Thursday, May 31, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 495 - Worst of All Possible Choices

May 31, 2007, 9:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m. (addition of "$300 Billion Motel 6")

This morning's theme is how our efforts to compromise can sometimes lead us to the worst of all possible choices. The examples: Search Committee II's plans for UI presidential candidates' campus visits; the petition proposing restrictions on bar entry by those under the legal drinking age; and what Gregg Easterbrook has called NASA's proposal for a $300 billion "Motel 6 on the Moon."

Search Committee II's Campus Visits

Let me make this clear up front: We owe a big round of applause to Search Committee II's chair, Dean Johnsen, and the members of the committee. It takes hours of effort to find the needle in a haystack -- or as it used to be put, "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince." (See, e.g., "Select the Employees.") Moreover, lest you are unaware, these folks are not paid for this time, nor do they really get anything like the credit from the academy that they would have received had they used the time to produce one or two additional academic articles to cite on their CVs. Notwithstanding the raging "open meetings" controversy (pro and con) regarding their closed sessions they have made a real effort to open their process as much as they felt they could. Moreover, I'm assuming (without knowing) that they will end up offering the Regents an excellent field of four or more from which the Regents can, finally, chose a UI president -- as we approach "UI Held Hostage Day 500."

However, the procedure they've chosen for campus visits strikes me as one of those compromises that combines the worst of all options. Brian Morelli, "Committee Zeroes In On Schedule," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 31, 2007, p. A3.

I've advocated more openness regarding candidates' identities, and the necessity of campus visits, since Search Committee II began its deliberations last January. I've also advocated that it make clear from the get-go -- for the benefit of the candidates themselves among other things -- whether it would, or would not, have campus visits (rather than waiting until now, as they have done).

The Committee, however, took the position that for a sitting president or provost to have it known that they would actually stoop to being considered for the UI presidency would cause such enormous harm to their professional reputation that the Committee would lose the opportunity to retain some of their very best candidates.

While I've never thought that to be the case, Search Committee II members did. Taking them at their word, and that being the case, I've never understood why, if secrecy is such a top priority, it's somehow OK to reveal the candidates' identities during a three-day campus visit but not a two-week campus visit, or why it's OK to reveal the identities of five or seven candidates, but not 20.

Not only does this procedure breach what candidates and Committee members alike have made a condition of the highest priority, it also doesn't offer much in the way of benefit.

As I wrote yesterday, and quoted prior search committee members as saying, much of the benefit of having candidates' identities known early is the flow of information that can produce about them that is otherwise unavailable. Nicholas Johnson, "Search Committee II Meeting Today; Campus Visits Plan" in "UI Held Hostage Day 494 - Healthcare, Search, Downtown," May 30, 2007. When thousands (rather than a dozen committee members) are potentially involved in networking with their thousands of contacts then orders of magnitude more information about these candidates becomes available -- both positive and negative -- that is extremely relevant to the final selection.

Thus, to truncate the visits, and indeed the time for the final decision, results in our incurring what one must assume is an enormous cost (the candidates' loss of secrecy) without providing the benefits that would come from longer campus visits and the networking that could have occurred had the identities been known a month ago.

Logic, Loopholes and Liquor

From the whirling dervish to a daiquiri in a whirling blender humankind has long been addicted to a variety of means for altering consciousness.

Of all the available means, alcohol is one of the most popular. So much so that it is now, by any measure, our nation's number one hard drug problem: numbers of people adversely affected by those who are alcoholic or alcohol abusers; its association with roughly half of all crime; permanent medical harm up to and including death; and the economic impact from property damage, lost time on the job, and so forth. In the college environment alcohol abuse and binge drinking are also associated with rape, unwanted pregnancies and abortions; fights and other physical violence; drunk driving; missed classes, poor academic performance, and increased numbers of dropouts; and even deaths from accidents and suicides.

Earlier this week when I inquired of a waiter in a local restaurant about an odd-shaped scar on his forehead he explained, "Oh, that? It's just from a fight; I got hit with a beer bottle."

