Food and Innovation

Berlin -- The fast-food chain McDonald's has put up billboards all over Berlin, trying to convince us that its food is really "bio" (organic). Or at least the meat is. The campaign is an effort to stem the closure of its franchises in the face of changing consumer preferences for fresh, healthy food. In my neighborhood there are few such franchises anyway, the result of an effort over the years, mostly successful, to keep chains out. The fast food of choice here is the Döner Kebap, sold out of hole-in-the-wall storefronts.

Meanwhile, the food processing giant ConAgra is leaving its Nebraska headquarters in favor of Chicago. It, too, is looking for a way to turn itself around in response to changing consumer demand. ConAgra is moving into the Merchandise Mart, the famous old riverfront warehouse where its employees can mix with innovators like The Good Food Business Accelerator, with connections to companies that have thrived on offering healthier food.

The ironies are head-shaking. ConAgra tore down the historic warehouses in Omaha's Jobbers Canyon. Now it moves into a giant warehouse. ConAgra partnered with the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln seeking an atmosphere of food innovation. It remains in that partnership; perhaps it will send to Lincoln some of what it discovers about innovation in Chicago.

Nebraska state taxpayers spent tens of millions to keep ConAgra in Omaha and are putting millions into the NIC. That spending does not look so good in retrospect, although I believe support for NIC will eventually prove to be a wise investment. But the lesson to be drawn right now is that at least ConAgra doesn't think much of NIC for looking to the old, failing ConAgra as its innovation partner.

Unpleasant as all this is, it may be for the best. Our diets need a shake-up.

Twenty-fifth Anniversary of German Reunification

Berlin -- Twenty-five years ago, on October 3, 1990, Germany reunited. I was living then in southern Berlin at Zerbsterstrasse 42, working hard on a writing project. But the weather that historic day was splendid so I ventured over to the Brandenburg Gate and to the Palast der Republik. What a crowd. What a celebration.

Today, October 3, 2015, is another cloudless sky so I left Mariannenplatz, near the old Berlin Wall, and headed west to central Berlin to see anniversary festivities. Unter den Linden was full of tourists. Strasse der 17 Juni was full of carnival booths. The area is not the same. Couldn't be. Lots of people under twenty-five, for one thing, who could not remember.

This time, nearby Gendarmenmarkt was much different for me as I walked by the dome of the French church. A few weeks ago I discovered that my paternal grandmother's family has roots in northeastern France. They became part of the migration of Protestants out of France and Germany to British colonial America in the mid-18th Century. Other French refugee Protestants (Huguenots) migrated to Berlin. The French cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt dates from 1784. That's when my migrating ancestors, the Wimers, were acquiring land in Virginia, now West Virginia. The French migration to Berlin made up a third of the city's population at the beginning of the 18th Century and grew to twenty thousand. Likely there are common ancestors among my family and the Berliners of today of Huguenot extraction. This is also a reminder that Berlin has always been a destination for refugees, which helps explain the current welcoming attitude toward today's newcomers from the Middle East.

Today over at Potsdamer Platz, just a short walk from the American Embassy, there was a discordant note questioning the purpose of German reunification. A huge banner proclaimed that the border was lifted so that the countries could wage war together as one. ("Die Grenze wurde aufgehoben, damit wir gemeinsam wieder in den Krieg ziehen.") Pamphlets and posters identified the non-celebrants as former East Germans who still take the view that their country was annexed.

The biggest difference for me over twenty-five years is the new presence of the memorial to the Holocaust victims, which occupies acres of former no-man's-land stretching from the American Embassy almost to the site of Hitler's last bunker. It is like no other. My family and I looked out over the expanse in 1989 from a wood observation scaffold, never imagining what the future would hold.

Newcomers, Not Refugees

Berlin -- On several streets around my area of Kreuzberg I see welcoming signs stenciled onto sidewalks proclaiming "Willkommen!" and its equivalent in a language that looks to me like Arabic. But so far I have seen no refugees, at least none that I am aware of.

A usual place for refugees to gather is Oranienplatz, but it is empty. No new refugees are to be seen around the two neighborhood mosques, either, or around the U-Bahn stations Görlitzer Bahnhof or Kottbusser Tor. They are streaming into Berlin, I understand, but are sleeping on sidewalks around a processing center in another part of the city.

