Ten big ideas

Brent Beshore recently this on Twitter: “Recently asked, ‘What are the ten biggest ideas that changed your life?’ Great/hard question. Here’s where I landed…” And here’s what Brent shared, which I’m copying here in case he deletes his Twitter at some point:

1) Imago Dei: Every person is inherently valuable independent of behavior and beliefs. Everyone matters. Treat people accordingly, without exception.

2) Rationality: In the moment, people act rationally, always. The question is what information, preferences, time horizon, and biases came into play? Removes ability to write-off people/behavior. Forces learning and empathy.

3) Meaningful = Hard: If something worthwhile appears easy, it means I got lucky. Or, I’ve never done it. Crucial to setting opportunity costs, evoking gratitude, suppressing envy, and cheering others on.

4) Base Rate: The average of how others do is the mostly likely indicator of my future performance. I want to get into situations where the base rate is attractive.

5) Messy: Life is messy. People are messy. Business is messy. Relationships are messy. I’m messy. Messiness should never be surprising. Give myself and others grace.

6) Margin of Safety/Redundancy: Stuff happens. Expect it and be prepared. Applies to virtually every area of life and far beyond investing — engineering, organizational operations, relationships, health, personal finances, etc.

7) Serving vs. Served: The great paradox of life is self-sacrificial service. More I give, with no expectation of reciprocity, the better life goes for others and me. Counterintuitive and countercultural.

8) Non-Linearity: I expect orderly, sequential outcomes. I get compounding, with unexpectedly positive and negative outcomes. Expect the unexpected. Get better at ball-parking nonlinear results.

9) Forgotten: In 100 years, no one will know my name. And certainly, no one will know me and I won’t know them. Living for fame and recognition is like chasing the wind. I try re-read Ecclesiastes monthly.

10) Invert: Avoiding failure is a heck of a lot easier than trying to be successful. Understand predictable points of failure (probability + magnitude) and plan against them. And don’t worry, failure will still come often.

A good list.

Administrative universities

Ron Srigley writes a powerful indictment of the administrative class of the modern university. “Whose University Is It Anyway?” is a long, worthwhile, well-researched piece. And it resonates with much of my experience and frustrations of a decade ago at Penn State, and with the secondhand experience of my friends and family within college and university life. Places that were founded for the wide-ranging pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, and the ability to recognize truth, virtue, etc. are now places run by an administrative class that’s less concerned with those inevitably unordered aims and more concerned with a culture of efficiency that brooks no critique that would threaten its own growth and development:

Administrators control the modern university. The faculty have “fallen,” to use Benjamin Ginsberg’s term. It’s an “all-administrative” institution now. [1] Spending on administrators and administration exceeds spending on faculty, administrators out-number faculty by a long shot, and administrative salaries and benefit packages, particularly those of presidents and other senior managers, have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Even more telling perhaps, students themselves increasingly resemble administrators more than professors in their ambitions and needs. Safety, comfort, security, quality services, first-class accommodations, guaranteed high grades, institutional brand, better job placements, the market value of the credential — these are the things one hears students demanding these days, not truth, justice, and intelligence. [2] The traditional language of “professors” and “students” still exists, though “service provider” and “consumer” are making serious bids to replace them. The principles of collegial governance and joint decision-making are still on the books, but they are no longer what the institution is about or how it works.

The revolution is over and the administrators have won. But the persistence of traditional structures and language has led some to think that the fight over the institution is now just beginning. This is a mistake. As with most revolutions, open conflict occurs only after real power has already changed hands. In France, for instance, the bourgeoisie were able to seize control of the regime because in a sense they already had it. The same is true of the modern university. …

Personally, I’m less strident than the activists but more active than the pessimists. My own proposal is thus old-fashioned but also mildly seditious: I suggest we think about this change in the university in order to reach some understanding of what it means. Then we can act as we see fit, though without any illusions about consequences.

