Saturday, February 27, 2010

Free Speech: US Army vs UIHC

February 27, 2010, 6:40 a.m. [as updated March 1, 2010]

Hierarchical Organizations and Strategic Communications
(brought to you by*)

[Note: And don't miss the comments at the bottom of this blog entry which I am quite willing to concede are, if anything, more incisive, informed, critical, amusing and well written than my blog entry itself.]

Occasionally a news day comes along with a juxtaposition of stories that together are more dramatic than the sum of the parts. Today is such a day.

Among the qualities of hierarchical, top-down organizations can be rigidity, a uniformity (sometimes literally involving uniforms), that sometimes oozes over into attempts not only at censorship of speech but thought control.

[The Supreme Court has often interpreted "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," the First Amendment -- which is applicable to the State, and University of, Iowa and the UIHC -- to include the "right to receive" the speech of others as well as the right to distribute one's own speech. See, seven opinions cited in "Speech: First Amendment; Right to Receive Information and Ideas," Internet Law Treatise. It is in that sense that I am using the words "censorship" and "thought control." Although I am not stating as a clear conclusion that a court would find the UIHC to have violated the Constitution in this instance, First Amendment values do have a role to play here, even if ultimately rejected.]

And what has been, until today, the classic case study of a hierarchical organization, the institution that would first come to mind? That's right, the military. It's a command and control organization, one that requires its members to be focused on the job at hand, one with real national security secrets, one with an understandable desire to control its members speech and thoughts.

Well, think again. It has today relinquished this position. The U.S. military has just announced its recognition of the value of soldiers being connected to the Internet, keeping in touch with each other with Twitter and Facebook.

Here's today's first of two stories: "Twitter permission for US troops," BBC News, February 27, 2010.

The BBC is talking about our U.S. Army! Here are some excerpts from its story this morning (complete with British spelling).

US troops are to be allowed to use social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook following a review of internet use and security.

Defence department officials say the benefits of using social media now outweigh the risks to security.

The ruling means that a number of sites blocked by the Pentagon in 2007 - including YouTube - will be unblocked. . . .

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that social networking can help the Pentagon interact with US military employees, many of whom are in their early 20s and regular users of online services.

Chief of tweets

Among the military's higher ranks, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a Twitter feed with more than 16,000 followers. . . .

"We need to take advantage of these capabilities that are out there - this Web 2.0 phenomena," said David Wennergren, deputy assistant secretary of defence for information technology. . . .
Meanwhile, taking over the distinction as the number one hierarchical organization suppressing Internet access is none other than our own UIHC.

That's right, this morning's Press-Citizen headlines on page one, "UIHC to Block Twitter, Facebook." B.A. Morelli, "UIHC to block Twitter, Facebook; Hospital says Web sites are 'inappropriate,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 27, 2010, pA1. [And see, this morning's (March 1) Press-Citizen comment, Editorial, "Social Networking May Hold Some Benefits for UIHC," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 1, 2010 ("Many people in the corporate world have recognized the advantages to be gained by participating in online social networking through Facebook and Twitter. Businesspeople can reach out to their customers sometimes more efficiently than through telephone calls and e-mails. Journalists can get tips and crowd sourcing for some of their stories. Teachers can keep in touch with students over assignments and questions. And perhaps even health care providers can contact their hard to reach patients more quickly and consistently."]

I have reproduced the full text of Ken Kates' email at the bottom of this blog entry. Meanwhile, here are some excerpts from the story:

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is blocking social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and other Web sites in clinical workstations, according to a letter to staff Friday.

On Monday, UIHC will implement technology that blocks access . . . Ken Kates, UIHC chief executive officer, said in a hospital-wide e-mail. . . .

"[V]iewing inappropriate Web sites . . . consumes employee time and organizational resources," Kates said. . . .

Online social networking sites . . . would be blocked, Kates said.

Login screens on clinical workstations will carry a message noting that access to selected Web sites has been blocked, he said. In addition, if access to blocked sites is attempted, a message also will appear, he said.

Patient safety, fostering a positive work environment and assuring appropriate use of resources were factors in the decision, Kates said. . . .

Filtering is common in many large health care organizations and other industries, Kates said.
(And see, Diane Heldt, "UI Hospitals and Clinics to Filter Web Sites," The Gazette, February 27, 2010, p. A1.) "Filtering is common," that is, in large organizations other than the U.S. military.

Now I don't deny that the UIHC has limited legal rights to control its employees' speech, or that there may be some inappropriate computer use by some employees. How could I know? There certainly are other institutions that also take a very ham-handed approach to controlling employees' computer use. And I am in no sense suggesting that it should be OK for employees in any organization to shirk their responsibilities -- especially those who have responsibility for maintaining the highest standards of patient care -- as a result of their personal computer use "on company time."

I just find the juxtaposition of the two stories this morning striking, and worthy of comment.

And note the timing. The policy is unilaterally announced on a Friday and implemented on a Monday! ("Anne Gentile-Archer, a nurse at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and president of the hospital’s SEIU chapter, says there was no discussion between labor and management about the new policy." From Diane Heldt's Gazette story, immediately above.)

(I'll bet the Iowa City Community School District superintendent and school board members would sure like to learn how to do that. They're still patiently getting "community input" about boundary changes months after beginning the process. See, e.g., this morning's B.A. Morelli, "Feelings mixed on new scenarios; High school boundaries a concern," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 27, 2010, p. A1.)

On a more serious note, here are my thoughts regarding what was wrong with this action:

(1) If there is no widespread endemic problem involving large numbers of UIHC employees' computer use, it might better have been dealt with by supervisors' one-on-one conferences with the offending employees.

(2) At a minimum, the procedure for the creation and implementation of such a policy should not have involved an announcement on Friday and implementation on the following Monday.

(3) There may have been a series of prior meetings between administrators, supervisors, and employees; I'm not in a position to know. But, if not, there should have been -- because it's the decent thing to do, because the policy needs employee buy-in to be effective, and because an ex cathedra announcement of this kind will not be well received.

(4) Doing it this way, with an APB email impliedly critical of employees, that was certain to leak, was bound to create the dual public relations problem that it has fomented. It is a self-inflicted black eye to tell the public the UIHC has problems of this kind; and it is predictable there will be at least some adverse reaction to both its content and the procedure used in creating and announcing it.

(5) If large numbers of employees are involved, and their behavior is seriously interfering with patient care (both of which I doubt), it raises questions as to (a) why persons so lacking in common sense and standards of professionalism were hired in the first place, and (b) once there, why their behavior was not known and dealt with by hospital administrators long ago. For example, if a part of the problem involves the online computer screen public display of pornographic images (which is not clear from the Kates email), that could well qualify as "sexual harassment" under UI policy. If there have been numerous, regular instances in which employees are so distracted or delayed in treating patients as a result of their computer usage that an unacceptably low (or negligent) level of health care and treatment results, that is obviously a much more serious matter than what they do during break time.

(6) Scenarios (1) through (5) necessarily raise questions regarding the quality and effectiveness of UIHC administration.

(7) The policy is going to be hard to rigorously enforce.

(8) The policy is of questionable validity when applied to breaks, and when different standards of conduct are to be applied to different areas of the hospital.

(9) The policy will not resolve the asserted problem. Today's technology is such that person-to-person electronic communication, and Internet access, is not limited to desktop and laptop computers. Cell phone voice calls and voice mail, texting, tweets, and smart phone Internet access can easily substitue for the use of more conventional computers.

(10) Who will decide which are to be the acceptable and unacceptable sites for employees to view, and what are the standards they will use in coming to their decisions? A year ago there were 232 million Web sites on the Internet. By now there are far more. Picking and choosing will not be an quick or easy task.

