Friday, September 23, 2005

Paying for Katrina by attacking knowledge and culture

The website Inside Higher Ed reported briefly today on "a document, released Wednesday by Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives, that lays out potential cuts Congress might make in the federal budget to free up funds to pay for the huge job of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars."

The House Republicans gave their plan the military-sounding name "Operation Offset" and described "$929 billion in possible cuts over 10 years". Amazingly, some of their proposals are not only attacks on the essential public support of knowledge production and cultural production which otherwise slip through the cracks of "market failure," but also seem to fly in the face of the whole point of rebuilding the Gulf Coast -- and New Orleans especially -- in a responsible, functional, sustainable manner. Some examples:

$840 million a year, or $8.6 billion over 10 years, in subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate students. The document says that most financially needy graduate students are likely to have had government help as undergraduates, and that they "make an informed decision to invest in their own futures and should bare [sic] the costs of schooling."

$722 million over 10 years for the Leveraging Educational Assistance Program, which provides federal matching funds to state need-based aid programs. LEAP is no longer necessary, the Republican panel argues, because "almost all states operate programs far larger than the federal contributions."

$2 billion over 10 years for the National Science Foundation's Math and Science Program, which the committee argues duplicates Education Department efforts to prepare teachers and develop instructional materials.

So, presented with a stark depiction of structural and racially-linked poverty in New Orleans, the ignorance and apathy toward which help turned a manageable and forseeable disaster into a human tragedy, these lawmakers would like to pull money from graduate, need-based, and mathematics education. Because of course education does not at all help people lift themselves out of poverty, right?

About $3.8 billion over 10 years by ending federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. The panel argues that "the general public benefits very little" from the two agencies, and that they could be "easily be funded by private donations."

So, after lamenting the loss of New Orleans because of its cultural importance to the nation and the globe, we end all federal funding of cultural production, because such production has so little benefit for the general public?

$6.5 billion over 10 years from withdrawing federal aid to the AmeriCorps and other national service programs.

Given the clear service needs in New Orleans -- and opportunities for providing poor youth with job skills and education funding by bringing them into service programs -- this one makes my head swim.

And finally,

$1 billion over 10 years for the Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results Program, which provides graduate fellowships and grants for environmental researchers. The program is "duplicative" of other federal research efforts, the panel says.

Yes, we certainly wouldn't want an oversupply of envionmental researchers to tell us about the toxic flooding, loss of wetlands, climate change, and human-environment interactions of urban growth that clearly, absolutely, had nothing to do with the plight of the Gulf Coast under Katrina in the first place.

Alright, apologies for the snide tone of some of these responses, but seriously, how about if we pay for putting the devastated areas and lives of Hurricane Katrina back together by asking American individuals and corporations to pay for it through progressive taxation tied to wealth, seeing as we all as American citizens and firms have a clear economic and social interest in keeping this part of the country productive, vibrant, and safe?

Or maybe we should simply reign in the spending on certain military operations and no-bid defense contracts with "little benefit to the general public". But that's another story.

The commodification of knowledge (and knowledge work) via Google

A short article in the New York Times this week discusses the "Google Answers" service where users ask a question, propose a fee for the answering of that question, and await an answer from self-styled experts who (presumably) use Google to find the answer. Google of course gets a cut of the e-bay-like transaction:

When David Sarokin finishes his day job as an environmental scientist in Washington, he heads home to a second batch of questions. He is one of several hundred humans who work for Google, answering questions from users who aren't satisfied with their results from the automated engine that made Google famous.

The queries that users bring to Google Answers ( touch on all parts of life, but they usually cannot be reduced to a few keywords. One incoming freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., for instance, asked for help finding a parking spot near campus. A stargazer asked the name of the two planets rising early in the northwest sky, and a homeowner wanted a "romantic and literary" name for a new house.

Google Answers is one of several services creating an online commons for impromptu research., for example, markets the services of traditional professionals like tax lawyers and computer technicians. And some sites, like, maintain a no-fee exchange of questions and answers - though tipping is permitted.

On Google Answers, Mr. Sarokin scans the list of new questions frequently and chooses those he feels he can answer. In some cases he uses his scientific background, but in others he just relies on a well-honed talent as a general researcher.

"We get questions both merely odd, and others pretty incomprehensible, and I tend to steer clear of both," he said. "But now and then, I can't resist."

The oddest of all, he says, had him trying to determine what female vampires wear and "how to defend oneself, as the questioner felt the need to do so would soon arise."

For this answer, Mr. Sarokin received 75 percent of the $4 that the questioner paid Google. The questioner sets the price, and the researchers must decide whether the fee merits the time they are likely to invest in providing an answer.

The questions stay active for 30 days, and the user can increase the fee if no one seems interested. If the answer is excellent, a questioner can add a tip not shared with Google - a practice that about three-quarters seem to follow, according to one survey by the researchers.

Mr. Sarokin once earned $120 for researching the need for a scientific expedition floating in the pack ice in the Arctic. Another effort brought $25 for turning up data on the number of computer crimes committed in 2004. Google imposes a cap of $200 on the fee, and it is not uncommon for people to offer the maximum if they need the answer quickly and want to grab the attention of the researchers.

