Consider that your extra-sensory perception is not as accurate as you think it is

Just yesterday, I completed my universities training on sexual discrimination and harassment. One of things they did was have little skits illustrating the phenomena we have to watch out for. One of them was about an attractive young woman being followed around in her work by a helpful but over-eager male colleague, who touched her in the small of the back while leading her to a different room. It was so quaint. I agree that he was being overly familiar, but yeesh — there are plenty of stronger examples in real life. Perhaps the next time they could act out these little dramas from the life of University of Michigan computer science professor Walter Lasecki. He’s been investigated by the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) andthe Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Here are a few examples of his behavior:

In the final report released by OIE, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily, Jane alleged that Lasecki encouraged her to drink throughout the meal, at one point asking the waiter to make her a “double.” She also alleged that he briefly placed his hand on her thigh.

Later that night, Jane said Lasecki helped her return to her apartment. He then touched her sexually, she wrote in her OIE statement. The OIE report notes that Jane said she “did not give any nonverbal cues to indicate that she was interested nor uninterested in physical contact.”

A second non-University graduate student — who will be referred to as Rachel in this article — attended four conferences that Lasecki also attended between 2017 and 2019. She alleged that he touched her sexually at all four conferences. In her statement to OIE, which was obtained by The Daily, Rachel described the pervasiveness of Lasecki’s alleged harassment.

“When [Respondent] is around me when he is drinking, he is consistently physically affectionate with me,” Rachel wrote. “I can’t count the number of times he’s touched me in intimate and inappropriate ways. I’m anxious at events that he will come up to me and start touching me — it bothers me so much that I’ve started scanning the room at poster sessions, receptions, and parties to watch where he’s at.”

A third non-University graduate student wrote in her statement to OIE, also obtained by The Daily, that she experienced similar harassment at an industry conference in 2016. In this article, she will be referred to as Alex. Alex alleged that Lasecki groped her while she was talking to a group of people.

“His behavior was overly familiar, touching me at first in small ways as we were talking to other people,” Alex wrote. “At some point, he leaned closer to me and essentially reached his hand between my legs. I was uncomfortable the whole time, but I distinctly remember knowing he was faculty and well-regarded, and so thinking I should be flattered. At the point where he groped my crotch, though, I knew that was past a line.”

At least there’s no evidence that he touched their backs! Then he’d be out of work, for sure. He still seems to happily employed by the University of Michigan, though. The ACM found that he had violated its Policy Against Harassment, banned him from ACM events for at least five years (that’s all they could do, since he’s not employed by ACM). Strangely, Michigans Office of Institutional Equity concluded that he had not violated any university policies and let him off scot-free. That’s interesting, because I would think getting students drunk and fondling and groping them would be actionable behavior. But no! No sanctions against the gropey professor!

So how did he get off? It may be a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Also, a lot of those foxes seemed to have taken residence in the henhous.

In January 2020, Provost Martin Philbert — who previously oversaw OIE — was placed on leave and later resigned after multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him were reported to the University. The allegations were later investigated and corroborated by law firm WilmerHale. Another WilmerHale investigation released earlier this month found hundreds of credible allegations of sexual abuse against former University doctor Robert Anderson over a 37-year period. The Anderson report concluded that the allegations represent a “devastating pattern” of abuse that was known to University officials.

Everyone noticed. A letter was sent to the university president saying they had no confidence in the university administration.

Lisecki is denying everything, although he does use a second excuse.

Lily wrote that Lasecki touched under her shirt later that night and that she repeatedly attempted to stop his advances. Despite these attempts, the harassment continued, she claims. She remembered how Lasecki tried to justify his behavior.

“Oh, sorry, from the way you were angling your body towards me during our meeting before, I figured you wanted me to,” she alleged that he replied.

Watch out, ladies, now “angling your body” at a particular angle is apparently considered consent. I don’t know what angle that is, unfortunately. Maybe women have been begging me for sex and I’ve just been oblivious. Alternatively, maybe Walter Lisecki’s mind-reading abilities don’t work.

What also comes to mind is Geoff Marcy, another academic whose career took a nosedive when he was found to have been inappropriately touching his students. He also had an interesting excuse:

“My engaging and empathic style could surely be misinterpreted, which is my fault for poor communication,” he said. “I would never intentionally hurt anyone nor cause distress.”

His empathy must have been on the fritz when all those women were saying “no” and trying to get away from Dr Handsey. Marcy lost his job and his career, and has now been expelled from the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike Marcy, though, Lasecki has not been censured in any way, and is scheduled to be teaching undergrads in the fall. Now that is disturbing.

