The Death of the First Wave For-Profit Colleges

In 2012, I wrote a piece on the future of higher education for a journal called Renewing Minds.  With regard to the for-profit colleges, I made the following prediction with some advice:

Contrary to expectations, the institutions that will come under the greatest pressure will ultimately not be the traditional schools (though they will have to grapple with change). The greatest pressure will apply to the entities currently believed to be the wave of the future, which are the (for profit) online programs. If you are considering a long term financial investment in the University of Phoenix or one of its competitors, I would urge you to go elsewhere with your funds.

Within the last month, we have seen the closure of two large entities of the type I describe: Corinthian Colleges and the Anthem system.  The reason is simple.  They were able to make a great deal of money when they had little competition in the convenient “class in your pajamas” market, but they could not survive when the more established names entered the market.  Given a choice, would you take an online degree from Corinthian College or from Florida State University?  The answer is clear.  The higher ed brand names have figured out the vulnerability of the for profit players and are gearing up rapidly to exploit it.  

Gay Marriage Arguments: Blistering Bench Slap or Thrasymachus Redux?

I saw a friend share an article online about Judge Richard Posner blasting away at lawyers charged with defending state statutes regulating marriage in its traditional form.  His posture is not new.  We have seen court after court treat the defenders of traditional marriage as though they had no argument to make outside of prejudice or superstition.  

As I read this last piece, I recalled an exchange from Plato’s Republic in which Thrasymachus challenges Socrates to defeat his highly empirical argument on justice:  “Justice is the interest (or advantage) of the stronger.”  It’s a pretty good argument, really, though Socrates gets the better of the sophist.  At the beginning of the exchange, Thrasymachus tries to prohibit the use of certain arguments by Socrates.  Socrates replies that his brash interlocutor has done something like trying to prevent him from arguing that six times two or three times four is twelve.  

When I look at the public debates over gay marriage, I see something like that dynamic.  The proponents of gay marriage say to the defenders of traditional marriage, “You may not argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes.  Okay, proceed.”  It seems silly to say that you can’t argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes or that such an argument is an obvious non-starter.  Why is it a non-starter?  It seems like a reasonably good argument to me.  You may not be convinced, but it is not a big nothing.  To treat that as some kind of non-argument is to rule out three times four and two times six by way of arriving at twelve.

On Having Children and the Cost/Benefit Analysis


As the years go by, I have come to realize that one of the durable news items has to do with the cost of having and raising children.  Such studies inform us that having a child results in extraordinary expenditures (both direct and indirect).  We may be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per son or daughter.  

I can understand the fascination with performing such studies.  Maybe the idea is that a couple can take such information into account and make a highly rational calculation as to whether having children is worth the costs.  After all, if you have the children there is money you will have to spend on them and not yourself.  In addition, your time will be restricted by their needs.  If you have children, you will take less impressive vacations, see fewer high quality stage productions, see fewer films not made by Disney, eat at fewer great restaurants, etc.  All of those things are true.  But I have to say that I would not make the decision to have children on that basis.  

Having children is what might be called a sui generis experience.  It is not really comparable to anything else.  You cannot truly generate parallels between the allure of vacations in Europe, for example, and day to day life as a parent.  

Being a parent is sui generis because it is the only way to experience the mountainous responsibility for new life.  You must provide for the child’s survival, but that is the lowest level.  You are also responsible, to some degree, for how the child will live and who the child will become.  I think that if you do it correctly, you come to care more about your child’s life than your own.

Nothing hurts me more than to see one of my children rejected by others.  Nothing gives me more joy than to see one or both of them happy or successful.  Having a child is high risk.  It is high risk because you are sending part of yourself out into the world, but that part of yourself is more vulnerable, less wise, less capable than you.  And sometimes all you can do is watch.  Parenting is painful.  

But having a child is also high reward.  I wouldn’t trade anything for the first time my daughter realized she could make me laugh or having been able to comfort my son after an early surgery left him disoriented and frightened.  Parenting is joyful.  

That Insufferable Viral “Newsroom” Clip

Hey, everybody. You know that Jeff Daniels clip from The Newsroom that people love to quote? The one that says America only leads the world in defense spending, incarcerated citizens, and belief in angels? I actually heard some puffed up radio host authoritatively reproducing that list without attribution a while ago as though it were the final word on American decline.  

The guy who wrote that bit left a couple of things off. For example, America leads the world in economic output with a population of only 300 million (China and India both have a billion or so). We also lead the world in innovation. IBM is an American company. Intel is an American company. Apple is an American company. We could go on.  The American contribution to the world speaks pretty loudly.  Technology, medicines, agriculture, and more.

But let’s imagine that we did want to indict America.  Why be satisfied with the list provided by the pen of Aaron Sorkin?  Why not harp on our high number of abortions or our high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, for example?  The answer is obvious.  Such a list would not serve the secular/left orientation embodied in the jeremiad at issue.  

