Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Odd Corner of the Higher Education Industry

I saw this headline in today's Inside Higher Ed:
ConnectEDU Files for Bankruptcy Protection
This is a company that had sought to provide advising to students in navigating through high school and college and into careers. It got some press because of a fairly sizable grant it received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also strikes me as an odd choice.

It's not that guiding students successfully through secondary and post-secondary education into productive careers isn't a good thing to do. And it's not that there isn't some need for doing so that isn't being met now. But how you make enough money doing so, when the population most in need (the working class and poor) are those least able to pay (the working class and poor), is beyond me. Apparently it was beyond them, too. Hopefully Gates got some useful knowledge out of the experiment.

In the meantime, there are resources - more plentiful in some places than in others - in both high school and college to help students navigate these challenges. Most of those resources are free, which will continue to make them the preferred option, especially for those of limited means. Certainly universities need to do a better job in this area - but it appears the private sector isn't going to take the job away from us just yet.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sarah Palin, Blasphemer

Usually, Sarah Palin is too easy a target to bother picking on. She makes poor Dan Quayle (anybody remember him?) sound like a Rhodes Scholar, and can always be counted on to feed late-night comedians. I think Comedy Central should pay her royalties.

That said, this past weekend Palin outdid herself in front of a National Rifle Association rally in Indianapolis. The NRA, never known for inviting speakers with moderate views, may have gotten more than even it bargained for this time around.

What was Palin's sin? Blasphemy. In the midst of what I'm sure was an otherwise ho-hum tribalist rant about how evil Liberals are and how the government wants to take away everything, she uttered this little chestnut about how to deal with terrorists:
"If I was in charge they would know, waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists."
I'm sure that line got quite a lot of applause. I would like to think - though I don't hold out much hope - that faithful Christians in the audience, of whom surely there were many, may have withheld their applause or at least paused in discomfort for a moment. When was the last time you heard someone refer to the Sacrament of Baptism and terrorists in the same sentence?

The religious blasphemy here is obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the basic tenets of Christianity. Baptism is one of two sacramental practices that is pretty much universal to the Christian faith around the globe (the other being communion, the sharing of bread and wine). And while there are lots of squabbles over details, the fundamental understanding of baptism is the same the world over: it is a practice that signifies the salvation of the individual baptized and their joining with the broader church, the Body of Christ. It is a deliberately inclusive ritual that brings people into the fold of acceptance by the church.

How anyone, even in search of a political punch line, can equate this practice with torturing terrorists for information is beyond me. I can only assume that someone who would say such a thing is so callous to the faith she professes to believe, so wrapped up in her own ego and need for approval, and so steeped in the blindness of the political tribalism she has helped create that she doesn't understand what she said. The fact that "baptism" might have some religious significance for anyone - even for some of her own followers - is obviously not of the slightest concern to her.

I don't really care what Sarah Palin does or what she says. She strikes me as the worst kind of pandering politician who, far from being a "rogue", is all too eager for power and will do whatever is necessary to obtain it. Lacking electoral power, she is happy to whip people up into a frenzy as a sort of modern-day political revivalist, which is power of a sort.

What interests me more is the reaction of the churches. What must the Assemblies of God, the Pentacostal denomination to which Palin has belonged, think of such an obvious theological outrage? One of the four points of the church's stated Mission is "Show compassion" - which suggests that water boarding might be a little out of place. The church also describes "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" as one of its "Core Doctrines", though there are no references to torture therein.

Beyond the Assemblies, what kind of response might we see from other churches? Few that will be reported in the media, of course - Pope Francis might be able to draw some attention (and I hope he will), but most other denominations likely won't make the front (or even the back) page. They should consider issuing statements all the same, to their own members if nothing else. This is one case where I would think almost any sincere Christian would agree that there should be a line between politics and religion, and that no faith - not even the faith of the powerful class - should be used to score cheap political points.

