Problems with the NU Presidential Search Process

June, 2019

Lincoln -- In the previous post, I recommended to the NU Board of Regents three questions that prospective NU presidential candidates should answer. One was on Nebraska agriculture, one on research and academic integrity, and one on political process.

Soon thereafter, the Lincoln Journal Star reported on the progress of the presidential search and how it is being conducted. Clearly the search committee has different priorities from those I suggested.

Among the search committee's "seven pillars of leadership," attention to agriculture is not mentioned, nor is research, except tangentially. The word "athletics" appears twice; bureaucratic hierarchy gets full treatment; political leadership is narrowly defined as being friendly with the right state legislators; private fundraising ability is a priority, of course.

This is to be expected, I suppose, from a search committee of which there are twenty-three members, but only two are NU faculty.

Agriculture must get more attention in the search for a land-grant university president. Its tribulations are profound, and growing. The future welfare of the state depends on finding solutions.

Closely related is the integrity of research, and the extension of that research into industry, the agricultural sector, and government. An immediate challenge has been laid down in the areas of nutrition, climate, and health by the nation's secretary of agriculture, who is closing down federal research agencies in the nation's capital and moving them to the Kansas City area in hopes of finding nearby, malleable land-grant connections favorable to his political agenda.

The secretary's suppression of nutrition and climate research antithetical to his political mission is well-documented. He has already attempted to undermine the incredibly important nutrition work of a Lincoln-based scientist. He makes no secret that he expects land-grant universities in the so-called red states to do his political bidding. He states, "We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities."

Here's hoping NU has a president who can stand strong, with the Regents' backing, against these transparent attempts to politicize research.

Red and blue politics aside, the sad fact is that both political parties have done great damage to America's heartland by short-sighted policies. Although it is obvious that the current administration's policies are inimical and downright malevolent toward Nebraska agriculture, the Democratic Party's neglect of rural America is just as destructive, in its own way.

The NU presidential search committee needs more than a hail-fellow-well-met in a Big Red jacket, but that is what it going to get unless the standards for president are raised to the level of the challenges he or she must be prepared to meet, for the good of the state and the country.

Letter to the NU Board of Regents

June, 2019

Lincoln -- An open letter to

Dear Nebraska Board of Regents:

You have encouraged members of the university community and the public to submit thoughts on the "qualities, characteristics, and skills" they would like to see in NU's next president.

I am a graduate of NU twice, a member of the Alumni Association, in very good standing with the NU Foundation, and a Nebraska citizen with considerable knowledge and appreciation of the history* of NU. I have worked closely with university officials from the 1960s to the present, often (but not always) in agreement with the direction of the institution.

My response to your invitation:

• Among the qualities NU's next leader must have is an understanding of agriculture and the reasons for its decline as a driver of Nebraska's economy. NU is a land-grant institution with a special responsibility for agriculture; its own well-being is dependent on a thriving agricultural sector. Among the questions any prospective president must be asked: why is Nebraska agriculture in trouble, what must be done to revive it, and what role will NU play? Answers to the questions must be specific and show insight into issues of nutrition, trade, health, climate, and rural policy.

• Another must-have quality in NU's next leader is a record of scientific and academic achievement that demonstrates commitment and adherence to established norms in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Ordinarily, this would go without saying, but our society is witnessing a breakdown of norms, previously unimaginable, even those in scientific pursuits. Research is increasing funded by those in both industry and government who are eager to see conclusions they pay for. Any prospective NU president must be asked: what are you prepared to do to ensure the integrity of the research process? The answer to this question must be specific as to identifying threats and proposed NU responses to these challenges.

• A third quality in NU's next leader is an understanding of the political process and where NU fits into it. Any prospective NU president should be asked: what is the historical record of NU leadership in the political arena, both the successes and the failures? The answer should contain specifics to demonstrate a knowledge of NU history and give a clear view as to how political challenges will be addressed.

Please feel free to share this with your selection committee and your presidential search consultants. I would be pleased to elaborate further on any of these matters as appropriate.

Jon H. Oberg

* See previous posts, for example: NU and Wyuka Cemetery; Recalling an Old Budget Controversy; What Would 'Woody' Have Done?

Another Low for Mitch Daniels

June, 2019

Lincoln -- Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University, writes a column in the Washington Post that can only be described as shameful in its pandering and divisiveness.

He extolls the "cultural fiber that an agricultural upbringing once brought to society," and praises "its value and its virtues" as represented in 4-H and FFA youth.

This would be more palatable if Mitch Daniels himself had any claim either to an agricultural upbringing or to its values and virtues. He doesn't.

