Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Commencement Speaker Rights and Wrongs

Rutgers University once again has made the news for a speaker invitation. Some 50 students occupied a stairway in the administration building protesting selection of former presidential advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as this year's commencement speaker.

The protesters left peacefully after an ultimatum by school administrators. Outside the building, some of them joined about 100 others carrying signs and shouting slogans criticizing Miss Rice's role in starting the second Iraq war. Meanwhile, 350 faculty members voted to oppose the campus appearance. So far, the school president is sticking with the speaker selection, citing academic freedom and free speech ideals as his justification.

University officials had a right to invite anyone they chose to speak at the school.

Students and faculty had a right to peacefully protest the selection.
A peaceful protest made the students' point.
The geezer fully supports those rights. What is wrong is the fact that Miss Rice will be paid $35,000 for her half-hour speech. Like many other universities, Rutgers has been going through tough financial times. Economy measures in recent years included freezing the salaries of thousands of employees and many program reductions.

That Miss Rice's fee will be paid by private donations to the university's foundation doesn't make it right. That the fee is modest on the scale of commencement awards, which range from about $2,500 to more than $100,000, doesn't make it right. All commencement speaking fees are wrong. That money could be better spent helping needy students with expenses or supporting essential academic programs.

Any potential speaker with a sense of public service responsibility should be willing to honor a graduating class with his or her words of wisdom for nothing more than travel expenses. An honorary degree (and Miss Rice will get one of those, too) of course is a justifiable speaker reward.

Rather than fixing the problem, Rutgers has raised the ante. Back in 2011 it paid the commencement speaker only $30,000. That wasn't newsworthy, but when students used $32,000 of their activity fees to pay for an appearance by Snooki, infamous as a vulgar sex kitten on the "Jersey Shore" television show, Rutgers got a dose of media attention. Snooki told her audience to "party hard," among other things.

Paying a sex object more than a commencement speaker perhaps is justified. I've fidgeted through several lengthy graduation ceremonies. I can't remember a word any of the distinguished speakers uttered. I probably would have paid much more attention to Snooki.

U.S. higher education cries out for reform. A small, but good, start would be rerouting speaker fees to deserving students and academic programs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Good People Make Good Places

While I was trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, a process still under way, our son had little choice but to come along on the trip. It was quite a journey. We lived in eight different cities while Lee was growing up.

Lee proved there may be truth to the currently overused pronouncement: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

No doubt it was difficult for Lee to periodically leave good friends and adjust to a new community and school. I've often regretted causing those problems for him. But I think he became a man of integrity and honor who has been able to adapt to difficult situations partly because of his diverse experiences. The nature of two communities we lived in may have contributed positively to his development.

Forbes latest list of the top 10 best places to raise a family in the U.S. includes two cities where we have lived. Forbes ranked metro areas based on household incomes, costs of living, housing affordability, home ownership, commuting times, crime rates, and local school quality. Lee attended school and participated in organized sports in two of the top 10--Boise, Idaho, and Ogden, Utah.
Ogden, Utah, is a great place to live in any season.
Ogden was No. 3 in the rankings. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, an excellent spread between incomes and living costs, and great access to outdoor activities. Lee learned to ski nearby; a trip to the mountain slopes was just a few miles from our first home there adjacent to a Wasatch-Cache National Forest boundary. Lee made school friends in Ogden with whom he still stays in touch.

Boise ranked as the seventh best place for families on the Forbes list. Boiseans also enjoy a good income to cost of living ratio and great opportunities for outdoor lifestyles. School quality rated high and the crime rate is low. Several of Lee's early school years were spent in Boise.
Boise, Idaho, has a State Capitol and much more to recommend it.
Lee, Sandy, and I conferred today about characteristics of the places we've lived. We agreed the Forbes people got it right with Ogden and Boise. But, because it would be almost impossible to quantify, the raters didn't consider the factor we believe was most important. We all thought the people in those two cities generally were pleasant, thoughtful, and helpful. For us, good people made Ogden and Boise good places to live.

This might lead you to think I was pretty smart about picking places to apply for jobs. Not so.

We had never set foot in Idaho before moving to Boise. The only individual consulted was my sister, who knew a little about the city because her husband worked for Boise-Cascade and they had visited company headquarters a few times. The endorsement was lukewarm at best. Jane's final statement was, "I suppose its OK if you like sagebrush." We made the change simply because it was time for me to move on.

We moved to Ogden strictly to get a Forest Service promotion and the improved income that came with it. Most of the comments I heard before the move were negative, but that was because my boss (who had lived in Ogden earlier) mounted a campaign to convince me not to leave Idaho. Some of it was absurd.

The most imaginative, and least convincing, statement by Boise National Forest Supervisor Ed Maw was, "Those Mormons will steal your horse; then they'll steal your wife."

Well, I didn't own a horse, and Sandy has stayed on as my beautiful wife to this day. We didn't find a lot of bad guys in Utah. What we did find in Ogden, just as we did in Boise, were good neighbors and friends.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Give Us This Day . . .

Those words are known to all of us raised as Christians who comprise the majority of Americans.  Yet our elected representatives, who claim divine guidance for many questionable actions, continue to block efforts to ensure that millions of American workers are paid enough to feed their families.

Congress has failed to act on proposals to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10. Here in Michigan, and in other states, legislatures also are refusing to raise minimums that qualify full-time workers in many occupations for food stamps. They need the food stamps, paid for by taxpayers like me, to feed their families. Thus, we taxpayers are subsidizing businesses that refuse to pay their workers a living wage.

Many owners of those businesses argue that they will be forced to eliminate workers if they are required to pay decent wages. There is a body of research in this area. Most of the better designed studies find few if any jobs would be lost.  

Political philosophies aside, it is a fact that the federal minimum wage adjusted for inflation is one third lower than it was in 1968. It simply is not fair pay for those who serve our meals, clean our buildings, and care for our sick and elderly.

Two members of a discussion group I coordinate are among those circulating petitions designed to force an improvement in Michigan. The change would be far from drastic. Over three years, the state's minimum wage would be increased from $7.40 per hour to $10.10. The minimum for those who depend on tips, which currently is below $3.00 per hour, also would be raised. To keep the playing field level, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation in the future.

I had to think for as long as it took to find a pen before signing. 

We should be ashamed that Americans working full-time at the bottom of the economic scale cannot afford to buy their daily bread. They should not have to depend on welfare for the most basic of human needs. We need to change this situation.