College Crack-Up

There was rioting on the University of California campus at Berkeley earlier this week — the worst kind of rioting.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-10-43-55-am-1024x682A protest was planned to try to stop a speech that was to be given by a conservative figure named Milo Yiannopoulos, and according to the University, “150 masked agitators” came onto campus to turn the protest into a riot.  During the ensuing melee, two UC Berkeley students who happened to be Republicans were attacked while giving an interview, a suit-wearing student was pepper-sprayed and beaten with a rod because a protester through he “looked like a Nazi,” the mob threw Molotov cocktails and commercial grade fireworks at police and smashed windows, and the riot ultimately caused $100,000 worth of damage to the campus.  Oh, yeah — the college cancelled the speech by Yiannopoulos and spirited him off campus “amid the violence and destruction of property and out of concern for public safety.”

So, the protest that turned into a riot achieved its ultimate goal of preventing a speech by a right-wing guy who consciously strives to be provocative and whose perspective many people find vile and hateful.  It’s not clear whether all of the protesters/rioters were there out of concern about Yiannopoulos’ views — UC administrators believe that some of the people who came to the protest from off campus were with a local anarchist group called “Black Bloc” that has been causing problems in Oakland for years and that may have just been looking for an excuse to pelt police and bust some glass — but the outcome is not a good one for those who believe in free speech, even if the speech is by someone whose views are appalling.  According to a piece written by a UC student, some of the students on campus are wondering whether the violence was justified because a peaceful protest would not have succeeded in preventing Yiannopoulos’ speech.   If that view is widespread, the Berkeley incident sends exactly the wrong message:  violence works if you are looking to prevent speech by someone you oppose.  That attitude should send a shudder through the administrative offices of colleges across the land.

I think UC-Berkeley botched this whole process.  It’s time for colleges to get back to being places that tolerate all kinds of speech and that recognize that the response to disagreeable speech — even the most vile, toxic, hateful speech — is not riots, but more speech in opposition.  Rather than breaking windows, how about “teach-ins” by professors who disagree with Yiannopoulos’ views and can respond to his remarks and his approach, after Yiannopoulos is allowed to say whatever he intends to say?  That’s what would have happened on the OSU campus when I was a student back in the ’70s.

Riots should never be tolerated, but riots that are a conscious effort to quash free speech are especially wrong.  Colleges need to stiffen their spines and make sure that the rights of all speakers are respected and protected.

The Incredible Shrinking Lantern

I was in the OSU campus area yesterday, and the security desk for the building I was in had a small stack of papers on it.  I glanced at them and saw that the flag on the front page said “The Lantern.”

Wait a second . . . this is now the Lantern, the Ohio State University newspaper?

When I attended the OSU School of Journalism in the late ’70s, the Lantern was a full-sized, broadsheet newspaper published five days a week.  It carried pages of national and campus news, had an editorial and op-ed page, and multi-page sports and arts sections.  The paper was chock full of display ads and had a lengthy classified ad section, too.

The current edition of the Lantern is far removed from those days of yore.  It’s now the same size as those free shopper publications that people are always annoyingly leaving on your doorstep, and the copy I picked up was only 8 pages long.  Eight pages!  There was no editorial page, only a handful of display ads, and all of five classified ads.  The guy who was the business manager of the Lantern in the old days, whose sales force kept the paper filled with ads and classifieds, must be shaking his head in disbelief.

I know many newspapers have fallen on tough times, but I had no idea how significantly the Lantern had been affected — and diminished.  It made me wistful and sad.

Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.  For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

Long’s Gone

When you get older, you come to accept the inevitability that things you remember from your youth — whether it is TV shows, favorite athletes, failed breakfast cereals, or brands of beer — will vanish into the mists of time.

mt_long_book_demo_fs_3Still, it was weird to see recent photos of demolition equipment tearing down Long’s college bookstore, across the street from the OSU campus.  When I attended Ohio State back in the ’70s, Long’s was as much a part of the University as the Orton Hall chimes.