(11) Blocking sites can be a tricky and imprecise business, as many a high school principal and public librarian have discovered. Researchers have often found themselves unable to do breast cancer research on the Internet as a result of filters and blocked sites. What are the other potential downsides of this decision in the UIHC context?

"One hospital employee who did not want to be identified . . . said he doesn’t see Internet abuse as a rampant problem at the hospital. He also wondered if YouTube will be filtered. Some medical students use the site to watch videos when they’re learning about procedures, he said. 'Something like that online might actually be really valuable. . . . That’s the whole chilling effect — is this going to push out use­ful sites?'” Diane Heldt, "UI Hospitals and Clinics to Filter Web Sites," The Gazette, February 27, 2010, p. A1.

Hopefully, our medical students will be able to find some Army friends on the front lines in Afghanistan who can access YouTube for them, a place where the Army now finds the online site even useful, and certainly less harmful than UIHC administrators believe it to be when available to hospital workers in the U.S.

I can't believe the UI's new Vice President for Strategic Communications would have recommended this decision, wording of the email, or procedure. [Apparently my belief was correct; see the first comment added to this blog, below.] His is, after all, a position created, at least in part, to avoid the public relations disasters created by UIHC decisions such as asking patients for contributions to the UI Foundation before checking them into the clinics, deciding to refuse to pay patients' mounting parking fees that result from their having to wait hours beyond their appointment times, and then, befuddled by how "customer satisfaction" might be improved, deciding the remedy was for top administrators to take a few days off at Disney World in Florida.

I do wish VP Tysen Kendig well. I really do. I want him, and the university he serves, to succeed in the quest to find "strategic communications." But as this latest episode indicates, he may find he has been handed what is literally an impossible job.

One more coincidental juxtaposition. The BBC also began this morning a new subject in its "Monday Documentary" series: "The Virtual Revolution; The Great Leveling: has the internet lived up to the ideals of its founders?" Well, I guess it has in the U.S. military.

The text of the Kates email follows:

This message is sent on behalf of Ken Kates, Chief Executive Officer, UI Hospitals and Clinics, and Associate Vice President, UI Health Care.

In the interest of patient safety, fostering a positive work environment, and assuring appropriate use of resources, UI Hospitals and Clinics on Monday, March 1, will implement technology that blocks access from all clinical workstations to Web sites that are inappropriate in the health care workplace. These include online social networking sites, gaming sites, and “malicious” sites that attempt to infect computer workstations.

Such filtering of inappropriate sites—which is common in many large health care organizations and other industries—is in response to concerns voiced by patients, visitors, staff members, and supervisors. While filtering currently applies only to clinical workstations (computers on nursing units, in outpatient clinics, and other clinical/procedural areas, etc.), evaluation is under way for application in other areas of UI Hospitals and Clinics.

UI Health Care continues to support an open work environment. However, viewing inappropriate Web sites for non-work-related purposes consumes employee time and organizational resources. Moreover, access to inappropriate sites creates the potential for a negative experience for patients, visitors, employees, and students.

Login screens on clinical workstations will carry a message noting that access to selected Web sites has been blocked. In addition, if access to blocked sites is attempted, a message will also appear.

Questions or concerns should be directed to department administrators and/or managers.


* 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
# # #

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly

February 20, 2010, 7:30 a.m.

From SUI to ACT
(brought to you by*)

Note: Today marks the first of a three-day series of news reports and opinion about the University of Iowa and its future. B.A. Morelli, "Is This The New UI? Teetering on the Brink; UI Officials Trying to Figure Out Where to go From Here; Finances," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A1. (The related news items and opinion pieces are linked below, along with my commentary about them.)

The second, Sunday, February 21, deals with faculty: B.A. Morelli, "Pressure and scrutiny on faculty increase; UI officials trying to figure out where to go from here," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 21, 2010.

The final stories in the series (Monday, February 22) are: B.A. Morelli, "Return on investment; What will the UI student of the future look like?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 22, 2010, and B.A. Morelli, "Career mindset damaging to a complete education? Author cautions against trend," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 22, 2010.

And a big "hat's off" to Morelli for this quality bit of journalism and real tour-de-force three days of lengthy stories!

An op ed column of mine is included in today's (Feb. 20) paper: "What Happens if UI Were to Lose its Monopoly on Certification?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A15. It deals with a subject I earlier addressed in this blog as, "From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly," January 31, 2010.

Thus, perhaps a word about "SUI" and "ACT" is in order. What is today called "the University of Iowa" was created in 1847 as "the State University of Iowa," and was soon referred to as "SUI" -- giving rise to the call letters of the University's first radio station, WSUI.

So what is "ACT"? ACT's Web site says the organization's mission is "helping people achieve education and workplace success," and describes the organization as follows:

ACT is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides a broad array of assessment, research, information, and program management solutions in the areas of education and workforce development.

In 2005, ACT began offering multimedia services appropriate for the classroom, homeschool students, business and industry, and on-the-job instruction at the Office for Distance Learning Resources.

Each year, ACT serves millions of people in high schools, colleges, professional associations, businesses, and government agencies—nationally and internationally. ACT has offices across the United States and throughout the world.
So now here is today's Press-Citizen op ed column in which I try to explain the possible transition I envision, "From SUI to ACT."

What Happens if UI Were to Lose its Monopoly on Certification?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
February 20, 2010, p. A15

Of all the reports about the challenges confronting higher education's missions, few address the worst-case scenario: the disappearance of universities as we know them. Unfortunately, the scenario has powerful analogies.

• Try 40, not 5-year plans. Over 40 years ago, when libraries had card catalogs, newspapers were printed, and TV only three 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 that's the Internet.

• The 99.99 percent-off sale. We're used to 10 percent to 50 percent-off sales. But 99.9 percent? Yet the $1 million computer 40 years ago is today $1,000 or less; 99.9 percent off. So what?

• Broadside blows. So unpredicted competition has caused companies and entire industries to disappear. 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.

The 4.5 billion smart phones in 200 countries have Internet capabilities. Cell phone networks may become the owners' preferred platform for the Internet.

Musicians no longer need record companies, filmmakers don't need studios, journalists newspapers, or authors publishers. 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 higher education industry is immune to telecommunications tsunamis?

Forget for-profit Phoenix University. The online content of a Harvard, Yale or MIT undergraduate education is as free as the content of the New York Times. And 250 million Web sites provide the rest of what students need.

If students can learn for free, why pay? Because it's not about learning. It's about degrees. Degrees increase income, and universities control the degrees monopoly.

What if they didn't? Monopolies are fragile and short lived in today's "flat world."

• In 1971, 73 percent of college students wanted a "meaningful philosophy of life." Today, 78 percent identify "wealth" as their goal.

• Parents wonder if there will be enough of that wealth to make the $50,000-to-$200,000 cost of a B.A. plus professional degree a wise investment.

• Employers know a diploma doesn't guarantee basic math and language skills -- and that those skills don't require a diploma.

Southwest Airlines says, "we hire for attitude and train for skills." But as a local Fortune 500 executive told me, "We can't even train employees for skills if they haven't mastered the basics."

Passing the GED exam is high school equivalency. Passing the GRE, not the B.A., is the gateway to graduate school.

What if anyone could take a GRE-type exam, and if they pass have "college equivalency"? A local businessman told me he'd hire them for "college graduate" positions in a New York minute.

Educators are slow to change. Professors started lecturing 1,000 years ago because there were no books. Now, notwithstanding books, we're still lecturing to warm (if inattentive) bodies in lecture halls.