At root there is an old lesson here. Setting aside Constitutional arguments about the Separation of Church and State from the government side, this case presents a cautionary tale to churches about the dangers of mixing in politics. Politicians can and will twist, distort, and pervert your words, doctrines, and beliefs - whatever they may be - to their own ends. When you lend your support to them in public, you give them license to do so.

So to faithful Christians everywhere, whatever your political leanings: behold Sarah Palin. Never forget that the lust for power and adulation can destroy anything and everything, even the things you think are most central. And think twice before backing a politician - any politician - before you give them license to speak in your name and in the name of God.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Silly Blather About Master's Degrees

In today's Chronicle of Higher Education is one of the silliest articles I have seen in a while. I would ordinarily pass over stuff that's obviously wrong - if I wrote a blog piece every time I disagreed with someone's views on some internet-available publication, I would have little time for anything else include food and sleep. But this one in particular caught my eye, probably because of its provocative title. You can read it yourself here:
Those Master's-Degree Programs at Elite U.? They're For-Profit
Kevin Carey, Director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, is trying (in broad, sweeping brushstrokes) to equate master's programs at public universities with associates degree programs at the University of Phoenix and others - credentials of dubious worth that generate high debt rates and (he implies, though he has no data to this point) high student loan defaults. The argument is worth unpacking, if only to see where he's gone so horribly wrong.

First, though this tends towards ad hominem territory it is worth noting that Mr. Carey, though he is billed as "an expert" on "higher education issues", has never actually worked for a university as more than an adjunct instructor, nor is there any indication that he has ever run a master's program. The section of his official bio with regards to his career reads thus:
Prior to joining New America, Carey worked as the policy director of Education Sector, and as an analyst at the Education Trust and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Previously, he worked for the Indiana Senate Finance Committee and as Indiana's Assistant State Budget Director. He also teaches education policy at Johns Hopkins University.
Aside from some classroom work (at what level it doesn't say), it's not clear that Mr. Carey has ever worked in the industry he claims to be an expert in. I'm not sure I follow that logic, but what do I know.

Getting to the substance of his argument - Mr. Carey's main claim that public university master's programs are the same as worthless for-profit ventures rests on a number of observations about rising median debt levels among master's-seeking students. Three specific claims he makes:
According to the latest results, the median debt accrued by students completing master’s degrees in 2012 was $57,600, a 31-percent increase from just four years earlier, after adjusting for inflation.
The median debt for master’s degrees in education, for example, grew from $33,910 to $50,879 in four years.
Median debt for people in the broad fields that grant master-of-arts degrees grew from $43,247 to nearly $59,000.
The first red flag here is that I can't tell from these statements whether he is talking about debt accumulated while in graduate school or total debt accumulated by the student. If these numbers represent the latter, they could easily be the result of rising undergraduate debt loads, which we know have been increasing in recent years. Undergrads who go on to get master's degrees - as many have in recent years, trying to get an edge in a weak labor market - carry their debt with them. So Mr. Carey may well be blaming the problem on the wrong source. At the very least, he is guilty of not presenting his data clearly - and when I see an unclear presentation like this, it makes me wonder whether somebody is hiding something.

Moreover, Mr. Carey implies in his article that this debt is problematic because students getting master's degrees either aren't getting jobs, or aren't making enough in those jobs to pay the debt back - a problem that has been documented with respect to many for-profit degrees at lower levels. But in making this claim, Mr. Carey offers no data or information at all. The best he can muster is hyperbole and snark, to whit:
Do you know any recent M.A. graduates with lots of money to burn?
Similar numbers appear in the catch-all category of "other" master’s degrees. Many of these have—just like "office management"—weak ties to established professions.
A one-year master’s program in something like "government" is accountable to no one.
These assertions sound vaguely sinister, but they are at best anecdotal - and at worst, imaginary. They sound like the claims of someone who has not actually bothered to take the time to research the subject he's writing about, but has decided instead to shoot from the hip and hope that writing style and the general assent of his audience to his political leadings will earn him nods of approval. He is, in other words, just like Thomas Friedman and most other op-ed writers: opining on things he knows little about with sweeping generalizations and a touch of attitude.

