Where is Grace Abbott When We Need Her

December, 2015

Lincoln -- With much loose talk these days about refugees and immigrants, it would be good for all of us to take a deep breath and reflect on the life and teachings of Grace Abbott. She is in the Nebraska Hall of Fame as a tireless worker in the cause of protecting refugees and immigrants, especially children. She was born in Grand Island, educated at the University of Nebraska (among other places), worked at the highest levels in the federal government and in many charitable organizations. She died in 1939 and is buried in Grand Island. She was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976. Her papers, along with those of her sister Edith Abbott, are at the UNL library archives and special collections.

From 1915 to 1917, she headed the Immigrants' Protective League and from 1917 to 1921 worked in the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Thereafter she was the chief of the Bureau until 1934. In 1931, Good Housekeeping named her one of the twelve greatest living American women.

Grace Abbott was a Republican, she explained, because that was the party of most civil war veterans' families in Nebraska. Herbert Hoover considered her for nomination to be Secretary of Labor, which would have made her the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet. She had much bipartisan support for the position, but ultimately Hoover declined to nominate her, knowing of her outspokenness without regard for political party considerations. She endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1932 and went on to assist in writing the children's aid provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Grace Abbott is a person we should remember for her courage in standing up for the defenseless throughout her career and for her political courage, even at the expense of becoming famous as the first woman to head a cabinet department. (Frances Perkins went on to be so honored.)

We should likewise be standing up for defenseless refugees in our own time; it is also incredibly counterproductive geopolitically not to do so.

If you are reading this in the vicinity of the Nebraska state capitol, drop in to pay your respects and gain courage with a visit to the Grace Abbott statue in the Hall of Fame. It's easy to find. If you are at the governor's office (or if you are the governor), exit left, turn right down the hallway, and find Grace Abbott for inspiration.

Public Policy Failures: A Personal Account

November, 2015

Washington -- Of success in higher education policy I've had my share; it's the failures over the years that still rankle. Did I do my best? Given the regrettable current state of higher education in America -- we have slipped far on many measures -- all of us should reflect on where we might have done better.

1. One failure of mine involved trying to encourage private non-profit colleges to serve more lower-income students as part of their missions (for which they are also given tax exemptions). Such students often have better chances for graduation at these colleges, for whatever reasons. By the 1980s, when I was a college association executive, much progress in this direction had already been made. Many private colleges, helped by federal and state student financial grant programs, were enrolling more students from lower-income families than were the public universities. The progress didn't last. The leadership of private colleges at the national association level came under the sway of those who valued elitism and prestige rankings above the charitable aspects of the institutions. Granted, there is much diversity among private colleges, and many do exemplary work, but the national associations in Washington have dug in their heels at every opportunity to prevent sharing of data publicly and to fight implementation of reasonable accountability measures. Worse, this behavior has been emulated by associations of public colleges and universities, undermining the effectiveness of virtually all the programs of the Higher Education Act. These once-admired associations have lost credibility, which has shifted to think tanks that are more honest about how rapidly American higher education opportunity has been slipping compared to other countries. It is no wonder that the nation now senses a crisis in college affordability on top of a student loan debt crisis, and that undesirable higher education gaps have been widening. I regret not engaging the associations more about their direction when I had the chance, both from inside and outside.

2. Another underachievement came in the late 1990s when I was in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the Department of Education. I was the only person in this small office (and one of the few in the Department) who had experience at both state and institutional levels of higher education and who appreciated the importance of federal funding incentives in influencing state and institutional behavior. I was a vocal advocate for matching programs and maintenance-of-effort provisions in federal programs such as the Campus-Based and State Student Incentive Grant programs. I even wrote a paper on how such "cooperative federalism" programs were superior to federal programs that did not work through states and institutions; it was published in Publius, The Journal of Federalism. The following year I had an ally for a time in Deputy Secretary Mike Smith, who pushed OMB to shift more funds to cooperative federalism programs in the budget. OMB went along with only half of the request. It was the last time the programs received any real attention (until recently, when the virtures of "skin in the game" have been rediscovered). Meanwhile, states and institutions have predictably diminished their support for college affordability.

3. A temporary success in which I played a part turned into failure in the misadventure of writing federal regulations for the GEAR UP program. This matching program was established by Congress in 1998 to give disadvantaged junior and senior high school students help in preparing for college. One component was a substantial college scholarship, the intent of which was to reduce the need for at-risk students to borrow heavily or work excessively long hours to pay for college. The Department of Education proposed regulations that required colleges to administer these scholarships accordingly, so that the participating students would have lighter debt and work burdens. National higher education associations uniformly opposed the rules, insisting that colleges had the right to take the federal money but reduce their own support for the students in question so as to leave these students no better off. Their argument was "equity." GEAR UP scholarship recipients, they said, should be no better off than counterpart students who were not in the GEAR UP program. The colleges wanted to take the money but essentially, through the process of displacement, spread it around according to the colleges' own priorities. The Department of Education argued that it would be impossible to evaluate the success of the program if the funds were subject to such manipulation. The night before a showdown over the issue, Deputy Secretary Frank Holleman came over to my office and said he saw no choice but to concede to the united front of six national higher education associations. We went over the issues and arguments. The next day, the deputy secretary and I met with the heads of the six associations. They said if they didn't get their way, they would refuse to take GEAR UP scholarships and would work through Congress to kill the program. Frank Holleman held his ground and sent them all packing, to his great credit, and the federal regulations as the Department had drafted them were promulgated. Several months later, in 2001, another administration came into office and quickly withdrew the GEAR UP scholarship regulations. To my knowledge, no GEAR UP scholarships have ever been awarded, and if they have, it would be very difficult to determine who received the benefits. Who really receives benefits from many federal student-aid programs, given their fungibility, is a problem that has bedeviled researchers for decades. Which is precisely the way the national associations want it.

4. Another disappointment occurred after I retired, when I communicated with the committees of jurisdiction drafting the new GI Bill, which became law in 2008. The way the legislation was being written would not work, I was convinced. I feared the VA had too little experience administering student financial aid and my fellow veterans would not get what they were promised. I saw great confusion ahead and veterans being taken advantage of, which is what happened. The mess has still not been straightened out. It even spilled over to the great disadvantage of non-veterans in that unscrupulous for-profit schools were allowed to count federal GI bill benefits as if they didn't come from federal taxpayers, so as to be able to remain in business under a law that requires these schools to get at least ten percent of their revenues from other than gullible Uncle Sam. This was a windfall to them and kept several of them in existence before state attorneys general and others finally started to catch up with their multiple violations of other laws. Taxpayers will pay dearly for these mistakes. Veterans have been soaked and many are deeply in debt.

I take these public policy failures personally. It's not that I was especially prescient about how these predicaments would evolve, or that my judgment was always better than others, but I had the experience and often the occasion to speak up and yell STOP! I look back and regret not trying to engage others to throw more sand into the gears of these public policy misfortunes as they were happening.

Food and Innovation

October, 2015

Berlin -- The fast-food chain McDonald's has put up billboards all over Berlin, trying to convince us that its food is really "bio" (organic). Or at least the meat is. The campaign is an effort to stem the closure of its franchises in the face of changing consumer preferences for fresh, healthy food. In my neighborhood there are few such franchises anyway, the result of an effort over the years, mostly successful, to keep chains out. The fast food of choice here is the Döner Kebap, sold out of hole-in-the-wall storefronts.

Meanwhile, the food processing giant ConAgra is leaving its Nebraska headquarters in favor of Chicago. It, too, is looking for a way to turn itself around in response to changing consumer demand. ConAgra is moving into the Merchandise Mart, the famous old riverfront warehouse where its employees can mix with innovators like The Good Food Business Accelerator, with connections to companies that have thrived on offering healthier food.

The ironies are head-shaking. ConAgra tore down the historic warehouses in Omaha's Jobbers Canyon. Now it moves into a giant warehouse. ConAgra partnered with the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln seeking an atmosphere of food innovation. It remains in that partnership; perhaps it will send to Lincoln some of what it discovers about innovation in Chicago.

Nebraska state taxpayers spent tens of millions to keep ConAgra in Omaha and are putting millions into the NIC. That spending does not look so good in retrospect, although I believe support for NIC will eventually prove to be a wise investment. But the lesson to be drawn right now is that at least ConAgra doesn't think much of NIC for looking to the old, failing ConAgra as its innovation partner.

Unpleasant as all this is, it may be for the best. Our diets need a shake-up.

Twenty-fifth Anniversary of German Reunification

October, 2015

Berlin -- Twenty-five years ago, on October 3, 1990, Germany reunited. I was living then in southern Berlin at Zerbsterstrasse 42, working hard on a writing project. But the weather that historic day was splendid so I ventured over to the Brandenburg Gate and to the Palast der Republik. What a crowd. What a celebration.

Today, October 3, 2015, is another cloudless sky so I left Mariannenplatz, near the old Berlin Wall, and headed west to central Berlin to see anniversary festivities. Unter den Linden was full of tourists. Strasse der 17 Juni was full of carnival booths. The area is not the same. Couldn't be. Lots of people under twenty-five, for one thing, who could not remember.

