Pandemic Challenge to Colleges: Adapt or Wither

May, 2020

Lincoln –  If I were a college administrator once again, I'd be working urgently to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

•  Consider local and regional geography and the likelihood that students will want to enroll closer to home.  Update and aggressively expand articulation agreements with area institutions so as to offer multiple pathways to 2- and 4-year degrees that provide affordable and flexible options.  Offer more credits for work experience in high-risk jobs to reward service and to get the benefit of those experiences into classrooms.

•  For faculty employment, create the equivalent of credit articulation agreements, so that faculty surpluses and shortages can be coordinated over several institutions in a regional employment area.  (Adjuncts do it all the time; it may now be necessary for full-time faculty as well.) Allow and encourage cross-institution enrollment in Zoom classrooms.  Protect faculty and student health through creative scheduling of classes and labs to minimize virus exposures.

•  Revise curricula to include majors and minors in Pandemic Studies.  This generation of students has been negatively impacted as has no other in decades, to which the response of many will be altruistic.  Offer new courses in pandemic math and statistics, history, biology, politics, pharmacology, engineering, psychology, and economics to prepare a new generation to deal with what may be many years of struggle against viral diseases.*  This will help with recruiting and, in the case of public institutions, justifying tax support.  Coordinate it with new offerings in Climate Studies as well.  

•  Reduce costs by eliminating curricular areas that are not essential to the mission and future of the institution.  At the top of the elimination list will be areas that have grown up around particular industries that rely on university research and training to advance self-interest more than the general public good (sometimes even at the expense of the public good, which has now become more apparent under stress).  Limit across-the-board cuts that do not make such distinctions.  Offer affected faculty buy-outs or assistance with regional teaching opportunities, including retraining in virtual teaching methods.

•  Work with state and federal officials to preserve institutional and student funding but also to improve government performance where it is lacking, such as funding distribution and student financial-aid programs.  Demand that elected representatives clean up the student-loan mess at the U.S. Department of Education, because many potential students will not attend college if they have no confidence in the administration of student-loans.

College administrators who aspire only to get back to a pre-pandemic normal will see their institutions wither and perhaps not survive.  Two ways to success are to think regionally and to re-shape curricula. 

* A model for a major in Pandemic Studies is the International Rescue and Relief program at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.  It makes the most of the altruism of the students while offering a crucial public service to the nation and the world.  It is the only one of its kind. 

Fighting Covid-19: An Index of Government Effectiveness

May, 2020

Washington, Lincoln, Berlin – A useful measure of progress in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic is R, the reproduction rate of the virus.  An R above 1.0 indicates how fast the virus is spreading; an R below 1.0 shows how quickly it is diminishing.

A similar index could be created to compare the effectiveness and competence of government leadership against the virus, or L.  A high L, like a high R, would indicate a problem.

In the table below, a baseline of 1.0 is set for Germany's response to hold down both the numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, per 100,000 residents.  An overall L is the arithmetic average of two  L scores for cases and deaths.   Germany is used as the baseline because its response, early and decisive, is considered effective and illustrative of what was possible against the virus in mid- to large western democracies.

The top half of the table lists six other such countries for illustrative comparison.  Note that Austria is below 1.0 on all three measures.  France is comparable to Germany on cases, but not on deaths.  The UK has the worst L-average. The US is last in terms of cases but not deaths.  All calculations in the table are based on New York Times reporting until Memorial Day, 2020.

The bottom half of the table lists governments at the sub-national level.  Maryland is doing poorly, as is Maryland's Montgomery County, which is alarming as it is home to both NIH and FDA.  Nebraska's number of cases is high, but deaths are comparatively low.  Both Maryland and Nebraska are above the overall US case index.  Nebraska counties Douglas and Lancaster are both comparatively low in deaths, but Douglas County is in trouble for its number of cases.  Berlin is well below the overall German standard on both cases and deaths.

The L index could be used to calculate numbers of cases and deaths that were avoided by effective and competent government leadership and, conversely, those cases and deaths that could have been avoided with better government leadership.   Divide the L number into the raw number of cases or deaths for a baseline level of what might have happened.  For example, US deaths would be 100,000 deaths/3.00 = approximately 33,000.  In other words, about 67,000 deaths prior to Memorial Day were the consequence of government leadership shortcomings in the US.  This is consistent with earlier estimates made by Columbia University disease researchers, which put the number at 36,000 through May 3, 2020.  A historian of the 1918 pandemic judged the US response to the current pandemic as "incomprehensibly incoherent."

