Publick Occurrences 2.0

March 31, 2009

What Higher Education Should Not Learn from the Newspaper Business

Filed under: Education,Internet,Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:59 pm

Not much going on around here lately, I know. Spring Break, grading, and the indeterminacy of the times have all played their roles. As Ben can attest, there are also several cosmic-level posts here on the system that never seem to quite get done. Something to look forward to, fans.

Nevertheless, this morning Brad DeLong’s Egregious Moderation posted something from the always-irritating Chronicle of Higher Education that irritated me enough to break out of my blogger’s block. Following Brad, I am going to re-post almost the whole thing so nobody has to subscribe to the Chronicle who does not absolutely need to. Let the record show that the quoted material below comes from the DeLong site, not the Chronicle itself. The author of the article is someone called Kevin Carey.

What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers’ Decline – Newspapers are dying. Are universities next? The parallels between them are closer than they appear. Both industries are in the business of creating and communicating information. Paradoxically, both are threatened by the way technology has made that easier than ever before.

The signs of sickness appeared earlier in the newspaper business, which is now in rapid decline. The Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is bankrupt, as is the owner of the The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are gone, and there’s a good chance that the San Francisco Chronicle won’t last the year. Even the mighty New York Times is in danger — its debt has been downgraded to junk status and the owners have sold off their stake in the lavish Renzo Piano-designed headquarters that the paper built for itself just a few years ago.

All of this is happening despite the fact that the Internet has radically expanded the audience for news. Millions of people read The New York Times online, dwarfing its print circulation of slightly over one million. The problem is that the Times is not, and never has been, in the business of selling news. It’s in the print advertising business. For decades, newspapers enjoyed a geographically defined monopoly over the lucrative ad market, the profits from which were used to support money-losing enterprises like investigative reporting and foreign bureaus. Now that money is gone, lost to cheaper online competitors like Craigslist. Proud institutions that served their communities for decades are vanishing, one by one. [Note from Jeff: Typical fallacy of Internet futurologists here. Newspapers were disappearing one by one long before Craigslist, long before the Internet even, and the proximate cause of the recent failures was the recession-driven collapse of retail sales, not the Nets.]

Much of what’s happening was predicted in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web burst onto the public consciousness. But people were also saying a lot of retrospectively ludicrous Internet-related things — e.g., that the business cycle had been abolished, and that vast profits could be made selling pet food online. Newspapers emerged from the dot-com bubble relatively unscathed and probably felt pretty good about their future. Now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse.

Universities were also subject to a lot of fevered speculation back then. In 1997 the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics…. Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” Twelve years later, universities are bursting with customers, bigger, and (until recently) richer than ever before.

But universities have their own weak point, their own vulnerable cash cow: lower-division undergraduate education. The math is pretty simple: Multiply an institution’s average net tuition (plus any state subsidies) by the number of students (say, 200) in a freshman lecture course. Subtract whatever the beleaguered adjunct lecturer teaching the course is being paid. I don’t care what kind of confiscatory indirect-cost multiplier you care to add to that equation, the institution is making a lot of money — which is then used to pay for faculty scholarship, graduate education, administrative salaries, the football coach, and other expensive things that cost more than they bring in.

As of today, there’s no Craigslist busily destroying the financial foundations of the modern university. Teaching is a lot more complicated than advertising, and universities have the advantage of sitting behind government-backed barriers to competition, in the form of accreditation. Anyone can use the Internet to sell classified ads or publish opinion columns or analyze the local news. Not anyone can sell credit-bearing courses or widely recognized degrees.

But the number of organizations that can — and are doing it online — is getting bigger every year. According to the Sloan Consortium, nearly 20 percent of college students — some 3.9 million people — took an online course in 2007, and their numbers are growing by hundreds of thousands each year. The University of Phoenix enrolls over 200,000 students per year. In one case, the dying newspaper industry itself is grabbing for a share of the higher-education market. The for-profit Kaplan University is owned by the Washington Post Company.

And it would be a grave mistake to assume that the regulatory walls of accreditation will protect traditional universities forever. Elite institutions like Stanford University and Yale University (which are, luckily for them, in the eternally lucrative sorting and prestige business) are giving away extremely good lectures on the Internet, free. Web sites like Academic Earth are organizing those and thousands more like them into “playlists,” which is really just iPodspeak for “curricula.” Every year the high schools graduate another three million students who have never known a world that worked any other way.