Universities are not “liberal”, they are prisoners of capitalism

Once again, we must turn to the pages of Teen Vogue to find intelligent commentary. Oh, and this is a good one: do you think universities are liberal bastions? They’re not.

Conservatives continually cite statistics suggesting that college professors lean to the left. But those who believe a university’s ideological character can be discerned by surveying the political leanings of its faculty betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how universities work. Partisan political preferences have little to do with the production of academic knowledge or the day-to-day workings of the university — including what happens in classrooms. There is no “Democrat” way to teach calculus, nor is there a “Republican” approach to teaching medieval English literature; anyone who has spent time teaching or studying in a university knows that the majority of instruction and scholarship within cannot fit into narrow partisan categories. Moreover, gauging political preferences of employees is an impoverished way of understanding the ideology of an institution. To actually do so, you must look at who runs it — and in the case of the American university, that is no longer the professoriate.

Yes, I can look to my peers and see almost entirely politically liberal folk — but it’s not a factor in what we teach, and it’s not even a topic we discuss much. I knew enough that few of us, if any, were going to vote for Trump, but otherwise I had no idea of who everyone’s preferred candidate was, and didn’t have any compelling reason to dig deeper into the details of their political interests. I work in a department full of environmentalists, and that was enough. Which party was going to work against the interests of the environment? That’s all you needed to know.

All of us also take care to not make partisanship a direct factor in our classes. We’re working with rural midwestern students, we know that setting up an antagonistic relationship with conservative students in the classroom is not a productive way to teach.

So what’s happening? Why do I feel so little connection with the interests of those who administer the university? We have become corporate entities.

But from the mid-1970s on, as the historian Larry Gerber writes, shared governance was supplanted as the dominant model of university administration as boards of trustees and their allies in the offices of provosts and deans took advantage of public funding cuts to higher education and asserted increasing control over the hiring of the professoriate. They imported business models from the for-profit corporate world that shifted the labor model for teaching and research from tenured and tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty on short-term contracts, who were paid less and excluded from the benefits of the tenure system, particularly the academic freedom that tenure secured by mandating that professors could only be fired for extraordinary circumstances.

At the same time, Gerber details, the makeup of university boards of trustees became stacked with members from corporate backgrounds who made opposition to academic labor organizing part of the contemporary university’s governance model. These boards exercise enormous power: controlling senior administrative appointments, approving faculty hiring, dictating labor policies, and, most importantly, controlling the university’s annual budget and setting tuition and fees. (Case in point: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recently declined to appoint Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenure-track position following conservative outcry over her work on the 1619 project, documenting the history of slavery in the U.S. As one board member told NC Policy Watch, “This is a very political thing. …There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”)

Right. Those controlling boards do not resemble in any way the makeup of the academic units they control. There is a ladder to climb in university administration, if you want, but it doesn’t actually lead to a position on the elements that actually have real financial power. Sure, you can dream of being a university president or chancellor (I don’t!), but the ultimate power rests in the hands of political appointees. If you want to get there, you need to have a career that makes you extremely rich…which isn’t an academic career.

At Harvard, the “corporation” that exercises significant sway over administrative appointments and policy includes six MBAs and only four Ph.Ds. Harvard’s “Board of Overseers,” which is charged with safeguarding “Harvard’s overarching academic mission and long-term institutional interests,” includes, among artists and doctors, senior leaders from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Google, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It’s likely that boards with a substantial number of corporate managers regard “long-term institutional interests” as including vehement opposition to unionization by graduate workers and a sluggish response to students and alumni calling for divestment of Harvard’s assets from fossil fuels. (Teen Vogue has reached out to Harvard for comment.)

My university is not unionized. It’s amazing how little interest the faculty has in joining a union.

(The article has a section at the end for these institutions to comment. You want to see examples of corporate double-speak and vapidity, check it out. My favorite bit? The University of Oklahoma defends their board of regents by saying, Each member has a proven track record on how to lead a successful business. Exactly. That’s the problem. That’s how universities get turned into businesses.)

The article has some suggestions for how to break this pattern of bad management.

What is the left to do about the corporate capture of the modern university? First and foremost, it must support and spread labor organizing across the country, building on the momentum established this spring with the strike by graduate workers at Columbia University. Second, relentlessly push the Biden administration toward canceling all student debt and supporting free public college for all. Third, assert shared governance on campus and work toward building a democratic university that secures labor protections and fair wages for all faculty, especially contingent and graduate workers. If we don’t act, the corporatization of universities will destroy American higher education.

That second point is essential. It would thoroughly demolish the poisonous idea that the purpose of the university is to make a profit for…who? I don’t know. There are probably lawyers making bank somewhere out of this mess, but it sure isn’t the faculty, or the students, or even the university administrators.