Colin Colby, the Bates freshman who needed a parking space near campus, said he was happy to pay $200 for an answer that came within 72 hours with the name of a woman who had parking spaces to rent.

The interesting thing to me is how such a service, if it became popular (which, in all honesty, I kind of doubt), would affect the other specialized services that Google is engaged in -- such as "Google Scholar" which attempts to return web resources that have only been produced through the peer-reviewed, corporate-academic research process. Or the new Google attempt to digitize all of the print materials in the University of Michigan library (among others) and provide an indexable search to their contents (but not their copyrighted contents themselves) to web-seekers. Might these bits of Google-mediated information be assigned a dollar value through the Google engine as well?

We have a long tradition of subsidizing expert information-seekers for the benefit of all, without regard to ability to pay, in our society -- the library reference desk is a prime example. We also have a long tradition of relying on trained experts -- like, say, an engaged and inquisitive press -- to seek out socially-useful answers. Have these committments and expectations evaporated? What about the expectation that public education and university education will train individuals to use tools -- like libraries, and newspapers, and, yes, Google itself, for crying out loud -- to ask and answer important questions for themselves? Would broad popularity of, and endemic reliance upon, "Google Answers" undermine such efforts?

Dystopian or utopian scenario, depending on your positionality: Will the next generation of Google-groomed university students begin to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of classes they attend, based on the Google-market value of the facts that they learn there? Will chastened university research review committees find that they have to evaluate a faculty member's market-based output in facts and trivia, as calculated through the Google filter, in making a case for tenure? Or will state legislatures abandon even more of their funding role for public education and research, claiming that teachers at all levels should act as entrepreneurs, selling piecewage facts, figures, and parables over Google-affiliated school web sites in order to supplement sub-minimum-wage salaries?

OK, maybe I'm having a science-fiction moment here. But the question I'm trying to illustrate (if not "answer") is -- how do information valuing and commodification practices in one area of social/political/economic life affect the commodification and valuing of information labors in other areas of social/political/economic life? Answer me that, Google.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Universities are not businesses (updated)

A blurb in Inside Higher Ed today mentions a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy entitled "Is Outsourcing Part of the Solution to the Higher Education Cost Dilemma: A Preliminary Examination". Apparently the report finds that privatizing some of the "business" functions of college and university institutions is common, but that on the other hand, privatizing "core" knowledge-production and -dissemination functions is rare, citing "the significant barriers that exist to outsourcing any areas at the core of what higher education does: teaching, research and public service."

In addition to the concerns that exist about outsourcing in any setting lack of control, possible declines in quality and customer satisfaction, and blows to employee morale college and university officials are particularly wary of perceived damage to the sense of institutional culture and community, the report says.

"Colleges and universities simply have different ways of getting things done than businesses," it says. "In addition to encouraging, indeed mandating, a consensus approach to decision making, the protection of shared governance and academic freedom is paramount. In short, a major barrier to outsourcing in higher education is the very essence of the organization."

As one place where "shared governance" (direct-democratic decision making) and "academic freedom" (freedom of thought, speech, belief, research, and activism, especially when any of these represent a minority concern as compared to mainstream society) are still valued, instead of asking "why doesn't the university run more like a business?" I wonder what the university as an institution of democracy and freedom can teach other knowledge-production and knowledge-dissemination professions, from software development to journalism, librarianship to law.

Update 21 Sep 2005: Today the same Inside Higher Ed site has an interview with the authors of a new book entitled Remaking the American University (Rutgers University Press), in which the authors mentioned what they thought the "most worrisome" current trend in higher education was:

What worries us most is that universities and colleges have become so preoccupied with succeeding in a world of markets that they too often forget the need to be places of public purpose as well. We are serious in arguing that universities and colleges must be both market smart and mission centered. Not surprisingly, then, we are troubled by how often today institutions allow their pursuit of market success to undermine core elements of their missions: becoming preoccupied with collegiate rankings, surrendering to an admissions arms race, chasing imagined fortunes through impulsive investments e-learning, or conferring so much importance on athletics as to alter the character of the academic community on campus.

By far the most troublesome consequence of markets displacing mission, though, is the reduced commitment of universities and colleges to the fulfillment of public purposes. More than ever before, these institutions are content to advance graduates merely in their private, individual capacities as workers and professionals. In the rush to achieve market success, what has fallen to the wayside for too many institutions is the concept of educating students as citizens — graduates who understand their obligations to contribute to the collective well-being as active participants in a free and deliberative society. In the race for private advantage, market success too often becomes a proxy for mission attainment.

