Wednesday? Oui, Monsieur

Peter Wood

Vapor Trails

Today is the birthday of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994). The Great Leader is the architect of North Korea’s “spirit of self-reliance,” or the juche (“joo-chay”) idea. Juche can be traced to the Great Leader’s December 18, 1955 speech, “On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing Juche in Ideological Work.”   The concept is at the heart of the political philosophy known modestly as Kimilsungism. 

As the vapor trails from North Korea’s missile launch last week dissipate into the winds over the Pacific, we can reflect on the three principles of juche: independence in politics, self-sustenance in the economy, and self-defense. Juche, like many great principles, is more ideal than practice. North Korea is a client state of China; many of its people live on the edge of starvation and are kept alive by international food shipments; and the nation’s hyper-aggressive self-defense measures almost surely have put it at greater risk of nuclear obliteration.

But we ought to be able to learn something from the Great Leader.  His birthday should be a time to reflect on how often efforts to overcome “dogmatism and formalism” produce just more dogmatism and formalism—and increase the sum of human misery. Thanks Kim. (And thanks, Wikipedia.) 


Do We Have Enough Lifeboats?

April 15? Kim Il-sung’s birthday, yes. But isn’t this an important day for another reason? Of course! This is the day in 1912 on which the RMS Titanic became the first fully submersible luxury cruise liner. 

The ship had only 16 regular lifeboats—enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, about half the number of people aboard. The White Star Line had declined the suggestion of the ship’s designer, Alexander Carlisle, to carry 48 lifeboats.   White Star’s managing director, J. Bruce Ismay, later told the official inquiry he could not recollect the advice. 

We get busy. But this is the day we should set aside each year to ask the timeless question, “Do we have enough lifeboats?” 


On the Brink

The AAUP has just sent out the new issue of its magazine, Academe. The cover features a turreted campus huddled in the gloom beneath a lowering gray sky, and the title, ”On the Brink: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the profession, 2008-09.”  The report includes 65 pages of data on average faculty salaries, by rank, by tenure status, and by sex at the 1,259 colleges and universities that participated, and other detailed information beyond what we see each August in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Almanac” issue.   Presumably the first thing that many faculty members do on receiving this is to check how their own compensation fits the averages at their college; and the second thing is to check how their college’s number comport with other colleges.

                But the cover essay by Saranna Thornton, professor of economics at Hampden-Sidney College and Chair of the AAUP Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession, is the important thing. “On the Brink” is riveting. It is the most ambitious effort I’ve seen to evaluate the situation of American colleges and universities in light of the broader economic catastrophe. 

                It is, of course, skewed by AAUP priorities. The analysis turns back again and again to the point that colleges and universities should be consulting more with their faculties before they take any particular steps to deal with the crisis, and that the tough decisions that many colleges are making violate the spirit and perhaps the letter of shared governance. Likewise, Thornton sticks with the line that faculty members are paid less than they should be. Be that as it may, the data certainly show the academic professions on soft financial ground: “After adjusting for inflation, the “real” average salary for a full-time faculty member in 2007-2008 was only 1.2 percept higher than it was in 2001-02.”   

                Not so surprising, inflation-adjusted salaries of faculty at public colleges and universities actually fell during that period.   Private college faculty beat inflation by 3.8 percent, and in the fast-growing sector of church-related institutions, faculty beat inflation by 4.5 percent. 

                None of this sounds like disaster, but Thornton correctly notes that the data she has to analyze comes from before the recession. In a section sub-titled “Bad News,” she provides a round-up of subsequent news stories across the country about colleges and universities freezing salaries, furloughing employees (including faculty members), slicing benefits, and in some cases dismissing people. The crunch is a combination of large declines in endowment and a widespread decision to try to maintain enrollments by making substantial increases in institutional financial aid to students. 

                It isn’t clear that this enrollment-first approach is going to work. One would think it might work if only a few colleges and universities tried it. In that case, the institutions might succeed in gathering students who, as the economy recovers, might be able to pay a higher share of their tuition down the road—assuming they stick around. But when large numbers of colleges and universities try this tactic, it would seem to point in an ominous direction.   We end up nationally with a system of higher education that is trying to provide the same services to the same number of students (or a growing number by many estimates) for a lower price. 