UI had a radio station 100 years ago (9YA); later the first voice AM west of the Mississippi; educational TV in the 1930s. Today those multi-million-dollar assets called WSUI and KSUI might as well be silent for all they're doing to advance the university's mission of engagement with the state's citizens.

Our university is among the nation's best. But we don't have 1,000 years this time. If 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 from ACT and Pearson, institutions with neither faculty nor students. Self study and certificates, rather than commencement ceremonies and diplomas, could become the passport to good pay for knowledge workers in a global economy.

It couldn't happen? I remember when no one else imagined a $1 million computer could ever sell for $1,000 and become part of a global network.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the blog, (where this discussion continues).


Note: Since writing that column I have learned of the "Kahn Academy." It turns out that not only can self-motivated students learn on their own, self-motivated professors can teach on their own -- via YouTube; see, e.g., the Kahn Academy's offerings on mathematics. And see video and transcript of this evening's (Feb. 22), "Math Wiz Adds New Tools to Take Education to New Limits," PBS Newshour, February 22, 2010, regarding the popularity of Kahn's approach.

And although this column/blog entry is focused on free, self-study college equivalency certification, consider "The [for-profit] University of Phoenix, with 455,600 students, is now the second-largest higher-education system in the country, larger than the California system and behind only the State University of New York. More than 90 percent of all the for-profit students are enrolled in degree-granting programs. 'They are clearly a threat for both public and private schools,' a consultant told The Chronicle of Higher Education this week." From a column very much worth reading in its entirety, written by an Iowa Board of Regents member and former President: Michael Gartner, "The Tuition Increase: Wrong on Every Front," CityView, February 11, 2010.

And for a confirmation of the beginning of the trend my op ed column projects, see, Diane Heldt, "College Growth: Online classes post huge growth in nation, Iowa," The Gazette, March 8, 2010, p. A1 (19 million students enroll in college each fall; nearly 5 million took at least one online course in the fall of 2008, a 17 percent increase over 2007 (while the total college enrollment increased only 1.2 percent); the online Phoenix University has gone from 25,000 students in 1995 to 456,000 as of last month -- more than the undergraduate enrollment of all the Big Ten Conference schools combined; for-profit online schools now educate 7 percent of all college students). Of course, the op ed column I wrote, above, projects a future in which both conventional, and for-profit, colleges have lost their monopoly on the granting of "college-equivalency certification," making "free" college education possible. That future is far from certain at this point. But a major element of that forecast requires acceptance of online instruction by students -- an acceptance which these statistics seem to indicate has been growing.

One of the earliest and most prominent of online universities is the United Kingdom's Open University. It's "History of the OU" page accords with my vague memory of having encouraged and supported its development; as it got started during the time I was traveling to London with some regularity, met with Prime Minister Harold Wilson and others, and was also encouraging the creation of the Fourth Channel -- though I would be the first to concede that my involvement with both would have been extremely peripheral compared to that of those directly involved, and may have been no more than mention in an occasional speech. The history page also reports,
More than 20,000 people are currently studying at a postgraduate level - a number higher than the entire student population of many other UK universities. . . .

In times of fast-changing technology, e-learning methods were incorporated into most of the university's courses, where such methods best met students' needs. As part of its commitment to educating all, the university began to commission peak-time series for broadcast on BBC TV.

The 1990s were a time for celebration too: 1998 saw the 25th anniversary of the university's first graduation ceremony and the conferment of the university's 200,000th graduate.

Is the Open University a 'real' university?

The Open University was the first institution to break the insidious link between exclusivity and excellence. It is a University founded on an ideal and, like all revolutionary ideas, attracted hostility and criticism. . . .

More than three decades on, The Open University has managed to convince sceptics that academic excellence need not be compromised by openness: . . .

* More than 50,000 employers have endorsed the value of the OU by sponsoring their staff to enrol on courses.
* The OU is the largest provider of management education in Europe, and one in five MBA students in the UK is studying with the OU.

Recognition for teaching quality

In 2004 The Sunday Times Universities Guide said "Just four institutions — Cambridge, Loughborough, York and the LSE — have a better teaching record than the OU".
For an example of a free (for now) online university, the "University of the People," see Tamar Lewin, "On the Internet, a university without a campus," New York Times, February 5, 2009 ("An Israeli entrepreneur with decades of experience in international education plans to start the first global, tuition-free Internet university, a nonprofit venture he has named the University of the People").

Students aren't the only ones to use online education. Professors can write, modify, and revise their textbooks online, too. Motoko Rich, "Textbooks That Professors Can Rewrite Digitally," New York Times, February 24, 2010, p. B4.

For an example of some Iowans creation of a very successful self-education iPhone app for learning Spanish vocabulary, see David DeWitte, "Success of iPhone App Boggles Coralville Software Firm," GazetteOnline, March 10, 2010.


The earlier discussion along these lines appeared as a blog entry here, "From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly," January 31, 2010.

Of the 750 entries in this blog since 2006, many relate to the University of Iowa in one way or another. Some of the more recent include:

"Porn and Censorship in the Academy," February 14, 2010

"Welcome Dean Agrawal!"
January 4, 2010

"Is the University of Iowa 'World Class'?" January 2, 2010

"University of Iowa's Good News,"
December 30, 2009

"UI's Alcohol Abuse: Look to Nebraska," December 28, 2009

"UI's Alcohol Problem: Many Solutions, Little Will,"
December 16, 2009

"UI's Basketball Fees Self Defeating,"
November 23, 2009

"UI Has A Drinking Problem," November 18, 2009

"Corporatizing the University of Iowa; If We're Going to Do It, Let's Do It Right," November 17, 2009

"Strategic Communications a Failed Strategy; Actions Speak Louder," November 13, 2009

"Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009

"UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009

"Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009

"UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009

Here Are Links to the Press-Citizen's University of Iowa Series


B.A. Morelli, "Is This The New UI? Teetering on the Brink; UI Officials Trying to Figure Out Where to go From Here; Finances," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A1

B.A. Morelli, "Where other universities are heading; Michigan maintains quality, but it all comes at a cost," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A. 13

"University of Iowa's Budget Timeline," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, pp. A12-13

B.A. Morelli, "Pressure and scrutiny on faculty increase; UI officials trying to figure out where to go from here," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 21, 2010.

B.A. Morelli, "Return on investment; What will the UI student of the future look like?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 22, 2010

B.A. Morelli, "Career mindset damaging to a complete education? Author cautions against trend," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 22, 2010


Editorial, "Watching the Evolution of a Public University," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A14

Op Ed Columns (alphabetically by authors' last name)

Nicholas Johnson, "What Happens if UI Were to Lose its Monopoly on Certification?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A15

[UI President] Sally Mason, "Continuing to provide accessible, affordable education for Iowa," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A15

Christopher Squier, "UI rhetoric versus reality," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A14

Tom Walz, "Generating Profits or Prophits," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A14

Bruce Wheaton, "University of Iowa must redefine the dream of its own maturity," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A15


Harold L. Hammond, "Is It Education or Entertainment?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A14

Katherine Tachau, "Education Seen as Private Good," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A14

Commentary (references are to pieces linked immediately above)

The Press-Citizen's editorial addresses Provost Wallace Loh's Task Forces and the future of their recommendations. President Mason's column is something of a short-form annual report, reviewing the UI's accomplishments and strengths (which for what is attempted is a good job of it, and is probably about all a university president can do, even in this context).

Squire, Walz and Wheaton each take a critical and new directions look at the University and its future.

