Understanding and Resolving the Student Loan Crisis

July, 2019

Washington -- The nation's student loan crisis continues, but without sufficient understanding as to how it came about or how it might be resolved.

There is little discussion of the people who played a big role in its creation and continue to exacerbate it. In previous posts, I've noted a revolving-door, iron-triangle network between government and industry that operates according to these axioms:

• There is big money to be made in student loans
• So put as many people into student loan debt as possible
• And keep them in debt for as long as possible by whatever means necessary

The first is self evident. The federal government spends billions annually on contractors originating, servicing, and collecting student loans. A private student loan industry also thrives, piggy-backed on the federally based college financial aid application system. Federal student loans provide an especially large share of the revenues of for-profit colleges, including those that are traded on Wall Street. If borrowers can't repay federal loans, it's taxpayers who take the loss, not the colleges.

The second is also evident to anyone who follows how higher education is marketed as "opportunity" and student debt is sold as "good debt," even to people who have no realistic chance of successfully completing college or paying off their loans. This is particularly true of the for-profit college sector, which often uses unconscionable methods to entice people to take on student debt. (The independent documentary movie "Fail State" illustrates the dark realities of for-profit colleges.) The revolving-door network at the Department of Education has been especially active of late to weaken the nation's college accrediting system so as to continue to grow student debt, and to repeal regulations designed to curtail abuses.

The third should be evident to anyone knowledgeable about how difficult is it for borrowers to get out of debt. The revolving-door network assures that contractors will not be properly supervised or penalized when they violate the consumer protections of student loan borrowers. The network has been instrumental in raising fees on borrowers in default, keeping them in debt longer, and illegally refusing to cancel the debts of borrowers who were defrauded, borrowers who had earned cancellation through public service, and even veterans who were totally and permanently disabled. See a previous post.

What can be done?

First, there should be a wider understanding of the role of the revolving-door network in the student loan crisis. This includes identification of illegal actions* that have led to waste, fraud, and abuse under federal RICO statutes.

Second, the network should be broken up. Remedies exist in RICO legislation, 18 U.S. Code § 1964. Civil remedies.

(a) The district courts of the United States shall have jurisdiction to prevent and restrain violations of section 1962 of this chapter by issuing appropriate orders, including, but not limited to: ordering any person to divest himself of any interest, direct or indirect, in any enterprise; imposing reasonable restrictions on the future activities or investments of any person, including, but not limited to, prohibiting any person from engaging in the same type of endeavor as the enterprise engaged in, the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce; or ordering dissolution or reorganization of any enterprise, making due provision for the rights of innocent persons.
(b) The Attorney General may institute proceedings under this section. Pending final determination thereof, the court may at any time enter such restraining orders or prohibitions, or take such other actions, including the acceptance of satisfactory performance bonds, as it shall deem proper.
(c) Any person injured in his business or property by reason of a violation of section 1962 of this chapter may sue therefor in any appropriate United States district court and shall recover threefold the damages he sustains and the cost of the suit, including a reasonable attorney’s fee....


Third, Congress should open an oversight investigation on all of the above. Airing it out in sunshine is the best disinfectant and is essential to resolving the student loan crisis. As a political scientist, I'm more than a little surprised that the student loan crisis has not already been tackled more vigorously by Congress, which surely must know that at its heart it is also a major civil rights issue, as the victims of the crisis are disproportionately women and people of color. The Center for Responsible Lending has made this clear in a new report issued this month. May it help generate action.

Finally, those in the for-profit college and student loan industries who are sincerely interested in education and embarrassed by what apologists call "bad apples" should clean up their professions. They need to step forward and show that the whole barrel has not been spoiled. Good apples are increasingly hard to find.

______________________________
• Violation of recusal, perjury, conflict of interest, obstruction of audits, obstruction of state law enforcement, loan fraud, wire fraud, racketeering.

Apollo Eleven, Fifty Years Ago

July, 2019

Washington -- On my wall, largely forgotten, is a certificate from the Department of Defense, Manager for Manned Space Flight Support Operations: "Be it known by these presents that [my name] USN served in support of Department of Defense operations during the Apollo XI mission, the first Moon landing flight in July 1969."

Actually, that is a huge overstatement. I was in Venice, Italy, the day of the landing and had nothing to do with Apollo XI. I was meeting with an Air Force captain and a Philco tech rep enroute to a routine inspection of a Defense Communications Agency outpost in nearby Pordenone.

