-80 houses and a 50-unit apartment building. News reports as of this writing seem to indicate an accident as the likeliest cause - though we will know more in the coming days.

The responses to both events, terrorism and (apparent) accident, tell us a lot about how we view danger, violence, and threats in the modern world.

Economists (prominently including the authors of Freakonomics) love to point out that we over-estimate some dangers and threats and under-estimate others. When we hear a couple of stories about sharks attacking swimmers, we overestimate the likelihood that we ourselves might be attacked - and so stay away from the ocean. We forget about the far greater likelihood of being killed in a car accident, or by any of a number of other less visible things that kill many thousands every year.

While these are good reminders about how bad we are at probabilities and math (which is important), these analyses miss the point. They do so with a classic economics mistake - assuming that one death is very much like another, or (in economics-speak) that death is fungible. Dead is dead, after all.

But our collective responses to the Boston and West, TX events show otherwise. Death is not just event, one equivalent to another. Death has meaning, and so how we die has meaning. That meaning changes the very character of how we perceive death and how we shape our responses to it.

Assuming that no link is found to criminal or nefarious activity (and as of this time, none has been suggested), the West, TX explosion is an accidental tragedy. A fire broke out at a factory which unfortunately had large concentrations of explosive substances. Disaster ensued. But the disaster was (in this narrative) not intended, directed, or caused by any person. We may discover in the future that it was the byproduct of negligence or sloppiness or bad maintenance. But nobody meant for those people to be injured or die.

The Boston explosions are an entirely different animal - even though the damage caused was far less (in both deaths and property destruction). These were clearly a work of malevolence. It is no accident that the first fatality victim identified, and probably the best well-known, is an 8 year old boy - the very definition of an innocent. We don't just feel hurt by these explosions; we feel attacked.

And that is the fundamental distinction, the point that economists miss. Whether I die from an accidental fire or a homicide matters. Human malevolence, alone among all the possible causes of death, is the one that bothers us the most. There are many reasons why this might be - because we feel it should be the most preventable, because we feel the wrongness of it, because we are confronted with our own feelings of anger and hatred that can lead down that road. But for whatever reason, death by the deliberate targeted action of another affects us differently than any other kind.

Both of these stories are national news. Boston will go on being national news for a lot longer, as we sift through the questions - who? and why? chief among them - that accidental explosions do not pose. The memory of the victims of Boston will stay with us, as will the images of response - the pairing of New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox logos, for example, or the singing of "Sweet Caroline" at a Yankees game. All of these things move us, even those of us far away from either event, in a way that accidental tragedy does not.

This is not to say that the victims of both events are not deserving of sympathy and support - and both will be given. But these things feel different. And however much we try to be rational in our policies and responses, that feeling matters for what we do. Many stories are tragic, but not all tragedies affect us in the same way. Statistics and death tolls, in the end, are not the final arbiter - narrative and meaning are. And in a way, that is very smart of us - because we often can't control the statistics, but we can work together to build meaning.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Talking About Violence After the Boston Marathon Explosions

Like a lot of people, I spent some time yesterday checking on friends involved with the Boston Marathon and trying to find out what happened. A good friend of ours had actually just finished the race some 20 minutes before and saw one of the explosions - luckily, she was a block away and wasn't hurt. I know many people who have similar stories. And sadly, there are over a hundred whose stories don't end as well, including (as of this writing) three tragic deaths.

There will be many questions in the coming days, starting with Who did this? and going through How? and Why? A few fringe voices have already cited their favorite suspects (Muslims, natch), but for the most part public conversation has been subdued and sensible. We've seen events like this before - the most direct parallel is the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was a lone domestic bomber. So for the most part, people aren't rushing to conclusions, which is good.

But there is also an opportunity here to ask larger questions, the ones we never really get around to thinking about. In cases like this, the violence is obviously horrible and indefensible - what legitimate argument can be made for killing an innocent 8 year old kid? We know (at least, most of us know) that this kind of indiscriminate targeting of civilians is wrong.

