Low Point in the American Experiment

December, 2014

Washington -- The American Experiment in government has always had its highs and lows. While one can hope and believe that the underlying trend over decades and centuries is toward a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, one need not be a follower of Howard Zinn to know that the experiment has sometimes fallen short.

Among the lowest points ever is the resort in the twenty-first century to American torture, along with a misguided discussion of whether or not it works. Of course it works: to break people unmercifully to elicit truth, falsehood, and everything in between; to knock ourselves off our pedestal as a country that lives up to its ideals; to subject our own troops to like treatment; to recruit new enemies against our experiment. Torture is effective, no doubt.

Letter-writers to the Washington Post on December 17, 2014, expressed similar thoughts:

• "Perhaps I was naive when I took an oath as an infantry lieutenant to protect and defend the Constitution and to think that part of what being a U.S. Army officer meant was that I was morally better than my enemy: I abide by the Geneva Conventions, a measure of decency I'd hope to receive if captured."

• "My first priority is not to be kept safe by any means necessary. I am extremely offended by proclamations that the American people want to be kept safe above all else."

• "As a teenager I read of Soviet torture of those considered enemies of the state. How awful, I thought, if the Russian people knew what was being done in the name of public safety and preserving their way of life. How could an ordinary person feel anything but shame? How could anyone defend torture? I was glad to be living in the home of the brave. And here we are, all illusions gone."

• "For many Americans, protecting and defending the Constitution and our principles of individual freedom and due process of law are the highest duty we expect from our public servants. I believe we became a nation of cowards the day Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush lost their heads after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

• "Who are these men who presume to know better than all of us, who have convinced themselves that, unlike all other times in history when our country has been threatened, the United States can now act as barbarously as our enemies?"

• "We send our military off to die, but we are afraid to risk another attack because we failed to torture the right person? I'm willing to take that chance if it means we can hold our heads up again as Americans and stand for something..."

• "[T]he United States must show the world we're committed to truth and justice; prosecutions must follow."

Indeed, prosecutions must follow. It is beyond ironic that the only person imprisoned in the U.S. is the one who blew the whistle on the torturers, John Kiriakou. Prosecutions should start with those who killed prisoners without due process and those who obstructed justice by covering up excesses that went beyond even fig-leaf legal opinions defining torture down.

Seventy some years ago, two very different people were born into the world in the same city, Lincoln, Nebraska. Dick Cheney, born in 1941, seems somewhere in life to have missed out on grasping what makes America special, and what is necessary to keep it special. His early career began with a mediocre record in college (dropped out twice, never completed his Ph.D.); he was convicted twice of driving under the influence of alcohol; he then avoided military service on account of having "other priorities" when it was his time to serve his country. I was born in Lincoln in 1943, never dropped out of anything, never drove drunk, performed my service as a navy officer when duty called and, in a career that also took me to Washington and abroad, always strived to uphold my country as something special in the world. Any version of torture to me is anathema, because it is so un-American. Yet it is Cheney and his ilk who wear the American flag on their lapels, as if that makes them patriots.

Note to my fellow Lincolnite: I'm still willing to take on some risk, just as are the letter-writing citizens above. Don't sell us so short. And think it through: torture is hardly something that reduces risk to the general population. If anything, torture increases risk. You could do your country a real patriotic service, at long last, by publicly acknowledging that you were wrong to degrade America as you have done and, as an act of penance, ask the country once again to aspire to fulfilling its ideals.

Cromnibus Hypocrisy

December, 2014

Washington -- Congress has passed the Cromnibus (The Continuing Resolution plus Omnibus appropriations act), to much disdain from those who know the wretched provisions in it. A sleight-of-hand move of higher education money in the bill is perfectly described in a news headline: "Tom Harkin Wants To Take Money From College Students to Pay Reviled Loan Contractors."

Advocates for financially needy students have heaped abuse on Senator Harkin for this. I couldn't agree more that this is a bad provision. But on reflection, two things bother me even more than what this provision will do.

First, Senator Harkin has long been a champion of protecting the interests of financially needy students. This must be taken into account. He has often stood alone, courageously taking on the for-profit schools that have misused federal tax dollars and ruined the lives of countless cynically exploited students and their families. He has done this in the face of many of his Congressional colleagues who take campaign contributions from this unverschämt industry; these contributions are almost totally recycled federal tax dollars. He has also made accrediting bodies do their job, through his Senate hearings that publicly shamed them. We are all in his debt for this work. Thank you, Senator Harkin.

Second, some of those jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of this provision have little or no moral high ground from which to object, however odious the shift of funding may be. The American Council on Education wrote this about Harkin's taking some $300 million from a Pell grant surplus account for the benefit of loan collectors:

[W]e oppose any efforts to weaken this proven, successful program by depleting the current surplus. With Pell Grants projected to return to significant shortfalls in the near future, stripping existing funding will needlessly endanger the near-term health and stability of the program. Congress has cut federal financial aid repeatedly over the last few years. Benefits have been eliminated, and students are paying more for their federal student loans. Students cannot afford to continue subsidizing other areas of the budget. We urge you to support America’s students and reject any proposals that would weaken the Pell Grant Program.

This is hypocrisy. If anyone has weakened the Pell program over the years, it is much of the membership of ACE. Many colleges and universities, by manipulating their own institutional aid, routinely repackage Pell grants, taking financial aid away from low income students that the program is supposed to help, thereby capturing the funds for other purposes. This amounts to billions of dollars annually, many times over the amount at issue in the Cromnibus act. Are students being forced to subsidize other areas of the budget, as ACE claims? Yes, indeed. But it is the ACE membership itself that is a far greater culprit than the Harkin provision, when one looks at the shifting of subsidies within college budgets. Are students being required to take out more student loans? Yes, but ACE needs to look in the mirror as to who is behind this.

Moreover, ACE has been noticably absent from helping with any of the heavy lifting involved in curtailing for-profit school abuses and reforming accreditation. They have let others do the work and take the heat.

And why does ACE continue to use the word "proven" with regard to Pell grants? Because repeating it over and over will make it so? It will not; the program has never been rigorously evaluated by the Department of Education. Many attempts by economists and others, over decades, have failed to conclude that the program is the success often claimed. No one wishes more than I do that these studies are wrong, but the evidence just isn't there to back up the claims for the program. Finally, ACE, of all organizations, should be more careful with its use of language. Sloppy use of the the word proven is often evidence that the user does not understand the philosophy and methods of science. This should be beneath the nation's leading higher education association.

Germany Struggles with Its History

November, 2014

Berlin -- Germany still struggles with its history, and not just the Nazizeit.

The state of Thüringen, after recent elections, is trying to put together a red-red-green governing coalition; that is, two parties of the left (SPD and Die Linke) along with the Greens (die Grünen). But to some it is unthinkable that the leader of the government might be a member of Die Linke, in that he has ties to the old East German state, the DDR. The president of the entire federal republic, Joachim Gauck, is weighing in, saying it is going to be hard for those of his generation to agree to seeing such a person come to power. The SPD in Thüringen is polling its membership to see if it will accept being in a coalition with a member of Die Linke as its head.