                Something has to give: the quality of the services, the salaries of the non-faculty employees, faculty positions…probably all these and more. The events will almost certainly accelerate the long-term trend towards replacing full-time faculty positions with part-time positions. One of the arresting charts in the essay shows the rise of part-time faculty, from 30.2 percent of the total in 1975 to 50.3 percent in 2007; and the correlated decline of full-time tenured faculty from 36.5 percent to 21.3 percent. 

                Thornton ends with a metaphor straight out of the nightmares of global-warmists: “Academe is a low-lying island amid the current economic turbulence.”    Her advice isn’t particularly helpful. It is “critically important for faculty members to participate fully in the difficult budget decisions.”   Will that hold back the encroaching ocean? Or will faculty members participate fully the way the crew of the RMS Titanic did in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912?

The brink that Thornton steadfastly refuses to look at is the possibility that American higher education may well have to shrink to thrive.


Filtration at Virginia Tech

                Yesterday we celebrated with FIRE and ACTA the good news that Virginia Tech’s president has rescinded his provost’s rule that would require faculty members seeking tenure and promotion to demonstrate their “contributions to diversity.”   It isn’t clear what Virginia Tech will do next. One possibility is that it will attempt to keep the policy intact by changing some of the packaging. Instead of requiring faculty members to demonstrate their diversity contributions, it will simply encourage them to do so. The line between a university administration’s “requiring” and “encouraging” is never very bright even in the best of times. But in an era when full-time faculty positions are becoming scarcer and faculty members are feeling insecure, the distinction is close to meaningless. We hope Virginia Tech doesn’t try to play this semantic game, but gets to the heart of the matter. Faculty members should be judged on the merits of their teaching and research, not their conformity to the provost’s ideological agenda.

                Some have wondered just why Provost Mark McNamee was so intent on this innovation. We have no way of knowing. But Virginia Tech’s website does provide some background information on him. He’s has an undergraduate degree from M.I.T., and a Ph.D. from Stanford in chemistry, and served for many years at UC Davis in biochemistry and as dean of biological sciences. His expertise is in biological membranes. 

                Perhaps he is accustomed to thinking about of how to sort biological materials. Organic molecules, faculty members. How much of a difference can there be? 

                I don’t want to stereotype a physical scientist. Some scientists who become academic administrators bring to the position a fine-tuned sense of the complexity of human affairs and the need to uphold underlying principles even as they sort through the difficulties of weighing competing goods. The pursuit of academic excellence and the effort to advance institutional openness do not always lean in the same direction. Sorting them out requires finesse. But some scientists respond to these challenges with a mechanical zeal that startles even their ideological allies. Do we recognize Provost McNamee somewhere on that continuum?


Death to Apostates

                Taha Abdul-Basser is Harvard’s Islamic chaplain. He startled some when a private email he had written to a student last week reached a listserv. Abdul-Basser explained that yes, apostates to Islam should be killed, but only by legitimate “Muslim governmental authority.” Executions of apostates “can not be performed by non-state, private actors.” That’s reassuring. He concludes:

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

                And Allah knows best.

“Hegemonic human rights discourse” is a nice touch. Modern minds get so crowded with the idea of individual rights that they can’t even recognize the simple merit of killing people who decide they no longer want to be Muslims. 


Disappointment at Chapel Hill

                Efforts to prevent speakers from speaking have become almost routine on American college campuses. The latest occurred last night at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, when students chanting “shame on you” disrupted a scheduled speech by former congressman Tom Tancredo. The Congressman had been supposed to talk about his opposition to in-state tuition for illegal aliens. See the video here.   The event was canceled when a protester smashed through a window in the room and police escorted Tancredo to safety. 

                As mob rule becomes more and more common on campus, college officials become more and more milquetoast. UNC chancellor Holden Thorp rose to the challenge with this eloquent defense of academic freedom: 

We're very sorry that former Congressman Tancredo wasn't able to speak. We pride ourselves on being a place where all points of view can be expressed and heard, so I'm disappointed that didn't happen tonight.  I think our Public Safety officers appropriately handled a difficult situation.