I don't know the relevant data for graduate programs across the country. I do know much of this information for my own institution, at which I oversee over 60 master's programs. Here are a few relevant observations:

- Half of our graduate students do not borrow any money at all while in graduate school; of those that do, very few run up the kind of debt that Mr. Carey is indicating, and if they did it would be almost entirely in support of living expenses (money that does not go to the university), not tuition.

- Contrary to Mr. Carey's reference to "largely unaccountable terminal master's-degree programs that offer little or no financial aid", many of our master's degrees, especially in STEM fields, do carry significant financial aid support.  My office alone oversees $1.8 million in tuition scholarships for graduate students across all colleges every year, most of them pursuing master's degrees, and I know that other institutions in my state spend far more. And that's not counting institutional support for graduate assistants - we have about 550 of those every year, all of whom get full tuition waivers.

- Most of our graduate programs care deeply about the careers they are preparing their students for, and take the time to track placement rates either in getting jobs or in moving on to PhD programs. Just because these programs aren't accountable to somebody in Washington doesn't mean there's no accountability - poorly-performing programs face a host of sanctions, up to and including being shut down.

- Even in the one area where he might have a point - Master's of Education programs - our enrollment numbers have plummeted, suggesting that the market is working by discouraging students from chasing a degree that may not help them as much as it once did.

In short, Mr. Carey has painted a picture that looks wholly unlike the reality I work with on a daily basis. Perhaps my institution is not the kind of place he meant to pick on - if so, he should say so. But if he expects to be respected by those of us who work in the industry and read the Chronicle, he should take the time to do his homework before coming to class. Perhaps in my next blog post, I should make an argument for government regulation of op-ed authors...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Expanding into the Blogosphere

Following in the footsteps of my friend and co-author Steve Saideman (whose work I greatly admire, all snark aside), I have begun to expand my footprint in the Greater Blogosphere by joining a group blog. This new venture, Relations International, is being organized by a friend of mine on the faculty at Florida State. It promises a pretty wide-ranging set of views on political topics from a set of academics who may or may not agree with each other (meaning I may or may not agree with anything written there!) If you've been a fan of my more politically-oriented stuff, I would urge you to check it out - and join the conversation by commenting!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Update to Yesterday's Mass Stabbing

Yesterday I posted about a "mass stabbing" at a high school near Pittsburgh. As tends to be the case with such emergencies, initial information was incomplete. I don't necessarily retract what I wrote then, but I've gotten some additional perspective which raises some new thoughts.

A college classmate of mine was an alum of that high school. She still knows many people in the area, and spoke to some of the families, including some who had witnessed the event. She assured me that the school did have an emergency plan in place, and that both school kids and (most importantly) the adults in the building acted quickly and appropriately. We can yet hope that as a result none of the casualties in this case become deaths (although a few are apparently in critical condition at local hospitals).

Assuming this to be true (and I have no reason to doubt my friend's report), this raises a couple of additional and related observations. First, the chaos point still holds. Despite the best-laid plans executed as well as possible, a 16 year old student with two knives (apparently kitchen knives, from recent reports) was able to seriously injure 20 fellow students, four of them critically. I still suspect that the number, and the stabber's ability to move about the school in doing so, is due to the initial chaos. A plan is only good once someone figures out what's going on and "pushes the button" to activate it. That undoubtedly took some time, time in which the violence could continue largely unabated.

This leads to a broader observation about the asymmetry of violence - something I've written about before. My claim then: Real security is hard - 100% security is impossible. This case tragically proves that point. As much as we need to be prepared, individually and organizationally, to mitigate these kinds of cases we delude ourselves if we think there is a "magic bullet" (arming teachers, better emergency plans, metal detectors, what have you) that is going to keep everybody safe 100% of the time. It is a tragic reality of our world that if someone is truly bent on causing mayhem and destruction, they will succeed to some degree. We may be able to influence that degree at the margin, but once you've reached that point you can't stop it from happening entirely unless you get very, very lucky.