I am inclined to suspect that no one is winning, that this inefficient, wrongly-directed chaos is driven more by fanatical capitalist ideologues in state legislatures who have a deep, misguided belief that everything must be run as a for-profit business, so they shoe-horn education into a badly fitting model to the detriment of all.

The first responsibility of a university should be to provide a safe space for learning

Should I be envious? Look at these scores that Bruce Conforth of the University of Michigan got on RateMyProfessor. This may be the first time in years that I’ve so much as glanced at that hellsite (no, don’t tell me what my score is, I don’t want to know), but I heard all the news about what an inspiring, award-winning instructor he was, so I had to check.

Yeah, “all the news”. You know something awful has happened, because you don’t get national attention for being really good at your job. So let’s get the whole story.

Several sexual assault allegations surfaced Friday against former University of Michigan American Culture lecturer Bruce Conforth, who won the 2012 Golden Apple Award for most outstanding U-M instructor, according to the New York Times.

Conforth, a musician and founding curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, retired in early 2017. His retirement came after three women reported to the University in 2008 and 2016 that Conforth had attempted to engage in sexual relationships with them as students, according to the Times.

Now, six former students have filed legal papers with the intent of suing both Conforth for sexual misconduct and the University of Michigan for failing to provide Conforth with consequences or protect the victims with further investigation and action.

Conforth’s allegations of sexual harassment include unsolicited messages and rape.

Warning: the article gives more detailed accounts of his behavior. It was hard to read through to the end, where you discover that six other professors and administrators at the University of Michigan have been committing unrelated sex crimes in recent years, and the university has only reluctantly acted on them. I guess it’s easier to hand out awards.

We get an idea of the university’s policies from the timeline.

The University claimed to have taken action against Conforth by setting restrictions on him after the first report of sexual assault in 2008, and planned to conduct an investigation after the second two reports in 2016, if Conforth did not agree to retire in 2017.

So…you rape one student, and the U wags a finger at you and gives you a major teaching award a few years later; you have to rape three students before you’re asked to quietly retire and collect your pension. No wonder they’ve accumulated an impressive collection of sex offenders on their faculty.

But he was so popular and enthusiastic in his lectures, you know…

University administrators probably won’t care

Sandra Steingraber had one of those ideal academic positions. She was doing interdisciplinary work at Ithaca College on climate justice, one of those important roles that doesn’t fit into a tidy niche. She was good at it!

For the past 18 years, I have served as our campus’ scholar in residence, recruited by a previous provost with a vision for shaping the college into a laboratory for environmental sustainability.

My post has been a joyful one. As a biologist with a master’s degree in poetry, a background in journalism and a national platform in the climate movement, I have represented Ithaca College around the world — in Congressional briefings, at the Paris climate meetings and inside church basements in struggling communities on the frontlines of environmental injustice.

My interdisciplinary scholarship and activism were welcomed on campus, and I flourished, authoring books, editing monographs and collaborating with filmmakers to create narratives that speak truth to power.

In addition to teaching my own class within the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences (ENVS), I serve as a guest speaker across campus. My position thus offers me an extraordinary view of the Ithaca College curriculum.

I have to admire that kind of work. I’m in easy mode, in some ways: I teach canonical biology, the kinds of courses every university has to offer if they issue biology degrees, so I fit neatly into a pre-defined slot (it’s a competitive slot, though, which means it’s hard to find that position without a hundred other people fighting for it). Steingraber had to carve out her role from multiple disciplines, and also serve multiple disciplines. That’s not easy, especially since the Powers That Be — provosts seem to mostly be business people and doctors — typically lack any knowledge of what’s going on at the ground level, and don’t understand how the glue that ties together the components of an education can be just as important as the familiar scholarly groupings.

Steingraber’s position doesn’t seem to have been at risk, though. She was putting together a Center for Climate Justice, which would be quite a feather in the cap of the Powers That Be, since they love bragging to donors about Centers with fancy names. She even had a grant award to help pay for it all. But the university just had to go and do something stupid and short-sighted.

Last year, encouraged by Provost Cornish, I sought funding to launch a Center for Climate Justice at Ithaca College. My idea was to create a national destination for students seeking engagement with the climate crisis that would equip them with tools to envision a renewable future, and make it so.

To that end, I joined fellow faculty and staff serving on IC’s Climate Action Group. This committee worked for the better part of last year, drafting recommendations and helping to shape my own ambitious proposal.

The good news: after a year of planning and writing, I got the grant.