Der Tagesspiegel newspaper last weekend interviewed a few refugees during a welcoming picnic over in Tempelhof, the former airport famous as the destination of the 1948 Berlin Airlift. A huge building there, built by the Nazis, may be used to house them temporarily. The paper also gave op-ed space to a Syrian who has been in Berlin four months. The Syrian, who speaks English, suggests that the term for the new arrivals should be "Newcomers," not "Flüchtlinge" (refugees).

The term may catch on. Germany needs workers and does not need the unrest that sometimes comes with them. The term for the great in-migration of Turks four decades ago was "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers), a euphemism that nevertheless implied that at some point the guests would return to their homeland. The Turks are hardly guests anymore. Two hundred thousand live in Kreuzberg and have been here going on four generations.

Last Sunday I met my Turkish neighbor Osman, who lives two blocks away on what was once disputed property between East and West Berlin. He had stared down two opposing governments just to make the little plot into a productive garden. I have often given him a wave when walking by in recent years, but never met him. Sunday was his 90th birthday; a family celebration spilled out into the street and I was finally able to meet the old man personally. Sensing I knew no Turkish, he simply smiled, shook my hand, and pressed upon me his name, "Osman, Osman."

Despite their longevity here, many Turks have not assimilated, even those born here. The language of commerce is German, but the language and the dress in many of the streets is Turkish. Perhaps it will be different with this wave of Newcomers.

What to Look For in a New UNL Chancellor

Lincoln -- Those who are choosing the next chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are probably not looking for the following qualifications and inclinations, but should be.

1. Academic research skills. UNL is the state's only public research university. It should be led by a scholar who has demonstrated research skills and an understanding of the research process.

Academic research in America is under justified suspicion from many quarters. According to a recent study published in Science, much social science research is not replicable, a sine qua non of the endeavor. And research findings in the natural sciences too often must be discounted as research for sale, being funded and conducted by those with conflicts of interest. UNL research is not immune from these problems.

UNL has been removed from the ranks of leading research institutions, having in 2011 been voted out of the Association of American Universities. The current chancellor was not able to convince his former AAU colleagues that UNL should remain in this select group. Suffice it to say the effort was badly bungled. The slap at UNL stings like no other in the once-proud history of the institution. Led by its natural sciences faculty, the university was among the first institutions admitted to the AAU over a century ago.

The new chancellor should make it a priority to regain AAU membership. A good first step would be to re-invigorate the UNL faculty with a set of research standards and ethics second to none in the nation, live by them, and earn back respect through such leadership. This can be done best by someone with research credentials himself or herself.

2. Athletics reformer. A former chancellor once told me the biggest surprise that awaited him in the office was how much time he had to spend on university athletics. The issues were never-ending and took his valuable time away from academic matters. Given that the next chancellor will have to spend time on athletics, let it be in the cause of reform. College football especially needs reforms. A chancellor who would help lead the effort nationally might even gain enough respect to earn admission back into the AAU.

A model of such a chancellor is my late, great friend Dr. Hans Brisch, a Nebraskan who became the chancellor of the University of Oklahoma system. He cleaned up the athletics program there and put it into proper perspective, despite considerable personal danger to himself, and put Oklahoma on the map for its statewide college preparation programs. I will never forget, and always appreciate, the support he gave our efforts at the national level to institute some of the same changes he made in Oklahoma.

3. Nebraska college friendly. The next chancellor should be a supporter of all Nebraska colleges, not just UNL. Enough with the divisiveness between the NU components and the attempt to grow UNL at the expense of other institutions. Nebraska needs healthy colleges throughout the state, not just in the capital city. State and private colleges have important roles in the smaller cities and towns where they are located; so do community colleges. If UNL can grow by legitimately attracting out-of-state students, foreign students, those who might not otherwise attend college, and those resulting from state population growth, good. But the higher education enterprise in Nebraska must be balanced and healthy as a whole, not viewed as a competition among and within its various systems. The next chancellor should give up the mantra of demanding that all UNL needs, real or imagined, must be met before resources are shared elsewhere. The next chancellor will be, after all, a state employee whose salary is paid by all Nebraska taxpayers, and must see himself or herself accountable to all of them.

