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No tenure? Want fries with that diploma?

Posted by Howard Denson on January 31, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

A recent posting about a state college board of trustees getting rid of tenure reminds us once again how the anti-faculty establishment kisses up to the extreme right and then hints to future employees that they would be better off working elsewhere.

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Elsewhere that is, unless they are willing to grade papers, conduct classes, and hand out french fries to the “customers.”

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The guilty board is located at State College of Florida. Where the devil is that? The college used to be Manatee Junior/Community College, but it also serves Bradenton and Venice. Instead of coming up with a nifty name that would identify the region, they opted for State College of Florida, which tells nothing.

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By contrast, in Northeast Florida, we have Florida State College at Jacksonville, so a taxpayer can figure out where that’s located. We also know that St. Johns River State College is along the river. Ditto for Indian River State College.

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We give first-place naming ribbons to Miami-Dade College, Chipola College, and Pensacola State College. There are others, but you get the idea.

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The state of Florida has had a history of trustee boards going whacko when faced with collective bargaining prospects or reality. The worst was probably Brevard CC, about the earliest to have a CB contract. The board fought it within the state, and, when it didn’t prevail, they fought it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it lost again.

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Hillsborough CC wasn’t much better.

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These colleges are located in Central Florida, where the most conservative of citizenry are located, so it’s not surprising that the board at State College of Somewhere in Florida buys into right-wing rhetoric. It will warm the cockles of the hearts of the Jebomeister and Gov. Voldemort.

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Right-wingers love to say, “Tenure gives faculty life-time employment. It makes it impossible to fire anyone.”

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That, of course, is total hooey. State colleges in Florida have routinely fired tenured faculty, often because they are incompetent but occasionally because they rock the boat and say “what the board doesn’t want its employees to say and they don’t show respect.”

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Another technique to get rid of a tenured faculty member is to reduce him or her to annual contract status. The faculty member may have neglected to, say, give out certain required forms or tests to students. If the teacher has otherwise been successful with students, but has still transgressed, perhaps deliberately, then the reduction to annual contract status may be a proper disciplinary move.

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And what happens with an annual contract teacher? He or she may be let go at the expiration of that contract.

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Similarly, a supervisor may decide that a tenured faculty member doesn’t merit a Satisfactory rating for an academic year. The teacher is given a rating designated something like “Needs Improvement.” Typically, the college will mandate that the “Needs Improvement” should be worked off within three months or so. If the instructor doesn’t improve, he or she is out the door.

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When an administration fails to terminate an incompetent faculty member, it’s often the result of two reasons:

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First, the supervisor(s) may not have documented the flaws of the employee, and they haven’t given the proper warning about what needs to be improved.

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Second, the supervisor(s) earlier decided not to move against the employee for political reasons. They fear the individual might use discrimination protections to fend off a firing, and the chain of command didn’t want to go through a court case.

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The two reasons above reflect two flaws in the administration:

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First, they are incompetent to document the performance of an employee, perhaps because they have not been trained to do so, perhaps because they are too lazy.

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Second, they are guilty of nonfeasance or malfeasance in deliberately failing to do their duty.

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Another frequent problem is that administrators have accused individuals of violating rules that don’t exist.

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For example, they may say that Professor Jones is failing too many students. At some point, Jones may ask, “Well, what is the right number?” Then the administration realizes that it does not have a policy concerning pass/fail rates.

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Another official may maintain, “Ninety percent of students should pass.” Not only would few, if any, serious educators assert such a standard, that pass rate certainly is not in board rules. Still another official may say, “Your students are complaining about you,” which often means, “Out of 125 students of yours, three have come to me with complaints.”

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The only protection that tenure affords is the right to a hearing. A fair committee may listen to all of the facts and acknowledge that the teacher has not violated any rules or standards . . . or, when an offense is blatant and gross, may vote to show the employee the door.

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The State College down state decided to abolish tenure for any new hires. It did not try to take away tenure (or continuing contract) from current faculty. That is because tenure involves a property right for the employee.

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A college or university could opt to buy out that tenure right. If so, would the amount be $5,000 or $10,000? If a college had 200 tenured faculty, it could buy out their tenure for $2 million, but, with budgets in crisis, would taxpayers want to see $2 million spent, perhaps needlessly?

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Right-wing politicos and their trustee surrogates like to give lip service to such maxims as “we need to be careful about taxpayers’ money . . . we need to run [this agency/college] like a business.”

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When push comes to shove, however, they really don’t care. If they did, they would notice that higher education is top loaded with administrators as compared to full-time instructors. The ratio historically is about 1:4.

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If a college leader bloviates by saying the figures are all wrong, ask him or her, “How many employees are chalking and talking [teaching] and how many are not?” Once these are added up, the ratio is close to 1:4. If it’s more, say, 1:6, keep in mind that faculty are supervised MORE than Barbie and Brian are at McBurger Bob’s.

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So, once again, I know you don’t have tenure, but can you give me some fries with that? Supersize it.

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Afterthoughts:

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1. Boards want to be competitive when setting salaries for their presidents, but they want to undercut teaching positions by claiming they only compete with private for-profit universities that rely on adjuncts. Moreover, they don’t emphasize to the public that students can get a good deal at the state college as opposed to the outrageous costs from the for-profit schools.

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2. If you are from Kansas, Wyoming, or Vermont and get a chance to move to Florida to teach, would you choose to go to College A (which offers tenure) or College B (annual contract only)? Is it worth buying a house if you end up at College B, only to find that you have to find another job after the college let you go after two years?

 

Are creative writing courses any good?

Posted by Howard Denson on March 10, 2014 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

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During my recent “travels” on the internet, I came across one of those articles frequently found in English-language newspapers or magazines. This time, a cranky academic in the U.K.’s Guardian was grousing that creative writing classes were wastes of time and energy. They didn’t teach students to write, and the students only turned in dreadful assignments.

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Before you go running out of your domicile hollering that the “sky is falling,” let’s keep a couple of things in mind. First, any faculty will have individuals who grumble that this or that course isn’t needed. Often such remarks are ignored because they only reflect territorial spoors. On a few occasions, such sentiments cause curriculum reformers to drop x-amount of courses and replace them with y-courses (which essentially cover the same territory).

