The GOP war on higher education: a running tally (updated)

My apologies that I continue to go on about Republican attacks on higher education, but it really has become clear now that this is a major goal of 2015 for the GOP: weaken and/or destroy public universities as much as possible.  I’ll use this post to keep a running list.

  • North Carolina Senate Bill 593.  This is the bill discussed in the open letter that I previously blogged.  In short, Senator Tom McInnis has proposed that all state university professors be forced to teach a 4/4 course load.  If strictly implemented as proposed, it would kill all graduate programs throughout the state.  One wonders if this is even possible: there simply aren’t that many courses available to teach, as on average this would require doubling or tripling teachers’ courses.  But this brings us to another aspect of the bill: professors who don’t teach the full 4/4 load will have their pay cut proportionally, which makes this bill a rather unsubtle way to slash faculty pay.  Unsurprisingly, this bill is not advocated by anyone who cares about higher education, but is enthusiastically supported by the right-wing “Pope Center for Higher Education,” whose goals include “Increase the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus.”  Translation: “Force more discredited right-wing ideas on campus.” Unsurprisingly, this think-tank is supported by Art Pope, the billionaire who bought himself a conservative legislature in NC.
  • University of Wisconsin $300 million budget cut.  The truly horrible Governor Scott Walker has slashed $300 million from the University of Wisconsin’s state funding over the next two years, a stunning 13 percent reduction.  This is expected to produce hundreds of layoffs and sure as hell won’t make education any better.  It doesn’t even make economic sense: a recent study showed that every dollar spent on UW-Madison produces $24 for the economy.  These cuts are apparently not even necessary, considering that Walker is planning to spend $500 million on a pro-basketball stadium.  Walker has his own billionaire benefactors in the Koch brothers, who supported his election and reelection campaigns and now enthusiastically endorse him for President.
  • Iowa universities become the “Hunger Games.”  Just brought to my attention yesterday, Senate File 64 in Iowa, proposed by Republican Mark Chelgren, would force minimum teaching loads on all professors as well, though not as severely as in NC.  Even worse, however, is that it would allow tenured professors to be fired by students, as the lowest 5 ranking professors in teaching evaluations would have their jobs put up for a vote by said students.  This bill has immediately been renamed by astute critics as the “Everyone gets an A” bill.  You see, this bill would give students the power to blackmail teachers into giving them good grades, and would destroy the quality of education.  Learning is hard, and it will often make students unhappy.  Teaching evaluations, in general, measure the happiness of students, not how much they’ve actually learned.  I suspect that this bill is also just a barely-disguised way to weaken tenure at public universities and make faculty fearful and quiet.  As the Senate is Democratically-controlled right now, I’m hoping this bill will die a quick and painful death.
  • Union busting in Ohio.  Proposed by GOP Representative Ryan Smith, Substitute House Bill 64 will bar faculty at public universities from unionizing. Lots of states — NC included — already have laws on the book prohibiting public sector unions, but Ohio has thankfully avoided that fate until now.  So what’s the big deal?  Well, eliminating the right to unionize cripples the ability of the faculty to respond to other attacks on their jobs and the quality of education in their institutions.  This is likely the first attempt to “soften up” the institutions before a full-fledged attack begins.
  • Privatize everything in Illinois.  Republican Senator Bill Brady has proposed privatizing the entire public university system in Illinois, converting state appropriations ($1.2 billion indirect appropriations) to the university into student grants.  It’s hard to imagine this resulting in anything other than increased tuition for students and overall increased costs for the university system.
  • Bankrupting Louisiana’s university system.  As just reported yesterday as of this writing, many if not most of Louisiana’s public colleges may be forced into what is effectively bankruptcy conditions.  The conservative legislators seem utterly unwilling to do anything that might make up the financial shortfall, such as (gasp!) reduce tax credits or raise taxes on the wealthy.  This seems like a plan of death by inaction.  As noted in the linked article, “The status makes it easier for public colleges to shut down programs and lay off tenured faculty, but it also tarnishes the school’s reputation, making it harder to recruit faculty and students.”

What am I missing?  Let me know if there are other major attacks on public education in the United States.

Posted in ... the Hell?, Politics | 2 Comments

An open letter to NC State Senator Tom McInnis

Dear Senator McInnis,

I recently read with some concern, first in The Daily Tarheel and then on Slate, about your proposed Senate bill 593, ironically titled “An act to improve the quality of instruction at the constituent 3 institutions of the University of North Carolina.”  This “improvement” would come by forcing all university faculty, whether at an undergraduate or graduate institution, to teach a full 4/4 load of courses during the academic year, 4 courses in the Fall, 4 in the Spring.

Let me get right to the point: this bill would do exact the opposite of what it claims, and would quite rapidly end quality education in the UNC system.  In fact, it is quite accurate to say that there really won’t be a university system at all in North Carolina if this bill were passed and its plan implemented.

It is hard not to see this as a direct and punitive attack on the university system and the faculty and staff who work hard to run it.  The recent removal of Tom Ross as President of the UNC system was widely seen by most faculty as the beginning of an attempt to weaken and dilute higher education in our state.  Even our Governor has made no secret of his disdain for higher education, and once stated his view that universities should be no more than vocational schools.  More recently, Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has been targeted for closure, along with several other centers. This last action is clearly a direct attack, as the center does not even receive direct state funding, operates on a minimal budget, and directly serves the needs of North Carolina.

However, let me be charitable* and assume that your bill was not sponsored out of partisan ideology, but out of genuine ignorance concerning the amount of work, and the type of work, that university professors actually do.  I would like there to be no misunderstanding, so that your motives in the end, if this bill passes, will be clear to everyone.

