Theodor L. Steiger's Years in Lincoln

Lincoln -- In the previous post I mentioned the name Theodor L. Steiger, whose communication with Henry Chandler Cowles, the noted botanist and ecologist of the University of Chicago, is in the Chicago archives of the Cowles collection. Steiger spent several productive years in Lincoln, for which he should be better remembered. While he was conducting research on prairies with his mentor, Professor John Ernst Weaver of the University of Nebraska, he was also pastor of a church in Lincoln's South Bottoms, home to a German speaking population of Volgadeutsch immigrants. Steiger's son later made a major contribution to astrophysics.

Steiger did extensive research in 1927 and 1928 on Lincoln's nearby Nine Mile Prairie and its environs, which at that time encompassed about 800 acres. He had emigrated from Switzerland to San Diego, California, in 1910, at age seventeen. He and his wife Bertha, also Swiss, had two children: Mari, born in South Dakota in 1921 when Theodor taught at Redfield College; and Walter, born in 1923 in Colorado. The family came to Lincoln where Steiger was invited to become minister at Ebenezer Congregational Church at 8th and B Streets. He simultaneously sought his doctorate in botany at the University of Nebraska, which he received in 1929.

In 1930, doctorate in hand, Steiger became a public advocate for keeping Lincoln's newly established Pioneers Park as native prairie:

It took nature thousands of years to produce this grassland. It is a living witness to the countless ages which elapsed before the white man began to sink the glistening plough into the ancient sod. Not enough of it is left today to convey to future generations an appreciation of the prairie. Are we going to permit its complete extinction in favor of the dull and unimaginative blue grass sod?

Steiger left Lincoln in 1931 with a fellowship from the National Research Council to study Swiss meadow vegetation at the University of Zürich. He returned to the United States to teach at Sul Ross College at Alpine, Texas, in the Big Bend region, then joined the botany faculty at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After World War II, he spent two years in Greece working on agriculture projects with the United Nations Relief and Restoration Administration, UNRRA. He returned to the United States in 1947, researched New Hampshire grasslands, and discovered a new orchid, to be named Spiranthes Steigeri Correll. In his retirement, he returned to the ministry with the Unitarian Church. His son Walter, who attended his father's South Bottoms church as a child in Lincoln, studied physics at MIT and at the University of Cincinnati and joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii, where he became known as the grandfather of Hawaiian astronomy for bringing space observatories to Hawaii's tallest mountains.

Rivalries Among the Founders of Ecology

Lincoln -- Nebraska, in particular its state university, can rightfully claim to be the home of the academic discipline of ecology. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about Frederic and Edith Clements and their legacy at the University of Nebraska.

If there is another locale and institution that could make a rival claim it would be the Chicago area and the University of Chicago. It was here that Henry Chandler Cowles made his studies of the Indiana Dunes in 1898 and led a department that produced many of the leading ecologists of the twentieth century.

Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were contemporaries and collaborated on international botanical excursions. They and their wives participated in the first International Phytogeographic Excursion, which took place in the United Kingdom in 1911. They were co-organizers and leaders of the second IPE when it toured the United States in 1913.

This month I visited the Henry Chandler Cowles collection in the archives of the University of Chicago to look more carefully at the Clements/Cowles relationship, especially to see if there was evidence of a rivalry that may have influenced the development of ecology as a discipline. Evidence in other collections, namely the letters of Edith Clements from the 1911 excursion, makes it clear that the two couples were not on the best of terms. This apparently carried over even beyond the grave.

Henry Cowles actually had a strong Nebraska connection that could have been the basis for a better relationship. He began his teaching career in the 1890s at Gates College in Neligh, Nebraska, before moving on to the University of Chicago. During his career he was well acquainted with Nebraska botanists and ecologists. The Cowles collection contains friendly correspondence from T.L. Steiger (who worked with Clements' protégé John Weaver on the prairies around Lincoln) and Raymond Pool, another Clements student and longtime chairman of the Nebraska botany department.

But Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were opposites in many ways. Clements was a driven man whose intense work ethic was influenced by hyperthyroidism; Cowles, especially in his prime teaching years, was jolly and led memorable class excursions. One account has Cowles running the aisles of a train in Montana barefoot with a liquor bottle in hand. This would have annoyed Clements, an outspoken teetotaler, to no end. Roscoe Pound once described Frederic Clements as a man with no redeeming vices.

Both scientists wrote poetry. Clements' early poetry was earnest in the style of Robert Browning; Cowles began writing devout Christian verse, based on sermons he attended as a young man, but as an adult he wrote doggerel that delighted Chicago students and faculty. Clements was an avowed atheist, whose own grand theory of nature could itself be called a religion, and saw himself as a nature poet.

Edith Clements was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. She was also a teaching fellow in the German department. She conducted herself as a scientist on the international excursions and frowned on Elizabeth Cowles' way of forever making small talk among the traveling parties. Edith Clements, in letters now at the Nebraska State Historical Society, called Elizabeth Cowles a "bromine".

The rivalry between the two men shows up in an apologetic 1935 letter to Henry Cowles from Sir Arthur Tansley, the eminent British ecologist. In an earlier Festschrift publication Tansley had called Frederic Clements "the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation" but privately he wrote to Henry Cowles, "I should have said that Clements 'had made a unique and indispensible contribution to the theory of vegetation rather than that he is the 'the greatest individual creator, etc.'" [Box 3, Folder 1]

On Henry Cowles' death in 1939, many letters of condolence were written to Elizabeth, including a touching one from Raymond Pool in Nebraska, but none came from Frederic or Edith Clements. Or at least none is in the collection.

What is noteworthy about the Henry Cowles collection is what is missing. It is a fairly large collection of over twenty linear feet, but it seems not to contain any records of the interactions between the Clementses and the Cowleses. There are good records of other travels, but none from the IPEs of 1911 and 1913, historically the most significant.

Perhaps some of the missing records are at the Library of Congress, which has considerable documentation of the development of the discipline of ecology. But according to daughter Harriet Cowles, Elizabeth took many of Henry's papers after his death and put them on the curb as garbage (at 5722 Blackstone in Hyde Park), thinking no one would have an interest in them. That may not be the whole story. Elizabeth may have been systematic in what was retained and what was destroyed so as to limit future generations' ability to examine conflicts among the founders of ecology. Early correspondence and love letters between Henry and Elizabeth, which were not thrown out, show them to be adept academic in-fighters when it came to Henry's career. Henry writes Elizabeth in 1901 that if his colleague Chamberlain is promoted over him, he "will raise a deuce of a row." [Box 3, Folder 5]

Why is this important? Both Cowles and Clements revolutionized the study of nature with their theories of orderly plant succession, sometimes called "dynamic ecology." Because Clements published much more than Cowles, the theory came to be known as the Clementsian paradigm. When this theory came under attack by Henry Gleason, who argued that nature was far more chaotic than orderly, Cowles largely remained on the sidelines. It could be argued that this was because Gleason had been a student of Cowles at the University of Chicago, but so had Victor Shelford, who collaborated with Clements on extending the Clementsian paradigm to all biology. Or perhaps Cowles wanted to emphasize his own differences with Clements over the direction and details of plant succession, which were significant. But the answer may be that Frederic, Edith, Henry, and Elizabeth just didn't get along.

The battle between Clementsian and Gleasonian views of nature goes on into this century, unfortunately with too little enlightenment from the Henry Chandler Cowles collection.


Nebraska Nutrition

Lincoln -- If I lived here year-round perhaps I'd get used to it: all the overweight people, that is.

Corn fed, indeed. Corn syrup fed, high fructose version, is more like it. I simply don't remember there being such an epidemic of obesity when I was growing up in Nebraska, or even when I lived here a quarter-century ago.