Others, including a friend of mine in Berlin with impeccable credentials on the left, say there was an election and Die Linke should be allowed, in a democracy, to take leadership. I tend to agree; there's nothing like having to take responsibility for governing in a coalition to make people and parties face real issues rather than forever carping from the ideological sidelines. It can also be a good way to clean up a tainted past.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Berlin a new palace is rising, a reconstruction of the palace of the Kaisers. It is a huge edifice and will soon be the talk of the world. What is Germany trying to do, bring back the Prussia of Frederick the Great? Indeed, the palace is just down the street from the benevolent gaze of a statue of Frederick that dominates Unter den Linden boulevard. I remember in the 1990s when the new palace was proposed. The building on the site at that time was the former East German Palast der Republik, the parliament and cultural center of the DDR. It had to go, not just for symbolism but because it was riddled with asbestos. The new palace was just to be a reconstruction of the palace that was torn down by the Soviets in the 1950s, a nice tourist attraction if nothing else.

Technically, the new palace project is called the Humboldt Forum. The building will serve as a scientific and educational conference center, named for the Humboldt brothers (after whom nearby Humboldt University is also named). Inescapably, it will also glorify German science. With such a colossal building, it is going to be tempting for the German government to use it for diplomatic goals as well as educational and historical purposes. This may all be for the better. Germany has been a responsible world power now for several decades, but the country must be ready for raised eyebrows as attention starts to be drawn to the completion of a splendid new palace of the Kaisers.

Now if only a few Euros could trickle down from the palace to complete the construction work around Kottbusser Tor, in my neighborhood, which has been a mess for years and years. This is where the world meets: Turks, Germans, Britons, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans, Africans.... Finishing up the project would signal that Berlin also cares about the diplomacy of the street.

Upcoming 25th Anniversary

November, 2014

Berlin -- A week from today will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I remember being present on the day it fell. Tumultuous times.

Today, Sunday, November 2, 2014, I got up with the sun, walked a block and a half to where the wall once stood, crossed over Bethaniendamm at Melchior Strasse into former East Berlin, bought three breakfast brötchen at a little bakery, and walked back home back past the great St. Thomas Church in the former West. A remarkable walk in that it was so ordinary. Twenty-five years earlier (or fifty years earlier, for that matter) such a walk would have been impossible.

On Christmas day of 1963, Paul Schultz, an eighteen-year-old East German, tried to cross at the same spot and was shot by border guards as he was about to jump from atop the last barrier into the West. He died that evening at Bethanien Hospital, a block away. The guard who shot him was rewarded with a new briefcase and wristwatch by the East German government.

Is history's verdict about the wall (or about anything in our lives) up to those of us who are still around to write the last chapter? Yes, I'd say. And perhaps it is our duty to intervene to make the last chapter a happy ending, to the extent such an ending is possible. How should we write the last chapter of the wall's demise? A celebration of the ordinary and the mundane seems appropriate to me, like my walk this morning. For others there are still scores to settle and lives to avenge. So be it.

Glad to be Away

November, 2014

Berlin -- For me it's a good time to be in Berlin on this November 1, 2014, as I have successfully avoided Halloween hullabaloo in the States and will avoid U.S. election day on Tuesday. I voted early before coming here. Weather's been much better here, too. The grounds and gardens at Sans Souci yesterday were incomparable. My daughter and I walked eleven kilometers altogether, through train stations and palace promenades, every step a delight.

Had I been in the Washington suburbs last evening, I would have given the trick-or-treaters peanuts in the shell, as usual, not candy. This year I would also have been tempted to give them a copy, for their parents, of Mark Bittman's op-ed "Two Rules for a Good Diet." It's sad to see so many little obese children asking for candy and junk food.

I'm not ruling out some election day surprises on Tuesday that I'd like to be around to witness, but where I live in Nebraska and Maryland, there haven't been any real surprises for years. Both are essentially one-party states where office holders are simply not held accountable. Nebraska state government, under Republicans, has witnessed several years of ineptitude and scandal in its human services and corrections departments, but the Republican candidates for state offices are all ahead in the polls. Maryland state government is about to be headed by a Democratic candidate, currently lieutenant governor, who failed miserably last year in setting up Maryland's health insurance exchanges. But he won the Democratic primary over a similarly weak candidate, so he's likely a winner in the general election.

It's past time to look more critically at our election institutions that lead to such situations.

The election surprise I'm really hoping for is in Oregon, where better food labeling is on the ballot and has a chance, despite millions of dollars being thrown against it by Pepsico, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, and the like, whose favorite holiday is probably Halloween.

POST-ELECTION UPDATE: Apparently a lot of Marylanders felt as I did (see above), and did not turn out for the Democratic candidate for governor as predicted. He lost. The Democratic congressman for whom the party gerrymandered a district almost lost as well. Maryland may be heavily Democratic, but voters pay attention. In Nebraska, party label was everything, and Nebraska government will be the lesser for it.

Food labeling in Oregon lost by the narrowest of margins. Big Ag ran an astonishing disinformation campaign against it, successfully. The hope for better food labeling might rest in consumer choice rather than ballot initiatives.

Undermining Pell, Redux

September, 2014

Washington -- The New America Foundation has published a second round of analysis of how tuition and financial aid policies help or (increasingly) hinder low-income student access to higher education. In Undermining Pell Volume II, Steve Burd writes:

For years, colleges complemented the government’s efforts by using their financial aid resources to open their doors to the neediest students. But those days appear to be in the past. Over the past several decades, a powerful enrollment management industry has emerged to show colleges how they can use their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to increase both their prestige and revenue.

Worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid they would have otherwise provided to financially needy students, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before. They are not receiving the full benefits intended.

Overall, too many four-year colleges, both public and private, are failing to help the government achieve its college-access mission. They are, instead, adding hurdles that could hamper the educational progress of needy students, or leave them with mountains of debt after they graduate.

Will this new analysis, which demonstrates the problem is getting worse, have any more impact on Congress and the Department of Education than the first one did? Probably not. After the first study, I offered a blog criticizing Congress for creating a financial aid system that invites colleges to manipulate federal funds away from help for the low-income. Which resulted in an invitation to me by authorizing committee staff to visit the Hill for a chat. I was told I was wrong about staff not reading the report; they did. But I was also told that Congress would take no action because there was nothing Congress could do in the face of the powerful Washington-based higher education lobby.

Having once been a part of that lobby, as well as Congressional staff and Department of Education staff, I disagree. American higher education is sufficiently in trouble such that another business-as-usual, chummy legislative reauthorization of the Higher Education Act with the senescent, out-of-touch higher ed lobby will likely accelerate the already alarming growth of student indebtedness, a national problem affecting the whole economy. Moreover, many colleges during the next six-year reauthorization period will find themselves unable to keep up with the enrollment management and money laundering schemes tolerated if not encouraged under current federal law, and will be faced with shuting their doors.

It is no secret that many who toil at colleges and universities -- likely a large majority -- are troubled by the behaviors they believe they are forced into by the very success of their control of Congress: chasing rankings prestige at the expense of their missions; loading up the financially-needy with debt while awarding so-called merit aid to the dubiously (but well-off) meritorious; selling their institutional souls to outside funding sources. Occasionally a college president will shout "Stop us before we kill ourselves!", but no one in Congress is really listening.