Observations for Three Capitals:

• Berlin has employed social distancing, stay-home orders, masking, testing, and contact tracing effectively, including enforcement measures.  Its local courts are busy dealing with cases of violations.  Berlin uses three measures to indicate progress against Covid-19:  R, new cases per capita, and health care capacity.  If the measures indicate trouble, controls are put back into place.  Berlin is reopening successfully at the moment. 

• The Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, are still under stay-home, social distancing, and masking orders, but the first two have not seen any serious enforcement.  Testing supplies and contact tracing are inadequate.  Montgomery County is using CDC standards for reopening, but is not meeting them, as cases and deaths are going up.  The county's latest three-day average increases are 197 for cases and 6 for deaths.  The number of deaths is likely understated, as it does not include those who died with Covid-19 symptoms but were not tested. 

• Nebraska never implemented any stay-home orders, which has likely contributed to its high case index.  Omaha (in Douglas County) was identified today by the NYT as an emerging hotspot.  Nebraska Governor Ricketts has used only hospital capacity as the state's measure of success, not R or new case numbers.  The mayor of Lincoln, however, is using case numbers and vigorous contact tracing to mitigate virus spread, which may explain Lancaster County's comparative success, and why Lincoln may be able to reopen more successfully.  Or the county may simply be lucky, so far.

Memorial Day 2020

May, 2020

Washington –  A Memorial Day like no other is upon us.

Looking back, it's time to honor our family's Virginia ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War:  Philip Wimer, Michael Hoover, Leonard Simmons, Peter Thomas Hull, Captain Peter Hull.

It's especially appropriate to remember two family members who died of the Spanish flu, infected in 1918 at Camp Funston, Kansas:  Charles and Fred Oberg.  That WWI outpost was probably the source of the deadly pandemic.

As to remembering all the workers who are fighting our current coronavirus pandemic, I am with the nurse who started an organized applause movement but now wants to end it.  The same with flyovers.  It's more important to show support by taking measures to reduce the number of cases, and to pay people appropriately for working to save us. 

That goes for all the workers at meatpacking plants, too.  For my part, rather than the products of CAFOs, I'd be happy eating grass-fed, locally slaughtered beef as it was raised by Peter Hull in Bull Pasture, Virginia, in the 1700s.

Veterans and Congress Unite to Rebuke Secretary DeVos

May, 2020

Washington –  As both a veteran and a taxpayer who cares about the public fisc, I am delighted to see Congress, on a bipartisan basis, step up to overturn Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's ill-advised rule making it difficult for defrauded veterans and others to get student loan cancellations.

Somehow, she thinks it's the veterans who are defrauding the for-profit schools rather than the other way around.  The truth of the matter is outlined well in the New York Times, which tells the story of a defrauded student at ITT Tech. 

Now if the President will only sign the necessary resolution, H.J. Res. 76.

Veterans Education Success (VES), a veterans' advocacy organization I have long supported, deserves much credit for bringing dozens of other veterans' organizations together to attempt to get this insult to veterans overturned.

Taxpayer watchdog organizations should also take note.  For-profit schools that exploit veterans are endemic purveyors of waste, fraud, and abuse in Department of Education programs.

The corruption that results in fraud and waste is explained in great detail in Dan E. Moldea's new book, Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education.  In it he interviews Rodney Lipscomb, a former dean at ITT Tech who blew the whistle on the school, as well as the incomparable David Halperin, to whom every federal taxpayer owes a debt of thanks for his long battle against for-profit school corruption.

Biden Needs Bigger Ideas for Rural America

May, 2020

Lincoln –  Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is looking for big ideas, according to reporting from the New York Times.  Good.  Now is the time if there ever was one.

But the long article by Alexander Burns did not contain a single use of the following words:  rural, food, nutrition, soil, or farm.

This, despite the fact that the fabric of rural America is in tatters and shredding further. This was the sorry condition even before the coronavirus pandemic.  Now it is heartbreaking to see farmers destroy hogs and chickens even as the food-chain collapses and people go hungry. 

Rural America was already disproportionately beset by so-called deaths of despair.  With the coronavirus, the diseases resulting from poor nutrition  – diabetes, obesity, addictions – have created underlying conditions that only worsen the pandemic.

Make no mistake about how we got to this sorry state.  Decades ago, short-sighted agricultural economists led by Earl Butz, who became Secretary of Agriculture, advocated a "get-big-or-get-out" policy, de-populating rural America.  Corporate farming moved in; fertilizer, seed, and pesticide behemoths dictated farming practices; crop monocultures damaged precious topsoils; pollinators disappeared; unhealthy processed foods ravaged the American diet; foreign-owned enterprises took over the food-chain.

It was all propped up by massive federal taxpayer spending on Farm Bills that never worked as promised.  Now it has all collapsed, and we may not have seen the half of it. 