In order to do this I propose a test. A favorite trope among the administrative castes is accountability. People must be held accountable, they tell us, particularly professors. Well, let’s take them at their word and hold them accountable. How have they done with the public trust since having assumed control of the university? …

In the traditional university, professors were “unaccountable.” The university was a sacred space where they were at liberty to pursue with students and colleagues their fields of inquiry without coercion or interference. This doesn’t mean they were free without qualification, of course. Professors were deeply accountable, but in a sense that went far beyond the reach, ambition, and perhaps even the interests of the administrative caste — they were accountable to discover and then to tell the truth, and to encourage their students to do the same. Assessing their abilities and accomplishments in this regard was a matter of judgment and so could not be quantified; it could be exercised only by those capable of it. A mechanism was therefore introduced to ensure this judgment was reached before the university committed to a faculty member permanently. After roughly 15 years of undergraduate and postgraduate study, and then a long period of careful professional observation and assessment, in most universities lasting five to six years, only those professors who proved themselves worthy were granted tenure and allowed to continue their teaching and research in pursuit of this beautiful goal

Administrators, on the other hand, were always held accountable precisely because their responsibilities were administrative in nature and therefore amenable to measurement and regular public audit. They were responsible to ensure the activities of students and professors were not interfered with and to manage the institution’s financial affairs. They were, in this sense, stewards of the sacred space, not its rulers.

In the contemporary university these roles have been reversed. Faculty members are the ones who are now accountable, but no longer to their peers and students and no longer regarding mastery of their subjects. Instead, they are accountable to administrators, who employ an increasingly wide array of instruments and staff to assess their productivity and measure their performance, all of which are now deemed eminently quantifiable. In place of judgment regarding the quality of their work we now have a variety of “outcomes” used as measures of worth. Student evaluations and enrollments (i.e., popularity), learning as determined by “rubrics,” quantity of publications, amount of research dollars, extent of social “impact” are the things that count now. In other words, only things you can quantify and none of which require judgment.

The administrators who protested so vociferously the lack of accountability of professors have now assumed the position themselves. Administrators are virtually untouchable today. Their value to the institution is assumed to be so great that it cannot be measured and cannot be subject to critical assessment. This explains in part their metastatic growth within the institution. …

Ask about virtually any problem in the university today and the solution proposed will inevitably be administrative. Why? Because we think administrators, not professors, guarantee the quality of the product and the achievement of institutional goals. But how is that possible in an academic environment in which knowledge and understanding are the true goals? Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s because they aren’t the true goals any longer. With the exception of certain key science and technology programs in which content proficiency is paramount, administrative efficiency and administrative mindedness are the true goals of the institution. …

When it comes to the real mandate of the modern university, boards of governors, government, and industry are all in agreement. That mandate is well known to all of us who live and work within the non-ivied walls: more industry partnerships, more technology, more STEM subjects, more money for research and development in these areas, more administrative review bodies and measures, more students, more student services, and more student satisfaction. And because the administrative university is a zero-sum game, there is a reverse side to the mandate: fewer tenured faculty, less faculty control over curricula, fewer humanities and pure science programs, less support for humanities and pure science research, and the erosion of collegial governance.

There is no serious debate about this mandate among the key players in the university administrative hierarchy, so the assertion that administrators are accountable to it in the way they insist faculty must be is a red herring. The administrators are the mandate. …

If you think I overstate the consequences of this erosion of the university curriculum, consider the 2016 US presidential debates as barometers of the culture. Many people were horrified by the debates, regardless of partisan interests. But if you want to appreciate the full extent of the horror and understand just how far we’ve fallen, watch the first ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. The extent of our new barbarism becomes immediately apparent in the contrast and it’s quite a shock, and this without even claiming that Kennedy and Nixon were themselves in any way high-water marks of political culture. If you think this decline has nothing to do with the decline of genuine liberal arts education, through which students are taught to think deeply and meaningfully about the real human problems of government, justice and reason, and the rise of the all-administrative university in which they are not, think again. As one Canadian university president I know said to a colleague who had expressed an interest in Montesquieu’s political thought, “Why study him? He’s dead.” So much for history. So much for political wisdom. And so much for magnanimity and breadth of understanding. We now have intellectual philistines settling the matter of what our children need to know. Where in this miasma of deculturation will they ever find an image of a genuine statesperson or citizen or of a truly just human being? Nowhere, if the modern administrative university has its way. …

Four areas of the all-administrative university stand out for comment: students, the university curriculum, university governance, and administrative salaries.

