Troubled Start at NIC

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Innovation Campus, on the old State Fairgrounds, is getting off to a slow start. With the exception of ConAgra, the NIC has not attracted companies interested in locating there. There has already been a management shake-up, with UNL taking a stronger role in recruiting. UNL also wants more money from the state legislature to try to get the project moving. There is talk at the Regents' level of needing additional tax breaks as incentives.

Recruiting wasn't helped by a guest speaker at UNL in October, MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who told the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues that most universities' public-private "innovation" centers are anything but. He said universities typically go after the wrong companies and the wrong people. I was at the lecture and had to suppress a gasp – did he not know the Nebraska Innovation Campus was one of sponsors of his talk?

Recruiting may also not be helped by the UNL partnership with ConAgra. Few companies have a worse record and reputation for environmental concerns. ConAgra, a company often in trouble not only with the EPA but also with the SEC and the Department of Justice, is the epitome of Big Ag. With UNL committed to combining its Food Science and Technology Department with ConAgra on the Innovation Campus, some potential recruits may sense that Big Ag and its bottom-line emphasis on short term profits will be calling the shots, and that scientific innovation and faculty academic freedom that can make it happen will suffer.

Such fears could only have been enhanced by the New York Times' page 1 article and subsequent editorial on bad research practices at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center, a collaborative effort of USDA and UNL. According to the Times, an experienced veterinarian on the UNL faculty who blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and practices at the center was told by his supervisor to stay away from the center and not to show a reporter his concerns. This could steer NIC prospects away from associating with any UNL enterprise.

There is also a question of whether the university itself is ready for innovation. Last fall two of us had lunch at the famous Dairy Store on the UNL East Campus, where customers can buy ice cream, cheese, milk and other dairy products produced on site. It also serves sandwiches and salads. We asked if there was anything organic on the menu, to the bewilderment of the persons behind the counter, who were not familiar with the term organic. Management in tbe back room was consulted; the answer was no. We ordered anyway and ate our lunch amid posters proclaiming the wonderful world of processed and manufactured foods, as if this were the 1950s and obesity was not yet a problem.

This was a shock. Innovation in agriculture is happening in the booming farm-to-table and organic farming movements all across the country. In Lincoln I shop at Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery that markets the produce of local organic farms. These farms also supply several of Lincoln's and Omaha's best restaurants. One day I asked the Open Harvest manager if her business or any of these farms were working with the university. "No," she said, "what they do with food down there is the opposite of what we stand for."

NIC may well fail if it does not begin to define itself as genuinely open to all innovation, not just the kind certain food and fuel businesses favor. This may require tolerance of truly independent thinkers who go aginst the grain and raise uncomfortable questions about nutrition, antibiotics, fertilizers, water, and climate change. It may require a new ethic in research administration, to stand up for whistleblowers, not to silence them.

I want the NIC to succeed, and succeed in a big way. It is located partly in the old fairgrounds' 4-H building, where as a youngster I showed beef cattle, and in the old Industrial Arts building, which was the one and only art gallery to display our one-room country school's works of art. NIC success would justify converting those venerable buildings into something far larger than we could ever imagine.

Missed Opportunity on P Street

Lincoln -- We tried out Lincoln's newly redesigned P Street strip for our New Year's Eve celebration. It was fun; we'd do it again despite the bitter cold and winds that made our eyes sting.

We started out by the Children's Museum at 15th Street and saw several families having a good time on inventive play installations. Next was a drop-in at the Zoo Bar, where five minutes of standing-room-only was enough. Then past Tower Square and on to a more hospitable Barrymore's where a friend offered opinions on everything from the impending collapse of civilization to the design of the new P street sidewalks. ("Not designed by an engineer; must have been done by an art school drop-out.") Then on to Misty's, where a subdued crowd was all dressed in red, having come over from an NU basketball game. (The home team lost.) Then back to the car to drive to the Haymarket end of P Street, to avoid the wind.

