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.

Sayeed, and UW-Madison, take another hit

To recap: Akbar Sayeed is a University of Wisconsin engineering professor whose training methods were so abusive they led to the suicide of a graduate student, John Brady. This was a bit too blatant for the university to look the other way, so they punished him with a two year unpaid leave, after years of screaming fits and tyrannized students. He used his time off to apply for a research position at NSF, which he left abruptly 8 months before his appointment at UW-Madison would be restored.

More information is trickling out now, and it’s not good for the university. UW-Madison failed to inform NSF of Sayeed’s salary status and why he was going to be available to work there, which are facts required for his temporary position. And now we know why he left NSF.

…NSF provided an additional statement that said the program under which Sayeed was hired requires institutions to report employee status.

“Unfortunately, the institution did not accurately disclose that information,” said Amanda Hallberg Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “When NSF received complete information, we terminated Dr. Sayeed’s assignment.”

I can imagine what happened here. If it were disclosed that he had driven a student to kill himself and that the university placed him on unpaid leave, NSF wouldn’t have hired him (probably — I’m beginning to develop a jaundiced opinion of institutional concern about humane behavior). Sayeed certainly would have avoided reporting himself, and sympathetic admins at the UW would have been reluctant to sabotage his opportunity at employment, so they conveniently neglected to mention certain salient facts.

After all, he’d been getting paid $166,650 per year to yell at students, and it would have been so mean to slam him down to $0 abruptly, just because one student had died on his watch.

Funny how all that works. Also funny: that he was a bad teacher getting paid 2½ times what I do, probably with a much lower teaching load. There are some remarkable inequities within academia.

NSF sets some standards, at least.

NSF imposed a new requirement last fall requiring institutions to disclose if any faculty members with NSF grants committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault. Depending on a university’s policies and codes of conduct, bullying may be included in the policy.

The policy is not retroactive, applying only to researchers who received an award after Oct. 22, 2018.

Universities seem to be falling behind. There are rules underlying tenure; I would think that “harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault” ought to warrant revocation of tenure.

I don’t call that teaching

I guess Professor E.David Davis of the North Carolina State University never learned how to teach, although he did learn how to be a sexist jerk.

Maira Haque is a junior at NC State and was outraged by what she said Davis said in class to another student. Haque says Davis called on a female student in the class and when she didn’t have the answers to his questions about an assignment, things escalated.

“You’re 20 years old and you forgot to bring this assignment in. Were you dropping the head as a child? Do you have memory problems?” Haque said.

Next, she said, the professor selected another student to answer a question and she too didn’t have the answer.

“She didn’t have the paper either and before he even could begin berating her or anything, she said ‘I have memory problems too,’” Haque said. “And that made everyone laugh, but he kept going and he was like, ‘I guess the women in this class are useless. I guess I should call on a man.’

How well does belittling your students work as a pedagogical exercise, I wonder. Students are already anxious and overworked, I don’t need to ramp that up; if I see a number of students struggling to keep up, that tells me that I need to slow down and try to help. That’s my job.

Don’t worry about Professor Davis. He had an excuse for his behavior. It’s the same excuse I’ve heard from assholes for years.

The professor justified his comments by saying, “Well, obviously, it was a joke. Women are obviously useful because we need them for a species to reproduce,” according to a Twitter video.

“It was just a joke”, compounded by the distasteful argument that “we” (I presume he means us men?) need them just for their ovaries.

That guy should not be teaching at all. I won’t say that it sounds like he’s been dropped on his head a few times, but will instead suggest that his university send him off for remedial training in basic education skills and in humanity. We need to help him catch up with the good faculty, you know.

How’s MIT doing lately?

MIT seems to be having a bad day week month year, and new horrors keep tumbling out all the time. Thanks, Jeffrey Epstein, the one good you did in your life was to make corruption visible!

  • You know, Richard Stallman has always been an egotistical jerk, so he had to poke his head up and demonstrate it once again. His latest is to claim that Epstein’s “harem” — I guess that’s his word for “victims” — were “mostly willing”. Ugh. You aren’t helping, rms. Crawl back into your hole.
  • Joi Ito pressured other faculty, like Naomi Oxman, to participate in rewarding Epstein for his “anonymous” gifts, and they in turn pressured their students to create and send gifts to him. What’s interesting is that the students were the ones to immediately question the whole process, and to feel guilty about succumbing to pressure afterwards. I guess MIT hadn’t had enough time to pound the ethics out of them yet.

I’ve noted elsewhere that the rich get richer, and colleges with already massive endowments tend to be the recipients of more corrupt gift giving…so they inherit all the filth that comes with the filthy lucre. I suspect our small liberal arts colleges would be just as guilty if billionaires were trying to impress their peers by giving us money.

But…but…that’s the whole goddamn problem!

MIT is struggling with the disclosure that one of their star professors, Joi Ito, accepted a heck of a lot of money from the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. So, at one of their meetings, Nicholasa Negroponte decided to “help”.

Throughout, the meeting had proceeded calmly. But as one of the organizers began to wrap things up, Negroponte stood up, unprompted, and began to speak. He discussed his privilege as a “rich white man” and how he had used that privilege to break into the social circles of billionaires. It was these connections, he said, that had allowed the Media Lab to be the only place at MIT that could afford to charge no tuition, pay people full salaries, and allow researchers to keep their intellectual property.