Chris Squire hopes "this new approach can set a direction for reviewing the entire regent system with an eye toward fostering the distinctive strengths of each institution. In such a model, UNI would be a premier undergraduate college, ISU would refocus on its strengths in agriculture and veterinary medicine and essential outreach activities and UI would reinforce its premier graduate and professional programs and build on its strengths in research and biomedicine."

He also notes that "we must be more effective at informing taxpayers and elected officials about the importance of Iowa's institutions of higher education and the unique role that UI plays. Communication efforts in the past have clearly failed when a Des Moines Register poll in November shows that fewer than one third of Iowans would oppose cutting state support to the universities."

In my op ed I strike a similar note with, "Today those multi-million-dollar assets called WSUI and KSUI might as well be silent for all they're doing to advance the university's mission of engagement with the state's citizens." I earlier urged that we "take the criticism head on; to accept the challenge to explain to the critics of the intellectual, academic, research life what the value of a university is, to its critics as well as its friends and graduates. Why is it our role to 'disturb all settled ideas'? Why are there more benefits than risks from a population engaged in critical thinking?" See, Nicholas Johnson, "Porn and Censorship in the Academy," February 14, 2010.

Tom Walz addresses, and is critical of, the University's corporatization: "UI has continued its journey toward full adoption of the for-profit corporate mode of operation. Central administration serves as the corporate management group. Deans and directors of academic units are addressed as department executive officers. Faculty and staff make up the non-management labor groups.

"Students remain consumers of education, but compete for attention and resources from the other products the university sells to corporations, governments and recreation and med care consumers. Scholarship tends to be measured in terms of big dollar research grants and contracts."

This is similar to a theme I wrote about last November in Nicholas Johnson, "Corporatizing the University of Iowa; If We're Going to Do It, Let's Do It Right," November 17, 2009.

Bruce Wheaton offers a creative approach different from, though consistent with, the rest of us. He questions the value of "growth" as a mission for a university, and says, "Despite the various standard three-part formulations of its mission, the university has one central obligation -- to fuel the imaginations of the individuals who inhabit it. Teaching, research and service are really only means to this unitary end -- not ends in themselves.

"A university so defined could be distinguished readily from any other large corporate entity. It would not be simply a large organization with rhetorically highly prized assets in its students and employees. Instead, the organization would become an asset of the scholars and students who justify its existence."

Thus, he not only touches on the corporatization of education, but ironically an element of successful institutional approaches, including those of corporations: the distinction between "ends" and "means," or governance. See, e.g., John Carver's "ends policies" discussed in Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice," (2000-2001), and Nicholas Johnson, "An Open Letter to Regents on Governance," April 17, 2007.

Katherine Tachau's letter raises a fundamental issue underpinning the funding of higher education: to what extent should it be conceptualized as a "public good" (as K-12 education is conceptualized and paid for; that is, everyone benefits from mechanics who can read manuals and cashiers who can make change) or a "private good" (something that can increase the lifetime income of a college graduate -- as well as, one would hope, increase the graduate's "quality of life" in an intellectual and cultural sense)? It's an issue that simply must be addressed and resolved -- or at least develop a plurality of public and legislative opinion -- if the public funding of higher education is to be rationally addressed. Here again, this is an issue that I have often addressed in the past, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "'Free' College Education," September 9, 2006.

Harold Hammond, in his letter, is largely just having fun with Interim Vice-President for Student Services Tom Rocklin's decision regarding the student Bijou Theater showing a 40-year-old porn film, seemingly suggesting that the basis for his concern rested on the fact that it was mere entertainment, rather than being addressed in an educational context. What then are we to make of the football program and Hancher's offerings, Hammond asks. My comments on that one are in "Porn and Censorship in the Academy," February 14, 2010.

In short, it seems to me that these op ed columns and letters demonstrate that there is a lot of fundamental questioning about higher education that independent minds can come up with, and a kind of basic consistency (although obviously not identity) in where their inquiry leads.

* 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
# # #

Friday, February 19, 2010

Austin's IRS Ablaze, Joe Stack & Americans' Anger

February 19, 2010, 12:15 p.m.

"It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall"
"I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'"

--From Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"
(brought to you by*)

What are we to make of Joe Stack's deliberately flying his plane at high speed into the Austin, Texas, offices of the IRS? (Photo credit: Alberto Martinez/Associated Press).

I think it was a predictable and inevitable act, and that there are more to come.

Because that sentence, and all that follow, will be emotionally laden for many, I want to make very clear at the outset what I am not saying.

(1) I am not advocating violence; I keep a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King on my office wall to remind me of his, and my, conviction that the non-violent path to social and political reform is not only more moral, it is also more effective.

(2) It is not my belief that Joe Stack was in any way "justified" in reacting as he did.

(3) I am not trivializing "terrorism." I recognize that (a) there is a difference between violent acts by Americans against Americans and (b) violent acts against Americans, here or abroad, by those of other countries. I believe what we tend to label as "terrorism" when it involves those from elsewhere is a real and serious threat that should be neither minimized nor trivialized.

So, with at least a few of the necessary qualifiers out of the way, here are some of my reactions to yesterday's events.

Predictable, inevitable, and replicable

The reason I think what Stack did was predictable is because I predicted it.

I have been writing about "terrorism" and "war" for sometime now. A couple years ago I took a somewhat different tack in the eight-part blog entry series, Nicholas Johnson, "Golden Rules and Revolutions: A Series," April 12-19, 2008 (with links from Part VIII to the prior seven). It later became a chapter in Nicholas Johnson, "Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America," Part IX: Gold, pp. 178-208, especially "Income Disparity and Revolution" (2008).

The reference to the "Golden Rule" was, of course, to the line that "she who has the gold makes the rules," leading into a discussion of the growing income disparity and its potential consequences.

I am not a conspiratorial theorist, nor am I charging that anyone truly desires to turn the United States into a third world country, in which the top 1% of super rich rule over a 90% in abject poverty. All I would observe is that what is happening -- as a result of what will be spelled out in this series -- is not that different from what would be happening if that were the goal of government officials and the ruling elite. . . .

I recall reading many years ago -- where it was I would have no way of recalling now -- that there is a rough mathematical formula for predicting the point at which a growing income disparity will ultimately produce a revolution.

No, I don't think we're yet there in the United States.

But I am one of those who thinks Senator Obama was right when he said, " . . . there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in [America] who are bitter. . . . They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through." Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray,"'Bitter' Is a Hard Pill For Obama to Swallow; He Stands by Sentiment as Clinton Pounces," Washington Post, April 13, 2008, p. A6.
Some say that to think and speak this way is to foment "class warfare." Indeed, even Warren Buffett, of all people, has been questioned and criticized for pointing out that his secretary pays a larger percentage of her income to the IRS than Buffett does. But as I went on in that piece to quote Warren Buffett,

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. [Warren] Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Ben Stein, "In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning," New York Times, November 26, 2006.

Those who refuse to acknowledge what's happening in America can charge those who do with being "elitist," or fomenting "class warfare." But that does little to assuage the anger of those on the losing side of this warfare.

And when that anger is permitted to seethe long enough the news from elsewhere can serve as a reminder of the limits that ultimately come to constrain the greed of oppressive governments and the super rich elite.
Nicholas Johnson, "Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series - I," April 12, 2008 -- which was followed in the blog entry with three current examples of revolutions in other countries prompted in large part by such income disparities.

Now I'll ask you, who wrote this:

Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours? Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.
A quote from an earlier blog entry of mine? No. Give up? It's a quote from Joe Stack's letter/article of explanation for his acts that he headed, "American Zombies Wake Up and Revolt." Neil Katz, "Joe Stack Suicide Note Full Text: 'American Zombies Wake Up and Revolt,'" CBS News, Crimesider Blog, February 18, 2010.