Some people will argue that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they’re often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that’s far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she’s getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.

She’s also increasingly paying through the nose for the privilege. Few things are more certain in this uncertain world than tuition increasing faster than inflation, personal income, or any other measure one could name. People will pay more for better service, but only so much more. And with the economy in a free fall, more families have less money to pay. The number of low-cost online institutions and no-cost alternatives on the other side of the accreditation wall is growing. The longer the relentless drumbeat of higher tuition goes on, the greater their appeal.

Institutions that specialize in their mission and customer base are still well positioned in this new environment, much as The Chronicle is doing a lot better than the Rocky Mountain News (RIP). Tony liberal-arts colleges and other selective private institutions will do fine, as will public universities that garner a lot of external research support and offer the classic residential experience to the children of the upper middle class.

Less-selective private colleges and regional public universities, by contrast — the higher-education equivalents of the city newspaper — are in real danger. Some are more forward-looking than others. Lamar University, a public institution in Beaumont, Tex., recently began offering graduate courses in education administration — another traditional cash cow — through a for-profit online provider, with the two organizations splitting the profits. It’s an innovative move and probably a sign of things to come. But the public university still looks like something of a middleman here — and in the long run, the Internet doesn’t treat middlemen kindly. To survive and prosper, universities need to integrate technology and teaching in a way that improves the learning experience while simultaneously passing the savings on to students in the form of lower prices. Newspapers had a decade to transform themselves before being overtaken by the digital future. They had a lot of advantages: brand names, highly skilled staff members, money in the bank. They were the best in the world at what they did — and yet, it wasn’t enough. The difficulties of change and the temptations to hang on and hope for the best were too strong.

That’s a problem for more than just newspaper shareholders. A strong society needs investigative journalism and foreign bureaus. It needs knowledgeable local reporters who can ferret out corruption and hold public officials to account, just like it needs faculty scholarship and graduate programs and even an administrator or two. Undergraduate education could be the string that, if pulled, unravels the carefully woven financial system on which the modern university depends.

Perhaps the higher-education fuse is 25 years long, perhaps 40. But it ends someday, in our lifetimes. There’s still time for higher-education institutions to use technology to their advantage, to move to a more-sustainable cost structure, and to win customers with a combination of superior service and reasonable price.

The reference to the hot predictions of 1997 is telling, because this is really hackneyed stuff. The CEO wannabes who populate the Chronicle have been issuing and trying to implement these calls for universities to “transform themselves before being overtaken by the digital future” weekly for the past 15+ years. Carey even quotes a finger-wagging management expert at us. Perhaps universities should run themselves more like private businesses, since we all know how brilliantly and efficiently they are managed? (Oh wait . . . . ) In fact, higher education is one of the few American products anyone still wants to buy. It has successfully expanded while the newspaper business has been in a state of perpetual concentration and collapse more or less since World War II.

The only really dangerous newspaper example that universities might follow is listening to the advice of cookie-cutter futurologists like the writer of the article. The newspaper business responded to the competitive pressure of electonic media by continually insulting and slowly abandoning its core audience, readers, in pursuit of doomed-from-conception efforts to make themselves more like the media that were supplanting them. Funny thing, actual television is better at being TV-like than the printed page. USA Today seemed bad enough when it debuted, but it looks fairly good compared to what many local newspapers became when they started turning themselves into crayon boxes — it often seems as if the graphic designers were the only competent people working at a lot of the local papers I have had to read, and these days the graphic designers (and the ad sales people) may be the only people still working, period.

Personally, I pity the suckers who sign up for “Kaplan University” or UPhoenix or some storefront operation thinking they are getting a cheap substitute for a university education, a complex product that combines brokered prestige, a concentrated set of life experiences, various kinds of apprenticeship, and a network of personal relationships along with information delivered. Online or “distance” education (as they used to call it in the Chronicle) handles the last item only, and usually in an attentuated form. (I have been asked to develop online courses, and the amount of material I would have been able to include in an online version of one of my regular “live” semester courses would have been a fraction of what I usually cover. It was like what happens when you teach a course in the summer, cut by half.)