It was hot. We gathered in a hotel lobby in Mestre to watch live television of the landing, about 4 a.m. local time. The tech rep left early, hoping for cooler temperatures up in the Veneto. My captain colleague, a native of Puerto Rico, and I stuck it out as we did not want to miss witnessing the historic occasion. The television showed only the blurriest of views, but the Italian announcers narrated it all convincingly. There were many cheers from our hotel crowd, in many languages.

My thoughts went back to six months earlier, when I had a more significant involvement with the Apollo program. When the Apollo Eight astronauts splashed down in the remote Pacific, I had been the communications watch officer aboard USS Arlington (AGMR-2), on-site and responsible for being in touch with the rest of the world. Circling the moon had been the great Apollo accomplishment to date. Successful splashdown and recovery were not a given and we all breathed easier when we saw astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders give us a wave and a thumbs up that they were fine.

We two Americans in the Mestre hotel in July celebrated the moon landing as did everyone else there, as a great human accomplishment that transcended nationality. We got our share of special congratulations when the crowd recognized us as countrymen of the astronauts.

It was a giant leap for mankind, for all humanity. American goals were human goals, and all honorable. It seems so long ago.

Protesting Child Separations

July, 2019

Berlin -- American Voices Abroad (AVA) participated in the "Lights for Liberty" demonstration on July 12, 2019. Ann Wertheimer spoke for AVA at Pariser Platz, at the Brandenburg Gate:

We stand here today in solidarity with thousands of people at hundreds of protests all over the United States. These are the Lights for Liberty: The Vigils to End Detention Camps at the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Tonight, thousands of Americans will go to detention camps at the border, as well as into the streets of their hometowns, to protest the inhumane conditions faced by refugees. The Lights for Liberty demonstrations will shine light on the horrific abuses of the Trump administration.

We may be a small group here tonight in Berlin, but we are in good company. We stand with...many more civil society organizations who have agreed to sponsor this mobilization.

The barbaric policies of the Trump administration have created what is being called a crisis of American values. In fact, no children anywhere should be separated from their parents, and no children should suffer these conditions, and, certainly not children in the care of the American government. [The New York Times, editorial, June 24, 2019]. That is why we are here tonight at Pariser Platz, just steps away from the United States Embassy, and around the corner from the Holocaust Memorial.

A few reminders to our government:

• The United States has a history of intervention in some of the countries from which these refugees are now fleeing. We have toppled governments, supported murderous heads of state, aided in the plunder of natural resources…. The refugees at our southern border are part of the blowback from the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people still seeking safety from US-financed violence. [Patricia Williams, The Nation, June 20, 2018]

• And the United States continues to support violence and inequality in the countries from which refugees come. Our government has a particular responsibility, not just because we are a rich country, but because we are on the demand end of the drug trade and the supply end of arms dealing. This flow of drugs and arms is inherently destabilizing.

• Finally, children are always in a special category. We try to protect them because they are especially vulnerable and because they are not in a legal position to enact decisions on their own behalf. We don’t use them as hostages in political power struggles.

This administration has tried to make immigration appear to be our country’s greatest problem – lying about crime statistics; lying about the numbers of people entering the United States; and ignoring and denying the economic and social contributions made by immigrants. These fabricated threats are intended to prevent us from having an honest national discussion about immigration. They are meant to validate the President’s America-first narrative and to advance his political agenda.

These lies about immigration help to distract us from the real threats to America: the destruction wrought by climate change; the economic insecurity of the poor and the middle class; the instability of a health care system under ongoing attack by Republican lawmakers; the inequality of educational opportunity; and the threat of big money in politics that corrupts our electoral and governing processes. These are the real threats to America.

When children are separated from their families, when asylum seekers and others who want to emigrate are held under inhumane conditions – whether we call them detention camps, concentration camps, or cages – we must remember that the intent is to reinforce power through hate and bigotry.

We know this and so we are here tonight in solidarity with Lights for Liberty. We must close the camps!


As a proud AVA member, I was present in spirit if not in person. I added emphasis to the paragraph above about Americans ourselves being on the demand end of the drug trade and the supply end of arms dealing. That must always be a consideration. Thank you, Ann.

Time to Call Out Racketeering Under DeVos

July, 2019

Washington -- Time was when federal and state racketeering laws applied mostly to mobsters with their numbers scams, protection shakedowns, and gambling enterprises.