I suppose given the wrist-slaps that Columbia handed out to the protesters who stormed the stage in October 2006 and ended a talk by Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, we can expect that Chancellor Thorp will likewise do next to nothing to punish the perpetrators.   He has, after all, already said he was disappointed.   If you care to provide the chancellor with some hints as to how to express disappointment with more rhetorical vigor, you can reach him at:

[email protected]
Phone: (919) 962-1365
Fax: (919) 962-1647

Cognitive Science Network

                Some good news: Professor Mark Turner at Case Western Reserve University has become the founding director of a new Cognitive Science Network, which will “provide a worldwide, online community for research in all areas of cognitive science.” CSN will follow the model of the widely used Social Science Research network.  

                The new network will start with seven eJournals, which are free until October 2009. This is a great way to expand scholarship and accelerate scholarly communication.  We salute you Mark Turner!

Below is the list of seven eJournals and subscription links:


View Papers:

Editor: Todd Oakley, Associate Chair, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Cognition & Culture focuses on the cognitive study of cultures as creations of human minds in environments. Its scope includes research on cultural manifestations, their differences and incommensurabilities, and their expressive and semantic regularities and universals. This eJournal announces working papers, meetings, and events associated with interdisciplinary research projects and aims at encouraging collaboration across disciplines. It presents research in cognitive science having to do with such fields as design, ethics, history, jurisprudence, morality, philosophy, politics, religion, sociality, science, and technology.


View Papers:

Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: A publication dedicated to the artful mind and its relationship to the full range of higher-order human cognition. All scientific approaches are welcome, including developmental, evolutionary, linguistic, and comparative. Cognition & the Arts construes artistic behavior broadly, to include not only the various recognized genres of the arts but also design, style, and performance, throughout the lifecourse.


View Papers:

Editors: Gilles Fauconnier, Professor, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mathematical insight, scientific discovery, and technological innovation are hallmarks of higher-order human cognition. Cognition in Mathematics, Science, and Technology is dedicated to the cognitive science of mathematics, science, and technology - in phylogenetic descent, ontogenetic transformation, and historical action.


View Papers:

Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: "Cognitive linguistics goes beyond the visible structure of language and investigates the considerably more complex backstage operations of cognition that create grammar, conceptualization, discourse, and thought itself. The theoretical insights of cognitive linguistics are based on extensive empirical observation in multiple contexts, and on experimental work in psychology and neuroscience. Results of cognitive linguistics, especially from metaphor theory and conceptual integration theory, have been applied to wide ranges of nonlinguistic phenomena." - Gilles Fauconnier. 2006. "Cognitive Linguistics." Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. John Wiley & Sons.


View Papers:

Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Cognitive Neuroscience is dedicated to research on the neurobiological substrate of higher-order human cognition. All methodologies are welcome - philosophical to physiological, modeling to mapping, statistical to individual case study - in forging a research initiative that transcends the limitations of any one discipline or paradigm.


View Papers:

Editors: Mathew D. McCubbins, Professor of Political Science, Chancellor's Associates Chair, University of California, San Diego - Political Science, Adjunct Professor & Co-Director of the USC-CalTech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, University of Southern California - Gould School of Law, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mental events, however distributed, provide the defining problems of the social sciences. What are our basic cognitive operations? How do we use them in judgment, decision, action, reason, choice, persuasion, expression? Do voters know what they need to know? How do people choose? What are the best incentives? When is judgment reliable? Can negotiation work? How do cognitive conceptual resources depend on social and cultural location? How do certain products of cognitive and conceptual systems come to be entrenched as publicly-shared knowledge and method? Economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and all other social scientists refer as a matter of course to mental events and typically must assume some general outline of what those mental events can be and how they can arise. They explore networks of mental events in social systems and in social cognition. Given this convergence of cognitive science and the social sciences at their intellectual cores, and the increasing body of research activity at their intersection, the Cognitive Science Network provides an eJournal to track and distribute new and classic research in the emerging field of cognitive social science.


View Papers:

Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Dedicated to the study of the emergence of cognition, especially human higher-order cognition, phylogenetically and ontogenetically, in evolution and development.

You can subscribe to the eJournals by clicking on the "subscribe" links listed above. You can also subscribe to all of the eJournals at once by clicking here:

Individual subscriptions to the CSN eJournals will be free during the start-up phase, ending October 2009. After that, individual subscriptions, for all CSN eJournals, will be $40 per year. Organizational Site Subscriptions will also be available.

You can modify your subscriptions by going to the SSRN User HeadQuarters: If you have questions, please email [email protected] or call 877-SSRNHelp (toll free 877.777.6435). If you are calling from outside of the United States, please call 00+1+585+4428170.

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