Everyone who went to Ohio State — and that covers a lot of people — stopped into Long’s, or its nearby competitor, SBX, to buy their textbooks.  Students would take their course syllabi, scan for the required texts, and then head to Long’s to get the books.  It was a crammed yet sprawling, ramshackle store that also sold OSU fan gear and therefore attracted a good crowd of Buckeye fans, which just added to the hustle and bustle of the place.

At Long’s you would learn that your college professors often wrote the textbooks for the courses they taught . . . and that the texts seemed to carry an awfully high price tag compared to some of the other books available.  But, what could you do?  It was a required text, and how in the world could you expect to pass the course if you didn’t have one?  Experienced students learned that it paid to get to the bookstores early, because with luck you could find a reasonably used copy of the text at a much lower price.  And then, at the end of the quarter — for it was quarters, not semesters, back in those days — you would resell your books to Long’s or SBX for pennies on the dollar.  Why?  Because it was a buyer’s market, and no college student wanted their apartment cluttered with texts from Philosophy 101 or Poli Sci 265, and you’d rather get a few bucks that you could spend on beer and pizza.  It’s not like you were ever going to read a textbook again, anyway.

In this simple way, Long’s taught naive OSU students some valuable lessons.  Buy low, sell high.  Brace yourself for a gouging.  And understand that the world isn’t fair.

Those are some pretty enduring life lessons, when you think about it.

Battle Of The Buffets

I’ve written before about Indian Oven, one of my very favorite restaurants in Columbus.  It’s a great place that serves top-notch Indian food, and I always get the same order when I go there for lunch — lamb korma, medium plus on the spice level — because it’s just so darned good.

imag0415Recently, however, I deviated from the time-honored norm.  The Jersey Girl, who also tends to get precisely the same order at IO, and I decided to break out of our ruts and issue each other the IO Buffet Challenge.  After all, most of the people who go to Indian Oven for lunch tend to have the buffet.  It’s not like it’s that big of a deal.

But for me, it kind of was a big deal.  To be blunt, I really detest buffets on general principle.  Perhaps it’s because I have an instinctive aversion to sneeze guards, or because I think food should be served hot, or cold, but not sit there at or near room temperature.  Maybe it’s because, at many buffets, the food has a distinctly pawed over look, or it has turned crusty under the beating glare of the warming lamps.  And then there’s the lingering issue of buffet gluttony, which causes otherwise normal people to load their plates with absurd quantities of food to make the buffet bargain an even better deal.  I’ll take the portion control of a regular entree any day.

Actually, the ability to eat obscene quantities of food mightily influenced the last two times I remember actually enjoying a buffet.  Both happened during the college years.  One time my friend Snow and I were starving and went to the Swedish Buffet near campus, where I recall eating approximately four dozen Swedish meatballs and drinking a gallon of milk to compensate for the resulting salt intake before leaving with a satisfied groan.  The other incident occurred when I was working at Alpine Village, a resort in Lake George, New York, and my fellow co-workers and I learned that an establishment across the border in Vermont was offering an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet with real lobster.  We didn’t eat anything one day, then drove over en masse and gorged ourselves on lobster, crab, oysters and steamed clams while the proprietor glared at us in hopes we would leave before his profits vanished in a flurry of cracked lobster shells.

But the days of going somewhere specifically to cram myself with food are long gone, and with them went any desire to make a pig of myself at a buffet . . . or for that matter, to eat any buffet food, period.  Not surprisingly, then, I approached the IO buffet with some natural trepidation born of prior buffet unpleasantness — but a challenge, once issued, cannot be retracted.

So the Jersey Girl and I tried the IO buffet, sampling the different options while attempting to maintain some semblance of consumption decorum.  And you know what?  It was good.  In fact, it was great.  The offerings were hot and fresh, and I got a chance to sample some things I hadn’t tried before.  I shouldn’t be surprised, because the food at Indian Oven is always of excellent quality — but then I was going against decades of contrary experiences.