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Florida has state legislators who hate university faculty perhaps because of the “D” they received in Comparative Government, never mind that they failed to turn in a key paper. They rejoice in their ability to tighten the screws and have a bit of payback. So we have a governor who goes around wondering why anyone needs, say, anthropology instead of a good course entitled “How to Stick It to Uncle Sam for Billions of Dollars in Unwarranted Medical Charges.”

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Luckily, even the crass legislators of Florida won’t add a course in HSUSBDUMC 1101. It’s too much like sporting a bumpersticker saying “Willie Sutton is My Hero” or “Dillinger Had the Right Idea.” Besides, the crass lawmakers have discovered that the private charter school industry will enable them and their friends to learn “How to Stick It to Florida Taxpayers for Millions of Dollars for Unwarranted Educational Charges.”

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(Yes, yes, there are some ethical and sincere private charter folks. We can read about them in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.)

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Let’s give a little attention to the notion that creative writing classes are wastes of time. Briefly, they aren’t. There’s an adage that says you have to write a million words (and throw them away) to become a good writer. Others want to update the maxim to two million words. If creative writing classes in high school or college help the individual to exercise the writing muscle, then all is well.

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A rule of thumb is that teachers can’t teach their students how to become good or great writers. Each student has to learn it, and individuals learn it by absorbing good writing through courses or directed study (as William Faulkner did) and by then trying to write the best they can. Such courses can teach evolving writers how to revise and to let go of the idea of “what I write the first time is what’s best and freshest.” It’s not.

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Invariably, when the evolving writers come across pieces they wrote in high school, they will cringe here and there or even despair at the inanity of what they wrote years earlier. Similarly, if they take undergraduate courses in creative writing, they will evolve and look back in horror at what they produced as juniors or seniors.

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The evolving writers may choose to burn their apprenticeship work. . .or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did, they may “mine” the defective works, finding a gem of an image here, an excellent character description there, etc.

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I have taken creative writing classes as an undergraduate and as a graduate (and found them enjoyable). I have taught college-level creative writing classes both on campus (less successfully in small classes that barely made) and online classes to groups of 30 students each (more successfully). I would argue that one should only take such classes to improve one’s writing, not to aim for a best-selling novel or collection of poetry.

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A CW student often learns what he or she does best and what is painful to muddle through. A CW class will not teach you to be a great or successful writer. However, neither will any lit course. In fact, with some exceptions (e.g., John Keats and young Truman Capote), nothing we write as youths or undergraduates is worth reading five or ten years later; moreover, very little that we write as graduate students is meaningful and worthwhile. The key problem for CW classes is that so much of what is produced is derivative and rises only to the level of cliché. Similarly, lit courses end up eliciting the tried and true and become as stale as old bread when new fads and trends arise.

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During the two decades when I coordinated a novel contest (with the final judges being David Poyer and Lenore Hart), I checked the bio’s of the entrants and noticed each year that several had doctorates. We did have years when the winner had a doctorate, but the honors often went to those who had not been lit majors.

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Unlike She Who Knows All, I don’t have a flypaper mind to which all facts and information stick, but I believe it was the oral historian T. Harry Williams who had an insight about storytelling. Williams wrote a fine biography of Huey P. Long. He interviewed a wide range of individuals who had known the Kingfish and discovered that professors often made the worst storytellers, whereas individuals with minimal education had more useful information. (Okay, maybe it was Studs Terkel.)

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So. . .

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Knowing grammar won’t make you a good or great author. Taking a course in Symbolism in Modern Poetry won’t make you a good or great author. Taking a course in CW won’t make you a good or great author. You only become good by absorbing and then reprocessing, and adding to, what we have learned about the human condition.

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Oh, how do you become a great writer? Don’t worry about it. Do your best and simply strive to have something worthy to be read.

 

Is there a big change in racial relations from the Sixties?

Posted by Howard Denson on June 29, 2013 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (0)

 

 

By HOWARD DENSON

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When a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court threw out key civil rights provisions in June 2013, they created a day of outrage in the political middle and on the left. It was the Ku Klux Kourt, according to some critics.

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On the next day, of course, the right was lambasting the court for its pandering to the gay coalition when it upheld same-sex marriages. How dare the court ignore the valid will of the states that had voted for the restrictions?

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But isn’t this odd? No one on the right complained when Anthony Scalia, being the Supreme Gloater of the United Smirks, dismissed the 98-0 vote by the U.S. Senate upholding the Civil Rights Law by implying they were too weak-willed or weak-minded to vote their consciences and best judgments, which luckily he had in spades (“come on, pick a card, pick a card”;).

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Along the way, the Justices opined that racially things are different in 2013 from what we had back in the Sixties, and the old era’s restrictions were no longer needed.

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Yes, some things are different: We have an African American president, even though the right says he’s a commie Kenyan with a time machine; we have more blacks in Congress; we have more in the state houses; and we have more African American mayors.

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Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. All right, I didn’t invent that saying, but it does point to some major comparisons between now and the Sixties (and before).

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Back then, blacks could not be served in cafes, restaurants, etc. in the South. They may have had to pay poll taxes if they could vote. If they tried a sit-in, they ran the risk of being attacked by members of the Klan or White Power groups. That occurred in Jacksonville, as is chronicled by Rodney Hurst in It was never just about a hotdog and a Coke. It occurred a few years later in Bessemer, Ala., one summer when our Army National Guard unit was doing our annual two weeks of active duty down in Hattiesburg. While we were gone, a sit-in occurred at a dime store counter. The Klan-types came, locked the doors, and attacked the demonstrators with kiddie baseball bats and clubs.

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Little black girls could go to their own church in Birmingham but be blown to bits by bombs set by racists from a neighboring county. Mississippi provided atrocities galore, from the murder of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, to the torturing and killing of Emmet Till, and to the murder of Medgar Evers. Add on top of these the assassinations of Rev. King and the civil rights advocates John Kennedy and his brother Robert.

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If sincere whites tried to do the right thing (e.g., going ahead and serving them at a lunch counter), they risked the business being boycotted or burned out. When they said some changes needed to be made, the power structure assured them that a bunch of commie NAACP agitators were behind everything. Things will calm down after we get that scum out of town.