This time, nearby Gendarmenmarkt was much different for me as I walked by the dome of the French church. A few weeks ago I discovered that my paternal grandmother's family has roots in northeastern France. They became part of the migration of Protestants out of France and Germany to British colonial America in the mid-18th Century. Other French refugee Protestants (Huguenots) migrated to Berlin. The French cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt dates from 1784. That's when my migrating ancestors, the Wimers, were acquiring land in Virginia, now West Virginia. The French migration to Berlin made up a third of the city's population at the beginning of the 18th Century and grew to twenty thousand. Likely there are common ancestors among my family and the Berliners of today of Huguenot extraction. This is also a reminder that Berlin has always been a destination for refugees, which helps explain the current welcoming attitude toward today's newcomers from the Middle East.

Today over at Potsdamer Platz, just a short walk from the American Embassy, there was a discordant note questioning the purpose of German reunification. A huge banner proclaimed that the border was lifted so that the countries could wage war together as one. ("Die Grenze wurde aufgehoben, damit wir gemeinsam wieder in den Krieg ziehen.") Pamphlets and posters identified the non-celebrants as former East Germans who still take the view that their country was annexed.

The biggest difference for me over twenty-five years is the new presence of the memorial to the Holocaust victims, which occupies acres of former no-man's-land stretching from the American Embassy almost to the site of Hitler's last bunker. It is like no other. My family and I looked out over the expanse in 1989 from a wood observation scaffold, never imagining what the future would hold.

Newcomers, Not Refugees

September, 2015

Berlin -- On several streets around my area of Kreuzberg I see welcoming signs stenciled onto sidewalks proclaiming "Willkommen!" and its equivalent in a language that looks to me like Arabic. But so far I have seen no refugees, at least none that I am aware of.

A usual place for refugees to gather is Oranienplatz, but it is empty. No new refugees are to be seen around the two neighborhood mosques, either, or around the U-Bahn stations Görlitzer Bahnhof or Kottbusser Tor. They are streaming into Berlin, I understand, but are sleeping on sidewalks around a processing center in another part of the city.

Der Tagesspiegel newspaper last weekend interviewed a few refugees during a welcoming picnic over in Tempelhof, the former airport famous as the destination of the 1948 Berlin Airlift. A huge building there, built by the Nazis, may be used to house them temporarily. The paper also gave op-ed space to a Syrian who has been in Berlin four months. The Syrian, who speaks English, suggests that the term for the new arrivals should be "Newcomers," not "Flüchtlinge" (refugees).

The term may catch on. Germany needs workers and does not need the unrest that sometimes comes with them. The term for the great in-migration of Turks four decades ago was "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers), a euphemism that nevertheless implied that at some point the guests would return to their homeland. The Turks are hardly guests anymore. Two hundred thousand live in Kreuzberg and have been here going on four generations.

Last Sunday I met my Turkish neighbor Osman, who lives two blocks away on what was once disputed property between East and West Berlin. He had stared down two opposing governments just to make the little plot into a productive garden. I have often given him a wave when walking by in recent years, but never met him. Sunday was his 90th birthday; a family celebration spilled out into the street and I was finally able to meet the old man personally. Sensing I knew no Turkish, he simply smiled, shook my hand, and pressed upon me his name, "Osman, Osman."

Despite their longevity here, many Turks have not assimilated, even those born here. The language of commerce is German, but the language and the dress in many of the streets is Turkish. Perhaps it will be different with this wave of Newcomers.

What to Look For in a New UNL Chancellor

September, 2015

Lincoln -- Those who are choosing the next chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are probably not looking for the following qualifications and inclinations, but should be.

1. Academic research skills. UNL is the state's only public research university. It should be led by a scholar who has demonstrated research skills and an understanding of the research process.

Academic research in America is under justified suspicion from many quarters. According to a recent study published in Science, much social science research is not replicable, a sine qua non of the endeavor. And research findings in the natural sciences too often must be discounted as research for sale, being funded and conducted by those with conflicts of interest. UNL research is not immune from these problems.

UNL has been removed from the ranks of leading research institutions, having in 2011 been voted out of the Association of American Universities. The current chancellor was not able to convince his former AAU colleagues that UNL should remain in this select group. Suffice it to say the effort was badly bungled. The slap at UNL stings like no other in the once-proud history of the institution. Led by its natural sciences faculty, the university was among the first institutions admitted to the AAU over a century ago.

The new chancellor should make it a priority to regain AAU membership. A good first step would be to re-invigorate the UNL faculty with a set of research standards and ethics second to none in the nation, live by them, and earn back respect through such leadership. This can be done best by someone with research credentials himself or herself.

2. Athletics reformer. A former chancellor once told me the biggest surprise that awaited him in the office was how much time he had to spend on university athletics. The issues were never-ending and took his valuable time away from academic matters. Given that the next chancellor will have to spend time on athletics, let it be in the cause of reform. College football especially needs reforms. A chancellor who would help lead the effort nationally might even gain enough respect to earn admission back into the AAU.

A model of such a chancellor is my late, great friend Dr. Hans Brisch, a Nebraskan who became the chancellor of the University of Oklahoma system. He cleaned up the athletics program there and put it into proper perspective, despite considerable personal danger to himself, and put Oklahoma on the map for its statewide college preparation programs. I will never forget, and always appreciate, the support he gave our efforts at the national level to institute some of the same changes he made in Oklahoma.

3. Nebraska college friendly. The next chancellor should be a supporter of all Nebraska colleges, not just UNL. Enough with the divisiveness between the NU components and the attempt to grow UNL at the expense of other institutions. Nebraska needs healthy colleges throughout the state, not just in the capital city. State and private colleges have important roles in the smaller cities and towns where they are located; so do community colleges. If UNL can grow by legitimately attracting out-of-state students, foreign students, those who might not otherwise attend college, and those resulting from state population growth, good. But the higher education enterprise in Nebraska must be balanced and healthy as a whole, not viewed as a competition among and within its various systems. The next chancellor should give up the mantra of demanding that all UNL needs, real or imagined, must be met before resources are shared elsewhere. The next chancellor will be, after all, a state employee whose salary is paid by all Nebraska taxpayers, and must see himself or herself accountable to all of them.

The above qualifications are not likely to be on the list of those choosing the next chancellor. The unfortunate trend these days is to look for candidates with a background in administration of one sort or another and those who demonstate fund-raising prowess. Head hunters seek out candidates who will bring in research dollars, the quality and ethics of the research be damned. But such people are not what UNL really needs. Is it naive to look for another chancellor cut from the same cloth as Charles Bessey or James Canfield? Probably so, but one can always hope.

Prairie Pines

September, 2015

Lincoln -- Last month Prairie Pines held an open house to allow the public to see this 145 acre gem of trees and prairies a few miles east of Lincoln. It is the decades-old project of forestry professor Walt Bagley and his late wife, Virginia, who bought the property as a farm and turned it into an arboretum. Professor Bagley, age 97, still lives on the property and is active in directing and maintaining it.

Twenty-three years ago the Bagleys gave ownership of Prairie Pines to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where Walt Bagley once taught, manages it for the foundation. More recently, part of the site has become a project of Community Crops, a local non-profit that uses it for training up to eight would-be organic vegetable farmers, before they locate their own sites and strike out on their own.

Another non-profit organization, Prairie Pines Pals, works to preserve the property, give tours, and promote the site as a part of a greenbelt surrounding Lincoln. Prairie Pines, like all such sites, is threatened by urban development sprawl.

Prairie Pines is unique in that it seems to be the only example in which the university works with organizations such as Community Crops to encourage entrepreneurship in developing a local industry based on fresh, healthy foods. There are many others doing this on a strictly private basis; it is good to see the university lending a hand through this arrangement. May it lead to more assistance and cooperation in the Lincoln area.

Both Alexanders are Wrong

September, 2015

Washington -- The Washington Monthly magazine has published the best policy analysis yet in this cycle of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In noteworthy reportage, New America writer Alex Holt incisively describes the shifting policy ground under both Democrats and Republicans and gives reason for hope that this cycle will result in urgently needed changes to the HEA. Current policy is clearly unsustainable; both political parties must back away from the orthodoxies that have undermined the worthy goals set forth in the HEA five decades ago.

Holt explores the issues by focusing on two of the more outspoken advocates in this cycle, F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, and Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The two Alexanders (not related) are fundamentally opposed to each other on many counts. Allow me to point out where I think each is wrong.

Lamar Alexander is wrong in making federal over-regulation of higher education his bête noire. Indeed, there is federal overregulation, but much of it has come about because of faulty program designs that do not employ the tools of fiscal federalism to limit the need for regulation. For example, had states and institutions been required to match (the current fad is to say "have skin in the game") federal aid to students at for-profit schools, there most likely would have been no need for the Gainful Employment regulation. State legislatures would not have put up the funds for these shoddy and often corrupt colleges. Friends of these schools in Congress gave the country this costly fiasco; Lamar Alexander needs only to look in the mirror to see who is behind the impetus for the regulations.

Reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education have also done an admirable job of unmasking a study of the cost of federal regulations in higher education. The study has been a centerpiece prop for Lamar Alexander's attack on regulations. It turns out the study did not show what Lamar Alexander said it did. Last time I checked, the authors of the study were so embarrassed by it they continued to refuse to share it fully with Chronicle reporters.

King Alexander, of LSU, may be right about the need for maintenance-of-effort requirements (a tool of fiscal federalism), but he is wrong about wanting to remove HEA aid to students at private, non-profit institutions. Reform the way aid is distributed, yes; eliminate it, no.

Private non-profit institutions are essential to the country. They educate, at less cost to taxpayers than public colleges, a significant share of students. Their faculties are diverse and not under the thumbs of public governing boards, which historically have demonstrated susceptibility to pressures of money and politics. Many of these institutions are in the small towns and cities of America and are a civilizing influence in their communities. For a higher education leader, King Alexander is remarkably wrong in his understanding of how American higher education serves the country and how both public and private institutions are necessary checks on each other.

Thanks are due The Washington Monthly and Alex Holt for the article that illuminates emerging policy issues and reveals the curious and wrongful thinking of the two Alexanders.

Ending Scholarship Displacement Is Long Overdue

September, 2015

Washington -- In the last post, I noted that there is incredibly wasteful federal higher education spending that could and should be redirected to decades-old programs that actually work, but are underfunded.

I'm thinking mostly of (1) wasteful spending on the tax expenditure side of the budget in the form of ineffective higher education tax credits and deductions, and (2) the not only wasteful but harmful spending on for-profit schools that demonstrably set students back in life with worthless degrees and unmanageable debt. We are talking tens of billions of annually wasted dollars that could be used more effectively in the array of cooperative federalism programs that work through campus-based and state-based matching efforts.

But there are also wasteful practices within otherwise good programs that need to be rooted out. Prime among them is the practice of scholarship displacement, as was recently pointed out in an op-ed by Michele Waxman Johnson, vice president of Central Scholarship. Displacement occurs when colleges take grant aid intended to help low income students and use it to reduce their own institutional aid rather than reducing students' loan and work burdens. This is akin to taking candy from a baby, because the process is often done behind closed doors, in the context of innocent-sounding "enrollment management." The awards appear in students' financial aid packages, but equivalent amounts are quietly taken out the back door, leaving the awards essentially worthless.

Displacement occurs with both private and public grant funds. It's most easily understood when viewed from the institution's standpoint. The goal of most colleges and universities is to enroll the greatest number of students at the least cost to the institution. That often means not applying outside money to reduce students' debt load, but to helping the institution's own bottom line. This is one reason why total student debt in the country is now $1.3 trillion. This is one reason why the federal Pell Grant program has never been able to hold down student borrowing as advertised.

The National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) has recommended a stop to displacement, which undermines their efforts. Displacement is also fundamentally deceitful, I would add. In her op-ed, Michele Waxman Johnson writes, "[W]e support the recommendations of NSPA, and ask the federal government to modify federal student aid policy to mirror the NSPA recommendations." Such a move would reduce student loan burdens on the low income by several billion dollars annually. It is long overdue.

Financing American Higher Education as a National Defense Issue

August, 2015

Washington -- Seldom it is considered as such, but financing American higher education is in significant part a national defense issue. The way we have been shifting the burden of college costs onto students and families through student and parent debt has slowed the national economy, making us less robust as a nation. It has discouraged talented but lower-income individuals from completing their college goals and making our country stronger. It has widened income and achievement gaps between haves and have-nots, creating more tensions along lines of class, race, and ethnicity. Student loan debt has soured a large part of a whole generation on the American dream.

Political candidates and others have come forth with ideas to reform higher education finance, sensing its emerging importance as a political issue. The Sanders, Clinton, and O'Malley campaigns each have their versions; the Campaign for Free College Tuition is one of several other efforts to limit student debt. The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has been holding hearings on higher education finance as part of a scheduled reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act.

I do not want to throw cold water on any of these initiatives. Several contain thoughtful proposals. Most involve getting states back into taking more financial responsibility and requiring institutions to have more "skin in the game." But getting any of these ideas into law after achieving consensus is another matter. I'd like to propose an alternative for Congress that is more practical and achievable.

1. Go back to the consensus on higher education finance that was reached four decades ago in the reports of the Carnegie Commission and the landmark Congressional legislation of 1972. These documents, and the resulting legislation based on them, spelled out the financing roles for states, institutions, students, and the federal government. The legislation provided programs that complemented each other and contained risk-sharing for institutions and federal leverage over states, two of the more popular of the current reform proposals.

2. As part of the look-back, assess how the programs, over time, got out of balance in their funding and implementation so that they actually created incentives for states to back out of their funding efforts and for institutions not only to drop risk-sharing but exacerbate the shift away from providing affordable higher education for the financially needy. This will necessarily be a crow-eating exercise, but the crow will be shared so widely that no parties will suffer indigestion from which they cannot recover.

3. Reauthorize and rebalance the programs that were part of the original consensus. Drop those programs that have been added and have proved to be ineffective and incredibly wasteful. Use the proceeds (in the tens of billions annually) to strengthen the original programs of the old consensus which were underfunded. If there is any doubt as to what has worked and what hasn't, let me know and I'll assist. The effort must also include debt-relief measures for current borrowers.

This process should be undertaken with the gravity due a national defense issue. Proper and balanced funding of American higher education must be approached in the context of what we spend directly for national defense through DoD, NSA, CIA, and other agencies too numerous to name. It should also be undertaken swiftly and not get tied up with partisan politics. The original consensus, it should be remembered, was bipartisan and the programs were grounded in both conservative and liberal philosophies.

Mut und Wut

August, 2015

Berlin -- A remarkable exchange of letters has just been published in Berlin under the title Mut und Wut: Rudi Dutschke und Peter-Paul Zahl Briefwechsel 1978/79. During these years, the novelist Zahl was in a German prison and Dutschke, the charismatic anti-authoritarian, was living with his family in Denmark.

The book includes a helpful introduction by Gretchen Dutschke, who edited the letters with Christoph Ludszuweit and Peter-Paul Zahl, before Zahl's death in Jamaica in 2011.

Publication of the letters should dissuade historians from casually and mistakenly lumping Dutschke in with the likes of the murderous Red Army Faction. Last year the German Historical Museum made the egregious error of putting Dutschke's likeness on a brochure for its RAF exhibition. (When the mistake was brought to its attention, the brochures were quickly withdrawn, to the Museum's credit.)

The newly published letters date from a time when Rudi Dutschke was laying the groundwork for the creation of the German Green party. Peter-Paul Zahl went on to write krimi novels based in the Caribbean and even a children's volume in Jamaican patois.

The new book contains other letters of note, such as a Dutschke letter to Lothar Späth, minister-president of Baden-Württenberg, and a 1980 Zahl letter, after Dutschke's death, to the theologian Helmut Gollwitzer.

The book is available in Berlin through Verlag M and at Amazon.de:

Peter-Paul Zahl und Rudi Dutschke reflektieren die 68er in den Jahren 1978/79 vor dem Hintergrund aktueller politischer und gesellschaftlicher Entwicklungen. Peter-Paul Zahl sitzt zu dieser Zeit im Gefängnis, Dutschke ist nach Aarhus gezogen.

Fiscal Responsibity Yes, Austerity No

July, 2015

Berlin -- Germany's heavy-handed maneuvering in Greece's financial crisis has set many Berliners against each other and raised eyebrows around the world. Germany, in appearing so arrogant, is ruining a quarter century of good-neighbor diplomacy and responsible European Union leadership.

Germany cannot claim the high moral ground when it comes to debt forgiveness for Greece. Germany has itself been the beneficiary of debt forgiveness after both world wars. Germany's misstep makes the country seem like a bully and only serves to remind everyone of what Nazi Germany did to Greece in World War II. What ingrates, to put it mildly.

The crisis is not over. One way to help defuse it, it seems to me, would be to stop using the term austerity, as if austerity were synonymous with fiscal responsibility. Greece needs greater fiscal responsibility, to be sure, but in the sense that its sacrifices now should be directed toward self-help of its own country for the future. Greece needs better tax policy and tax administration, more equitable pensions, improved infrastructure, and most of all, a sense that it is on a path toward recovery. The term austerity too often is used to include these needed changes but also that Greek sacrifices should be made, above all, to repay loans from German and French banks. Many of these loans were irresponsible. The IMF is correct in its analysis that some of this debt simply needs to be written off.

Because of Greece's strategic importance, the U.S. government should not be sitting on the sidelines. The Chinese and the Russians both have designs on exploiting Greece's instability. They are surely pleased to see discord in western Europe. The situation has parallels to 1947, when the British were unable to help Greek recovery and asked for U.S. assistance. The result was the Truman Plan, in which both Greece and Turkey were given assistance and brought into NATO as protection from Soviet expansion on Europe's southeastern flank.

