27 February, 2011

Top Nun

Three nuns were attending a Cubs baseball game, and three men were sitting directly behind them.

Because their habits were partially blocking the view, the men decided to badger the nuns - hoping that they'd get annoyed enough to move to another area. In a very loud voice, the first guy said, "I think I'm going to move to Utah ... there are only 100 nuns living there."

Then the second guy spoke up and said, "I want to go to Montana! There are only 50 nuns living there."

The third guy said, "I want to go to Idaho. There are only 25 nuns living there!"

The Mother Superior turned around, looked at the men, and in a very sweet and calm voice said, “Why don't you go to hell? There aren't any nuns there!"

25 February, 2011

Hippie Feat

The People have a lot of power - once they decide to use it, and if they can find the patience to see it through, they can bring about dramatic change. Tunisia and now Egypt are ample evidence of that. These current events have reminded me of a time when my generation - the "Hippies" - created their own dramatic feat as well - ending the war in Vietnam.

I'm not so sure we were patient, but ultimately the war ended. In our frustration with being drafted and forced to fight a war when we weren't old enough to vote led many to dropout from a society we did not like or feel part of. It didn't really start out as an effort to force change. We simply had lots of other things with which we wanted to experiment.

So today I'm thinking about "Hippies" - at least that became the common label for much of my generation in period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Whenever I see demonstrations in the news, I always think back to that era - especially the spring of 1970.

I was in my final year at the University of Virginia and recovering from serious illness. When I went off to college, I planned a career as a naval officer, and the navy paid for all of my education. As I matured though, I became less enchanted with that course. I would have happily served out my six year commitment, but I was very unhappy about the events in southeast Asia. By the time I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in December of 1969, I was well along the road to being thoroughly anti-war. Then, once I was physically disqualified, I left the ROTC - Honorable Discharge in hand.

We were about to have a momentous spring.

April had been wonderful - a glorious Virginia spring. Following my surgeries and radiation therapy, I was beginning to recover my strength, and there had been a very positive development with the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22. I had been accepted to graduate school, and life was good

Then the storm clouds began to gather.

On April 30 President Nixon announced US ground forces would begin an invasion of Cambodia the following day. Not only were we not to leave Vietnam, the war was widening! We were not happy, and demonstrations began on campuses around the country. Some began planning for a nationwide Student Strike, and we would refuse to go to classes.

Did I say clouds? How about lightning?

One of those demonstrations was tragic. On May 4 at Kent State, National Guard soldiers fired their weapons into a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine. Such sadness - to be shot while demonstrating for peace.

Then we heard the thunder. It always comes later.

Please understand that the University of Virginia was a fairly conservation institution. My goodness - the College of Arts and Sciences, in fact, was still all male. Well, not quite. The courts had just admitted two women. Rallying the students to action was going to be a challenge, but on May 6 in University Hall (our field house), "help" came. Radical lawyer William Kuntsler and social activist Yippie Jerry Rubin spoke to me and 9000 others.

I don't remember the exact words, but I do remember that Rubin told us more students had died at Kent State (they hadn't) as he tried to fire us up. It didn't work, but Kuntsler was more effective. As I went to my fraternity house to see what was happening, he led 2000 students to Maury Hall, the home of the Navy ROTC unit. They were going to take over the building.

That didn't happen, but they were there quite a while. Shortly after I got back to my apartment, my roommate who had just been appointed to the top student command position in the Navy unit was called and informed about the crowd. He set sail - full speed - for Maury Hall. Fortunately the professionals had control of things, even though someone had set a mattress on fire in the basement.

The strike (by some) and teach-ins continued. On May 8, 200 police stormed the Lawn and arrested 68. I'm not sure for what, but after that there were nightly rallies at the Rotunda - primarily, I think, to keep students on campus and in less trouble. One of my fondest recollections is of listening to someone read telegrams and letters students had sent the President. My favorite: "Congratulations, President Nixon. You've finally done it. You've pissed off a conservative institution!"

On May 10, the University's President spoke from the steps of the Rotunda and basically expressed solidarity with the students. He asked faculty to work with students who wished to honor the strike. The details are murky at this late date, but I recall one of my instructors walking in and asking if anyone wanted a final. No one raised a hand. He said, "Here are your grades then. The course is over."