The New America Foundation proposes mild carrot-and-stick adjustments to current federal law as a way to address the problems. These measures are better than nothing, but Congress would be better advised simply to face up to the failures of its current programs and act boldly to reform them.

Discovering Golden Treasure

September, 2014

Lincoln -- The goldenrod on our prairie northwest of Lincoln has been in full flower this month. Bright orange Monarch butterflies on bright yellow goldenrods make for irresistible photo opportunities.

So we had a smartphone photo of a local goldenrod handy when visiting the Bessey Herbarium in Nebraska Hall last week. Exactly which species of goldenrod was it, we asked. Turns out it was Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida). The oldest such specimen in the herbarium's collection dates from September 18, 1873; it was collected in Lancaster County by none other than the early Nebraska naturalist and professor Samuel Aughey, promoter (and perhaps originator) of the "rain follows the plow" theory and a great favorite of railroad companies.

But it was another goldenrod specimen in the collection, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), that convinced us we had discovered golden treasure. Tall Goldenrod is the Nebraska State Flower. In the herbarium, in a special cabinet, is the actual speciman that the Nebraska Legislature had before it when it made the designation in 1895. The backing paper has a note from Charles Bessey himself verifying it. The speciman was collected in Holt County in 1893 by Frederic Clements. This was the year Clements and Roscoe Pound crossed northern Nebraska, collecting plants for their subsequent publication Phytogeography of Nebraska, a work of far-reaching influence well beyond the borders of the state and nation.

The Bessey Herbarium is a remarkable place with both a current and historic collection but it receives scant support from the University and State. Its budget was cut severely in 2003 and funding has not been restored.

Nebraska's Good Time Fiasco

September, 2014

Lincoln -- Yesterday I watched, via the Internet, the Nebraska Legislature's entire (morning, afternoon, and evening) televised hearing at which a special committee took court-compelled testimony from Department of Corrections' employees and others to try to get to the bottom of a prisoner sentencing scandal.

The Nebraska Supreme Court determined in early 2013, in State v. Castillas, that the Department's way of calculating "good time" was incorrect. Some prisoners were being released too early. Department officials did nothing to change their method until the Omaha World-Herald discovered the problem over a year later and made it a headline story for months. Or so the scandal has unfolded. The State has since been attempting to round up the released prisoners in question and make them spend over 2000 additional man-years in prison at a cost to taxpayers of perhaps 50 million dollars.

Several state senators on the committee sensed that responsibility for the fiasco might rest at the feet of the Governor, who wanted to reduce prison overcrowding but also wanted to cut state budgets and taxes, hence no new construction to house prisoners and no compliance with the holding of the Supreme Court. Or that responsibility might rest at the feet of the Attorney General, whose office is understaffed and did not properly coordinate with the lawyers at the Department of Corrections.

But it became clear during the hearing that something else was at work: run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bungling. A call was not returned; an email attachment was not read; false confidence was placed in the idea that someone else was on top of the matter. When state senators began to piece together what the committee chairman called a comedy of errors, they were merciless in their condemnation of the employees. The employees did not help their cause, as most of them pointed fingers at each other. Polite senators said the testimony was unbelievable; one impolite senator called the Department's record administrator a fool, and baited the Department's former general counsel into trying to get him to admit he was incompetent.

The Attorney General himself decided to join the fun the next day, calling the legal staff at the Department of Corrections incompetent.

As a former Nebraska state employee, I'm not going to join the condemnation. Yes, the records administrator seems to have had one promotion too many into his position of responsibility, but the others do not deserve to have their names muddied forever. They were solid citizens who worked day after day, year after year, making state government work. They were public servants in the best sense.

Twice (long ago) I was a department head in state government. Every day I knew that something might go horribly wrong, and I might be held accountable because I chose to work on one stack of paper late into the night rather than another and something would fall through the cracks. But that was a risk I took every day, and I was prepared to take the consequences. If I was compelled to appear before a legislative committee, however, I would have behaved a little differently than the employees did yesterday. I would have said yes, I was culpable, and to every name I was called by a state senator, I would have said "at least" in regard to my action or inaction as related to the fiasco. I would have said I was there to take my medicine. If it meant rebuilding my life elsewhere, so be it. My words would not be cheeky; I would mean it.

One employee, Sharon Lindgren, almost did that. Clearly she was marginal to the whole affair, but took her medicine. Because heads had to roll, one was hers. She retired rather than being fired by the Director of Corrections (who, incidentally, was not disciplined himself). A senator asked why she did not fight the impending dismissal, if she was telling the truth of her limited involvement in the fiasco. She said she was not a wealthy woman and did not have the resources to employ counsel for the long appeal process and that she had her pride; if the Department did not want her services, she did not feel she could do a good job there. She is an experienced, capable attorney. It's a loss for the State.

In her last act as a public servant, Sharon Lindgren also opened up a line of inquiry that the committee would do well to pursue. What if the Nebraska Supreme Court decision was not thoughtfully made, and the Department of Corrections was right to resist implementing it immediately? After all, implementing it was a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose proposition. It would be costly; prisoners who had been released and were doing well would have their lives disrupted; dangerous criminals who did not want to return would resist, perhaps violently; crowding in the prisons would intensify; implementation might set off a litigation nightmare. State senators seemed to think there was no option but to implement the Supreme Court holding immediately, and berated those who did not do it, but were there no other options?

Sharon Lindgren informed the committee that in at least one case, Payan v. State, the Attorney General's office advised the Department of Corrections not to comply with a Supreme Court decision. She disagreed strongly with that advice and told everyone she knew that the advice was wrong, to no avail. If this is true, it is ironic, to say the least, that the Attorney General is calling Ms. Lindgren incompetent. Be that as it may, is there no way the executive branch could have brought an action to determine if the Supreme Court was fully aware of the consequences of its decision? True, the judicial branch may have quickly slapped down such an action but given the circumstances and what was at stake, I would not blame the Governor and the Attorney General for such leadership. After all, they are both elected officials who head the co-equal executive branch. This is not Andrew Jackson saying "John Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it." (Which he actually didn't say, but might as well have.) Moreover, the way the Department of Corrections had been administering "good time" prior to the Supreme Court's 2013 decision had a legal rationale, the committee learned from a former records administrator, it just wasn't the one the Supreme Court eventually picked in its holding. And when a reader actually pores over State v. Castillas, it can be read so as to deal only with a mistake of a trial judge; there is no mention of how the Department of Corrections makes its computations. I look in vain for any clue that the author of the opinion (or his clerk) researched the whole matter concomitant with the implications of his holding.

If the executive branch is more interested in pointing fingers than leading the state out of this mess, there is always the legislative branch. A special session could deal with the Supreme Court's decision in any number of ways to mitigate its effects. If the Governor won't call one, the legislature can vote to call a special session itself.

One upshot of the fiasco so far, especially after the hearing yesterday, is that state employees will see how their careers can end in ignominy, with no one to defend their years of underpaid, overworked service. It will send a message to those who might think a career in state government is for them: Think again.