If Greece leaves, or is forced out of the Euro currency, the U.S. should consider backstopping whatever currency replaces it -- Drachmas, scrip, IOUs -- pegged at a level against the dollar that keeps credit and commerce going. The Greeks would be grateful. American taxpayers should see the wisdom of investing in Greek stability as opposed to allowing a military confrontation with Russia or China to develop, which would be much more costly. Building and deploying even two aircraft carriers for the Mediterranean, to counter China's and Russia's naval buildups, would likely cost much more than helping Greece's economy for a few years. The precedent would be the Truman Plan. It worked once, and perhaps should be dusted off again.

Discussion of this might even bring Germany back to its senses. It is not too late for Chancellor Merkel to split with her hard-line finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, drop the self-serving aspects of austerity, and help devise a workable plan for Greece's economy to recover.

Nebraska Innovation Campus, Again

July, 2015

Lincoln -- Many years ago (four decades, in fact) I was employed by the State of Nebraska to review state agency budgets and give my recommendations for changes to the governor and the legislature. Sometimes my recommendations were accepted, sometimes not. I started out on smaller agencies; later I was assigned larger ones, including the University of Nebraska.

If I were still making such recommendations, I'd likely recommend more state taxpayer investment in the Nebraska Innovation Campus. It needs to succeed. Granted, this could mean throwing good money after bad. Since I last wrote on the NIC, its troubles have been documented by local reporters and watchdogs. Indeed, the university does not have a great track record in these ventures. Witness the ill-fated technology park in northwest Lincoln, for example. There is an unfortunate history at the university of me-tooism, about chasing fads like technology parks. I remember UNO's downtown education center, modeled after a self-supporting example in San Francisco. State government offices eventually moved in to bail UNO out.

So there is much to overcome in making a recommendation for more tax support. The 2015 state legislature apparently felt so as well: it denied the university's request for an additional $25 million of tax money for NIC, but told the university to come up with a plan for NIC success before next year; then it would take another look. Fair enough.

NIC's thrust is to innovate in food, fuel, and water. NIC success would be more likely, I believe, if university leaders were more inclined to look around at rapid changes in these areas, especially food, and adapt to them. Not so long ago, the university boasted of creating the technology behind McDonalds' McRib sandwich. But now, if anyone has noticed, McDonalds is closing outlets all over the world. Replacing McDonalds are Chipotles and Paneras, where the emphasis is on fresh and healthy food. Chipotle, like many other food providers including Walmart and Whole Foods, is searching for suppliers for its wares. Nebraska is not much in the hunt, as many of its products are not what these food companies want. (Although there was an uptick in milo acres planted when the price of milo this spring surpassed that of corn.) Are we in Nebraska sufficiently taking note of the demand for healthier foods to address the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics, which are not going away? How about noting the farm-to-table organic food movement, which is increasing demand for foods free of antibiotics and pesticides?

So far, NIC has thrown in its lot with ConAgra, a trailing-edge rather than leading-edge food processing company. It was not always so; once ConAgra CEO Mike Harper was so dominant he acted as though he controlled state and local governments, demanding and getting whatever he wanted, from state tax subsidies to permits to raze Omaha's jobbers' canyon. But now ConAgra is in trouble because of changing consumer demands. The consumer juggernaut is formidable. Witness how changing consumer demand settled the fight over hog gestation crates. Witness how seed monopolies like Monsanto are seeking protection in Congress from consumer food-labeling advocates. Is NIC paying attention to how rapidly the food world is changing?

The legislature should signal NIC that it would welcome a plan in which NIC becomes a crucible where old food and new food approaches come together to grapple with emerging health and food security issues and products. In the plan, NIC would be the place to be when it comes to food and water, as Silicon Valley has been to computer software. NIC is already well-positioned in regard to the water component, what with the conscience-money donation of $50 million from center-pivot mogul Robert Daugherty. NIC could go on recruiting old line corporations, not as part of a rear-guard, twilight struggle against consumer demand for healthy food, but corporations newly ready to engage with the changing nutrition and food security needs of our time. Simultaneously, NIC must open its doors, its spaces, and its labs and greenhouses to non-profits, food cooperatives, organic researchers and producers, pollinator protection organizations, sustainable agriculture practitioners, consumer advocates, nutrition publishers, and especially health care organizations dedicated to addressing and reversing the dietary deficiencies that have resulted in the precariousness of our health indicators, and an outright world epidemic in the case of diabetes.

Such a plan could be worth another $25 million of tax support. A vibrant NIC might even draw federal research agencies back onto the campus, as was originally conceived. Let's see a plan to justify it.

Pollinator Research

June, 2015

Lincoln -- A UNL entomologist is establishing pollinator plots on the East Campus near 48th and Holdrege Streets. “Now it’s a dream to work in this field,’’ he told the Omaha World-Herald. “Everybody has an interest and wants to help and work with you. The public is embracing the idea of pollinators.’’

This is good news, especially during National Pollinator Week. The Lincoln Journal Star also noted the importance of pollinators in a recent editorial. Likewise, there has been extensive and appropriate press coverage of new UNL research on the harmful effects of pesticides on bee behavior.

What is unsettling, however, are the increasingly strident attacks against those whose concerns for bees and butterflies extend to the misuse of genetic modification technology against such pollinators. Some of us are working on a better understanding of the role GMOs play in the decline of pollinators; for example, the genetic modifications made to crops to produce their own insecticides can harm beneficial as well as destructive insects; and the widespread use of glysophate on certain crops, made glysophate-tolerant through GMO technology, has caused an alarming decline in pollinator habitat. These concerns are based in science, but to read some of the pro-GMO polemicists, one would think people who question the rush to GMOs must also be climate change and evolution deniers, or trendy pseudoscientists. GMO foods may or may not be safe for human consumption (that will take more long-term study; several countries regulate them more than does the U.S.), but their harmful effects on the environment cannot be discounted easily by these kinds of ad hominem attacks.

What is also unsettling is how research in these areas is conducted and how it is being funded. The UNL study showing how pesticides disrupt honey bee behavior was conceived by an elementary-education graduate and funded by the Kimmel Foundation (related to the pollinator-dependent Kimmel orchards). Good for them. But should these questions not be a priority of those whose expertise is entomology and funded by taxpayers rather than interest groups, no matter how worthy? As a former federal research administrator, I know too much about the research funding process, and how faculty pursue grants, not to raise such a question. Research must not be for sale or have the appearance of such. It is doubtless safer to raise the question on this Kimmel-funded study than on one funded by Bayer, Syngenta, or Monsanto, lest the questioner be labeled anti-science for even a bit of skepticism regarding GMOs.

The history of Nebraska suggests those with skepticism about supposed agricultural advances may prevail in the longer run. Think of the skeptics who challenged the "science" of their time such as rain-follows-the-plow; deep plowing of the sod; mechanized farming up and down hills; center-pivot irrigation on sandy soils; the safety of heptachlor and aldrin; the safety of atrazine. All were touted at one time or another by those claiming to be leading scientists. Now the bloom may already be off the rose of glysophate, not only because of its effect on pollinator habitat, but because the World Health Organization has classified it as a probable carcinogen. Skepticism should never go out of fashion; it is, in fact, essential to scientific method itself.

The Ban on Trans Fats

June, 2015

Lincoln -- Today the national press is highlighting the remarkable career of a University of Illinois scientist, Fred Kummerow, who has been attempting since the 1950s to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban trans fats from the U.S. food supply. Professor Kummerow is now 100 years old and has lived to see the FDA finally do just that. "Science won out," he says, and thousands of lives will be saved because of it.

Another scientist should also be given credit, the late Professor Ruth Leverton, graduate of the University of Nebraska and nutrition researcher at NU's College of Home Economics for nearly two decades. While working for the federal government, she pioneered food labeling, so consumers would know what is in their food. When the FDA several years ago mandated that trans fats must be identified on food labels, it was only a matter of time that consumer demand would help drive such products from the market, paving the way for the outright ban.

Last month I was in Ruth Leverton Hall on NU's East Campus. On the south end of the second floor there is a photo of Professor Leverton along with a history of the building that bears her name. Unfortunately, the display is all about the building and little about its namesake's contributions to nutrition and food safety.

I was in Ruth Leverton Hall only incidentally, to get a campus parking permit so as to see the newly installed campus statues of four former U.S. secretaries of agriculture with connections to NU. I could not escape the irony that one of the statues is of a board member of ConAgra, which has fought the FDA in order to continue to include trans fats in its products. ConAgra, which spends millions fighting food labeling efforts nationally, is now in a public private partnership with the university's Department of Food Science and Technology, which necessarily raises questions about conflicts of interest in scientific research.

How about a statue for Ruth Leverton? In the meantime, we can celebrate the University of Illinois scientist who has finally been vindicated for his contributions to food safety.

Heroes and Villains

May, 2015

Washington -- The collapse and bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges, the SEC's charges of fraud by ITT Tech executives against its investors, and the substantial enrollment drops at for-profit colleges have recently dominated headlines in the higher education trade press.