Mitch Daniels was raised as the privileged son of a drug company executive and educated at Princeton and Georgetown. He will go down in history as the federal OMB director who turned a federal budget surplus of over $200 billion into a deficit of $400 billion, and as the the college administrator who brought predatory for-profit college practices to a land-grant university.

If he has ever been on a tractor, likely it was only for a photo-op.

But Daniels likes to tell shop-worn stories that he thinks resonate in rural America. From his column:

At the Indiana State Fair, held on grounds now surrounded by inner-city Indianapolis neighborhoods, urban kids can witness, in person, the birth of pigs and calves. Once I asked a boy who had arrived at the fair on a school bus from across town, “Do you know where milk comes from?” He said, “Sure. The grocery store.”

That story, governor, is condescending and offensive. First, you should not try to make fun of inner-city kids to try to look good at their expense; second, the story is painful to dairy farmers who have gone out of business or are about to, and who would say the correct answer now is "factories."

In his column, Daniels says he likes to have 4-H and FFA members give him tours. Accordingly, here is my invitation to come to Nebraska and get a first-hand agricultural tour from me, former president of the Rock Creek Ranchers 4-H Club and member of the FFA chapter at Waverly High School.

We will tour dying towns and abandoned farmsteads, a consequence of the "get big or get out" prescription of former Purdue economist and federal Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. We will look at monocultures of corn and soybeans, planted "fencerow to fencerow," virtually deserts now, compared to their former environmental diversity. We will look, probably in vain, for any remaining pollinators, their habitat destroyed by agri-business monopolies that dictate cropping practices through the creditors of increasingly desperate farmers.

During the tour, we'll reflect on how this dismal picture came about. Where is all that "cultural fiber" and the "values and virtues" of which Daniels writes? I know a couple of places where it still exists, but they are increasingly hard to find, due to destructive policies and actions Daniels has supported over the years. Gone with the topsoil, so to speak.

After the tour, we could adjourn to my barn for a discussion of how our country really doesn't feed the world, and to the extent we do, we feed it rather badly. We'll have to note how the current administration is ruining export markets, in any case.

We might even have a conversation about how rural values and virtues are at total odds with the personal behavior and many policy actions of the incumbent president, and how Mitch Daniels could strike a blow for universal human values and virtues, not divisiveness, by using his bully pulpit at the Washington Post more responsibly.

Iron Triangles, Part X

June, 2019

Washington -- Republic Report has picked up on startling testimony from last month's Congressional oversight hearing on for-profit colleges. I watched the hearing as it was streamed live and was likewise perplexed by the statements of Department of Education official Diane A. Jones about approval of troubled accreditor ACICS. From the Republic Report:

Jones testified that “it was not the [Trump] administration that decided to change the decision of the prior [Obama] administration”; rather, she said, the Department reinstated ACICS because “the courts made that decision.”

But it was the Trump administration. The courts may have required a new determination, but not the outcome. The Jones statement, under oath, is guileful and perjurious. Thousands of borrowers and families have suffered from the decision. As have taxpayers, who will have to pay the bill for the mess left behind. The beneficiaries of the decision are predatory schools and lenders.

This is not Ms. Jones' first brush with untruthfulness. It is a pattern. She is a long-time industry servant in an iron triangle that from time to time captures the Department of Education to put private profit ahead of public mission.

In the previous decade, when Ms. Jones was Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, she attempted to cover up student-loan subsidy fraud in the Department by claiming that there was no way to determine its existence or amount. She told investigator Amit Paley of the Washington Post that the numbers he reported were flawed, after the Post assembled a panel of outside experts to determine how much was involved. "We don't believe meaningful inferences can be made from the data the department provided," Ms. Jones said, to try to deflect attention from the scandal.

This was months after the Inspector General had already documented illegal claims and had made detailed determinations of the amounts involved, which totaled hundreds of millions of dollars and were independently corroborated by the Post's panel of experts.

Reporter Sam Dillon of the New York Times had written on the same subject a few months earlier and interviewed me about the illegal claims and how they were made. I had retired from the department two years earlier and knew much about the matter. The NYT followed up with an editorial against waste and fraud. The next day, Sam Dillon told me later, he went to the Department of Education to confront officials with evidence that some at the department had actually been party to schemes to defraud the government. He had two former deputy secretaries and one assistant secretary in mind. Sam Dillon was so angry, he told me, that he yelled at the officials because they knew of the schemes all along and did nothing. He tried to write another, even harder-hitting story but was rebuffed by his editors, for reasons unknown. Had he only been permitted to do so, the ensuing history of corruption and racketeering at the department may have been curtailed.