The above qualifications are not likely to be on the list of those choosing the next chancellor. The unfortunate trend these days is to look for candidates with a background in administration of one sort or another and those who demonstate fund-raising prowess. Head hunters seek out candidates who will bring in research dollars, the quality and ethics of the research be damned. But such people are not what UNL really needs. Is it naive to look for another chancellor cut from the same cloth as Charles Bessey or James Canfield? Probably so, but one can always hope.

Prairie Pines

Lincoln -- Last month Prairie Pines held an open house to allow the public to see this 145 acre gem of trees and prairies a few miles east of Lincoln. It is the decades-old project of forestry professor Walt Bagley and his late wife, Virginia, who bought the property as a farm and turned it into an arboretum. Professor Bagley, age 97, still lives on the property and is active in directing and maintaining it.

Twenty-three years ago the Bagleys gave ownership of Prairie Pines to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where Walt Bagley once taught, manages it for the foundation. More recently, part of the site has become a project of Community Crops, a local non-profit that uses it for training up to eight would-be organic vegetable farmers, before they locate their own sites and strike out on their own.

Another non-profit organization, Prairie Pines Pals, works to preserve the property, give tours, and promote the site as a part of a greenbelt surrounding Lincoln. Prairie Pines, like all such sites, is threatened by urban development sprawl.

Prairie Pines is unique in that it seems to be the only example in which the university works with organizations such as Community Crops to encourage entrepreneurship in developing a local industry based on fresh, healthy foods. There are many others doing this on a strictly private basis; it is good to see the university lending a hand through this arrangement. May it lead to more assistance and cooperation in the Lincoln area.

Both Alexanders are Wrong

Washington -- The Washington Monthly magazine has published the best policy analysis yet in this cycle of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In noteworthy reportage, New America writer Alex Holt incisively describes the shifting policy ground under both Democrats and Republicans and gives reason for hope that this cycle will result in urgently needed changes to the HEA. Current policy is clearly unsustainable; both political parties must back away from the orthodoxies that have undermined the worthy goals set forth in the HEA five decades ago.

Holt explores the issues by focusing on two of the more outspoken advocates in this cycle, F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, and Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The two Alexanders (not related) are fundamentally opposed to each other on many counts. Allow me to point out where I think each is wrong.

Lamar Alexander is wrong in making federal over-regulation of higher education his bête noire. Indeed, there is federal overregulation, but much of it has come about because of faulty program designs that do not employ the tools of fiscal federalism to limit the need for regulation. For example, had states and institutions been required to match (the current fad is to say "have skin in the game") federal aid to students at for-profit schools, there most likely would have been no need for the Gainful Employment regulation. State legislatures would not have put up the funds for these shoddy and often corrupt colleges. Friends of these schools in Congress gave the country this costly fiasco; Lamar Alexander needs only to look in the mirror to see who is behind the impetus for the regulations.

Reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education have also done an admirable job of unmasking a study of the cost of federal regulations in higher education. The study has been a centerpiece prop for Lamar Alexander's attack on regulations. It turns out the study did not show what Lamar Alexander said it did. Last time I checked, the authors of the study were so embarrassed by it they continued to refuse to share it fully with Chronicle reporters.

King Alexander, of LSU, may be right about the need for maintenance-of-effort requirements (a tool of fiscal federalism), but he is wrong about wanting to remove HEA aid to students at private, non-profit institutions. Reform the way aid is distributed, yes; eliminate it, no.

Private non-profit institutions are essential to the country. They educate, at less cost to taxpayers than public colleges, a significant share of students. Their faculties are diverse and not under the thumbs of public governing boards, which historically have demonstrated susceptibility to pressures of money and politics. Many of these institutions are in the small towns and cities of America and are a civilizing influence in their communities. For a higher education leader, King Alexander is remarkably wrong in his understanding of how American higher education serves the country and how both public and private institutions are necessary checks on each other.

Thanks are due The Washington Monthly and Alex Holt for the article that illuminates emerging policy issues and reveals the curious and wrongful thinking of the two Alexanders.

Ending Scholarship Displacement Is Long Overdue

Washington -- In the last post, I noted that there is incredibly wasteful federal higher education spending that could and should be redirected to decades-old programs that actually work, but are underfunded.