At the Haymarket, McFarland's served up good food and drink to the music of a lively Irish band, the Paddywhack.

The most memorable part of the new P Street was Tower Square. The colorful, lighted tower evokes ships' pennants waving in the wind, giving land-locked Lincoln a port area to call its own. The rest of P Street may be nice for the extended sidewalks where restaurants can offer dining under the trees in the warmer months, but beyond that there is excess clutter. The concrete benches with metal armrests are unwelcoming and might as well have a sign on them to warn people off. The blue lights under the benches are cold and draw the eyes downward as if our eyes should be cast toward the gutters.

What is not evident in the design is any sense of the history of the street. Imagine a man on horseback, in full army uniform wearing a hero's Silver Star (from combat in the Philippine-American War), leading a parade up P Street from the Haymarket with William Jennings Bryan in tow to welcome him home on the eve of the 1908 presidential election. That would be Col. Frank Eager, Lincoln lawyer and businessman, publisher of the populist Independent newspaper (Thomas Tibbles, editor), who envisioned a row of theaters, hotels, and office buildings along P Street, and who soon saw many of them built with his encouragement and financing. Clientele came from the nearby University, which Frank Eager kept from re-locating eastward to the State Farm (now the East Campus) in 1912. He battled Chancellor Samuel Avery over the issue, put up $700,000 of private money to expand the City Campus to 16th Street, and won a statewide-referendum showdown to keep the campus near P Street.

That is the P Street of history, of which the new design is ignorant. Of which the city itself now seems ignorant. What a missed opportunity. Imagine an equestrian figure in the design, or an image of The Great Commoner himself, or an evocation of what an important city Lincoln was in its early years. Instead, we get concrete benches with anti-homeless armrests. Take them away. Look up instead to the pennants on the new tower.

Low Point in the American Experiment

Washington -- The American Experiment in government has always had its highs and lows. While one can hope and believe that the underlying trend over decades and centuries is toward a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, one need not be a follower of Howard Zinn to know that the experiment has sometimes fallen short.

Among the lowest points ever is the resort in the twenty-first century to American torture, along with a misguided discussion of whether or not it works. Of course it works: to break people unmercifully to elicit truth, falsehood, and everything in between; to knock ourselves off our pedestal as a country that lives up to its ideals; to subject our own troops to like treatment; to recruit new enemies against our experiment. Torture is effective, no doubt.

Letter-writers to the Washington Post on December 17, 2014, expressed similar thoughts:

• "Perhaps I was naive when I took an oath as an infantry lieutenant to protect and defend the Constitution and to think that part of what being a U.S. Army officer meant was that I was morally better than my enemy: I abide by the Geneva Conventions, a measure of decency I'd hope to receive if captured."

• "My first priority is not to be kept safe by any means necessary. I am extremely offended by proclamations that the American people want to be kept safe above all else."

• "As a teenager I read of Soviet torture of those considered enemies of the state. How awful, I thought, if the Russian people knew what was being done in the name of public safety and preserving their way of life. How could an ordinary person feel anything but shame? How could anyone defend torture? I was glad to be living in the home of the brave. And here we are, all illusions gone."

• "For many Americans, protecting and defending the Constitution and our principles of individual freedom and due process of law are the highest duty we expect from our public servants. I believe we became a nation of cowards the day Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush lost their heads after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

• "Who are these men who presume to know better than all of us, who have convinced themselves that, unlike all other times in history when our country has been threatened, the United States can now act as barbarously as our enemies?"

• "We send our military off to die, but we are afraid to risk another attack because we failed to torture the right person? I'm willing to take that chance if it means we can hold our heads up again as Americans and stand for something..."

• "[T]he United States must show the world we're committed to truth and justice; prosecutions must follow."