The bad news: both faculty co-chairs of the Climate Action Group are now among those losing their jobs as a consequence of Academic Program Prioritization, which, as far as I can see, is disaster capitalism for higher education.

All told, at least nine IC professors who teach some aspect of the climate crisis — in five different departments — are on the chopping block, with Recreation and Leisure Studies disappearing altogether.

Here’s the thing: When an administration decides that the most important task is aligning the size of the faculty to the correct proportion and does so by eliminating non-tenure track faculty, unique, irreplaceable areas of expertise are lost.

It’s our contingent and NTEN faculty who are engaged in some of the most innovative, intersectional, progressive teaching on campus. I know because I’ve literally taught across our curriculum for 18 years.

They cut the foundation she needed for such a goal! They looked at the whole university, saw the things they liked and wanted to keep, and figured all the stuff outside of that was disposable and chopped it, unaware of how university programs are interdependent. Imagine what it would be like if administrators looked at my university, saw that biology brings in lots of tuition money and leads to what they think are obvious money-making careers, and decided that Art didn’t contribute to that, or the Humanities, and hey, aren’t the Social Sciences all fake anyway? And then they decided to double the funding for lab courses and pay for it by firing half of the “useless” faculty. I would hope all the science faculty would reject such a ludicrous idea. Our students are here to learn how to think and begin to take on the breadth of human understanding, they are not here to get trained as a lab tech. I teach a narrow slice of the domain of knowledge, and I rely on my colleagues to teach all the rest. I sure can’t do it.

So Steingraber looked at the direction the college was taking, refused her grant award, and resigned.

Wow. That’s courage. I salute you, Sandra Steingraber, and I hope you land a new position where your talents will be appreciated.

On the other hand, it was only a small sacrifice.

I’ll be leaving Ithaca College at the end of this year. I am sorry. I wanted to build a thriving Center for Climate Justice here, but I’m demoralized and aware that the collective intellectual capacity I was counting on is being sacrificed to austerity.

Finally, and because I believe in transparency: my salary is $31,050.

I am horrified, but not surprised. Universities are run by people who like to count beans, and see the faculty, the major expense they have, as the best place to chisel out lots of beans.

I kind of hope that she had a half-time position, because that salary is ridiculously low. Only kind of, though, because if they’re throwing that much responsibility on a part-time position, that tells you how little they prioritized her job.

The Wall Street Journal opinion pages have always been garbage, anyway

In case you hadn’t heard already, the WSJ published an appalling bit of nonsense from a Joseph Epstein in which, for some unexplained reason, he decided the important issue of the day is to berate Jill Biden for using the title “Dr.” I know. It’s idiotic. She earned the title, use it. There’s a serious reek of sour grapes here, since Epstein has, at best, a BA. Nothing wrong with that, all of my students graduate with a BA, and I’m proud of them. If you want to see it dissected, with excerpts, here’s the summary for you, complete with summary diagram.

But here’s the deal: among themselves, academics tend not to use fancy titles for each other. We might use them when introducing a colleague to others (but see below), but many of us won’t expect it even with our students, or anyone else for that matter. That goes for all you readers, too — I’d rather you didn’t address me as Dr Myers. That feels weird.

One exception, though: if you try to tell me that you’re not going to call me Dr because I only have a mere biology Ph.D., then for you, I’m going to have to insist on the formality.

Also, these data bring me up short. There’s a tendency for male academics to be more informal with female academics than with their fellow men.

Wow. When women introduce women, they’ll nearly 100% of the time use their title; when men introduce women, it’s down to less than half the time. That’s simple misogyny, diminishing the accomplishments of women, which Epstein has to an extreme degree, but a surprising number of us men also share. I think I tend to get formal when doing formal introductions, so I don’t think I’m guilty of that, but I’ll be more conscious of the problem in the future. I wouldn’t want to Joey Epstein myself, you know. No one wants that.

Why do we even have a football program this year?

None of this makes any sense. Our university administration keeps flapping their lips about caution and respect for faculty, staff, and students, while enforcing rules about social distancing and masking in the classroom, and then…oh, we have to keep the football games going! So now disease is sweeping through the football program.

The Minnesota football Gophers have canceled a second consecutive game due to an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the program.

U of M Director of Athletics Mark Coyle, University President Joan Gabel and Gophers Medical Director Dr. Brad Nelson made the decision to scrap the Dec. 5 game with Northwestern after consulting with the Big Ten Conference.

The game will not be rescheduled, and is considered a “no contest” as per Big Ten policy.

Since Nov. 19, the football program has experienced 47 positive cases of coronavirus in players and staffers [!!!], the most recent group of 15 diagnosed just Saturday.

