February 25, 2010

Did CEPOS Lie or are they Incompetent?

After the American Century

The Danish "liberal Think Tank" Cepos has been spending time and money in the United States spreading dis-information about the Danish wind industry. They falsely claim that less than 10 percent of Danish electricity comes from wind power. The real figure is about double that. Other statements made by Cepos suggest they do not have a good grasp of the history of energy development and that they may not understand how energy markets work.

Readers should not trust the "facts and figures" that Cepos is distributing. Are they lying, or they are incompetent? Possibly they do not know the answer to this question themselves. Their "expert" on energy did not bother to present his argument to univestiy experts to get feedback. This is what people with respect for the truth usually do. But Cepos rushed their misinformation to the American news media. The goal apparently was to show that President Obama was wrong to praise Danish achievements in wind energy. (If Cepos really believed in the free market, they would not need to use their resources to attack windmills, because if they are right then wind power would lose out in competition with other alternatives.)

Why did Cepos take such an interest in attacking wind energy? What is their purpose? Why did they think they should spread misinformation about Denmark in the United States? Who are they really working for? This campaign of falsehoods would please Saudi Arabia, and it would be music in the ears of Fox News. Who is donating money to support Cepos? Any oil companies on the list?

If I were running Vestas, I would sue Cepos for willfully spreading false information about my business. If I were running the Paul Due Jensen Foundation, I might wonder if it was a good idea to give Cepos 1.875.000 kroner in 2007. I doubt that this foundation had any involvement with the Cepos smear campaign against wind power, but their annual report shows that they are a donor.

Another question is whether the Danish government, which often listens to policy ideas from Cepos, will distance themselves from this organization. The Danish government already has a poor record on global warming. after its poor handling of the Climate Summit in December. It has for years directly sponsored Bjorn Lomborg (not a scientist) and his Copenhagen Consensus, spending millions to undercut the work of scientists. Cepos attacks the wind industry; Lomborg attacks those worried about global warming.Is there a pattern here?

Something is rotten in Denmark, and it is not far from the political parties in power. Either they must publlically disagree with what Cepos  has done or they must appear to agree with them.
[If there was a public comment from the (now former) government, it failed to reach my ears.]

Additional comment January 7, 2012: Vestas has had poor sales in the 18 months after this campaign of disinformation, and its stock has fallen precipitously. Presumably CEPOS is delighted that it has done its part to weaken Danish exports and destroy the reputation of what had been a leading Danish company. 

February 23, 2010

New Minister of Research

After the American Century

Surely it is a sign of the times that the new minister of education in Denmark has been a key figure in setting up an educational amusement park. The size of ten football fields, Danfoss Universe (not University!) is for young people between the ages of about 6 and 15. It is dedicated to the proposition that education ought to be interactive fun. The attractions at Danfoss Universe appear to be aimed at future biologists, mathematicians, engineers, builders, planners, and scientists. 

The humanities and the arts do not seem important in Danfoss Universe. I may be mistaken as I have not been there, being a little older than the target group. I do qualify for entry to Danfoss Universe, fortunately, though full access to the attractions require one to be over 135 cm tall and weigh less than 117 kilograms. This suggests that persons like myself might still be welcome at the universities, though I presumaly ought to redesign my teaching to be more fun and interactive, and to use a host of new technologies. The Danfoss Universe webpage clearly indicates that the PC is old-fashioned and embraces digital telephones and other miniature devices. Until now I have (no doubt mistakenly) tried to keep students from using these things during class.

One other detail: the new Minister of Research failed to complete her BA and has no university degree of any kind.

Danfoss Universe may be fun and interactive and high tech, but it is hardly free. Admission is 175 kroner for one day (about $35 per adult), although children under 3 get in free. Surely one of the new minister's first steps will be to put in turnstiles and a ticket booth. If the same fees apply at the university, then Denmark will be charging tuition for the first time. Assuming students have classes (fun and interactive classes, of course) three times a week for 13 weeks, they would need to pay 6825 kroner per semester.Surely there ought to be fees for exams as well, bringing the cost up to perhaps 7500 dk, or 15000 per year, or 45000 kroner for the standard 3-year BA. 