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A demonstrator could stand in line, perhaps to get a voter card, and be beaten to the ground. Demonstrators coming to town could be trapped inside buses that were set afire.

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All of the above is a condensed history of what occurred in the Sixties, but the bottom line is this: The Power Structure was largely made up of Southern Democrats (a.k.a. Dixiecrats). They didn’t want to give any voting power to the uppity “colored” community. As the Southern strategy of Saint Richard the Reluctant Confessor kicked in, the Dixiecrats became Republicans, and they still had one major goal in mind: keep real power away from the uppity blacks.

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So what is different today? Places are integrated, and someone standing peaceably in line doesn’t have to worry about being beaten up or shot. Well, maybe there will be a drive-by shooting, or some nutter will show up with an assault rifle, or a trigger-happy officer may confuse the glint of a cell phone for the glint of a weapon and put 29 bullets into some unfortunate dude trying to find out why his date hasn’t shown up.

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Today, we still have a Power Structure (still largely dominated by whites) trying to take the vote away from minority citizens or to discourage them from even trying to vote. That hasn’t changed since the Sixties and before, and that is the reason a Civil Rights statute is still needed.

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Anthony Scalia was asking about the necessity of civil rights provisions when he asked if such-and-such a measure was simply trying to put the screws to the Democratic Party. As I recall, he said, “If so, I don’t have any problem with that.”

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Instead of baldly stating a preference for one political party over another, I think he was saying that the American system featured Republicans fixing rules and districts when they were in power (the Sun Belt) and then Democrats (in Chicago, Boston, etc.) fixing those things when they had the power. He implied that it’s the all-American way.

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Actually, it’s not because the political parties did not exist when the country was founded. They weren’t around when we operated poorly under the Articles of Confederations (Confederacies just don’t work), and they weren’t around when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were implemented. Party politics came later and exploded like an atomic bomb under the reign of Andrew Jackson.

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If we want a fair judicial policy regarding voting procedures and districts, I recommend it revolve around the 14th and 15th Amendments, even though it may make Established Parties squeal in Chicago and the Sun Belt. The overriding principle should be that we will have one voter and one vote per person and that the votes will count equally. We will need to throw out the Establishment Party district lines that favor one party and subtract vote strength from those out of power. It may be impossible to get each district exactly alike, but we can get closer to an ideal.

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If we are having voter ID restrictions, then the rules should be uniform and fair. (Sorry, Corrine, you can probably win in a more compact district.) A voter with a driver’s license or a student ID should be considered identified. Concealed handgun permits or fishing licenses should not be used for voting purposes. Any time that voter IDs require photographs, etc., the state, county, towns, and cities will need to make ID stations readily accessible, in churches, malls, shopping centers, plus governmental facilities.

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The canard in the Sixties was that commie outsiders were stirring up the locals (by implication, they were too dumb and ineffectual to do it on their own). The canard in the 21st Century is that massive voter fraud is occurring on site at polling stations. It’s not.

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Very likely, more shenanigans are occurring with the absentee ballots preferred by Republicans. If Grandpa is ga-ga in a nursing home, do we really know that that’s his signature on the ballot? Yes, Gramps could be a Democrat or an Independent. These ballots aren’t being policed in the same way that the Republicans want to vet on-site voting credentials.

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Liberals get upset when they notice that the U.S. Constitution originally only counted blacks three-fifths of whites (for purposes of voting strength in Congress for the delegations). The South wanted their cake (to have more votes in Congress) and they wanted to eat it, too (the blacks couldn’t vote and weren’t citizens).

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All of the restrictions being proposed after the Supreme Court’s meddling appear to return the country to the double standard we had over 200 years ago. All right, blacks and hispanics this time may be able to vote, but we’ll see that their votes don’t carry as much weight in the counting.

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After all, it’s the American way (heh heh heh).

A government of idiots, for idiots, and by idiots

Posted by Howard Denson on March 6, 2013 at 10:50 PM Comments comments (3)

 

By HOWARD DENSON

I was particularly irritated at the world and the cosmos when I recalled the line by Mark Twain: “Suppose that you were an idiot and suppose that you were a member of Congress, but I repeat myself.”

 

As I pondered the subject, weak and weary, I tap-tap-tapped on the old noggin and heard the term, “Idiotocracy.” Yes, that’s what we have: a government of idiots, a government by idiots, and, since we tolerate it, a government for idiots.

 

I web-searched the term and found that it had been used in a little seen film “Idiocracy” in 2006, with the script by Mike Justice and Etan Cohen. (The protagonist awakens 500 years in the future, when society has been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.)

 

A dictionary website had the word “idiocracy,” which it defined as a “peculiarity of constitution; that temperament, or state of constitution, which is peculiar to a person; idiosyncrasy.” This definition won’t do. When an arrow strikes the chest of his squire in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Sir Lancelot explains, “No, no, sweet Concorde! Stay here! I will send help as soon as I have accomplished a daring and heroic rescue in my own particular....” Concorde supplies the word “idiom.” At any rate, I don’t mean that meaning.

 

Still another website refers to “idiocracy” as a “government run by idiots,” which is part of my own definition. But we need the “of, by, and for” qualifications to establish that everyone is at fault. (You could expect no less an opinion from this Wild-Eyed Moderate.)

 

Moreover, we should keep the “t” in the word, to emphasize that we are talking about “idiots”: idiotocracy.

 

A few years ago (which means at my age that it was probably 20 years ago), I was reading the first volume in Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization.” (Don’t look it up and tell me that it was actually in H. Allen Smith’s “Lost in Horse Latitudes” or “Life in a Putty Knife Factory.”)

 

Durant gave an interesting history of the word “idiot.” It has nothing to do with the un-P.C. terms, “moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile” as they were used 100 years ago. Instead, to the Athenians, an “idiot” was someone who chose to make himself ignorant and who shunned involvement in the life of the “polis” (or city, from which we get the word “politician” and “politics”).

 

As is my own idiom, sweet reader, let me put it in modern terms: An idiot chooses to be a couch potato, who watches college and professional sports, who throws back a few at the neighboring watering hole. He makes no effort to learn the facts and to know an issue. He gets his major thoughts from bumperstickers or blowhards on the radio or TV.