The question we don't want to ask is, what kind of violence is right? When is it acceptable to use lethal force against other human beings? We've done an awful lot of this overseas in the last decade - even conservative estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan put the casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands. Inside the US we allow ourselves to get distracted by other issues: guns, race, class, and others. Where was the debate after the Trayvon Martin shooting about the circumstances under which it's appropriate to use deadly force in self-defense? It was quickly drowned out by cries of racism on the one side and gun rights on the other.

So as a society, a lot of violence is done on our behalf, and we inflict a lot of violence on each other. But we never get around to talking about the basic question: when, if ever, is violence justified?

I have no doubt that, if we did have a national conversation about this, we would discover a strong diversity of opinion. I have blogged before (here and here) about gut-level views about legitimate views of violence that I find wrong, even abhorrent, which are nevertheless held (in an unexamined fashion) by significant numbers of people. So I don't expect any kind of quick, easy national consensus. These are hard questions.

But because they are hard questions, we need to tackle them head-on. Rules and principles about the legitimate use of force are too important to be left to the category of "you can have yours and I can have mine", because if my personal sense of allowable force includes carrying a gun and shooting whenever I feel threatened, that has an immediate and significant impact on the world you live in. We can, and should, strive to do better than an everyone-for-themselves Hobbesian anarchy.

We tend to put instances like the Boston tragedy, or even the Newtown or Aurora shootings, in their own category, divorced from the rest of reality. But in each of these cases somebody made a decision that lethal violence was justified, even required. Sometimes the people who make those decisions are mentally ill, but not always - neither Terry Nichols nor Timothy McVeigh entered an insanity plea after the Oklahoma City bombing. People make these decisions in context with all the other decisions about violence that get made every day. As American philosopher Elbert Hubbard famously wrote, "So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs."

So by all means let us mourn the tragedy of Boston, comfort the victims, and come together with resolve not to let this kind of senseless violence diminish us. But let us also use it to propel us to a greater understanding of what violence is, and isn't, for. It's high time we had a serious conversation about when we should, or shouldn't, be killing our enemies.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Follow-Up to the Texas "Mass Stabbing"

More details have come to light about the "mass stabbing" on a Texas campus yesterday. Notable facts include:

• The attacker used what appears to be an X-acto knife or something similar. He was forced to stop when the blade broke off.

• The attacks all happened in the midst of a crowd. He apparently moved from victim to victim, stabbing or slashing each in the head or throat, before moving on to the next.

• When the blade broke, he fled and was tackled outside by two other students, one a football player. No further violence ensued, nor were any other weapons involved.

There are important lessons here for self-defense:

• Real violence isn't like in the movies, where the perpetrator is obvious because he's in the middle of the camera shot. There was confusion and chaos, and because the attacker wasn't otherwise calling attention to himself (the motion of attack was quick and largely noiseless), very few people realized what was going on.

• To the ongoing debate about guns and self-defense: contrary to my previous assertion, guns would have been terrible for self-defense in this situation. Not only was there a crowd, with attacks at close quarters, such that a would-be hero would risk hitting either the victim or others; but none of the victims would have had time to draw a weapon even if they saw the knife coming - which, apparently, most of them didn't.

• There are only two things that would have protected these victims (and, to be fair, some may have deployed them): situational awareness and honed reflexes to block an attack to the head.
Situational awareness is simple - who do I allow to get within arm's reach of me, and do I see them coming from outside that range? This is an easy skill to learn, but it must be practiced (which I've commented on before). Most martial artists I know do this as a matter of course - it's a habit.
Block reflexes are also not hard to learn - but they need to be taught, and they need to be practiced.

The wrong lesson to take from this is that we should all be paranoid and afraid. Had any one had the requisite skills, and seen the attack coming, they could have disarmed this fellow and rendered him harmless fairly quickly, saving quite a bit of bloodshed. Greater situational awareness alone would likely have saved many of these victims.

If we want to be safe, we should take greater responsibility for ourselves - not by buying guns, but by learning skills. The chances of running into one of these attacks is very low - but the cost of acquiring the skills is low as well. The resources are there, in every community - we just have to take advantage of them.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree on Higher Education

Within higher ed there's been much buzz lately about a National Association of Scholars report released last week that took Bowdoin College (and, by implication, most elite liberal arts colleges) to task for being, in essence, too liberal. I have blogged about this previously; the fact that the final report said more or less what people expected it to say should come as no surprise. It has touched off conversations, at least in the world of elite liberal-arts colleges, about whether there is a sustained attack from the right against the liberal arts, and how you would decide what is "too liberal".