The law school is just across the street from a dorm cafeteria that serves a wide variety of tasty food at reasonable prices in an attractive setting. Usually when I eat there it is with colleagues. But occasionally I go alone and end up visiting over lunch with an undergraduate. Occasionally the conversation turns to the matter of binge drinking (alcohol consumption, not for sociability, but to get drunk). Most admit to it, averaging more than once a week, with a tinge of pride. "Everybody does it."

Clearly, everyone doesn't do it. But enough do to rank the University of Iowa as one of the top binge drinking schools in the country. Even the college paper has a Thursday entertainment and drinking section called "80 Hours." Bear in mind, an entire week has only 168 hours. Why wait to start drinking until Saturday night when, with some attention to scheduling classes, the drinking can begin on Thursdays and you can spend a half of every week doing it?

Recently I visited in that dorm cafeteria with what turned out to be a freshman woman. (I did not ask for, and do not know, her name.) I inquired about her attendance at local bars. I tried not to reflect my shock as she went on detailing for me (a) the social pressure to go to the bars, and (b) how extremely easy it is for under-age (i.e., law breaking) undergraduates to order liquor in Iowa City's bars. (There are 40 to 50 within an easy walk from campus.) She explained how one goes about getting fake ID cards, how sloppy the supervision is in the bars, how you get a 21-year-old to order for you and then slip them the money under the table. The "stupid things" one has to avoid to kept from getting caught. It was all so matter-of-fact for this recent high school graduate who had obviously been a quck study.

The fact is, nobody really cares. The students enjoy the ease with which they can get drunk. The bar owners are making big time money from the students. The City Council follows former House Speaker Sam Rayburn's advice: "If you want to get along, go along." The University only gets concerned when a student dies in their own vomit, falls off a building, or drowns. Over the past 20 years we've spent millions from "Stepping Up" and other foundations and agencies -- and produced nothing but increased stepping up to the bar.

So the "radical proposed solution" -- that bar owners will defeat at the polls, and City Council members don't want to touch with their ten-foot poles -- is that the illegal, under-age drinkers be run out of the bars at 10 p.m. "Petition Approved for 21 Ordinance," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 31, 2007, p. 3A.

Even if the Council, or the voters, were to adopt this proposal, and even if the under-21 crowd would be easily identified and run out of every bar by 10, its most likely effect would be that the under-age drinkers would simply become more efficient at their binge drinking. How? They'd learn to drink even faster.

Mason Williams, one-time Emmy-winning head writer for the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," once wrote: "Here's a ball. Don't bounce it." The point, of course, is that balls invite bouncing -- unlike under-age drinkers in Iowa City's bars who, apparently, do not invite bouncing. But what the bars invite, indeed demand if they are to stay in business, is the consumption of alcohol.

Now what I am about to say may surprise you, given what's preceded it: The solution to this problem may be to lower the drinking age in Iowa to 18 -- as State29 argued two years ago, State29, "How to Eliminate Underage Drinking: Lower the Drinking Age," May 13, 2005 (and see, State29, "War Age: 18, Drinking Age: 21," May 31, 2005). Indeed, I've sometimes speculated as to whether it would be effective to lower it further. I've suspected that much of the drinking, at least the binge drinking, is an expression of rebellion, the breaking out from a sense of being repressed as a youth. My sense is that in cultures where even children are permitted to drink, say, watered down wine at the family dinner table, may be less likely to produce alcohol abuse later in life than those in which alcohol is forbidden. But note that I said "may be." I'd want to see some data, some "best practices" from other campuses and cultures. All I'm saying is that I'd be open to factually supported arguments.

As a matter of common sense and administrative ease, it would seem to me reasonable to provide that no one be permitted to enter any facility that is primarily devoted to an activity in which they are, by law, prohibited from engaging. Otherwise it is, as Mason Williams put it, "Here's a ball. Don't bounce it." This would presumably apply not only to bars but to gambling casinos, or establishments devoted to smoking and the sale of tobacco products.

And if this is to be the common sense approach, why would you make distinctions based on the time of day? If the law provides that you're not to buy and consume alcohol if you're under 21, why would it ever be OK to be in an establishment the primary purpose of which is the sale and consumption of alcohol? Why is it OK before 10 p.m., but not after?