You will recall that 234 years ago this year another American, indeed 56 signers, expressed if not identical, at least analogous anger:

[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . evinces a design to reduce [the colonists] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[Over two dozen examples are set forth.]

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

And for a commentary about today's "oppressions" of democracy, aired tonight on PBS, see "Justice for Sale," Bill Moyers' Journal, PBS, February 19, 2010.

"Throughout his [Stack's] letter he repeated his disdain for "rich, incompetent cronies the government continued to bail out with 'HIS MONEY.' In a seven-page suicide letter left on his Web site, The Smoking Gun, Stack raged against the IRS, stating “I have had all I can stand.” . . . Near the end of his letter, he wrote, “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.” Shea Yarborough, "Pilot: 'I Have Had All I Can Stand,'" [University of] North Texas Daily, February 19, 2010, p. 1.

“I knew Joe had a hang-up with the I.R.S. on account of them breaking him, taking his savings away,” said Jack Cook, the stepfather of Mr. Stack’s wife . . .. “This is a shock to me that he would do something like this,” Mr. Cook said. “But you get your anger up, you do it.” Michael Brick, "Man Crashes Plane Into Texas IRS Office," New York Times, February 19, 2010, p. A14.

When is domestic, criminal, violence and property destruction "terrorism"?

Words make a difference -- including the choice between "criminal acts" and "terrorism."

Both were used following Stack's attack on the Austin IRS offices. Lisa Garza, "Authorities: Austin plane crash identified as criminal act, not terrorism," North Texas [University] Daily, February 18, 2010 (no longer available online, so far as I know); Joshua Rhett Miller, "Austin Plane Crash: Criminal Act or Domestic Terrorism?" Fox News, February 19, 2010; Official: Austin Plane Crash Into IRS Building ‘A Criminal Act’; Pilot's Suicide Note, Austin American-Statesman, February 18, 2010 ("A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the crash was 'apparently a criminal act,' . . .."); Ian O'Neill, "IRS Plane Crash: Was it Terrorism?" Discovery News, February 19, 2010.

DHS officials explicitly warned against the potential emergence of terrorist groups or "lone wolf extremists" in a report issued in April. The report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," found that while no specific threat existed, there was the potential for violence from extremists concerned about illegal immigration, abortion, increased federal power and restrictions on firearms.
Joshua Rhett Miller, "Austin Plane Crash: Criminal Act or Domestic Terrorism?" Fox News, February 19, 2010.

I have formerly written about the difficulty in defining "terrorism," and distinguishing between violence and property destruction by (1) Americans on Americans, (2) citizens of other countries on Americans, and (3) Americans on citizens of other countries. Nicholas Johnson, "'War' on 'Terrorism'" in "General Semantics, Terrorism and War" (2006), Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism" (2002); Nicholas Johnson, "What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?" Chapter 6, "You As Citizen II: Terrorism and War," p. 61 (2009).

Joe Stack is not the only American to engage in violence which, had it been done by a member of al Qaeda, would have been characterized as "terrorism."

Timothy McVeigh

The Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1995 when American militia movement sympathizer Timothy McVeigh, with the assistance of Terry Nichols, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. It was the most significant act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11 attacks in 2001, claiming the lives of 168 victims and injuring more than 680. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen–block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage.Motivated by the federal government's handling of the Waco Siege (1993) and the Ruby Ridge incident (1992), McVeigh's attack was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco Siege.
"Oklahoma City Bombing," Wikipedia.

Theodore Kaczynski

In 1971, he [Kaczynski] moved to a remote cabin without electricity or running water, in Lincoln, Montana, where he began to learn survival skills in an attempt to become self-sufficient. He decided to start a bombing campaign after watching the wilderness around his home being destroyed by development. From 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 bombs to targets including universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times on April 24, 1995 and promised "to desist from terrorism" if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto. In his Industrial Society and Its Future (also called the "Unabomber Manifesto"), he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization.
"Theodore Kaczynski," Wikipedia.

Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan

An Army psychiatrist facing deployment to one of America’s war zones [Iraq or Afghanistan according to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)] killed 13 people and wounded 30 others on Thursday in a shooting rampage with two handguns at the sprawling Fort Hood Army post in central Texas, military officials said. . . . Fox News quoted a retired Army colonel, Terry Lee, as saying that Major Hasan, with whom he worked, had voiced hope that President Obama would pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, had argued with military colleagues who supported the wars and had tried to prevent his own deployment.
Robert D. McFadden, "Army Doctor Held in Ft. Hood Rampage," New York Times, November 6, 2009, p. A1.

Now, not every angry American is going to fly a private plane into a government building. For starters, very few Americans have private planes. But as the President has observed, above, and as the Tea Party movement confirms, there are a lot of angry Americans -- Republicans, Democrats, third party members, and independents -- who are looking to do something, even if it's just to vote the incumbents out of office. See, "Tea Party Nation," and "National Tea Party Convention." It is inevitable that at least for an increasing number of them, that "something" will take the form of what Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczinski and Nidal Malick Hasan did earlier, and Joe Stack did yesterday, February 18, 2010.

In one sense, it makes little difference how we define words like "criminal" and "terrorist." We can define words however we please, although effective communication will require some basic level of agreement regarding those definitions.

But in another sense we have much to learn from the definitions and their implications.

(1) Whatever we call it, we clearly have a significant risk of damage being done by Americans to Americans and their property. To the extent we wish to minimize such risks we cannot limit our concern to tracking those who come from abroad.

(2) The more Americans who feel oppressed, ignored, and abused by their government, the greater is the likelihood of such damage. This includes the transfer of taxpayers' money to some of the wealthiest Americans, the growing gap in wealth between the richest and the rest of us, and the increasing obscenity of the response of elected officials to campaign contributions, while ignoring constituents.

(3) What Kaczinski, McVeigh, Hasan and Stack have in common is that each felt it worthwhile to craft an explanation for their actions, and that each of their explanations involved complaints about the United States or other American governments and societal conditions. Those they killed were, almost exclusively, persons they did not personally know and with whom they had not interacted in any way. Their targets were symbols of the core of their complaints.

(4) Such attacks are, in this sense, distinguishable from those who kill a former lover or spouse, the member of another gang or competing drug ring, someone who gets in the way during a robbery, or one's fellow high school students or McDonald's employees. The actions of Kaczinski, McVeigh, Hasan and Stack were not actions that can be entirely explained by saying "they just snapped." There may have been some "final straw" that moved them to action, but there was clearly an anti-government anger driving them as well.

(5) What are we to make of those whose initial reaction to Joe Stack's attack was to reassure us that it was "criminal" and not "terrorism"? By contrast, questions have been raised about Hasan's attack on fellow members of the military as possibly "terrorism." Had Stack been Muslim, and had this Texan recently returned from Pakistan, would Homeland Security have been so quick to reassure us his actions were not "terrorism"? Blowing up buildings (McVeigh) or flying planes into them (Stack) have certainly qualified as "terrorism" on other occasions. Why not now? Do we have more sympathy for, do we more easily identify with, fellow Americans who engage in such violence than with those who come from abroad and do the same things?

(6) Whether football or foreign wars, the more you can understand about the thinking of your opponent the better. If it is easier for us to relate to those Americans whose anti-American government anger has prompted them to violent action, perhaps that can help us to understand how the anti-American government anger of al Qaeda and militant Taliban members abroad has motivated them to action. (As I've already said, I'm not justifying "terrorism" by either Americans or others, only that understanding what produces it may help us to fight it on both fronts.)

