Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Identity Crisis . . . response to a response

Stanley Fish wrote an intriguing little blog entry the other day in the New York Times. The topic is the academic credentials (actually the utter lack thereof) of Bruce Benson, the newly appointed president of the University of Colorado. Fish lists many of Benson's titles and pursuits but suffice it to say he's a businessman and republican operative whose academic career topped out at a BA. Faculty and students were understandably annoyed. Fish goes on to explore some interesting issues but more on that later. The article did not go unnoticed in Wisconsin.

Yesterday, on Wisopinion, Tom Still pondered the possible benefits of replacing UW - Madison's outgoing chancellor, John Wiley, with someone from the business community. The obvious reason for hiring a businessperson to lead the university is money. The legislature has made a sport of grumbling about "waste" in the university. Perhaps someone with a little more managerial acumen could curry more legislative favor come budget time. A rapport with the type of person who might donate large sums to the cause would also come more naturally to someone coming from the business community. Still makes a well-argued point that the regents might want to consider someone outside of academia but I think there are few holes. First, putting a businessperson in charge of the university doesn't necessarily mean more money. Second, money isn't really supposed to be the point anyway.

The UW - Madison has a two-billion-dollar annual budget. Currently, the state provides around 19%. State support for higher education in Wisconsin, like most other states, has been falling precipitously. That being said, it's a little naive to think that a change of management on Bascom Hill would convince the legislature to loosen the purse strings. Even assuming mismanagement is a large problem at the university (it's not), one wonders how, precisely, the legislature thinks that massive funding cuts provide a remedy. If they were truly interested in eliminating waste, they'd address it directly. As it is, the perception of waste is simply an excuse to take more public money away from higher education and spend it on things that actually fund legislator's campaigns like contracts and tax-breaks for well-connected cronies. It also helps to fill budget holes created by the legislature's own terrible mismangement. If the University of Wisconsin is to get more state assistance, the shakeup has to happen on the other end of State Street.

In terms of fundraising, the UW foundation's coffers are filled with several billion reasons to think that John Wiley, an academic, was about as effective a fundraiser as the university could've hoped for. Within that bonanza lies the problem with focusing on money. As state funding has been replaced with research dollars and private donations, the university has undergone a transformation. As it chases dollars to keep the lights on and keep the state's economy afloat, those parts of the institution that don't attract their own funding, be it through research dollars, financially successful alumni, or special state initiatives, wither. The arts, humanities and a good portion of the core curriculum are in real trouble in a lot of public universities and UW - Madison is a sad follower of that trend.

When the University of Wisconsin was founded it wasn't dollar signs that drove the state's commitment, it was education. Since its earliest days, Wisconsin has been a pioneer in public education because the state's founders realized that an educated populace is vital to a healthy democracy. A thorough grounding in history, culture and philosophy may not help bring home the bacon but they certainly help someone who holds a vote in the most powerful country in the world understand that world a lot better.

The next chancellor of the UW - Madison isn't just going to have make sure the university remains the state's premier economic engine He or she is going to have make some serious decisions about whether or not it remains the state's premier educational institution. If the UW is to be more than a glorified technical institution, resources need to get to the programs that most need them as well as the programs that most attract them. These issues are not invisible to business people but thinking about them isn't really necessary (in fact it can be antithetical) to keeping the shareholders happy.

So now we return to Stanley Fish, whose actual point was that there are people who have been successful both in the world of business and academia; so why choose someone with no academic credentials? Without money, an academic institution can't survive. Without academics, it can't exist.

Monday, February 25, 2008

About that snow removal fine

To the person who complained about the ice on my sidewalk: Thank you so much for letting me know that the snow you and your fellow pedestrians had packed into impenetrable ice while it fell was getting a little slipperier with the recent thaw. I’d left some sand on it after I'd shoveled all I could but the thaw washed that away and I was out. We’re neighbors and I’m glad that we communicate as neighbors, through the city inspection division. The fine will certainly help remind me that, with the 60 hours I work a week and the 80 hours my boyfriend does, we have more time than the three hours we spent initially trying to clear the sidewalk and the additional three we spent this Sunday fruitlessly searching hardware stores for salt.

To the City of Madison: I’m glad you’re putting that no-warning, whiner’s ordinance to good use. It would be completely unreasonable to expect anything less than dry pavement after an ice storm in the snowiest year on record. I was intrigued, though, that you considered my sidewalk to be dangerous. It’s in exactly the same condition as the sidewalk along that patch of city land that borders my backyard. You know, the one I mow for you. Maybe when you send people over tomorrow to clear my sidewalk they can do yours as well. I went out tonight with the pickaxe and gave them a head start so they won’t have to spend as much time on mine (presumably with hairdryers). Speaking of my limitations, there’s just been an unexpected drain on my pocketbook. I’m afraid I’ll have to cut back on gas for the lawnmower. If your inspectors are less busy in summer, maybe they could mow the patch next to the bike path.

I live in the city because I like the sense of community. Now I know why people move to the suburbs.

