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.


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?

Sobering news about universities

The state of Minnesota universities in the pandemic is not exactly optimistic. The Star Trib summarizes our financial situation.

The University of Minnesota has frozen tuition for the next academic year in hopes of attracting a large freshman class during the pandemic. As of last week, fall freshman enrollment was trending nearly 10% behind where it was this time last year.

The Minnesota State colleges and universities system took a $17 million hit from room-and-board refunds and could lose up to $13 million more this spring from canceled events, summer camps, travel and trainings.

The University of St. Thomas, Minnesota’s largest private college, has already lost $8 million and won’t get to replenish with revenue from marquee events such as the Special Olympics.

Public and private institutions are mapping out sobering scenarios that foretell steep revenue and enrollment losses. They are planning for a fall semester that might look anything but normal; some colleges envision a mix of online and in-person instruction, while others may delay the start of the semester until students can enjoy a traditional campus experience.

Yeah, that’s our situation — we’ve been asked to map out how we would manage online instruction for the fall. I’m not a fan of the idea of delaying the start of classes until the pandemic recedes, since that implies that we can accurately predict when things will be back to normal. If I had to make a prediction, it’s that we should be OK for the fall, except that, as we’re seeing right now, at the first sign of a decrease in infections our selfish, mindless populace, goaded by idiot Republicans, will stampede to opportunities to suck faces with their fellow damfools, undoing any gains and blowing all predictions to smithereens, making it impossible to know when the situation will actually improve. So I have no idea what we’ll be doing at the start of the school year. The administration will make some preliminary decisions in June, which I’m sure they’ll revise in July, and then update in August.

At least there’s some cautious optimism about the future of the University of Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota took an immediate loss of nearly $35 million when it issued room-and-board refunds to students who had to move off campus. Early projections show the U could lose up to $315 million in revenue if the pandemic lasts into fall.

President Joan Gabel and members of her cabinet have taken a voluntary 10% pay cut, and hiring and salary increases have been frozen.

Minnesota’s land-grant institution should be able to withstand even the worst hit, thanks to deep reserves, a strong credit rating and manageable debt levels.

“We have some ability to make decisions that can help us work into a new reality,” said Brian Burnett, the U’s senior vice president for finance and operations.

I’m glad the administration has taken a voluntary pay cut, since they were just asking us faculty to take one. I could reluctantly accept a 10% cut — I also voluntarily took a 50% pay cut the year before last, to indulge in a sabbatical, and there was some savage belt-tightening around the Myers household that we’re still trying to recover from, so it’s going to hurt, but we have to face this New Reality where we’re all going to be hurting.

I do still have to worry a bit about how the UM will deal with their losses — one approach they could take would be to contract down a bit, starving their branch campuses (like mine!) to save the Twin Cities core. That seems unwise to me — centralizing during a pandemic seems risky, especially when their far-flung branch campuses (like mine!) are a kind of social distancing already, and when some of our lightly populated rural counties have fairly low rates of infection. There have been zero reported cases of coronavirus in Stevens county so far, although I suspect part of the reason for the low number is the lack of testing.

If I had to suggest a place to cut, top of my list would be…football. I was dumbfounded that one of our Minnesota sports writers, Patrick Reusse, suggested the same thing — that UM should hit football hard.

This is a university that exists through the residents of Minnesota. Those residents are men and women, football families and gymnastics families. There’s an obligation to continue to present valid sports opportunities for a wide spectrum of students.

It’s absurd FBS teams can offer 85 scholarships — with another 25 walk-ons for Power Five programs. That scholarship number should be 70 (or fewer), and with 90 bodies total.

It’s absurd P.J. Fleck came here making $1 million (with incentives) and, in his fourth season, he will be kicking off a new contract at $4.6 million.

Also absurd: The ever-growing football support staff; a $170 million athletic facility devoted largely to football, and a drain to the university’s more vital fundraising; and colleges footing the bill as the developmental arm of the NFL, the most profitable sports league in U.S. history.

The first post-virus gouge in athletic budgets should come in football — at Minnesota, and across the Power Five landscape.

I fully agree with that first paragraph. We should encourage college sports, they’re important to a lot of our students, and part of a liberal arts education is to promote a healthy body and mind. Football, however, has become a bloated cancer on higher education with gross inflation of its budgets.

The University of Minnesota head football coach is paid $3.6 million per year, which is insane. And it’s going up to $4.6 million next year! That one guy is getting the salary of 60 professors at my university. He does not have 60 times the intelligence or education of your average professor, nor is he working 60 times as hard.