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lawmaker explores curtailing democracy in the information workplace

Here in Wisconsin, our flagship state research university is a public relations mess. Various "scandals" involving a handful of academic professionals who are being investigated for behavior which might lead to their demotion or dismissal have apparently been used as a way to legitimize cutting university funding, increasing student tuition, and refusing to deal with organized teaching assistants fairly at the bargaining table, from my point of view. Nevermind that any organization as large as the University of Wisconsin university system is bound to have some regular personnel problems, and nevermind that as a publicly-accountable and (somewhat) publicly-funded organization, the University's systems for dealing with these problems tend to be more just and transparent than you would ever find at a private, for-profit, capitalist corporation. Somehow at least one state legislator is questioning whether the University's deliberative, democratic decision-making structure might be the core problem here, according to a Capital Times article:

The state might want to consider stripping the University of Wisconsin faculty's statutory right to share in the governance of the university, a top lawmaker said.

Faculty and academic staff have long had the right to participate in the policymaking process at the university. That right is more than just an administrative rule; it is enshrined in state law.

But Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz, R-Menomonee Falls, said the faculty's right to shape university policy could be an obstacle to making important changes to the university's employment practices. Lawmakers and university officials are conducting a wide-ranging discussion about such controversial practices as offering backup positions and keeping felons on the payroll. Faculty will need to be consulted if changes to such practices are to be made.

Shared governance rules also allow faculty the right to be represented on search committees for deans and top administrators, and committees examining important university issues, like the production of UW logo clothing with sweatshop labor.

I'm constantly amazed at how those very people charged -- and entrusted -- by the public to uphold democracy are so quick to try to squelch democratic representation and decision-making processess in any institution besides their own -- whether that's the neighborhood councils of Baghdad or the union halls of Milwaukee. Those who favor "running government like a business" seem to forget that business is inherently non-democratic: decisions are made by a select few, based either on hierarchical bureaucratic position or on ownership rights, not on proportional representation or on contribution to the value and profit produced by the firm. I certainly hope our university administration stands up against accusations that faculty participation in policymaking is somehow an "obstacle" to improving the university. Faculty -- along with academic and support staff and graduate students -- ARE the university. The fact that we produce knowledge and knowledge-workers, and not retail commodities, puts us in the rare and privileged position of having some measure of control over the conditions of that production. We need to stand up for that control and advocate that more institutions, not fewer, follow the model we set.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Libraries and risk management and vulnerable populations

I'm angry at the apparent incompetence and indifference from officials at all levels of power which has resulted in the most vulnerable social segment of the population of the city of New Orleans being treated like animals, or criminals, or worse. I didn't think this weblog would be the proper place to vent my own tears on this issue, until I was forwaraded a note about how the American Library Association has a web page devoted to its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Many of these notices list efforts to find out if library personnel, library buildings, and library holdings have survived flood, wind, and fire damage. But some are of a different nature. For example:

Here in Calcasieu Parish we have had many hurricane evacuees coming to our libraries throughout the parish to use our internet computers. Yesterday we collected and dropped off donated books and magazines at the civic center Red Cross shelter and opened up a computer lab in our downtown meeting room for the exclusive use of evacuees (it is within walking distance of the civic center). Every branch is reporting waiting lines for using the public computers. Staff have created a web page with links for the evacuees and are constantly updating it. Reference staff at the various libraries are gathering and distributing information to evacuees in their communities. Children’s librarians are setting up story programs with the Red Cross.

Such efforts from the non-profit information professions -- as with efforts announced by midwestern state universities that they would provide spaces for students and faculty displaced from their Gulf Coast homes, jobs, and schools -- are heartening in the face of so much state mismanagement and chaos, especially with regard to the largely poor and largely African-American citizens still -- days later! -- fending for themselves in the former city of New Orleans. I can't help but wonder, though, what might have happened differently if local information agencies like public libraries -- or public schools, community centers, and the like -- had been involved beforehand in emergency planning and preparedness processes. For example

(1) These are agencies which are best positioned to "get the word out" to local residents about evacuation routes, contingency plans, weather warnings, basic survival tools, and the like;

(2) These are agencies which know best the literacy and education and mobility level of their local publics and can help emergency management officials craft messages and outreach strategies that actually reach and affect their target audiences; and

(3) These are agencies with longstanding storage, transport, and information-communication networks of their own which may be quickly mobilized in the event of emergency.

What would happen if public library managers around the country, in both large urban and small rural library systems, took on a "homeland security" role as well? What would happen if some of the programming in public libraries included disaster education, risk awareness, and community asset inventories? What would happen if libraries took seriously the notion that not just printed and magnetic media, but community experience as embodied in local institutions, organizations, households, and leaders represented the "informational capital" which they were held responsible to preserve and distribute?

Maybe if someone had asked a day-to-day working librarian in New Orleans for input on the city, state, and federal emergency "plans" which have evidently failed so miserably, that librarian would have been able to answer: "There are lots of people in this city who don't have cars, who don't follow storm predictions on the Internet, who don't have the literacy skills to read FEMA forms, who don't have the economic resources to afford flood insurance, or who for any number of reasons simply won't be able leave their homes, their families, and their lives in this city during an emergency unless you are able to come and get them and treat them with the respect they deserve, right now."

P.S. On a related note, here's the Craigslist for Katrina aid, a novel example of Web-based emergency response (hope it turns out to be useful to some). I'm assuming you know how to get to the sites for Red Cross, America's Second Harvest and the like if you have money to donate.