A Thought Experiment for Last Names of Children

I was once interviewed by a young woman at Harvard who had a hyphenated last name.  I’ll make one up.  It was something like Virginia Cameron-Land.  I believe this was the name given to her by her parents who were probably something like John Land and Karen Cameron (who had kept her name).  The hyphenated last name represents an attempt to give both parents some equality in the last name with regard to the children.  

But there is no future in this approach.  What happens when Virginia Cameron-Land marries Timothy Johnson-Stevens?  Do they then have a child who is Jonathan Cameron-Land-Johnson-Stevens?  And what about future combinations after that?  Could get pretty unwieldy.

Fortunately, my father has offered an interesting solution.  His proposal, which impressed me with its simplicity is this:  Whether or not the wife takes her husband’s last name, the male children will take the father’s family surname and the female children will take the mother’s family surname.  In that way, male-female equality issues (if that is your concern) can be addressed.  For those who are more traditional, this solution might be appealing because it should be the case that family lines are less likely to “die out” due to a lack of male heirs.  

What do you think?  Is there a hole in this strategy?  

Getting Beyond the Dilbert Principle

When I had my first real professional job at a large health insurance company in the southeastern United States, I was living in a world like the one Scott Adams famously portrayed in Dilbert.  We had our cubicles, our interminable meetings, and all the cliches seemed to apply.  I could count on regularly hearing:

  • The Japanese use the same word for crisis and opportunity.
  • Let’s make sure we’re all singing from the same page in the hymnal.
  • I think we need to re-focus.  We may be shedding more heat than light.

We were absolutely obsessed with re-engineering the corporation.  If you are old enough, you’ll recognize that one.  We mapped out process flows like you wouldn’t believe.  In the meantime, the people whose processes we were mapping were wondering, “What are you guys doing?”  I started thinking to myself that they should be mapping their own processes and thinking for themselves how to make the processes better.

During those years, I was a devoted follower of Adams.  He was an early adopter on the web.  So, in addition to reading his comic strip and buying his books, I eagerly read his manifestos sent out via email.  I had no internet web address (only an intranet one!), so I had to read his missives when someone brought printouts from home and distributed them.

One of Adams’ persistent themes was then and is now the stupidity of managers.  Having had the chance to hear him on the Harvard Business Review podcast more than 20 years into his comic effort, I was disappointed to understand a little more about how he feels about the people who manage.  He isn’t kidding.  At all.

In the interview, he repeated his original assertion that managers are people who have been promoted so as to minimize the damage they can do.  Rather than doing real work, they will schedule meetings and “order the doughnuts.”  Pressed on this point by the interviewer, Adams stated that he supposed some managers could be really good at their jobs if they were the kind of people willing to get others to sacrifice their health and happiness to increase the profit of the corporation and to advance the career of the manager.

If I’d heard the interview 20 years ago, I probably would have just agreed with Adams and kept reading Dilbert.  But having had the time to observe some really good managers up close and even to exercise that function so as to understand the responsibility, I disagree intensely with the cartoonist.  People who lead organizations and departments within organizations certainly can be subpar.  And they can exercise authority poorly.  Being a decent manager is difficult.

But have you ever worked under a really good manager or leader?  I have.  It is absolutely glorious to be able to trust a good manager to help set out a vision of success, to coordinate the efforts of the group, to hold people accountable, and to take the lead on solving problems.  I still remember the first time I was in a really big meeting with a boss I won’t name so as not to embarrass him.  What amazed me was how interested he was in hearing ideas from others.  He didn’t care about rank or status.  He cared about the substance.  The way he conducted himself helped me to be comfortable that he would make a good decision.  And even if the decision wasn’t the one I wanted, I could take comfort in knowing that he had heard alternative points of view and seriously considered them.

The Dilbert/Adams view is a disaffected one.  It can be useful.  As Adams pointed out, more than a few managers have found a Dilbert strip left under their door.  It can work as critique.  But don’t stop there.  The complaining critic pose is one that should be used selectively lest one become cancerous rather than constructive.  Effective employees have to learn how to trust managers.  And managers have the responsibility of being worthy of that trust.

Because good management is ultimately about trust, I don’t think Adams is right to say managers are promoted to that position to minimize the damage they can do.  People are sometimes promoted beyond real management (getting kicked upstairs, as they say) to minimize the damage they can do.  The person Adams is thinking about may well have a lofty title, but will have little responsibility, especially responsibility for people and the work they do.

Jerry Brown Has Always Been Governor of California.

Jerry Brown is the governor of California.  Jerry Brown has always been the governor of California.  Jerry Brown will always be the governor of California.  California is Jerry Brown.  And Jerry Brown is California.

Though Jerry Brown’s father once appeared to be governor of California, his governorship was only apparent and only a trusteeship of sorts for the true occupant of the office, Jerry Brown.  Pat Brown could not actually execute the office belonging naturally to Jerry Brown, but he took it as a duty imposed by the universe to serve as governor until Jerry Brown could fully manifest in his gubernatorial form.

(Some may mistakenly believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger was once governor of California, but they are confused by the film Total Recall in which the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited a virtual reality shop and was there convinced that he was the governor of California.)

In due time, California will be known more properly by its true name:  Jerry Brownifornia.