"Paul's Case"

Washington -- The world premier of "Paul's Case", an opera based on Willa Cather's short story of the same name, took place this week across the river at the Artisphere in Rosslyn, Virginia.

We think of Cather as a Nebraskan, but she was born in Virginia, so this was an appropriate venue. The opera is set in Pittsburgh and New York, both places in which Cather also lived.

The composer, Gregory Spears, took questions from the audience and individually after Saturday evening's performance. He told us privately that his style has most obviously been influenced by Britten, but he was also an admirer of Wagner. I thought he might mention Hanns Eisler, but did not. The music is infused with humming, whistling, and the use of voices eerily to represent train whistles.

Because the story is in the public domain, he explained, he did not have to seek permission from anyone in order to make it into an opera. Nevertheless, he said Cather scholars are much interested in the opera. He would like to see it performed someday in the Red Cloud Opera House in Nebraska. See you in Red Cloud?



Good News for Research Integrity

Washington -- This week three prominent researchers admitted errors in their economics research papers. Andrew Gillen of Education Sector withdrew his paper on faculty work levels and college costs; Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard backtracked on their paper on the relationship between national debt and growth.

Each had a hypothesis worth testing, but they made errors along the way. Bravo to those who tried to replicate the research and discovered the errors. This is the way the process is supposed to work.

How many other research papers should be withdrawn for errors? A lot. Most researchers know how easy it is to make errors, how tempting it is to cover them up when they happen to help confirm a hypothesis; and how unlikely it is that the research will be replicated.

When I was a researcher at the National Center for Education Research, I was disappointed that the researchers on staff were discouraged from doing any research themselves, let alone review the work of others to check for errors and biases that only other researchers would be likely to find.

I hold no particular brief for or against the conclusions of the authors whose papers have successfully been challenged this week. What is important is that some researchers are out there doing their jobs, including replications, and that should have a salutary effect on all research.

Three Strikes for AAU

Lincoln -- The Association of American Universities has struck out with me.

The first strike came in 1999, when the AAU joined with several other higher education associations in putting their own interests ahead of students, families, taxpayers, and the public interest when they sought to defeat a federal rule to ensure that grant aid from a new federal program would lower students' debt burdens. Instead, they wanted to permit institutions to use the grant funds to displace other grant aid, leaving students no better off, essentially pocketing the money for themselves. (See Janet Lorin's excellent article on how displacement works.)

The second strike came in 2011, when the AAU removed the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from its membership, the first time in AAU history a university had been voted off its rolls for not being sufficiently a research university. The removal would have been justified if the AAU's allegations had been true, but they weren't. The AAU's research ranking methodology was unbecoming an association of research universities, in that it disallowed certain agriculture research funds from consideration and it did not correct for organizational differences among institutions. It then held the UNL removal vote open beyond the original deadline to round up the votes it needed, essentially making up rules as it went. Several of my friends and colleagues in higher education in Washington have said not to be concerned, as the AAU is more of a social club than a respected association, but that is not a sufficient answer to the question of why all the effort to remove UNL. (If anyone has more insight into the motivation behind this bizarre AAU action, please email me at joberg@aol.com.)

The third stike is the amicus brief from AAU in the current Monsanto case, in which the AAU, by aligning totally with Monsanto, is undermining research faculties and standards in higher education institutions everywhere. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports ("In Standing Up for Big Ag, Are Universities Undercutting Their Own Researchers?") how faculty do not have freedom to research and publish their findings on Monsanto processes and products. Monsanto has blocked publication of research findings on its Roundup Ready patents.

Money talks. Apparently agribusiness money talks louder than the state and federal taxpayer money that is being appropriated to universities to do unbiased research. What a justified comeuppance were UNL to assert its research independence and oppose the AAU brief on Monsanto as it applies to research. It would strike a blow for research integrity and independence everywhere. But that won't happen because UNL has joined the AAU in its amicus brief, with nary a word to protect faculty researchers. What an opportunity missed, to show that UNL is a true research institution.

USS Arlington

Washington -- The new USS Arlington (LPD-24) has been commissioned in Norfolk; its captain is a Nebraskan from Rushville (Old Jules country) of all places.