It was an ugly time, but the memories are good. Although there was much in the movement I liked, I wasn't really a true Hippie, but that is about the time I bought the glasses you see above in the head shop of a coffee house on Rugby Road, just a few blocks from the Rotunda. I was already wearing bell bottoms, and my hair was significantly longer than when I was in ROTC. Rose colored and prism-ed glasses. The funny thing is that as I looked through them, I didn't see a rose colored world - only one that was confused and beginning to break apart.

The times they were a-changing. And we were the change we wished to see.

24 February, 2011

Can I Get A Hug

In the relative silence that I preferred, the Anniversaries have come and gone. There were a select few whom I hoped were aware of the observances, but to draw wider attention would have been uncomfortable. Yet among my closest friends there existed a sense that they should have done something more to note the significance of the passages symbolized by these dates in my life’s Journey. Or, perhaps they should have shared at some greater depth the ebbing and surging waves of emotionality that could unpredictably rise and then break within me.

On occasions like this, such a presence will always be welcomed and a caring touch always healing. Although neither was readily available this year, both were somehow sensed anyway. Plus, I had already been given a privilege most profound - I had been allowed to give back, the essence of love and of life. Could there be a better way to celebrate that one is again alive than by offering me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others?

I feel twice blessed by such gifts – first because I am alive to receive them and second because I had, indeed, been able to make such a difference.

20 February, 2011

She's Got Mail

A Illinois man who left the snowbound streets of Chicago for a vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and was planning to meet him there the next day. When he reached his hotel, he decided to send his wife a quick e-mail.

Unable to find the scrap of paper on which he had written her e-mail address, he did his best to type it in from memory. Unfortunately, he missed one letter and his note was directed instead to an elderly preacher's wife, whose husband had passed away only the day before.

When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the monitor, let out a piercing scream, fainted, and fell to the floor. At the sound, her family rushed into the room and saw this note on the screen:

      Dearest Wife,
          Just got checked in.
          Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow.
      Your Loving Husband.
      P.S. Sure is hot down here.

16 February, 2011

Absence of Mindness

Wednesdays Without Words

Cranium of René Descartes
Musée de l'Homme
Digital photograph
Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Brown

15 February, 2011

Callous In Wonderland

Tuesday With Another


Rod MacDonald

New York City rain
I don't know if it's making me dirtier or clean
went for the subway but there was no train
and the tunnel was crumbling for repairs again
and the sign said welcome to American Jerusalem

I been around
you could spend forever looking for a friend in this town
and all you get to do is lay your dollar down
till you're stumbling drunk up the stairs again
and the sign says welcome to American Jerusalem

In the temples of American Jerusalem
they buy an ounce of South African gold
they don't care who was bought or sold
or who died to mine it
in the temples of American Jerusalem
they buy an ounce of Marseilles white
somewhere on a street with no light
somebody dies trying it

and somewhere in a crowd
looking the kind of way that makes you turn around
will be somebody who knows what it's about
and she's going to take the ribbons from her hair again
and welcome you to American Jerusalem

In the alleys of American Jerusalem
the homeless lie down at the dawn
the pretty people wonder what they're on
and how they afford it
in the ashes of American Jerusalem
the prophets live their deaths out on the corner
the pretty people say there should've been a warning
but nobody heard it

then shadows lick the sun
the streets are paved with footsteps on the run
somebody must've got double 'cause I got none
I forgot to collect my share again
so go west to breath the cleansing air again
go Niagara for your honeymoon again
go on the road if you're going to sing your tune again
go to sea to learn to be a man again
till you come on home to
American Jerusalem

13 February, 2011

All The Pope's Men

The mothers of four priests got together and were discussing their sons.

"My son is a monsignor," said the first proud woman. "When he enters a room, people say. 'Hello, Monsignor.' "

The second mother went on, "My son is a bishop. When he enters a room, people say. 'Hello, Your Excellency.' "

"My son is a cardinal," continued the next one. "When he enters a room, people say, 'Hello, Your Eminence.' "

The fourth mother thought for a moment. "My son is six-foot-ten and weighs 300 pounds," she said. "When he enters a room, people say, 'Oh, my God!' "

11 February, 2011

Great Matriculations

In 1999 I was invited to address the University Forum on Quality in Higher Education at the University of Virginia. I recently re-read my paper and thought that it still had something to offer. What follows is a slightly edited version of my remarks, but it is still longer than my usual post. Bear with me. Please note it does contain unreferenced passages, and where time frames are indicated, please add 12 years.

