Sunday, January 31, 2010

From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly

January 31, 2010, 9:20 a.m.

Universities Yesterday and Tomorrow
For universities today, and more, see the bottom of this blog entry
(brought to you by*)

There are probably thousands of reports on the challenges confronting higher education, their missions, their five-year plans. From my perspective each challenge has a solution.

But few academics address the worst case scenario: the disappearance of universities as we know them. That challenge also has a solution. Unfortunately, it also has powerful analogies.

Try 40, not 5-year plans. Over 40 years ago, in an environment of libraries’ card catalogs, paper newspapers, and three TV networks, I predicted “Communications in the Year 2000” (ultimately a chapter in How to Talk Back to Your Television Set) would include “instantaneous, ubiquitous, no-cost access to all information.” Today it's here. We call it the Internet.

The 99.99%-off sale. We’re used to January's 10% to 50%-off sales. But 99.9% off? The computational capacity you could buy for $1 million 40 years ago -- but would have been far too heavy to lift -- today's students now have delivered by UPS, carry in backpacks, and costs them $1000 (or less). The 99.9%-off sale. So what, you ask?

Broadside blows. So companies, even entire industries, have disappeared or struggle against formerly unpredictable competition. All the rules have changed – and at an accelerating rate of change. That’s “so what.”

Ten years ago Facebook (300 million members), YouTube (20 hours of video uploaded each minute), Wikipedia (3 million articles; 161 language editions), and iPhone (3 billion downloaded applications) didn’t exist.

With 4.5 billion cell phones in over 200 countries, and smart phones’ Internet capabilities, cell phone networks are rapidly becoming the platform, the pathway to the new Internet. The cable TV and landline phone companies, and the Wi-Fi systems they feed, may feel the same kind of broadside blow out of nowhere from which the newspaper industry is now trying to recover.

Musicians and their fans no longer need “record companies,” film makers don’t need “studios,” journalists “newspapers,” or authors “publishers.” All can go directly to the Internet. Craig’s List is the new “classifieds.” Amazon the new Sears. Downloaded movies closed video rental stores.

Why do we think our near-$300 billion industry called higher education is immune to such telecommunications tsunamis?

Just as the online content of the New York Times is available for free, so is the online content of an undergraduate education. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton make courses available online for free. The near-250 million additional Web sites provide the rest of what students need.

Is the "college education" a student can get off the Internet "the same" or "as good as" what can be obtained by sitting in a college classroom or lecture hall for 1800 hours (120 credits times 15 weeks each)? Probably not. Though I would say, "it depends."

Faculty can inspire, excite, encourage and direct students who want to learn. And that makes a difference, often a big difference in an occasional student's life. But no one can "teach" someone else, particularly someone who is not all that enthusiastic about learning in the first place. "You can lead a horse to water . . .."

With "public" universities' tuition closing the gap with that of Ivy League colleges, it is not that unusual for the total cost of an undergraduate and graduate education to cost on the order of $200,000 or more (tuition is only a part of that total), whether the parents saved for it, pay for it, or the student borrows for it. (Of course, the cost is even greater if the opportunity cost -- what could have been earned in the marketplace during those four-to-eight years, but wasn't -- is factored in.)

Thus, even if the gains from sitting in that classroom (offset by the losses from binge drinking and other temptations and time wasters) exceeds the value of obtaining that education on one's own, is the incremental value worth the $200,000 or more?

And if the answer to that question is not immediately obvious, it leads us to the next question: Why, then, would anyone lay out that kind of money just to learn stuff?

The answer, of course, is that they would not. Not when you can learn stuff for free. So why are they paying; what are they getting for that money?

They are paying the money to obtain the certification that they are a "college graduate," as they go into an economy that rewards that certification with higher pay.

If that's the primary goal, why don't they go elsewhere to get the certification? Because accredited colleges and universities are the only institutions licensed to print those certificates. (Paying $200, a much lesser amount (another 99.9%-off sale?), for the printing of the fake driver's license necessary for the illegal consumption of alcohol near campus is one thing. But lying about one's "college graduate" certification, or obtaining and framing a counterfeit degree, tend to be viewed as a much more serious offense in the workplace.)

Higher education's hold on parents' and students' wallets comes from the monopoly those institutions hold on the granting of degrees, and the resulting "medallion value" those diplomas possess.

Do you see how fragile that monopoly can be in our digitized, globalized world that Tom Friedman tells us is now flat?

If newspapers and book companies are discovering that writers can go directly to the global market that is the Internet without passing through their editors, if "record companies" find that musicians can do the same (with either samples or whole tracks for free or for sale), if video rental stores are boarded up while their customers download movies, why do we think higher education will forever hold a monopoly on "college" certification?

And what if we didn't?

• In 1971 73% of college students said it was “essential or very important” to have a “meaningful philosophy of life.” Today 78% identify “wealth” as their goal, and “business” is the most popular major.

• Parents understandably wonder about the value of a college degree that may cost $200K or more.

• Firms that seek self-starting, creative knowledge workers recognize the value of the equivalent of a liberal arts education. They also know a diploma doesn’t even guarantee the basic math and language skills the firm needs in its employees -– and that those skills don’t require a diploma.

Business doesn’t want “majors;” it wants employees with those basic skills. Southwest Airlines says, “we hire for attitude and train for skills.” But as the executive of a local Fortune 500 told me, “We can’t even train employees for skills if they haven’t mastered the basics.”

Passing the GED exam is treated as a high school equivalency. Passing the GRE exam qualifies a student for graduate school.

What if those who could pass a standardized exam were recognized as even better than college graduates (because of the rigorous language and math components)? A local business person told me he’d hire them for “college graduate” positions in a New York minute. He wants to know what they can do, their willingness to work and sense of responsibility, and what time management and social skills they have -- not what grades they got or how many initials they're legally entitled to put after their names.

Educators are slow to change. Professors started lecturing 1000 years ago because there were no books. Now, notwithstanding books, we’re still lecturing to warm (if often inattentive) bodies in lecture halls.

We don’t have 1000 years this time. If the UI ever loses its monopoly on certification Marc Moen will be replacing four Pentacrest buildings with high-rise condos.

The certification process may remain in Iowa City, but be based on results of exams announced by ACT and Pearson, institutions with neither faculty nor students, certifying those qualified for employment as knowledge workers in a global economy.

If we ever transform what was once SUI into ACT, the certificate ACT awards to a University of Phoenix graduate will be the full equivalent of the diploma we give a UI graduate -- or the certificate a dedicated student obtains without assistance from either institution.

It couldn’t happen? I remember when no one else imagined a $1 million computer could ever sell for $1000 and become part of a global network.


More . . .

Today's blog entry is deliberately kept short enough to make it an easy read.

But because there were a lot of other thoughts running through my mind while writing it, I thought I'd simply append some of them here, rather than embedding them above.

Jim Stroud. As a young kid, there are some of your parents' friends you connect with and really like. Jim Stroud -- faculty member, neighbor, and family friend -- was one of those for me. I thought he looked like Mark Twain. He may have actually been from Missouri, I don't know. He had the moustache, smoked a pipe, wore tweed coats, had a bit of a twang and a great sense of humor. He and Dad claimed to be Swedish cousins, though I don't think they ever really documented that. They both worked at writing amusing "laws." As a sample, one of Dad's was, "What else is there to scratch but the surface?" One of Jim's was, "I'd rather walk down one dry road than ten muddy roads." Maybe you had to be there. (Actually, he lived at the top of the hill that is now "Greenwood," and was then sometimes a muddy road.) Since they had geese up there, I assume they must have been the donors of my sister, Kate's, goose "Blimp."

I am literally a child of the University of Iowa: born it its then-new hospital on the west side of the River, part of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Clinic's two-, three-, and four-year-old groups (then at 9 East Market Street), and a student at (and ultimately graduate of) the College of Education's "University Elementary and High School" (Class of 1952), now simply "North Hall."

As such, we were the guinea pigs for a great variety of educational testing and doctoral dissertations. And one of those experiments was Jim Stroud's, and the world's, very early efforts at "speed reading."

As he traveled around the State of Iowa, trying to sell school districts on the idea of trying it, he was often confronted with the argument, "But if they read that fast they won't learn and remember the material." (Truth is, you often learn and remember it better.) Jim's response was, "Well, I figure if it takes 'em two hours to read their homework assignment now, and they don't understand it, and I can show 'em how they can read it in 45 minutes, and they still don't understand it, well, shucks, I've done 'em a favor."