Along similar lines, we've seen politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott (not known for his measured and carefully considered words) bashing certain majors (in his case, anthropology) and suggesting that students should major in areas with good job prospects and avoid the fuzzy liberal-arts stuff. It's an old argument, and unlikely to go away anytime soon; it's also a convenient, less obviously political hook for people who (like the NAS) are really interested in ideology but want to cloak themselves in the language of jobs and economic development.

Lost in this ongoing scrum is a core truth: what you major in is far less important than what skills you acquire in college. We've known this for years, but every once in a while someone releases yet another survey making the point, as this story in today's Inside Higher Ed does.

The message is the same every time: most businesses (being reasonably smart) want to know what you can do. Knowledge, especially technical knowledge, can be learned (if you know how to learn), and in many fields most of what you learn today will need to be re-learned in 5 years anyway. Moreover, knowledge that can't be effectively communicated is worthless. And it is a rare organization in which people work alone; generally we work in groups, or with other people in a variety of ways. So there's a whole set of skills there that can be learned across nearly any major (and should be).

This is not to say that major doesn't matter at all. If you want a job as an engineer, you need to major in engineering - in large part because of the base of knowledge and professional skills you need in that field. But if you're a great engineer who can't write, can't give a presentation, and doesn't work well with others, you're not a great engineer - you're at best a mediocre performer who is going to struggle in your career. Moreover, for all of the emphasis today on STEM careers there are lot of non-STEM things we need people to do, from teaching to management to organizational design to graphic design and creativity.

It seems to me that the shrill caterwauling over whether liberal arts is "too liberal" or whether some majors are appropriate for public dollars or not is coming from small, committed ideological tribes who have their own axes to grind. If we want to make higher education better, we are better off ignoring these folks - who are more interested in scoring points for their tribe than in the public good - and focusing on real-world conversations between businesses, higher education, and the communities they serve. Let's filter out the useless "debates" and focus our time on more useful pursuits - whatever we may have majored in in college.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Whoever Heard of a Mass Stabbing?"

This is a question heard from the left a lot during debates over gun control - "whoever heard of a mass stabbing?" It's meant to be rhetorical and a little bit snarky, with the underlying assumption being that if would-be killers were armed with knives instead of guns we wouldn't have mass casualty incidents.

Turns out that that's not entirely the case - it is possible to have a mass stabbing. In, of all places, Texas.

There's a lot we don't know about this incident as yet. Apparently the "stabber" (we call gun users "shooters", don't we?) is still on the loose. Various points will jump out at people, depending on where you stand on gun control:

• While this qualifies as a mass casualty incident, this is 14 injured, not 14 dead. Four were transported to hospitals; some (or all) of those may die depending on the severity of their injuries. Knives are potentially lethal, but they are less lethal than guns - it's harder to kill with a knife, all other things being equal.

• A "good guy with a gun" (to borrow Wayne LaPierre's now-famous phrase) could likely have stopped this attack at any point. I'm sure there will be speculation that this didn't happen because this was a university campus, which are often accused of being gun-free zones. I don't know what the rules are in Texas or on this campus to know whether policy prevented a gun from being present. I will freely concede the point that a victim with a gun, if he or she saw the attacker coming and recognized the threat, could have shot the attacker and ended the spree.

Being a student of self-defense, I ask a different question: were all of these attacks alone and away from other people? Did the attacker sneak up on or otherwise surprise all 14 victims at close range and alone? University campuses are usually pretty well stocked with people, even in the morning. One hopes that this is not another replay of the Kitty Genovese case, with witnesses hiding or running away rather than coming to assist.

I ask these questions because, while engaging someone with a knife is always a dangerous endeavor, you don't need a gun to stop a knife-wielding assailant. You need some skill, willingness to defend yourself, and above all courage. Numbers help a lot. Two modestly skilled but determined people can overcome an assailant with a knife; three can do so fairly easily, and so on. If you're by yourself, you need more skill and knowledge of what you're doing, but it's still doable.

