How to kill a university

Pay attention, Republicans. I know this is what you want.

Florida’s New College has had a rocky time since DeSantis was elected governor. He hates the liberal arts university, and placed a lot of anti-education administrators in charge — first and foremost, that execrable hack Chris Rufo, straight from the anti-science propaganda outlet, the Discovery Institute.

But first, some good news! Enrollments are up.

The incoming freshman class, which is the largest in New College’s history, will include at least 341 students; 155, or just under half, are student athletes, according to university spokesperson Nathan March.

That is very good news. I know my university has suffered with low enrollments for the past few years, thanks to the pandemic. My upper-level course enrollments are still looking worryingly low this year, but my freshman class is having a surge, which is promising for the future. I’d say this also promises excellent prospects for New College, except…

They seem to be using athletics to lure in new students. Student athletes are great, well-rounded students for the most part, so that’s not intrinsically bad, but the question is whether the new class is appropriately focused. We have lots of student athletes at UMM too, but they know their primary goal is to get an education. Is that true for new students attracted to New College?

I also wonder, given the notoriety of the changes Florida Republicans have been imposing, how many of these new students are right wing goons seeing an opportunity to undermine a liberal arts university.

Another problem: they don’t seem to have planned ahead. They’ve got more first year students, but no place to put them, so they’ve booked an off-campus hotel to house the surplus.

Students first heard in June that there was a chance their housing contracts, which were finalized in April, could change, according to a Tampa Bay Times article from July. Apartments typically reserved for juniors and seniors would now house the more than 100 new student athletes New College had admitted for the fall.

The remaining students are being squeezed into the other dorms on campus—except for a number of rooms that are offline due to mold and other structural problems—or being asked to live in a nearby hotel, the Home2 Suites by Hilton Sarasota Bradenton Airport, if they cannot secure their own off-campus housing. The college has rented out the entire Home2 Suites for the semester, totaling 133 beds, according to the contract between the institution and the hotel.

Oops, there’s the student athletes getting priority again. The hotel is a mile off campus, requiring students to walk along a busy highway to get to class.

Students placed in the Home2 Suites hotel worry about how they will commute to and from New College, about a mile away. For those without vehicles, the journey consists of a 15-minute walk largely along a stretch of busy highway. Parents and faculty have also complained that high levels of crime make the area unsafe, especially at night. While a shuttle is available, it is infrequent—running hourly until 11 p.m.—and can only carry a handful of passengers.

“They don’t seem to be able to plan ahead very well at all,” said Hannah Galantino-Homer, whose son was assigned to live in the Home2 Suites, although he had already decided to transfer out of New College by the time he got the news a few weeks ago. “Like, you don’t think people need to be on campus after [11]?”

This is a huge coordination and planning problem. If your enrollments are over your capacity, the responsible thing to do is tighten up your admission requirements and get the numbers down to what you can handle. Recruiting lots of students mainly on their athletic ability is not a great long-term solution.

I haven’t even gotten to their big problem yet: they’re hemorrhaging faculty.

When a committee of the New College of Florida Board of Trustees met in July, a whopping 36 faculty members had already left since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initiated a conservative restructuring of the institution in January. That number has subsequently grown to more than 40, Amy Reid, the sole faculty member on the board, told Inside Higher Ed.

Now, as students prepare for the fall semester, the impact of the faculty exodus is becoming apparent: many classes won’t be offered at New College this term.

The course catalogue was already sparse when students first began looking at classes last spring. Dani Delaney, the mother of one former New College student who is transferring to Hampshire College in Massachusetts—which guaranteed admission to all New College students in good standing—said her son could only find two classes that counted towards his “area of concentration” (which is what New College calls majors). When he contacted the institution about the lack of relevant courses, she said, he was told the course catalogue was “in flux” and to “choose something else.”

This is a disaster for a small university, where we’re often operating on the knife’s edge of staffing.You need a critical mass of diverse skills to properly teach a discipline. For instance, our physics department lost two faculty to retirement, leaving one person to teach everything (we didn’t plan far enough ahead), which is not viable. We were frantically scrambling to hire short term faculty while trying to get approval to hire tenure-track replacements. I can’t imagine what the New College departments are doing, adding the abrupt losses to the fact that New College is not an attractive venue for the best new faculty. On top of that, they’re disorganized and using political ideology to wreck programs.