Online “universities” are a branch of the corporate training business, with a touch of the books-on-tape end of the publishing industry, that has tried to borrow some of the cachet of the “university” brand. There is certainly a place for online education, but until the day that a guy like Kevin Carey or Brad DeLong is ready to trust their health or their legal defense or their own children’s education (or something equally crucial) to a person who learned everything they know from a Web site, universities are not going to be replaced.

Improved is another matter.


March 19, 2009

Public-Private Partisanship: The Sources of Media Outrage over the AIG Bonuses

Filed under: Christianity,Economy,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:49 am

I find it extremely interesting to note what it took, after all of these years of corporate malfeasance and incompetence going back the 90s dot-com bubble, to get the mainstream media into full 24/7 scandal mode on a business story. To get the media spouting “populist” outrage against a corporation, what was needed was for the corporation to become more than 80% publicly-owned. Even now there seems to be a tendency for the media to defer to the pretend private business executives running AIG, and save the journalistic shouting for the president and his underlings. Is bowing to private wealth and autocratic power so ingrained that only the public takeover gave the media “permission” to go after a company? Are the media just capitalist stooges ideologically trying to slough off the private sector’s depredations on to the public servants charged with the impossible task of rectifying them? Or was the mainstream political media (especially the TV and the local press/AP) just too idiotic to do anything with a complex business story until it could be reduced to the rote terms of the post- (and sub-Watergate) D.C. political scandal: what-did-the-president-know-and-when-did-he-know-it? Or there is something deeper at work here, having to do with the demonization of governmental authority that the American Revolution (as read by some guy called Bailyn) built into our republic’s DNA?

Possibly the answer is some of all of the above. It is not an original thought with me to note that the final separation of American Christianity from government around 1820 (except for certain missionary groups) seemed to do wonders for Christianity’s popular appeal and cultural power. As Lyman Beecher finally realized, New England Congregationalism’s overt association with the region’s governing elite, and its tax structure, had only weighed it down. Their churches no longer supported by government revenues, Yankee Protestants created a “Benevolent Empire” of eleemosynary institutions and voluntary societies, like the newly private colleges and many social reform associations that popped up in the 19th century, that gained various special protections from government even as they became tremendous forces for shaping public policy.

It’s almost as if the more privatized and immune to public oversight an institution becomes in American culture the more sacrosanct it is, and, as in the AIG case, vice versa. It’s almost as if no one actually believes we have a system of self-government.


March 17, 2009

Post-Shame America

Filed under: Christianity,Colonial Period,Economy,GOP,Jacksonian Era,Political culture — Benjamin Carp @ 11:53 am

Often amid the news stories of the day, we’re tempted to ask, “don’t these people have any shame?”  Matthew Yglesias quotes Senator Chuck Grassley today: the senator almost calls on the AIG executives to commit ritual hara-kiri, and then settles on expecting the executives to merely show some contrition.  Yglesias is doubtful that this is possible, though:

We’ve somehow managed to construct something of a post-shame society, in which elites have convinced themselves that the rational agent model of human behavior is not just a useful modeling tool, but an ethical guidebook. There’s something to be said for the idea of a sense of honor and personal responsibility.

in a healthy society, you see some consideration of issues of honor and duty and moral responsibility and certainly Americans of more humble means don’t strike me as being nearly as taken with the “greed is good” personal ethic.

He continues by reminding us that Senator Grassley is, after all, a Republican, whose party platform suggests that he should lecture people on “personal responsibility” and promote trust that unfettered, deregulated business elites always have our best interests at heart.  Perhaps instead, Yglesias suggests, Grassley could show his outrage by supporting a budget that taxes the rich more heavily and give greater benefits (tax cuts, health care) to ordinary folks.

Meanwhile, all this discussion of personal responsibility puts me in mind of a fascinating article by Joseph Bottum that I saw in First Things last year, entitled, “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.”  Since I’m on a Tocqueville kick this week, I’ll note that Bottum quotes Tocqueville as follows:

The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious ­freedom.

The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”

Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.

Think of the American experiment as a three-legged stool, its stability found in each leg’s relation to the other legs. Democracy grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and short-sightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.

Through most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and religion accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another.