No more. RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) laws have become tools to fight corruption in educational settings. When a ring of public school employees in Atlanta, Georgia, corruptly conspired to change students' test scores, they were prosecuted successfully under the state's RICO law. In 2015, eight Atlanta educators went to prison.

Racketeering has many definitions, including money laundering; wire fraud; obstruction of justice; bribery; kickbacks; loan fraud; obstruction of state or local law enforcement; influencing, obstructing, or impeding a federal audit; and more. A key determinant is the existence of a pattern of racketeering activity. Violation of recusal and perjury would likely fit RICO offenses as well, as part of such a pattern.

Which brings us to the question of whether a network of individuals revolving through the U.S. Department of Education constitutes a corrupt organization in violation of federal RICO law, like the Atlanta educators.

To be sure, each of the offenses listed above has been committed at one time or another over several years by federal or federal contractor individuals linked to various for-profit school, lender, or loan servicer enterprises. The cumulative effect has been enormous and devastating to hundreds of thousands of citizens who have seen their consumer protections eliminated and their financial lives and futures ruined because of corruption in the administration of student loans.

The culmination of these activities has now peaked: defiant, scofflaw officials at the Department of Education continue to deny consumers their rights, under law, to fair and competent administration of the student aid programs of the Higher Education Act.

Consider:

• the class action lawsuit brought on behalf of at least 158,000 defrauded borrowers by the Harvard Law School Project on Predatory Student Lending, necessitated by the Department of Education's inaction on their behalf;

• the class action lawsuit brought on behalf of at least 73,000 participants in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program by the National Student Legal Defense Network, required by the unwillingness of the Department to exercise proper oversight over its student loan servicers;

• seven actions taken by the Department of Education to roll back consumer protections, complied by an expert in student loan law, affecting over 40 million student loan borrowers with over $1.5 trillion in debt;

• the attempt to preempt state consumer law protections for student loan borrowers, which has now been struck down decisively by two federal courts but has not been retracted by the Department of Education;

• the failure to cooperate with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau;

• the refusal to cancel the student loans of 42,000 "totally and permanently" disabled veterans, to which they are entitled by law, despite the pleas of fifty-one state and territory attorneys general;

• that on a rare occasion when the Department actually cancelled loans of defrauded students at a for-profit college, Secretary Betsy DeVos noted she signed "with extreme displeasure," evidencing alarming animosity toward the students she is under oath to protect and demonstrating her true intent to block borrowers from their due.

The persistent unwillingness to follow the law to cancel debt where required, and other willful acts to undermine the programs of the HEA, should be considered a violation of laws against racketeering by DeVos and her revolving-door network.

18 U.S. Code § 1962. Prohibited activities:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprises affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.

"Unlawful debt" consists of loans for which the lender or servicer has altered the terms; that is, not cancelled them as required. As to a "pattern of racketeering" activity, lawsuits henceforth might well include such charges so as to lead to discovery, civil remedies,* and possible convictions. This pattern would include the failure to take action against loan servicers that practice misrepresentation as part of a strategy to retain loan revenues, as well as actions to protect servicers from a growing number of lawsuits. This pattern would include permissiveness toward grade-changing at for-profit schools to maintain eligibility for federal student loans, as revealed in a new Hechinger Group investigation. Washington, meet Atlanta.

It is clear to this observer, who has read every relevant GAO and IG report on these matters (and contributed to some of them) and who has been in the executive, legislative, and judicial arenas on federal student loans as perhaps no other, that there are more than policy differences and legal strategies at issue. There is corruption. It's time to identify it for what it is and put an end to it.

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* 18 U.S. Code § 1964. Civil remedies.



Two Neglected Explanations for the Student Loan Mess

July, 2018

Washington -- As the nation's student loan crisis grows, more and more writers, many of them insightful, are offering their analyses and opinions as to how we got into the current mess.

Typically, they point to a withdrawal of state tax support for public institutions, forcing both tuition and borrowing higher. Many also blame federal loan programs themselves, believing that when money is easily available, prices go up.

There are elements of truth to these explanations, but let me offer two others that I think have been woefully neglected and will have to be addressed if the situation is ever to be successfully addressed.