Indeed, prosecutions must follow. It is beyond ironic that the only person imprisoned in the U.S. is the one who blew the whistle on the torturers, John Kiriakou. Prosecutions should start with those who killed prisoners without due process and those who obstructed justice by covering up excesses that went beyond even fig-leaf legal opinions defining torture down.

Seventy some years ago, two very different people were born into the world in the same city, Lincoln, Nebraska. Dick Cheney, born in 1941, seems somewhere in life to have missed out on grasping what makes America special, and what is necessary to keep it special. His early career began with a mediocre record in college (dropped out twice, never completed his Ph.D.); he was convicted twice of driving under the influence of alcohol; he then avoided military service on account of having "other priorities" when it was his time to serve his country. I was born in Lincoln in 1943, never dropped out of anything, never drove drunk, performed my service as a navy officer when duty called and, in a career that also took me to Washington and abroad, always strived to uphold my country as something special in the world. Any version of torture to me is anathema, because it is so un-American. Yet it is Cheney and his ilk who wear the American flag on their lapels, as if that makes them patriots.

Note to my fellow Lincolnite: I'm still willing to take on some risk, just as are the letter-writing citizens above. Don't sell us so short. And think it through: torture is hardly something that reduces risk to the general population. If anything, torture increases risk. You could do your country a real patriotic service, at long last, by publicly acknowledging that you were wrong to degrade America as you have done and, as an act of penance, ask the country once again to aspire to fulfilling its ideals.

Cromnibus Hypocrisy

Washington -- Congress has passed the Cromnibus (The Continuing Resolution plus Omnibus appropriations act), to much disdain from those who know the wretched provisions in it. A sleight-of-hand move of higher education money in the bill is perfectly described in a news headline: "Tom Harkin Wants To Take Money From College Students to Pay Reviled Loan Contractors."

Advocates for financially needy students have heaped abuse on Senator Harkin for this. I couldn't agree more that this is a bad provision. But on reflection, two things bother me even more than what this provision will do.

First, Senator Harkin has long been a champion of protecting the interests of financially needy students. This must be taken into account. He has often stood alone, courageously taking on the for-profit schools that have misused federal tax dollars and ruined the lives of countless cynically exploited students and their families. He has done this in the face of many of his Congressional colleagues who take campaign contributions from this unverschämt industry; these contributions are almost totally recycled federal tax dollars. He has also made accrediting bodies do their job, through his Senate hearings that publicly shamed them. We are all in his debt for this work. Thank you, Senator Harkin.

Second, some of those jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of this provision have little or no moral high ground from which to object, however odious the shift of funding may be. The American Council on Education wrote this about Harkin's taking some $300 million from a Pell grant surplus account for the benefit of loan collectors:

[W]e oppose any efforts to weaken this proven, successful program by depleting the current surplus. With Pell Grants projected to return to significant shortfalls in the near future, stripping existing funding will needlessly endanger the near-term health and stability of the program. Congress has cut federal financial aid repeatedly over the last few years. Benefits have been eliminated, and students are paying more for their federal student loans. Students cannot afford to continue subsidizing other areas of the budget. We urge you to support America’s students and reject any proposals that would weaken the Pell Grant Program.

This is hypocrisy. If anyone has weakened the Pell program over the years, it is much of the membership of ACE. Many colleges and universities, by manipulating their own institutional aid, routinely repackage Pell grants, taking financial aid away from low income students that the program is supposed to help, thereby capturing the funds for other purposes. This amounts to billions of dollars annually, many times over the amount at issue in the Cromnibus act. Are students being forced to subsidize other areas of the budget, as ACE claims? Yes, indeed. But it is the ACE membership itself that is a far greater culprit than the Harkin provision, when one looks at the shifting of subsidies within college budgets. Are students being required to take out more student loans? Yes, but ACE needs to look in the mirror as to who is behind this.

Moreover, ACE has been noticably absent from helping with any of the heavy lifting involved in curtailing for-profit school abuses and reforming accreditation. They have let others do the work and take the heat.