“For neuroscience, there’s only one elective beyond the introductory level right now, which is not healthy,” Leininger said, noting that the number of faculty in NCF’s neuroscience program has declined from three to one. “The number of choices students have this year is drastically reduced … if one of those classes conflicts with another class they have to take that is completely required, they’re going to have trouble staying on track for their major.”

Leininger said she received permission from her new institution to teach New College’s neurobiology course over Zoom—a plan the NCF administration at first seemed to embrace. In an email to Leininger that she shared with Inside Higher Ed, Bradley Thiessen, the college’s interim provost said he would “advocate” for her to teach the course if she was willing and able to do so.

But about two months later, she got word from NCF that she would not be allowed to teach the class, for reasons that were not explained. She suspects it may have something to do with her outspoken opposition to the direction DeSantis and the board are taking the institution, which has included speaking to the media about her decision to leave and reposting criticisms of the administration on X.

That’s what happens when you let incompetent hacks take charge. They’re losing the confidence of the students and their parents, too.

Dani Delaney’s son, a rising sophomore, decided he wouldn’t return to New College this semester in large part because he felt uneasy about the university’s decision to walk back the housing assignments students chose last spring.

He replied to multiple emails from the residential life department saying he wouldn’t be attending in the fall. Nevertheless, he received a notice on Aug. 9 telling him he had forfeited his spot in campus housing by failing to respond.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, how many other people might have gotten that same email of, hey, basically, you’re on your own, kid,” Delaney said. “It just shows that they have not committed to what’s in the best interest of the student body. It’s so wrong, the way they’ve gone about it. The disorganization—I can’t wrap my brain around it. This is not how you run a college.”

I wonder how many of those new enrollments will still be there in a year or two? How many will be able to successfully graduate?

There might be a bit of climate shock moving from Florida to Minnesota, but we’d welcome any transfer students who’d like to attend a stable, reliable university, with the capacity to handle them and also the responsibility to provide a good learning environment.

HeLa wins one

The family of Henrietta Lacks has settled with Thermo Fisher over the use of their relative’s cells, a staple of tissue culture research. It was entirely confidential, which is unfortunate — it feels like it might have been a “here’s a lump of money, now shut up and go away” sort of deal, which will be a short term benefit to the family, who deserve some compensation, but now presumably the ethical discussion will just disappear.

There was an earlier agreement that I think was more significant.

Lacks’ family members have never shared in any of the untold riches unlocked by the material, called HeLa cells, and they won’t make any money under the agreement announced Wednesday by the family and the National Institutes of Health.

But they will have some control over scientists’ access to the cells’ DNA code. And they will receive acknowledgement in the scientific papers that result.

The agreement came after the family raised privacy concerns about making Henrietta Lacks’ genetic makeup public. Since DNA is inherited, information from her DNA could be used to make predictions about the disease risk and other traits of her modern-day descendants.

Under the agreement, two family members will sit on a six-member committee that will regulate access to the genetic code.

“The main issue was the privacy concern and what information in the future might be revealed,” David Lacks Jr., grandson of Henrietta Lacks, said at a news conference.

“Untold riches” is quite an exaggeration. Cell lines are mundane tools that also require ongoing investment to maintain, and while I’m sure the companies profited excessively, it wasn’t quite on the scale of selling Oxycontin. But yes, the Lacks family should get a cut.

More important than money, though, is that the family that shares Henrietta Lacks’ genetic heritage should be acknowledged and share stewardship of that legacy. I’d want that kind of control over my body, and would be resentful of any profit-making venture that stole that from me or my children. That’s the precedent we need.

Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1: A surfeit of colons

I saw this dog’s breakfast of a movie last night. Hated it.

  • It’s got a macguffin, a cruciform key that somehow will give the person who uses it control of an AI that can crack all of the intelligence agencies in the world. It does nothing in this movie. It’s just a small metal object that everyone has to chase, endlessly.
  • It has the most boring villain ever. A handsome man named Gabriel who, apparently at the behest of the AI, appears to stand handsomely in the middle of the action, doing pretty much nothing, except it turns out he’s a great knife-fighter in one scene.

  • There are car chases. They’re pointless exercises in chasing — they’re only motivated by the fact that someone has the macguffin, and someone else wants it. You want car chases? Go watch Baby Driver, which does them well and integrates them into the story.