 

An idiot in the Athenian sense can be a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent.

 

Consider sequestration and its unfolding. President Obama and his thinkers thought it would be peachy-keen if they came up with a political cyanide pill, the sequester. It had to work because only an idiot would knowingly swallow it.

 

Sensible Republicans thought that he might be onto something. Congress and the nation can’t continue going on like this because only an idiot would let it occur. For a while, it became a game of chicken, as the hot car of the President revved its engine and just dared the hot car of the GOP-controlled House to blink. Only an idiot wouldn’t.

 

Enter the TeaPublicans, who never met a political cyanide pill they didn’t like. They said they would take a cuppa of Earl Grey with a smattering of cream and a cyanide pill.

 

They reason that, since the White House knows they are total barking idiots, the Executive Branch certainly will swerve at the last minute.

 

Then some pundits point out how artificial the whole thing is. The doom is artificially imposed and can be unimposed without any trouble.

 

Except . . .

 

Neo-cons get together and mull about how they were so brilliant in the 2012 election driving away women and people who were not as loaded as they were. So what if it hits the fan, they reason; we ourselves don’t get hurt, and to hell with the 47 percent moochers. We’ll look after defense spending, and, if the dummy Dems vote against an extra two or three billion that we add to the Pentagon budget, we can wave the flag and tell the country that they are all traitors, commies, Kenyans, and tortilla lovers.

 

The Dems switched into campaign-mode and told themselves that the GOP once again was going crazy and that American voters would see straight through the righties’ ploy.

 

The White House, of course, would like to stay above the fray because an idgit is an idgit. They haven’t learned what Mark Twain said about why we shouldn’t argue with stupid people (“they’ll beat you with experience”).

 

In effect, you don’t take a crowd of whack-jobs and idgits and tell them (metaphorically) not to stick their tongues in an empty light socket.

 

I learned this lesson in Key West when I was about four years old. I was fascinated by the ozone smell of an empty socket. Out of curiosity, with no one watching me at that moment, I stuck my tongue into the socket, whereupon I instantly understood what happens in a Warner Bros. cartoon when a mouse finagles the cat into inserting a finger or the tip of a tail into a wall socket.

 

ZAPPPP!!!

 

That taught me a lesson about my tongue and person. As the years unfolded, I would never stick my tongue on a frozen sign pole as Ralphie’s friend did or on an aluminum ice tray, nor in other places that a decorous column might avoid discussing.

 

But what lesson would an idgit learn? Our members of Congress may simply learn not to do anything. Others may say that probing the metaphorical socket really isn’t a problem, provided you have a shorter tongue (or maybe a longer one).

 

So we stand around, watching the lights of the Capitol Building as they flicker on and off, perhaps managing to send out a distress message: “SOS (Stop Our Silliness)…SOS … SOS.”

Use Retired Ships for Rescue & Sanctuaries

Posted by Howard Denson on November 2, 2012 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

 There was a lot of finger-pointing going on about who was at fault for the fiasco in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast when Katrina came calling, and blame was spread over several agencies. In addition, some criticism should still be directed at the founders of New Orleans, who created a levee-system that would eventually fail and flood the city. (The system prevented the spread of alluvial soil, which was directed on out into the Gulf.

 

New York, New Jersey, and the Mid-Atlantic area were more prepared, but, even so, Mother Nature showed them her powers and their likely future from aggressive storms. With houses burned out from exploding gas mains and appliances and with buildings flooded, this densely populated area is faced with the question of where to put people who have no (livable) home to which to return.

 

Once again, I will cart out some suggestions:

 

 -- The federal government should take the retired aircraft carriers and convert these to Rescue and Sanctuary Ships. They already contain bunks that civilians could use, and their rescue capabilities could be increased by removing any remaining weaponry and adding facilities that would feed, house, and treat victims of a disaster.

  

-- To avoid having one ship trying to serve a country as large as the U.S., probably Rescue & Sanctuary Ships should be based at Norfolk, Jacksonville, possibly Tampa, Pensacola, and Galveston. Any carrier that can make it up the Mississippi could be based near St. Louis or Kansas City; another should try to make it through the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes.

  

-- The ships could be provisioned with sufficient food to handle an emergency and could have clothing, diapers, etc. for displaced citizens.

  

-- Besides using ships, the federal government has been closing down military bases. Some of these have already been converted to civilian and commercial uses; many others, however, have not. The original buildings still exist, including barracks, military hospitals or clinics, post exchanges, etc. Again, these could handle storm evacuees.

  

-- On a local basis, American cities usually have schools that have been recently closed, and strip malls that have gone out of business. All of these have utilities that could be turned on again.

  

When a storm is headed for a region, it should be a simple matter to prepare a rescue ship to embark immediately.

What causes boards to have melt-downs?

Posted by Howard Denson on October 24, 2012 at 11:55 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON 

I spent nearly four decades as a full-time teacher of English and humanities, and, once I figured out that this was no way to run a railroad, I worked as an unpaid faculty advocate for 32 of those years. I am glad to leave behind those fights; they smack too much of the labors of Sisyphus, whose punishment (for being such a rotter) was to push a boulder endlessly up a hill, only to see it roll back each time.

 

 

I now prefer to spend my time forming prose into collections and into novels and to worry about the motivations of various characters that I try to understand.

 

Then, lo and behold, from the Sisyphean toil and sweat, emerges a puzzle: Why does any board suddenly have a melt-down? We have had such a scenario at my old college, and things got so bad that the city’s local newspaper and the governor called for the resignation of eight of the trustees, and a neighboring district’s state legislator wants a grand jury to look into possible hanky-panky.

 

Normally, things like that don’t occur. These board members receive no pay. I think most of our trustees have been on the up and up. In my home state, quite a bit of chicanery went on when legislators got jobs with community colleges or sought positions for friends and relatives.

 

Membership on the board in Florida sort of caps a career. It honors them for rising to the top of their fields in business and public service. Whether they have been appointed by Democratic governors or Republican ones, they still are the same types. They try to do right and not to create controversy. Local daily newspapers do not like to lambaste their colleges and universities; their instinct is toward boosterism, not condemnation of colleges (or churches or local large businesses).