That's kind of my reaction to the opposition to kids studying on their own from an organized curriculum available off the Internet at no cost to themselves. "Well, I figure if it takes 'em five years in college to get a four-year degree for $200,000 now, and they don't learn all that much in the process, and I can show 'em how they can get the equivalent "college" certificate by studying on the Internet, for free, and they still don't learn all that much, well, shucks, I've done 'em a $200,000 favor."

Certificates. There's an enormous amont of online education, training and certification going on now -- and that's before taking into account the increasing number of students (both on and off campuses) who are picking up academic credit for online courses from their own institution or others. The military has online courses and training, including college credits. Microsoft offers a number of certification programs online, qualifying those who "pass" with levels of expertise in various computer science specialties. Human subjects researchers are now required by the NIH to take an online training program regarding human subjects research ethics before receiving grants.

In fact, even teachers get "certification" as well as, or without the need for, formal "college" credits:

"West High journalism teacher Sara Whittaker has achieved Certified Journalism Educator status from the Journalism Education Association. To earn the certification, a teacher must earn college credit in news reporting and writing, communications law and publications advising, or pass an examination that demonstrates their proficiency in those areas." "Teacher Earns Certification," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 1, 2010.

How can educators possibly argue that they can demonstrate proof of skills and professional advancement through certification without formal classes, but it is somehow inappropriate for students to do so?

Indeed, the University of Iowa is already offering online courses, instruction, training and certification, e.g., "UI Learning and Development/E-Learning." That's not really an answer to the potential "broadside blow" if higher education loses its certification monopoly, but it is an illustration of the fact that -- like the newspapers that gave away their content online and then came to regret it -- universities are certainly capable of offering education without buildings.

A couple days ago I met a woman, married with four kids, probably in her late thirties, who never finished college, but still has dreams of someday attending law school. Given the childhood she endured, no one could have predicted the success she has achieved in her chosen line of work. She has over the years put herself through every relevant certification program that relates to her job, and now has more initials after her name than your average Nobel Prize winner. I have absolutely no doubt that if a free, online route to certificate of "college equivalency" and "law degree" were available to her she would pursue them. And I suspect that, as extraordinary as she is, there are probably more like her out there, and that we are all poorer as a nation for not making that path possible for them.

The legal profession's "certification" approach. Ironically, the ability to practice law -- the study of which in universities is a graduate program on top of an earned undergraduate degree -- is controlled with a certification process in many ways unrelated to academic institutions: the "bar examination."

Admittedly, most lawyers attend, and graduate from, law schools before taking a bar exam. But there are still states and circumstances where that is not required. (I have not independently researched this, but this Web page cites as its source "Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2004," published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.)

And, like most professions, there is a kind of ongoing certification process called "continuing legal education" that requires practicing lawyers to earn a minimum number of "CLE credits" each year to maintain their "active" status and continue to practice law. Increasingly, these programs are offered online. (Although my bar membership can be maintained as "inactive status" because I'm not actually practicing law and taking clients, I "sat in" -- meaning, "in" front of my computer screen -- this past week, for an hour-long, online exploration of the use of trademarks on the Internet that would have provided me CLE credits had I needed them. It was a "class" offered, not incidentally, by a law firm not a law school.)

If we can select those who will be our nation's lawyers with online training, and a certification process unrelated to the academy as such, it's unclear why it would be impossible to do the equivalent for a basic college "certificate."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A $14 Trillion Opportunity Cost

January 27, 2010, 8:00 a.m.

Understanding Trillions
(brought to you by*)

When President Obama explains the "State of the Union" to Congress and the rest of us this evening, presumably he'll have something to say about the $1.4 trillion deficit in his budget that will be added onto the national debt.

Even for those who know that, mathematically, a "trillion" is a million million -- a one with 12 trailing zeros -- it's hard to get our heads around any other-than-mathematical meaning.

We need more than counting zeros; we need to know "what does a trillion dollars look like?"

Nomi Prins and Mother Jones magazine have made an effort to help us understand. Prins' book is It Takes a Pillage, Nomi Prins, It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).

In the January-February issue of Mother Jones she offers us the graphics that show the relative size of the giveaways from U.S. taxpayers to the banks that total $14.4 trillion dollars -- $7.2 trillion, each, by way of the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank. Nomi Prins, "The Real Size of the Bailout," Mother Jones, January-February 2010. And see, "Behind the Real Size of the Bailout," Mother Jones, January-February 2010.

She's created a very revealing set of numbers, comparisons and totals.

But what really drives the point home is the piece by Mother Jones' Marian Wang. It's a creative effort at researching and revealing what is perhaps the most dramatic example I've ever seen of the meaning of "opportunity cost."

(If you're not yet familiar with that term, it's economists' talk for the experience of having too much month at the end of the money; that money spent on one thing means you have denied yourself the ability, the "opportunity," to acquire something else. Thus, the "cost" of the car may be $15,000; but the "opportunity cost" of the car is that you now cannot afford to drive it anywhere, including that vacation you'd been dreaming about.)

So what has been the "opportunity cost" of handing over $14.4 trillion dollars to impoverished bankers? What else might we have done with that money?

Here's Marian Wang's list. Marian Wang, "12 Better Uses for the Bailout Bucks; Vaccinate kids, fix poverty, buy the world an iPhone. And that's just a start.," Mother Jones, January-February 2010. (If you're not familiar with Mother Jones, but would like to support its work, here's the link.)

10 years of vaccines for kids in 117 countries: $110 billion

10 years of $10,000 bonuses for all US public school teachers: $318 billion

Sending all 2009 US high school grads to private college: $347 billion

Doubling US spending on HIV/AIDS and cancer research for 20 years: $493 billion

10 years of CO2 offsets for all Americans: $559 billion

Meeting UN anti-poverty goals by 2015: $757 billion

20 years of universal preschool in US: $860 billion

Buying a house for every homeless American: $878 billion

10 years of helping developing countries deal with the effects of climate change: $2 trillion

Buying the world an iPhone 3GS: $2 trillion

10 years of private health insurance for uninsured Americans: $2.2 trillion

Paying off 1/3 of US home mortgages: $3.5 trillion

Total: $14 trillion
In case you missed it, that's not a list of things, any one of which we could have done with $14 trillion. That's a list of things all of which we could have done with $14 trillion. That, my friends, is one whopping big "opportunity cost" that comes with handing over taxpayers' money to an Administration's banker friends.

[Credit to Sherman Johnson for bringing to my attention the Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan "Salvos" item about this. Though I'm on the Salvos subscription list, for some reason this one didn't arrive.]

You can do a similar opportunity cost analysis with the projected $1.4 trillion deficit in this year's budget, the $1 trillion already projected for next year, the $14 trillion current federal debt, or the $100 trillion of currently unfunded future federal obligations. (Don't forget the distinction between "deficit" and "debt;" see, “’Debt?’ ‘Deficit?’ What’s the Difference?” Concord Coalition, May 1996.)

And you can also divide any one of these numbers by 300 million to determine each American's share (e.g., for $14 trillion it's $47,000 of additional debt for each of us, every man woman and child -- unless we either declare the United States to be bankrupt and default on all our domestic and global obligations, or so devalue the dollar (and suffer inflation) that the pain is the equivalent of paying off $47,000 in debt).

This is a shell-and-pea game. The State of the Union event, which will get disproportionate play in the media tomorrow, is but a diversion.

The real story for tomorrow's papers? Today's Congressional investigation of the roles of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in creating this unconscionable disaster -- including the pass-through of billions from taxpayers to Treasury to AIG to Goldman Sachs, paying this former employer of so many of President Obama's team (as well as President Bush's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) 100 cents on the dollar when previous settlements had been arranged for 14 cents on the dollar, and then keeping the whole thing secret from the American people. Gretchen Morganson and Louise Story, "Two at Fed Had Doubts Over Payout by A.I.G.," New York Times, January 27, 2010, p. B1; Mary Williams Walsh, "Audit Faults New York Fed in A.I.G. Bailout," New York Times, November 17, 2009, p. B1. From the Times report at 3:36 this afternoon, it looks like many of the committee members of the House Committee on oversight and Government Reform shared my sense of outrage. Mary Williams Walsh and Sewell Chan, "Under Fire, Geithner Says A.I.G. Rescue Was Essential," New York Times, January 27, 2010.

And for my predictions a year ago of the problems that would flow from President Obama's capitulations to Wall Street, see "Obama's Potential Wall Street Downfall," April 12, 2009, with its links to 43 additional blog entries on related subjects going back to September 5, 2008.

The President has been lobbying for Bernanke to get another term [Edmund L. Andrews, "Obama to Nominate Bernanke to 2nd Term at Fed," New York Times, August 25, 2009, p. B1] and has said nothing really critical of the insider performance of Treasury Secretary Geithner.