No one seems much to care. Three of us recently stopped at a truckstop restaurant on West O Street in Lincoln. Two "sides" came with each meal. I asked for greens. "We don't have greens," the waitress said. "Nobody orders them." Last month in Omaha we stopped at a diner not far from downtown. Same thing, no greens. At a nearby booth sat two young women who could have been the sisters of those fat twins in the movie Nebraska. They were both pushing 300 pounds. At a nearby table a grandpa and grandma, both wide-bodied, were treating their three young granddaughters, still wispy-thin delights, to lunch. The grandfather ordered them all extra french fries and taught them to dip their fries in a sundae, a green, foamy tower of liquified sugar in which he was indulging himself. "This is the way to eat your fries, yum-yum."

I asked the Omaha waitress how a diner could not have greens. Every diner I ever knew had canned green beans, or peas and carrots, or cole slaw. Those choices almost defined diners. She said I could have a salad, which I ordered. But it had no green in it, only the greying innards of a head of iceberg lettuce with a dressing that was probably thickened and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The irony in this is that the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was once the home of one of the nation's great nutritionists, Ruth M. Leverton, who promoted food labeling and recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). More recently, unable to resist the fashion of public-private partnerships, UNL has started to combine its Food Science program with that of ConAgra, a private company that is a leading opponent of food labeling initiatives nationwide. So much for the tradition of Ruth Leverton. The UNL chancellor has said that ConAgra is the "perfect collaborator" for the state university. He may well be right in a way not intended.



Reactions to Refugees

Lincoln -- Traveling between Berlin, Washington, and Lincoln provides exposure to three markedly different perspectives on refugees.

In the last post, I noted the demonstration in Berlin in support of refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom come from Africa and the Middle East. Hundreds of Berliners marched in support of allowing the refugees to remain in their neighborhood in a former school building, and for providing them with papers to allow them to work and remain in Berlin. This is the opposite of NIMBY.

In the Washington area, the Maryland governor assembled a meeting of fifty religious and non-profit groups with experience in handling refugee children. Maryland is working with federal officials to find the right temporary match between communities, service agencies, and the refugee children coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In Lincoln, the Nebraska governor has demanded to know the identity of any individuals or groups who would be taking in refugee children. With glee, other Nebraska federal, state, and local elected officials joined in the condemnation of allowing any of the refugees into the state for however long. Press releases warned of diseased children infecting communities. Nothing about sending them back on the MS St. Louis, but if that ship were still afloat, such a proposal would not have been surprising.

Doubtless sovereign countries have a right and need to control their borders. I think the amnesty provided in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act was a mistake. But it is striking how different locales react to the challenges presented by refugees, and how people define themselves by their reactions.

A Berlin Demonstration

Berlin -- Walking last Saturday evening from Kreuzberg to Neukölln along my usual route through Heinrich Platz, I ran into a formidable police presence preparing for a potential clash with marching demonstrators. I turned onto Oranienstrasse and was soon caught between a thousand or so marchers and two lines of police. Except for a few marchers who were determined to provoke the police, it was all peaceful. No store-fronts smashed; no right-wing nationalist trouble-makers.

The demonstrators were marching in sympathy with Berlin's small population of asylum-seekers, protesting the conditions they live in and the idea of a "fortress Europe" that looks away from the victims of war and circumstance in Africa and the Middle East. Or they were in search of a good time, a moving festival. It had been a long seven days since the noisy Christopher Street celebration in Kreuzberg. Any storm in a port.

As I was filming the scene with my little camera, a young woman departed the march and came running up to me with a big smile. At first it didn't register with me who she was; suddenly I recognized my daughter! Later in the evening we had dinner together under lindens in deepest Neukölln.

The Inability to Restrain Borrowing

Washington -- Ben Miller's latest offering in The Chronicle of Higher Education should be carefully read at the Department of Education, the White House, and the Congress. Especially this:

"The story of Pell and its inability to meaningfully restrain borrowing exemplify the challenges of unilateral federal financial-aid investments. Without conditions on states and institutions that introduce real requirements about providing an affordable education, federal dollars will keep getting gobbled up by insatiable college budgets and state officials looking for ways to supplant their own education spending."

In other words, no conceivable amount of Pell spending is going to slow down the student debt juggernaut without addressing the responsibilities of states and colleges.