Personally, I can hardly wait to be part of an interactive, fun universe of learning where the students like it so much they pay to come, instead of the silly system we have had until now where the high Danish taxes paid for university, which being free, was also at times a bit old-fashioned about teaching. Students were expected to read books rather than click on miniature screens, remember what they learned instead of looking it up on Goggle, and, in a pinch, be able to write without a spell-checker.  Now those (world's highest!!!!) high taxes can be used for something else. 

February 11, 2010

Getting Rid of Tenured Professors

After the American Century

The political project in Danish education for many years has apparently been to take as much power away from the faculty as possible. (Every change, of course, is made for the good of the university.)

The latest suggestion along these lines has been made by Malou Aamund, a 41-year old politician who has never had a university appointment and never published. It appears that she does not have an advanced degree. With her credentials, she could not be hired as even an assistant professor. Were she still working at IBM, her views would be of little interest. However she is now the education spokesperson for Venstre, the strongest party in the ruling coalition. She recommends that professors only receive their appointments for 10 years, after which they should be re-evaluated, and given at best five-year extensions.

Ms. Aamund proposes an evaluation that would require at least three other professors to stop their research for the equivalent of several weeks or perhaps a month to serve on a committee and read the publications and grant proposals of a senior scholar. Given academic specialization, it is extremely unlikely that any university will have two professors in precisely the same field. Even if they did, the two people would be so close that it would be best to get outsiders on the committee. It is likely that at least one, quite possibly two, of the members of such a committee would have to come from abroad and they would have to be paid well enough to make it attractive for them to do it, and in fact it might be quite difficult to find suitable people to fill such a committee. Such a review would be time-consuming and expensive.

There is second practical problem with this proposal. During the period just before and during an evaluation, the professor in question will not sit passively by, waiting to be approved. Rather, starting a year or two years before the review, he or she would go on the job market. Worse still, the stronger the professor's networks and credentials, the more likely he or she will be offered a new position abroad, where no such reviews take place. Some of the best people will leave, and at the same time the review system will make Denmark less attractive to top foreign scholars.

Denmark by itself cannot make the rules for the international academic world. Already many excellent Danish scholars are attracted to positions overseas where the research funding is better, the PhD students more plentiful, the libraries better, and political interference less common. Making a professor's job less secure will make an academic career less attractive in Denmark and weaken the nation's competitive position. Denmark does not make the rules. (Venstre ought to have learned that at the Climate Summit.) Getting rid of tenure by definition weakens Danish universities and makes them less attractive.

There is yet another problem. Holding a review after ten years and then every five years will create uncertainty in research groups, and quite possibly interfere with their proper functioning. Instead of assuming that the professor and associate professors are fully committed to the team and to the university, the whole group will suspect that colleagues may be looking for work and that they might take major grants to other institutions. Is such uncertainly, mutual suspicion, and disruption a price worth paying for mandatory reviews?

Ms. Aamund presumably means well. No doubt she wants to shake up the university and make sure there is no dead wood in the ranks. But her proposal is impractical, time-consuming, expensive, and very unlikely to achieve its announced goal. Instead of improving quality, it is likely to drive some of the best senior faculty away, create uncertainty among colleagues, and discourage the young from pursuing a university career.

Ms. Aamund and her counterparts in the Conservative Party (who want to make Associate professor jobs provisional as well) seem not to understand that giving faculty tenure saves society money. Why? Because if the university did not give tenure then it would have to compete in an open market to attract the very brightest people. Academics could just as easily have chosen another profession. They are each bright enough to enter several other fields. No one chooses the university because it pays better than law or insurance or just about anything else demanding a comparable education. Take away the possibility of tenure and few people will be willing to struggle through the uncertain early years of an academic career. Take away job security, in other words, and good academics will be hard to recruit or retain. It will become a more difficult market, and only paying better salaries all along the line will then attract and hold people. Having worked in business, Ms. Aamund should understand that.