What has gone under-reported is the irony that most students themselves cannot take bankruptcies for the student loans they took out to attend these institutions, and that fraud perpetrated on students is a far greater problem than fraud against investors.

Nor has proper credit been given to non-profit organizations and individuals whose work over the years has exposed the sordid and corrupt underpinnings of many for-profit colleges. These dedicated people have done heroic service in the national interest by standing up for students, families, and taxpayers. I cannot name them all, but in the forefront are Veterans Education Success, the National Consumer Law Center, The Institute for College Access and Success, New America Foundation, and Republic Report.

The trade press could likewise pay more attention to the culprits who led the country into the for-profit college fiasco, which would include many in Congress who looked the other way while accepting political contributions from for-profit interests, as well as many people in Washington's revolving doors who circulate through congressional staff positions, lobbying shops, federal agencies, and political campaign staffs. Even as I write this, many with a checkered past are once again lining up with political candidates in the 2016 elections to take advantage of unwary students and taxpayers. The trade press would do well in articles on the higher education positions of the candidates to note as well just who is advising them.

How Germany Limits Student Loan Debt

May, 2015

Berlin -- Those who follow student loan debt issues in the United States -- and that's about everyone now that this form of debt is being recognized as a major national problem -- may be interested in how another country limits such debt.

The major need-based student financial aid program in Germany, the Bafög, awards most aid in a fixed ratio: half grant, half loan. The loan portion carries no interest. It is repayable starting five years after the end of the aid eligibility; in other words, there is a five-year grace period, which can be extended under certain conditions such as child care. No borrower pays back more than 10,000 Euros in total, whether or not more was borrowed.

One advantage of the German practice of making aid half grant, half loan, is that the ratio cannot be manipulated by the institutions students attend. In the U.S., the ratio is badly out of balance in favor of loans. This is partly a function of insufficient Pell grant (discretionary) appropriations compared to Stafford loan (entitlement) spending, but it is also because many institutions routinely capture the Pell grants for themselves (often to make so-called "merit" aid to other students), thereby burdening financially needy students with even more loans.

Germany has no student debt crisis. It is worth mentioning that many U.S. institutions of higher education are modeled in their teaching and research missions after the University of Berlin, as created by the Humboldt brothers early in the nineteenth century. With regard to student debt, it is instructive to look once again at German experience.

Of course limiting student loan debt in the U.S. would entail significant cost, but it could be paid for by limiting (or eliminating) U.S. higher education tax credits and deductions, which total nearly $40 billion annually. Germany allows education fees and student loan interest payments to be tax deductible, but because such fees are low or nonexistent, and most loans are no-interest in the first place, the cost is comparatively minimal. One good reason to tap U.S. higher education tax credits and deductions in order to control student loan debt: much research shows the credits and deductions do not provide better higher education access as promised.

Germany Changes Student Financial Aid

April, 2015

Berlin -- The Federal Republic of Germany is making a change in the way it pays for need-based student financial aid. In the past, the cost of the main aid program, the Bundesausbildungs-förderungsgesetz (more commonly known by its nickname Bafög), was shared by the national government and the individual states. From 2015 onward, the national government will pick up the entire cost. The rationale behind the change is to relieve states of the burden so they can increase funding directly for universities and schools.

Perhaps this is a good change, perhaps not. Four decades ago, the USA went down the same path by choosing 100% federally funded student aid programs over those that required state and institutional matching funds, only to see states redirect monies elsewhere and raise tuition. Germany is different and may not see such a result: the national legislature's upper house is made up of the governors of the states, so there is closer coordination between levels of government. And there is no tuition at public universities. Germany experimented with tuition charges for several years but has since done away with them.

The Bafög will also be increased by seven percent for the coming year; the income and asset allowances will be raised the same amount. The program will be opened to more non-Germans as well. German universities are already tuition-free to qualified students from other countries, including the United States. The Bafög aid is to help financially needy students with living and other expenses while attending a university.

Another difference between Germany and the USA is how the Bafög is structured. It is half-grant, half no-interest loan. Repayment of the loan portion starts when income exceeds a certain level. This is something the U.S. Congress should look at to reform its own Stafford Loan and Pell Grant programs.

Borrower Defense Options

April, 2015

Washington -- Several state attorneys general have demanded that the U.S. Secretary of Education cancel the debts of student borrowers who were defrauded by schools in the Corinthian Colleges, Inc., chain. They point to a "borrower defense" provision in law that gives the Secretary the authority to do so.

Ben Miller provides a good history of the law in "The Strange History of the Student Borrower Defenses Provision." His account comports with my memory of the discussion in the Department of Education two decades ago.

I agree with the attorneys general, but I expect that the Secretary may be reluctant to act as they wish, given that Corinthian students are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to students who have been misled and defrauded. If I still worked at the Department, I would advise the Secretary to consider the following options, and any others along similar lines that provide relief.

• Invite the state attorneys general to help write the borrower defense regulation that was never written by the Department, and implement it as an emergency regulation without negotiated rulemaking.

• Consider using other powers available to the Secretary to give Corinthian borrowers relief. Under 20 USC 1082, the Secretary has broad authority to modify the terms and conditions of FFEL loans and to release and compromise them as he determines; under section 1087 he has the authority to apply the same terms to Direct Loans. These authorities should cover the types of loans in question.

• Consider writing down the amount of the loans substantially, based on what the borrowers would be paying back had they been, for their personal situation, in the most favorable income based repayment plan from the time they took out the loan, including various loan forgiveness options. In other words, cancel an amount now rather than waiting for a certain number of borrower payments.

• Create a pilot program with the Corporation for National and Community Service (a federal agency) through which Corinthian (and similar) victims would be given loan cancellation in exchange for public service through any of the programs of the CNCS.

• Ask the state attorneys general to look at other misleading and possibly fraudulent practices beyond the for-profit sector of postsecondary education. Twice in the past week I have been advised, by different sources, of questionable practices of public and non-profit schools that are certainly consumer unfriendly if not outright illegal. The state AGs need to look at these practices.

• Reflect on the fact that many if not all of the students victimized by Corinthian also were subsidized by Pell Grants, and many by the GI Bill. Costs associated with cancelling or writing down the loans of these students are only a part of the cost to taxpayers. If this helps get the students back into the economy as taxpaying citizens, it may be the best money spent. Taxpayers should be outraged at the waste of the Pell and GI Bill money, more so than the costs of loan write-downs.

• Thank the state AGs, and resolve to involve the states more in the oversight and financing of postsecondary education opportunity, so this doesn't happen again. This will require reshaping federal programs under the Higher Education Act, the sooner the better.

R and R for Higher Education

April, 2015

Washington -- Those of us who find fault with the current model of higher education finance – above all, too much reliance on student indebtedness – have an obligation not simply to complain but to offer constructive alternatives. I feel the obligation more acutely than other critics, perhaps, because I have worked in the institutions, in the states, in the Congress, in the interest groups, and in the federal agencies. For several years, I was liaison for higher education between the Department of Education and the Congress. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, not only have I been close to the situation, I may have contributed from time to time to its current sorry state.

So let me offer an alternative, what I will call R & R for higher education – in this case, Revival and Rebalance.

The Revival part is a look back over four decades to funding expectations and practices of an earlier time, and to the reasons our efforts worked better back then. In the 1970s, for example, states made greater funding commitments, grant-based student aid made a real difference, and student loan burden was comparatively small.

The Rebalance part is to shift current funding and funding incentives, so as to re-create the same kind of environment that once served the country well. There was a time in the living memory of many of us when college was affordable, access was expanding, and inequities by class and by race were diminishing.

The following ideas are offered with an eye toward getting bipartisan agreement in Congress. This is still possible in higher education. What is necessary is for members of the House and Senate to put aside their stale talking points for a few months and look carefully at what might be common ground. For Democrats, adoption of the following ideas would lead to higher grant levels and less reliance on loans; for Republicans, these ideas would use the mechanisms of federalism and achieve savings through cutting back waste, fraud, and abuse. Each side would have to acknowledge that such goals and principles are not the monopoly of either party, but are actually shared within both caucuses and can be touchstones for agreement.

• Move $6 billion from the Pell accounts so as to add $3 billion each to SEOG and SSIG.

• Scrap the old SEOG distribution formula and replace it with incentives for institutions to package student financial aid to reduce loan burdens for Pell-eligible students. In other words, the more institutions move away from loans for this population, the more they are rewarded in the SEOG distribution. I would also put a hold-harmless on SEOG so no institution would get less than the previous year, using the significant expansion of SEOG as the opportunity to revise the oft-criticized, current SEOG formula. I'd also put in an incentive for institutions to get more SEOG if they would cut back on athletic expenditures. At many institutions, this would give the academic leadership needed leverage over its athletic department.