Will he tonight? What do you think?

But at least, my taxpaying friends, you now know "what $14.4 trillion looks like."
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Friday, January 22, 2010

NY Times Online to Charge Readers

January 22, 2009, 8:00 a.m.

What Readers Will, and Won't Pay For
(brought to you by*)

The New York Times, clearly at least one of the world's most highly regarded and influential newspapers, is betting it can make more money by charging those who read it online than by continuing to let them read it for free. Frank Ahrens, "The New York Times announces a plan to charge readers for online content starting in 2011," Washington Post, January 21, 2010.

That may not be as safe a bet as first appears.

For your sake and mine, this is not about to become my definitive work on the future of the newspaper industry. But I will make some comments.

1. "Everything You Know About Intellectual Property is Wrong." Sixteen years ago John Perry Barlow provided the world an insight, and for those in the intellectual property business, a warning. Barlow has been a cattle rancher from my old stomping ground around Pinedale, Wyoming, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and co-founder with Lotus developer Mitch Kaporof of the "eff" (the Electronic Frontier Foundation), still going strong at, and about to celebrate its 20th birthday February 10, 2010.

It was early in the age of the Internet, and World Wide Web, but he saw what was coming. Among other things, he observed, "copyright," which came to us from a time when it was necessary to protect the bottle more than the wine -- the book, or reel of film, you could hold in your hand -- expressly provides that "ideas" cannot be protected. Indeed, Section 102 of the current Copyright Act still provides that the Act only protects "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression." John Perry Barlow, "The Economy of Ideas; A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age; (Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong)," Wired 2.03, March 1994.

Indeed, he leads his seminal article with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, including this passage:
"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea . . .. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."
[Although Barlow does not cite a source, it can now be found online: Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:333.]

2.Free razors. Charging what the market will bear for everything you have to sell is not necessarily the road to riches. John Perry explains how, while other bands were hiring security guards to keep concert-goers from bringing tape recorders into the venue, the Grateful Dead encouraged fans to make tapes of concerts and share them as widely with friends as they wished. Grateful Dead's grateful Dead Heads soon not only made the group richer from more ticket sales, but CD sales as well. As a result, not only did the group create goodwill, and get wider distribution among potential new fans with this approach, it turned out that as often as not those who got the music "for free" were sufficiently impressed to want to buy the higher quality CD version with the liner notes.

Someone else's more recent Wired article puts the story in context:
"He [Gillette] sold razors in bulk to banks so they could give them away with new deposits ("shave and save" campaigns). Razors were bundled with everything from Wrigley's gum to packets of coffee . . .. By giving away the razors, which were useless by themselves, he was creating demand for disposable blades. A few billion blades later, this business model is now the foundation of entire industries: Give away the cell phone, sell the monthly plan; make the videogame console cheap and sell expensive games; install fancy coffeemakers in offices at no charge so you can sell managers expensive coffee sachets."
-- Chris Anderson, "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business," Wired 16.03, February 25, 2008.

3. Newspapers understood the part about giving away the content for free. All of which brings me to one of my favorite Seinfeld bits. Jerry and Elaine are at the rental car counter. He has a reservation. The rental car company is out of cars. Here's how it goes, followed by the YouTube video.
Agent: I'm sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.
Larry David and Bill Masters, "The Alternate Side," Season 3, Episode 11, broadcast December 4, 1991.

In other words, newspapers understood the part about giving away their content for free, they just didn't understand the part about having to substitute some other revenue stream to make up for the lost advertising and subscription revenue stream.

As Frank Ahrens explains in the Washington Post story with which I began, quoting the Financial Times' managing director Rob Grimshaw:

"[I]t was a 'huge mistake' for publishers to give away their product. So why did they? Grimshaw said newspaper publishers realized they did not understand the Internet, so they hired Internet experts and 'let them do whatever they wanted and whatever they said was the right thing.'"

Imagine someone in the home building business, building unique homes from the buyers' architectural plans, being told about manufactured homes.
"I tell you, Bubba, this is going to be big. Now's the time to get in on the ground floor, so to speak."

"So what do you suggest I do?"

"Construct a facility where you can build them and get started."

"Yeah, and then?"

"And then announce you're going to start giving them away. You'll have customers breaking your door down."

"Wow. You really think so? I think I'll do it. If it worked for Gillette with razors it ought to work for me with manufactured homes."
No, I don't think that's exactly how it happened in the newspaper business, but it's not far off.

4. What I predict will, and won't, work. When I was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, I subscribed to the New York Times by mail, which was the only way to get it. It came about three days late, but it was still able to inform me of stories before they appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. I urged the company to start a West Coast edition, which eventually it did.

In Iowa City, once the Times became available online I actually preferred the online to the hard copy edition. It wasn't the cost; the Times is one of a number of papers that give away hard copy editions for free to college students in an effort to win back the younger readers they have been losing (and will need to someday replace the rest of us) -- a classic example of the triumph of hope over experience.

When I heard the paper had mortgaged its building, I even tried to make a charitable contribution to the Times. After all, we're willing to contribute to Iowa Public Radio and Iowa Public Television. It turned out there was no way to make a contribution to the Times. I would have subscribed to the hard copy as a way of getting the paper some money, but our newspaper recycling bin is already a heavy load to carry to the curb as it is.

So I sent an email to the guy managing the two electronic editions asking for information. I knew enough about both of them to know that I wouldn't use either; I'm accustomed to, and find fully adequate, the format of what's available for free. But I would at least feel less guilty, I explained to him, if I was sending the Times money for something, even if I would never use it.

He never replied, and I decided that ended my charitable obligation to the organization.

Now, it turns out, I'll have another chance next year. But I'm not sure just how many others like me there are out there looking for a way to contribute their hard earned money to a large, for-profit corporation.

Like every other newspaper, the New York Times circulation is down, but the daily and Sunday circulations still hover around one million daily and 1.4 million Sunday. So the paper's starting off with something between 1/3 and 1/2 of one percent of the American population. Richard Perez-Pena, "U.S. Newspaper Circulation Falls 10%," New York Times, October 27, 2009, p. B3. Can it expect to continue to hold even that many when it starts charging readers for online access; readers who (a) have grown accustomed to the idea that "information wants to be free," both in general and with respect to the content of the New York Times in particular, and (b) have access to other nationally respected, influential newspapers that will not charge -- as Frank Ahrens reports his Washington Post is not, now, contemplating?

He also reminds us that,
"The Times Co. tried a pay wall around content from its opinion columnists in 2005 -- a feature called TimesSelect -- charging $49.95 per year for online access to such writers as Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman. The Times got 227,000 subscribers to sign up, but abandoned the plan in 2007; behind the pay wall, some of the paper's star writers had been effectively removed from the national conversation.
Online ad revenue has not, so far, come close to replacing the lost hard copy advertising income. As the Financial Times' Rob Grimshaw calculates, it takes 4 billion page views a month to produce $50 million a year -- which, as I calculate it, means a return of roughly 1/10th cent per page view (if that's something that interests you).

The Times supplies no details. It says it will fill us in on those later this year, or early 2011. But it refers to a "metered" service. If it means that literally -- that the reader will owe an incremental amount more for every story hit on, or every word displayed on the screen (for stories that carry over multiple screens) -- I predict it will fare no better than TimesSelect. There are many ways of "reading" the Times' relatively thorough (long) stories: glancing at a headline, reading the lead or the first few grafs, scanning the entire story, or reading it carefully word for word. Although the quality and value of each of those approaches varies widely I don't know how they can be variously monitored, metered and priced.

What readers have shown a willingness to pay for so far are online services that are essential to their lives or professions, or actually produce money for them. The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are two examples of newspapers that many people in the business community, banking, investing, and some academics (e.g., corporation and securities law professors; business college faculty) simply must read every day if they are to hold their jobs, let alone prosper. Moreover, since those in business are relatively wealthy to begin with (and some academics get discount subscription rates) the added daily cost of the paper (hard copy, online, or both) is of no more significance to them than a second cup of Starbucks coffee.

As for the rest of us, Consumer Reports is an example of a magazine that pays for itself many times over -- hard copy, online or both -- for millions of American consumers smart enough to know it's not true that "you get what you pay for," and want to go into the marketplace (brick-and-mortar or online) fully armed with the facts.

When a friend asked me why I listened to the BBC during the night, I responded without thinking, "Because I like to be informed." (He laughed. It is an odd habit, I admit; but the BBC seems to be the only source of journalism that regularly reminds the listener that there really are more than five or six countries in the world, and that those nations' most important stories are not always wars and natural disasters.)

