"Big Jim Exon", Part I

March, 2013

Lincoln -- This is going to take more than one post.

Chuck Pallesen and Sam Van Pelt have pulled off a great book, Big Jim Exon. A lot of people, Democrats and Republicans alike, have opened up about Jim Exon as never before. It is the best biography of a Nebraska statesman since James C. Olson's biography of J. Sterling Morton.

It is good to see so many people give Norman Otto, chief of staff to both Frank Morrison and Jim Exon, his due; he was a great Nebraskan and a friend to many in both parties. Norm's "breakfast circle" of leading state officials, past and present, continued until shortly before his death a few months ago.

Chuck Pallesen's untimely passing in late 2011 takes away another remarkable figure from the Nebraska civic as well as political scene. Chuck plays down his own role in this book; the reader must read carefully between the lines to know how he was able to balance so many roles at once.

Chuck interviewed me three times for this book, the last time only briefly as his health was failing. Had there been a fourth time, I would have tried to talk him out of making such a big issue of the Gus Lieske affair in Governor Exon's first term. But I would have been wrong. After reading the comments of so many others, I am now convinced that this contretemps was pivotal not only to Jim Exon's governorship, but to his whole career. When Stan Matzke replaced Lieske as Department of Administrative Services director, Matzke inaugurated a more collective decision-making process, centered around the state budget. Over the ensuing years, Governor Exon spent hundreds of hours in the DAS office with instructions to his staff upstairs not to disturb him while he went over state and federal issues in great detail with his agency heads and with DAS's budget and management analysts.

This became a seminar that went on for months every year. Regulars at the seminar table were Bill Peters, John Jacobson, W. Don Nelson, and often Bill Hoppner or Norm Otto. Don Leuenberger and I also spent countless hours at these sessions. Sometimes Norman Krivosha would join by speakerphone; Gene Budig came in once in military uniform to witness the process.

Exon could not get enough of it. He asked, he probed, he learned. He gained confidence mastering the arcana of government. It gave him a huge advantage over his nemesis, the Legislature. State senators were overmatched not just by Jim Exon the politician, but by Jim Exon the master government executive.

Credit goes to Stan Matzke, and to Budget Director John Jacobson, for this innovation that developed the administrative talents of Jim Exon and also made of him a serious student of a great many public policy issues. He would go on to record a total of five state-wide election victories before retiring as the undefeated champ of Nebraska elections.

Virgil Oberg 1932 - 2013

March, 2013

Lincoln -- In Lincoln for the funeral of my cousin, Virgil Oberg, I should tell a couple of stories about Virgil that warrant remembering.

Because our fathers were brothers who farmed near each other, Virgil and I often worked together on the family farms and on the farms of neighbors. This was back in the Eisenhower administration, to give a time perspective. Virgil was in demand for shelling corn and putting up hay, as he was so strong and agile he could do the work of any two average men.

He was a decade older than I, and a better problem solver. Once we had to mow, rake, and bale alfalfa up on what we called the Dillon place on the Davey Road; our equipment and skills didn't seem to match up to the task. I was good at mowing with my 7-foot sickle-bar mower (which had a three point hitch), but not sure of how to use a side delivery rake to get the windrows aligned for the baler. So Virgil put my mower on his three point hitch tractor and used my tractor to do the windrows with his rake. It was a hot, breezy day for drying the hay, and we were done mowing and raking in one afternoon.

Our community softball team was an also-ran in the Waverly summer softball league until Virgil joined it. Then we won the league title consecutive years. Virgil had to adapt from baseball, his usual game, to softball. He explained to me that in baseball the pitched ball is coming down, but in fast-pitch softball it is often rising, requiring adjustments in the swing. He had more than his share of hits, but his real value was as the team catcher. He was so quick that bunters seldom had a chance, and he chased down many foul balls for outs. People turned out to the games to see him play.

In later years when Virgil farmed around the Agnew Road, he mowed and cleaned up the old Free church cemetery, which had been neglected for decades. That was Virgil's way. His neighbor Jack Johnson gave a fine eulogy at the funeral. The Lincoln Journal Star also wrote a big article to remember local legend Virgil Oberg.

The last time I saw Virgil was a few months ago, when I turned over a family heirloom to him. It was our great grandfather's trunk, which helped bring the Oberg (Åberg) family from Sweden to America in the 1880s. Great grandfather John Oberg built the first house in "new Ceresco" Nebraska and was the town blacksmith.

Superb Reporting at Bloomberg

March, 2013

Washington -- With this new article on a shady but widespread college financial aid practice, Janet Lorin at Bloomberg News has established herself as one of the nation's leading higher education analysts as well as journalists.

As to the practice of displacement, which essentially takes scholarship money away from financially needy students and puts them deeper into debt, one college aid officer meekly offered up, "Morally, it's a difficult question."

No, this isn't a difficult question. The practice is unethical. It also deceives well-meaning donors to scholarship funds.

Thanks to Janet Lorin for exposing it.

East German Academic Degrees

March, 2013

Berlin -- What with all the recent interest in German academic degrees, I have to recount an old story from the days of German re-unification.

My family and I were traveling on Germany's Baltic Coast not long after the East German state had been dissolved. We drove up from Berlin to show our children where their maternal grandfather had worked, long ago, on guidance systems at Peenemünde and to spend New Year's Eve on the beach at Usedom.