This is not news to some of us. In 1997, I wrote in the Journal of Federalism that federal student financial aid programs that operated in the tradition of cooperative federalism (with some restraints on states and colleges) were more effective than those like the Pell program, which did not. In 2002, I completed an unpublished paper showing that increases in Pell grants were not associated with declines in student debt load for the low-income. Although that paper was written while I was at the National Center for Education Research within the Department of Education, it was unwelcome. The Department was adamant that its researchers were not to do any actual research, but rather administer grants to college researchers, who were unlikely to suggest that Pell grants might not be effective in holding down student debt burdens. That topic has long been verboten.

Two years ago, on an Education Sector panel in Washington, I suggested "re-balancing" federal student grant appropriations by tilting the funding more to programs in the cooperative federalism tradition, to help prevent the raw exploitation of mindlessly appropriated federal dollars that have been such a failure in reining in student loan debt. I think that is still a sound suggestion.

It's a Start, Thank You

Washington -- It is gratifying to see others come to the same views that are expressed occasionally in these pages.

Today the President is using the phone and the pen with his Secretary of Education to deal with the student loan mess. He will be making it easier for borrowers to pay off their loans and will be changing the way the collection industry operates.

This should be followed by more such actions, all under authority of existing law. The Secretary needs to enforce transparency requirements and use his limitation, suspension, and termination powers to root out waste and abuse especially in student loan, proprietary school, and enrollment management enterprises. It is long past time to stop college dream exploitation industries from ruining yet more lives and grievously harming our very society. Hardly a day goes by without major media coverage about what the student loan muddle is doing to hurt the economy, let alone what damage has been done to individuals and families across the country.

Likewise, thanks to Kevin Carey for his report on the sorry state of affairs at the Association of American Universities (AAU), and to Paul Basken for his coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clearly, I am not the only one who is deeply disappointed in this organization. The AAU is a lobbying organization that asks Congress for federal funds for research. If I were staff on the Hill (which I once was) and the AAU came petitioning to my office, I would ask them to leave until they got their own house in order.

Conflicts of Interests in Academic Research

Lincoln -- Writing in The New Yorker, Rachael Aviv tells an unsettling story of the lengths to which Syngenta, the huge agribusiness company, has gone to try to discredit critics of its product atrazine. Syngenta plots and schemes to undermine researchers who believe atrazine is dangerous, all the while excusing such behavior as normal business practice.

The part of the article that caught my attention was not the back and forth disagreement among academic researchers as to the safety of atrazine, but the citation of a conflict of interest study that showed the relationship between who pays for a study and its outcome. When Syngenta pays, most academic researchers somehow find that atrazine is safe.

While this controvery is playing out, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has hired a new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a salary well above that of the chancellor, raising many eyebrows as to why such a salary is necessary. The pay is even being substantially augmented by private dollars through the NU Foundation.

To me, the new dean will be worth every penny if he recognizes conflicts of interest and stands tall for academic integrity. The College of Arts and Sciences is not only the academic core of the university, it must also be its conscience, extending across other colleges and departments. On the other hand, if the new dean is another of an increasingly common breed, the academic administrator who equates grant revenue totals with accomplishment of mission and winks at conflicts of interest in research, he won't be worth a salary at any level and should not have been hired.

Nebraska taxpayers also deserve to know if the private money that is augumenting the dean's compensation may pose a conflict of interest itself.

Many of us who favor more taxpayer support for higher education, to recover from the cuts of the last decade, are fearful of what kinds of institutions we will now be supporting. Forced to seek outside funding over the years, how conflicted and corrupted have they become?


Earth Day, Arbor Day

Lincoln -- Last Tuesday was Earth Day; today is Arbor Day, at least in Nebraska, where the schools are closed in observance.

In honor of Earth Day and what it stands for, I planted a "Xerces Pollinator Dry Soil" mix of grasses and forbs into bare patches on our prairie. We raise bees and are concerned about the accelerating loss of pollinators of all kinds. The mix is from Prairie Nursery of Westfield, Wisconsin, which also offered a special customers' incentive on Earth Day; the proceeds are going to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a worthy cause.