If you speak with university officials, you’ll tend to find that the ones who speak with the most confidence and least apprehension are administrators. And that’s how you can tell where the real power resides in that university, because those with power tend to be confident and self-assured. Right up until they’ve lost it.

Union Carbide Building

Justin Davidson writes on the planned demolition of the Union Carbide Building in New York and reflects on what is lost and gained with its replacement:

If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means…

The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. …

Together, Bunshaft and de Blois helped create the look of 1960s America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity that defined the big corporation. They amplified the power of straightforward geometries. Taut planes, gridded frames, and straight lines so beguiled architects that even today their successors haven’t shaken off the wonder of those feats. Before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone. De Blois and her cohort produced designs that exposed every imperfection and didn’t forgive. …

Modernism’s newness thrilled the critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1957 she voiced the hope that, if good enough architects did a good enough job, the new style would “deliver us from the present anarchy and return us to this perennial ideal” of “serenity, harmony, and repose.” It didn’t work out that way. In order to celebrate her new 20th century Renaissance, Huxtable had to write off what she saw as the over-ornamented masonry hodgepodge of apartment buildings and hotels that the new Park Avenue declared obsolete. The architectural historian Vincent Scully could not abide such deliberate slate-wiping. Glass buildings, he wrote, derived their meaning from contrast with their chunkier predecessors, the pleasing contrast of a crystal and stone. The new towers pulled back from the sidewalk to create plazas, lining up in a parade of quasi-military uniformity. For Scully, they destroyed the street.

Glass buildings soon destroyed entire cities, too, as efficiency muscled out elegance. A style predicated on mass production has kept on grinding out widget-like skyscrapers that are equally at home, or equally alien, in downtowns from Düsseldorf to Jakarta to Santiago de Chile. It’s a fair bet that, whoever designs the next iteration of 270 Park, it will belong in the lineage that began with Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft, and de Blois.

The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack. It achieves regularity without monotony, the rhythm of its façade marked by syncopations: the low street level and double-height lobby above, the two bands of blackness that segment the tower and frame the illuminated grid of offices. While at the Seagram Building a few blocks away, Mies bordered the façade in bronze I-beams, here de Blois has the columns stand back from the corners so that the walls seem to meet in the lightest of pencil lines. …

And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.

I don’t think the Union Carbide Building is a beautiful building, but I can see the value of its preservation in light of Justin Davidson’s context. But as he pointed out, a key part of the modernist architectural movement was to instill an attitude of disposability into architecture.

It’s certainly the case that the post World War II international order, and the globalization of commerce and markets that it helped foster, has resulted in less distinctive places. That makes sense. A more culturally integrated world would naturally be a more architecturally integrated world, wouldn’t it?

World Youth Alliance Solidarity Forum

Nadja Wolfe and Lord Pomperada from World Youth Alliance invited me to speak earlier this month at their International Solidarity Forum:

The International Solidarity Forum (ISF) is an annual training event hosted at the World Youth Alliance and United Nations headquarters in New York City. The forum brings together WYA members from around the world and subject matter experts to participate in lectures and discussions on topics relevant to ongoing international policy debates. Previous themes include Sustainable Development, Maternal Health, HIV/AIDs and Good Governance.