And why does ACE continue to use the word "proven" with regard to Pell grants? Because repeating it over and over will make it so? It will not; the program has never been rigorously evaluated by the Department of Education. Many attempts by economists and others, over decades, have failed to conclude that the program is the success often claimed. No one wishes more than I do that these studies are wrong, but the evidence just isn't there to back up the claims for the program. Finally, ACE, of all organizations, should be more careful with its use of language. Sloppy use of the the word proven is often evidence that the user does not understand the philosophy and methods of science. This should be beneath the nation's leading higher education association.

Germany Struggles with Its History

Berlin -- Germany still struggles with its history, and not just the Nazizeit.

The state of Thüringen, after recent elections, is trying to put together a red-red-green governing coalition; that is, two parties of the left (SPD and Die Linke) along with the Greens (die Grünen). But to some it is unthinkable that the leader of the government might be a member of Die Linke, in that he has ties to the old East German state, the DDR. The president of the entire federal republic, Joachim Gauck, is weighing in, saying it is going to be hard for those of his generation to agree to seeing such a person come to power. The SPD in Thüringen is polling its membership to see if it will accept being in a coalition with a member of Die Linke as its head.

Others, including a friend of mine in Berlin with impeccable credentials on the left, say there was an election and Die Linke should be allowed, in a democracy, to take leadership. I tend to agree; there's nothing like having to take responsibility for governing in a coalition to make people and parties face real issues rather than forever carping from the ideological sidelines. It can also be a good way to clean up a tainted past.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Berlin a new palace is rising, a reconstruction of the palace of the Kaisers. It is a huge edifice and will soon be the talk of the world. What is Germany trying to do, bring back the Prussia of Frederick the Great? Indeed, the palace is just down the street from the benevolent gaze of a statue of Frederick that dominates Unter den Linden boulevard. I remember in the 1990s when the new palace was proposed. The building on the site at that time was the former East German Palast der Republik, the parliament and cultural center of the DDR. It had to go, not just for symbolism but because it was riddled with asbestos. The new palace was just to be a reconstruction of the palace that was torn down by the Soviets in the 1950s, a nice tourist attraction if nothing else.

Technically, the new palace project is called the Humboldt Forum. The building will serve as a scientific and educational conference center, named for the Humboldt brothers (after whom nearby Humboldt University is also named). Inescapably, it will also glorify German science. With such a colossal building, it is going to be tempting for the German government to use it for diplomatic goals as well as educational and historical purposes. This may all be for the better. Germany has been a responsible world power now for several decades, but the country must be ready for raised eyebrows as attention starts to be drawn to the completion of a splendid new palace of the Kaisers.

Now if only a few Euros could trickle down from the palace to complete the construction work around Kottbusser Tor, in my neighborhood, which has been a mess for years and years. This is where the world meets: Turks, Germans, Britons, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans, Africans.... Finishing up the project would signal that Berlin also cares about the diplomacy of the street.

Upcoming 25th Anniversary

Berlin -- A week from today will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I remember being present on the day it fell. Tumultuous times.

Today, Sunday, November 2, 2014, I got up with the sun, walked a block and a half to where the wall once stood, crossed over Bethaniendamm at Melchior Strasse into former East Berlin, bought three breakfast brötchen at a little bakery, and walked back home back past the great St. Thomas Church in the former West. A remarkable walk in that it was so ordinary. Twenty-five years earlier (or fifty years earlier, for that matter) such a walk would have been impossible.

On Christmas day of 1963, Paul Schultz, an eighteen-year-old East German, tried to cross at the same spot and was shot by border guards as he was about to jump from atop the last barrier into the West. He died that evening at Bethanien Hospital, a block away. The guard who shot him was rewarded with a new briefcase and wristwatch by the East German government.