I'm thinking mostly of (1) wasteful spending on the tax expenditure side of the budget in the form of ineffective higher education tax credits and deductions, and (2) the not only wasteful but harmful spending on for-profit schools that demonstrably set students back in life with worthless degrees and unmanageable debt. We are talking tens of billions of annually wasted dollars that could be used more effectively in the array of cooperative federalism programs that work through campus-based and state-based matching efforts.

But there are also wasteful practices within otherwise good programs that need to be rooted out. Prime among them is the practice of scholarship displacement, as was recently pointed out in an op-ed by Michele Waxman Johnson, vice president of Central Scholarship. Displacement occurs when colleges take grant aid intended to help low income students and use it to reduce their own institutional aid rather than reducing students' loan and work burdens. This is akin to taking candy from a baby, because the process is often done behind closed doors, in the context of innocent-sounding "enrollment management." The awards appear in students' financial aid packages, but equivalent amounts are quietly taken out the back door, leaving the awards essentially worthless.

Displacement occurs with both private and public grant funds. It's most easily understood when viewed from the institution's standpoint. The goal of most colleges and universities is to enroll the greatest number of students at the least cost to the institution. That often means not applying outside money to reduce students' debt load, but to helping the institution's own bottom line. This is one reason why total student debt in the country is now $1.3 trillion. This is one reason why the federal Pell Grant program has never been able to hold down student borrowing as advertised.

The National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) has recommended a stop to displacement, which undermines their efforts. Displacement is also fundamentally deceitful, I would add. In her op-ed, Michele Waxman Johnson writes, "[W]e support the recommendations of NSPA, and ask the federal government to modify federal student aid policy to mirror the NSPA recommendations." Such a move would reduce student loan burdens on the low income by several billion dollars annually. It is long overdue.

Financing American Higher Education as a National Defense Issue

Washington -- Seldom it is considered as such, but financing American higher education is in significant part a national defense issue. The way we have been shifting the burden of college costs onto students and families through student and parent debt has slowed the national economy, making us less robust as a nation. It has discouraged talented but lower-income individuals from completing their college goals and making our country stronger. It has widened income and achievement gaps between haves and have-nots, creating more tensions along lines of class, race, and ethnicity. Student loan debt has soured a large part of a whole generation on the American dream.

Political candidates and others have come forth with ideas to reform higher education finance, sensing its emerging importance as a political issue. The Sanders, Clinton, and O'Malley campaigns each have their versions; the Campaign for Free College Tuition is one of several other efforts to limit student debt. The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has been holding hearings on higher education finance as part of a scheduled reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act.

I do not want to throw cold water on any of these initiatives. Several contain thoughtful proposals. Most involve getting states back into taking more financial responsibility and requiring institutions to have more "skin in the game." But getting any of these ideas into law after achieving consensus is another matter. I'd like to propose an alternative for Congress that is more practical and achievable.

1. Go back to the consensus on higher education finance that was reached four decades ago in the reports of the Carnegie Commission and the landmark Congressional legislation of 1972. These documents, and the resulting legislation based on them, spelled out the financing roles for states, institutions, students, and the federal government. The legislation provided programs that complemented each other and contained risk-sharing for institutions and federal leverage over states, two of the more popular of the current reform proposals.

2. As part of the look-back, assess how the programs, over time, got out of balance in their funding and implementation so that they actually created incentives for states to back out of their funding efforts and for institutions not only to drop risk-sharing but exacerbate the shift away from providing affordable higher education for the financially needy. This will necessarily be a crow-eating exercise, but the crow will be shared so widely that no parties will suffer indigestion from which they cannot recover.

3. Reauthorize and rebalance the programs that were part of the original consensus. Drop those programs that have been added and have proved to be ineffective and incredibly wasteful. Use the proceeds (in the tens of billions annually) to strengthen the original programs of the old consensus which were underfunded. If there is any doubt as to what has worked and what hasn't, let me know and I'll assist. The effort must also include debt-relief measures for current borrowers.

This process should be undertaken with the gravity due a national defense issue. Proper and balanced funding of American higher education must be approached in the context of what we spend directly for national defense through DoD, NSA, CIA, and other agencies too numerous to name. It should also be undertaken swiftly and not get tied up with partisan politics. The original consensus, it should be remembered, was bipartisan and the programs were grounded in both conservative and liberal philosophies.