We’re also paying a massive army of assistant coaches. That $170 million facility is called the “athletes village”, with weight rooms, indoor practice field, sound-proofed basketball courts, a cafeteria just for athletes, and their own medical facility. We have a stadium, capitalistically named the TCF Bank Stadium, that cost $300 million to build. I don’t think TCF Bank paid for it. I know our students were levied a $50 per student per semester fee to help cover it.

Maybe the pandemic will compel the universities to rethink the frivolities they’ve been throwing cash at for decades.

Who is paying for this “service”?

I find it hard to believe any institution is shelling out money for these authoritarian proctoring services.

When University of Florida sophomore Cheyenne Keating felt a rush of nausea a few weeks ago during her at-home statistics exam, she looked into her webcam and asked the stranger on the other side: Is it okay to throw up at my desk?

He said yes. So halfway through the two-hour test, during which her every movement was scrutinized for cheating and no bathroom breaks were permitted, she vomited into a wicker basket, dabbed the mess with a blanket and got right back to work. The stranger saw everything. When the test was finished, he said she was free to log off. Only then could she clean herself up.

“Online proctor” services like these have already policed millions of American college exams, tapping into students’ cameras, microphones and computer screens when they take their tests at home. Now these companies are enjoying a rush of new business as the coronavirus pandemic closes thousands of American schools, and executives are racing to capture new clients during what some are calling a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

This is contrary to any good teaching practice. When your paranoia is so great that you no longer trust your students to learn, then you can’t teach effectively. What is wrong with the University of Florida, or anyone else who coughs up money to have strangers sit and stare at their students?

If my university required this kind of nonsense, I’d tell them to fuck off, no way am I subjecting students to this kind of humiliation. Fortunately, I think most of my colleagues would express the same sentiment.

No plan survives contact with the enemy (or students)

When I first heard that we were going to switch to online classes, my first thought was that this will be a lot of work, but it’ll be easy, mindless work: I’ll just lift everything I do in class and plop it down on the intertubes, and I’ll send stuff home with the students so they can do their lab work there. Straightforward. A nuisance, but no, I don’t need to change my approach at all.

That lasted about 24 hours, and then I took the radical step of talking to my students. First casualty: nope, no way am I going to raise flies in my house.

Then I learned that some of my students get online routinely…but through their phone or campus computer labs. I’m sitting here in my home office with two big monitors and a fast internet connection, they might be only getting online intermittently and peering at it through a tiny screen. Whoops, no big productions of my hour-long lectures. No required online sessions.

So, today, I rethink and refocus. I’m going back to the syllabus and figuring out exactly what concepts I have to get across to the students to prepare them for the next course in the curriculum (for introductory biology) or grad school/professional life/existence as an informed citizen (for genetics). I have to deliver those concepts to the student who has minimal internet access.

That means — oh no — I have to rely much, much more on the textbook. I have to be the guide, rather than the source, of the information. I can’t expect the students to absorb knowledge on a schedule, but instead, have to point them to information and tell them what my expectations are, and give them the freedom to meet them on a flexible schedule.

It’s a lot of compromises and not entirely satisfactory, and I look forward to someday returning to the normal world where students and I actually see and interact with each other in person. Until then, though, I have to make sure the goals of my courses are reached, somehow.

Now I know what spies for China can expect to be paid

Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemist, has been arrested for working with the Chinese. My first thought was that this is terrible, science is an international enterprise, we value cooperation and the sharing of information, and working with the Chinese people and other international students is exactly what a respected scientist at a university ought to be doing. I have students from China in my classes, I think it’s great that they are here and learning.

I think that’s going to be part of the defense strategy. It’s government paranoia, part of a campaign of hostility against China.

Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who has represented Chinese Americans accused of espionage, said in an email that the Justice Department “has launched an all-out war on any U.S. scientist associated with the 1000 Talent or other Chinese Talent programs.”

He said that is a major shift in U.S. practice after years of lax scrutiny of the issue.

“The government is now expecting perfect compliance for scientists who received no training on how these forms needed to be filled out and no warnings about the dangers of submitting an inaccurate form,” Zeidenberg said. “Treating these mistakes as felonies is entirely inappropriate.”

Except, well, ‘not knowing how to fill out a form’ is a bad tactic when you’re defending one of the most successful scientists in the world, at one of the richest universities in the world. He can probably figure it out, and if not, there is certainly a team of well-paid administrators at Harvard who could figure it out for him.

Then I read the actual charges. He had a contract with the Wuhan University of Technology.

I about choked. He was personally paid $50K per month, handed $150K per year for personal expenses, and awarded a $1.5 million grant? All that was on top of his Harvard salary, which wasn’t stated, but is probably a healthy sum. Man, I’m wondering how I can get on the Chinese spy payroll all of a sudden, because those numbers are not what you get paid for academic work. Just the fact that he’s being given $750K per year as his own cash to swim around in in his vault is abnormal and suspicious, and then we learn that it was all under the table, and he didn’t tell anyone about his secret contract.