All right, I understand this is a compromise, and there are arguments as to why it is an improvement. Clearly what's now going on is unacceptable.

But it seems to me it would make a lot more sense -- administratively, legally, socially -- to either (a) lower the drinking age to 18, and let 18-year-olds and above enter the bars whenever the bars are legally open, or (b) leave it at 21 and forbid anyone under 21 from entering at any time an establishment that is primarily in the business of selling alcohol.

NASA's $300 Billion Motel 6 on the Moon

While Peter Fisher, State29 and I worry about Iowa's transfer of millions of taxpayer dollars to for-profit corporate owners and other projects of dubious merit, NASA has a proposal that makes David Oman's Iowa Rainforest Project in Pella look like a Consumer Reports' "Best Buy."

I won't address why we would ever want to put humans on Mars. That's another set of issues. (At least when it comes to space science, Iowa's James Van Allen long advocated unmanned missions as an orders of magnitude cheaper way of getting the job done.)

But accepting for the moment the desirability of spending our tax dollars in that way, the fact is that we're not yet ready to send men to Mars. So to keep NASA's employees and contractors employed a compromise of some sort is required. And the compromise? To build a base station on the Moon.

There are only a couple of problems with that idea -- aside from the fact it will cost us $26,000 a pound just to move the construction materials and astronauts' supplies there -- ultimately some $300 billion, before cost overruns: (1) Those who best know the Moon tell us that (a) there's nothing more to learn there, and (b) nothing for astronauts to do there, and (2) given the fuel requirements for landing on, and taking off again from, the Moon, there's no way that a base station on the Moon would contribute in any way to a trip to Mars.

See, Gregg Easterbrook, "How NASA Screwed Up (And Four Ways to Fix It)," Wired Magazine: Issue 15.06, May 22, 2007.

It's just one more example of the need to (a) carefully and precisely think through what John Carver calls "ends policies" and most would call measurable goals, (b) be able to answer the question, "How would we know if we'd ever been 'successful'?" (c) understand the meaning behind the message on the poster, "None of us is as dumb as all of us," and (d) be mindful of the ways in which compromises can often result in our adopting the worst of all possible courses of action.

UICCU and "Optiva"

The UICCU-Optiva story is essentially behind us. There may be occasional additions "for the record," but for the most part the last major entry, with links to the prior material from October 2006 through March 2007, is "UICCU and 'Optiva'" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 406 - March 3 - Optiva," March 3, 2007. Since then there have been two major additions: Nicholas Johnson, "Open Letter to UICCU Board" in "UI Held Hostage Day 423 - March 20 - UICCU," March 20, 2007, and "'Open Letter': Confirmation from World Council of Credit Unions" in "UI Held Hostage Day 424 - March 21 UICCU," March 21, 2007.

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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

These blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

See above.

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Anonymous said...

Jim Van Allen used to say "There is no such thing as an inexpensive space program." When you live at the bottom of a gravitational well it costs a lot to get out of it and when you return four things can happen and
three of them are bad.

The last time NASA proposed a $400 billion program Congress laughed and that was the end of that.

Anonymous said...

Re: drinking age. I agree that lowering the drinking age to 18 is the best solution. Demystifying the whole culture of drinking will go a long way toward eliminating a lot of the alcohol abuse a lot of young people partake in. But if memory serves me correctly, the state cannot lower the drinking age unless it wants to lose its federal highway funding. I seem to remember that the federal government imposed the condition that a state must have a 21 drinking age to receive road funds, and that's why all states (I believe) are now 21. Am I mistaken here? It's hard to imagine the state being able to deal with no federal road funds.

TY said...

Regarding moon stations and what to do there, I seem to recall that in Clive Cussler's novel Cyclops, we discovered that the United States had already secretly built a moonbase. Of course, the moonbase employees were happy to get off the Moon, after, of course, fighting off some enemy force.

Yeah, Cussler's books started off somewhat believable, but after Deep Six (which came before Cyclops), they veered off into James Bond type-fantasyland.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Iowa City has set up a naughty game that makes underage binge drinking exciting, fun and very expensive for most undergraduates. Meanwhile bar profits and city coffers are padded very nicely, thank you. I also agree with you that lowering the drinking age to 18 might serve to dampen the adolescent thrills and stifle some of the shameless hypocrisy and pandering that surrounds the issue.

