College Football Headaches

Washington -- College football is the bane of many college leaders. Long ago, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor came into my office on a Washington visit; he was new on the job and I asked him how it was going. He said fine, but he had had no idea how much time football would take away from his other duties. There was not much he could do about it, he said; the fans demanded it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked ten experts for their recommendations as to how to change big-time college athletics. Tinkering around the administrative edges was all they came up with.

I'm not sure the fans are the whole problem; maybe it's time to turn to them for solutions. I'm a fan (or used to be). Here are some changes I'd make: distinguish the game from the professional version; make it more exciting and less predictable; make it safer.

• In the professional game, coaches are the stars as much as the players. Colleges should emphasize schools and players, not some interchangeable coach's "program", whatever that is. Take the coaches off the sidelines and put them behind glass in the stadium. A distinguished former colleague of mine said of his state university's coach that he was an embarrassment to the whole state, what with his expletives and his sideline histrionics. He'd rather the team lost all its games than be represented by such a coach.

• A few rules changes could make the college game more exiting and unpredictable. Fans like broken-field running, clever plays, and heads-up heroics. The game is now too driven by formulas for everything: recruiting, conditioning, players' weight and speed, play-calling. Change a few rules to neutralize the formulaic approach. Perhaps allow more than one forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage, for example, or return to an old tradition of making (at least some) players play on both sides of the ball, to reward the all-around athletes over the clone-like position specialists.

• Get some of the weight off the field, to reduce injuries. If rule changes to reward cleverness and mobility are not enough, implement weight limits. It's done in other sports.

The experts should be looking to put some fun and safety into the game, not new ways to divide up money and liability and take up presidents' time. Make it just a game again.

Trees, Prairies, and the Emerald Ash Borer

Lincoln -- The invasion of the emerald ash borer is upon us. It is disappointing that we will lose so many ash trees, but it is doubly disappointing to see Nebraskans' reactions to the invasion.

Many commenters responding to a news article rushed to provide information about pesticide treatments. There was even a suggestion that a cost-benefit analysis is needed to evaluate the cost of saving a tree with pesticides as opposed to the cost of cutting it down. Nowhere, neither in the article itself nor amid the immediate reactions, was there a discussion that there is a huge downside to using pesticide treatments to try to control the emerald ash borer: the treatments are toxic to pollinators. The pesticides are associated with colony collapse disorder in bees. Although CCD seems to have several causes, this is one of them.

Even the experts cited in the article also did not mention the issue with use of pesticides. Perhaps they are not as aware of the matter as they should be, because Nebraska leadership in alerting citizens to the dangers has been turned over, incredibly, to the manufacturers of the products.

We will lose many ash trees on our prairie, which were planted three decades ago following a plan of the state forester and NRCS. The plan now seems ill-advised in the sense that it diminished prairie habitat. The loss of the trees has an upside in that we can adjust the plan to provide more space for native plants that support pollinators.

We'll cut down the ash trees and put them on the burn pile along with the Scots pines that have succumbed to the pine wilt nematode. Last fall I attended a lecture at UNL at which a speaker apologized with a chuckle for having picked the Scots pine as the (latest) perfect tree for Nebraska. He should have apologied for the hubris that leads to thinking that nature is so manipulable by man.

The One-Room Country School

Lincoln -- Oh, the joys of reminiscing about one's early education, and the sorrows about its shortcomings.

I'm in touch with some of my one-room country school classmates in rural Lancaster County, Nebraska, where we started our formal education in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We've gone over pictures of ourselves and our teachers. How wonderfully primitive it all was: coal furnace in the basement; water carried into the school from an outside well; two outdoor privies; all children in one room, from kindergarteners to eighth graders; maximum about a dozen of us in a good year.

I liked our teachers for the most part. One recently passed away and I regret not contacting her about her subsequent life and asking what she thought of the school and her charges. Apparently the teachers had little or no college education, but I didn't know that at the time. Many of the students went on to do well.

My ears are still burning from what I recently learned about another of our teachers. One version of her year at the school was none too complimentary: the teacher was engaged to be married and spent all her time planning her wedding rather than teaching the pupils. Another version makes an even better story. It seems one night a neighbor drove by the school and noted two cars outside and a light in the basement. He contacted the chairman of the school board, who went over to investigate and found the teacher, her boyfriend, and unmentionable hijinks fueled by a bottle of whisky.

She was allowed to finish out the term. I never knew the difference, as I thought she was doing a fine job. She encouraged us to read widely by asking us to make miniature representations, out of construction paper, of the books we had recently read. She posted them on a wall as something of a contest to see who read the most. My mother had been a one-room schoolteacher herself, so I knew how to read before I went to school and was quite a voracious reader (as well as being a competitive sort). The school had too few books itself; my parents would drive to Lincoln to get books from the library in the tower of the state capitol.