Which leads to the final observation - one which NRA supporters and detractors can, I suspect, agree on. The real source of violence lies in the human heart. The answer therefore ultimately lies in real connections between people. I don't yet know who this boy was, or why he did this terrible thing. But other people did know him, before he came to this pass in his life. That's not to lay blame on parents, or friends, or teachers - this isn't about figuring out "who's at fault". But it is to say that the only real solution to violence we have is in healing the hearts of the people around us. And that, far more than guns or police or martial arts, is hard. But it is something we should dedicate ourselves to nevertheless, every day and whether we touch the heart of one person or twenty.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Another "Mass Stabbing", a Year Later

I wrote exactly one year ago today about a mass stabbing incident at a Texas university. Now, by coincidence or intentional copying, we find ourselves with another similar incident, this time at a high school just outside of Pittsburgh.

At this point details are still emerging, so it's difficult to say much yet for certain. From the early reports, it appears that a single student armed with two knives (one in each hand?) attacked students and others around his high school, injuring upwards of 20 or more people, some of them critically. Many but not all of the injuries were deep stab wounds, suggesting a deliberate attempt to kill or cripple. The perpetrator was apparently ultimately brought down by two adults working in tandem.

I will grant you that a young, fit male teen armed with two knives and intent on causing as much damage as possible is a difficult problem to deal with. Nearly all martial arts and self-defense training with which I'm familiar practices scenarios involving an attacker with one knife, not two (I know that Escrima/Kali is an exception here). On my own, I would be hard pressed to subdue someone like that without getting seriously injured myself. As part of a pair, it would become easier.

The thing that strikes me as noteworthy - as it did in the case a year ago - is not such much the self-defense tactics, or arguments about whether there should have been people armed with guns at the school or not (firing a gun in a crowded hallway full of panicked kids? Probably not a good idea). It's the fact that this kid could apparently move about the school, armed with nothing but knives, for several minutes without any kind of coordinated, or even coherent, response. I would guess that both victims and those nearest them struggled just to understand what was happening - and while they tried to figure that out, the attacker moved on to others.

This is the nature of out-of-the-blue emergencies and attacks. They take people unawares, and in so doing create confusion and chaos that an attacker can exploit. Self-defense scenario thinking - whether from Wayne LaPierre or the empty-hand martial arts crowd - assumes as a starting point that the defender knows what is going on. I have never seen an effective or realistic self-defense training that recreates the element of complete and total surprise. Frankly, the closest I've ever seen is the running gag in the old Pink Panther movies, in which Cato repeatedly attacks the Inspector out of nowhere, at the Inspector's request - probably not a good model to follow.

This is a part of self-defense and disaster preparedness that we would do well to think more about. At an individual level, it is difficult (but not impossible) to train your mind to be ready for the totally unexpected. Police forces and the military do this as a matter of course, both through training and through experience. There are unfortunate side effects of such exposure, of course, like PTSD, so we're limited in how much we can really "practice". But more can likely be done.

As an individual, you can at least start to construct mental models - in unexpected places in the middle of your day, imagine some mayhem erupting around you. What would you do? How would you react? What would you be able to see, or not see? You may think that this is not an exercise for everyone, because you feel you need to have some skills that could be applied to such a situation. But anybody can run and pull a fire alarm (a very good move on somebody's part in that high school).

At the group or institutional level, we need leaders - in school buildings, workplaces, and elsewhere - better trained to deal with these kinds of events, to take charge and react swiftly. You could argue (with some justice) that it's not fair that building principals and assistant principals also have to be, in essence, front-line police officers (if not soldiers). But they are, whether they like it or not. My institution is working on building a graduate program exactly for this need. We need a lot more of those.