How many people are there who are equally compulsive about their desire "to be informed" -- about matters beyond their work or potential future income? More significant, how many of them are willing to pay -- in the quantity and way that the Financial Times' and Wall Street Journal's readers are -- for the mere, non-remunerative satisfaction of being generally informed? And even among them, how many are willing to pay one source when other, somewhat similar sources, remain available for free?

I don't know the answers. I don't even know all the questions. But the Times, and the rest of us, will at least have some of them 18 months to two years from now.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Janelle Rettig for Supervisor

January 19, 2010, 7:00 a.m.

The Satisfaction, and Responsibility, of Voting
(brought to you by*)

It's election day.

Sadly, few of those eligible to vote will do so. Don't you be a stay-at-home. (Want to know more about today's election, including where you go to vote? Check out the Johnson County Auditor's Web site; you'll find it all there.)

There's a satisfaction to voting -- and a responsibility. Besides, there's a prize. Those who participate in the process of nominating and electing our public officials get the right to comment on how well they're doing their job once in office.

But the Johnson County Board of Supervisors positions are somewhat unique and more significant than those of other local, elected officials.

School Board members, who are paid nothing, hand over responsibility for running the school district to a very handsomely paid "superintendent."

The City Council members, who are paid something but not much, work with a "city manager" who is the administrator-in-chief of all the City's functions, offices and employees.

The County Board of Supervisors, by contrast, are the the "superintendents," the "managers," of the county programs -- and are paid as such.

They each have a real job. In fact, if we voters followed the school board's lead we'd be out there trying to find a search firm to select the candidates for supervisor we could then vote for.

What is their $85 million-dollar job? Take a look at the County Web site, the Supervisors' Web page, and especially the Power Point slides for the 2010 budget presentation last March (actually a slight reduction from the prior year).

It is a job that requires familiarity with and the skills to manage an incredible array of programs and projects.

All of which brings me to the reasons for voting for Janelle Rettig today.

Since the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board happens to agree with my assessment on this one, I'll just quote some passages from its editorial endorsement of Ms. Rettig and then add a comment or two based on my own experience working with her.

Rettig is the right choice for Jan. 19 election
January 13, 2009

Rettig's advantage isn't merely the result of having been appointed to the position in late October and serving as a supervisor for less than three months. It's the result of years of involvement in county politics and an acute understanding of the way local governments do and don't work.

Back in 2008, when Rettig chaired the Land, Water, Future campaign, we were very impressed with her knowledge of county issues. And the résumé she submitted when applying to be appointed to the supervisor position shows a strong amount of government experience working for Democrats and Republicans.

For two decades, in fact, Rettig has shown rare ability for a would-be politician: She examines issues from multiple perspectives. In her work with many local and state boards and commissions, Rettig repeatedly has shown she can seek and actually find compromise and common ground.

Rettig's past experience ranges from land use planning, to civil and human rights, to environmental and conservation issues, to government openness. . . .

Rettig provided the most comprehensive answers [of all those running for the position] for how our budget-tightening county needs to go about:

• reducing expenses by working more cooperatively with local cities and the state to streamline government functions;

• conducting public business in full view of the public and in as professional a manner as possible;

• ensuring that all residents have a voice in county government;

• updating and overseeing the county's land-use plan;

• keeping an eye on the operational expenses for the new joint emergency communication center; as well as

• deciding how best to address the problems needs on by inadequately sized county jail and county courthouse. . . .
I agree. I saw these qualities when working with her on the conservation bond issue.

Janelle Rettig scores about as high as anyone could in terms of the experience, raw intelligence, information, knowledge and wisdom -- the basic competence -- to do a professional job of county management.

That makes her rare enough as a candidate for such a position.

But she's so much more.

I've been involved in politics virtually all my life, as a candidate and as a part of others' campaigns for offices from president of the United States to school board member in Iowa City. As a result of that experience, one of the highest compliments I can pay anyone is that they are "a political person," in the highest sense of that phrase. To me, a political person is someone who really likes people, enjoys being around and getting to know them, who takes satisfaction in helping others to feel good about themselves, who can empathize with their sorrows and needs, and who is constantly looking for ways to help others -- as Robert Kennedy said, to "dream of things that never were, and ask 'why not'?" Moreover, in their governance, they can demonstrate a capacity to balance their idealism with just enough pragmatism to actually get things done -- without simply capitulating to the demands of the wealthiest, and most powerful. It is in these positive ways that I say Janelle Rettig is "a political person."

Ah, but there's more.

Anyone who can bike across Iowa for fun, as Janelle does during the RAGBRAI ride (that I used to do and report on for National Public Radio, but no longer) obviously has the energy needed for public office.

Put it all together and she's just fun to be around, smiling, enthusiastic, fun loving, energized. How many public officials do you feel about in that way?

Janelle Rettig is clearly someone you need to get out on a cold Iowa January day and vote for. Just do it. You'll feel good about yourself. I promise.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

48 Hours to Save the Internet

January 12, 2009, 11:00 a.m.

Tell the FCC You Care
(brought to you by*)

The FCC is about to decide whether the phone and cable companies are going to be able to censor the content you can send, and receive, through the Internet.

If you care, you might let them know -- before the comment period expires this Thursday, January 14.

It's easy. It's cool. It's fun. And, oh yes, it can also be a useful contribution to the preservation of the First Amendment.

Just go to the Web site for the purpose: Save The Internet, (If you'd like to know more about that outfit see the bottom of this blog entry.) Follow the simple directions. Insert your comment in the box. (If you can't think of what to say just try, "Save the Internet!" or "Give us meaningful Net Neutrality.") Almost immediately you'll get a neat response, that includes your comment, back from the FCC.

Here's what I submitted:
As a former FCC commissioner I watched -- and protested -- what happens when those who provide the conduits are permitted to also own and control the content. It occurred when the three networks dominated the television industry, and could create hits for the shows they owned merely by broadcasting them from their O-and-O stations -- to the disadvantage of the independent producers, and the creativity offered the audience. It occurred when those who wired up America for cable television distribution were permitted to own the sources of cable programming -- to the disadvantage of those they shut out of their distribution systems, and the American people.

There were problems with AT&T. I wrote dissenting opinions about them, and played a role in the Carterfone and MCI cases in opening up the telephone industry to competition. But one problem it did not have was its disinterest in, and distance from, content. Everyone who wanted a phone had a legal right to one, and to use it to say whatever they wanted through AT&T's wires (subject, of course, to regulation by others for fraud or criminal activity; but not control of content or censorship by the phone company).

The strength, the creativity, the economic engine, of the Internet has been in large measure a result of its openness to all, its lack of censorship powers on the part of those providing the conduits.

Please stand up for the American people, the First Amendment, economic innovation, growth and jobs. Stand up to the telephone and cable companies. Give us some meaningful Net Neutrality regulations.

Thank you.

-- Nicholas Johnson
Here are excerpts from freepress' description of itself:
Free Press Basics

Free Press is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, quality journalism, and universal access to communications.

Free Press was launched in late 2002 by media scholar Robert W. McChesney, journalist John Nichols and Josh Silver, our executive director. Today, Free Press is the largest media reform organization in the United States, with nearly half-a-million activists and members and a full-time staff of more than 30 based in our offices in Washington, D.C., and Florence, Mass.

Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund, our advocacy arm, are nonprofit organizations that rely on the support of our members. Please click here to make a donation or learn about member benefits.

Our Purpose

Media play a huge role in our lives. TV, radio, the Internet, movies, books and newspapers inform and influence our ideas, opinions, values and beliefs. They shape our understanding of the world and give us the information we need to hold our leaders accountable. But our media system is failing.

This failure isn't natural. For far too long, corrupt media policy has been made behind closed doors in the public's name but without our informed consent. If we want better media, we need better media policies. If we want better policies, we must engage more people in policy debates and demand better media.

That's why Free Press was created. We're working to make media reform a bona fide political issue in America. Powerful telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies have plenty of lobbyists to do their bidding. We're making sure the public has a seat at the table, and we're building a movement to make sure the media serve the public interest.

Free Press believes that media reform is crucial not just for creating better news and entertainment, but to advancing every issue you care about. A vibrant, diverse and independent media is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Watch its Web site for announcements of the next national convention. Join with thousands of American media mavens and activists for a few days of fun, inspiration, and hope.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Thursday, January 07, 2010

School Board Can't Do Job?

January 7, 2009, 10:45 a.m.