Theodor L. Steiger's Years in Lincoln

August, 2014

Lincoln -- In the previous post I mentioned the name Theodor L. Steiger, whose communication with Henry Chandler Cowles, the noted botanist and ecologist of the University of Chicago, is in the Chicago archives of the Cowles collection. Steiger spent several productive years in Lincoln, for which he should be better remembered. While he was conducting research on prairies with his mentor, Professor John Ernst Weaver of the University of Nebraska, he was also pastor of a church in Lincoln's South Bottoms, home to a German speaking population of Volgadeutsch immigrants. Steiger's son later made a major contribution to astrophysics.

Steiger did extensive research in 1927 and 1928 on Lincoln's nearby Nine Mile Prairie and its environs, which at that time encompassed about 800 acres. He had emigrated from Switzerland to San Diego, California, in 1910, at age seventeen. He and his wife Bertha, also Swiss, had two children: Mari, born in South Dakota in 1921 when Theodor taught at Redfield College; and Walter, born in 1923 in Colorado. The family came to Lincoln where Steiger was invited to become minister at Ebenezer Congregational Church at 8th and B Streets. He simultaneously sought his doctorate in botany at the University of Nebraska, which he received in 1929.

In 1930, doctorate in hand, Steiger became a public advocate for keeping Lincoln's newly established Pioneers Park as native prairie:

It took nature thousands of years to produce this grassland. It is a living witness to the countless ages which elapsed before the white man began to sink the glistening plough into the ancient sod. Not enough of it is left today to convey to future generations an appreciation of the prairie. Are we going to permit its complete extinction in favor of the dull and unimaginative blue grass sod?

Steiger left Lincoln in 1931 with a fellowship from the National Research Council to study Swiss meadow vegetation at the University of Zürich. He returned to the United States to teach at Sul Ross College at Alpine, Texas, in the Big Bend region, then joined the botany faculty at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After World War II, he spent two years in Greece working on agriculture projects with the United Nations Relief and Restoration Administration, UNRRA. He returned to the United States in 1947, researched New Hampshire grasslands, and discovered a new orchid, to be named Spiranthes Steigeri Correll. In his retirement, he returned to the ministry with the Unitarian Church. His son Walter, who attended his father's South Bottoms church as a child in Lincoln, studied physics at MIT and at the University of Cincinnati and joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii, where he became known as the grandfather of Hawaiian astronomy for bringing space observatories to Hawaii's tallest mountains.

Rivalries Among the Founders of Ecology

August, 2014

Lincoln -- Nebraska, in particular its state university, can rightfully claim to be the home of the academic discipline of ecology. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about Frederic and Edith Clements and their legacy at the University of Nebraska.

If there is another locale and institution that could make a rival claim it would be the Chicago area and the University of Chicago. It was here that Henry Chandler Cowles made his studies of the Indiana Dunes in 1898 and led a department that produced many of the leading ecologists of the twentieth century.

Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were contemporaries and collaborated on international botanical excursions. They and their wives participated in the first International Phytogeographic Excursion, which took place in the United Kingdom in 1911. They were co-organizers and leaders of the second IPE when it toured the United States in 1913.

This month I visited the Henry Chandler Cowles collection in the archives of the University of Chicago to look more carefully at the Clements/Cowles relationship, especially to see if there was evidence of a rivalry that may have influenced the development of ecology as a discipline. Evidence in other collections, namely the letters of Edith Clements from the 1911 excursion, makes it clear that the two couples were not on the best of terms. This apparently carried over even beyond the grave.

Henry Cowles actually had a strong Nebraska connection that could have been the basis for a better relationship. He began his teaching career in the 1890s at Gates College in Neligh, Nebraska, before moving on to the University of Chicago. During his career he was well acquainted with Nebraska botanists and ecologists. The Cowles collection contains friendly correspondence from T.L. Steiger (who worked with Clements' protégé John Weaver on the prairies around Lincoln) and Raymond Pool, another Clements student and longtime chairman of the Nebraska botany department.

But Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were opposites in many ways. Clements was a driven man whose intense work ethic was influenced by hyperthyroidism; Cowles, especially in his prime teaching years, was jolly and led memorable class excursions. One account has Cowles running the aisles of a train in Montana barefoot with a liquor bottle in hand. This would have annoyed Clements, an outspoken teetotaler, to no end. Roscoe Pound once described Frederic Clements as a man with no redeeming vices.

Both scientists wrote poetry. Clements' early poetry was earnest in the style of Robert Browning; Cowles began writing devout Christian verse, based on sermons he attended as a young man, but as an adult he wrote doggerel that delighted Chicago students and faculty. Clements was an avowed atheist, whose own grand theory of nature could itself be called a religion, and saw himself as a nature poet.

Edith Clements was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. She was also a teaching fellow in the German department. She conducted herself as a scientist on the international excursions and frowned on Elizabeth Cowles' way of forever making small talk among the traveling parties. Edith Clements, in letters now at the Nebraska State Historical Society, called Elizabeth Cowles a "bromine".

The rivalry between the two men shows up in an apologetic 1935 letter to Henry Cowles from Sir Arthur Tansley, the eminent British ecologist. In an earlier Festschrift publication Tansley had called Frederic Clements "the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation" but privately he wrote to Henry Cowles, "I should have said that Clements 'had made a unique and indispensible contribution to the theory of vegetation rather than that he is the 'the greatest individual creator, etc.'" [Box 3, Folder 1]

On Henry Cowles' death in 1939, many letters of condolence were written to Elizabeth, including a touching one from Raymond Pool in Nebraska, but none came from Frederic or Edith Clements. Or at least none is in the collection.

What is noteworthy about the Henry Cowles collection is what is missing. It is a fairly large collection of over twenty linear feet, but it seems not to contain any records of the interactions between the Clementses and the Cowleses. There are good records of other travels, but none from the IPEs of 1911 and 1913, historically the most significant.

Perhaps some of the missing records are at the Library of Congress, which has considerable documentation of the development of the discipline of ecology. But according to daughter Harriet Cowles, Elizabeth took many of Henry's papers after his death and put them on the curb as garbage (at 5722 Blackstone in Hyde Park), thinking no one would have an interest in them. That may not be the whole story. Elizabeth may have been systematic in what was retained and what was destroyed so as to limit future generations' ability to examine conflicts among the founders of ecology. Early correspondence and love letters between Henry and Elizabeth, which were not thrown out, show them to be adept academic in-fighters when it came to Henry's career. Henry writes Elizabeth in 1901 that if his colleague Chamberlain is promoted over him, he "will raise a deuce of a row." [Box 3, Folder 5]

Why is this important? Both Cowles and Clements revolutionized the study of nature with their theories of orderly plant succession, sometimes called "dynamic ecology." Because Clements published much more than Cowles, the theory came to be known as the Clementsian paradigm. When this theory came under attack by Henry Gleason, who argued that nature was far more chaotic than orderly, Cowles largely remained on the sidelines. It could be argued that this was because Gleason had been a student of Cowles at the University of Chicago, but so had Victor Shelford, who collaborated with Clements on extending the Clementsian paradigm to all biology. Or perhaps Cowles wanted to emphasize his own differences with Clements over the direction and details of plant succession, which were significant. But the answer may be that Frederic, Edith, Henry, and Elizabeth just didn't get along.