 

The board had given a golden parachute to a president who had been around for 15 years (a very long time for most colleges and universities). The silks were worth $1.2 million, according to the news stories. The amount appalled a key state legislator and the governor (who left a health-care leadership position with a Platinum Parachute himself). Even toward the time the president was trying to defend himself, while realizing the ship was sinking faster than he could bail, individual board members were still throwing compliments his way.

 

They were ignoring that lax procedures had caused the college to run up a $4+ million tab by failing to monitor scholarships for Pell Grants.

 

The paper detailed the history of the board’s acquiescence to proposals by the college president. They generally rubberstamped everything.

 

Was the college president a Svengali, the malevolent hypnotist in George du Maurier’s novel “Trilby”? That character was described as someone who “would either fawn or bully and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour that was more offensive than amusing and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice.”

 

The college president made foolish remarks about wanting the college to “get its swagger back,” and he ordered a video that made fun of the public funds he was wasting.

 

The college president did not have Svengali’s impact. Even though I opposed the lax procedures and standards of the college’s second president, I recognized he was liked by many employees. Overall, I found the third president to be competent, hard-working, and affable. The fourth president, our semi-Svengali, lacked such social skills. He believed in his way or the highway; the only good ideas were those that his team came up with; if you voted wrong, he was vindictive and stuffed five extra students in most Arts & Sciences classes.

 

The trustees still did not listen to our complaints, and they did not exercise the trust and oversight that the public expected in other areas.

 

They joined in the quasi-imperial presidency by adding perk after perk. The state legislature, for example, wanted the top salaries of college and university presidents to be about $200,000. If an institution went over the figure, they had to seek funds from wherever, an alumni association, a foundation, or some wealthy patrons wanting the president to have the very best. The base pay for our guy was over $300,000.

 

The president was saying he brought in $1 million to the foundation from this donor and $1 million from that donor.

 

No one on the board made the point that millions more had been wasted.

 

So how does such a state of affairs come about?

 

About sixteen years ago, my college had lost its best president, who went on to greener pastures as a chancellor in California. We had our third interim president while that search went on for an outstanding replacement. Generally, it is easy to get candidates for any position in management (or on faculties) in Florida. People who are tired of the snows of Vermont or Montana remember the pleasant time they spent on the beaches of the Panhandle or Palm Beach and put in their applications.

 

Eventually, the board back then selected a candidate from North Carolina, but unfortunately the board divided along racial lines, and that candidate withdrew his name from consideration. Folio Weekly ran an extensive piece about the infighting on the board. The board members deadlocked and wouldn’t agree on one of the African-American candidates. One of the minority candidates, a campus president from my college, went on to the presidency of Palm Beach CC. Meanwhile, our trustees were looking at their third choice, whom they eventually hired.

 

By and by, whispers went around saying that the final candidate's references really didn’t pan out. The eight or nine reference letters often had highly critical observations about the candidate. Eventually it was revealed that the letters were saying things like this: “He will tell you what you want to hear,” “He is a good talker and promoter, but he may not be good for you in the long run,” etc. Not one letter said, “We hate to see him go and hope we can hire someone half as good as he was” (which is what I told a faculty leader in California about our third president).

 

All those years ago, that group of trustees failed to do their duty. When an application pile only yields turkeys, you advertise the position again. They did not do that, but went ahead, apparently thinking, “What harm can he do?” or “It’ll probably all work out all right.”

 

That fear of conflict and turmoil infected the board thereafter, although many of the trustees may not have realized where the dysfunction was coming from.

 

“You just set policy. You don’t manage the college” became the mantra, rightfully so, for the state has had some strange experiences when boards at other colleges have gone out of control. Yet apparently any remark about needed corrections seemed to be silenced by “oh, I shouldn’t try to manage the college.”

 

And trouble continued to boil in our educational pressure-cooker.

 

I refer often to Robert Gentry’s oral history of the first 25 years of my college, and he was recording the memories of such community leaders (and future board members) as Fred Kent and Donald T. Martin. They worked their tails off getting the college established back in 1965, generally with campuses being located on donated land. Later, Betty Cook of Nassau gave land in Yulee, where the college built the center up there.

 

The public now clearly wants to put the “trust” back in “trustee.”

 

 

 

Grrr! It's not unionism

Posted by Howard Denson on October 4, 2012 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

In 1775, Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That seems to strike a bit too much at valor, so let’s add the clarification that he intended: “FALSE or INSINCERE patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

There is a parallel saying that can be found in higher education: “Warnings of unionism are the last refuge of scoundrels and incompetents.”

I first learned this in 1975, two hundred years after James Boswell recorded Dr. Johnson’s insight.

When college presidents and top administrators wish to explain away reports of major blunders, they once liked to say, “There’s nothing to it. It’s just part of a union campaign” (if the college was going into a certification election or a round of negotiated bargaining).

That is their way of killing the messenger, and for a long time the technique worked, particularly with boards that sympathized more with management than with subordinates. However, most complaints do not relate to union matters, and a board is wise if it puts any issues under the microscope just to make sure that things check out.

On Tuesday, Oct. 2, the current president of my college tried to ignore the messages of two respected professors by saying their criticism was driven by their efforts to promote the union. That is nothing but thinly sliced baloney, salami, and bratwurst. (A reader from Oregon may be saying, “So what? Who cares what happens at a minor college in Florida?” Don’t worry about the details, but pay attention to the mind-set for you have bureaucrats and educrats on the West Coast, too.)

Due to the failure of the administration for ten years to provide training to low-level employees handling the Pell Grants, the college wasted, with fines, $4.73 million. The college will have to pay this money back and hope to coerce students to repay that the college authorized for them.

This major blunder will take away money from students and also from operating expenses (including employees’ salaries). That is what drives the public criticism.

Another matter angers employees and faculty in particular. At all times, any set of employees may disagree with a president’s actions, but they still want to be able to say they respect the individual in the office of the presidency. Unfortunately, this can no longer be taken for granted at my college.