The first explanation is that Congress chose to fund programs that failed to account for state and institutional behavior in reaction to them. It did not start out that way with the Higher Education Act of 1965, which required institutional or state matching funds as a condition of participating in federal student aid programs. But within a decade, Congress began instead to favor Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, which had no such requirements, and by the 1980s the original HEA programs were an afterthought. The rest is history. States and institutions, almost invited by Congress to do so, made college affordability a low priority. Congress had handcuffed itself by failing to employ the tools of fiscal federalism available to it under the original HEA. This was totally predictable and, in fact, was predicted by some of us in the 1980s and onward.

The second explanation, incredibly important, is the rise of for-profit industries in postsecondary education, encompassing both student loan entities and for-profit schools. As originally set up, management of the student loan industry was through either state or non-profit organizations. That changed in the 1990s with the privatization of Sallie Mae and the conversion of state secondary markets to for-profit status. Also in the 1990s, when for-profit schools started to offer stock to investors on Wall Street, they became a potent lobbying force throughout the government. Soon, the Department of Education was staffed at high levels with individuals who moved easily though the revolving door between for-profit interests and government.

The way for entrepreneurs to make money in higher education was through student loans, the more the better. Many people got rich by turning a blind eye to what was happening to higher education affordability, shutting out the the interests of students, families, and taxpayers. Many officials and executives in both industry and government cut corners and acted illegally, most with impunity.

There is ample blame to go around. The responsibility is bi-partisan. The solution to the current crisis is to return to the foundations of the HEA; that is, to take state and institutional behavior into account in all programs, and to lock and bar the revolving door between industry and government.

Corruption in the "Shallow State"

July, 2019

Washington -- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unwisely rescinded the "Gainful Employment" regulation put into place in 2014 to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of students and taxpayers, largely at for-profit institutions.

The regulation was designed to eliminate programs that did not provide students with gainful employment, comparing their student loan debt to their employment earnings. The GE regulation will not be enforced henceforth and will be totally gone by July 1, 2020.

Both the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed reported that the cost of the Secretary's action would be $6.2 billion over ten years. Without the regulation, students will receive Pell Grants and student loan subsidies to attend programs that otherwise would have been shut down. The cost is confirmed in the fine print of the Secretary's notice.

Question: How is the Secretary's rescission not blatantly abetting waste, fraud, and abuse?

There are Orwellian answers to this question in the Federal Register notice: the GE regulation was targeted too much at for-profit institutions; the Secretary looked for alternatives to GE but could find none other than "buyer beware;" and repealing regulations always saves on paperwork.

To make these arguments, however, the Department of Education had to distort outside research on institutional performance. One researcher has publicly complained, and not for the first time. I am familiar with this body of research myself and conclude much of it is put to ill use in the rescission rationale. Moreover, the Department's own NCES contracted research knocks the DeVos conclusions into a cocked hat.

If the Secretary actually and sincerely wanted an alternative to the current GE approach to program gate-keeping, others are available. The Secretary has broad regulatory authority to make HEA Title IV programs work effectively and efficiently. For example, gate-keeping alternatives might require institutions to meet standards to participate in the College Work Study program, or to receive no more than a certain percentage of revenues from the GI Bill, or require states to have skin-in-the-game to share risk. No such alternatives were pursued, however, because clearly the goal of the rescission is to get billions of taxpayer money back into the hands of the for-profit owners, to go back to the status quo ante, before the 2014 crackdown.

Question: How does this action get around various Executive Orders and OMB guidance designed to protect taxpayers?

President Trump declared in 2017 that any new agency regulation would have to be accompanied by the repeal of two existing regulations. The spirit of this order was to make certain that any new burdens were offset by eliminating old ones. In OMB guidance as to how this must be accomplished, however, scant attention was given to repealing a regulation for which there would be such a high cost – $6.2 billion. The Secretary's GE notice does not explain how her action is consistent either with the letter or the spirit of the president's order or the OMB guidance. Apparently there is a crack in the guidance through which the Secretary can squeeze: OMB excludes Pell Grants as "costs" because they are "transfers." Hence there is no need to consider them, let alone provide an offset for them. Just let taxpayers pay for the waste, and let students at worthless programs suffer the inevitable consequences of student loan indebtedness.

My concern here is not particularly how research can be twisted or even how taxpayer interests can be steamrolled through budget tricks, important as those issues may be. It is, rather, that at the Secretary's command employees at the Department of Education would produce such a document. Who wrote this notice, civil servants or political appointees? I suspect the latter*, but with too much help from civil servants who don't have the fortitude to object.