This is a pleasure. As a Virginia alumnus of some 29 years and as a parent of a first year student, it was very rewarding to be asked to speak on today’s issue of quality in higher education – a parent’s perspective.

I must confess that preparing these remarks was more difficult than I thought it would be. I was asked to give the parent’s perspective on what represents or determines quality in higher education. As a parent, of course, I should have clear opinions.

But I have also been a professor for 24 years and an academic vice-president and dean for nearly a dozen. I found it very difficult to separate what I thought as a parent and what I hoped other parents thought from what I knew as a professional in higher education.

As any self-respecting academic would, my first thought was to go to the research, to the journals. Surely, I thought, there was a rich literature on parental opinions about quality. No, there isn’t. It’s pretty slim pickings. So I thought I’d browse the internet where scholarly rules aren’t quite as rigid and advice is free. Nope, still very little.

As a last resort, I thought I’d collect my own data. I’d survey everyone who came in my office. I had plenty of colleagues who were parents and who had sent children off to college. I received lots of interesting ideas, but, of course, my colleagues were all higher education professionals with ideas that were perhaps a little too insider-ish.

Then serendipity struck, as it often does in research. Last week my college held an open house for prospective students, and I had the opportunity to query nearly 400 parents and students – or at least as many as I could that day.

So, I finally had something to report – and lots of it. I called my daughter to confirm how much time I had. She told me I started at 11:30 and I could speak as long as I wanted, but everyone else would be leaving 20 minutes after I began to go to lunch. So, I guess I have 20 minutes, but I don’t think I’ll need all of it.
The parents with whom I spoke were very insightful. Basically they told me that quality was determined by a college’s or university’s ability to deliver expected benefits. Those weren’t their words, but that’s my distillation of them.

Many parents did add a kicker: Quality was a college’s or university’s ability to deliver expected benefits ... at an acceptable price. So clearly quality was being related somehow to value – at least when they were attempting to choose among different schools. They wanted quality but knew there were limits to how much quality they could afford.

These expected benefits are many but can be grouped into three categories.

First and foremost are the educational or academic benefits. This is just as it sounds and means the development of intellectual capacity, critical thinking and communication skills, and a knowledge base with depth and breadth. It includes the development of values, attitudes, and self-image as well as sensitivity to diversity and an understanding of the strength arising from diversity and, of course, refinement and development of personal interests.

Secondly, there are the personal or non-academic benefits which revolve around the extracurricular life of an institution: athletics, social life, politics and activities, or perhaps making peer contacts that may later pay dividends.

Lastly, there are what one colleague has called the fringe benefits. These are post-college outcomes that are not really due to the student’s development itself. They’re due to a cachet the college offers, the power of the credential. Just having a degree from a university as distinguished as UVa or Stanford or Harvard or Michigan will by itself open a few doors that might not otherwise be opened. This is very hard to measure, but it is clearly an expectation at some schools.

The parents with whom I spoke didn’t mention all of these. They mentioned many of them, however, and it was clear that they that were interested in these benefits. They were interested, in a word, in outcomes. That was how they measured quality.

They were disappointed that outcome was such a hard thing to learn about. Mostly they heard about promises of outcomes, but minimal data were offered to support those promises.

They were, of course, impressed by reputation. It was usually the first thing mentioned as a measure of quality, but they were sophisticated enough to understand that reputation – at least as it’s currently bandied about by the ratings press (US News & World Report, Princeton Review, Peterson’s, etc.) – is determined mostly by input measures. They wanted something else. They wanted proof.

They are sophisticated shoppers. They knew what all the so-called “important” measures were, and they knew there was, perhaps, some correlation between the inputs and the outcomes. What are the input measures: endowment per student, campus beauty, faculty-student ratios, % of faculty with PhDs, and the major one – selectivity or how many students are denied admission. It seems the more selective a school is, the higher the perceived quality.

Some were sharp enough to focus on retention – how many students stay at the school. At a college like mine the national averages suggest that just over 1/5 leave after one year.