The Justice Department says Lieber, 60, lied about his contact with the Chinese program known as the Thousand Talents Plan, which the U.S. has previously flagged as a serious intelligence concern. He also is accused of lying about about a lucrative contract he signed with China’s Wuhan University of Technology.

In an affidavit unsealed Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Robert Plumb said Lieber, who led a Harvard research group focusing on nanoscience, had established a research lab at the Wuhan university — apparently unbeknownst to Harvard.

Universities care about this stuff. Every year I get a little form sent around that I have to fill out, which is basically asking if I’m moonlighting at anything, am I getting paid on the side. They are paying me a salary for full-time work 9 months out of the year; it’s OK if I’m bringing in summer salary, for instance, but they want to know about it, because they want to know that I regard them as my primary employer. If I were to mention that the Chinese government was paying me 10 times what the Minnesota state government was coughing up, they might suspect a conflict of interest.

Lieber lied about his affiliations. Further, and quite amusingly, when WUT started touting their connections to Harvard, Lieber was frantically contacting them to shush, that he was working with them, but Harvard was not, so ix-nay on the Arvard-hay talk, or they’ll catch on.

This ain’t about international cooperation and scientific values, it’s about a greedy American being bought by the Chinese government and lying about it. Throw the book at him.

Maybe the legal strategy of claiming that he was too stupid to fill out a form properly is his best bet after all.

There are ways to rid oneself of troublesome professors

It’s a given that Eric Rasmusen of Indiana University is a racist, a sexist, and an all-around horrible person. I agree that, as a tenured professor, he can’t be fired for that. However, I am bothered by this statement from the executive vice president of the university.

The First Amendment is strong medicine, and works both ways. All of us are free to condemn views that we find reprehensible, and to do so as vehemently and publicly as Professor Rasmusen expresses his views. We are free to avoid his classes, and demand that the university ensure that he does not, or has not, acted on those views in ways that violate either the federal and state civil rights laws or IU’s nondiscrimination policies. I condemn, in the strongest terms, Professor Rasmusen’s views on race, gender, and sexuality, and I think others should condemn them. But my strong disagreement with his views—indeed, the fact that I find them loathsome—is not a reason for Indiana University to violate the Constitution of the United States.

This is a lesson, unfortunately, that all of us need to take seriously, even as we support our colleagues and classmates in their perfectly reasonable anger and disgust that someone who is a professor at an elite institution would hold, and publicly proclaim, views that our country, and our university, have long rejected as wrong and immoral.

I don’t think that’s true! Is she suggesting that IU would be unable to fire a custodian who showed up for work in a swastika armband, because of the Constitution? That if a non-tenured administrator started suggesting exclusionary racist admission policies, they wouldn’t be dismissed because of the First Amendment? Does she think the principle of academic freedom only holds true in universities blessed to exist under the Constitution of the United States of America?

Rasmusen can’t be fired because he is employed under an explicit, lifetime contract that defines what actions violate the terms of the contract, and being a racist asshole isn’t one of them. Universities recognize the value of being able to express ideas outside the cultural norm so that they can be discussed and argued over by people who aren’t suppressed by the fear that they could be fired for uttering them. This is generally a good thing. Occasionally someone speaks out in a way that makes everyone regret it, but that’s the price you pay for academic freedom.

There are workarounds. The University of Illinois is using public shaming against a professor found guilty of sexual harassment — his offenses are publicly posted where students can read them. Christian Ott was suspended for a year, and denied the privilege of having grad students until he was adequately mentored, and eventually resigned from Caltech. Geoff Marcy resigned after being found guilty of Berkeley’s sexual harassment policy, and under pressure from his colleagues. This was after years of cover-up by the administration; are we to believe that they’d been slow to expel him because of the First Amendment, or that Berkeley violated the Constitution when they eventually dumped him?

I haven’t read my contract in ages, but I’m pretty sure that if I committed a criminal act, like knocking over a bank, my tenure would be revoked, not because of the Constitution, but because there are various specific clauses declaring grounds for revocation, and committing a felony is one of them. Rasmusen is not being fired because there is no “racist asshole” clause in his contract. IU does not and has not considered that a requirement in their rules for admission to the tenured professor club. Although, you know, I think violating Title IX regulations might be grounds for dismissal.