One final point. Since I am myself a professor, one might assume these arguments are self-interested. But such is not really the case. I am far along on my career path, and if enacted these changes would not have much effect on me. Furthermore, I rather suspect I would pass any fair review, if it came to that. Instead, for me the proposed new system would likely be a bonanza. Universities can only ask professors to evaluate professors and there would be at least three needed to evaluate each candidate for renewal. If the system of reviews were expanded to the associate professors, then the extra work would really begin to pile up and to pay. In short, the review system in practice would almost certainly give more money to almost every one of the professors. That cannot be Ms. Aamund's intent.

February 10, 2010

The Ill-Equipped Danish University

After the American Century

I have been teaching full time since 1974. In all those years I have seldom found that the classroom equipment was up-to-date or that it could be counted upon to work. The only exceptions to that statement would be the University of Oviedo, Spain in 1977-78, when there was no classroom equipment of any kind, and Notre Dame University in Indiana in 2003, where everything imaginable was available, everything worked and a staff was on call to help and would arrive within 5 minutes if anything wasn't satisfactory. Between these two extremes, in an unhappy compromise, is my own university, which has badly placed screens, old powerpoint projectors, electrical connections that do not always work, different systems in different rooms, and a staff that can never be found or even spoken to on the phone in an emergency.

No one should labor under the illusion that Danish universities are well equipped with computers and the peripheral equipment to make the most of them. No one should imagine that they are at the level achieved in the US in 2005, for example. The occasion for writing this is that today I have five hours of teaching in a room where the equipment does not work, and clearly has been damaged. Since we are in the midst of a round of cutbacks, the situation will not get better soon.

So today, instead of showing my students nineteenth century American paintings, I will just talk about them. I will try to post the images later on Blackboard, but that, too, has not been working of late. Even when the images do get on line, students will view them alone and without class discussion.

As a historian of technology, I am hardly shocked that these machines do not work. But I am bemused that the Danish politicians still think they can hoodwink the public into believing that they have a world class university system, after systematically cutting it back.

Security is also a serious problem, as universities have inadequate safeguards against theft. Whole corridors are robbed of their computers at night, by thieves who clearly have master keys and entry cards with working codes. Worse yet, weeks after the break-ins, the locks remain unchanged and the computers are not replaced. It took me five weeks to get a new one in the office, which meant that I could not print anything, for example.

Since writing this, the situation has improved, but Denmark still lags.

February 06, 2010

Obama's Proposed Federal Budget Cuts for Education and Mass Transit

After the American Century

This is the first year that President Obama and his administration can be said to be fully responsible for the budget proposal. Last year they had just started, and there was little time to dig deeply into the details of federal spending. In what follows I want to focus on spending cuts in the area of education, because during the election campaign candidate Obama seemed to understand the need to improve the levels of learning in the United States. The future belongs to the best educated nation, with a workforce that can innovate and redeploy their resources. Or so it was said.

Now the actual spending proposals suggest no more commitment than under the previous administration. Here are some examples of the cutbacks:

Academic competitiveness, smart grants -58%
School improvement: -55%
Education for the Disadvantaged -31.9%
Special education: - 4.7%
Vocational and adult education: -3.7%
International educational exchange programs: - 0.3%

To be fair, there are other education programs that are slated to receive increases, and this is a difficult budget year. Nevertheless. the cutbacks are disheartening.

What about transportation? One hoped to see an Obama Administration promoting mass transit. The proposal, however, is for a 35% cut for railroads, and a 9% cut for mass transit in the discretionary part of the budget. There is mandated spending on railroads that remains unchanged. By far the lion's share of the transportation budget is mandated, and must be spent on highways. Next at the federal feeding frenzy are the airports, which receive much more than the railroads.

In short, the vast economic mess that the Bush Administration left behind has not only made it hard for Obama to move in a new direction, it seems to make it virtually impossible until the economy improves.

Even when it does improve, however, the increased interest on the national debt will eat up the money that once might have been used for education, transportation, and social programs. The interest payments next year will rise by 33% to $251 billion. Just paying the interest on the debt will be greater than the entire budgets for transportation and education combined, with energy thrown in for good measure.