Ultimately, as I have said many times, real-world violence is messy and chaotic and looks nothing like the movies or TV. When violence is presented on the screen, the director wants you to understand what's going on. In the real world, nobody cares whether you understand or not. And that chaos and confusion is the greatest danger that violence creates.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Intersection of Higher Education and Christianity: News from the Margins

Until today, I didn't know that there was a college in Dayton, Tennessee named for William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Nor did I remember that the trial had occurred in that less-famous Dayton. Most folks in my neck of the woods probably don't know that there IS a Dayton in Tennessee.

What's interesting is not so much the existence of a small college (44 faculty at last count, though that may be about to change drastically) founded apparently as a paean to creationism as the modern-day struggle it is going through. Consider this item:
Change in Statement of Faith Splits Faculty at Bryan College
Now, presumably the faculty at this little institution are already by and large creationists. Any school in that place with that name, founded in 1925, is laying claim to be the flagship school for Creationism. Yet even within that particular island within the broad ocean of global Christianity, there are divisions - enough that up to 25% of the faculty are threatening to leave.

According to the AP, what has prompted this conflict is a "clarification" of the existing doctrinal statement stating that "Adam and Eve were historical people who were not created from previously existing life forms."

Apparently, the controversy may be more about process than substance, with some claiming that the problem is that the charter can't be changed at all. That in itself is interesting, given my continued interest in (and battles over) process and authority within institutions. It's remarkable how we can come to see our obviously human-created institutions as "sacred" (and that's as true at secular institutions as church-affiliated ones - ask anyone who has ever heard the phrase, "But we've never done it that way before!")

But the real kicker, for me, was this statement from a now-embattled president of the college:
Bryan’s president, Stephen Livesay, who has retained the trustees’ support, explained the rationale for the clarification in an interview last month with the Christian News Network. According to the Chattanooga newspaper, he said that if Adam and Eve were not historical people, “then the credibility of all Scripture is at stake.”
This is a remarkably clear statement of a particular view of the Bible. It is, of course, an incredibly fragile view - you are practically daring people to find inconsistencies that anybody living in modern society would have difficulty dealing with. This is a Biblical view that can only be held through the kind of faith that rejects all contrary evidence - that, in fact, defines its own epistemology and resists all others.

Such an effort is, of course, infinitely self-sustaining but ultimately difficult to reconcile with much of the modern world. President Livesay and his colleagues are, of course, welcome to think this way if they choose. I wonder what they make of the many people - including the great many Christians across many denominations - who think differently.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Fort Hood Shootings: Another Lesson in Gun Violence and the Myths of Self-Defense

My friends over at Relations International published an excellent piece today on the tragic shootings at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas. There will be much media hypeover the next few days about PTSD and the military's health-care system and its weaknesses. All of this will, of course, be forgotten within a week's time. RI's piece points out quite rightly that shooting and killing are inherent in military culture, and that Ft. Hood serves as yet another reminder of an age-old truth - violence begets violence, often in strange and unpredictable ways (whether Ivan Lopez was predictable I leave to others to ponder).

Given my ongoing interest in issues surrounding self-defense and firearms, I want to add an additional thought to the conversation. I have written before on the mythology that the current leadership of the NRA* has promulgated publicly about the relationship between guns and self-defense (here, among many other posts - you can track them through the Labels at the bottom of the posts). And I have pointed out that the NRA's "only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun" phrase isn't an argument or an analysis, it's a gut-level worldview that wants to see everything in Manichean terms.
* I am making a distinction here between the NRA's public leadership and its membership, which undoubtedly hold a diversity of views. I have met many reasonable individuals who are NRA members but who do not agree with the leadership of the organization. The NRA itself has a long and complex history, and people have many motives for joining it. It would be unfair to tar everyone associated with it with the same brush. The organization's leadership, on the other hand, is on record as saying and supporting certain things, and is therefore fair game.
For those who haven't already drunk the NRA leadership Kool-Aid, the latest Fort Hood shooting (as well as the one before, and the many other shootings on or near military installations) should provide a cautionary tale. Wayne LaPierre's argument, taken at face value, is that for everyone to be safe we should all be armed. He believes (or says he believes) that the safest world is the world in which everyone has a gun and knows how to use it. In that way, the "bad guys" will be deterred a la MAD during the Cold War, or will be gunned down by "good guys" before they can do too much damage.