But part of the problem now is that the 19 law serves to attract a minority who has drinking as the top priority when they choose a college because there are few other Midwestern universities that allow students under 21 into the bars. So Iowa has become a party school and that minority has undue influence on the character and reputation of the school as well as being an influence on other students and local youth.

If 18 became a national law then I would support it but if only Iowa lowered the drinking age then we would just reinforce the notion that Iowa is a party school. Either way, it's not going to happen. I don’t like the idea of 21-only but unless someone comes up with a way to put an end to Iowa’s reputation as a party school then I may have to support it.

Anonymous said...

I think the CR Gazette came close to stating the most important issue in their editorial about the "21 referendum". Four of the seven council members said when they ran for election that they would not support a 21 only ordinance. When it the split was 3-3-1 Connie Champion had a little leverage over the bar owners because she was the deciding vote. That is no longer the case and the bar owners can ignore the city council.

Will the voters put up with that?

In the past 20 years 30,000 persons were arrested and jailed for public intoxication in Johnson County so it is reasonable to expect that in 2008 1,500 will be jailed on the same charge no matter how the 21 vote turns out. That will also be true for OWI arrests but in that case the number jailed per year will be about 1,000. If the police chief has money to pay overtime so officers can do bar checks I doubt there will be much difference in the number of persons cited for PAULA.

We have no idea how many private drinking parties there are per year and no realistic chance of determining that rate in future years so any claims about the increae/decrease in private drinking parties cannot be verified. In other words I think the benefits of 21 only as a mechanism for controlling underage drinking are so small they will be lost in the noise in the measurements.

If the 21 only referendum passes I think that the large downtown bars will manage to stay in business (with a continuation of the search for the false ID that can fool the police) but I am not very optimistic about the future of the small bars downtown. I don't think the bars outside of the downtown have much to be concerned about.

Anonymous said...

Going to 21 only is a bad idea.

Guess what? The kids won't stop drinking. You will just push them into smaller partying groups in apartments and home made speakeasies. Better to have it in the open. The 18 drinking age has some merit, but is virtually impossible as long as the State of Iowa wants federal highway dollars.

Kids having been binge drinking at the UI for YEARS, and all these self righteous "Do as I say, not as I did" Baby Boomers need to realize that prohibition did not work in the 1920's and won't today.

Anonymous said...

Ah what a wonderful example of moral relativism – “hey kids, you’re right, if you can’t get your way downtown then threaten to trash the neighborhoods with lots of drunken parties!!”

Of course that ignores the fact that the legal ramifications of irresponsible behavior at a house party are borne by the leaseholders and not, as is now often the case downtown, by the bar owner and their insurance company. Yes, there would be more house parties to begin with but then the legal realities would sink in. IOW folks would be held responsible for their behavior. Radical idea that.

It is simply a false choice to propose that the only option to the status quo is prohibition. What do students learn in the current situation? It is a sleazy lesson in hypocrisy, expediency and amorality. Everybody knows that students will drink in any case. The question is how this community structures the moral and legal education of our young adults.

Anonymous said...

From 1920 to 1933 the public consumption of alcohol was prohibited and after 1934 the minimum age to drink alcohol (MADA) was 21. From 1970 to 1975 29 states set the MADA to 18, 19 or 20. In 1894 Congress passed the Uniform Drinking Age Act which told the states they should set the MADA to 21 or lose federal road tax revenue.

Around 1970-2 the Iowa MADA was 18 and then two years later was changed to 19 because 18 year old high school students were providing alcohol to younger classmates. So from about 1975 to 1984-5 the Iowa MADA was 19.

From 1985 to date there has been massive noncompliance with this law by a substantial fraction of the 18 to 20 age group. When the UI is in session we have 12% of the Iowans in that age group in Johnson County and we have about 14% of the arrests for liquor law violations which are dominated by PAULA citations.

Because of the high concentration of 18 to 20 year olds here it is very obvious that they are telling the legislature that they can take their stupid law and shove it.

You rule with the consent of the governed and in this case you don't have their consent.