A few hours before midnight on New Year's Eve, we walked from our hotel down to the water's edge to see many townspeople dragging their Christmas trees onto a huge pile, to be burned to welcome in the new year.

But then a few townspeople tried to stop the event; a great deal of shouting and pushing ensued. Fights broke out. It seems two factions were disputing control of a tradition. The town's communists were opposed to the event, as it had not been observed during communist rule; the others wanted the town to return to the pre-communist tradition of a great Christmas tree bonfire.

The communists were routed and chased back up the banks away from the beach. The traditionalists shouted insults all the way, telling their communist neighbors they weren't in charge anymore, and to get off the beach and to take their phony, worthless East German doctoral degrees with them!


March, 2013

Berlin -- On my way through the main HU building I saw carved in stone this reminder of the past, which I first saw when the university was still under the DDR:

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verandern. -- Karl Marx

Outside, painted on a temporary building, is a quotation more students are likely to take heart from:

Mach' dir keine Sorgen wegen deiner Schwierigkeiten mit der Mathematik. Ich kann dir versichern, dass meine noch grösser sind. -- Albert Einstein

German Higher Education

March, 2013

Berlin -- Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a big article about plagiarism by holders of German doctorates and suggested that German universities no longer represent the gold standard of world higher education.

As to the latter, I'm not sure they have been considered as such for a long time. It was the 19th century when they were the model for American universities.

The article suggested that it may be too easy to get a German doctorate these days; politicians especially like to get the degree for their careers. A doctorate is an asset to a German politician whereas in America such a degree would often be a liability for a political candidate.

But it seems to me the German system actually has not changed much in decades, for better or for worse. Last year I read two biographies of Nebraskan Louise Pound*, who went to Heidelberg for her doctorate at the turn of the 20th century because she was not allowed (as a woman) to take the degree at the University of Nebraska. Her main effort was her thesis, which she started under the instruction of her advisor well before she formally enrolled; her coursework was minimal; her German needed improvement before she was ready for her oral examinations. She completed the degree quickly, all things considered.

My experience was similar about a quarter century ago. At the Free University of Berlin, I started my dissertation research under Professor Ekkehart Krippendorff a semester before enrolling; I attended several seminars but spent most of my time writing the dissertation and passing the rather extensive (five exams over two days) German language tests; I read German novels to help get into the feel of the language before my oral dissertation defense.

Five faculty members read my dissertation and questioned me thoroughly; it took about three hours. The Chronicle article hinted that faculty did not read dissertations carefully and that the oral Disputation was pro forma. I did not get that sense at all.

The Chronicle also suggested that publication of a German dissertation is comparable to self-publishing in the sense of a vanity press. Not so. Dissertations must be published in Germany so that they may be distributed among university libraries. It is not optional.

*By the way, Louise Pound belongs in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. After the success of women athletes at the London Olympics, she should especially be recognized.

Berlin Memorials

March, 2013

Berlin -- Again at home in Berlin; it's my fifth home here, over three decades. The first was in Lichterfelde-West, then Lichterfelde-Ost, Schmargendorf (in the British sector, where bagpipers marched on ceremonial days), and Steglitz. Now I'm at home in Kreuzberg, hard by what was once the Soviet sector.

On a short walk over to the Spree River I see magpies and hooded crows. On the river are moorhens, tufted ducks, and seagulls. Swans fly over. Across the river is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Supposedly under protection as a memorial, it is now threatened by a large development project.

On the opposite side of my block is a memorial evoking an earlier time. A cobblestone-sized brass plate in the sidewalk in front of an apartment house notes that Rosa Abraham lived here until 1943, when she was deported and murdered at Auschwitz. Another plate notes that Georg Fleischer lived here until May of 1944, when he was arrested as part of the German resistance movement and executed in Brandenburg. Similar memorials are all over Berlin; I saw several last week in Stuttgart, too. They stand a better chance of surviving, not being so much in the way of development.

How Science Progresses

March, 2013

Berlin -- After an event we both attended in Washington last week, Barmak Nassarian drove me to the Bethesda Metro for the remaining subway ride home. On the way he told me of his plan to use student loan default rates to improve higher education quality, but he soon transitioned to observations about the philosopher Hegel, and to my (partly) German education. Barmak can do this seamlessly.

I replied that I would soon be in Berlin at the site (Humboldt University on Unter den Linden) where Hegel taught, to pay respects to him and to Max Planck, who also has been on my mind lately.

Actually, I have been thinking they were both wrong about how science progresses. Hegel described the process as moving from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, and so on. Planck suggested that science moves forward one funeral at a time, as old scientists die off, to be replaced with a younger generation that is free of old, mistaken ideas.

But now comes the case of the Frenchman Lamarck, whose ideas on evolution were ridiculed for decades but are now commanding new respect. The 21st century science of epigenetics has shown that environmental adaptations are heritable, at least to some extent, as Lamarck believed. This is opening a whole new field of research in the life sciences and medicine.

What other cases do not fit the old paradigm of scientific progress? If Lamarck is rehabilitated, can the great Nebraska scientist, Frederic Clements, be far behind? The founder of the science of ecology and a devoted follower of Darwin, he stubbornly would not give up his Lamarckian views that some environmental adaptations were heritable and complemented natural selection. So now it seems he was right.

Clements had his admirers in Germany. On my list of places in Berlin to visit will be the Botanischer Garten in Dahlem to see what ecologists there are making of epigenetics.