After the news came out of the fiscal excesses of the president’s office, not to mention the millions frittered away in the Pell Grant programs, employees faced a dilemma at the fall convocation. Historically, each academic year starts with the college giving out certificates, plaques, or whatever to employees who have been with the college for 20 years, 25 year, 30 years, etc. A common refrain among employees was “I don’t know if I’ll go to the convocation if I have to shake that man’s hand to receive it.” (Instead of personally handing them out, this year the president chose to step away when the presentations were being made and to resume his position in the ceremony afterwards.)

When it came time last Tuesday for the administration to give its plan to the board for addressing the issue, the college president threw his No. 2 man under the bus, rearranged some administrative duties of others, and took away two weeks of pay for four mid-level administrators.

The plan did not tell the trustees about the termination of some of the lowest level employees in handling the Pell Grants. The college used the excuse that they lacked bachelor’s degrees, and the college ignored that, in order to do accurate work, the Pell Grant employees needed actual hands-on instruction instead of academic degrees, whether bachelors, masters, or even doctorates.

Fault was found from bottom nearly to the top of the college structure because the college president has dodged any personal accountability.

Count them off: A ten-year blunder prevents the employees from getting training they needed to do their jobs. It penalizes students, even though conscientious Pell Grant employees were often giving them a head’s up about what could happen in the future. It costs an administrator a job. It takes two weeks of pay from some Student Services officials, but it does not penalize the official at the top, where the buck is supposed to stop.

Only a fool or a scoundrel would say that the union is creating this issue.

The problem is that the leader of the college is not facing the music.

#

A few years ago, I created a newsletter and then this website called “Kassandra’s Kitchen” to deal with generally education issues. Who’s Kassandra?

Kassandra was the Trojan princess who had the ability to see the future. That cad Apollo gave her that ability so she'd get it on with him, but she refused his advances. Then Apollo thought of a wicked handicap: She could see the future, but no one would believe her.

 

So it has been with much of my public writing, letters to the editor, op ed pieces, and the like. So often when I brought up a complaint about educational waste or lowered standards, the top educrats tried to dismiss the complaints: "He's just stirring up trouble," "He's agitating for the union," "There's nothing to it. He doesn't understand," etc.

Here's the biggest example of the Kassandra principle in my professional life:

 

In the mid-1970s, a colleague and I were complaining about students who appeared on our rolls yet never came to class. (I have a chapter about this in Robert Gentry’s oral history of the college, done in the early 1990s.) These students might receive F's but would sign up again and still not do any work. That is not normal, for most students work hard to scrape up enough money for their tuition and books. My friend and I deduced that they might be veterans who were abusing their VA benefits or students receiving Social Security survivors’ benefits. Since we were both on the faculty senate, we took the issue to the senate, and the senators voted to send a resolution asking the administration to address the problem. These “enrollees” were wasting their birthright, throwing away their future, we argued.

While we waited for the usual follow-up talk with the president and his staff, my friend and I very modestly tried to figure out how much tuition was being wasted. We added so much per this and that campus, multiplied it by so many credit hours, and ended up estimating that (wow!) $50,000 was going down the drain. If we figured in that the state was putting up $5 for every $1 of student tution, then $250,000 (!) was being wasted. We were shocked when the president and executive vice president pooh-poohed the problem and ignored the matter because they had convinced themselves that it was an artificial union issue. (On the other hand, maybe they realized how big the problem was and wanted it hushed up.)

My friend wrote a letter about the problem to then U.S. Representative Charlie Bennett. I followed suit and, being a fast typist, sent out a dozen letters to U.S. senators, newspapers, the Governor, "Washington Merry Go-Round" columnist Jack Anderson, and the very right-wing education columnist, Max Rafferty. Rafferty ran a column about the problem in the afternoon newspaper, and Anderson ran a piece about the whole VA attendance abuse, focusing especially on Maryland colleges. Anderson said that, if the problem had continued another year, my college alone would have cost federal taxpayers $3.5 million! (No one addressed the issue of how much went down the drain in previous years when the abuse was going on.) When a House subcommittee issued a report on the problem, my college was practically Exhibit A in the book. Why? Because our college leaders didn't take the matter seriously.

Oh, one issue was never addressed by in the 1970s: the amount of state matching funds for every dollar of student tuition. I don't think this issue is being addressed in the Pell Grant controversy. In fact, the educrats will probably try to say, "Well, we no longer have a matching system in higher ed." Nonetheless, there is still a correspondent relationship with the amount of tuition that students spend and the funds from taxpayers. It's probably 1:5 (but could be 1:4 or 1:6).

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part II of "Who's Your (Acting) Patriot?" has gone missing. It was promised for this week. If the writer can't locate it somewhere on the hard-drive, he will have to reconstruct the piece. Sorry about the delay.

Obtuseness by FSCJ leaders needs remedy

Posted by Howard Denson on May 16, 2012 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)

 

 

By HOWARD DENSON

The taxpayers of Florida and members of the Florida Legislature need to tell the leadership of Florida State College at Jacksonville and its board of trustees to shape up or look for jobs elsewhere. They may thrive better in the private sector, where fiscal information can be kept secret from the public.

 

As it is, the FSCJ team headed by President Steve Wallace and his top vice president Donald Green is engaged in what can only be called “studied obtuseness”or perhaps premeditated stupidity. As the Times-Union reporters discovered when calling for compensation information at other Florida colleges, this is information clearly covered by Florida Statutes, Chapter 119. They demonstrated that other colleges would have willingly provided what the Times-Union was requesting of FSCJ.

 

When the community colleges were reporting data to the state offices back in the 1970s (and earlier) for the annual report, they participated in the Management Information System. Every datum was collected and reported to focus on what was being spent on instruction, management, support, and capital funds. Separate from the annual report on costs, the state governing body also collected data about enrollment and grades, by gender, by race, by individual instructors. (This report generally was not shared in meetings lest it reveal that, say, Prof. Ogre was actually giving higher grades than Prof. Sweetness was. It was still available if the public knew to ask for it.)

 

The system has never excluded information about financial bonuses. In other documents, the system would only permit the exclusion of the specifics in evaluations, partly to enable administrators, faculty, or other employees to find jobs elsewhere or to fold their tents at the end of an academic year and disappear into the desert.