This year’s theme was Human Dignity and Bioethics. It was a pleasure presenting with Dr. William Breitbart of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His talk precedes mine, and it’s worth hearing particularly for his development of a “meaning centered psychotherapy” for advanced cancer patients. He touched on the scandal that is the Netherlands policy of legal euthanasia for huge number of people with clinical depression, psychiatric illness, psychotic illness, etc. His “dignity conserving therapy” is compelling:

World Youth Alliance has an incredible purpose, and the members I’ve met seem to be uniformly remarkable people:

WYA works at international institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States, as well as with young people from around the world to build a culture that supports and nurtures the dignity of each human person. We bring young people to international conferences and into dialogue with ambassadors, diplomats, and political leaders.  We focus on: international policy and human rights, economic development, social development, global health, education.

WYA trains young people of every background from every corner of the world in each of these areas, training them to advocate for the human person and develop creative solutions to real world problems.

Afterwards Lord Pomperada presented each of us with a certificate, which was a nice gesture. After lunch I headed to Penn Station, and thankfully my train was one of about half heading south that wasn’t cancelled due to the snow.

Free range kids

Karen De Coster wrote years ago on “free range kids,” because:

Milquetoast Americans love to be afraid, and they love to live in constant fear. These fragile beings desire the government to step in and regulate all of our lives to their liking: the way we play, what we eat, where we smoke, when we can drink, how we drive, how we parent, where we educate – all under the pretense that it is for our own collective “good.” These people are not only hysterical about their own kids, but they are hysterical about all of our kids, and they use the power of the state to force others into obeying rules and preferences set forth by them because they believe that only they know what’s ultimately best for all. These are the self-anointed Safety Czars – mere “concerned” citizens who have a penchant for cross-examining the lifestyles of their fellow humans, and they are never lacking in “expert” advice or a slew of new ideas for more laws to defend each of us from ourselves.

Free range kids, De Coster suggests, are those whose childhoods are minimally regulated in terms of strict activities schedules. And they’re kids guarded by pragmatic notions on safety, rather than totalitarian ones. They’re kids whose parents remember that the spirit of childhood happiness and meaning are rooted in self-discovery and knowledge that can only be gained by experience.

Somewhat related, Fred Reed reflected on his own childhood growing up in rural 1950s America, and included this vignette that stuck out to me: “Solzhenitsyn once told of stopping on some desert desert highway, getting out of his car, and marveling that no one knew where he was, or cared.” That’s an example of liberty.

Society and interdependent persons

When Archbishop Charles Chaput first arrived in Philadelphia, I attended a talk he gave at Penn in November 2011.

It was my first time seeing him in person, and he spoke on “Being Human in an Age of Unbelief,” focusing on the challenge of framing abortion and the larger pro-life movement within the context of human rights and dignity:

What makes abortion so grievous is the intimacy of the violence and the innocence of the victim. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and remember this is the same Lutheran pastor who helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and gave his life trying to overthrow Hitler—wrote that the “destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”

Bonhoeffer’s words embody Christian belief about the sanctity of human life present from the earliest years of the Church. Rejection of abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that set the early Christians apart from the pagan world. From the Didache in the First Century through the Early Fathers of the Church, down to our own day, Catholics—and until well into the 20th century all other Christians—have always seen abortion as gravely evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, arguing about whether abortion is homicide or only something close to homicide is irrelevant. In the Christian view of human dignity, intentionally killing a developing human life is always inexcusable and always gravely wrong.  …

Society is not just a collection of sovereign individuals with appetites moderated by the state. It’s a community of interdependent persons and communities of persons; persons who have human obligations to one another, along with their human rights.  One of those obligations is to not intentionally kill the innocent. The two pillars of Catholic social teaching are respect for the sanctity of the individual and service to the common good. Abortion violates both.

This issue has always transcended politics, and it will always be about more than simply the single issue of abortion, because human rights are relational in nature. No single human right can be understood separately from the others if a foundational sense of human dignity is what roots their claim as “rights.”