Is history's verdict about the wall (or about anything in our lives) up to those of us who are still around to write the last chapter? Yes, I'd say. And perhaps it is our duty to intervene to make the last chapter a happy ending, to the extent such an ending is possible. How should we write the last chapter of the wall's demise? A celebration of the ordinary and the mundane seems appropriate to me, like my walk this morning. For others there are still scores to settle and lives to avenge. So be it.

Glad to be Away

Berlin -- For me it's a good time to be in Berlin on this November 1, 2014, as I have successfully avoided Halloween hullabaloo in the States and will avoid U.S. election day on Tuesday. I voted early before coming here. Weather's been much better here, too. The grounds and gardens at Sans Souci yesterday were incomparable. My daughter and I walked eleven kilometers altogether, through train stations and palace promenades, every step a delight.

Had I been in the Washington suburbs last evening, I would have given the trick-or-treaters peanuts in the shell, as usual, not candy. This year I would also have been tempted to give them a copy, for their parents, of Mark Bittman's op-ed "Two Rules for a Good Diet." It's sad to see so many little obese children asking for candy and junk food.

I'm not ruling out some election day surprises on Tuesday that I'd like to be around to witness, but where I live in Nebraska and Maryland, there haven't been any real surprises for years. Both are essentially one-party states where office holders are simply not held accountable. Nebraska state government, under Republicans, has witnessed several years of ineptitude and scandal in its human services and corrections departments, but the Republican candidates for state offices are all ahead in the polls. Maryland state government is about to be headed by a Democratic candidate, currently lieutenant governor, who failed miserably last year in setting up Maryland's health insurance exchanges. But he won the Democratic primary over a similarly weak candidate, so he's likely a winner in the general election.

It's past time to look more critically at our election institutions that lead to such situations.

The election surprise I'm really hoping for is in Oregon, where better food labeling is on the ballot and has a chance, despite millions of dollars being thrown against it by Pepsico, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, and the like, whose favorite holiday is probably Halloween.

POST-ELECTION UPDATE: Apparently a lot of Marylanders felt as I did (see above), and did not turn out for the Democratic candidate for governor as predicted. He lost. The Democratic congressman for whom the party gerrymandered a district almost lost as well. Maryland may be heavily Democratic, but voters pay attention. In Nebraska, party label was everything, and Nebraska government will be the lesser for it.

Food labeling in Oregon lost by the narrowest of margins. Big Ag ran an astonishing disinformation campaign against it, successfully. The hope for better food labeling might rest in consumer choice rather than ballot initiatives.

Undermining Pell, Redux

Washington -- The New America Foundation has published a second round of analysis of how tuition and financial aid policies help or (increasingly) hinder low-income student access to higher education. In Undermining Pell Volume II, Steve Burd writes:

For years, colleges complemented the government’s efforts by using their financial aid resources to open their doors to the neediest students. But those days appear to be in the past. Over the past several decades, a powerful enrollment management industry has emerged to show colleges how they can use their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to increase both their prestige and revenue.

Worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid they would have otherwise provided to financially needy students, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before. They are not receiving the full benefits intended.

Overall, too many four-year colleges, both public and private, are failing to help the government achieve its college-access mission. They are, instead, adding hurdles that could hamper the educational progress of needy students, or leave them with mountains of debt after they graduate.

Will this new analysis, which demonstrates the problem is getting worse, have any more impact on Congress and the Department of Education than the first one did? Probably not. After the first study, I offered a blog criticizing Congress for creating a financial aid system that invites colleges to manipulate federal funds away from help for the low-income. Which resulted in an invitation to me by authorizing committee staff to visit the Hill for a chat. I was told I was wrong about staff not reading the report; they did. But I was also told that Congress would take no action because there was nothing Congress could do in the face of the powerful Washington-based higher education lobby.