I had an invitation to attend the commissioning through the USS Arlington (AGMR-2) reunion association and would have considered attending had I known a fellow Nebraskan was to be captain of the new ship. I sailed in the old Arlington, a communications relay ship, through its many adventures from the coast of North Korea to the pickup of the Apollo 8 astronauts. Many years ago I attended the Norfolk commissioning of the USS Platte because of its Nebraska connection.

A sea story from the old Arlington:

We were several days steaming south of Pearl just after Christmas, 1968, at the anticipated splashdown point of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave earth's orbit and circle the moon. Lovell, Anders, and Borman were the astronauts. USS Yorktown was the capsule pickup ship; Arlington accompanied her to provide communications with the world.

I was the communications watch officer for the splashdown, scheduled for about dawn. I went up on deck before the watch; it had just rained giving the ship a fresh-water washdown. A couple of hours later the recovery and the supporting communications went well. After the watch, I went up to the wardroom for breakfast, then stepped out onto a sponson to see the astronauts waving to us from the nearby Yorktown.

Just at that moment, President Lyndon Johnson was trying to reach the astronauts to congratulate them. Network news cameras in Washington were on the president. The call was to be patched through Arlington. For some reason, the president was erroneously advised that the astronauts were on the line, and he began talking, cameras rolling. But the call had not gone through; it was connected only to an Arlington radioman (RM3 McCormick, as I recall). The president went on and on, the radioman not wanting to interrupt the President of the United States. When Johnson finally stopped, the radioman told him, "Mr. President, your call didn't go through, but I'll be sure to pass your thoughts on to the astronauts!"

As far as I know, viewers of the network news programs that evening never knew the difference.







"Big Jim Exon", Part II

Lincoln -- It is enlightening to read the interviews of Jim Exon's Republican adversaries in Chuck Pallesen and Sam Van Pelt's new book, Big Jim Exon. Among others, former governors Norbert Tiemann, Charley Thone, and Kay Orr each weighed in with their special perspectives.

These interviews complement the series Lincoln Journal Star reporter Don Walton recently wrote about the Orr Administration, in which Kay Orr opened up about her years as governor.

What strikes me is the continuity rather than the discontinuity over the Tiemann, Exon, Thone, Kerrey, Orr and later administrations. Nobby Tiemann overhauled state government in the 1960s not only with a new tax base, but with administrative streamlining in which a single strong executive replaced a more plural executive model. These administrative changes set the stage for surprising executive continuity despite alternating political party control.

The most obvious example of this streamlining was the creation of the Department of Administrative Services, responsible to the governor for central state budgeting, accounting, and other functions such as state buildings, transportation, and computing. All budgeting, even that of constitutional and educational agencies, and all accounting (including pre-audit) henceforth went through DAS.

It was Nobby Tiemann who modernized state government and gave the governor powers commensurate with his or her responsibility, and it was Jim Exon, who followed him, who was first fully to use the enhanced executive powers and to set the standard for their use in subsequent administrations.

What is also striking is that subsequent governors relied so much on people who administered state government under Jim Exon. Republicans seemed not to have had a very deep bench of potential administrators to put into top appointive positions.

Don Leuenberger is an example of continuity. Don was director of Exon's DAS budget division on the eve of the Thone-Whelan gubernatorial election contest in 1978. Jerry Whelan, the Democratic candidate and Exon's lieutenant governor, sent out feelers to several of us, including Don, asking us to stay on if he was elected. When Charley Thone was elected instead, Don and I expected to find employment elsewhere.

So it was a great surprise to us when Charley Thone, in the first days of the gubernatorial transition, asked Don and me to accept re-appointment in his administration. He quickly noted that I was not likely to stay at DAS (as I was going to Washington with newly-elected Senator Exon), but he pressed Don for a quick answer about remaining as state budget director; Don agreed. Don went on to be appointed to other top positions under Republican governors, including tax commissioner in the Orr Administration and was (as is apparent in the Walton interviews) the key Orr advisor on running state government.