(7) There has recently been discussion regarding the propriety of prosecuting terrorists from abroad as "criminals" in federal courts, or "enemy combatants" in military tribunals. The identification of what Stark did as "criminal," notwithstanding the similarity of strategy to what was done on 9/11, may be relevant in this context as well.

(8) Finally, in thinking about our "war on terrorism," some have suggested that it might be more effective to conceptualize our challenge as less in the nature of traditional "war" (e.g., against a "nation," with uniformed military, and front lines) and as something more likely to be defeated if characterized as "criminal" in nature. The latter would suggest a police, diplomatic and intelligence approach -- along with development, removing the poverty and other causes, and "winning hearts and minds" -- as, indeed, many of our best generals have suggested.

Full Text of Joe Stack "Explanation"

If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, “Why did this have to happen?” The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn’t enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken. Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless… especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head. Exactly what is therapeutic about that I’m not sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

We are all taught as children that without laws there would be no society, only anarchy. Sadly, starting at early ages we in this country have been brainwashed to believe that, in return for our dedication and service, our government stands for justice for all. We are further brainwashed to believe that there is freedom in this place, and that we should be ready to lay our lives down for the noble principals represented by its founding fathers. Remember? One of these was “no taxation without representation”. I have spent the total years of my adulthood unlearning that crap from only a few years of my childhood. These days anyone who really stands up for that principal is promptly labeled a “crackpot”, traitor and worse.

While very few working people would say they haven’t had their fair share of taxes (as can I), in my lifetime I can say with a great degree of certainty that there has never been a politician cast a vote on any matter with the likes of me or my interests in mind. Nor, for that matter, are they the least bit interested in me or anything I have to say.

Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours? Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.

And justice? You’ve got to be kidding!

How can any rational individual explain that white elephant conundrum in the middle of our tax system and, indeed, our entire legal system? Here we have a system that is, by far, too complicated for the brightest of the master scholars to understand. Yet, it mercilessly “holds accountable” its victims, claiming that they’re responsible for fully complying with laws not even the experts understand. The law “requires” a signature on the bottom of a tax filing; yet no one can say truthfully that they understand what they are signing; if that’s not “duress” than what is. If this is not the measure of a totalitarian regime, nothing is.

How did I get here?

My introduction to the real American nightmare starts back in the early ‘80s. Unfortunately after more than 16 years of school, somewhere along the line I picked up the absurd, pompous notion that I could read and understand plain English. Some friends introduced me to a group of people who were having ‘tax code’ readings and discussions. In particular, zeroed in on a section relating to the wonderful “exemptions” that make institutions like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church so incredibly wealthy. We carefully studied the law (with the help of some of the “best”, high-paid, experienced tax lawyers in the business), and then began to do exactly what the “big boys” were doing (except that we weren’t steeling from our congregation or lying to the government about our massive profits in the name of God). We took a great deal of care to make it all visible, following all of the rules, exactly the way the law said it was to be done.
The intent of this exercise and our efforts was to bring about a much-needed re-evaluation of the laws that allow the monsters of organized religion to make such a mockery of people who earn an honest living. However, this is where I learned that there are two “interpretations” for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us… Oh, and the monsters are the very ones making and enforcing the laws; the inquisition is still alive and well today in this country.

That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0. It made me realize for the first time that I live in a country with an ideology that is based on a total and complete lie. It also made me realize, not only how naive I had been, but also the incredible stupidity of the American public; that they buy, hook, line, and sinker, the crap about their “freedom”… and that they continue to do so with eyes closed in the face of overwhelming evidence and all that keeps happening in front of them.

Before even having to make a shaky recovery from the sting of the first lesson on what justice really means in this country (around 1984 after making my way through engineering school and still another five years of “paying my dues”), I felt I finally had to take a chance of launching my dream of becoming an independent engineer.

On the subjects of engineers and dreams of independence, I should digress somewhat to say that I’m sure that I inherited the fascination for creative problem solving from my father. I realized this at a very young age.
The significance of independence, however, came much later during my early years of college; at the age of 18 or 19 when I was living on my own as student in an apartment in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My neighbor was an elderly retired woman (80+ seemed ancient to me at that age) who was the widowed wife of a retired steel worker. Her husband had worked all his life in the steel mills of central Pennsylvania with promises from big business and the union that, for his 30 years of service, he would have a pension and medical care to look forward to in his retirement. Instead he was one of the thousands who got nothing because the incompetent mill management and corrupt union (not to mention the government) raided their pension funds and stole their retirement. All she had was social security to live on.
In retrospect, the situation was laughable because here I was living on peanut butter and bread (or Ritz crackers when I could afford to splurge) for months at a time. When I got to know this poor figure and heard her story I felt worse for her plight than for my own (I, after all, I thought I had everything to in front of me). I was genuinely appalled at one point, as we exchanged stories and commiserated with each other over our situations, when she in her grandmotherly fashion tried to convince me that I would be “healthier” eating cat food (like her) rather than trying to get all my substance from peanut butter and bread. I couldn’t quite go there, but the impression was made. I decided that I didn’t trust big business to take care of me, and that I would take responsibility for my own future and myself.

Return to the early ‘80s, and here I was off to a terrifying start as a ‘wet-behind-the-ears’ contract software engineer... and two years later, thanks to the fine backroom, midnight effort by the sleazy executives of Arthur Andersen (the very same folks who later brought us Enron and other such calamities) and an equally sleazy New York Senator (Patrick Moynihan), we saw the passage of 1986 tax reform act with its section 1706.
For you who are unfamiliar, here is the core text of the IRS Section 1706, defining the treatment of workers (such as contract engineers) for tax purposes. Visit this link for a conference committee report ( regarding the intended interpretation of Section 1706 and the relevant parts of Section 530, as amended. For information on how these laws affect technical services workers and their clients, read our discussion here (

(a) IN GENERAL - Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new subsection:
(d) EXCEPTION. - This section shall not apply in the case of an individual who pursuant to an arrangement between the taxpayer and another person, provides services for such other person as an engineer, designer, drafter, computer programmer, systems analyst, or other similarly skilled worker engaged in a similar line of work.
(b) EFFECTIVE DATE. - The amendment made by this section shall apply to remuneration paid and services rendered after December 31, 1986.
• "another person" is the client in the traditional job-shop relationship.
• "taxpayer" is the recruiter, broker, agency, or job shop.
• "individual", "employee", or "worker" is you.
Admittedly, you need to read the treatment to understand what it is saying but it’s not very complicated. The bottom line is that they may as well have put my name right in the text of section (d). Moreover, they could only have been more blunt if they would have came out and directly declared me a criminal and non-citizen slave. Twenty years later, I still can’t believe my eyes.

During 1987, I spent close to $5000 of my ‘pocket change’, and at least 1000 hours of my time writing, printing, and mailing to any senator, congressman, governor, or slug that might listen; none did, and they universally treated me as if I was wasting their time. I spent countless hours on the L.A. freeways driving to meetings and any and all of the disorganized professional groups who were attempting to mount a campaign against this atrocity. This, only to discover that our efforts were being easily derailed by a few moles from the brokers who were just beginning to enjoy the windfall from the new declaration of their “freedom”. Oh, and don’t forget, for all of the time I was spending on this, I was loosing income that I couldn’t bill clients.

After months of struggling it had clearly gotten to be a futile exercise. The best we could get for all of our trouble is a pronouncement from an IRS mouthpiece that they weren’t going to enforce that provision (read harass engineers and scientists). This immediately proved to be a lie, and the mere existence of the regulation began to have its impact on my bottom line; this, of course, was the intended effect.

Again, rewind my retirement plans back to 0 and shift them into idle. If I had any sense, I clearly should have left abandoned engineering and never looked back.