The battle between Clementsian and Gleasonian views of nature goes on into this century, unfortunately with too little enlightenment from the Henry Chandler Cowles collection.

Nebraska Nutrition

August, 2014

Lincoln -- If I lived here year-round perhaps I'd get used to it: all the overweight people, that is.

Corn fed, indeed. Corn syrup fed, high fructose version, is more like it. I simply don't remember there being such an epidemic of obesity when I was growing up in Nebraska, or even when I lived here a quarter-century ago.

No one seems much to care. Three of us recently stopped at a truckstop restaurant on West O Street in Lincoln. Two "sides" came with each meal. I asked for greens. "We don't have greens," the waitress said. "Nobody orders them." Last month in Omaha we stopped at a diner not far from downtown. Same thing, no greens. At a nearby booth sat two young women who could have been the sisters of those fat twins in the movie Nebraska. They were both pushing 300 pounds. At a nearby table a grandpa and grandma, both wide-bodied, were treating their three young granddaughters, still wispy-thin delights, to lunch. The grandfather ordered them all extra french fries and taught them to dip their fries in a sundae, a green, foamy tower of liquified sugar in which he was indulging himself. "This is the way to eat your fries, yum-yum."

I asked the Omaha waitress how a diner could not have greens. Every diner I ever knew had canned green beans, or peas and carrots, or cole slaw. Those choices almost defined diners. She said I could have a salad, which I ordered. But it had no green in it, only the greying innards of a head of iceberg lettuce with a dressing that was probably thickened and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The irony in this is that the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was once the home of one of the nation's great nutritionists, Ruth M. Leverton, who promoted food labeling and recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). More recently, unable to resist the fashion of public-private partnerships, UNL has started to combine its Food Science program with that of ConAgra, a private company that is a leading opponent of food labeling initiatives nationwide. So much for the tradition of Ruth Leverton. The UNL chancellor has said that ConAgra is the "perfect collaborator" for the state university. He may well be right in a way not intended.

Reactions to Refugees

July, 2014

Lincoln -- Traveling between Berlin, Washington, and Lincoln provides exposure to three markedly different perspectives on refugees.

In the last post, I noted the demonstration in Berlin in support of refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom come from Africa and the Middle East. Hundreds of Berliners marched in support of allowing the refugees to remain in their neighborhood in a former school building, and for providing them with papers to allow them to work and remain in Berlin. This is the opposite of NIMBY.

In the Washington area, the Maryland governor assembled a meeting of fifty religious and non-profit groups with experience in handling refugee children. Maryland is working with federal officials to find the right temporary match between communities, service agencies, and the refugee children coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In Lincoln, the Nebraska governor has demanded to know the identity of any individuals or groups who would be taking in refugee children. With glee, other Nebraska federal, state, and local elected officials joined in the condemnation of allowing any of the refugees into the state for however long. Press releases warned of diseased children infecting communities. Nothing about sending them back on the MS St. Louis, but if that ship were still afloat, such a proposal would not have been surprising.

Doubtless sovereign countries have a right and need to control their borders. I think the amnesty provided in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act was a mistake. But it is striking how different locales react to the challenges presented by refugees, and how people define themselves by their reactions.

A Berlin Demonstration

June, 2014

Berlin -- Walking last Saturday evening from Kreuzberg to Neukölln along my usual route through Heinrich Platz, I ran into a formidable police presence preparing for a potential clash with marching demonstrators. I turned onto Oranienstrasse and was soon caught between a thousand or so marchers and two lines of police. Except for a few marchers who were determined to provoke the police, it was all peaceful. No store-fronts smashed; no right-wing nationalist trouble-makers.

The demonstrators were marching in sympathy with Berlin's small population of asylum-seekers, protesting the conditions they live in and the idea of a "fortress Europe" that looks away from the victims of war and circumstance in Africa and the Middle East. Or they were in search of a good time, a moving festival. It had been a long seven days since the noisy Christopher Street celebration in Kreuzberg. Any storm in a port.

As I was filming the scene with my little camera, a young woman departed the march and came running up to me with a big smile. At first it didn't register with me who she was; suddenly I recognized my daughter! Later in the evening we had dinner together under lindens in deepest Neukölln.

The Inability to Restrain Borrowing

June, 2014

Washington -- Ben Miller's latest offering in The Chronicle of Higher Education should be carefully read at the Department of Education, the White House, and the Congress. Especially this:

"The story of Pell and its inability to meaningfully restrain borrowing exemplify the challenges of unilateral federal financial-aid investments. Without conditions on states and institutions that introduce real requirements about providing an affordable education, federal dollars will keep getting gobbled up by insatiable college budgets and state officials looking for ways to supplant their own education spending."

In other words, no conceivable amount of Pell spending is going to slow down the student debt juggernaut without addressing the responsibilities of states and colleges.

This is not news to some of us. In 1997, I wrote in the Journal of Federalism that federal student financial aid programs that operated in the tradition of cooperative federalism (with some restraints on states and colleges) were more effective than those like the Pell program, which did not. In 2002, I completed an unpublished paper showing that increases in Pell grants were not associated with declines in student debt load for the low-income. Although that paper was written while I was at the National Center for Education Research within the Department of Education, it was unwelcome. The Department was adamant that its researchers were not to do any actual research, but rather administer grants to college researchers, who were unlikely to suggest that Pell grants might not be effective in holding down student debt burdens. That topic has long been verboten.

Two years ago, on an Education Sector panel in Washington, I suggested "re-balancing" federal student grant appropriations by tilting the funding more to programs in the cooperative federalism tradition, to help prevent the raw exploitation of mindlessly appropriated federal dollars that have been such a failure in reining in student loan debt. I think that is still a sound suggestion.

It's a Start, Thank You

June, 2014

Washington -- It is gratifying to see others come to the same views that are expressed occasionally in these pages.

Today the President is using the phone and the pen with his Secretary of Education to deal with the student loan mess. He will be making it easier for borrowers to pay off their loans and will be changing the way the collection industry operates.

This should be followed by more such actions, all under authority of existing law. The Secretary needs to enforce transparency requirements and use his limitation, suspension, and termination powers to root out waste and abuse especially in student loan, proprietary school, and enrollment management enterprises. It is long past time to stop college dream exploitation industries from ruining yet more lives and grievously harming our very society. Hardly a day goes by without major media coverage about what the student loan muddle is doing to hurt the economy, let alone what damage has been done to individuals and families across the country.

Likewise, thanks to Kevin Carey for his report on the sorry state of affairs at the Association of American Universities (AAU), and to Paul Basken for his coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clearly, I am not the only one who is deeply disappointed in this organization. The AAU is a lobbying organization that asks Congress for federal funds for research. If I were staff on the Hill (which I once was) and the AAU came petitioning to my office, I would ask them to leave until they got their own house in order.