Having once been a part of that lobby, as well as Congressional staff and Department of Education staff, I disagree. American higher education is sufficiently in trouble such that another business-as-usual, chummy legislative reauthorization of the Higher Education Act with the senescent, out-of-touch higher ed lobby will likely accelerate the already alarming growth of student indebtedness, a national problem affecting the whole economy. Moreover, many colleges during the next six-year reauthorization period will find themselves unable to keep up with the enrollment management and money laundering schemes tolerated if not encouraged under current federal law, and will be faced with shuting their doors.

It is no secret that many who toil at colleges and universities -- likely a large majority -- are troubled by the behaviors they believe they are forced into by the very success of their control of Congress: chasing rankings prestige at the expense of their missions; loading up the financially-needy with debt while awarding so-called merit aid to the dubiously (but well-off) meritorious; selling their institutional souls to outside funding sources. Occasionally a college president will shout "Stop us before we kill ourselves!", but no one in Congress is really listening.

The New America Foundation proposes mild carrot-and-stick adjustments to current federal law as a way to address the problems. These measures are better than nothing, but Congress would be better advised simply to face up to the failures of its current programs and act boldly to reform them.

Discovering Golden Treasure

Lincoln -- The goldenrod on our prairie northwest of Lincoln has been in full flower this month. Bright orange Monarch butterflies on bright yellow goldenrods make for irresistible photo opportunities.

So we had a smartphone photo of a local goldenrod handy when visiting the Bessey Herbarium in Nebraska Hall last week. Exactly which species of goldenrod was it, we asked. Turns out it was Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida). The oldest such specimen in the herbarium's collection dates from September 18, 1873; it was collected in Lancaster County by none other than the early Nebraska naturalist and professor Samuel Aughey, promoter (and perhaps originator) of the "rain follows the plow" theory and a great favorite of railroad companies.

But it was another goldenrod specimen in the collection, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), that convinced us we had discovered golden treasure. Tall Goldenrod is the Nebraska State Flower. In the herbarium, in a special cabinet, is the actual speciman that the Nebraska Legislature had before it when it made the designation in 1895. The backing paper has a note from Charles Bessey himself verifying it. The speciman was collected in Holt County in 1893 by Frederic Clements. This was the year Clements and Roscoe Pound crossed northern Nebraska, collecting plants for their subsequent publication Phytogeography of Nebraska, a work of far-reaching influence well beyond the borders of the state and nation.

The Bessey Herbarium is a remarkable place with both a current and historic collection but it receives scant support from the University and State. Its budget was cut severely in 2003 and funding has not been restored.

Nebraska's Good Time Fiasco

Lincoln -- Yesterday I watched, via the Internet, the Nebraska Legislature's entire (morning, afternoon, and evening) televised hearing at which a special committee took court-compelled testimony from Department of Corrections' employees and others to try to get to the bottom of a prisoner sentencing scandal.

The Nebraska Supreme Court determined in early 2013, in State v. Castillas, that the Department's way of calculating "good time" was incorrect. Some prisoners were being released too early. Department officials did nothing to change their method until the Omaha World-Herald discovered the problem over a year later and made it a headline story for months. Or so the scandal has unfolded. The State has since been attempting to round up the released prisoners in question and make them spend over 2000 additional man-years in prison at a cost to taxpayers of perhaps 50 million dollars.

Several state senators on the committee sensed that responsibility for the fiasco might rest at the feet of the Governor, who wanted to reduce prison overcrowding but also wanted to cut state budgets and taxes, hence no new construction to house prisoners and no compliance with the holding of the Supreme Court. Or that responsibility might rest at the feet of the Attorney General, whose office is understaffed and did not properly coordinate with the lawyers at the Department of Corrections.

But it became clear during the hearing that something else was at work: run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bungling. A call was not returned; an email attachment was not read; false confidence was placed in the idea that someone else was on top of the matter. When state senators began to piece together what the committee chairman called a comedy of errors, they were merciless in their condemnation of the employees. The employees did not help their cause, as most of them pointed fingers at each other. Polite senators said the testimony was unbelievable; one impolite senator called the Department's record administrator a fool, and baited the Department's former general counsel into trying to get him to admit he was incompetent.