There They Go Again
(brought to you by*)

What is it about elected and appointed board members and administrators? Why this compulsive, knee-jerk sprint to search firms and consultants whenever they come face to face with the real job they're there to do? Honestly, what is it? Fundamental, gut-wrenching insecurity and low self-esteem? A political cowardice that seeks to ward off any possible criticism from any quarter with the ability to say, "But that wasn't our decision; we relied on the consultant," or "We didn't hire that guy; that's who the search firm said we should hire." Or is it a candid, honest assessment that they are really incapable of doing their job?

In case you haven't figured out yet what I'm writing about, yes, that's right, the Iowa City Community School District Board is searching for a search firm to do the Board's job of searching for a new superintendent, now that Lane Plugge is leaving. B.A. Morelli, "School board weighing search firm; Timeline is 'tight,' board president says," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 5, 2010; and see, "The Plugge Era: 1999-2010," December 24, 2009.

The last time I wrote about related issues was when the Board wanted a consultant to do its job of redrawing the District's elementary and high school boundaries. "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board Not Consultants or Superintendent; Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009.

Similar concerns arise with the use of search firms.

1. Next to fashioning its own governance model for the board, superintendent, and district, a school board (or any other institution's board) has no more important task than hiring its CEO (which school districts call the "superintendent"). Board members need to be deeply involved in the details of the search and recruitment process, not just the ultimate decision.

2. It's the creation of the "short list" of candidate finalists, not the ultimate choice, that is the most important part of that process. The same thing goes for the nomination process in politics -- which is why it's important, and why it multiplies your influence in a democratic society, to participate in the political party of your choice and not just "vote" in the general election. As Boss Bill Tweed of 19th Century New York is quoted as having said, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I get to do the nominating." Our Board members ought to be doing the nominating as well as the electing.

3. A search is not rocket science. It's something our Board members ought to be able to do and, quite frankly, I think are able to do. The steps are fairly standard and straight forward. You put notices in the relevant communications channels (e.g., education trade publications, Web pages, list servs), consult with your range of contacts, and once you have possibles you run them through Google, and talk to the references they suggest (and the ones they don't who are obvious people to call).

We've recently gone through the process of recruiting a new dean and faculty members for the UI College of Law. I have at least one colleague who is seemingly capable of providing, off the top of his head, a rather impressive amount of information and evaluation with regard to almost any law school dean or faculty member in the nation about whom you might inquire. Moreover, he knows about their scholarship, how long they've been where they are, what they did before, whether they are capable of being moved and why they might, or might not, be interested in coming to Iowa. And that's before he makes the effort to learn more.

Admittedly, he's exceptional. But I would guess if you involved every member of the faculty, the group as a whole would be capable of doing as well or possibly even better. Indeed, we did; without the assistance of any search firms we have just hired a law school dean I have elsewhere described as "spectacular." "Welcome Dean Gail Agrawal!" January 4, 2009. The new UI Vice President for Strategic Communications, Tysen Kendig, was also found and hired without the need for a search firm.

Our School Board members may or may not know this, but as a school board member you can call a board member of virtually any of the nation's 15,000 school boards and they'll take your call.

I talked to the federal Secretary of Education when he was in Iowa City; he provided much of my information about the optimum size for a high school. I talked to the head of the Iowa Department of Education to get his judgment about Iowa's best superintendents who could be attracted to Iowa City when the Board ultimately hired Lane Plugge.

It's inconceivable to me that the combined efforts of the UI College of Education faculty, the ICCSD's administrators and teachers (and parents), the Iowa School Board Association, Iowa Department of Education, and Iowa Education Association would not produce a better list of potential superintendents than any search firm in the country could find for us. And the list that resulted would be our list, not the sterile guess of an out-of-state search firm as to who might be a good fit.

4. Search firms may not be all they represent themselves to be. Here is but one of a number of shocking personal experiences with search firms. I was involved as a board member in a personnel search for a highly paid, responsible executive position in which a reputable search firm was used. I took on the task of getting some firsthand information about one of the finalists. Over the course of a weekend I was able to track down board members of the place where the person was formerly employed, employees who worked there, union officers, journalists, local leaders and citizens. Each was very candid in their appraisals. I was also able to find and evaluate nearly 100 sites on the Internet with information about this finalist.

What was shocking? Every single one of the persons I talked to told me they had never been contacted by any member of that search firm. Not a single one of the documents I found on the Internet, or their content, was reflected in the firm's report to us. Another applicant on the firm's short list to whom I spoke after we'd made our selection told me a comparable story: none of the references he had passed along to the search firm was ever contacted.

Now I'm not asserting that all search firms are worthless, incompetent or fraudulent. In the first place, how would I know? And in the second place, I would doubt it; I suspect there are some that do their job conscientiously, with competence and skill. The fact is, as an industry their results are mixed at best.

5. Other districts have chosen to do away with search firms. Some of our Board members are saying the Board needs to use a search firm because, well, that's just the way it's done. It turns out that's not the way it's done; at least not everywhere; at least not in progressive districts.

Consider Kathleen Kingsbury, "The Great Superintendent Search; How the hiring process really works," Scholastic's Administrator Magazine, September/October 2009. Here are some excerpts:

More and more cases such as the missed information in San Jose [a board that had to discharge a recently-hired superintendent for financial "irregularities," was unaware when they hired him of a story, available on the Internet, that he had been investigated for "mishandling" $100,000 in his prior position] are forcing boards to question the value of making these decisions behind closed doors—and whether or not it’s worth it to hire a search firm to do the job.

In the Web 2.0 world, the media, blogosphere, and community members may be able to vet a contender better—and faster—than any search firm. Plus, gathering input from the public before a candidate is hired could ensure a better fit down the line.

One board that may do things differently this year is the one running the San Diego Unified School District. The district is about to embark on its third search since 2005, having lost its most recent superintendent, Terry Grier, to Houston, Texas, in late August. There is at least one board member suggesting that this time the district forgo hiring a search firm—as was done the previous two times—and open up the process. . . .

Barrera acknowledges this type of search would, no doubt, be longer, and would be unlikely to result in a candidate who pleases everyone. But, he predicts, “We’ll have someone who can unite our community because everyone will have ownership over selecting that person.”

If San Diego ultimately does choose a community vetting process, it will be following the lead of a handful of districts such as Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, which have had mixed but generally successful results. . . .

Portland’s school board, facing a $2 million deficit, decided last year not to use a search firm to choose its next leader. Instead, board member Sarah Thompson headed up a 30-person selection committee made up entirely of local stakeholders, including parents, administrators, teachers, a student, and two non-parent taxpayers. “We figured, who would know better than our own community what kind of superintendent Portland needed,” Thompson says. . . . "[W]e Googled every single contender, and I called every single reference to check out any red flags,” Thompson says. . . .

San Diego could also adopt a hybrid approach like the one used in Houston, . . ..

“This was no glossing-over round of public forums,” says board president Lawrence Marshall. “They did exhaustive interviews of all the players here in Houston. And, in the end, they [the public forums] were able, even better than we [the board members] were, to really crystallize what our next superintendent should look like.” . . .

Privacy and a professional search firm are no guarantee of a good choice, however. Just look at what happened to Barbara Erwin. Erwin was the superintendent in Kentucky’s St. Charles district when she was being considered for the post of commissioner of education in 2007. When it was announced that Erwin was a finalist for the job, reporters at the Louisville Courier-Journal quickly uncovered multiple errors and exaggerations on her resume, including awards she’d never won and presentations she’d never made. If a district doesn’t do its own vetting, the media and the blogosphere will do the job for them.
Jamaal abdul-Alim, "Franklin schools search criticized; Cost to find leader too high, some say," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 10, 2007, tells a similar story about alternatives to search firms:
The Franklin School Board is spending twice as much as it did three years ago for a private search firm to find a new superintendent, even though a growing number of Wisconsin school districts have used a less expensive method with good results. Franklin School Board members approved $22,800 earlier this year to pay . . . an Illinois-based search firm. . ..

[W]hat irks some taxpayers here is that the School Board could have used the search services of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which typically charges $3,000 to $6,000 to find a superintendent.

That's what nearby Greenfield School District did in 1993 and 2000 for its two most recent superintendents, . . .. The Greenfield district paid [the] Wisconsin Association of School Boards for the search that found [its new superintendent] from among 26 applicants nationwide. . . .

Kevin Fischer, a critic of the Franklin School Board, said the board's decision to use a private search firm instead of a less expensive way shows the board is "playing fast and loose with the taxpayers' money."

School Board members defended their decision.

. . . But districts that hire "headhunters" don't always end up with applicants that were actively recruited.

The Nicolet High School District, for instance, spent $16,000 to hire . . . an Illinois-based firm, to do a national search to replace Superintendent Elliott Moeser.