 

We have to go back to the late 1970s when the administration of Benjamin Wygal engaged in similar studied obtuseness. The president loved to travel on the college’s dime and dollar, as did other college officials. One was going to locations for supposed meetings that actually were in locations where his child was playing basketball. Finally, the local power structure decided that it had had enough and had a legislative committee investigation into the problem. By and by, the word went out that it was time for that president to go.

 

Two name changes later, and the college now offers over a dozen baccalaureate degrees, and trustees, legislators, and the public want to monitor how efficient, and effective, this transition has been. To keep an eye on things, the public needs all of the appropriate data.

 

The Florida Legislature plays hide and seek with fiscal and educational responsibility. It thinks nothing of trying to gut the public schools in the name of “reform.” It approves splitting a state university into two separate universities, even though the university’s board opposed the plan and the presidents of the system were opposed to it. The lawmakers, however, do have their sane moments in which they at least want other state officials to walk the walk of fiscal good sense.

 

If we do not quickly see a spirit of openness and an attitude that plays straight with the public and our lawmakers, then FSCJ should be seeking newer, and better, leadership.

 

Florida's Legislature Uses 'Educational-Commercial Complex' to Waste Millions

Posted by Howard Denson on November 13, 2011 at 4:25 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

 

To paraphrase Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” I am shocked . . . SHOCKED . . . to find that key members of the Florida legislature are saying, “To hell with fiscal responsibility, let’s spend millions on things that the state doesn’t need.”

 

We expect that sort of thing from the wastrels in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. After all, they will ignore the Pentagon when it says it does NOT want a particular billion-dollar plane. The members of Congress ignore President Eisenhower’s admonition to beware of the “military-industrial complex.” The big companies learned that, if they have a weapons system that costs an arm, a leg, and an eye and an ear, they simply divide the parts needed so that the pieces can come from factories in the districts of key members of Congress, and, lo and behold, the Pentagon will have to take that plane whether it wants it or not.

 

In Florida, we have more of a “commercial-education complex.” But, in proportion, the members of the Lege are as wasteful as their Washington counterparts. For a decade these spendthrift politicians in Tallahassee have been Republicans; previously such actions were committed by Democrats, proving that wastrel behavior derives from Power, Incumbency, and the Good Ol’ Boy network.

 

For decades, the State University System was headed by a Board of Regents. Then Gov. Jeb Bush got the BOR abolished, only to have the voters (marshaled by former Senator Graham) insist that some such board exist to coordinate offerings, programs, and construction among the state universities. The Regents became the Governors, even though Belovéd Jeb vowed to find some devious way to undo the will of the voters.

 

A few years ago, the Board looked at the system of universities and saw that most of the bases were covered. Eventually, in 1991, a state legislator got them to okay the construction of Florida Gulf Coast University, the 11th in the system. A legislator wanted his district’s university to have a law school; the Board agreed that it was a bad idea since public law schools already existed at Florida State and the University of Florida. Result? A third public law school was constructed at a university, the budget be damned. Then a legislator wanted another medical school. The Board was again opposed. Result? Take a guess, but be certain that the budget was damned.

 

Some leaders in Jacksonville are also wanting a medical school, even though there’s The major med school in the state only an hour’s drive away in Gainesville.

 

Lately, though, State Senator J.D. Alexander has gotten a hair in his ear for his district to have their own university. He wants to take the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus and, as the discussion says, have it secede from USF to become Florida Polytechnic University.

 

He disingenuously says that Polk County needs a polytechnic institution. “[T]he cost of being independently managed is nonexistent compared to the cost of what we would be paying as a dependent institution.” That statement is blatantly false, as this discussion will prove later. Likewise, the Polk Ledger reports that Alexander is saying that fees and tuition for a standalone university would "more than pay for the expansion of the program over 15 years" – again, a statement that simply is not so.

 

According to Governing Board member John W. Temple, the situation is a “mess.” He questioned the costs of the campus going from $40 million to $100 million in three years. “That’s $8 million a student,” Temple said.

 

Kim Wilmath of Tampabay.com described what Kassandra’s Kitchen might call “school-yard bullying” by Alexander. She wrote about when a gasp went through the room at a meeting of the Governors board:

 

“Michael Long, the lone student member of the Florida Board of Governors, had just told the audience that Sen. J.D. Alexander threatened to stop supporting higher education if the board didn't make the University of South Florida Polytechnic the state's 12th public university.”

 

The student said, “He is leveling his power in the Legislature. I do not feel very well represented by J.D. and his comments."

 

Wilmath wrote: “There had been whispers that the bullish Alexander tried to intimidate the board members before the meeting. But of the 15 at the table, the 20-year-old New College sophomore was the only one to directly speak out.”

 

It’s worth googling “polytechnic” and “Florida” and “student board member” to get the full flavor of Alexander’s behavior. The encounter taught Long something: "Everything they say about the Florida system being so corrupt, this good-ol'-boys state where nothing gets done without corruption, it kind of hit me like, wow, maybe that's true."

 

Alexander and his cronies hope that the public will swallow the line that fees and tuition will pay for any new expenses. They know that they don’t. Every public college student in Florida (and probably other states) is on scholarship because the tuition and fees alone only pay a modest portion of the costs.

 

Why is that so? First of all, all of the buildings have to be maintained using operations funds. An institution has to pay for its faculty, of course, but also for support and administrative staff. One organization structure could have an administrator handling a program on the main campus and on the Lakeland campus. But there’s a separation, there’s also another layer of bureaucracy. A satellite campus can use an existing system for registration into the institution and then into classes. When there’s a separation, another system will be needed.

 

The object in higher education (and K-12, too) should be to be “a lean, and mean, teaching machine,” to paraphrase coaches. (Okay, schools naturally would want to be more “caring” than mean.)

 

In the 1950s, when the expansion of the community college system was underway, legislators of the time didn’t want to set up a situation where each city with a junior college would want it converted to a four-year college. My alma mater, Pensacola JC, was established in the 1950s; in Jacksonville in the mid-1960s, Florida JC at Jax was established. (Jacksonville U originally was a private school, Jacksonville JC.)