Much has been said about a "Deep State," a pejorative applied to what many of us consider our most hallowed institutions. Among them is a non-partisan civil service devoted to the rule of law. But with this provocative notice from Secretary DeVos, doing away with a regulation preventing billions of waste, fraud, and abuse, we are seeing that the Deep State is really a "Shallow State." The Shallow State is made up of a go-along-to-get-along cohort in the civil service, always present in any agency but nevertheless a huge disappointment to those who have always taken their oaths of federal employment more seriously.

_______________________________
* Doubtless much of the notice was prepared under the aegis of the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, Diane A. Jones, whose long employment history in the for-profit sector constitutes a conflict of interest. She has an extensive record of distorting the work of others and even committed perjury, in my view, at a recent appearance before a House oversight subcommittee when asked about the reinstatement of the troubled accreditor ACICS. She is not alone: see earlier posts for identification of individuals in a revolving door network that has a long record of taking advantage of weaknesses in the Shallow State. To me, the publication of the GE notice is another significant piece of evidence demonstrating that this network has, once again, crossed the line into corruption and racketeering. Abetting over $6 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse is a matter due for appropriate investigations and, for a change, consequences.




The Fourth on the Mall

July, 2019

Washington -- Against the advice of many, I went down to the national mall on the 4th of July to attend the president's speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, to protest his transparent attempts to politicize our military and appropriate American history for his own purposes.

I am a U.S. Navy veteran, a patriot not a nationalist. I'm also a taxpayer who does not like to see wasteful spending on what can only be a called a Trump rally. The Defense Department had to come up with $1.5 million for a contrived air show; the Department of the Interior had to take $2.5 million from national park entrance fees to stage the event.

Ordinarily, I would just stay away from these provocations, but a few of my friends said it was important to show up and not let the occasion become just one more example of the recent erosion of our freedoms and our heritage. Two of these friends had protested Nixon's use of the U.S. Army to threaten their rights as U.S. citizens in Berlin in 1973, and actually won a subsequent lawsuit protecting their liberties. So who was I to say that our 2019 protest would be meaningless?

Five of us made a few protest signs and wore caps with the inscription "No Man is Above the Law." We could not get tickets anywhere near the speech, so we had to stand for hours in the heat and the rain along the north side of the reflecting pool, hundreds of yards away.

We attracted attention from the surrounding crowd, many of whom were wearing Trump paraphernalia, but not all attention was hostile. One man with a "Trump 2020" hat came up and had his picture taken with us, with all of us smiling. "Freedom of speech, that's America" he said. A woman in her fifties, from Virginia, came up to us, friendly and genuinely curious as to why we would protest. But she quickly said Hillary Clinton was a liar and should be in jail, and that Trump has never lied. One man, also obsessed with the former Democratic nominee, did not like our hats and said they should read "No Woman is Above the Law" and asked why we weren't working to put Trump's former election opponent in jail.

Some in the crowd, as they surged by and saw our signs, were belligerent. "Go back to where you came from!" was one taunt, which for me would be 19th century Sweden, apparently. "USA! USA! USA!" was another frequent chant but it always stopped quickly when we joined in with equal vigor.

Our signs and hats attracted a Canadian who expressed support and several others who apparently felt comfortable around us as opposed to mixing in with the Trump supporters, some of whom were attired more like goon squads than celebrants of the 4th.

Our little group attracted unexpected attention from the news media. The first to show up was ARD, the German radio and television network. Sebastian Hesse interviewed two in our party. His report was broadcast across the ARD audience on July 5th. (Scroll down in the link for the audio.) He and his party also remained close to us for the president's speech.

A reporter from Süddeutsche Zeiting came along, perhaps worried that ARD had scooped him. Soon thereafter, Jonathan Tamari of the Philadelphia Inquirer wanted interviews about our presence, one of which was soon published.

The president's speech itself seemed to leave the crowd flat, puzzled even. I clapped briefly for the mention of Lewis and Clark. The thought crossed my mind that someone mischievously had put a high-schooler's Fourth of July oration into the teleprompter. Many started to leave midway through the speech, when it became clear that Trump was just the announcer for an air show that would have been booed for being boring had it been a real one. Some of us who have spent years around ships, planes, or tanks have a high bar when it comes to being impressed with military hardware.