Nicolet hired Rick Monroe, principal of nearby Shorewood High School, who said he would have applied for the Nicolet position irrespective of how he found out about it. He read about it in an ad in Education Week. . . .
Think about it Board members -- and District stakeholders. This may just be one of those happy situations in which the cheaper solution produces the better results.

Thankfully, it now looks like some Board members may at least be thinking about the possibility of trying the radical option of just doing their job.

Let's hope they do. Find us a new superintendent. Spend that search firm money on our teachers.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Monday, January 04, 2010

Welcome Dean Gail Agrawal!

January 4, 2010

This is a sufficiently happy way to begin a Happy New Year that I wish to reproduce here a University of Iowa College of Law Web posting from around mid-day today, along with my personal and enthusiastic thanks to all mentioned in the announcement for the time consuming and quality work with this dean search and the rather spectacular new dean they have brought to Iowa City and the University of Iowa community. [Photo credit: UI College of Law.]
-- Nicholas Johnson

Dean Gail Agrawal Announced as Next College of Law Dean

Gail Agrawal, professor and dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, has been named the 17th dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.

"I am honored to have been selected to lead the Iowa College of Law as its next dean," said Agrawal, who will become dean July 1. "The college of law has long been among our nation's finest public law schools, and I am humbled by the opportunity to join this exceptional law school community."

Agrawal has been dean at the University of Kansas since 2006. Before that, she was on the law faculty of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for nine years, where she also served as senior associate dean, associate dean for academic affairs and interim dean. UI officials were impressed with Agrawal's record of success, spirit of innovation and wide ranging professional and academic experience, and said her values and vision match well with those of the University of Iowa.

"Dean Agrawal has a deep commitment to the mission of public universities," said Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa. "She understands the role the University of Iowa and its college of law play in the cultural, legal and economic life of this state. She is simultaneously committed to maintaining and increasing the stature of the college of law as a nationally and internationally prominent and respected institution. We look forward to her leadership."

"Dean Agrawal brings to this position a track record of success as a teacher, scholar and administrator," said Wallace Loh, professor of law, executive vice president and provost. "She has earned the admiration, respect and affection of the faculties and administrators with whom she has worked at both the University of North Carolina and University of Kansas. She also understands the Midwest, and has connected well with the people of Kansas. I am confident that she will do the same thing here at Iowa."

"Dean Agrawal brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position and is highly respected in the legal academy for championing innovative approaches to legal education," said William "Curt" Hunter, dean of the Tippie College of Business who chaired the 15-member law dean search committee. "She is committed to working collaboratively with the wide range of internal and external stakeholders of the college of law to advance the international reputation of the college."

Agrawal replaces Carolyn Jones, the law school's first woman dean, who is joining the law school faculty after six years of leadership. It marks the first time in UI law school history that a woman has succeeded another woman as dean.

"The University of Iowa is fortunate to have someone of Dean Agrawal's caliber for its next law dean," said Jones. "I have come to know her at deans meetings over the years beginning when she was interim dean at the University of North Carolina School of Law. She is a leader among law school deans across the country and is respected for her judgment, warmth and incredible work ethic. She is committed to public legal education of high quality and that is certainly the story of the University of Iowa College of Law. I look forward to having her as my dean when I return to the faculty next year."

While dean at Kansas, Agrawal has led efforts to revise that school's curriculum and to add programs aimed at helping students acquire the professional skills they will need in their careers. Gender and ethnic diversity among faculty and students has increased during her tenure, private giving has increased, and she reorganized the school's budgeting process in the face of reduced state appropriations, while at the same time using private money to create new and expand existing programs.

"In her previous positions, Dean Agrawal has earned a reputation as a great builder and problem solver who enjoys making institutions stronger and better," said Eric Andersen, UI law professor, associate dean of academic affairs and vice chair of the search committee. "Her record shows that she does so by earning the respect and commitment of those with whom she works, developing with them a shared vision, then working tirelessly to bring it to fruition. She has been sought after by many other law schools in need of a new dean, so we consider ourselves fortunate to have the benefits of her leadership."

A native of New Orleans, Agrawal earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Orleans, and her Master's in Public Health and J.D. degrees from Tulane University. She practiced for seven years with the firm of Monroe & Lemann in New Orleans and worked for three years for the insurance company Aetna, Inc., where she was head of medical management, law and regulatory affairs.

Agrawal clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the United States Supreme Court and Senior Judge John Minor Wisdom of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Her primary area of research is health care law.

"I look forward to working with the outstanding law faculty to continue and deepen the college's longstanding commitment to innovative teaching and influential scholarship," Agrawal said. "I also look forward to working with President Sally Mason and Provost Wallace Loh to advance the mission of the university and strengthen the college's interdisciplinary ties with other parts of the campus. I am also fortunate to be able to build upon the work of two extraordinary law deans, current dean Carolyn Jones and the legendary Bill Hines."

Agrawal was selected as dean after a search process that started last summer reviewed almost 200 nominees and brought five finalists to campus for interviews in November and December. Other committee members included: law faculty John Allen, Michelle Falkoff, Herbert Hovenkamp, Todd Pettys and Peggie Smith; law professor and dean emeritus N. William Hines; college of law staff members Jill DeYoung and Mary Ann Nelson; law students Lindsay McAfee and Christopher Shaw; and alumni Charles Kierscht, board member and former president of the University of Iowa Foundation; Gary Streit, managing partner at Shuttlesworth & Ingersoll P.L.C. in Cedar Rapids, and Judge Michael Melloy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

"Dean Agrawal is a wonderfully savvy, thoughtful and energetic leader," said Pettys. "She has great ideas and intuitions, she engenders a deep sense of loyalty in those with whom she works, and she has the executive skills needed to help an institution translate its ambitions into accomplishments. She has no interest in settling for the status quo when the institution she is leading would be better served by changes and calculated risks. We are fortunate to have her as our dean, and we look forward to seeing what we become with her at the helm."

Search assistance was also provided by law school staff members Jennifer New and Grace Tully.

Agrawal and her husband, Dr. Naurang Agrawal, a gastroenterologist, will relocate to the Iowa City area later this year.
# # #

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Is the University of Iowa 'World Class'?

January 2, 2010, 8:00 a.m.

And Why We Shouldn't Care;
Reconceptualizing the UI for the 21st Century

(brought to you by*)

Quiz: "Is the University of Iowa 'world class'?"
(a) Yes
(b) No
(c) Because that is an inherently unanswerable question, efforts to "answer" it inevitably will be as frustrating as they will be futile.

As you may have guessed, I think the best answer is "c."

Asking answerable questions.

General semanticists warn us about the consequences of attempting to answer unanswerable -- or what they call "non-sense" -- questions (that is, questions for which there are neither external referents nor sensory apparatus for finding answers). Useful, constructive questions are those that contain a suggestion as to how one might go about finding an answer -- such as, "which college football teams won every game during their 2009 season?" or "is this generic statin as effective in lowering cholesterol as this proprietary, heavily advertised drug?"

Indeed, they warn that asking unanswerable questions regarding our personal lives that involve non-sense (i.e., vague, immeasurable, and therefore unattainable) ideals, can lead to the repeated frustration that results in demoralization, or depression -- the I (ideals) F (frustration) D (demoralization) characterized as the "IFD "disease." Examples might be the pre-teen girl who agonizes over whether she is "popular" or "pretty," or the young businessman who is driven to run ever faster in his personal squirrel cage in the hopes of capturing the mirage of "success" that always seems to lie just beyond his grasp. (Or, one might add, politicians' insistence that we "win" in Afghanistan.)

The folly of the pursuit of "world class."

(1) So it is, I believe, with educational institutions' efforts to become "world class." How would they know if they were ever to arrive at that destination? If an educational administrator asserted that her institution was "world class," and was then challenged on that assertion, how could the dispute ever be resolved?

(2) How might a somewhat related answerable question be framed? How about: "Is there any ranking of the world's "best" universities on which the university in question is listed as one of the top 10 -- or top 100 -- universities in the world?" That question can be answered by looking for such rankings to see if there is any in which the university is listed -- once you'd agreed on how high in the ranking a school needs to be in order to be considered "world class."

(3) But the fact that a question is answerable does not automatically make the effort to answer it either sensible or worthwhile.