Mut und Wut

Berlin -- A remarkable exchange of letters has just been published in Berlin under the title Mut und Wut: Rudi Dutschke und Peter-Paul Zahl Briefwechsel 1978/79. During these years, the novelist Zahl was in a German prison and Dutschke, the charismatic anti-authoritarian, was living with his family in Denmark.

The book includes a helpful introduction by Gretchen Dutschke, who edited the letters with Christoph Ludszuweit and Peter-Paul Zahl, before Zahl's death in Jamaica in 2011.

Publication of the letters should dissuade historians from casually and mistakenly lumping Dutschke in with the likes of the murderous Red Army Faction. Last year the German Historical Museum made the egregious error of putting Dutschke's likeness on a brochure for its RAF exhibition. (When the mistake was brought to its attention, the brochures were quickly withdrawn, to the Museum's credit.)

The newly published letters date from a time when Rudi Dutschke was laying the groundwork for the creation of the German Green party. Peter-Paul Zahl went on to write krimi novels based in the Caribbean and even a children's volume in Jamaican patois.

The new book contains other letters of note, such as a Dutschke letter to Lothar Späth, minister-president of Baden-Württenberg, and a 1980 Zahl letter, after Dutschke's death, to the theologian Helmut Gollwitzer.

The book is available in Berlin through Verlag M and at

Peter-Paul Zahl und Rudi Dutschke reflektieren die 68er in den Jahren 1978/79 vor dem Hintergrund aktueller politischer und gesellschaftlicher Entwicklungen. Peter-Paul Zahl sitzt zu dieser Zeit im Gefängnis, Dutschke ist nach Aarhus gezogen.

Fiscal Responsibity Yes, Austerity No

Berlin -- Germany's heavy-handed maneuvering in Greece's financial crisis has set many Berliners against each other and raised eyebrows around the world. Germany, in appearing so arrogant, is ruining a quarter century of good-neighbor diplomacy and responsible European Union leadership.

Germany cannot claim the high moral ground when it comes to debt forgiveness for Greece. Germany has itself been the beneficiary of debt forgiveness after both world wars. Germany's misstep makes the country seem like a bully and only serves to remind everyone of what Nazi Germany did to Greece in World War II. What ingrates, to put it mildly.

The crisis is not over. One way to help defuse it, it seems to me, would be to stop using the term austerity, as if austerity were synonymous with fiscal responsibility. Greece needs greater fiscal responsibility, to be sure, but in the sense that its sacrifices now should be directed toward self-help of its own country for the future. Greece needs better tax policy and tax administration, more equitable pensions, improved infrastructure, and most of all, a sense that it is on a path toward recovery. The term austerity too often is used to include these needed changes but also that Greek sacrifices should be made, above all, to repay loans from German and French banks. Many of these loans were irresponsible. The IMF is correct in its analysis that some of this debt simply needs to be written off.

Because of Greece's strategic importance, the U.S. government should not be sitting on the sidelines. The Chinese and the Russians both have designs on exploiting Greece's instability. They are surely pleased to see discord in western Europe. The situation has parallels to 1947, when the British were unable to help Greek recovery and asked for U.S. assistance. The result was the Truman Plan, in which both Greece and Turkey were given assistance and brought into NATO as protection from Soviet expansion on Europe's southeastern flank.

If Greece leaves, or is forced out of the Euro currency, the U.S. should consider backstopping whatever currency replaces it -- Drachmas, scrip, IOUs -- pegged at a level against the dollar that keeps credit and commerce going. The Greeks would be grateful. American taxpayers should see the wisdom of investing in Greek stability as opposed to allowing a military confrontation with Russia or China to develop, which would be much more costly. Building and deploying even two aircraft carriers for the Mediterranean, to counter China's and Russia's naval buildups, would likely cost much more than helping Greece's economy for a few years. The precedent would be the Truman Plan. It worked once, and perhaps should be dusted off again.

Discussion of this might even bring Germany back to its senses. It is not too late for Chancellor Merkel to split with her hard-line finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, drop the self-serving aspects of austerity, and help devise a workable plan for Greece's economy to recover.