A few were even savvy enough, or perhaps cynical enough, to know that schools played the reputation or ratings game. Very close to my home there are two nationally ranked liberal arts colleges – both in the top 15 in the country. One of those schools has a staff member – a full-time staff member – whose primary responsibility is tracking those indicators that go into the rankings. They want to keep themselves rated highly – presumably by being selective with reported data or investing in those things the raters say are important.

These parents understood that many of those measures are significant – that they are generally important indicators, but they felt that the quality a school should be measured more by the kind of student it graduates or turns out rather than by the kind of student it keeps out.

Granted, my sample may be biased. These are parents of prospective students visiting a fairly young liberal arts college of about 1700 students with an average regional reputation and with only a moderately difficult admissions standard, but I think their perceptions will resonate with most parents. They are certainly more typical of the average American college parent than the parent of a student at UVa.

They’re concerned about learning, and the typical student at UVa would learn regardless of the resources the ratings think important made available to them. They want to measure quality by looking at how much value has been added by the college or university – what the education professionals call talent development.

They thought that colleges and universities should be student-centered. Above all else, they wanted the focus to be on undergraduate teaching and learning. Some were surprised and some weren’t when I told them that the American university usually thought of as #1 is frequently criticized for its poor teaching and is finally trying to do something about it.

Since outcome measures are still difficult to come by – in spite of nationwide initiatives on outcome assessment, I asked these parents what input measures they considered the most important – the ones they thought would foster the student development they wanted to see.

The emphasis was always on availability.

They wanted to know first about professors' availability: were the classes taught by full-time faculty – not adjuncts or teaching assistants; were the professors available for outside of class interaction; were the class sizes small; and what was the teaching style. They preferred interactive discussion or anything that fosters active learning.

They also wanted good availability of supporting resources – extended library hours, computer access, tutoring (peer or otherwise). In both cases of availability the focus is on teaching and learning. They were less concerned with the number of volumes in the library or how many faculty had doctorates as long as they were good teachers.

As I reflected back on what I had heard, it occurred to me that what they wanted was very similar to something I’d read on academic excellence when I first became a dean. I’ve added a few points of my own to those.

Parents want a university:

Where the core mission is talent development and where the core mission is student learning;

Where the entire academic community is united in working toward that goal;

Where teaching and advising are given high priority;

Where the university has a system that rewards effective teaching first and foremost – conspicuous success in teaching. Learning, not teaching was important for there is no teaching without learning;

Where the best students are encouraged to become teachers;

Where there are no faculty “stars” who have been lured to campus with low or even no teaching loads;

Where faculty research - and please don’t think I’m diminishing the value of research - is used as a tool to enhance the teacher/learner process – students are involved in that research;

Where students are exposed to an environment in which the values of education and service to others take precedence over the values of acquiring resources for the school and improving the status of the school.

A university that does all those things and does them well is a university that is student-centered, it is a university that adds significant value to whatever abilities or talents a student brings into the university, and it is a university that parents will consider to be of high quality.

It doesn’t have to have the largest endowment, the latest toys, or the biggest stars. It has to stress and foster student learning. Any parent will tell you that those that do it best have the highest quality.

April, 1999   

06 February, 2011

Oh Brother, Where Do We Go Now?

In a certain suburban neighborhood, there were two brothers, eight and ten years old, who were exceedingly mischievous. Whatever went wrong in their neighborhood, it nearly always turned out they had a hand in it. Their parents were at their wits' end trying to control them, and after hearing about a priest nearby who worked with delinquent boys, the mother suggested to the father that they ask the priest to talk to them.

The mother went to the priest and made her request. He agreed but said he wanted to see the younger boy first and alone. So, the mother sent him to the priest. The priest sat the boy down across from the huge, impressive desk he sat behind.

For about five minutes they just sat and stared at each other. Finally the priest pointed his finger at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"

The boy looked under the desk, in the corners of the room, all around, but said nothing. Again but louder the priest pointed at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"

Again the boy looked all around but said nothing. A third time, in a still louder and firmer voice, the priest leaned far across the desk and put his finger almost to the boy's nose. "Where is God?"

The boy panicked and ran all the way home. Finding his older brother, he dragged him upstairs to their room and into the closet. He quickly said, "We are in big trouble!" The older boy asked, "What do you mean, big trouble?" His brother replied, "God is missing, and they think we did it!"

02 February, 2011

Flight Club

Wednesday Without Words


Tivoli Gardens, København
June 2003
Digital photograph
Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Brown