Citing concerns about shared governance, faculty members at Pennsylvania State University have formed an advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The association has two kinds of chapters: advocacy, for non-unionized faculty, and union. It’s unclear whether Penn State’s unique public-private status (it’s state-supported but privately chartered) would prevent future attempts to unionize, given current restrictions on tenure-track faculty unions at private institutions.
Brian Curran, president of the new chapter and professor of art history, said he couldn’t comment on any intent to unionize “at this time.” But through the advocacy chapter, he said he hoped to bring to Penn State a kind of transparency and shared governance that is lacking through the Faculty Senate. For example, he said, the body has no means of sending out mass e-mails to faculty to alert them of decisions.
The Faculty Senate president did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Penn State faculty expressed outrage this summer at the university's new “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative, which requires that all faculty complete biometric screenings and online wellness profiles that include questions some faculty have said are invasive, such as those pertaining to mental health and frequency of testicular self-exams. Faculty who don’t complete the annual screenings will have to pay a $100 monthly surcharge.
Additional surcharges have been announced for smokers and for coverage for spouses and domestic partners eligible for insurance through their own employers.
The university has said that attempts to control its skyrocketing health care costs through voluntary measures proved unsuccessful. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, has said the university's new program complies with health care privacy laws and that personal information will be used for health promotion only.
In an e-mail, a university spokesman said Penn State values shared governance "because we do encourage participation in many aspects of decision-making. We balance this with our need for administrative accountability." To that end, members of the faculty and staff were consulted on the health care plan as early as 2011, he said.
The post’s authors, well-known benefits experts Tom Emerick and Al Lewis, wrote that “Wellness is supposed to 'empower' employees but instead did just the opposite at Penn State. Ironically, the only thing that has empowered Penn State employees has been fighting back against this misdirected wellness tyranny.” Instead of a “‘culture of wellness,’ Penn State has created a culture of resentment,” they wrote, arguing that “Take Care of Your Health” may not save the university much money after all.
Basic calculations “would have told them that their 43,000 covered lives probably incurred a total of only about 100 wellness-sensitive medical inpatient events, like heart attacks, of which a few might have taken place in people who were not previously diagnosed and were therefore at least theoretically avoidable, saving the tiniest fraction of their healthcare spending. But we'll never know because they embarked on a prevention jihad against their employees without knowing the value of what they were trying to prevent.”
A tenured art professor at the University of Georgia has been terminated for allegedly having sex in a public place with a student on a study abroad program he was leading in Costa Rica, the Augusta Chroniclereported. A faculty panel had split on the appropriate sanctions for James Barsness, with two recommending revocation of tenure and three arguing for less serious sanctions, citing Barsness's strong record of teaching and research, undisclosed medical issues, and his evident remorse. But former UGA President Michael Adams overrode the panel's recommendation, writing in a May 13 letter to Barsness that “Upon review I have determined that public sex with a student under one’s direction and control in a UGA program merits termination. It is my judgment that the charges were sustained and that your employment relationship with UGA, including tenure, should be terminated as of this date.” The Board of Regents upheld Adams’s judgment at its meeting on Wednesday. Barsness could not immediately be reached for comment.
An Associated Press inquiry into e-mail messages by Mitch Daniels when he was governor of Indiana have revealed he was not a fan of the late historian Howard Zinn, and talked of trying to block his book from being used in schools or in teacher preparation programs. A new AP article on Sunday, based on additional e-mail messages obtained under open records laws, reveals that Daniels (now president of Purdue University) had another history book that he wanted in Indiana's schools. That book is America: The Last Best Hope, by William J. Bennett, a historian who was education secretary in the Reagan administration. E-mail messages show Daniels pushing to get the book distributed and praising it.
Courtesy of Amazon, here's the Publishers Weekly review: "Bennett, a secretary of education under President Reagan and author of The Book of Virtues, offers a new, improved history of America, one, he says, that will respark hope and a 'conviction about American greatness and purpose' in readers. He believes current offerings do not 'give Americans an opportunity to enjoy the story of their country, to take pleasure and pride in what we have done and become.' To this end, Bennett methodically hits the expected patriotic high points (Lewis & Clark, the Gettysburg Address) and even, to its credit, a few low ones (Woodrow Wilson's racism, Teddy Roosevelt's unjust dismissal of black soldiers in the Brownsville judgment). America is best suited for a high school or home-schooled audience searching for a general, conservative-minded textbook. More discerning adult readers will find that the lack of originality and the over-reliance on a restricted number of dated sources (Samuel Eliot Morison, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager) make the book a retread of previous popular histories (such as Boorstin's The Americans). This is history put to use as inspiration rather than serving to enlighten or explain, but Bennett does succeed in shaping the material into a coherent, readable narrative."