Conflicts of Interests in Academic Research

May, 2014

Lincoln -- Writing in The New Yorker, Rachael Aviv tells an unsettling story of the lengths to which Syngenta, the huge agribusiness company, has gone to try to discredit critics of its product atrazine. Syngenta plots and schemes to undermine researchers who believe atrazine is dangerous, all the while excusing such behavior as normal business practice.

The part of the article that caught my attention was not the back and forth disagreement among academic researchers as to the safety of atrazine, but the citation of a conflict of interest study that showed the relationship between who pays for a study and its outcome. When Syngenta pays, most academic researchers somehow find that atrazine is safe.

While this controvery is playing out, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has hired a new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a salary well above that of the chancellor, raising many eyebrows as to why such a salary is necessary. The pay is even being substantially augmented by private dollars through the NU Foundation.

To me, the new dean will be worth every penny if he recognizes conflicts of interest and stands tall for academic integrity. The College of Arts and Sciences is not only the academic core of the university, it must also be its conscience, extending across other colleges and departments. On the other hand, if the new dean is another of an increasingly common breed, the academic administrator who equates grant revenue totals with accomplishment of mission and winks at conflicts of interest in research, he won't be worth a salary at any level and should not have been hired.

Nebraska taxpayers also deserve to know if the private money that is augumenting the dean's compensation may pose a conflict of interest itself.

Many of us who favor more taxpayer support for higher education, to recover from the cuts of the last decade, are fearful of what kinds of institutions we will now be supporting. Forced to seek outside funding over the years, how conflicted and corrupted have they become?

Earth Day, Arbor Day

April, 2014

Lincoln -- Last Tuesday was Earth Day; today is Arbor Day, at least in Nebraska, where the schools are closed in observance.

In honor of Earth Day and what it stands for, I planted a "Xerces Pollinator Dry Soil" mix of grasses and forbs into bare patches on our prairie. We raise bees and are concerned about the accelerating loss of pollinators of all kinds. The mix is from Prairie Nursery of Westfield, Wisconsin, which also offered a special customers' incentive on Earth Day; the proceeds are going to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a worthy cause.

Aldo Leopold is celebrated in Wisconsin and throughout much of the country for his view of nature and specifically his "land ethic." Less appreciated is the fact that his philosophy grew out of Clementsian ecology whose founders, Frederic and Edith Clements, are all but forgotten. Until last year, Frederic Clements' ashes lay unmarked in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. Now they are marked, crediting him as "by far the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation."

For Arbor Day, a legacy of the Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton, I am planting twenty red pines as Scots pine replacements. The Scots pines are succumbing to pine wilt and must be removed as soon as they show symptoms.

My friend John Rosenow at the National Arbor Day Foundation is retiring this year after several decades of hugely successful leadership. As a young man, he created the foundation from nothing. Whenever we see each other we remember the day in Washington long ago when together we approached the U.S. Postal Service about a special postal rate for the foundation's mail-order catalog enterprise. The USPS up to then had been adamantly opposed. We both gave our best pitches; the outcome didn't look good. But fortune smiled on us that day when the deciding official told us he was from Nebraska, that as a child he had often been to Morton's home, Arbor Lodge, and he would do anything to help his fellow Nebraskans advance the cause of Arbor Day.

Bob Dole of Kansas

April, 2014

Washington -- Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is touring all 105 counties in his home state of Kansas, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Which recalls for me two Bob Dole stories, one about the good Bob Dole and one about the other side of his character. Such are many stories about the man; he was a talented legislator, but he also had a sharp wit and a tongue to match, which put many people off.

For me, the good Bob Dole is what others may think is the bad one. And vice versa.

One year in the early 1980s the Senate was working on the federal budget late into the night; I was staffing on the Senate floor. Senators had returned to their desks from dinner and drinks. Tempers were short and inhibitions loosened. Up came a question of the budget for veterans; a senator made a speech for the folks back home about how the federal government must not cut any veterans' programs, given what veterans had risked and sacrificed for their country.

Bob Dole took the floor. Serving in the army, he had nearly died in Italy in WWII and was still visably disabled. What would he say? He shocked the Senate by saying he was tired of "professional veterans" who were more interested in protecting their benefits than in getting the nation's budget in order. He had made sacrifices before and he was prepared to make them again. I was never prouder of being a veteran (with a small disability benefit) myself, as that reflected my own view. I resented veterans' organizations claiming to represent me in these matters.

The next morning, I looked in the Congressional Record for the Dole remarks I had witnessed the night before. To me, they were worthy of framing. But they were not there. It is not unusual for the record to be expunged of what actually happens on the Senate floor.

The second Bob Dole story is not so heroic. When I worked for Senator Jim Exon, Democrat of Nebraska, I approached him about putting in a bill to allow states to "trade in" some of their federal categorical grants for less restrictive federal revenue sharing. Jim Exon had often been frustrated as a governor by several federal programs that were well-intentioned but ineffective as administered. He thought he could have run the programs better from the state level if he had had the funds. He liked the idea of states being able to swap among federal approaches, within limits, and told me to work up a bill.

I went to the Senate Legislative Counsel's office; we drafted the language in proper bill form. Jim Exon then sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to several other senators, inviting them to co-sponsor. When Bob Dole got wind of it, however, he liked the idea so much that he wanted his own name on it, not Exon's. He persuaded Leg Counsel to draft a bill lifting language word-for-word from the Exon draft. Staff in the Democratic cloakroom were on to the scheme and called me, advising me to get Senator Exon to the floor immediately to introduce his bill before Senator Dole could beat him to it. Fortunately, he was already on his way there; the bill as introduced thus bore Senator Exon's name and, being sponsored by a former Democratic governor, went on to get bi-partisan support, something that likely never would have happened under a Dole bill that would have been viewed by Democrats as an attempt to kill federal categorical programs. (Eventually the language was amended into another bill as a pilot program, but when federal revenue sharing itself was terminated, the concept died.)

Jim Exon worked well with the other Kansas Republican senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum. They were good friends. But he was never close to Bob Dole.

This Biography Should Be in English -- Part I, Part II

April, 2014

Berlin/Washington -- Anyone who follows German history of the 1960s and 1970s knows of the remarkable lives of Gretchen and Rudi Dutschke. Unfortunately, the English-speaking world has not had the benefit of reading Gretchen Dutschke's prose. I am no professional translator, but with Gretchen's permission here is my translated excerpt from her book Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schönes Leben: Rudi Dutschke, eine Biographie.

The scene takes place in 1966, when Rudi's father and mother came from East Germany into West Berlin to see how their son was doing with his new American wife, Gretchen, a native of Illinois. The new wife narrates the dreaded first visit of the in-laws.

Vati Dutschke was sixty-five and allowed to travel in the West. Mutti Dutschke was also allowed to travel on account of a health condition that permitted early retirement. They came to see how married life was treating their dear son. We wanted as much as possible to survive these days without friction. So we undertook a new experience together: a frantic housecleaning. We washed all the dishes, swept up the dust, vacuumed, cleaned the windows, scrubbed the floors, did the laundry. The apartment shined as never before. Rudi got a haircut and shaved.