Big ideas for Joe Biden:     

•  Re-populate rural America.  Put current federal spending levels on agriculture to use in re-populating rural America with small farms and small towns, built around local and regional markets for healthy food, which will create jobs.  Totally re-write much of the Farm Bill.  Give towns back their local hospitals and food-processing plants.  Restore the nation's former food-chain.

•  Save America's topsoil.  Treat soil health as a national infrastructure priority through aggressive conservation, including a carbon-capture soil program to combat climate change.  Call for this to be an essential part of any new infrastructure bill, for national food security.

•  Make America healthy through better nutrition.  Better nutrition must become the first-line defense against pandemics.  Take away federal support of junk food in every federal program. 

Not only is this what America needs, it's what Joe Biden needs to win the presidential election, which may well be decided once again, as in 2016, in rural America.  Democratic candidates up and down the ticket need leadership on rural policy from their presidential candidate.  House and particularly Senate candidates must get into rural America to see conditions and have proposals at the ready.*

Rural voters will like these big ideas, if offered.  They want a president who cares about them and has a vision of what American can look like in the 21st century to fight pandemics and climate change. 

* DSCC strategy in 2018 was intentionally not to have any coordinated rural policy offerings on which Senate candidates could run.  It was foolish:  Democrats managed to lose a seat in a blue-wave year.  Pete Buttigieg beat Joe Biden badly in the 2020 Iowa primary because he focused on small towns and rural areas.

The Shadier Side of Federal Higher Education History

May, 2020

Washington – Dan Moldea's new book, Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education: The Stories of Whistleblowers, is now available both on Kindle and in print.

I am among those he interviewed.

What I especially like about the book are the intriguing stories of the other whistleblowers, and how Dan Moldea in his epilogue shows their relevance to current events and the coronavirus pandemic.  For-profit colleges are elbowing their way into line for pandemic relief, despite their miserable record over the past two decades.  The research programs of the USDA, often carried out in conjunction with land-grant higher education institutions, have failed to ask the right questions about epidemics and the vulnerability of our essential food chain. 

Whistleblowers Rodney Lipscomb and James Keen were cast aside but now have a voice again.  They are assisted with vigor by the incomparable David Halperin and by Louis Clark, the long-time leader of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization and much-respected Washington fixture in the struggle for probity.

My motivation to participate is to improve public awareness about the world of student-loan finance.  Several years ago I went to court against nine student-loan lenders to shed light on the industry, a creature of the federal government.  An informed citizenry will make better decisions about whom they vote into power to run the government and what they expect of administrative officials.

Another reason is to impress upon those tempted to defraud the government that there may be a price to pay for such action.  These days, the price of getting caught seems increasingly just a cost of doing business.  And the chances of getting caught are ever-fewer, what with the overt hostility of the Trump Administration to inspectors-general and increased retaliation against whistleblowers.

The book will be an addition to the history of the federal Higher Education Act.  Observations of events, over four decades, provide original source material to offer a counterpoint to more conventional accounts that leave out the shadier side of federal higher education history.  My conclusions in the interview are those of a principal participant.  Scenes in Congress, in judges' chambers, and in courtrooms are an essential part of that record.

Dan Moldea has another fine book to add to his long list of notable, definitive, and provocative works. 

America is Sick Beyond the Coronavirus

May, 2020

Washington – The coronavirus has exposed sickness in our system of government.  It has been there for some time.

It manifested itself in the 2016 election, which put the showman Donald Trump, well known for his bankruptcies, his philandering, and his lack of any previous position in government, into the presidency.  How could this have happened?

• Many voters I talk to say they voted for Trump not expecting him to win; it was more of a protest vote against a Democratic party that they thought had abandoned them.  And, unvoiced: they were looking for an opportunity at the first presidential stumble of Hillary Clinton to declaim, with delight, that they didn't vote for her. 

• Once Trump took office, these voters said they wanted to give him a chance to be a different kind of president, not bound by usual presidential expectations.  They identified with his grievance that he was not being treated fairly.  They gravitated toward media sources that offered this viewpoint, happily identifying their own grievances, real or imagined, with his, even to the point of celebrating his shortcomings as merely the kind of presidential norm-breaking they wanted to see.     

• This gave Trump political operatives the opportunity to emulate, wittingly or not, the strategies used by Josef Goebbels in Germany in the 1930s in service of an authoritarian state:  flying the leader around to huge rallies; dominating broadcast-news with reports extolling the leader; branding all negative information as a product of the Lügenpresse (fake news); repeating outright lies so often that they are confused with truth.