 

As I neared my graduation date, I thought it was a shame that I couldn’t simply go to a four-year college or a university in Pensacola, but we didn’t have one. The closest ones in state were in Tallahassee.

 

Finally, the legislators decided that Pensacola and Jacksonville needed a university, but the institutions were only permitted to offer the junior and senior courses, to avoid wasteful duplication. As time passed, the University of North Florida supporters got UNF and the University of West Florida expanded to the freshmen and sophomore years, with limitations on their enrollment.

 

Eventually, legislators were trying to solve the crowded campuses problems for the University of Florida and possibly Florida State. They unwisely restricted the number of hours that students could take before they had to graduate and leave space for others.

 

By and by, Miami-Dade and the other large community colleges lobbied hard to be expanded into four-year institutions. Jacksonville’s administration lagged behind until they understood which way the wind was blowing.

 

It is to the general credit of the system that so many four-year colleges emerged WITHOUT CREATING DUPLICATE BUREAUCRACIES. Florida was brilliant in NOT going the route of California with its upper tier universities, then regular universities, along with a system of state colleges and state community colleges. Ideally, California could combine some elements and reduce its bureaucracies.

 

Florida could also combine schools, although such a suggestion quickly steps on toes and makes each institution become territorial. We could have “Florida State University at Tallahassee, FSU at Pensacola,” incorporating the former state colleges; “the University of Florida at Gainesville, UF at Jacksonville,” and so on. Some benefits could grow out of this, but we might also end up with classes of 600 students where formerly students had 20 to 30 in a class. So we won’t consider this now.

 

But let’s look at the horror story involved with Alexander’s bid to encourage “secessions.” Taxpayers will be ill-served as the wastrels in the Florida legislature join hands with Chamber of Commerce leaders who think it would be peachy keen if somebody pays for their very own university.

 

I’m shocked, astounded, and amazed at the unnecessary millions that they want to spend.

 

MENU NOTE: A 400-word version of this piece appeared Nov. 20, 2011, in the Florida Times-Union at http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2011-11-20/story/lead-letter-there-are-real-limits-state-universities

Keeping the public in the dark

Posted by Howard Denson on July 7, 2011 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

 

On the surface, this piece may look like a tempest in a teapot of little interest to readers in Walla Walla or Perth Amboy. However, strange practices in part of one state have a strange habit of popping up in Wisconsin, California, or Nebraska.

 

The president and top advisors of a public four-year college in Jacksonville have been doing a disservice to the public by their refusal to release a report about the propriety of the executive vice president also functioning as a high executive at a college in New Jersey.

 

They are trying to keep the public in the dark by citing statutes relating to evaluations. This statute is not the law that should prevail.

 

Colleges and universities find it practical to keep private the evaluations of potential job keepers, especially at the higher administrative levels. A dean or vice president at another college may not want it known that he or she is trying to move to a Florida institution. The statutes permit them to apply for jobs without endangering their current employment. Similarly, statutes protect faculty and other employees from the prying eyes of potentially vindictive former students who may resent a low grade or a refusal to admit the student into certain programs. The students may address valid concerns through grade-appeal processes.

 

Some colleges and universities have been using the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to conceal a vast array of information about students.

 

FERPA, which was passed nearly 40 years ago, permits the Department of Education to pull federal funding of schools that have a policy or practice of releasing students’ “education records.” A continual debate goes on about the law and its impact on state public records laws used by journalists and citizens nationwide.

 

The courts have said that FERPA is not an Iron Curtain between the academy and the public’s right to know about criminal transgressions.

 

If Beetle Bailey is goofing off in my humanities class, FERPA wouldn’t let me report him to “60 Minutes.” Various statutes may even forbid faculty or administrators from publicizing specific students in a cheating scandal; however, with their names and student numbers redacted, the colleges may certainly report on the nature of the cheating scandal, the remedies being implemented, the number of students involved, and the punishments meted out to them.

 

In any state code, certain statutes will provide mechanisms to protect taxpayers from malfeasance or nonfeasance. Such matters may be investigated by an official committee of a college or by an internal auditor whose job it is to police any questionable actions.

 

The North Florida college bypassed the cheaper internal remedies and wasted taxpayers’ monies by going to a private firm to do its investigation. A private firm may entice its clients to sign a paper saying that their final report will be private. However, no private firm can override a state or federal statute. Their charade may not override the concerns of trustees, employees, and the public.

 

It is instructive to see what happened when my alma mater, Florida State University, and the NCAA tried to keep their actions secret.

 

In a law suit, 26 outlets in the Florida media charged that the NCAA and FSU schemed to violate open government laws by not making correspondence public about an academic cheating scandal at the school. They argued that FSU’s status as a state university meant the NCAA response and any other documents exchanged via the confidential web site were public records. A Leon County Circuit Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered FSU and the NCAA to provide copies of the investigating committee’s 350-page meeting transcript and a later response.

 

When it comes to employees doing “double duty” by working at a public college and another agency or entity, it is helpful to look at what U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown did when she was a state legislator. She had a flexible contract that permitted her to work the required days as a legislator and then fulfill, say, 155 to 170 days as an employee of the college. At no time was she double-dipping on the same day.

 

By contrast, let’s look at a current state senator who also worked for the college several years ago. As he was going into retirement, his goal was to earn enough money to jack up what he would receive in retirement. So, he worked the 250-day administrative contract and also worked some of those same days as a legislator. (After you subtract 104 Saturdays and Sundays, you are left with 261 possible Monday-Friday workdays. You could avoid double-dipping by using some of the eight or so holidays and two- to three-week vacations that administrators receive.)

 

In the late 1970s, the Florida Times-Union’s Fawn Germer investigated travel and time abuses by the top administrators at the college. One official traveled on the college’s dime simply for the pleasure of it (but he didn’t share any insights with classes or convocations); another official timed his out-of-town trips to coincide with his son’s basketball games.

 

To head off potential con games on the college and taxpayers, trustees and legislators should insist on the use of variable contacts as Rep. Corrine Brown did. If employees want to spend a Friday and a weekend working on a special project for a friend’s college, they should document that they have taken a day of unpaid leave for the time another institution is paying them.

[NOTE: A shorter version of this appeared as a letter to the editor of the Times-Union on July 6, 2011.]