While I waited with a vague foreboding at home, Rudi picked up his parents at the border. When they arrived, we offered them coffee and cake. But just as I was covering the coffee table, Mutti Dutschke started to investigate the apartment. In the kitchen we had terrycloth hand towels. "That's not appropriate," complained Mutti. "In the kitchen the towels must be linen. Only in the bathroom are terrycloth towels allowed." In the living room she asked where the curtains were. I didn't understand. I had sewed curtains, and hung them as curtains are supposed to be hung, or so I thought. "White sheer curtains" she said. "You must have white sheers with the other curtains." The newspapers we put up as wallpaper did not please her at all, to say the least. Rudi offered: "Come, sit down Mutti, coffee is ready." The peace did not last long. As soon as she drank the coffee and ate the cake, she got up and went once again through the apartment. Vati found Rudi's haircut much too long. Rudi protested that he had just been at the barber's, but Vati laughed mockingly and said no one should pay for such an insufficient haircut. When the bickering didn't let up, I was at the end of my nerves. I ran out of the room and slammed the door so hard that the whole apartment shook. I took up my flute and played wildly. But I overheard how Mutti challenged Rudi: "Why do you allow your wife to behave like that? Do something!" Rudi said nothing. Then she scolded him: "You are a wet dishrag."

It is more than an oddity that Gretchen Dutschke's words need translation from the original German into English. She is an American. She should be published in her own country in her own language. She was at the forefront of the changes that shook the world in the 1960s and 1970s. We could learn a lot from her if we had access to her in our own common mother tongue.

April, 2014

Berlin/Washington -- In the last post, I offered in English an excerpt from the German language biography of Rudi Dutschke written by his American widow, Gretchen Klotz Dutschke. That selection was comic; the following selection is somber.

The scene is set in Aarhus, Denmark, the place to which Gretchen, Rudi, and their two children repaired after being unfairly evicted from England. It is December, 1979. Rudi has suffered epileptic seizures for several years after being shot in an assassination attempt (provoked by the Springer press and perhaps the Stasi). In a few months, Gretchen is expecting their third child. She narrates:

Dead leaves lay on the ground; the darkness of that time of year depressed me. I awakened in the middle of the night covered in sweat and shivered. I shook Rudi, sleeping next to me, because I was so afraid. A nightmare still swirled around in my head in which I went into the bathroom and saw a person who had drowned in the bathwater and lay at the bottom of the tub.

On the twenty-third of December the children and I decorated the apartment for Christmas. We placed pine boughs around, put little figures in them and draped them in cotton snow; bulbs and tinsel hung on the Christmas tree; candles stood everywhere. When the children were finally in bed, I said to Rudi: "Let's light the candles." They transformed the old, somewhat shabby room into a wonder-world of mysterious shadows and sparkling lights. Rudi and I sat together on a chair, held each other in our arms and took in the magic.

On the following afternoon, the day of Christmas Eve, the telephone rang constantly. Mostly they were calls from Germany: Christmas greetings and words about the many tasks that lay ahead in the following week. Günter Berkhahn also called. The conversation began friendly, so I paid no attention. But then I noticed that Rudi's voice was raised markedly. He said he wasn't working on the book right now. He seemed torn and pained. He didn't know how he ought to tell Günther that he couldn't finish their common project. Besides, the Green cause was just too exciting. No, it was not the socialist project that they both had wanted, but it was important. Berkhahn apparently yelled that it was idiotic to waste time with the Greens; he threatened but then became resigned and wounded. It was hard for Rudi to take. He didn't want to disappoint Berkhahn, but he knew that he could not write a book right now. Especially this book. As the telephone conversation came to an end, Rudi was visibly upset. He said to me only, "I can't write that book with Berkhahn just now. Later, perhaps. Günter puts me under too much pressure." It was one of the last things we talked about together.

I began to prepare the goose. We had invited a guest to join us for dinner, Pia, a Dane who had lived for a time in Germany. Pia set the table. Rudi went into the bathroom. As the goose sat in the oven, filled with apples, rice, and spices, I thought that Rudi must soon be finished with his bath. I looked into the bathroom and thought that he's drying himself. But he was dead. The nightmare raced in glaring colors before my eyes. I screamed, and simultaneously pulled him out of the tub and tried to bring him back to life. It was totally ineffective. I was asked later how I could have done it, to lift him out of the bathtub, and I didn't know.

It's unfortunate that the whole book is not available in English. Gretchen Dutschke is not only a fine writer, she is a formidable philosopher and interpreter of the ideologies that drove a generation of Germans to reflect on their past and change their country for the better.

The Secretary's LS&T Powers

March, 2014

Washington -- While I wish the best for the Obama Administration's "Gainful Employment" regulations, this effort should not be the only Department of Education attempt to crack down on schools (for-profit or otherwise) that are abusive of their students and of taxpayers. The abuse is well documented.

The Secretary of Education has powers under current law and regulation that are tailor-made to curtail the abuses. They are called the Limitation, Suspension, and Termination (LS&T) powers. An excerpt appears below.

Recently over dinner in Washington I asked a long-time, high-level employee of the department how long it had been since these powers were discussed at the Secretarial level as a remedy for abuse. "About twenty-four years" was the answer. It's not quite that long, but clearly it's not recent. The Secretary may not know he has them.

Title 34: Education
Subpart G—Fine, Limitation, Suspension and Termination Proceedings

§668.93 Limitation.
A limitation may include, as appropriate to the Title IV, HEA program in question—

(a) A limit on the number or percentage of students enrolled in an institution who may receive Title IV, HEA program funds;

(b) A limit, for a stated period of time, on the percentage of an institution's total receipts from tuition and fees derived from Title IV, HEA program funds;
(i) Other conditions as may be determined by the Secretary to be reasonable and appropriate.

(Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1094)

Necessary Surveillance

March, 2014

Berlin -- A recent encounter with surveillance reminds me of the frightful days of the 1977 "German Autumn", when prominent German citizens were being kidnapped and murdered. That was the season terrorists hijacked an airplane to Mogadishu and demanded the release of the Baader-Meinhof gang from Stammheim prison in Stuttgart in exchange for the lives of the passengers and crew of the aircraft.

Annette and I dropped by her parents' home in Stuttgart one evening in the autumn of '77 before driving in her Citroen 2cv (deux-chevaux) to France. Their neighborhood was under heavy guard, as the sentencing judge who had put Andreas Baader and others in prison for life lived there. The judge was a prime terrorist target. A few days later we were in Mulhouse, Alsace, on the day the body of German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer was found in Mulhouse in a car trunk. Soon we knew that commandos had stormed the hijacked aircraft in Mogadishu and killed the hijackers, and that the prisoners in Stammheim had committed suicide.

Or were murdered. It put a stop to the hijackings, but Schleyer was executed in retaliation by the terrorists.