Since the day of the Buffet Challenge, though, I’ve gone back to the lamb korma lunch order.  Old anti-buffet instincts die hard.

Student Loan Scofflaws

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 43 percent of the people who have borrowed money from the federal government’s principal student loan programs aren’t making payments or are behind on meeting their debt obligations.  The people comprising that 43 percent collectively owe the federal government more than $200 billion.

The figures are stark, and staggering.  3.6 million people who are out of school and in the workforce are in default on their loans — which means they haven’t made a payment in a year.  Another 3 million people are delinquent on their payments, which means they’re at least one month late but not yet a year behind, and another 3 million have received permission to postpone their payments because of some kind of financial emergency.

studentloandebt070313_0The federal government is trying to figure out why payments aren’t being made, and some consumer groups are contending that debt services aren’t letting the troubled borrowers know about available payment options.  Three realities, though, seem pretty clear.

First, many of the people who thought getting a college degree, any college degree, would be the ticket to financial security have learned that they were wrong.  Whatever their major or career plans, there just aren’t enough good jobs out there to allow them to repay their loans.  Second, the feds do virtually nothing to determine whether student loan borrowers are good credit risks — they don’t typically perform credit checks, require co-signers, or evaluate whether the borrower’s intended course of study or capabilities make repayment likely.  And third, once you’re out of college and trying to make it on your own, your student loan debt is the lowest of the debt priorities, behind your home loan, your car loan, and your credit card debt.  What’s the federal government going to do, repossess that diploma that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on?

It’s not clear whether the federal government’s experience is true for all student loan debt.  If so, that’s a troublesome fact, because the WSJ article also notes that there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt, car loan debt, and any other kind of consumer loan debt.  Student loan borrowers collectively owe $1.2 trillion.  If almost half of the federal borrowers aren’t making their payments, will the same thing happen to that enormous pool of debt?

Politicians love to talk about how everybody should go to college and the federal government should help them do so by making loans available.  That siren song sounds good, but the reality is more uncomfortable.  Readily available student loans have just allowed colleges to jack up their tuitions, and college degrees aren’t a guarantee of a good career and financial success.  College isn’t necessarily for everyone, and struggling students aren’t going to benefit from borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to scrape by and get a degree in a major that isn’t in demand in the economy.   And broken windows theory would tell us that it’s not doing America any good to have a growing body of millions of people who aren’t paying their debts.

Don’t Vex About Sex Or Guess About “Yes”

There’s been a lot of activity lately, in the legislative arena and on college campuses, about what constitutes consent to sexual activity.

In California, colleges must require “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” and consent can be communicated through a verbal agreement or through actions.  Consent must be given at every step, so agreement to kissing or “heavy petting” is not consent to actual intercourse.  The underlying idea, of course, is to ensure that all parties to the sexual activity agree to move forward before matters escalate.

nastroeniya-devushka-paren-6966But if you’re concerned about complying with state law while at the same time wanting to be absolutely sure that no one will claim that you’ve exceeded the boundaries of their consent, how do you memorialize the consent in a way that will hold up?  Do you draft up a written agreement, or try to make a recording?  What are college students supposed to have at hand when passion strikes?

Leave it to a Mom to develop a smartphone app that attempts to solve the dilemma by allowing the participants to the contemplated sexual activity to log their consent.  With the “Yes to Sex” app on their phones, students can access the app when the moment arrives, walk through their agreements through the touch of a button, get a “safe word” to use when they want their partner to stop, and record an audio consent — all of which gets stored on encrypted servers in the event a disagreement arises in the future.

I guess it was inevitable that we would get to the point where people would be using their phones to document, in a legally meaningful way, that they’re engaging in sex by mutual consent.  Why not?  Phones are used for everything else these days.  Why stop at selfies?