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.