• Reauthorize the state-federal SSIG matching program as it successfully operated in its first years after 1972. A $3 billion level of funding would draw states back in to providing more funds where they are needed, not for flashy facilities and top-heavy administration, but in keeping net prices down for middle and lower income students and families. This would result in more skin-in-the-game for states and engage them more in protecting both their students as consumers and their taxpayers. States would have considerable flexibility under SSIG to do their own incentivizing and prioritizing in matters of higher education access.

• Recognize that the Pell program has an estimated $6 billion of annual abuse in the form of displacement, or crowding out Pell. Many institutions routinely reduce their own institutional aid efforts for Pell recipients as part of enrollment management plans that move their funds to chase non-needy students and superficially higher "rankings." See the work of Lesley J. Turner, Stephen Burd, and Henry J. Riggs, for example. The widespread practice of discounting tuition so as to be able to manipulate student financial aid packages may soon result in the failure of many financially unstable colleges that have followed this strategy, unless other, saner models can be developed. The $6 billion figure does not include the incredible waste of Pell funds spent on fraudulent proprietary schools.

• Give current borrowers the relief they are due but of which they are unaware because of conflicts of interest and low prioritization at the Department of Education. Give borrowers back the bankruptcy protections they formerly had. (Those stories of bankruptcy abuse were largely untrue.) Permit borrower refinancing of current loans. Move loan servicing and collection out of the Department of Education if necessary.

Some of these ideas will run into immediate opposition from those who would rather make the coming higher education debate merely about the level of Pell grants, or student loan interest rates, or excessive regulation, or any other shopworn subject. I would ask those who really care about higher education opportunity not to allow arguments about Pell levels to obscure the more imporant issues of total grant aid, and to whom it goes; or allow arguments about future student loan interest rates to obscure the issues of loan principal and loan refinance; or allow arguments about federal regulation to obscure the potential that states can bring to the effort both in terms of funding and better oversight.

Most of all, there needs to be an admission in the higher education community, and especially on the Hill, that the current model of higher education finance is failing and that now is not the time to trot out old slogans but to roll up sleeves and get to work on restoring higher education opportunity to its rightful place in the American dream.

Water Conservation

April, 2015

Lincoln -- California has recently imposed new, mandatory water conservation restrictions. Colorado has passed legislation promoting graywater as a water conservation measure.

The Council of State Governments is circulating Colorado's graywater statute as model state legislation for other states to consider. Nebraska and other neighboring states should look into it.

We have a working graywater system that uses rainwater as the original water source, so the graywater recycling is actually a second bite at the water conservation apple.

Water may become alarmingly scarce. Local governments should explore these low-cost technologies and builders should become more familiar with them. They work. We are always pleased to share experiences and information about local suppliers who can provide water collection and filtration systems. However, there are no local suppliers who provide the safest graywater equipment or have experience with it. This could change if state and local leaders were to pass model legislation to promote this water conservation technology.

Faculties, Colleges, and Research Ethics

April, 2015

Lincoln -- Two recent happenings in higher education may seem disparate but should be considered together. One is a seminar lecture on the IANR campus at the University of Nebraska by trial lawyer David Domina; another is the closing of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

The Domina lecture, available here, includes at minute 31:45 this statement:

When you want a grant to do research at your university, you get the grant from one of the companies that produces that kind of a [seed corn] bag and you are expected to produce a result for them or you don't get it back the next time. And everyone in this room knows that's true. It hurts to admit it and we seldom say it out loud.

So this is what research in the 21st Century has come to. I am in no position to disagree. As a former higher education researcher and research administrator, I find the statement rings true. Some researchers themselves have pointed this out by showing strong associations between funding sources and findings.

One remedy against for-sale research has been peer review, but even this process is doubtful when the whole research endeavor is being corrupted. Are faculty at one land-grant college going to undermine faculty at another when they are all dependent on the same grant sources? No. Will faculty in a college of the same university critique another faculty at the same institution? No; there will be hell to pay from university PR offices. Will governors and state legislatures come up with tax dollars to keep research independent from outside funding interests? No; this is not on anyone's agenda.

Which brings the discussion to Sweet Briar. One of the historical strengths of higher education in America has been that not all faculties are funded by the same sources. Some are funded by sources beyond the control of business interests; some are even beyond the control of government appropriations. The country needs colleges where faculties are free to pursue truth without pressures by funding sources, private or public. Anytime a college, especially an independent one like Sweet Briar, goes down, it is a loss for the entire higher education endeavor.

Does the Commonwealth of Virginia know what it is losing? Sweet Briar is an independent, not-for-profit college operating as a public trust. It has benefitted over generations by benevolent policies making it tax-exempt, in recognition of its value to the public interest. Does the Sweet Briar board of directors itself know what it is closing down? From the account in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the board felt badly about what it would be doing to its own faculty, but only in a personal sense. The board gave up without a fight, without letting the public know what it was about to do.

At the least, the board should have involved commonwealth officials. The attorney general will necessarily be involved anyway, sorting out the messy legal details. Pollyannas will say all is well, not to worry: Sweet Briar and its kind are dispensable. But the funding model for American higher education is broken; Sweet Briar is getting so much attention nationally because it may be only the first of many colleges that will see no alternative to closing.

Even if the Sweet Briar faculty is not a research faculty in the sense it could or would critique the methods and findings of seed corn research, its faculty and many like it across the country are in a position to teach research ethics. I was on a university panel last week with a fellow panelist who attended Indiana Wesleyan. It was the faculty there, he said, who instilled in him the perspective to know how and when he should act when he witnessed wrongdoing. What kind of lessons are we teaching students when our faculties at too many institutions are selling out to who is paying for their research?

Congress is getting on on the act and may try to force disclosure of research funding sources. Which may be a necessary step, but disclosure alone is no substitute for faculty integrity in the first place.

Unnecessary Divisiveness

March, 2015

Lincoln -- There's enough divisiveness in the world as it is, so why acquiesce, without protest, to more? Recently I ran into two divisive practices, one private, one public, that should be done away with.

Usually I travel by air individually, but on occasion I fly accompanied. Not long ago my son and I had airline tickets for seats together, we thought. We had purchased both seats at the same time on the same credit card, long in advance of the flight. Our last names are the same. But when we checked our seat assignments on our boarding passes the day of the flight, we had been placed in different rows, far distant. There was no last-minute changing of seats, so we flew apart, as assigned.

Once burned, twice shy, so the next time I flew accompanied, I tried to make certain the seat assignments were together. I was informed there would be an extra $40 fee for sitting together, per seat. This practice is apparently sweeping the airline industry. What if you have a young child? What if you merely want to be crushed up against someone you know rather than against a stranger in the tightly packed seats? Airlines: it's hard enough to keep friends and families together as it is; please don't break us apart further with these exorbitant fees, just to appear to have low ticket prices.

That is the private example; the public example of unnecessary divisiveness involves Nebraska inheritance taxes. Recently two of my relatives died. They had no children, so their wills passed their farm on to their first cousins, their closest family. But this was news to the cousins, who were notified only after the farm and household possessions had been sold in order to collect inheritance taxes, which in Nebraska are 18% for cousins, for any amount over $10,000. What if one or more of the cousins wanted the farm, or some of the household possessions, to keep the connection with the family?

The Nebraska inheritance tax is an important revenue source for counties, which oppose its repeal or even raising its exemption levels. Unless, of course, the Nebraska legislature would replace the revenue with state aid to counties from its larger sales and income tax base. Only then would the counties acknowledge the family-unfriendliness of the inheritance tax, even as it continues to be one obvious factor in de-populating many of them. But apparently a revenue-neutral solution is beyond the ken in the legislature, so committed are the senators to their anti-tax sloganeering.

I write this blog to make it clear that I would gladly pay a somewhat higher airline ticket price so as to avoid the gimmick of charging for seat assignments, and pay higher state sales and income taxes if necessary to raise inheritance tax exemptions to keep family properties together. Enough with this unnecessary divisiveness.

I May Be Wrong

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Trying to keep up on events and ideas in three very different capitals runs the risk of being shallow about each locale and occasionally outright wrong in my observations of any of them. This post is a look-back at my previous writings to see where a dose of humility may be in order.

As a kid growing up in Nebraska, every school night I was tasked to polish my shoes with brown Jet-Oil to be ready for the next day at school. The liquid's dauber being prone to splattering, I would always do the job over the previous day's newspaper to catch the splashes. Inadvertently, I became quite an expert on such subjects as the demise of Bulgarin in favor of Khrushchev. I also couldn't help reading many of the newspaper's columnists, like Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann. One local columnist always used the caption "I May Be Wrong," which I thought was a good reason not to read his column, but it was catchy and makes for a good title for this post.

A few years ago I wrote a column on the new GI Bill; the New America Foundation posted it. I warned veterans that the benefits weren't quite what they seemed, predicted that colleges would find ways to exploit the new legislation, and that many veterans would find themselves saddled with student loan debt. But I neglected to mention which colleges were most likely to do this -- the for-profit schools, which soon made veterans a mark for exploitation. This was a big error of omission. I should also have warned that leaving the administration of the higher education benefits to the Veteran's Administration was a big mistake. It has taken years for the VA to get the program underway correctly, and much still remains to be done. This was totally foreseeable. My column on the matter was far too shallow.