The Attorney General himself decided to join the fun the next day, calling the legal staff at the Department of Corrections incompetent.

As a former Nebraska state employee, I'm not going to join the condemnation. Yes, the records administrator seems to have had one promotion too many into his position of responsibility, but the others do not deserve to have their names muddied forever. They were solid citizens who worked day after day, year after year, making state government work. They were public servants in the best sense.

Twice (long ago) I was a department head in state government. Every day I knew that something might go horribly wrong, and I might be held accountable because I chose to work on one stack of paper late into the night rather than another and something would fall through the cracks. But that was a risk I took every day, and I was prepared to take the consequences. If I was compelled to appear before a legislative committee, however, I would have behaved a little differently than the employees did yesterday. I would have said yes, I was culpable, and to every name I was called by a state senator, I would have said "at least" in regard to my action or inaction as related to the fiasco. I would have said I was there to take my medicine. If it meant rebuilding my life elsewhere, so be it. My words would not be cheeky; I would mean it.

One employee, Sharon Lindgren, almost did that. Clearly she was marginal to the whole affair, but took her medicine. Because heads had to roll, one was hers. She retired rather than being fired by the Director of Corrections (who, incidentally, was not disciplined himself). A senator asked why she did not fight the impending dismissal, if she was telling the truth of her limited involvement in the fiasco. She said she was not a wealthy woman and did not have the resources to employ counsel for the long appeal process and that she had her pride; if the Department did not want her services, she did not feel she could do a good job there. She is an experienced, capable attorney. It's a loss for the State.

In her last act as a public servant, Sharon Lindgren also opened up a line of inquiry that the committee would do well to pursue. What if the Nebraska Supreme Court decision was not thoughtfully made, and the Department of Corrections was right to resist implementing it immediately? After all, implementing it was a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose proposition. It would be costly; prisoners who had been released and were doing well would have their lives disrupted; dangerous criminals who did not want to return would resist, perhaps violently; crowding in the prisons would intensify; implementation might set off a litigation nightmare. State senators seemed to think there was no option but to implement the Supreme Court holding immediately, and berated those who did not do it, but were there no other options?

Sharon Lindgren informed the committee that in at least one case, Payan v. State, the Attorney General's office advised the Department of Corrections not to comply with a Supreme Court decision. She disagreed strongly with that advice and told everyone she knew that the advice was wrong, to no avail. If this is true, it is ironic, to say the least, that the Attorney General is calling Ms. Lindgren incompetent. Be that as it may, is there no way the executive branch could have brought an action to determine if the Supreme Court was fully aware of the consequences of its decision? True, the judicial branch may have quickly slapped down such an action but given the circumstances and what was at stake, I would not blame the Governor and the Attorney General for such leadership. After all, they are both elected officials who head the co-equal executive branch. This is not Andrew Jackson saying "John Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it." (Which he actually didn't say, but might as well have.) Moreover, the way the Department of Corrections had been administering "good time" prior to the Supreme Court's 2013 decision had a legal rationale, the committee learned from a former records administrator, it just wasn't the one the Supreme Court eventually picked in its holding. And when a reader actually pores over State v. Castillas, it can be read so as to deal only with a mistake of a trial judge; there is no mention of how the Department of Corrections makes its computations. I look in vain for any clue that the author of the opinion (or his clerk) researched the whole matter concomitant with the implications of his holding.

If the executive branch is more interested in pointing fingers than leading the state out of this mess, there is always the legislative branch. A special session could deal with the Supreme Court's decision in any number of ways to mitigate its effects. If the Governor won't call one, the legislature can vote to call a special session itself.

One upshot of the fiasco so far, especially after the hearing yesterday, is that state employees will see how their careers can end in ignominy, with no one to defend their years of underpaid, overworked service. It will send a message to those who might think a career in state government is for them: Think again.