My one difference with the teacher was over the color of the construction paper. She said each pupil should choose a single color as a theme. I went for the conceptual rather than the concrete and said my theme would be multi-colored. She consented.

After the fourth grade, I caught a school bus two miles away and attended town school. I suggested the miniature book project to the teacher there, so it continued.

Country school kids who transferred to town school often did well, not because we were any smarter but because we knew all the lessons for the upper grades already, having sat through them multiple times in our previous one-room environment. Not to mention that some of the pupils in the one-room school's upper grades were clever themselves and may have surpassed the knowledge of the teacher.

The country school and small town education did not stand up for long, though. I got no head start in the more advanced math I would later need, no foreign languages that I would need even more. Ironically, a foreign language I should have studied was available in my own family; my grandparents spoke Swedish. My grandmother, in her last years, even reverted to Swedish entirely and subscribed to a Swedish newspaper. I am now in charge of two ancestors' graves in Tingsryd, Sweden, and must rely on the caretakers' and cousins' knowledge of English (although the Google translator comes in handy for reading old documents in Swedish). My younger sister could have used the family Swedish as well; she studied the language briefly at the University of Chicago and served as our interpreter on a trip to Sweden in 1973.

None of this diminishes the fun we had at the country school and the learning that took place; nor does it diminish the warm memories of cold, cold winter mornings when we slid our desks up to the central floor grate to catch the first waftings of the old coal furnace.

U.S. Student Loan Debt: Use the Phone and the Pen

Washington -- Many U.S. colleges, public and private, are openly trying to maximize the student loan burden they place on low income students. Simultaneously, they are trying to make low income access to college something that is the responsibility of private charity rather than a good taxpayer investment. It is no wonder that total student debt burden in the United States has passed $1 trillion and continues to grow.

Granted: "openly" may not be the right word, because the policies behind the financial aid manipulations leading to this result are often marked confidential. But anyone without willful blinders can see what's going on.

A case in point is the University of Virginia. The trade paper Inside Higher Education has reported that UVa's policy henceforth will be to see how much debt load the low income can take on while still enrolling at UVa, up to $28,000. IHE linked to a "confidential" report prepared by an enrollment management consultant that called for experiments to determine how much grant aid could be taken away from low-income students and shifted to other "higher academic quality" students (i.e., so-called vanity or cocktail scholarships).

When I was at the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), I once asked my colleagues how we might conduct research to develop better evidence that our federal grant programs actually worked so as to reduce student debt. I was troubled by my own research, based on existing data that, taken as a whole, showed no relationship between federal grant aid expenditures and student debt in the low income population. My colleagues cautioned against any new research, in part because they felt it would be unethical to give some students more grants than others equally qualified in order to test grant effectiveness.

Yet UVa is doing exactly that, and going beyond experiments in order to implement maximum low-income debt load.

What should the federal government do about this? Beyond the ethical questions involved, this is a blatant exercise in undermining the investment of federal taxpayers, which is supposed to aid low-income access and keep debt low.

One thing the Secretary of Education could do is to require more transparency from institutions that participate in the Department's Title IV financial aid programs. Robert Shireman recently made a case for putting more financial and accreditation information from Title IV participants, already held by the Department, on line. Opponents often say there is already too much information available to prospective college students, as it only confuses them; but his point is that the audience for such information includes journalists, watchdogs, researchers, counselors, and think-tanks, which are in a position to understand and to question colleges' policies and practices.

College student newspapers should be an ally in demanding more transparency. The UVa student newspaper has now challenged the UVa board's decision to implement the recommendations of its enrollment management consultant. Last year the student newspaper at George Washington University revealed that GW's actual admissions and financial aid policies were quite the opposite of those claimed. It is surprising that more student newspapers have not requested that the Secretary of Education enforce the Student Right to Know Act (shorthand for 20 USC 1092 and 34 CFR 668.42), which covers these matters but has never been enforced.

Attempting to smooth over the UVa controversy with students and others, the UVa president pledged some of her salary to help low-income students. A UVa board member even put up $4 million for the cause. But this would be a one-time charitable gift; the "confidential" policy would be ongoing and more than wipe out the effects of his gift. (Apparently it's in vogue for college leaders to announce big personal "scholarship" gifts, perhaps to save reputations and obscure the effect of their actual policies. Donald Graham, formerly the owner of the Washington Post and still head of the Kaplan chain of for-profit colleges, has announced a $25 million scholarship fund. Unfortunately, it pales in comparison to the staggering debt load being carried by Kaplan students.)

There is good news, however, from an unexpected source. NASFAA, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators once associated with the worst kind of kickback and profiteering schemes, is revising its code of ethics. It even calls for "transparency and clarity" in the administration of student financial aid programs, and "removal of financial barriers." If abided by, potentially it could create more internal resistance from financial aid administrators against institutions' rush to continue to grow the nation's student loan debt burden.