That’s the thing. Tenured professors have been and will continue to be dismissed for violating regulations at their place of employment. Sometimes it’s about peers using social pressure to get them out; I’m sure Rasmusen’s colleagues are unhappy about the added restrictions on his engagement with students, and would much prefer to replace him with a fresh young face who isn’t a racist asshole and can participate in the teaching responsibilities of the department fully. Sometimes it’s about getting the jerk to leave with voluntary inducements, like a better retirement package.

There are remedies. IU should stop hiding behind the Constitution.

Academia can be easily exploited

I’ve got to say, Irina Dumitrescu has the most cynical view of the university system I’ve read. I don’t entirely agree, but I can see where she’s coming from.

Universities sing the song of meritocracy but dance to a different tune. In reality, they will do everything to reward and protect their most destructive, abusive and uncooperative faculty. The more thoroughly such scholars poison departments, programmes and individual lives, the more universities double down to please them.

Universities are even willing to ruin their own reputations and alienate their alumni to protect bullies and abusers. They might think that reputation management demands that such behaviour be swept under the carpet, but they ought to know that the scandals will break eventually, and that the cover-up will make them look worse. Some universities even hire people in the full knowledge of abuse allegations against them, thereby becoming invested in keeping secret their decision to put their students in harm’s way.

On the whole, I’ve found universities to be broadly egalitarian and altruistic, but that the management tends to be more out of touch with our ideals. There’s a body of people at the top who see the educational system as a political tool to get power and influence, and we’re at their mercy.

That said, though, it’s also the case that a population dedicated to teaching and science is acutely vulnerable to individuals who can cut through our ranks like a hot needle through butter. I’ve known people who fit her formula for success…even though they are the minority, I imagine her formula for penetrating academia would work too well.

  1. Cultivate powerful friends. Gain power over as many publication organs and scholarly bodies as possible and use them to promote your clique.
  2. Do nothing for anyone unimportant.
  3. Find a less successful scholar who will fear and admire you. Flatter them into becoming your sidekick and count on them to denigrate your colleagues and defend your reputation.
  4. Crush the confidence of students with the potential to surpass you. Or sleep with them. Or both.
  5. Manipulate students and employees into feeling they owe you, long after you no longer have power over them. Make outrageous, unethical promises they will feel bad about accepting or refusing.
  6. Promote a zero-sum model of success. Anyone else’s gain is your loss. Claim your students’ work as your own and reassign their best ideas to your favourites. Collaboration is for losers.
  7. Systematically badmouth your colleagues so you can improve your own standing. Shut out the students of rival scholars. Mock those rivals for having less successful students.
  8. Gaslight and spread misinformation about anyone who stands up to you. Complain about the “rumour mill” and “witch-hunts”. Accuse your critics of jealousy.
  9. Ask loudly why no one is willing to come forward officially to substantiate the rumours of abuse against you. If someone overcomes their terror, call them crazy.
  10. Lie brazenly. Accuse others of lying.

Dang. I’ve been doing it all wrong. I think my academic mentors have been setting a bad example for this kind of behavior.

It’s strange, too, that we would attract these kinds of individuals at all. It’s not like we’re competing for huge rewards — this is actually not at all how academia works, sadly.

Maybe not “sadly”…while it would have been nice to buy my mama a house with my first academic appointment, I think it would be terrible to have such an over-inflated sense of worth, and it would have also led to attracting even more toxic personalities.

Starving the colleges

Here’s a simple fact everyone ought to know, but most don’t.

Most Americans believe state spending for public universities and colleges has, in fact, increased or at least held steady over the last 10 years, according to a new survey by American Public Media.

They’re wrong. States have collectively scaled back their annual higher education funding by $9 billion during that time, when adjusted for inflation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP, reports.

No, really! Universities don’t want to raise tuition, ever — we think our mission is important enough that we ought to be providing college educations for free — but every year our administrators have to go before the state congress and outright beg for support, and almost every year the politicians see the education budget as something they can raid for other pet projects. Every tuition increase is a response to declining state support.

I didn’t know this, though.

And the United States remains 13th in the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds who have some kind of college or university credential, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago we had the most highly educated population in the world,” said Kevin Reilly, former president of the University of Wisconsin System, who now runs a program at the Association of Governing Boards called the Guardians Initiative to help university trustees push back against public and political skepticism about the value of higher education.

Falling behind the likes of South Korea, Canada and Russia in the proportion of people with degrees “is not a trend we can tolerate if we’re going to continue to be competitive in a global knowledge economy,” said Reilly. “More and more of our people are going to have to be competent at higher and higher levels of knowledge and skills. We’re really damaging the future of our competitiveness and I would argue even our security.”

“Make America Great Again” seems to translate to “Make America Stupid Again”. Or maybe stupider? I don’t know, can’t grammar properly anymore. Brain slipping away. Feed me knowledge before I become a Republican.