Like so many of us, Don Leuenberger cut his teeth as a goveror's advisor and administrator in the seminar-like sessions (see Part 1) that Governor Exon conducted for years in Stan Matzke's DAS office. So did Larry Bare, a Matzke protégé, who first made appearances at the sessions from his job in the Department of Economic Development. Larry later became state budget director, DAS director, and finally chief of staff to two later Republican governors. Democratic chiefs of staff Bill Hoppner and W. Don Nelson were also veterans of the sessions in which Jim Exon set the bar high as a strong governor model for effectively administering state government under Nebraska law.

Thanks to Chuck and Sam for including an anecdote (on page 149) describing of the atmosphere of the Exon seminar sessions, particularly the running gag in which Exon would take a dubious idea and announce into any place where a hidden microphone (as in the Nixon White House) might be found that "IT WOULD BE WRONG!" Jim Exon was a powerful governor, but always an ethical one who actually had a good time being ethical.

All books have mistakes. I hope there is a second edition in which the record can be corrected (on page 91) to show that Jack Falconer was at the first meetings with Governor-elect Exon, not me; and (on page 323) that comments attributed to Gene Budig about legislation in the U.S. Senate were actually, for better or worse, from my interview.

It is appropriate here to note that many of the principals of the Exon seminar sessions continued to meet, under the aegis of Norm Otto's breakfasts, for years and even decades after Governor Exon left office. Peters, Chunka, Matzke, Jacobson, Leuenberger, Bare, Hoppner, Nelson, Ferris, Rochford, and many others over the years participated in critiques of state government, regardless of party affiliation or who was in power. It was -- and still remains -- the ultimate state government back channel.





Good News about Dana College

Lincoln -- Midland University in Fremont, according to newspaper reports, is about to take over the campus of defunct Dana College in Blair. If this happens, it will be a wonderful development for higher education in Nebraska and the country.

Midland would be well-advised to retain some of the tradition of Dana. Dana College was a small liberal arts college that preserved the Danish heritage in Nebraska and the region. When in the United States, Danish royalty sometimes visited. Dana was a fine institution for students who wanted a small college experience. It was good for the local economy. Dana had many distinguished alumni, including former U.S. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois.

Dana closed in 2010 as a result of weak financial fundamentals exacerbated by the Great Recession. The governing board tried to sell it to a for-profit college, which wanted to buy its accreditation as much as its campus, but the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the regional accrediting organization balked and would not approve such a transfer.

This was the first time the HLC stood up against this unseemly practice and its action got national attention, including attention from the U.S. Senate, which just months earlier in hearings had questioned the HLC's lack of backbone in upholding higher education standards.

According to news reports at the time, Nebraska Governor Heineman and Attorney General Bruning made an attempt to overturn the HLC's rejection of the for-profit company's attempt to obtain Dana's accreditation. If true, that was misguided. The for-profit company was co-led by C. Ronald Kimberling, whom news reports touted as having thirty-five years of experience in higher education. Inexplicably, Nebraska newspapers did not note that nearly all of the experience was troubled. When Kimberling was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration, his office was associated with malfeasance that was condemned in the U.S. Senate's Nunn Committee hearings over Abuses in Federal Student Aid Programs. Kimberling then went on to Phillips Colleges, which were constantly in trouble with the Department of Education's program reviewers. He then went to Argosy University, which has been investigated by the Government Accountability Office and featured in many exposés, including those by Frontline and the New York Times.

If I were a Dana alumnus, I would not want my degree sullied by sale of my college's name or accreditation to the likes of such a company. It is much better if Midland can step in and rescue not only the Dana campus but also preserve the Dana legacy and reputation.

There is another reason to hope for success for Midland and Dana. The state and country need independent colleges to complement public institutions. Not all of a nation's higher education teaching and research should be under governmental authorities that could exercise undue control. The lesson of Germany in the 1930s is instructive. Faculties free to oppose interference and totalitarianism whether from the right or left should be nurtured as part of a strong higher education system. Some believe that the Second Amendment is the ultimate safeguard; I believe thriving colleges with strong faculties, reviewed periodically by honest accreditors, are a more likely bulwark.