In last month's testimony, Ms. Jones was aided in her answers by questions from Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who made certain the oversight subcommittee was told once again, incorrectly, that it was a court, and not the Trump administration, that forced the disastrous reinstatement of ACICS.

Staffing Rep. Foxx on postsecondary education matters has been Kathleen Smith, formerly of the Department of Education but also a key figure in the government-industry revolving door going back two decades. Ms. Smith was once a lobbyist representing lenders making the fraudulent subsidy claims that Ms. Jones was intent on covering up. Ms. Smith, while a department official in the Trump administration, was more recently instrumental in cutting off information-sharing agreements with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helped lead the ongoing effort to preempt state attorneys general from acting against unlawful student-loan servicer practices. As key staff to the ranking member of the House committee writing the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Ms. Smith landed herself in the iron triangle position to write the laws for which Ms. Jones will create and administer regulations.*

Some of the iron triangle activity has come to light as the result of discovery in 2017 litigation. Hugely problematic is the failure of officials to recuse themselves for conflicts of interest, or for violations of recusals. It is compounded by clumsy attempts by the Trump administration to intimidate the Office of Inspector General, especially as it looks at irregularities in the reinstatement of ACICS. Only the willfully blind cannot see the industry-based, revolving-door network that undermines the mission of the department, at huge cost to students, families, and taxpayers.

As Republic Report notes, Ms. Jones is overwhelmingly conflicted by her past dealings with the very parties she is now ostensibly regulating. Unfortunately, recusal abuse at the department is not a new development. It goes back many years and remains unchecked, even though by law it is a criminal offense.

Ms. Jones testified that she wants everyone to have the same educational opportunities she had. But her actions on ACICS have put some 18,000 students deeper in debt with worthless credits to show for it. Congress has a responsibility to rebuke such testimony.

*The revolving door recently turned again for Kathleen Smith, who has since become the Washington-based lobbyist for troubled student loan servicer PHEAA.

The Speaker's Dilemma and Options

June, 2019

Washington -- House Democrats have worked themselves into a dangerous dilemma: should the decision to impeach the president be decided on moral or on political grounds? The argument is strong to impeach on the former, given the moral unfitness of the president, but less so on the latter, given the likelihood that a drawn-out impeachment process with no conviction would only tighten vice's, not virtue's, grip on power. Doing the right thing morally might result in political defeat, leaving both morals and politics in shreds.

I think it was a mistake for the Speaker not to act immediately after receiving the Mueller Report, with all dispatch, both to impeach and to censure the president. That would have avoided the current, foreseeable impasse. Democrats would have done the right thing and could have moved on to their legislative agenda. The moral dilemma would then be for Senate Republicans to deal with.

But that did not happen, so what now?

I believe a good option for the House would be to pass a censure action, which accomplishes the moral imperative without the downside of impeachment. There is ample cause for censure, to include failure to comply with Article I powers of the legislative branch. However, the House should also open an impeachment inquiry to gather further evidence on other impeachable offenses and broaden it beyond the questions of the Mueller Report.

The Mueller Report dealt with only two issues: Russian election-tampering and obstruction of justice. The House Oversight and Judiciary committees should look beyond those subjects to include whether the president is fulfilling his constitutional obligation to enforce the rule of law in our overall federal system. The committees should use their powers to look at issues affecting others in our system who are also required to take an oath to uphold our Constitution and statutes, namely governors and state attorneys general. Are they able to fulfill their responsibilities faithfully under law given the actions of the Trump administration?

There are abundant examples of the use of illegal and unethical measures by the president to thwart the rule of law throughout the country, which should be added to the evidence for impeachment. These actions deal with a wide range of issues that adversely affect people's lives. Many have already resulted in lawsuits and petitions by state attorneys general, of both political parties, against the Trump administration. Many have not, leaving Americans with no place to turn when their lives are upended by a failure of the rule of law at all levels of government.

This review would provide an opportunity for ordinary Americans to form opinions on impeachment as it affects their everyday lives, their health and safety, their consumer protections, their human rights under law. Such opinions need time to ripen, once evidence is compiled. If the House censures the president on separation of powers and moral grounds, it will have done at least part of its duty and public opinion can solidify, or not*, on impeachment. In the meantime, the House can get on with doing the legislative work expected of it.

*There is no guarantee, of course, that voters value the rule of law in their lives above other values they hold. George Will has written, "Trump was elected because many millions of Americans enjoy his boorishness. And he essentially promised to govern as a lout. Promise-keeping would be an unusual ground for impeachment." These are times that surely test Americans' character and values.