More recently I wrote a post on the slow start of the Nebraska Innovation Campus on the site of the old State Fair, noting that it had only one private partner after years of searches. The next day, the NIC announced three more. I should have waited. Time will tell, however, if this announcement was to try to prime the pump to make it seem as if interest is picking up. These are modest new partners, by any measure, the kind that could be created for the sake of appearances. Either way, I hope the NIC soon takes off successfully with a wide variety of innovative businesses.

Six months ago I offered an opinion on the scandal in Nebraska's correctional system. Most people were too eager to blame corrections' employees and to accept the explanation of bureaucratic bumbling. My own view was clouded by examples of ineptitude too, but I did point out one thread for further investigation: a corrections attorney claimed that the state attorney general's office had told the corrections department, more than once, not to follow a Nebraska Supreme Court decision, apparently for political reasons. At last, in recent days, a Lincoln digital reporter (with no connection to a newspaper) has uncovered the internal communications that bears this out.

As more and more information about this scandal has come to light, it's clear that the former governor bears much responsibility. It is also becoming clear that the former attorney general, who was quick to call others incompetent, now has a great deal of explaining to do himself. For political reasons, both the ex-governor and the ex-attorney general put corrections officials into no-win situations, and then blamed them for the outcomes. I tried to defend state employees to some extent, but I did not get to the heart of the matter. We all should have been more cautious about jumping to conclusions.

These are three posts I wish I had back, to get them right in the first place.

Reauthorizing the HEA and the Need to Rebalance Funding

February, 2015

Washington -- Another Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is upon us and I find myself in rare agreement with Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate committee of jurisdiction, on two issues. One is the overdue simplification of the form that students use to apply for financial aid; the other is the need to reduce federal higher education regulations.

Republican Senator Alexander is right in joining with Democratic Senator Michael Bennett in a bipartisan effort to trim down the number of questions asked of aid applicants. The so-called FAFSA form is so complicated it scares many students and families away from postsecondary education. The main opponents of this needed change are states and institutions, which have successfully lobbied the federal goverment over the years to include their own questions in the federal form. They now threaten that if the federal form is simplified, they will separately start collecting much more data about applicants themselves with their own forms, making a bad situation even worse.

What has been left out of this discussion is why states and institutions need so much information. If the assumption is that states and institutions simply want to target their own aid to the truly financially needy, someone hasn't been paying attention. One of the reasons states and institutions desire detailed information is to know more about students and families than the students and families know about them. Students and families must reveal much about themselves while institutions are free to manipulate the information behind closed doors, often to the disadvantage of the financially needy. The irony is that the federal form, as it currently exists, gives states and institutions information on how to undermine the very federal programs that are supposed to be helping the students.

It is high time for Senators Alexander and Bennett to understand more fully why their simplification proposal (or something like it) is fundamentally sound, and to challenge those who would keep on collecting information that in practice is used too often for dubious ends.

The other issue on which I agree with Senator Alexander (and Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, among others), is the need to rein in the regulation-happy U.S. Department of Education. There are altogether too many higher education regulations and there are too many Department officials who think the answer to every problem is a new regulation.

But what once again has been left out of the discussion is why there are so many regulations to start with. It is partly because Congress itself has used program structures in higher education legislation which invite abuse, which then invites regulation. Because Congress itself has also loaded up its already vulnerable programs with issue-of-the-moment hobby horses, even more regulation ensues.

In 1965 and 1972, Congress set up the framework for federal higher education assistance with a variety of institutional and student aid programs. Soon thereafter, Congress chose to prefer student aid over institutional aid (making higher education access for the financially needy the top priority), and to prefer student aid programs such as the 100% federally funded Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, which had few strings, over programs that required buy-in from states and institutions in the form of matching funds and maintenance of effort. Congress thereby chose "redivision federalism" as the basic approach to higher education assistance, as it redivided what had been concurrent powers with states and institutions. In so doing, Congress moved away from the opposite concept, "cooperative federalism," in which federal, state, and institutional resources are combined so that all parties have skin in the game and fewer regulations are necessary to prevent abuses. The result has been that despite the federal government's hubris of attempting to fund the effort itself, it soon discovered it could not do so and, moreover, eventually found its former partners diminishing their own efforts.

Think for a moment about the scandals of the past few years involving the for-profit schools. If states had had substantial money at stake through the old SSIG student aid matching program, based on the cooperative federalism model, would they have tolerated and funded their share of the abuses at these schools? Likely not. Sadly, under the redivision model, the schools have been able to concentrate their lobbying and political contributions on the few key members of Congress necessary to exploit the federal programs. Seeing the bad outcomes resulting from billions of dollars of Pell and Stafford spending through these schools, the Department has tried to issue regulations, only to find itself the target of Congressional disapproval.

One solution to all the bickering about regulations is to rebalance funding of programs. Revitalize cooperative federalism models; back off the idea that the federal government can go it alone. Think through the interaction of program models and the need for regulation simultaneously rather than thinking only of regulations. Same for the FAFSA. Make the states and institutions partners again with the federal government.

Back when the Higher Education Act was shaped in 1965 and 1972, another issue occupied much Congressional attention: the need to clean up the nation's waterways. But Congress chose, in the Clean Water Act, cooperative federalism to do the job rather than redivision federalism. It must be noted that it is not the household water bill that has skyrocketed above all else, or that a generation is saddled with a trillion dollars of economy-strangling debt to pay for clean water, or that the nation has spent billions on water with little to show for it. It is past time to put the principles of cooperative federalism to work in higher education.

Airplanes, Subways, and Buses

February, 2015

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Over the last month I've been in these three cities, each of which leaves much to be desired when it comes to getting to and from their respective airports by public transportation.

When traveling accompanied, I often use private cars or taxis to go to and from airports, but when traveling alone I like to check out airport connections to trains, subways, and buses. A few years ago I was a member (and for two years, chairman) of the Rockville, Maryland, Traffic and Transportation Commission and got into the habit of traveling public transportation routes and connections of all kinds.

Lincoln seems to have no connection between its airport and public transportation. If there is such a connection, it's well hidden. Many people in Lincoln don't even use the local airport, preferring Omaha, an hour away, with its better airline connections and lower prices. A private shuttle operates between Lincoln and Omaha for people who don't drive to and from the Omaha airport.

Washington has three area airports, National, Dulles, and BWI. I prefer to use National whenever possible because it is on the Washington subway's Yellow Line. National also has non-stop flights to Omaha. Another reason to take the subway: parking at National is expensive and the lots are sometimes full. There's nothing like trying to catch a plane only to be greeted by an airport parking "Full" sign.

No Washington area airport has good airline connections to Berlin. One might think the de facto capitals of North America and Europe would have direct flights between them, but this is not the case. (Stavanger and Houston, yes; Berlin and Washington, no.) Among the one-stop choices are National to Newark to Berlin, or BWI to London to Berlin, or Dulles to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich, London, or elsewhere (even Istanbul), then on to Berlin. I've tried many of them from Dulles, the latest being Copenhagen.

Dulles is not well connected to public transportation. Last week I arrived at Dulles from Copenhagen and it took me nearly two and a half hours to get to my destination in suburban Maryland via a shuttle bus from the airport to the subway's Silver Line, then a transfer to the Red Line. But this was during rush hour. One consolation: I was not in a vehicle on the infamous Washington Beltway, which may have taken almost as long and is surely more dangerous. Another consolation: I was able to help two young, non-English-speaking Japanese women navigate the public transportation system and get to their destination in downtown Washington.

Berlin's airports are wholly inadequate, in part because of the legacy of Berlin's administration under the Four Powers Treaty from the end of the 1940s into the 1990s. Each sector of the city had its own airport: Gatow for the British, Tempelhof for the Americans, Schönefeld for the Soviets, and Tegel for the French. Gatow is now gone and Tempelhof is no longer in service. The German government has tried to expand Schönefeld, but it has had so many opening issues it's become a national scandal. Maybe it will be ready in 2017. Which leaves Tegel.

Tegel is not connected to Berlin's extensive U-Bahn, Tram, or S-Bahn systems. The route from Tegel to my place in Kreuzberg involves taking the 128 Bus to Osloer Strasse, taking the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor, and then either walking or taking the 140 Bus to Mariannenplatz. It takes an hour. A taxi takes thirty or forty minutes. But one big advantage of taking public transportation in Berlin is price. For less than the cost of a taxi fare, one can buy a seven-day public transportation pass for all of Berlin, a great deal. Looking for something to do in Berlin? Just ride the double-decker buses through the neighborhoods, or take the trains through the great stations that echo history.

It's poor transportation planning not to have airports connected to trains and subways. Dulles, which was to be the airport of the future for Washington, is now losing passengers to National. Even BWI, outside of Baltimore, has MARC and Amtrak train service into Washington and is becoming more popular than Dulles. It will be years before Metro's Silver Line reaches Dulles. Berlin has the excuse of once being a divided city, but it is taking far too long to replace Tegel with the better connected Schönefeld.