The Fort Hood shootings put this hypothesis to the test and immediately demonstrate the failure of this line of thinking. A military base is the one part of the world most like Mr. LaPierre's vision for society. Everybody, or nearly everybody, is armed. Everybody has expert-level training and experience in the use of firearms, and access to them at nearly all times. Everybody practices to maintain that level of training on a nearly continual basis. Many of the people in these spaces also have training and experience in threat recognition that are nearly impossible to replicate in the civilian world.

And yet, even with all of these factors in place, mass shootings can and do take place. Lopez killed three people and wounded many more. Major Nadal Hussein killed over a dozen before he was overcome and disarmed. These are, of course, only two particularly prominent examples - there are many, many more.

For anyone with an open mind and a genuine interest in a secure and safe society, these cases should be enough to re-think a vision that relies solely on the presence of guns to protect us from each other. This also suggests that, so long as the NRA leadership sticks to this line of "reasoning", they cannot really be interested in a secure and safe society.

My suggestion: if the ownership of guns means more to you than actual safety and security, that's fine - you're entitled to your opinions. But the rest of us, the part of society that lives in the real world and values real human lives more than slogans and self-interest, will continue working out real solutions to difficult problems. Perhaps Mr. LaPierre would like to explain to the families of Mr. Lopez' victims how they really were safer for being surrounded by guns.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is Russia Going to Invade Eastern Ukraine?

There's a lot of hype talk in the media about the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Yes, Russia did just steal a chunk of Ukrainian territory, in contravention of many international laws. Yes, they're unlikely to give Crimea back anytime soon. All of that is pretty much over and done with - and so not very interesting if you're CNN.

Instead, it's more fun to talk about the 40,000 Russian troops "massing" on the border with Ukraine, and to speculate about whether Russia has designs on still more territory in eastern Ukraine - which is, we are told, just packed full of Russians pining for the good old days of the Soviet Union.

In a word: no. As much as war is good business for media, it seems unlikely in the current situation.

Why? Well, first there's the lack of any coherent Russian nationalist ideology. Yes, there are plenty of old-age pensioners in the Near Abroad who would love to bring back the Soviet welfare state. There are also lots of younger 20- and 30-somethings, kids and grandkids of those pensioners, who have decidedly more complex views of the world. All in all, there isn't a sufficiently stable shared idea of who is and isn't a Russian to sustain a "Greater Russia" project - a point my coauthor Steve Saideman and I made a few weeks ago in The Monkey Cage, echoing what we argued a few years back in our book.

Then there's the questionable domestic politics of such a venture - a point I made a few weeks ago. Yes, some of Putin's base approves of "rescuing" Russians from nearby states - but most of them just don't care enough. And the more costly such "rescues" get, the fewer people are going to support them.

Now the Christian Science Monitor has come to the same conclusion by looking at the facts on the ground. CNN may be breathless about those "massing" 40,000 Russian soldiers, but in modern military strategy 40,000 isn't an invasion force, it's theater. Conventional strategy - that is, trying to use troops and tanks to capture territory - requires an attacker-to-defender advantage of at least 3:1, with 5:1 or better in key spots. 40,000 Russian troops may sound menacing, but they are not three times larger than the Ukrainian military, or even a reasonable portion thereof. Simply put, the Russian force currently dancing on the border with Ukraine is big enough to look menacing to western journalists, but not big enough to actually accomplish much of significance.

Russia behavior towards Ukraine has been terrible and retrograde and barbaric, and should rightly be condemned by everybody interested in an even modestly stable international order. Despite that, the fact that Russia is likely to get away with its seizure of Crimea is (to borrow John Mearsheimer's phrase) part of the tragedy of great-power politics. All of that is pretty well understood. Let's not muddy an already bad situation with irresponsible speculation about further Russian territorial aggression that appears, by all accounts, to be pretty unlikely in the foreseeable future.