We won't know for a while who these victims were. Were they each alone? Were they all of a particular type? (small and female; older; distracted by cell phones?) Something apparently kept all 14 of these people from being able to stop the attacker - although it should be recognized that many of them may have successfully defended themselves if they were able to escape with only a cut or two. Of course, as soon as they were safely away they would presumably call the police - were all of these attacks within a short span of time?

I don't draw any lessons about gun control from this case - I don't think it's really relevant (although people on both the left and the right will beg to differ). To me this is a prime example of the need for individual practice in self-defense. Well north of 50% of self-defense is simply awareness; since a knife attacker has to get within arm's reach to get you, being aware of your immediate surroundings goes a long way. Unless this attacker is a super-stealth ninja, most if not all of these 14 people could be unharmed now if they had learned a proper self-defense mindset and a set of skills to go with it.

Regardless of the larger national policy debates, I think that's a hopeful truth. We can all do more to protect ourselves; we don't have to wait for the government, or the NRA, or anybody else, to do it for us. The skills needed aren't hard to acquire; they just take time, practice, and focus, much like anything else.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Blogging & the ISA Experience: Is This Professional? Personal? Somewhere In Between?

As my Facebook friends know, I have just returned from the annual International Studies Association conference. Following in the footsteps of my friend & colleague Steve Saideman (and when, really, have I ever not followed in Steve's footsteps?), some thoughts and reflections from the experience about the profession, blogging, and what I do (or think I do):

- After a two-year hiatus, I seem to still fit in OK. I'm not the only person in my circle/generation who is moving into administration, though I may have been a bit more aggressive about it than some. It was nice to be in an environment where we're all the same tribe, regardless of what our day jobs are.

- The level of work in the field continues to impress me, but no longer frightens me. I will never be a great or incredibly prolific scholar, but (when I can find the time) I can play as a journeyman in the big leagues. And given the people I get to have conversations with, that's pretty cool.

- My poker skills, which were never that great, at least haven't deteriorated over the last few years. It helps to play with people who have had far more to drink than I have (and it helps to get the lucky last card draw, as Steve will point out).

- Blogging has definitely Become A Thing. This is where it really did get intimidating, because a lot of really smart people in the discipline are writing really great blogs. The first annual IR Blogging Reception was far more crowded than I think people thought it would be. Watching Dan Drezner, who was smart enough to use zombies to explain international relations theory, cleverly skewer the idea of his own work was reason enough - there's a reason why he's as widely read as he is. This led me to wonder: if blogging has become a thing (and if we now give awards for it, even though the awards are little rubber ducks mounted on wood), will it too fall victim to the status obsession that sometimes haunts our profession? We have A-list, B-list, and C-list journals; will we now have A-, B-, and C-list blogs? Will young scholars and grad students sweat and claw and scratch to get onto Duck of Minerva, the way they now fret about getting publications in International Studies Quarterly?

- Watching the discipline embrace blogging was fun, but also pushed me to reflect on why I do it. I can't claim the same mantle of narcissism that my friend Steve does; yes, I like to be in visible places and positions, but a career in administration isn't driven as much by visibility in the discipline. On the other hand, the easy availability of blog analytics tempts me in that direction. I tend to get anywhere between 20 and 40 readers for a given blog post - most of them, likely, Facebook friends. Steve is read by hundreds (if not more), Drezner by thousands. Should I care? If I did, I would probably write about different stuff - I'd need to develop a focus, a niche that caters to a particular crowd (like ISA academics). But what I write tends to be eclectic - a little IR, a little politics, some stuff about higher education administration, the occasional bit about theology or religion or martial arts. It doesn't speak to any one crowd. Which, I realized thinking on the plane on the way back, is fine. As I've mentioned before, I primarily write this thing for me. I read Peter Drucker's Managing Oneself on the plane - Drucker talks about understanding how you learn. I learn by writing, so blogging is a great learning tool. I usually don't understand what I think until I've had a chance to write about it.

- I have some really great friends, including one willing to promote my blog to a room full of really smart people. He blogs some pretty good stuff, too - I sometimes suspect, for the same reasons I do.