Negroponte said that he prided himself on knowing over 80% of the billionaires in the US on a first-name basis, and that through these circles he had come to spend time with Epstein. Over the years, he had two dinners and one ride in Epstein’s private jet alone, where they spoke passionately about science. (He didn’t say whether these occurred before or after Epstein’s 2008 conviction.) It was these interactions, he said, that warmed him to Epstein and made him confidently and enthusiastically recommend that Ito take the money.

It was at this point that Negroponte said he would still have given Ito the same advice today. Different people in attendance had conflicting interpretations of his statement. Some understood him to mean he would act the same way even knowing what he knows now about Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking. But Negroponte told the Boston Globe that in retrospect, “Yes, we are embarrassed and regret taking his money.”

Oh my god. Stop shooting yourself in the foot.

Negroponte has all these privileges. MIT is a good university with an excess of wealth and privilege. Isn’t it nice that he hangs out with capitalist looters? Shouldn’t all our science and education be funded by making friends with rich criminals? Yeah, let’s all cozy up to perverts and bankers and stock market speculators and hope they shower us with gold. Money is magic! It doesn’t matter where it comes from!

Some in the audience were shocked and horrified, the ones with some awareness and social consciousness. Negroponte just got up and admitted that all the great things that benefited all the lucky people at MIT were the product of unclean hands, and that he’d happily take any money from anyone, no matter how they acquired it.

I guess ethics isn’t one of the scholarly disciplines MIT is known for.

Oh, dear. Daniel Povey has been fired.

Earlier this spring, there was a major protest at Johns Hopkins University — students actually occupied the administration building to protest the formation of a private police force on campus. It warmed my heart to see such classic action.

Some professors didn’t like it at all. Daniel Povey gathered a group of like-minded conservative thinkers who weren’t affiliated with the university, grabbed some big ol’ boltcutters, and assaulted the protesters late one night. Punches were thrown. Povey and his friends were thrown back. He’s calling it a “counter-protest”, but protest movements don’t involve planned violence, and usually involve peaceful non-violence training, rather than angry mobs.

Daniel Povey has now been fired from his non-tenured position at Johns Hopkins. I find that interesting in itself, in that the institution he pretended to have been defending wants nothing to do with him.

According to Povey’s termination letter, he was suspended and banned from campus in May over allegations that he “engaged in violent and aggressive behavior when attempting forcibly to enter Garland Hall,” and his conduct “was motivated by racially discriminatory animus and created a hostile environment.”

Povey has admitted leading a group of people to the campus building around midnight on May 8, carrying bolt cutters. “You believed the group of nonaffiliates you brought with you could become violent,” the termination letter also says. As a faculty member, “you created a dangerous situation that could have ended in serious harm to our students, yourself and others in the community.”

Povey was repeatedly told not enter Garland Hall prior to the exchange, despite his requests to enter the building to access computer servers there, according to the letter.

“These actions by a member of our faculty are entirely unacceptable. The safety, security and protection of our students and others are of paramount importance to the university,” wrote Andrew S. Douglas, vice dean for faculty. While the university will continue its investigation until it reaches its conclusion, “your own account of events based on your oral and written statements provides more than sufficient grounds for immediate termination, and we are hereby terminating your appointment with the university.”

Even more fascinating, though, is his rant about his firing. It’s as if he felt compelled to provide independent verification of everything he was accused of in the administration’s letter.

“My feeling is that this mostly has to do with underrepresented minorities, specifically black people (and trans people). There seems to be nothing that Americans, or American institutions, fear more than being accused of racism (or similar isms), which leads to ridiculous spectacles like what we’re seeing here, where such a huge organization can be paralyzed by a handful of deluded kids.”

If Povey had known in advance “that everyone inside the building was black (that was what I saw; although from media coverage it seems that there may have been a white trans person in the core group) — I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the counterprotest,” he said. “I’m not an idiot; I know that as a person who demographically ticks all the ‘oppressor boxes,’ I would have to be severely punished for opposing such a group.”

White men in “this environment seem to be expected to constantly atone for their existence by telegraphing their exclusive concern for every demographic group but their own, like a neutered puppy dog or some Justin Trudeau man child,” he said. “It’s pathetic, in my opinion, and I don’t accept it at all. I am not prepared to apologize for being who I am. I don’t think that empathy should preclude critical thinking or basic self-respect.”

Povey goes on to criticize critiques of “toxic masculinity,” compare current discourses on gender and race to Animal Farm and Nazism, discusses animus toward market-dominant minorities, and ends with some Bob Dylan: “I ain’t sorry for nothing I’ve done/I’m glad I fought, I only wish we’d won.” He at one point uses the word — widely considered a slur — “retarded.”

I’ll spare you all the long defense of Nazi Germany in which he argues that Hitler might have been “a little bit triggered” by all those rich Jews. You can read it if you want. You probably don’t want to, not recommended.

As you might have guessed, Povey is a white man, and he thinks he was fired because he is a white man, rather than for being an insensitive bigot who used violence to attack students.

He deserved to be fired, although as you might expect, he’s failing upwards. He brags about getting a better job in industry, in Seattle. Sorry, Seattle. I won’t be surprised if he gets enlisted in the Intellectual Dork Web, since he fits the bigoted profile perfectly, or gets a writing gig for Quillette.

All right, Daniel. You know what we say.