In "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008 (one of this blog's most continuously popular entries), I address a number of the problems associated with reliance on US News' rankings of law schools. Here is a tiny sampling of them: (1) there is no agreement regarding the most appropriate criteria for evaluating law schools, (2) the choice of which to use can make enormous differences in where a school is located in the "rankings"; and (3) it is very easy to "game the system," (4) which a number of law schools try to do. For example, if one of the criteria is the percentage of your school's recent law school graduates who are "employed" (which one would assume means "have jobs in law firms"), that number can be manipulated by a law school's choice (which some have made) to "employ" every graduate who hasn't found a job in a law firm (or to count as "employed" those who are working at McDonald's, or driving cabs). The range of opportunities to manipulate one's ranking is limited only by the inadequacies of the human imagination.

(4) Even if there was an agreement on an operational definition of "world class," and the criteria to be used in comparative evaluations of universities, and the accuracy of the data could be closely audited, my own view (which I would imagine few share) is that a focus on "competition" and "rankings" could well detract rather than contribute to the attainment of a university's mission. (Similar concerns have emerged from the "no child left behind" test-score-driven effort to improve the American K-12 educational system.) Quality may more likely result from concentrating on how well you are doing what you've set out to do (on the assumption you've clearly set out, with metrics, exactly what it is you think you have set out to do). Conceptualizing your mission as a competitive race, in which you are constantly looking over your shoulder to see where you are in the pack, is more likely to result in a trip-and-fall than reducing your time to the goal.

What's a "state university" in the 21st Century?

There is some question as to whether the notion of a "state university," educating the children of residents of a given state, makes much sense in the 21st Century. (a) Many such schools are open to all, providing education to citizens of 100 or more countries, not to mention many of the 50 states, receiving federal government research grants, and can more accurately be thought of as "national" rather than "state" universities. (b) They are increasingly shifting their focus from educating students to becoming major research institutions. (c) State legislatures' support of their "state schools" is declining, as the financing comes more and more from grants for that "research." (d) Far from "free," or the minimal tuition originally envisioned, students at "public" schools are now paying tuition, and incurring debt loads, formally only associated with "private" schools.

Soon to be even more significant, in what Tom Friedman has characterized as a "flat" world, are universities (or at least educational opportunities) without walls. Of course, the educational establishment is slow to change. Prior to the printing press it was necessary to "lecture" to students -- what some have described as a process whereby the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either. Now, well over 500 years later, we're still lecturing -- just in larger lecture halls -- as if the news of the invention of books had yet to reach our college campuses. More recently, as someone has observed, it took us 30 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alleys and into the classrooms. Today there are "universities" (not to mention an enormous array of "training" programs) that exist only online; most conventional universities offer some online "distance education" courses; and the ubiquitous Internet and Web have a dizzying offering of text, audio and video "educational" material free for the taking (including online lectures and other material from MIT and other universities).

Nonetheless, a "state university" still has obligations to its home state that are not shared by a national, or global, private college or university. It needs to admit a disproportionate number of students from its home state (over half of the UI's students are from Iowa). It needs to document that it is making a contribution to that state; supplying doctors to rural areas, a workforce for its major industries, community outreach and service by its faculty and students, and incubators for promoting entrepreneurial efforts and the jobs they can create. (The UI supplies roughly half of the state's doctors and pharmacists, 80% of its dentists, and teachers and administrators in 80% of Iowa's K-12 school districts.)

Thus, it's a little silly and counter productive for a school like the University of Iowa to be comparing itself with, say, universities such as England's Cambridge and Oxford -- which is not to say that those schools are "better" than Iowa (or that they're not), only that they are clearly different in their mission.

[On a related theme, i.e., parents' and students' focus on the payback in jobs from ever-higher tuition and why employers are still looking for graduates with solid liberal arts skills, see Kate Zernike, "Career U: Making College 'Relevant,'" New York Times, January 3, 2009, p. ED16.]

Putting the rankings of world universities in context.

While I think it is foolish for a state university (or a student looking for a "college education") to look to the various rankings that are available for world universities (let alone seek the nonexistent, ephemeral "world class" status), it may be useful to demonstrate why not.

So let's take a look at the world rankings that do exist.

I've not endeavored to do thorough research; this is, after all, a blog entry not a doctoral dissertation. But I did discover one paper that actually takes seriously, and attempts to define, "world class."

To repeat: I'm not suggesting that "world class" can't be defined, or that schools cannot be ranked. Of course, it can and they can, and in any one of hundreds of ways; but no one of those ways has yet been accepted by all. Because there are such a variety of ways of ranking and defining, the criteria selected can make such a significant difference in the outcome, once those criteria are known they can be manipulated by those being ranked, and I'm not convinced the game is worth the candle even if all these concerns could be satisfied, I fear the focus is misplaced.

The paper is Henry M. Levin and Donshu Ou, "What is a World Class University?" prepared for presentation at the 2006 Conference of the Comparative & International Education Society, Honolulu, Hawaii, March16, 2006.

Four approaches to ranking world universities.

The authors make reference to two rankings, those of the Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJU) and the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), and in their Table Four list the top 40 universities on each list's 2005 rankings. pp. 37-38.

Of course, US News has its own rankings of the world's top 200 universities.

And I also found the listing of 6000 world universities by the Cybermetrics Lab (a research group belonging to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), the largest public research body in Spain), "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities."

The CSIC rankings.

The CSIC discloses its methodology, and describes itself as "attached to the Ministry of Education and its main objective is to promote scientific research as to improve the progress of the scientific and technological level of the country which will contribute to increase the welfare of the citizens."

As it happens its list actually includes both the University of Iowa (76th) and Iowa State (66th). Its top 23 are all from the U.S.; as are, all in all, 65 of the CSIC's top 100 (55 of which are ranked above Iowa). The schools from other nations between 24 and Iowa's 76 are:

University of Tokyo (24), National Taiwan University (26), University of Toronto (28), Universidade de Sao Paulo (38), University of British Columbia (41), University of Oxford (42), Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (44), Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich (46), Kyoto University (49), University College London (51), University of Helsinki (52), Norwegian University of Science & Technology (54), University of Oslo (55) and Simon Fraser University (57).

Thus, the nations with schools that the CSIC ranks above Iowa include Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, Finland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan.

The US News' rankings.

US News' "World's Best Universities" includes less than half the percentage of U.S. schools in its top 100 (32 of 100) as does the CSIC (65 of 100). However, the University of Iowa is nowhere to be found among the total of 200 "world's best" that it ranks.

Although we can't know where Iowa would have ranked if the list were long enough for it to have been included, given the US News' inclusion of proportionately more schools from other countries than the CSIC, even if Iowa were ranked 201 there would still be 31 countries with schools ranked above Iowa (compared with the CSIC's 13): Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Rusia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Here are US News' top ten, six of which are U.S. universities: Harvard University (1), University of Cambridge (2), Yale University (3), University College London (4), Imperial College London (5; a tie), University of Oxford (5; a tie), University of Chicago (7), Princeton University (8), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (9), and California Institutes of Technology (10).

The SJU and THES rankings.

The SJU's and Times' 2005 rankings are relatively consistent with regard to their top ten, respectively: Harvard University (1, 1), Cambridge University (2, 3), Stanford University (3, 5), University of California, Berkeley (4, 6), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5, 2), California Institute of Technology (6, 8), Columbia University (7, 20), Princeton University (8, 9), and Oxford University (10, 4) -- although Ecole Polytech, which the Times' list has at number 10 does not appear anywhere among SJU's top 39.

US News' top 10 also includes Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, MIT and CalTech. But it does not have Stanford, UCB, Columbia, or Ecole Polytech; and it does list University College London, Imperial College London, and Chicago, which the other two lists do not give top 10 status.

The CSIC's top 10 (of 6000 schools!) shows quite a bit of variation from these three lists: MIT (1), Harvard (2), Stanford (3), UCB (4), Cornell (5), University of Wisconsin, Madison (6), University of Minnesota (7), CalTech (8), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (9), and University of Michigan (10).

World rankings conclusions.

As this brief overview of four rankings systems demonstrates, (a) there is no general agreement as to the most appropriate criteria for making comparative evaluations of universities, and therefore (b) the variations in lists can be considerable (and can be manipulated by those being ranked as well as those doing the rankings) -- and increasingly so as one moves down the lists beyond their "top 10" or so.

And there are some conclusions regarding American universities. (c) A disproportionate number of the universities listed are in the United States (that is, disproportionate when compared with the U.S. population as a percentage of global population). Thus, (d) although the competition is tougher among American schools than it may be for those in other countries, (e) so far as global perceptions go, any school that is ranked well among American universities (as is the UI) is going to be perceived as of good quality by world standards. (f) But equally clearly, from the perspective of those doing these world rankings Americans have no basis for complacency, given the number of countries with universities represented on these lists, including many that they choose to rank well above some American universities.

Putting the State of Iowa in Context.