Last Sunday morning in Stuttgart, March 2, 2014, I drove over to the common grave of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe. It is in a remote cemetery down the hill from Stuttgart-Degerloch. It was a chilly, misty morning; the cemetery was deserted. I found the grave, took some photos of it (a white rose had been placed on the gravestone in recent days), and played Mozart (piano concerto #23, which could bring peace even to terrorists' hearts) aloud from my iPhone. After about twenty minutes, I walked back to my car. A police car was parked in a driveway behind me. Two policemen looked at me; I thought nothing of it. I started my car, they started theirs. I turned mine off to wait for them to leave, not wanting to be followed by a police car. They didn't move. So I re-started my car and drove off. They followed me about two kilometers, through a few turns. I finally drove into a side street and parked. They drove on. Most likely there is a camera at the grave to keep track of any admirers (or accomplices) of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Good; I am not one.

In Berlin this week I decided to visit the grave of Ulrike Meinhof, who committed suicide in Stammheim prison in 1976. About that there is also considerable doubt: she slipped a note out of the prison beforehand saying that if she was found dead, it would be murder, not suicide. A fresh tulip was on the gravestone, which is in Mariendorf. Again I took photos and played the same music. Nothing from the police.

But Ulrike Meinhof still has her admirers. Last evening at a panel discussion at SPD headquarters in Berlin, marking Frauentag and commemorating the "Women 68ers", a panelist suggested women had not found their theme until a few years later, which then led to the women's movement. A heckler in the audience shouted that Ulrike Meinhof had already found her theme. The moderator cancelled the planned questions from the audience. Murder of prominent Germans at the likely hands of the RAF continued into the 1990s, at least.

Sometimes surveillance and caution are necessary.

Misplaced Surveillance

March, 2014

Berlin -- Germany has every good reason to be upset at over-the-top NSA surveillance, such as NSA's listening in on the chancellor's personal cell phone and spying on trade offices that have nothing to do with terrorism. But some German government agencies don't have the moral high ground either, as in recent years they have spied on individuals and organizations which in hindsight were actually performing important civic services.

Take the case of former political science professor Peter Grottian of FU Berlin, who was under surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz, the domestic security agency. His important service, despite the surveillance, was to make public the secret contracts between Deutsche Bank and two Berlin universities (TU and Humboldt). The contracts specified that in exchange for financial contributions, the bank had certain controls over the faculty and over research in applied mathematics and finance. Public outrage over the secret contracts forced the bank to discontinue them soon after their discovery.

The episode spurred the formation in Germany of Hochschulwatch, a watchdog organization devoted to making public the essential terms and conditions of public-private partnerships at German universities. Using crowd-sourcing, the organization has collected information from about 400 institutions.

There is no such organization in the U.S., but there should be. American universities are targets of so-called "soft lobbying" through which the private components of public-private partnerships seek to control appointments, research agendas, and even research outcomes. There is no auditing of these arrangements worthy of the name. The public is kept in the dark.

The moral here is that surveillance is often misplaced. Get rid of the spies and let the public do the surveillance on public institutions. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant.

Botanischer Garten

March, 2014

Berlin -- Today I am at Botanischer Garten in Berlin-Dahlem, historically for me a favorite place of respite from the outrageous storms of life. It is a part of the Free University of Berlin.

Who cannot be calmed by the beauty of 22,000 living trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers -- one of the world's greatest collections -- and the sudden presence of Blaumeisen, little blue and yellow birds that alight on one's outstretched fingers.

There are spirits here, too, among them the late Edith Schwartz Clements. She was here on a visit in 1911. Young, beautiful, and accomplished (Phi Beta Kappa and Ph.D in botany from the University of Nebraska), she accompanied her husband, Frederic, who with Edith founded the discipline of plant ecology. Edith had been a teaching fellow in German at NU and handled most of the conversation with the hosts. She made friends easily with botanists across the German-speaking world; some of the friendships would survive two world wars. Her 1904 dissertation is still here in the garden's library.

Edith was a friend of Willa Cather and Louise Pound. Cather admired her botanical paintings (so did National Geographic, which published dozens of her plates) and her writing. Scholars are now looking at the influence of the Clementses on Cather's novels. Louise Pound's brother Roscoe collaborated with Frederic on the leading phytogeographic work of the time.

From Berlin, Edith and Frederic went on to Dresden, Zürich, and ultimately Cambridge, where they joined the First International Phytogeographic Expedition, hosted by Sir Arthur Tansley, who would also become a lifelong friend. They were joined in England by Henry C. Cowles of the University of Chicago and his wife. Edith took an immediate dislike to Elizabeth Cowles, whom she described in letters back to the Schwartz family as a "bromide." (The letters are gathering too much dust at the Nebraska State Historical Society; they need to be put online.)

Edith lived until age ninety-six; she died in LaJolla, California, soon after she could no longer work at her typewriter expounding the Clementsian view of nature. Last year I tried to find where her ashes are scattered, to no avail. But Frederic's ashes are buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. They were unmarked; the Clementses had no descendants. Working with the cemetery, I arranged a marker for both of them with an engraving, taken from one of Edith's paintings, of Clementsia Rhodantha, a stonecrop flower.

Today I have no agenda here in the gardens, but I will keep an eye open for Edith's namesake plant, or Edith herself, should she come around a corner.

Stuttgart Celebration

March, 2014

Berlin -- Three days in Stuttgart, to celebrate Charlotte Rohrberg's 100th birthday on March 1st, has spurred many memories. Some memories are painful because Annette is not here to celebrate. But Oliver and Verity came to Stuttgart to join the festivities with their grandmother and many cousins, aunts, and uncles. I unexpectedly got seated at the head luncheon table, per Charlotte's wish, which assuages things somewhat. I am grateful for being considered part of the family.

The celebration started with an informal concert by the incomparable opera singer Helene Schneiderman, a family friend. She started with Brahms, followed by Mendelssohn, then Puccini, and finished with Mahler. Before the Mahler she sang Holländer's wistful song from Der Blaue Engel:

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss, auf Liebe eingestellt, denn das ist meine Welt, und sonst gar nichts. The knees buckle.

While fresh in memory, I'll list the main celebrants: Christine & Joe, Ulrike & Martin, Uta & Martin, Klaus, Diane (from England), Reinhart, Ursel, Hans, Marianna, Heide, Bärbel, Annette S. & Nika, Hans-Peter & Freundin, Helene & Mann, and a few Augustinum neighbors.

So that the event would not be overwhelming, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren ate separately and were hidden until after lunch. Then they sang and appeared one by one: Andrea, Franziska, Tobias, Jan, Timo, Oliver, Verity, Sarah, Leah. Some grandchildren had spouses and children along. It was superbly organized.

It is a proud and accomplished family. I counted three medical doctors, two physicists, one architect, several engineers and the like, one geologist, one social worker, a couple of therapists, a writer, two government administrators, one Galeristin, and a Politologe.

Oliver and I flew in from the States early and spend the day before the birthday walking where Annette and I had walked in the fall of 1977: through Rosenstein garden (it was the year of the Stuttgart Bundesgartenschau), the Wilhelma Zoo, and the great Wilhelma greenhouses. In protected areas along the outdoor paths, blooming forsythia signaled the coming of spring, and a new beginning.

College Football Headaches

February, 2014

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

February, 2014

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

February, 2014

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

February, 2014

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

February, 2014

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

February, 2014

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.