Remarkable. We are an educational institution, we’ve compromised on everything to keep the academic mission limping along, and yet we’re risking it all by giving the goddamned athletics department free rein, on top of paying the coaches and AD staff far more money than they do the instructors. We should have just put the whole athletics program on hiatus at the start of the year, and saved money by putting the coaches on half pay for the year (they’d still make more money than I do.)

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff continues to be our main priority,” said Coyle.

Oh, BULLSHIT.

I regret to inform you that Jordan Peterson is writing again

I guess he’s recovering. Good for him. Unfortunately, he’s now inflicting more bad takes on us, in this case, the story of Tomas Hudlicky, who wrote such a bad paper in Angewandte Chemie that many of the board members of the journal quit in protest. To the minds of Peterson and other conservatives, this means Hudlicky was burnt at the stake.

I’m not kidding.

So I felt like pointing out that the charred corpse of Dr Hudlicky is still ambulatin’ around, and it’s the board members who have suffered the consequences. Also that Hudlicky sounds like a nightmare of a PI.

What about the fall?

I’m not quite done with grading — genetics is complete! — but yeah, I already have to think about Fall semester? Yikes. I’m expecting a resurgence of the coronavirus this summer that will be worse than what we had in the spring, because we a) don’t have adequate testing, b) don’t have a vaccine, and c) have a country infested with idjits who want to get a haircut no matter how many other people’s lives it puts at risk. Meanwhile, the universities are dithering about what to do. I have no idea what I’m expected to do come September, although we’re kind of mumbling about contingency plans.

This is a fairly clear-eyed view of the immediate future.

Higher education as we know it is approaching economic collapse. I appreciate the frantic gestures college presidents are making to prevent their own campuses from failing. Many intend to open their campuses for the fall term and avoid economic ruin. It is the wrong call.

Even the most optimistic of epidemiologists have two opinions about the remaining months of 2020: mass gatherings should be prohibited, and people over 55 and/or with pre-existing conditions should continue to stay indoors. We also know that individuals under 25 are least likely to become sick with the coronavirus and are most likely to flout requests to stay indoors, wear masks and avoid public places such as beaches and parks.

College presidents are unsure about what to do with their campuses in the fall, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. No one has a crystal ball, but with what we know, what should happen on the nation’s campuses in the fall is increasingly clear. The option of students returning to campus in the fall is not viable, regardless of the economic implications.

The author has some suggestions about what to do if we are open: cancel all those big stadium football games, make special provisions for faculty and students over 55 (we have to teach online, while the younger faculty teach in classes? I think he has an elevated opinion of the safety of young adults), constant testing (we don’t have a reliable, affordable test), and maintain social distancing in the classroom. OK, so I looked at my list of registered students for the Fall to see if that is feasible. Enrollments are down everywhere, right?

I’ll be teaching cell biology, which typically has about 50 students. It’s down a lot right now, with 35 students registered, although it will probably go up a little bit more over the summer. I’ve been assigned a huge lecture hall, so social distancing in class will be easy — I can put them in every 3rd or 4th seat, every other row, and have room left over. Lecture will be easy.

The problem will be labs. I have 3 lab sections for those 35 students, and we generally have students work in groups. That’s not going to work. Making it work would require major restructuring — break up the labs into more independent study sections, so we can separate them more? Even there, any infected students are going to spray fomites all over the microscopes and spectrophotometers. Need I point out, though, this is where the students who will one day be the front line in dealing with future pandemics will get their start?

I imagine our administration is freaking out.

Greater than 5 percent of the more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities are likely to close because of falling enrollment, according to Robert Zemsky. Many observers now predict that enrollments will shrink by 15 percent. The pandemic and the Trump administration’s xenophobia alone will shrink foreign student enrollment, especially from China and India, by 25 percent, the American Council on Education has estimated. Meanwhile, some states like New Jersey are already clawing back money from campuses that has been allocated for this fiscal year; next year’s budgets will be worse than the recession in every state. Philanthropic giving will take a nose dive. Summer and auxiliary enterprises will yield next to no additional revenue.

College presidents have a right to be terrified. But opening campuses in the fall is the wrong move if the primary motivation is to avoid bankruptcy. Public health comes first.

Right. Public health must come first. The answer ought to be a massive public investment in educational and medical infrastructure to keep us all limping along until this disease is overcome. Will we get it? No. It’s hard not to feel a sense of impending doom when we witness the government overseeing this disaster.

So, right now I focus on finishing this last semester, which already ended in a colossal pratfall. Once that’s done, maybe I can think about how to manage the next one.

Hey, rigorous training in how to clean and sterilize a workspace would be an appropriate first lab in cell biology, right?