Nonetheless, the brief appearance of a bat-shaped B-2 stealth bomber drew sufficient rapture in the crowd for a latter-day Leni Riefenstahl to make the most of it. Count on seeing it again and again.

We struggled to get away from the reflecting pool through a crush of people, misdirected to non-existing exits by local police and military personnel who clearly had no experience in moving crowds along. Away from the mall, taunting continued. One of our signs protested spending tax dollars for a Trump rally. A young, overweight, red-faced man with a MAGA hat said. "See, you're wrong, it wasn't a Trump rally. Just admit it!" One of us replied that it was a rally to politicize the military. To which the MAGA man said, "You wouldn't even have a country if it weren't for military might to win our wars."

As we took a rest at a sidewalk cafe, a young woman from Nevada engaged us, curious as to our impressions of the speech. She volunteered, before we had said anything, that it was only military might that made America what it is. I explained my view to the contrary, that it was America's values and will that were essential to our nation's success. I told her I was a veteran, having served in the Vietnam war, where military might did not prevail, nor has it in Iraq or Afghanistan since. I also recalled for her that one of my family's ancestors fought under Lafayette in the Siege of Yorktown, and that in my estimation it was not American military might that won the Revolutionary War, but it was our will to stand for the values of the Declaration of Independence that eventually wore out George III, with the strategic help of the French fleet that bottled up Cornwallis. I could have added that it was the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin that led to our country's first success in rallying allies to defeat tyrants, something that could well be remembered today.

Not sure how many more protest demonstrations I have in me. As it turned out, this one may have been worth it, if only to show that not all veterans are willing to be politicized, that not all taxpayers are blind to waste. I was glad to see at least a few friendly people among the Trump supporters, to share the regret that all this divisiveness is not good for the country.

Problems with the NU Presidential Search Process

June, 2019

Lincoln -- In the previous post, I recommended to the NU Board of Regents three questions that prospective NU presidential candidates should answer. One was on Nebraska agriculture, one on research and academic integrity, and one on political process.

Soon thereafter, the Lincoln Journal Star reported on the progress of the presidential search and how it is being conducted. Clearly the search committee has different priorities from those I suggested.

Among the search committee's "seven pillars of leadership," attention to agriculture is not mentioned, nor is research, except tangentially. The word "athletics" appears twice; bureaucratic hierarchy gets full treatment; political leadership is narrowly defined as being friendly with the right state legislators; private fundraising ability is a priority, of course.

This is to be expected, I suppose, from a search committee of which there are twenty-three members, but only two are NU faculty.

Agriculture must get more attention in the search for a land-grant university president. Its tribulations are profound, and growing. The future welfare of the state depends on finding solutions.

Closely related is the integrity of research, and the extension of that research into industry, the agricultural sector, and government. An immediate challenge has been laid down in the areas of nutrition, climate, and health by the nation's secretary of agriculture, who is closing down federal research agencies in the nation's capital and moving them to the Kansas City area in hopes of finding nearby, malleable land-grant connections favorable to his political agenda.

The secretary's suppression of nutrition and climate research antithetical to his political mission is well-documented. He has already attempted to undermine the incredibly important nutrition work of a Lincoln-based scientist. He makes no secret that he expects land-grant universities in the so-called red states to do his political bidding. He states, "We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities."

Here's hoping NU has a president who can stand strong, with the Regents' backing, against these transparent attempts to politicize research.

Red and blue politics aside, the sad fact is that both political parties have done great damage to America's heartland by short-sighted policies. Although it is obvious that the current administration's policies are inimical and downright malevolent toward Nebraska agriculture, the Democratic Party's neglect of rural America is just as destructive, in its own way.

The NU presidential search committee needs more than a hail-fellow-well-met in a Big Red jacket, but that is what it going to get unless the standards for president are raised to the level of the challenges he or she must be prepared to meet, for the good of the state and the country.








Letter to the NU Board of Regents

June, 2019

Lincoln -- An open letter to presidentsearch@nebraska.edu

Dear Nebraska Board of Regents:

You have encouraged members of the university community and the public to submit thoughts on the "qualities, characteristics, and skills" they would like to see in NU's next president.

I am a graduate of NU twice, a member of the Alumni Association, in very good standing with the NU Foundation, and a Nebraska citizen with considerable knowledge and appreciation of the history* of NU. I have worked closely with university officials from the 1960s to the present, often (but not always) in agreement with the direction of the institution.