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A one-act play about a study in hiring practices in STEM

Scene: A table at Starbucks

Man #1, a wealthy benefactor
Man #2, an enlightened guy

Man #1: Let me ask you a hypothetical question: given the choice, would you rather have world peace or a billion dollars?

Man #2: Oh, world peace, of course!  It would end the suffering of so many.

Man #1: Well, it turns out that I have a billion dollars on hand.  I can either give it to you, or I can spend that billion on world peace initiatives.  What do you think?

Man #2: Hmm… give me the money.  I trust myself to make better “world peace” decisions than you would.



A recent study, published in PNAS, suggests that sexism in science and engineering hiring is over, or even reversed, with women favored over men.  From the abstract:

National randomized experiments and validation studies were conducted on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, engineering, economics, and psychology at 371 universities/colleges from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. In the main experiment, 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., single without children, married with children).

The problem, for me: if you question people on their hypothetical preferences for hiring, it seems obvious to me that you’ll get very different answers than what you’d get in an actual hiring process.  Hence the one-act play above.

In a hypothetical, a person can give whatever answer makes them or others perceive them in the best light, since there are no real-world consequences for the choice.

A nice detailed discussion of perceived problems with this study is given at Other Sociologist.

Posted in ... the Hell?, General science, Women in science | 1 Comment

One more anecdote about Kathleen Lonsdale

My last post hardly scratched the surface of Kathleen Lonsdale’s amazing life & career. Before moving on to other topics, I can’t help but share one more cool story about her from her biographical memoir, which incidentally is free to read online after a free registration.  I have noted that Lonsdale was an anti-war activist, and that she traveled the world in her lifetime both for work and activism.  From the memoir:

In no country that she visited did she receive a more moving welcome than in Japan.  She found when she arrived that so many flowers had been sent to her they filled every room in the small hotel in which she was staying.  She discovered that it had been reported in the papers that she had gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb.  This incorrect statement naturally worried her.  She immediately had the report corrected saying that, of course, she would have gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb, but nobody had, in fact, asked her to do so.  The result of this announcement was that more flowers came in than ever.  They had to be stood in buckets all down the street.

And with that, I’ll leave Kathleen Lonsdale alone and move on to other topics!

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Kathleen Lonsdale: Master of Crystallography

In recent years, there has been a wonderful explosion of interest in the often-neglected historical women of science, and more information is available than ever before about the lives and achievements of these women.  Nevertheless, there are still some truly accomplished women of science who have not received as much attention as they deserve. This post is a small attempt to rectify this in the case of Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), an Irish crystallographer who made fundamental contributions in her field and had influence far beyond, including socially and politically.

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Posted in History of science, Women in science | 1 Comment

My favorite “classic” horror stories

Even though I blog about horror fiction of all eras, regular readers of this blog know that I particularly love older stuff.  There’s something about the ghost and horror stories of the late 1800s and early 1900s that is particularly compelling, and so many classic and timeless tales came out of that era.  I was recently pondering those classic stories, and thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of my favorites, as far as I can remember.

Such a list is necessarily incomplete, and constantly changing: I’m sure I’ll remember a handful of other stories as soon as I post this!  I limit myself to stories that are readily available to read online, so that I’m not a terrible tease.

I’ll start with a simple list of the stories, with links, and then say a bit more about each of them with significant spoilers afterwards.  IF YOU DON’T WANT THINGS SPOILED, READ THE STORIES BEFORE READING MY DESCRIPTIONS! I’ve put the earliest definite date of publication for each story, though several of them may have first appeared several years earlier.

  1. The Upper Berth, F. Marion Crawford (1894).
  2. How Love Came to Professor Guildea, Robert Hichens (1900).
  3. Lukundoo, Edward Lucas White (1927).
  4. Confession, Algernon Blackwood (1921).
  5. The Whisperer in Darkness, H.P. Lovecraft (1931).
  6. Afterward, Edith Wharton (1910).
  7. Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, M.R. James (1904).
  8. The Dead Valley, Ralph Adams Cram (1895).
  9. Mysterious Maisie, Wirt Gerarre (1895).
  10. The Shadows on the Wall, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1903).
  11. The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe (1842).
  12. The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs (1902).
  13. A Night at an Inn, Lord Dunsany (1916).

Hey — that’s 13 total! A good number!

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#365 papers, part 4!

I’ve joined a group of folks on Twitter who have vowed to read roughly a paper a day for an entire year, and will summarize my reading here occasionally.  Part 1 can be read here, part 2 can be read here, and part 3 can be read here.  Links are provided for those with university access who are interested in reading more.  These posts are a bit more technical than my usual fare, so feel free to ignore if you’re not an optics enthusiast! More fun stuff to come soon.

2/23: Circularly symmetric operation of a concentric‐circle‐grating, surface‐ emitting, AlGaAs/GaAs quantum‐well semiconductor laser, T. Erdogan, O. King, G.W. Wicks, D.G. Hall, E.H. Anderson and M.J. Rooks (1992).  I’ve been reading a lot about “vector beams” these past few weeks, in which the polarization of light either points radially from the center of the beam or circulates azimuthally around it.  This paper, which describes a new laser design with azimuthal polarized light, sparked the modern interest in such beams.

2/24: Focusing of high numerical aperture cylindrical vector beams, K.S. Youngworth and T.G. Brown (2000).  So what good are “vector beams,” that possess unusual polarization? This paper, combining theory and experiment, noted how radial beams produce a strong longitudinal electric field at focus, which can be used to accelerate charged particles.

2/25: The electric and magnetic polarization singularities of paraxial waves, M.V. Berry (2004).  I’ve been extensively studying the “polarization singularities” of light for my chapter on the subject in my singular optics book.  Basically, points in a field where light is circularly polarized may be considered “singular” and distinct from other points.  This paper is one in a long set of articles studying the properties of such singularities.

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