Instead I got busy working 100-hour workweeks. Then came the L.A. depression of the early 1990s. Our leaders decided that they didn’t need the all of those extra Air Force bases they had in Southern California, so they were closed; just like that. The result was economic devastation in the region that rivaled the widely publicized Texas S&L fiasco. However, because the government caused it, no one gave a s*** about all of the young families who lost their homes or street after street of boarded up houses abandoned to the wealthy loan companies who received government funds to “shore up” their windfall. Again, I lost my retirement.

Years later, after weathering a divorce and the constant struggle trying to build some momentum with my business, I find myself once again beginning to finally pick up some speed. Then came the .COM bust and the 911 nightmare. Our leaders decided that all aircraft were grounded for what seemed like an eternity; and long after that, ‘special’ facilities like San Francisco were on security alert for months. This made access to my customers prohibitively expensive. Ironically, after what they had done the Government came to the aid of the airlines with billions of our tax dollars … as usual they left me to rot and die while they bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies WITH MY MONEY! After these events, there went my business but not quite yet all of my retirement and savings.
By this time, I’m thinking that it might be good for a change. Bye to California, I’ll try Austin for a while. So I moved, only to find out that this is a place with a highly inflated sense of self-importance and where damn little real engineering work is done. I’ve never experienced such a hard time finding work. The rates are 1/3 of what I was earning before the crash, because pay rates here are fixed by the three or four large companies in the area who are in collusion to drive down prices and wages… and this happens because the justice department is all on the take and doesn’t give a f*** about serving anyone or anything but themselves and their rich buddies.
To survive, I was forced to cannibalize my savings and retirement, the last of which was a small IRA. This came in a year with mammoth expenses and not a single dollar of income. I filed no return that year thinking that because I didn’t have any income there was no need. The sleazy government decided that they disagreed. But they didn’t notify me in time for me to launch a legal objection so when I attempted to get a protest filed with the court I was told I was no longer entitled to due process because the time to file ran out. Bend over for another $10,000 helping of justice.

So now we come to the present. After my experience with the CPA world, following the business crash I swore that I’d never enter another accountant’s office again. But here I am with a new marriage and a boatload of undocumented income, not to mention an expensive new business asset, a piano, which I had no idea how to handle. After considerable thought I decided that it would be irresponsible NOT to get professional help; a very big mistake.

When we received the forms back I was very optimistic that they were in order. I had taken all of the years information to Bill Ross, and he came back with results very similar to what I was expecting. Except that he had neglected to include the contents of Sheryl’s unreported income; $12,700 worth of it. To make matters worse, Ross knew all along this was missing and I didn’t have a clue until he pointed it out in the middle of the audit. By that time it had become brutally evident that he was representing himself and not me.

This left me stuck in the middle of this disaster trying to defend transactions that have no relationship to anything tax-related (at least the tax-related transactions were poorly documented). Things I never knew anything about and things my wife had no clue would ever matter to anyone. The end result is… well, just look around.

I remember reading about the stock market crash before the “great” depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything. Isn’t it ironic how far we’ve come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn’t have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it’s “business-as-usual”. Now when the wealthy f*** up, the poor get to die for the mistakes… isn’t that a clever, tidy solution.

As government agencies go, the FAA is often justifiably referred to as a tombstone agency, though they are hardly alone. The recent presidential puppet GW Bush and his cronies in their eight years certainly reinforced for all of us that this criticism rings equally true for all of the government. Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough). In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws.

I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.

I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer. The cruel joke is that the really big chunks of s*** at the top have known this all along and have been laughing, at and using this awareness against, fools like me all along.

I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.
The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.
Joe Stack (1956-2010)
Neil Katz, "Joe Stack Suicide Note Full Text: 'American Zombies Wake Up and Revolt,'" CBS News, Crimesider Blog, February 18, 2010.


* 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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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Porn and Censorship in the Academy

February 14, 2010, 11:00 a.m.

"Disco Dolls" and Dangerous Decisions
(brought to you by*)

The Bijou Theater has canceled its showing of "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin." See, e.g., B.A. Morelli, "UI cancels porn film showing at Bijou; Theater has shown similar films in the past," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 10, 2010; Editorial, "Looks Like the UI Wants to Put the 'No' in 'Porno,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 11, 2010; Kembrew Mcleod, "Canceling Porno Misguided," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 13, 2010; Editorial, "UI officials have acted poorly in Bijou porn controversy," The Daily Iowan, February 12, 2010.

The cancellation raises dozens of issues, known and unknown. The information one would need to discuss any one of them, let alone all, is mostly unavailable to me at the moment. Moreover, in a nation that has never completely shaken its Puritan origins, the field of pornography remains littered with IEDs.

Of course, such concerns have never held me back in these blog entries before, so why should they now.

There are legal issues: constitutional, statutory, regulatory, and litigation -- many of which turn on fact questions involving matters unknown. They involve, among a great many other things, the definitions of "obscenity," "indecency," and "pornography" and the legal significance of the differences.

There are questions of educational administrators' judgment in protecting the mission of a university (including its faculty's "academic freedom") while being mindful of the demands of public and legislative relations.

There are media studies issues regarding the potential impact on the audience, and broader society, of depictions of violence, or sexual acts.

There are relevant, indeed decisive, fact questions regarding the exchange in this case between UI Interim Vice President Tom Rocklin and Bijou Executive Director Evan Meaney.

If UI administrators are to exercise "prior censorship" judgment about the Bijou's offerings, there are then governance, administrative process, and drafting questions regarding the relationship between the University and the Bijou.

Here are some (as noted, uninformed) comments about, primarily, the potential legal issues:

Legal. For a great many reasons, what follows is not a "legal opinion." If your job is such that you need to know "the law" on these issues you should consult a lawyer.

Moreover, legal issues may, on balance, be little more than a significant backdrop to this conflict. That is to say, without ignoring the law, what may be most important is the mission of the University and the relationship of its administrators to those running student programs generally. But here are some of the possible legal issues to think about.

Movies are considered speech. Obscene movies, or other speech, do not enjoy constitutional protection. For adults, all other speech (i.e., movies) is protected.

"Freedom of speech" and "censorship" are used colloquially in contexts where they do not apply legally. That's OK; free speech is still a useful value elsewhere. But the First Amendment's provision that "'Congress' shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," although interpreted to apply to governments generally, does not apply to other institutions. A newspaper editor who kills a reporter's story may have exercised bad judgment, s/he may have caved in to an advertiser's pressure, but s/he has not violated the First Amendment. That's not to say that the reasons for the First Amendment may not be equally applicable to children in the home, employees in the workplace, or faculty in a private college. It is only to say that the First Amendment, legally, for the most part only operates as a restraint on government.

Thus, the State of Iowa, the Board of Regents, and UI administrators (acting in their official capacity for the University) are considered to be "Congress" for purposes of constitutional law.

But that's scarcely the end of the matter. There are many contexts in which governments may "abridge" free speech, such as specifying what may, and may not, be printed in the label on a can of peas.

Specifically relevant to the UI's Bijou context -- though it contributes more confusion than clarification -- are the concepts of "government speech," "public forum," "limited public forum," and in the context of universities, a forum for student speech.

A university may, as a matter of grace, decide that it will be able to assemble a more accomplished faculty if it grants "academic freedom" and does not exercise its legal right to control what can and cannot be said by them in the course of their employment. Like any other institution or individual, it may contract away rights it would otherwise have had.