In the coming year, too much will likely be made of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the conflict between the President and the Congress over some of its arcane provisions. Too little attention will be given to what can be done right now, under current law, to help students and to halt the student loan spiral. The President has said he has a phone and a pen; he'd be well advised to call his own Secretary of Education and start to look more closely at the causes of our national student loan crisis, and perhaps even discuss remedies already on the books. Among the remedies would be the limitation, suspension, and termination powers under 34 CFR 668.93, but that must be a subject for a separate post.

Forbs and the Farm Bill

Lincoln -- An immediate question for our north prairie is whether to purchase more forb seed to sow in bare and disturbed areas. ("Forb" is any non-grass prairie broadleaf plant; the term was first used by Frederic Clements, the founder of the discipline of plant ecology, in 1924.)

In the Spring of 2012 we bought a mixture of prairie grasses and forbs from Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Hamilton County. Sowing right into the drought, it was fortunate that we got any results at all -- luckily a few milkweeds along with native grasses.

Arguing for another attempt is the fact that there are dangerously dwindling stands of forbs to support pollinators (bees, birds, butterflies) that are necessary for a healthy environment and ultimately essential to food security. Drought is only one threat: the new farm bill tilts away from conservation toward crop production; agricultural chemical companies are even bringing back the herbicide 2,4-D to try to deal with the unintended consequences of having cornered the corn and soybean seed markets with GMOs.

Arguing against another attempt is the fact that forbs supporting pollinators often need moist soils. Desirable as it would be to help pollinators, in drought conditions the disturbed soils will be colonized by grasses that are best adapted to that environment. This is occurring.

We might try, if we can get seed or plugs, forbs that are drought resistant, such as maximilian sunflowers, penstemons, spider and california milkweed, and varieties of prairie asters. One source is Monarch Watch, a nonprofit based at the University of Kansas, which sells flats of milkweed species adapted to different climates.

Suggestions welcomed.

Prairie Project Conserves Water and Energy

Lincoln -- Our building project on the north prairie was completed a year ago. It's a guest house that appears to be a barn, partly hidden in the tall grass prairie and wooded countryside. It is also a demonstration project that breaks with many building conventions to show how the application of simple principles of physics can conserve water and cut energy usage.

The building is connected to local electrical service but not to water and sewer lines. Water is provided by gravity flow of roof-collected rainwater into basement cisterns; the water is filtered for household use. Water is further conserved by reusing shower and bath water (graywater) for toilet flushing.

Heating the building in winter is aided by passive solar design; it complements radiant floor heat supplied by a geothermal heat pump. Cooling in summer is achieved with a cupola that serves as a solar chimney.

Many of these systems have been demonstrated elsewhere, although seldom together in one place. The solar cooling system may be unique in that it is assisted by the water-filled cisterns, a highly insulated building envelope, an air-tight basement, operable floor and ceiling vents in all rooms, and the substantial height of the cupola above the loft.

Here's how solar cooling works in the warm months: an air exchanger in the basement brings in fresh air from a vent low on the shady side of the structure; it cools the air somewhat in its chambers. A small fan in the exchanger blows the air out over the water-filled cisterns (which rest on the comparatively cool concrete basement floor) to provide an ambient basement air temperature around seventy degrees, somewhat under pressure due to the airtight basement. Meanwhile, the sun warms the upper part of the structure; heat rises quickly to exit the open cupola high above. The exiting air (and any wind blowing across the cupola) creates low pressure in the upper part of the structure. To cool any part of the building, the first floor vents are simply opened to allow the cool air from the basement to flow into the living spaces through the lower vents. As the air warms, it exits out the top vents into the loft and out through the cupola.

There are no ducts between levels or rooms to move air. The air simply moves according to principles of physics: heat rises and air moves from high pressure to low pressure. Needless to say, doors and windows are kept closed most of the time in the hottest months.

The first year's experience with our solar cooling system has been about as we predicted: the upper floors are ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the outside air during the heat of summer days. There are no air-conditioning bills to pay.

In cool seasons, the air exchanger brings in cold air that is warmed somewhat in its chambers, then circulated over the cisterns. The water now serves as a comparatively warm thermal mass to heat the basement air to about sixty five degrees. A large vent in the atrium floor above the basement is left open so any cold air in the structure can fall into it, and be warmed.

If you are still with me, you'll not be surprised to know this building has no lawn to water. Some might say it has no landscaping, but I'd say there is the best landcaping of all: natural plant succession (although we give the prairie some help with forbs like milkweed).

The project would be of interest to those who are concerned (as we all should be) about droughts, energy issues, and other environmental concerns.