- Lastly, I haven't been blogging as much as I would like lately. It's easy to understand why - since mid-February I have effectively been doing the work of two positions at my university, so my schedule is more crowded than it used to be. But I'll keep looking for the cracks in that schedule and finding time to ramble here - and if a few other people find it useful or entertaining, great!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stomping on Jesus: Higher Ed, Truthiness, and Corruption in Both Politics and Religion

People in higher education may have been following the saga of the Florida Atlantic adjunct professor who is accused of ordering students to "stomp on Jesus" in his class. The case has garnered significant national attention, as well as condemnations from Florida Governor Rick Scott and hasty (and ill-considered) apologies from Florida Atlantic's administration. A good summary of the story can be found here, along with an interview with the professor at the center of the controversy:
Interview with professor at center of 'Jesus' debate at Florida Atlantic
That politicians of Mr. Scott's stature (term used advisedly) should be drawn into a tempest-in-a-teapot about which they know nothing comes as no surprise. The American political landscape is filled with opportunist politicians who can pander to various cherished constituencies (in this case, evangelicals) at the drop of a hat. If Florida elects 'leaders' of this calibre, this is what they will get.

More disturbing to me has been the wider response to the unsubstantiated (and, it turns out, incorrect) story about Professor Poole "ordering" his students to "stomp on Jesus". As it turns out, the exercise isn't about disrespect (religious or otherwise), it's about the power of symbols. No one is forced to do anything - students are free to step or not step on a piece of paper, and most of them choose not to - which is the point of the exercise. Finally, it turns out that the instructor in question is a devout and practicing Christian himself, who understands the power that the name of Jesus has. So much for accusations of evil atheist/liberal professors disrespecting religion. This story has been wrong from day one.

But rather than take the time to learn facts - any facts - dozens of people apparently decided to level death threats at the professor in question. Much internet sound and fury has ensued, including this illuminating tidbit from someone who must have gone to a different Sunday school than I did:
KIBAPosted on March 30, 2013 at 7:44pmTo ubethechange, I do. And if this lib professor stomps Jesus he should be boot-stomped till his face looks like spaghetti sauce, with meat chunks.
At this point, it's abundantly clear that this is not about religion or Christianity or Jesus. It is about a mindless left-right tribalism fueled by anger and hatred. The assumption that the professor in question is a "lib" [liberal] and a "commie" is indicative of people projecting their fear-based reality onto a situation.

What I wonder is - where are the real churches? Particular the churches in this community in Florida? Here's a useful contribution:
Some are calling for Poole and others involved to be disciplined. Pastor Mark Boykin, of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton, said his church plans to hold a protest march to FAU at 11:30 a.m. April 4.
Or you can read Catholic League President William Donohue's contribution of fuel to the fire:
Dear Dr. Poole:The assignment you gave asking students to stomp on a piece of paper with the word “Jesus” on it was reportedly an exercise in the cultural meaning of symbols taken from the textbook, “Intercultural Communications: A Contextual Approach,” 5th edition. But the word “Jesus” is never mentioned in the textbook, so that was your call. You could have asked them to stomp on the word “Obama,” but that may have made you feel uncomfortable given your activist role in the Democratic Party and the pro-Obama book you are currently writing. Get the point?William A. Donohue, Ph.D.PresidentCatholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
I search and search in the Gospels - as a believer myself - for indications of a Jesus who would have his disciplines threaten to harm a man they don't know for actions they know little about. What happened to St. Francis' prayer that we be instruments of God's peace? What happened to "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you"? Christians are called to love believers and unbelievers alike - and Poole is certainly a believer - so this is Christian love?

What saddens me most about this case is not the craven response by the FAU administration, nor the tribalist one-upmanship by the governor. It is prominent members of the church who, as representatives of the church, have allowed themselves to be corrupted by the world and its transient conflicts. This is not the message of the Easter resurrection, it is the childishness of people who are more concerned with pride and vanity (didn't the Catholic Church used to label those sins?) than with the Gospel. So long as churches allow themselves to be pawns in the petty political squabbles of our age, rather than actually reading the scriptures they spend so much time thumping, they will continue to slide further and further away from grace.