My response to your invitation:

• Among the qualities NU's next leader must have is an understanding of agriculture and the reasons for its decline as a driver of Nebraska's economy. NU is a land-grant institution with a special responsibility for agriculture; its own well-being is dependent on a thriving agricultural sector. Among the questions any prospective president must be asked: why is Nebraska agriculture in trouble, what must be done to revive it, and what role will NU play? Answers to the questions must be specific and show insight into issues of nutrition, trade, health, climate, and rural policy.

• Another must-have quality in NU's next leader is a record of scientific and academic achievement that demonstrates commitment and adherence to established norms in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Ordinarily, this would go without saying, but our society is witnessing a breakdown of norms, previously unimaginable, even those in scientific pursuits. Research is increasing funded by those in both industry and government who are eager to see conclusions they pay for. Any prospective NU president must be asked: what are you prepared to do to ensure the integrity of the research process? The answer to this question must be specific as to identifying threats and proposed NU responses to these challenges.

• A third quality in NU's next leader is an understanding of the political process and where NU fits into it. Any prospective NU president should be asked: what is the historical record of NU leadership in the political arena, both the successes and the failures? The answer should contain specifics to demonstrate a knowledge of NU history and give a clear view as to how political challenges will be addressed.

Please feel free to share this with your selection committee and your presidential search consultants. I would be pleased to elaborate further on any of these matters as appropriate.

Jon H. Oberg

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* See previous posts, for example: NU and Wyuka Cemetery; Recalling an Old Budget Controversy; What Would 'Woody' Have Done?



Another Low for Mitch Daniels

June, 2019

Lincoln -- Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University, writes a column in the Washington Post that can only be described as shameful in its pandering and divisiveness.

He extolls the "cultural fiber that an agricultural upbringing once brought to society," and praises "its value and its virtues" as represented in 4-H and FFA youth.

This would be more palatable if Mitch Daniels himself had any claim either to an agricultural upbringing or to its values and virtues. He doesn't.

Mitch Daniels was raised as the privileged son of a drug company executive and educated at Princeton and Georgetown. He will go down in history as the federal OMB director who turned a federal budget surplus of over $200 billion into a deficit of $400 billion, and as the the college administrator who brought predatory for-profit college practices to a land-grant university.

If he has ever been on a tractor, likely it was only for a photo-op.

But Daniels likes to tell shop-worn stories that he thinks resonate in rural America. From his column:

At the Indiana State Fair, held on grounds now surrounded by inner-city Indianapolis neighborhoods, urban kids can witness, in person, the birth of pigs and calves. Once I asked a boy who had arrived at the fair on a school bus from across town, “Do you know where milk comes from?” He said, “Sure. The grocery store.”

That story, governor, is condescending and offensive. First, you should not try to make fun of inner-city kids to try to look good at their expense; second, the story is painful to dairy farmers who have gone out of business or are about to, and who would say the correct answer now is "factories."

In his column, Daniels says he likes to have 4-H and FFA members give him tours. Accordingly, here is my invitation to come to Nebraska and get a first-hand agricultural tour from me, former president of the Rock Creek Ranchers 4-H Club and member of the FFA chapter at Waverly High School.

We will tour dying towns and abandoned farmsteads, a consequence of the "get big or get out" prescription of former Purdue economist and federal Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. We will look at monocultures of corn and soybeans, planted "fencerow to fencerow," virtually deserts now, compared to their former environmental diversity. We will look, probably in vain, for any remaining pollinators, their habitat destroyed by agri-business monopolies that dictate cropping practices through the creditors of increasingly desperate farmers.

During the tour, we'll reflect on how this dismal picture came about. Where is all that "cultural fiber" and the "values and virtues" of which Daniels writes? I know a couple of places where it still exists, but they are increasingly hard to find, due to destructive policies and actions Daniels has supported over the years. Gone with the topsoil, so to speak.

After the tour, we could adjourn to my barn for a discussion of how our country really doesn't feed the world, and to the extent we do, we feed it rather badly. We'll have to note how the current administration is ruining export markets, in any case.

We might even have a conversation about how rural values and virtues are at total odds with the personal behavior and many policy actions of the incumbent president, and how Mitch Daniels could strike a blow for universal human values and virtues, not divisiveness, by using his bully pulpit at the Washington Post more responsibly.