The Goebbels strategies in Germany were remarkably effective in shaping public opinion.  Even when it became clear that their country was going to lose World War II, Germans fought on.  Goebbels himself committed suicide at the end (after killing his wife and children), firmly in the belief that his work would someday be honored and avenged.

Indeed, his techniques are being replicated now, in America of all places.  Make America Goebbels' Avenger, so to speak, or MAGA.

Parallels with the Nazi experience in Germany, even when obvious, are often not noted in our own country because of the belief that, as nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis wrote, "It Can't Happen Here."  It has also been too horrible to contemplate, that we Americans could ever be taken in by the techniques that ruined the German nation.

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, my generation was taught in our schools and churches that all great civilizations come to an end, usually from internal collapse because of corruption and weak moral fiber.  The great question of our current era is why Americans would vote for a presidential candidate of demonstrably flawed character without any governmental experience, knowing what it could do to the country.  The answer is that much of his support came from voters who did not think he could win; after election he employed strategies perfected by the likes of Goebbels, which so far have proved too powerful for many Americans, unmindful of history, to overcome.

Hence, we have a divided, weakened, and fundamentally sick nation as we approach 2020 elections.

Which is not to say there is no hope.  I believe voters of all stripes and persuasions would respond favorably to candidates who reach out to them by showing up in their communities, listening to them, and advancing positive ideas.   Most people want to be for something hopeful and will respond accordingly, if given a chance.  They want to heal America and deliver us from our governmental ills as well as from our pandemic.

Colleges Will Collapse without Student-Loan Reforms

May, 2020

Washington –  In the next coronavirus bill, Congress should take the opportunity to clean up the nation's student-loan mess that is ruining the lives of countless individuals and is a millstone around the neck of the economy in a pandemic.  This also essential for the future of colleges and universities.

Three recommendations:

•  Restore bankruptcy protection to student-loan borrowers for both federal and private student loans.  Mortgage, auto, credit card, and other such borrowers have bankruptcy protection, which serves to balance the rights of debtors and creditors.  Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to accomplish this, the Student Borrower Bankruptcy Protection Act of 2019 (S. 1414 and H.R. 2648).

• Restore confidence in federal student loan programs by cleaning up mismanagement, especially in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and in so-called Borrower Defense procedures.  Congress should look at creating a Special Master for the purpose, inasmuch as Secretary DeVos has demonstrated that she will never administer these programs properly.  One possibility is to create a Special Master within the United States Court of Federal Claims with powers to act under 20 U.S. C. 1082 to take the necessary steps.

•  Provide debt relief to those who, in the 21st century, have been hit with tuition bills much higher than previous generations.  This could be done through a targeted federal tax credit, means-tested and refundable, available both to those with student-loan debt and to those who worked through college to avoid debt, so as to overcome the "equity" objection often raised to defeat student-loan cancellation efforts.

Measures like these are essential to coronavirus pandemic recovery.  Although each can stand on its own as good economic policy, right now they are also crucial to the overall U.S. higher education effort.  If there is no confidence in the nation's student-loan system, cash-strapped colleges will collapse in numbers never seen before.

Which is another reason these measures are necessary in the next coronavirus bill. 

Failing Governors

May, 2020

Lincoln, Berlin – Arizona governor Doug Ducey has cut off his universities' access to state coronavirus data because he doesn't like their pandemic projections and modeling, according to Inside Higher Ed:

"On Monday, the state's bureau chief of public health statistics, S. Robert Bailey, wrote to a modeling team of professors from ASU and the University of Arizona and asked them to pause all work on pandemic projections and modeling. The state also ended the researchers' access to special data sets.

"Bailey's request came shortly after Doug Ducey, Arizona's ...governor, announced plans to begin lifting social distancing restrictions in coming days. Reopening at the end of May was the only scenario that would not result in a large increase in COVID-19 cases, the model from the two universities had found."

Nebraska Governor Ricketts has likewise acted to suppress the release of information from county public health agencies.  Both of these governors seem to think that it is necessary to keep the truth from the public.

Governor Ricketts also made this statement about the spread of Covid-19 in a television town hall meeting this week.  He said he was trying to flatten the curve to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed:

"You can't change the area under the curve, you can't change the number of people getting infected because nobody's got any immunity."

Can't can't can't.  Don't tell that to the leaders of New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany, who have indeed changed the number of people getting infected by early and decisive orders to keep people at home rather than spreading the disease.  Don't tell that to the governors of Washington State, California, and elsewhere who have also done just that.  They have not only flattened their curves, which Governor Ricketts has not done (cases are rising rapidly in Nebraska), they have absolutely reduced the number of cases.  The Ricketts statement is demonstrably false.