To the extent that the University of Iowa is a "state university" the state for which it is the university is Iowa. Of course, great institutions (of all kinds; not just educational) can be found in small places; geographical area and population need not be a constrant. At the same time, the population one can draw upon, and the economic resources a state legislature can make available, are relevant in fashioning reasonable aspirations.

So where does Iowa fit among the 50 states?

Half of the U.S. population is in the eight largest states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan); one-quarter is in the 17 smallest states (Iowa, with roughly three million inhabitants, is 31st of the 50 states). [Wikipedia's Pie Chart and List of States.]

Roughly half of America's land area is in 10 states (Alaska, Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming). Iowa ranks 26th of the 50 states in land area (56,272 of the U.S.' 3,794,083 square miles).

As for the State's economy, Robert Atkinson [President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation], The 2008 State New Economy Index: Benchmarking Economic Transformation in the States, Kauffman Foundation, 2008, gives Iowa an "overall score" of 42nd of the 50 states, p. 10; although on its "indicators" Iowa is 6th in "Manufacturing Value-Added" and 22nd in "Immigration of Knowledge Workers," p. 12.

Putting the University of Iowa in Context.

The University of Iowa is a major educational and research institution by any measure.

It is large: with a budget well in excess of $2 billion, 30,000 students from over 100 countries, on a 1900-acre campus with 120 major buildings, operated with 13,000 staff and 1700 faculty, offering over 100 areas of study including seven professional degree programs, and an array of intellectual, cultural and athletic events that attract more than a million visitors a year.

Although it offers no ocean beaches or spectacular mountains, it's located among rolling hills, the meandering Iowa River, large bodies of water, a surrounding population of 100,000, in a town (Iowa City) that can easily be navigated on foot or by bicycle and is frequently mentioned on national "best-place-to-live" lists. It was recently designated by UNESCO as one of three world "Cities of Literature" (due in part, no doubt, to the international reputation of its "Iowa Writers' Workshop" and international writing program).

The University has been around since 1847, was the first public university to admit men and women on an equal basis, and the first to accept creative work in literature and the arts for advanced degrees. West of the Mississippi it was the first to create a law school, educational broadcasting station, and college paper. (As early as the 1870s it was one of the first public law schools in the country to grant degrees to women and African Americans.) It had the nation's first female editor of a college paper.

For what it's worth as "rankings," over 20 of Iowa's graduate programs are ranked among the top 10 for their category among the nation's public universities. (For a complete list see "University of Iowa Facts at a Glance/University of Iowa Rankings.") The overall ranking of its professional schools among US News' "America's Best Graduate Schools," includes Law (26), Medical (research; 31), College of Education (32), Business (44), and Engineering (58).

University of Iowa Healthcare is "an integrated academic medical center under one executive leadership team, consisting of UI Hospitals and Clinics, the UI Carver College of Medicine, and UI Physicians, Iowa’s largest multi-specialty medical and surgical group practice." Its predecessors have been offering patient services since 1873. Recognized as one of the best hospitals in the U.S., with nearly 10,000 employees (making it one of the state's largest employers), research grants in the $100s of millions (the 11th largest NIH recipient), some 200 specialties and programs, a number of which are considered among the nation's top 10 in their field, rather than being described as "the nation's largest university-owned hospital" the phrase is sometimes turned on its head, making the UI "one of the nation's largest hospital-owned universities."

The UI's main library is among the top 25 public academic research libraries. The law library is second in the nation.

One could go on and on with such facts. All major U.S. educational institutions have their "brags": numbers of books and other publications, honors and memberships of faculty, quality of libraries, scientific inventions and cultural contributions, celebrity alums, new buildings and other facilities, athletic championships, or the size of endowments. Each institution has its strengths, its strongest colleges and departments, its "famous" faculty -- but also its weaknesses and its infamous faculty members. Iowa is no exception.

What does seem rather clear is that, by whatever standards and measures one may apply, Iowa is clearly one of America's quality, public, research universities, and the full equal of its peers. Amongst those schools it makes even less sense to distinguish among them on the basis of a few positions one way or another in an arbitrary "ranking" than to decide who gets the gold and who gets the bronze on the basis of a 1/100th of a second difference in how fast they can ski down a hill. (At least there is agreement on the Olympics' criteria for such evaluations.) As I see it, anyone who can ski down a long hill at 90 mph and live to tell about it is a great athlete; and I feel the equivalent about our major research universities.

Reconceptualizing a State University for the 21st Century.

Can the University of Iowa improve? Of course. But not, in my judgment, by focusing on how it can become "world class," or move up in the rankings (whether substantively and ethically, or unethically by gaming the system), in a national or international Olympic competition amongst educational institutions.

Of course, so long as legislators, parents, students, potential faculty hires, and others think rankings are important -- and so long as tuition revenue is a significant part of the the University's budget -- it cannot afford to totally ignore rankings. (Nor, sadly, can it apparently afford to fully support the idea of having all students spend their first two years in community colleges, or lose the tuition revenue provided by those students who come more for the binge drinking than the book learning.) I just think it a mistake to have those considerations disproportionately drive decisions.

(1) As Maritime Administrator, with a budget and number of employees somewhat similar to that of the UI today, I had regular meetings with my office chiefs, as a university president has with his or her vice presidents, or deans. What radically improved things at the agency was when I established metrics for what I identified as the agency's top 100 projects, and moved those office chief meetings into an auditorium and invited all the employees to attend what I called a "monthly MARAD review." Suddenly every employee could see "the big picture," the importance of their job, and where it fit in the overall mission. That (plus my making an effort to meet every employee, and adopt many of their suggestions) made a big difference.

Although there's always more to do, Provost Wallace Loh (and President Dave Skorton and Provost Mike Hogan before him, see The Iowa Promise: A Strategic Plan for the University of Iowa 2005-2010, and especially its "Appendices: Indicators of Progress") have made great strides in the first (metrics for UI goals).

It may just be that I haven't been paying attention, but I don't get a sense that there's much of the second; that is, (1) a monthly report, (2) utilizing a management information reporting system, (3) based on those metrics for goals, (4) that reflect meaningful input from all stakeholders, that is (5) shared openly, with all, as a way of not just communicating to the entire community what is going on, but the significance and relationship of each individual's contribution to the overall mission.

It's not that none of this is out there in the form of news releases, a "state of the university" address, or an occasional award ceremony, but it's not presented (so far as I'm aware) as an integrated, recurring package in a sufficiently arresting form that the community would want to participate.

(2) I have written before of what I perceive as a need for a better (or perhaps one should say "any") system of governance for the University, Regents, and their relationship. See, "An Open Letter to Regents on Governance," April 17, 2007; and generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice," 2001. I won't repeat that here, except to note that it is related to (amongst other things) the creation of the goals, metrics, and management information reporting system discussed above. The absence of a clearly thought through, articulated, and agreed-upon set of relationships between the Regents (as individuals and as a Board) and the University (in the person of its president and other administrators, and in turn their relationships with staff and faculty) simply creates problems that could otherwise easily have been avoided (as has been obvious over the past few years).

(3) In the process of doing both of the above, there are an almost endless list of issues and options to be addressed regarding the University of Iowa's future mission and goals. As of October 7, 2009, Provost Loh had identified and clustered many of them into some six "Strategic Initiatives Task Forces" for Strategic Budgeting, Undergraduate Education and Success, Graduate Education: Selective Excellence, Research and Creative Excellence, Internationalization and Diversity, and Public Outreach and Civic Engagement.

Of course, there are others. For example, there are such things as "universities without students," such as, for example, the Brookings Institution, in Washington, the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica (although Brookings has "fellows," and RAND has its affiliated Pardee Rand Graduate School), and numerous other "think tanks" (both for-profit and non-profit) around the country. As the UI puts increasing emphasis on research, and more of what was formerly its educational mission and budget gets transferred to research efforts, might there be lessons from the Brookings and RAND models -- or, on the other hand, reason to rethink this trend and redirection?

Whatever the answer to those questions might be, to what extent do we want to abandon "basic research" for what the NIH calls "transformative" (or "transformational") research (ultimately, "practical," or "applied" research)? See, National Science Foundation, Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide, effective January 4, 2010. And even if it is a practical necessity that we do so in applying for NIH funds, is it also a useful model for other than medical and scientific research, a standard that should be applied in judging every professor's research?

And I've already discussed, above, a bit of what I see coming with online higher education from "universities without walls."

There's much more, but this blog entry already runs too long.

Bottom line: the University of Iowa can be proud of its past, its present quality, and what will be its innovative, responsive, yet unpredictable future.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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