In the meantime, it's good exercise and quite a geography education rolling the luggage across multiple systems of public transportation.


February, 2015

Berlin -- On February 2nd at the Zeughaus, in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition, the German Historical Museum sponsored a panel discussion about the 1970s leftist terror group Red Army Faction (RAF). The Baader-Meinhof Gang, as it was also called, created havoc across Germany with its kidnappings and murders of prominent citizens.

A clearly divided panel – two academics, one journalist, and a representative of the German internal security agency, the Verfassungsschutz – debated the causes of this terror movement. Many in the audience took sides, clapping for one panelist or another. Among many subjects of contention was the role of Peter Urbach and his role as agent provocateur in the service of the Verfassungsschutz. Incredibly, he made bombs and put them in the hands of terrorists, but was never brought to justice. He was given a new identity and hustled off to the United States, where he died in 2011. It demonstrates that internal security organizations can be among a country's own worst enemies.

Which brings us to the current terrorism in Europe, most recently in Paris. The U.S. Government has issued a warning to Americans in Berlin and in several other German cities. But what are the causes of this terrorism? As in the case of the RAF, it is without doubt complicated. Should the statements of the terrorists themselves be given any credence? The brothers who murdered Parisians have previously said their extreme radicalism was triggered by American torture in Iraq. This is a risk and a consequence of torture: the escalation of terror. When we engage in torture, we may be our own worst enemy.

Blowback of any kind should be a concern to citizens and security agencies alike, whether it be from torture or from the glorification of violence in the name of artistic freedom or the desire to make a buck. I cringe whenever I see a movie trailer exalting the use of weapons, blowing up cars, taking hostages, killing indiscriminately. Somehow I don't get the message that this is all okay – even thrilling – when it's condoned because it is done in the name of American security. Some viewers may think, indeed, why not in the name of Allah?

We wring our hands; how do we balance freedom of expression with fighting terrorism? Well, one way would be to be more discriminating as citizens and consumers, to show that we understand where our true security interests lie, and it is not in committing torture or creating demand for entertainment that will cause inevitable blowback. Such actions are akin to putting bombs in terrorists' hands.

Toward a "Prairie Boulevard"

February, 2015

Lincoln -- City planners have made a good decision to widen NW 48th street but to move it somewhat eastward, away from residential housing, between West Adams and West Cuming Streets. The reasons for the eastward move are to lessen traffic noise, reduce right-of-way impacts, and provide traffic benefits at Arnold Elementary School.

One good idea should lead to others. By routing the corridor through a mostly vacant area of Air Park, this part of the street could become a scenic boulevard. It already has admirable landscaping, although the loss of Scots pines in recent years has diminished the original vision.

A revised landscape plan featuring native prairie flora could be combined with an effort to make this Lincoln's "Prairie Boulevard." It would be the route Lincolnites take to nearby Nine-Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie on the National Register of Historic Places. Future developers of businesses along this corridor could encourage enterprises compatible with environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and horticulture, re-cycling, and outdoor recreation, as well as production, distribution, and consumption of healthy food to fight Nebraska's obesity epidemic. Non-profits and indigenous businesses could also be encouraged. No chain stores. Walkable paths would connect businesses; parking areas would demonstrate the feasibility of integrating pervious surfaces into an overall landscape plan. In other words, this would be a big departure from North 27th Street and its ilk. Lincoln has enough such places; it's time for something different.

The NW 48th corridor area is also overdue for re-naming. "Air Park" calls forth the old Lincoln Air Base, which has long since come and gone. Before there was an air base there were prairie hills sloping down gently to an unusual salt basin. Orchards dotted the area around the corridor, which was home to many of Lincoln's pioneer families and early leaders, like the Hartleys, the Mears, the Fladers, and the Cheneys (not those Cheneys; the other ones who came from New York, loved Nebraska, and gave their name to the rural school that educated the children along the corridor). A Farmer's Club brought area families together socially. Orchardist Ellis Hartley became Lincoln's first superintendent of schools. Later, NU ecologist John Ernst Weaver and his protégé Theodor Steiger took a scientific interest in the remaining tallgrass prairies on the nearby heights. In 1929, Weaver wrote the definitive book on prairie plant science, and in so doing established himself as the nation's foremost authority on North American prairies. These citizens are as worthy, or more so, of commemoration than is General Henry Arnold, after whom much is named but who apparently never set foot in Lincoln. Why not Weaver Heights rather than Arnold Heights? And why do we have a school, of all places, named after the man who advocated fire-storming civilians in WWII?

Lincoln should take the opportunity to make itself into the Prairie Capital of the United States. Lincoln has no mountains or seashores, but it has remarkable prairies. Three prairies around Lincoln have much potential for greater visitor draw: Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, the newly-expanded prairie at Pioneers Park, and Nine-Mile Prairie. Fortunately for the latter, most of the surrounding landowners are committed to creating the necessary buffer zone around this jewel of nature to protect it from the type of adjacent development that would destroy it. The University of Nebraska and the Lincoln Airport Authority are major landowners in the area. The city and the county should take the lead to protect and enhance the Nine-Mile Prairie environs, as has been done for the saline wetlands to the north of the city, another worthy prairie attraction.

No other city with surviving prairies can claim such an illustrious scientific heritage that attaches to them. It was Lincoln that produced three of the world's greatest botanists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Charles Bessey, Frederic Clements, and John Weaver. Clements was not only world-class, his theory of dynamic ecology and plant succession dominated botany throughout the world for decades, and still serves as a practical approach to grassland and range management. It does not reflect well on Lincoln that until recently, Clements' ashes lay unmarked for years in Wyuka Cemetery. That oversight should now be corrected, and one way to do it would be to brand (that's the vogue word) Lincoln as the "Nation's Prairie Capital."

From one good idea, many others can spring. Opportunity awaits.

Troubled Start at NIC

January, 2015

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Innovation Campus, a public-private partnership endeavor on the old State Fairgrounds focusing on food, fuel, and water, is getting off to a slow start. With the exception of ConAgra, the NIC has not attracted companies interested in locating there. There has already been a management shake-up, with UNL taking a stronger role in recruiting. UNL also wants more money from the state legislature to try to get the project moving. There is talk at the Regents' level of needing additional tax breaks as location incentives.

Recruiting wasn't helped by a guest speaker at UNL in October, MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who told the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues that most universities' public-private "innovation" centers are anything but. He said universities typically go after the wrong companies and the wrong people. I was at the lecture and had to suppress a gasp – did he not know the Nebraska Innovation Campus was one of sponsors of his talk?

Recruiting may also not be helped by the UNL partnership with ConAgra. Few companies have a worse record and reputation for environmental concerns. ConAgra, a company often in trouble not only with the EPA but also with the SEC and the Department of Justice, is the epitome of Big Ag. With UNL committed to combining its Food Science and Technology Department with ConAgra on the Innovation Campus, some potential recruits may sense that Big Ag and its bottom-line emphasis on short term profits will be calling the shots, and that real scientific innovation and the faculty academic freedom that can make it happen will suffer.

Such fears could only have been enhanced by the New York Times' page 1 article and subsequent editorial on bad research practices at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center, a collaborative effort of USDA and UNL. According to the Times, an experienced veterinarian on the UNL faculty who blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and practices at the center was told by his supervisor to stay away from the center and not to show a reporter his concerns. This could steer NIC prospects away from associating with any UNL enterprise.

There is also a question of whether the university itself is ready for innovation. Last fall two of us had lunch at the famous Dairy Store on the UNL East Campus, where customers can buy ice cream, cheese, milk and other dairy products produced on site. It also serves sandwiches and salads. We asked if there was anything organic on the menu, to the bewilderment of the persons behind the counter who were not familiar with the term organic. Management in the back room was consulted; the answer was no. We ordered anyway and ate a tasteless lunch amid posters proclaiming the wonderful world of processed and manufactured foods, as if this were the 1950s and obesity was not yet a problem.

This was a shock. Innovation in agriculture is happening in the booming farm-to-table and organic farming movements all across the country. In Lincoln I shop at Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery that markets the produce of local organic farms. These farms also supply several of Lincoln's and Omaha's best restaurants. One day I asked the Open Harvest manager if her business or any of these farms were working with the university. "No," she said, "what they do with food down there is the opposite of what we stand for."

NIC may well fail if it does not begin to define itself as genuinely open to all innovation, not just the kind certain food and fuel businesses favor. This may require tolerance of truly independent thinkers who go against the grain and raise uncomfortable questions about nutrition, antibiotics, fertilizers, water, and climate change. It may require a new ethic in research administration, to stand up for whistleblowers, not to silence them.

I want the NIC to succeed, and succeed in a big way. It is located partly in the old fairgrounds' 4-H building, where as a youngster I showed beef cattle, and in the old Industrial Arts building, which was the one and only art gallery to display our one-room country school's works of art. NIC success would justify converting those venerable buildings into something far larger than we could ever imagine.