Aldo Leopold is celebrated in Wisconsin and throughout much of the country for his view of nature and specifically his "land ethic." Less appreciated is the fact that his philosophy grew out of Clementsian ecology whose founders, Frederic and Edith Clements, are all but forgotten. Until last year, Frederic Clements' ashes lay unmarked in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. Now they are marked, crediting him as "by far the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation."

For Arbor Day, a legacy of the Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton, I am planting twenty red pines as Scots pine replacements. The Scots pines are succumbing to pine wilt and must be removed as soon as they show symptoms.

My friend John Rosenow at the National Arbor Day Foundation is retiring this year after several decades of hugely successful leadership. As a young man, he created the foundation from nothing. Whenever we see each other we remember the day in Washington long ago when together we approached the U.S. Postal Service about a special postal rate for the foundation's mail-order catalog enterprise. The USPS up to then had been adamantly opposed. We both gave our best pitches; the outcome didn't look good. But fortune smiled on us that day when the deciding official told us he was from Nebraska, that as a child he had often been to Morton's home, Arbor Lodge, and he would do anything to help his fellow Nebraskans advance the cause of Arbor Day.



Bob Dole of Kansas

Washington -- Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is touring all 105 counties in his home state of Kansas, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Which recalls for me two Bob Dole stories, one about the good Bob Dole and one about the other side of his character. Such are many stories about the man; he was a talented legislator, but he also had a sharp wit and a tongue to match, which put many people off.

For me, the good Bob Dole is what others may think is the bad one. And vice versa.

One year in the early 1980s the Senate was working on the federal budget late into the night; I was staffing on the Senate floor. Senators had returned to their desks from dinner and drinks. Tempers were short and inhibitions loosened. Up came a question of the budget for veterans; a senator made a speech for the folks back home about how the federal government must not cut any veterans' programs, given what veterans had risked and sacrificed for their country.

Bob Dole took the floor. Serving in the army, he had nearly died in Italy in WWII and was still visably disabled. What would he say? He shocked the Senate by saying he was tired of "professional veterans" who were more interested in protecting their benefits than in getting the nation's budget in order. He had made sacrifices before and he was prepared to make them again. I was never prouder of being a veteran (with a small disability benefit) myself, as that reflected my own view. I resented veterans' organizations claiming to represent me in these matters.

The next morning, I looked in the Congressional Record for the Dole remarks I had witnessed the night before. To me, they were worthy of framing. But they were not there. It is not unusual for the record to be expunged of what actually happens on the Senate floor.

The second Bob Dole story is not so heroic. When I worked for Senator Jim Exon, Democrat of Nebraska, I approached him about putting in a bill to allow states to "trade in" some of their federal categorical grants for less restrictive federal revenue sharing. Jim Exon had often been frustrated as a governor by several federal programs that were well-intentioned but ineffective as administered. He thought he could have run the programs better from the state level if he had had the funds. He liked the idea of states being able to swap among federal approaches, within limits, and told me to work up a bill.

I went to the Senate Legislative Counsel's office; we drafted the language in proper bill form. Jim Exon then sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to several other senators, inviting them to co-sponsor. When Bob Dole got wind of it, however, he liked the idea so much that he wanted his own name on it, not Exon's. He persuaded Leg Counsel to draft a bill lifting language word-for-word from the Exon draft. Staff in the Democratic cloakroom were on to the scheme and called me, advising me to get Senator Exon to the floor immediately to introduce his bill before Senator Dole could beat him to it. Fortunately, he was already on his way there; the bill as introduced thus bore Senator Exon's name and, being sponsored by a former Democratic governor, went on to get bi-partisan support, something that likely never would have happened under a Dole bill that would have been viewed by Democrats as an attempt to kill federal categorical programs. (Eventually the language was amended into another bill as a pilot program, but when federal revenue sharing itself was terminated, the concept died.)

Jim Exon worked well with the other Kansas Republican senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum. They were good friends. But he was never close to Bob Dole.