For when it is the University that is speaking, for example, through a news release, it is not unconstitutional for "it" (acting through its hierarchy of administrators) to dictate, or edit (i.e., "censor") the copy prepared by a UI employee for that news release. As the Supreme Court has said, "A holding that the University may not discriminate based on the viewpoint of private persons whose speech it facilitates does not restrict the University's own speech, which is controlled by different principles." Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 834 (1995).

The Rosenberger case, although different in some particulars, is more specifically useful in our context with regard to the consequences if the Bijou Theater is a "limited forum for student speech" (a finding that turns on facts that are presently unknown to the public, or at least not reported by the media stories).

Rosenberger involved a university program funding the printing of student organizations' publications -- funding being a circumstance that the Court treated as analytically similar to the regulation of speech in a limited forum created by a university. The University of Virginia -- ironically in an effort to honor another provision of the First Amendment, involving a prohibition on its "establishment" of a religion -- refused to make any of these funds available for use by a student Christian organization. The Court wrote:

These principles provide the framework forbidding the State from exercising viewpoint discrimination, even when the limited public forum is one of its own creation. . . . The necessities of confining a forum to the limited and legitimate purposes for which it was created may justify the State in reserving it for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics. . . . Once it has opened a limited forum, however, the State must respect the lawful boundaries it has itself set. The State may not exclude speech where its distinction is not "reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum," . . ., nor may it discriminate against speech on the basis of its viewpoint, . . .. Thus, in determining whether the State is acting to preserve the limits of the forum it has created so that the exclusion of a class of speech is legitimate, we have observed a distinction between, on the one hand, content discrimination, which may be permissible if it preserves the purposes of that limited forum, and, on the other hand, viewpoint discrimination, which is presumed impermissible when directed against speech otherwise within the forum's limitations."
Ibid, at 829-30.

So, where does that take us?

At the outset, there is ambiguity from the lack of information regarding the exchanges between Rocklin and Meaney. If the Vice President issued an "order," or "ruling," forbidding," or otherwise denying the Bijou the "right" to show the film, that would be one thing. If he merely said, almost offhandedly and informally, without any hint of threat of official recrimination, "In this climate, you might want to think about the possible public reaction from that choice," that could be another.

If Meaney's reasonable perception was that he had been ordered to cancel the showing (a fact question), that still leaves the issue of whether the Bijou is a "limited forum for student speech" (similar to the University of Virginia budget for student organizations' publications), or whether it is an example of University funded, sponsored and administered "University speech" only delegated to this student board to be operated on behalf of the University. Without more information there's no way to answer that one. And I would not be stunned if there is simply nothing in the Bijou archives of communication with University administrators that relates to this aspect of the relationship.

"Disco Dolls in Hot Skin" is a movie. Movies are speech. "Obscenity" (a legal definition) is not protected speech. Although I have not seen this movie, from the media descriptions my sense is that it would not be considered (and Rocklin did not consider it) "obscene." Thus, (a) if the Bijou is a "limited student speech forum," funded in part with student fees designated for student organizations, (b) and in this instance for an organization the purpose of which is to show a range of motion pictures not normally available in local, commercial movie theaters, and (c) having created this student speech forum the UI has forbid the showing of a particular film based on its content, there might very well be a variety of First Amendment claim by the Bijou.

But that's a lot of ifs.

Judgment call. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote a book entitled Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969). I have a painting by Iowa-born Sister Mary Corita (as she then was), with the Goethe quote, "It is the property of true genius to disturb all settled ideas." That has been the academic's role since before the time of Galileo Galilei.

Academics may need no longer fear the Inquisition (Galileo spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest), but there is still a price of sorts to be paid for inquiry, for those who, as the button has it, "Question Authority," "Speak Truth to Power," for free and independent thinking.

Sometimes, though rarely, that price can affect not only the individual who has spoken or written, but the institution of which they are a part. That may have been Vice President Rocklin's concern in this case. It was a judgment call, his judgment call. The UI gets relatively little money from the legislature, compared with the percentages of its budget the State provided when I was a boy. But Rocklin may have known things I do not; millions of dollars might have been at risk as a result of showing this film. But even though I doubt that, and even though if I were in his position I would not have intervened (consistent with the positions I took as a Supreme Court law clerk to Justice Hugo Black, or as an FCC commissioner when similar issues arose), I'm not going to presume to say he was wrong to do what he did -- whatever that was.

There is a balance to be struck between the spirit of free speech and academic inquiry (whether in a context that is protected by the First Amendment or not), and the preservation of a university as an institution from political forces that have set about to harm or destroy it.

The risk is,
As I have written before, "Once 'revenue is needed' is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole." Nicholas Johnson, "UI Loves Gambling" in "UI Held Hostage Day 410 - March 7," March 7, 2007.

"Revenue is needed" is why politicians accept the bribes called "campaign contributions;" why "non-commercial" educational radio stations run commercials; why K-12 schools subscribed to "Channel One" and continue to sell sugared soft drinks to their students, knowing they will increase obesity, dental caries, and diabetes; why the UI's athletic program becomes a partner with the organized gambling industry's casino in Riverside; and why universities provide advertising on their buildings, and in naming their colleges, that promotes their corporate "donors."
Nicholas Johnson, "University Rips-Off Students Because . . . 'Revenue is Needed,'" September 25, 2007.

I'm reminded of the time when, as chair of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, our primary project was a creative effort to reduce the levels of violence in television programming. Without describing the details, what we did was to identify, and publicize, "America's bloodiest corporations" -- that is, those which provided the financial support, with their advertising, for the TV shows that were the most violent. So far as I'm aware, it was the only time in TV history that levels of violence were actually reduced.

Corporations began telling their ad agencies that they didn't want their commercials to be placed in the violent programs that were generating this adverse publicity, and reducing their sales, however marginally.

And why am I reminded of this? Because of one corporation's memo to the ad agency that was shared with me. Not only did it want its commercials removed from the now-controversial violent programs, but "from any other programs that might be controversial as well."

One can be critical of that corporation's decision, but its mission, after all, was profit maximization -- not intellectual inquiry, not free speech, not "to disturb all settled ideas." Those are the responsibility of the University of Iowa, along with other great public colleges and universities.

Concern for the possible controversy resulting from the showing of films thought to be "pornographic" can easily evolve into equivalent concern for "any other programs that might be controversial as well."

Many large institutions feel themselves to be under siege: corporations, universities, military units, hospitals, the White House. Universities' behavior is more a function of their being large, hierarchically administered institutions than a quality of the academy as such.

Thus, universities have at least two possible strategies for response when under -- or when fearful that they soon may be under -- attack.

(1) The most instinctive is the one that involves capitulation, dissembling, opacity, strategic communications, public relations, and efforts to avoid the requirements of public meetings and public records laws. The message is, "We are nothing to be afraid of; our values are your values; we will do nothing to challenge your beliefs; you can safely send us your sons and daughters knowing that they will be returned to you exactly as they were when you sent them -- and, oh yes, 'How 'bout them Hawks.'"

(2) The other -- requiring more imagination and good, hard work, but possibly paying orders of magnitude more long term benefits -- is to take the criticism head on; to accept the challenge to explain to the critics of the intellectual, academic, research life what the value of a university is, to its critics as well as its friends and graduates. Why is it our role to "disturb all settled ideas"? Why are there more benefits than risks from a population engaged in critical thinking?

It's not that universities do not have the legal authority to ban controversial speech -- at least in "university speech" and the classroom, even if not in "limited student speech forums." But at some point the lack of willingness to support the controversial, to defend the institution against the kinds of attacks that befell Galileo, erodes the very foundation and function of the institution as effectively as the earthquake in Haiti did to the foundations and functions of its buildings.

* 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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