In Germany, which is re-opening its economy properly, a setback in the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen has been met with quick response to isolate the outbreak and prevent it from spreading.  Germany, and most other places with any common sense, does not wait two or three weeks for hospital beds to fill up and then try to suppress the bad news.

Advice to governors:  tell the truth; don't suppress information; open economies using the CDC guidelines; watch leading indicators such as R (the virus reproduction rate), not trailing indicators like hospital beds; use your powers to crack down on hot spots immediately, even as you open.  You can do both at the same time.*

Advice to universities:  don't knuckle under to governors who dissemble and suppress.  (ASU, which refused to stop modeling: well done.) Don't be used as a prop to lend your authority to what you know is not true and leads to more cases and deaths.  (UNMC, which appeared with Ricketts at the televised town hall: not well done.**)

* For mayors with home rule charters: prepare your departments to act to control hot spots if your governor won't.  Lincoln mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird is re-opening the city on May 11 in accordance with the governor's instructions, over her objections, "rather than create confusion or engage in a legal battle."  The Mayor expressed concern that Lincoln's cases and positivity rate have not been decreasing.  If the situation worsens, the mayor, after consulting with the local medical community, should implement tougher, local measures to reduce cases immediately, regardless of the governor's failure to do so.  Lincoln must not become a Grand Island.

** Post script, 5/10: UNMC Dr. Mark Rupp, in full damage-control mode, tells the Lincoln Journal Star that Nebraskans should listen to doctors and scientists for advice, not politicians.  My advice to him and to all at UNMC, is to stay away from Governor Ricketts not only literally six feet, but figuratively and policy-wise as far as possible.  Thank you, JoAnne Young, for your potentially life-saving article. 


Another Comparative Look at Coronavirus Battles

May, 2020

Berlin, Washington, and Lincoln – This is another look at how the battle against Covid-19 is going in the three capitals that I follow in particular.  These are the cities of many of my friends and family.

•  Berlin:  Germany is having considerable success and starting the second phase of re-opening its economy.  The primary indicator Germany uses to measure success is R, the reproduction rate of the virus.  Below 1.0 means the virus is diminishing.  Today's number is .57, compared to a world number of 1.0 and a U.S. number of .95.  Germany moved early and decisively to put testing, contact tracing, social-distancing and, importantly, stay-home orders in place.  It is paying off, hugely.

•  Washington:  In the Maryland suburbs the effort is not going well.  Maryland as a state has an R of .92 today, but Montgomery County has been particularly hard hit, with over 300 deaths already.  This is embarrassing, as the county is the home of both NIH and FDA.  Although Maryland's Governor Hogan has tried to put into effect the same techniques that Germany used successfully, lack of testing and PPE are continuing problems.  Maryland and Virginia, across the river, are both losing the cooperation of many residents who are hearing a message out of the White House that it's more important to open the economy than to beat back the virus first.

•  Lincoln:  Nebraska is in a precarious position with an R of 1.06; it has had the highest R values in nation for three weeks running.  Governor Ricketts chose not to issue any shelter-in-place orders, ignoring the pleas of doctors and mayors in the hardest-hit cities.  There appears to be a strong correlation between high R values and failure to keep people from traveling through stay-home orders.  Today, three of the top four (and 6 of the top 10) R values in the nation are held by states whose governors rejected the option.  Yesterday, Lincoln was identified in the local newspaper as a potential hot-spot for an outbreak, although this has seemed inevitable for weeks. 

R is not the only measure to assess success or failure.  Today's New York Times looks at states that are re-opening their economies to determine how ready they are to do so under the CDC's two re-opening guidelines:  a "downward trajectory" of either documented virus cases or the percentage of positive tests.  Nebraska fails both options.  Other experts recommend holding off on re-opening where the rate of positive tests is more than 10%, or where testing fails to meet minimum a threshold of about 152 tests per 100,000 people daily. Nebraska also falls short on these measures.

Governor Ricketts, however, appeared this week in the Washington Post holding out Nebraska as a "model" that other states should follow.  He and his co-authors, governors of four other states, made the statement that their states "ranked low in terms of infection rates."  This is a dubious claim, if not an outright lie.  On the five measures described above, the Nebraska governor has nothing to back up his claim.  Nebraska's per capita cases also rank at or above all six surrounding states, and the trend is only getting worse. 

Meanwhile, the White House is revising the CDC guidelines for re-opening, moving the goalposts to fit the kick, so to speak.

There is an actual model for success against the pandemic:  elect competent leaders who deal in truth, who work well with others, and who inspire their citizens.  How many more deaths will it take to discover it?