Bottum’s thesis is that now that mainline Protestantism has faded from American public life, and Catholicism, evangelicalism, and liberal religion probably can’t reconcile sufficiently to take its place, the stability of this “three-legged stool” is under threat.  The result may be that American elites don’t have the same unifying moral compass that they did when mainline Protestantism held greater sway, with dire consequences for capitalism and democracy.  The article is very long, very well-reasoned, and very well-written—so I’m not doing it justice.  But I wonder if Bottum today is ruefully congratulating himself on his predictive powers.  Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an interesting mix of early American history, American religion, and contemporary commentary (particularly on higher education), I’ve been enjoying this blog by Professor John Fea of Messiah College.


Founding Bracketology

Filed under: Economy,Founders,Sports,Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:30 am

As part of our broader common interest in geographic minutiae, my son Isaac and I like to find out where all the NCAA tournament schools (and the conferences they come from) are located. Robert Morris University was a new one for us. It seems to be the only one of the Founder-named schools to make the NCAAs, and of course it was doubly interesting to me to discover that someone had named a college after a lesser-known (to civilians) and rather disreputable character from American history. Morris was the “financier of the Revolution,” true, but he was also one of the more Madoffian figures of his day,  running his own Ponzi-like schemes in the area of land speculation (frontier real estate flipping) and ending up in debtor’s prison. The Iroquois distrusted Morris and called him the “big eater with the belly” whose appetites ran to food, wine, and their lands. Read up on the Treaty of Big Tree.

We were pleased to find that RMU has a surprisingly nice, somewhat unsugarcoated page about their namesake on the school site. Debtor’s prison was mentioned. There is even a game you can play, and Robert Morris is given his own tabloid-ready nickname, “RoMo.” Really, more Founders need to have their own games and tabloid nicknames: G-Dub, A-Ham, J-Mad, T-Jeff … the list is endless.

The school seems to be a sort of business-oriented institution, which is appropriate but perhaps not so heartening in terms of whom it would good to take as your role model today. I feel certain that RoMo would have loved credit-default swaps and tried to use them to buy Kentucky or something. “FatCats” might be a better mascot than “Colonials.”


March 16, 2009

The Crown Shall Rise Again?

Filed under: Humor,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 1:46 pm

I have to say I’m a little disappointed in this piece in The Onion entitled, “Redcoat Holdouts Still Fighting American Revolution.”  The headline hints that the article is about to play on southerners still fighting the Civil War, but using the eighteenth-century “civil war” as its source of mock-tension.  Instead, the authors seem to satisfy themselves with the slapstick-hilarity of anachronism.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  The best line in the piece is at the end.

Also, there’s no relation between me and Walter Carp of the (fictional) Merrimac Valley Historical Society, although if the surname becomes shorthand for history-doing in eastern Massachusetts, I suppose I shouldn’t (cough) complain.


Jokers, Smokers, and Midnight Tocquers

Filed under: Democracy,Economy,Jacksonian Era — Benjamin Carp @ 11:42 am

This past weekend’s big story was that the struggling American International Group had brought over $170 billion of taxpayer bailout money in the door, while giving about $165 million in bonuses to its own executives (presumably as a reward for their masterly stewardship of the company).

The issue here is that taxpayers are supporting high bonuses for the executives of a failing company, but many observers (including Kevin Drum, now of Mother Jones and formerly of the Washington Monthly) had been criticizing the outsized compensation packages of American business executives for years.

The disparity put Ian Salisbury of the Wall Street Journal in mind of Alexis de Tocqueville.  Last month reader BPM directed my attention to this piece on whether a democracy can sustain a sharply skewed distribution of wealth.  Take a look at the chart:

As Mel Brooks used to say, it’s good to be the king.  The comparison here might have been more useful if this chart had included the wealthiest merchants, financiers, and industrialists of the 1830s United States, rather than just American civil servants.  Still, when it comes to mainstream media invoking Democracy in America to get us through our troubled times, we’ll take what we can get.