  • There is a fight scene on top of a runaway train. Of course there is.

  • Ving Rhames is the stereotypical movie hacker. He doesn’t do anything but make portentous statements and announce that he’s going to hack a computer. He wiggles his fingers magically. Don’t worry, no one involved in writing this movie understands computers or hacking or AI.

  • Oh my god, the writing. It’s terrible. For instance, there’s a scene where a room full of intelligence bureaucrats who are reciting a summary of the problem. The thing is, it’s a series of sentences, and the individuals go around the room with each one saying one sentence in turn. People don’t talk that way. There are multiple scenes where the dialog is clumsy and unrealistic.

  • There is a stupid scene where Simon Pegg is sent on a side-quest to neutralize a tiny nuclear bomb. It turns out to be a puzzle game, with riddles. It’s like something you’d find in a video game. And then it turns out to be a fake bomb. The whole scene could have been cut without affecting the movie at all, except that they needed to give Pegg something to do.

  • The masks. I hate the fucking stupid masks, and the obligatory scene where a character pulls off a thick rubbery latex mask to reveal that he was some other character. Masks can’t do that, they’ll fool no one, but it’s a thing in these movies.

  • Tom Cruise, running. Running, running, running. He never arrives at a fight out of breath, though.

  • There are stunts done for the sake of being stunts. The stupid mask machine burnt out, so Tom Cruise can’t just disguise himself and walk onto a train, he instead chooses to jump off a mountain in a motorcycle and parachute into the moving train. Yeah, much more subtle and sneaky. No one will notice.

  • It is two hours and forty three minutes long, and it’s just part one.

  • In the next movie, they already have the macguffin part one, so macguffin part two will be a sunken submarine beneath the arctic ice cap, where the AI exists. I don’t care.

The best thing about Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1 is that it cured me of any desire to see Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 2. Too late. It’s going to make a derailed train car falling off a cliff full of money.

I’m a 16

This is a good time of year to just vanish — take a long walk into the empty fields around here, hunker down in a bit of brush, and freeze to death as the snow covers your corpse. Or fall into a frigid river and drown under the ice. There are lots of ways to go, and I’m not even considering the nefarious actions of evil-doers.

But now the Columbia Journalism Review has posted an an analysis of how much press your disappearance is worth. I took the little quiz which gathers your age, race, and sex and determines how interested the press would be in your demise. As it turns out, not very.

That settles it. I won’t plan on wandering off to die mysteriously any time in the near future. It’s just not worth it.

So what’s your newsworthiness? I have the advantage of being white, but the local newspapers aren’t going to get worked up over the fact of another old man disappearing.

The Christmas movie I deserved

The semester is winding down to its last week, which means that I’m suddenly embraced by a mountain of tedious administrative work. I posted an online exam on Saturday, which I’ll have to grade on Tuesday; the students all submitted their final lab report, which I have to get graded by Wednesday; I’m giving a practice lab final tomorrow, and the real thing later this week, which I have to finish grading by the weekend; I have another exam to give in my intro class on Thursday; I’ve got some term papers to stamp with an official final grade; I get to sit through another round of phone interviews for a chemistry position tomorrow night; and then I have two finals to give and grade next week. Did I forget anything? Probably.

Anyway, I wrapped up one pile of work yesterday, and decided I could justify a little celebration. I could see a movie. A Christmas movie! That’ll cheer me up.

The Christmas movie playing in town is Violent Night. It wasn’t exactly the light holiday fare I expected.

The plot is ripped off from other Christmas movies, in particular, Die Hard. A small horde of vicious criminals descend on the mansion of a rich woman who, they’ve learned, has $300 million in cash on hand. Their theft is meticulously planned, right down to infiltrating the squad of military veterans who are supposed to fly to the woman’s rescue if anything nefarious happens to her party. The one thing they didn’t plan for was that one resilient, cunning man would just happen to be in the house when they invaded.

That man is not Bruce Willis, but instead is…Santa Claus. The real deal. The actual mythic figure who happened to be in the house to deliver presents when the terrorists opened fire, scaring his reindeer and sleigh away, leaving him behind to get revenge.