A long walk through the English countryside and the current flap over the government surveillance of cell phone records touched off my deeply held and unreasoned Luddite reaction to "big data." Like most over-hyped trends, the surge of interest in big data and its application provokes ennui among those of us with some mileage on our sneakers. Gary King of Harvard says that with all the available "big data" students in their freshman year can be given a personalized plan to achieve their lifetime career goals. Harvard Business Review claims that data science is the sexiest new profession. Every day brings us the media hyperbole of the application of big data to commercial, political, and scientific enterprises. While some skeptics have surfaced, the mainstream press continues its love affair with big data.
The long walk I recently took through the English countryside (200 miles in two weeks) reminded me of the value of limited information and gave me unencumbered space to think about my oddly blinkered view of big data. Collecting and analyzing data is after all, how I have made a living for 30 years. Data remain to me the only icon of science left largely unsullied by politics, ego, and money. Perhaps I am just jealous, as HBR suggested the old guard of statisticians, survey methodologists, and data analysts are not equipped to join the brave new world of big data.
What convinced me otherwise was the way my husband and I recently managed to mostly not get lost on the famous yet poorly marked coast-to-coast walk through the English Lake District and Yorkshire Moors. We used a $1.50 plastic compass, survey ordinance maps, a highly schematic guidebook and each other. No GPS, no Google Maps, no iPad or iPhone, no turn-by-turn directions. The simple tools of "compass, map, and thou" are based on substantial abstractions of geographic reality subject to errors of judgment and interpretation. More detailed information would have overwhelmed us as we walked while trying to avoid deep bogs, animal excrement, and slippery precipices in the fog and rain. Decisions made with paper maps, trust, and a little visual triangulation kept us true to our course 90 percent of the time.
And so to big data… The history of science is actually one of reverse engineering. In the beginning, our measurement tools for the physical and social world were so crude that the combination of substantial abstraction and painstaking taxonomic description were the only choices. The grand theories of natural selection and relativity emerged at a time when the data were very sparse and poorly collected. To have any reasoned explanation of the world, scientists of earlier eras had to accept that the empirical world they could observe was quite limited and distorted. Improvements in our tools have allowed us over time to anchor and refine those grand abstractions with a reality closer to what is observed. Still, the world comes to us through a glass, darkly. Until very recently, we have continued to use substantial abstraction to see and understand natural and social phenomena.
The problem with big data is that it is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose. "Big" data is really a euphemism for all of the data thrown off by the digital engines that drive our economic and social transactions. Electronic medical records, arrest and conviction records, loyalty card data from the grocery store, all of the stuff you tell OkCupid and Match.com, Google search histories, insurance claims, cell phone calls and even the digital things we create like tweets and blog posts.
Any transaction, business process, or social engagement that uses a machine that records, counts and stores stuff in a digital format generates data. Now people and institutions leave digital footprints everywhere. We used to have to ask questions or collect paper records. Now, it is like slapping a universal bar code on the back of every person and business in the world. Every time they do something, the big barcode scanner in the sky records it and stores it. Data are no longer representing reality but rather are the reality.
The problem of course is that we have almost come full circle. Rather than too little data, poorly measured, we now have too much data, precisely measured. Our ability to use data effectively to make decisions or understand the world depends on our ability to see patterns and abstract from those patterns. Big data is, in many ways, an exact replica of reality. Using big data to make decisions is like using every square inch of soil, landscape, and sky in my 200-mile walk across England to figure out how to get around the corner in the next small village. It feels to me as if we need to return to the time of Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist whose pioneering classification of the natural world gave us the concept of the "species," to classify the intersecting and complexly nuanced world thrown off by our digital engines before we start making decisions using this unknown commodity. We need to rebuild those high level abstractions from the ground up to make sense of this new reality.
My difficulty with at least the political and commercial applications of big data is that our tools of abstraction and decision-making are decidedly underdeveloped when faced with this type of data. As long as Netflix doesn’t understand that when I share my account with my early 20-something daughters, their big data application will continue to recommend "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gossip Girl" to me when my real preferences run to "Masterpiece Theater" and subtitled films. On a more serious note, our real fear of the use of cell phone transaction data to understand the social networks of individuals is not necessarily about the invasion of privacy but the possibility that the wrong person will be identified as a threat because his or her data are taken out of context. It is no longer whether our data are adequate to support our theories but rather whether we have developed adequate theories to explain our highly nuanced data.
Or maybe I am just jealous that Google hasn’t come looking for me…. yet.
Felicia B. LeClere is a senior fellow with NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.
Southern University in Baton Rouge eliminated the job of Dong Sheng Guo, a physics professor, in early 2012, as part of a round of budget cuts, but he went on teaching the fall of that year, and the following semester as well, The Baton Rouge Advocate reported. Guo says that he was never formally notified of his dismissal and only became aware that his job had been eliminated when he went to the human resources office to ask why he was not being paid. It is unclear how he was assigned class sections when the university believed his position had been eliminated. Guo is now appealing for his job back.