March 11, 2009

Earmarks of Democracy

Filed under: Congress,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:17 am

Our local newspaper cartoonist John Darkow is kind of hit-or-miss for me, but I thought this captured the essence of the sudden outbreak of concern among the GOP and a few goody-goody Dems over “earmarks” in spending bills:

I have never understood the concern over “earmarks” in general: when public money is being spent, it is surely one job of our senators and representatives to ensure that some share of it gets back to their constituents, perhaps a larger share than some less enterprising member could have obtained. Problems can arise when money for some important project gets earmarked away for some other, more frivolous purpose, or as part of a political payoff to a campaign contributor, or as a bit of home-state corporate welfare. Yet congressional competitors and federal policymakers are (usually) able to call attention to and limit those cases.

The claim or assumption that all earmarks represent a “Bridge to Nowhere” of some kind is just lazy and disingenuous. The vast majority of earmarks concern money that could as easily to go one worthy project in one place as to an another worthy project in another.  There has to be some mechanism for distributing money in that circumstance, and negotiation among our democratically elected representatives seems like far from the worst one. The question should be the worth of the particular project funded, not the messiness of a democratic legislative process.

As usual, the president had some reasonable and intelligent observations on this matter:

Yesterday, Congress sent me the final part of last year’s budget; a piece of legislation that rolls nine bills required to keep the government running into one – a piece of legislation that addresses the immediate concerns of the American people by making needed investments in line with our urgent national priorities.

That is what nearly 99 percent of this legislation does – the nearly 99 percent you probably haven’t heard much about.

What you likely have heard about is that this bill does include earmarks. Now, let me be clear: Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that’s why I have opposed their outright elimination. I also find it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own – and will tout them in their own states and districts.

In this same speech explaining his signing of the recent spending bill, Obama went on to lay down some useful principles for non-stupid, non-hypocritical earmark reform, based on his conviction that not all earmarks are created equal:



March 5, 2009

I Am the Ideal Viewer of Watchmen

Filed under: Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:09 pm

OMG! As the Russian ambassador said, my source is the New York Times:

Indeed, the ideal viewer — or reviewer, as the case may be — of the “Watchmen” movie would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate. The film’s carefully preserved themes of apocalypse and decay might have proved powerfully unsettling to that anxious undergraduate sitting in his dorm room, listening to “99 Luftballons” and waiting for the world to end or the Berlin Wall to come down.

Pretty close, except I would have substituted Prince’s 1999 and the roommate was . . . myself! To be honest, I was too busy with the Nietzsche to read Watchmen the comic book back in the day, but having caught up with it later, I found it to be as perfect a slab of late Cold War Reagan/Thatcher era post-hippie bile as could possibly have been created. Having taught the book in a brain-melting Popular Culture and American History course last year — my own personal Nerdungsroman — I can tell you that the kids like it just as much today, even when they need to have all the comic-book history and 70s-80s political references explained. I am not sure why Times reviewer A.O. Scott thinks that “the film’s . . . themes of apocalypse and decay” need to be “carefully preserved” for today’s audiences. True, the apocalypse is not necessarily nuclear this time around, but things falling apart we can still do.

I make no warranties about the movie’s retro take on the decade, but Alan Moore’s Watchmen book is about as intelligently and thoroughly embedded in its historical era as any work of fiction I have ever read.


March 3, 2009

Ill-Read Baiting

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,Historians,Humor,Obama Administration — Benjamin Carp @ 9:29 am

Perhaps over the weekend you saw this silly article in the New York Times about conservatives reviving the shibboleth of “socialism.” Now, there’s not much about the Obama Administration that’s remotely socialist, and indeed, the article even quotes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (an actual socialist) as welcoming the fight: “I think this country could use a good debate on what goes on in places like Sweden, Norway, and Finland.”  But to me, this article was a reminder of just how bad politicians are at using historical analogies.  A good analogy, on the other hand, is something to treasure.  While doing some background reading for an encyclopedia article today, I came across a favorite passage.  Let Henry May show you how it’s done.

With boldness and considerable success, the Church [of England] carried its attack into the enemy stronghold, arch-Calvinist Connecticut.  In 1722 the new rector of Yale, one of the tutors, and five other promising young Puritans announced that they had come, through their reading, to doubt the validity of Presbyterian orders and were going to apply to the Bishop of London for ordination.  The effect in the colony was similar to that which might have been produced in 1925 if the Yale football team had suddenly joined the Communist Party.

–Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 77.

This is one of my favorite lines in all of early American history writing.  I’m a sucker for a scholar with a sense of mischief.


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