There’s also a little girl in the house who escapes the thieves and starts building booby traps ala Home Alone. One difference: her booby traps straight up murder the bad guy who tries to climb a ladder to get to her, with bowling balls falling on his head and driving a nail into his skull so he falls onto a floor covered with spiky nasty things.

Another unexpected detail — no, not a mere detail, the whole bloody movie — is that Santa arms himself with a sledgehammer and proceeds to smash all the naughty people (he has a list, he checks it, and they’re all listed under “Naughty”) into grisly pulp. Santa can be killed, and is shot multiple times, but he is revived by the family he’s rescuing telling his corpse that they believe. And by burning half a million dollars to keep him warm, which I suppose is a metaphor for something.

It’s a twisted, hyper-violent movie, and maybe the Christmas movie America deserves, if you think we deserve a demented gory trifle like a gift chihuahua gone rabid and feral, there to show you why we can’t have anything nice. This movie is little more than a novelty mashup swathed in blood. It ain’t Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but it is in the same family, updated for the 21st century.

I don’t know whether I liked it or not. Don’t bother asking me.

It was better than, and less bloody than, grading lab reports, though, and also not as evil and degenerate as Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, so I guess I’ll have to give it a tentative thumbs up.

Being aware of others’ humanity has always been a good principle

One of the methods used to measure in-breeding in cheetahs was to to do skin grafts. Transplant a small patch of skin from one animal to another, and if there was no tissue rejection, then they were likely to be genetically similar. Those were routine experiments done on animals, where you don’t need to explain to the subject why you’re doing these bizarre experiments.

I guess some scientists in the 1970s thought Inuit were equivalent to experimental animals, because they were doing the same thing without getting informed consent.

Nearly 50 years ago, the hamlet of Igloolik was the site of a boom in scientific research, all part of a larger project called the International Biological Program. While the program was aimed at answering a wide array of scientific questions, much of the work in Igloolik focused on Inuit.

“We would do all these different kinds of things for a researcher,” said former Nunavut premier Paul Quassa, who grew up in Igloolik.

In the early ’70s he was a young man, spending his days going to school and hunting. He remembers researchers being in the community and doing experiments — he says some were merely inconvenient and annoying, but others were more invasive.

Quassa remembers being taken to a research building with his uncle and his cousin. There, they were told to roll up their sleeves.

“They took pieces of our skin, from another person, and then they put into ours,” said Quassa.

“They had a little circular knife or blade, and they would just start twisting it and then you could see the skin being cut in a circle.”

I don’t do experiments on people, but I would think a fundamental principle of basic bioethics is that you would explain what you were doing, why you were doing it, and you would share the results with your subjects. These researchers don’t seem to be aware of the concept.

“It was an earlier time,” I can hear the science advocates saying. It was only 50 years ago! Scientists were well aware of the controversy of the Tuskegee project — news of that horror broke in 1972. Anyone doing research on human subjects should have known about it.

It’s estimated that researchers did the skin grafting experiment on more than 30 Inuit from Igloolik, including Lazarie Uttak.

“I was grafted with part of the skin of my sister,” said Uttak. “I feel like we were being used.”

Uttak, 67, still lives in Igloolik and says at least 15 of the people who were experimented on are still alive in the hamlet today.

“We talk about this sometimes,” he said. “It was really unfair. We never got any information from them about why this was happening and the reason why they did it. I never found out.”

We know the name of one of the researchers, Dr John Dossetor.

Dossetor was a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta at the time. He went on to become an expert in medical ethics.

In his book, Dossetor writes that his research in Igloolik received “community consent,” which he said was granted by elders via a non-Inuk translator. At the time Dossetor felt that was sufficient.

What the hell is “community consent”? Does that mean that the mayor of Morris, Minnesota could tell a researcher that it’s OK to do experiments on me? I think the problems with that idea are obvious. They sure are obvious to the Inuit subjected to these experiments.

Quassa shot back at the doctor’s concept of “community consent.” He questions what details were actually shared with locals in Inuktitut, and dismissed the idea that elders could unilaterally grant consent for invasive medical procedures.

“I’ve heard of scientists doing experiments on monkeys — they use animals to do a lot of experiments for the betterment of humankind,” he said.

“We are not monkeys, we are not animals, we are another human being that deserves respect.”