Update 5/20/08: Lest anybody think this incident has permanently turned me into the bitter crank I was when I wrote this post, I've been mowing the city patch as often as I mow my own lawn (not often enough). I'm still fighting the snow removal fine, though.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Democracy can be bad for your health

In the aftermath of Wisconsin's finally relevant (though not nearly so relevant as we'd hoped) primary, the whining has commenced. Hillary Clinton lost in a landslide and so perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a great hue and cry from . . . Obama supporters? Yes, it seems that the edifice of democracy is crashing down about our ears. Tammy Baldwin might still vote for Hillary at the convention! GASP!

As everyone is, by now, aware, Tammy is one of the Democratic party's 842 super delegates, not bound by primary results. Russ Feingold is reportedly poised to pledge his support to Obama but Baldwin seems likely to exercise her prerogative to vote her own will as opposed to that of her district.

Four years ago, when the toppling of the Bush administration seemed like a real possibility, I saw Tammy speak at the UW. Her primary issue then, as now, was health care. For almost her entire tenure in office, Tammy Baldwin has been working toward universal health care. So why would she still be committed to Hillary Clinton? Because Clinton is the better candidate on health care.

Yes, the Obama and Clinton health care plans are very similar but Clinton's at least makes an attempt at universality, something that's actually necessary to keep individual costs down. Obama has indicated his willingness to impose penalties instead of Clinton's "mandate" thus punishing you for trying to game the system only if you lose said game. In trying to set himself apart on this issue, he's actually been attacking Clinton from the right, even going to so far as to resurrect the horribly distorted Harry and Louise ads that became emblematic of the right's efforts to sink universal health care the first time Hillary tried to make it a reality. So Baldwin has made her decision, for now.

But what of democracy? Isn't Tammy Baldwin an elected official, bound to the people's will? Well, not in the primary. One of the reasons the primary election system in this country is such a hodge-podge is that primaries are a relatively recent development. The Democratic party isn't a public institution. It's a political party and political parties can nominate their candidates any way they want. Less than a century ago, party nominating conventions had nothing to do with the results of public elections.

Progressive reformers began to push for primary elections in the early twentieth century as a way to lessen the influence of corrupt party bosses on candidate selection. As a vestige of the old system, superdelegates would do well to keep the progressive heritage of primary elections in mind. That being said, Tammy Baldwin is hardly a political fat-cat making unaccountable decisions in smoke-filled rooms. She's a well-loved and well-respected public official who feels very passionately about the need for health care for all Americans. We would all do well to respect that.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Unobservant Humanist?

The University held its Darwin Day Celebration Saturday. I had meant to catch some of the morning session but the call of my bed and SWAP's Saturday Sale proved more alluring.

The fact is, Darwin Day makes me a bit uncomfortable. Not because of what it celebrates but because of the capitulation it represents. Detractors of the event are only too quick to point out that a majority of Americans don't believe in evolution but this is precisely why it's held. Promoters of public scientific literacy have been saying for years that the scientific community has been remiss. Science hasn't promoted itself and it's been outstripped in the public marketplace of ideas by religion and superstition. People are happy to take for granted the vast array of technological achievement and medical advancement that surrounds them without any concept of the knowledge and methodology that made it possible, despite the fact that it's taught in schools! So the University of Wisconsin and similar institutions around the world hold these events to try to explain to the public why it is that, yes, science actually is the best way to explain things.

The difficulty lies in explaining science to people who don't think scientifically. To most people, what someone says really is less important than how they say it. A whole lecture of right, complete with visual aids, isn't as convincing as that emphatically, ecstatically wrong preacher they listen to every Sunday. Should science really start acting like a religion and respond to these people on their level?

I suppose it may be necessary. Regardless of how it's done, people have to be educated. Having a majority of people disbelieving one of the central tenets of human self-understanding is a very dangerous thing in a democracy. The church of humanism may yet have to spread its message of hope and objectivity across the land. Just don't expect me to get up for services.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Candidate They Can Disavow

The right-wing punditocracy's hatred of John McCain crested the other day with Ann Coulter's declaration that she'd support Hillary Clinton, were John McCain to get the nomination. According to Coulter, Hilldawg is "more conservative" and stronger in the "War on Terror" having supported the Iraq War and not been so testy about torture. She also got in a couple pot-shots about campaign finance reform and immigration. This denunciation of McCain by the right's talking heads has been seen by most observers as a fit of pique over the public's refusal to pay any attention to their anointed favorites: Rudy, then Romney. That may well be but is that all?

The GOP's witless wonders in media-land have reason to feel a little insecure of late. They've been cheerleaders for the party's two biggest constituencies, bible thumpers and plutocrats for decades now. Neither group is currently in the best PR position and they're none-too-pleased with each other at the moment. The public is not enthused about conservative business as usual.

Enter John McCain, the great maverick of the Republican Party, the man who would buck the powers that be. Except, of course, he's not. There was the John McCain who partnered with Russ Feingold to pass a campaign finance reform bill and stood, momentarily, against his party on the Bush tax cuts but, ever since he bent over backward to kiss Jerry Falwell's ring, America's crustiest presidential candidate has scarcely missed an opportunity to signal to the party elite that he's more than willing to sell it all out for a shot at the White House. He even backpedaled on immigration and all-but lied about his initial reasoning for opposing the tax cuts,

So now we come back to Coulter and Co. throwing eggs at the Straight Talk Express, denouncing a man they should know damned well is every bit their candidate. Are they really incensed at their loss of influence or really desperate to hide that they haven't lost any?