Now I’m wondering what experiments are being done on isolated communities here in the ’20s that will be revealed in the 2070s that will horrify everyone, and whether they’ll try to defend themselves by saying that we didn’t know better in 2020.

You know, we do.

The most powerful 4 minutes of science communication ever

Prepping for my intro class today, we’re wrapping up the unit on basic Mendelian genetics and a little more. The students are now supposed to understand monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, chromosomes, and the principle of gene mapping. So today we’re going to talk about how genetics has been and can be abused, and how we have a long way to go before we fully understand inheritance. Yeah, we’re going to talk about eugenics and modern distortions of genetics. It’ll be depressing.

Then, to make it even more difficult, I’m sending them home with some reading and an assignment to watch this video of an old man with a funny accent just talking.

We’ll be talking about the subject of ethics in science on Thursday. I can’t let students walk away from instruction in elementary genetics thinking it’s simple and that they’ve been handed the keys to absolute certainty and comprehensive knowledge of the human condition. We’ve got enough of those people.

Good god, when will this end?

The front page of the Washington Post:

The front page of the New York Times:

I don’t care any more. Shove the old dead parasite into her vault and move on, OK? I understand the slow procession of a corpse across a country might be the only news of importance in the world, but I have a suspicion that other things might also be happening, and it might be appropriate to balance a relatively mundane event with some matters of real import.

Oh, look! There was also a football game or two this week, and what? Biden declares the pandemic is over? Sorry, we’re out of time, need to talk about the queues of Brits lined up to watch a hearse drive by.

Turn off CNN

Here’s why:

I don’t generally watch the 24 hour news networks at all, but this is spectacularly egregious. Harwood made a reasonable statement about the current US political situation, and got fired by an upper management that is probably heavily Republican.

Just switch it off. It’s not hard.

I wouldn’t mind if Marvel movies became a small niche

A few years ago, I was lining up for the superhero blockbusters, too (metaphorically — we don’t have long lines or big crowds at our theater). But since then, I’ve grown tired of them, and this summer when some monster Marvel movie is playing, I say “meh” and skip it. I don’t miss them at all. Watching CGI gets old fast. So this news sounds good to me!

The share of adults who enjoy superhero movies ticked down slightly compared to a year ago, according to a Morning Consult survey released Thursday, a worrisome trend for Disney’s Marvel franchise as its movies experience a rare relative slump at the box office and among critics – and Disney expands its investment in the properties.

The poll found 36% of all respondents enjoy superhero movies, down from 41% last November.

Perhaps most worrisome is the share of self-identified Marvel fans who enjoy the movies also fell, dropping from 87% to 82%.

That’s still a hefty percentage of those polled, so I wouldn’t be worried about Disney’s financial health right now. I also wouldn’t want those things to completely disappear, since some people still enjoy them — I think I’d enjoy them more, too, if I weren’t drowning in a glut of them. I also have to point out that the MCU oppresses workers and is a tyrannical overlord. They’ve pumped out 29 movies since 2008? How? By abusing special effects houses.

To get work, the houses bid on a project; they are all trying to come in right under one another’s bids. With Marvel, the bids will typically come in quite a bit under, and Marvel is happy with that relationship, because it saves it money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed. Where I would usually have a team of ten VFX artists on a non-Marvel movie, on one Marvel movie, I got two including myself. So every person is doing more work than they need to.

The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation all around. One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself — just the sheer number of movies it has. It sets dates, and it’s very inflexible on those dates; yet it’s quite willing to do reshoots and big changes very close to the dates without shifting them up or down. This is not a new dynamic.

Maybe if they slowed down a bit and paid more attention to quality and thought about good stories that don’t end with muscle-bound thugs getting into a fist fight? You know, that creativity and imagination thing? We’d all benefit.

You know, last night I went to the movies to see Where the Crawdads Sing, and I enjoyed it thoroughly in spite of the patent tear-jerking and some minor implausibilities. One good thing about comic book movies is that they’ve trained us to overlook the screaming impossibilities in a fantasy story to pay attention to the story, which is usually a bit threadbare in those kinds of movies. I’d like to see more movies that don’t OD on the lycra and the kayfabe and resolving problems with fists.

That said, I’m still planning to binge out on The Sandman later this afternoon, once I get some duties done. (Also, I’ll be working on my syllabus while I’m at it.)