March 2015

  • Capital Day

    Each spring for the past dozen or more years, Penn State administrators craft roughly the same narrative, which is:

    “The rising costs of academic instruction, combined with flat or decreasing state appropriations, will necessitate a 3-6 percent increase in tuition. If the Pennsylvania legislature would only commit to a significant increase in state appropriations, perhaps the rate of increase wouldn’t need to be as significant.”

    Administration typically works with student leadership to advance this argument, putting students in Harrisburg for Capital Day to sing for their supper. The problem with all of this is that it’s a fiction.


    Penn State’s tuition and fees more than cover the cost of educating her students. Look at the income figure from Tuition & Fees, and compare it to the combined expense figures of Instruction and Academic Support, Physical Plant, and Student Services:


    Penn State can more than cover the cost of educating her students without a dime from state appropriations. And note that I’m tipping the scales in the Penn State administration’s favor by treating the entirety of the physical plant expense as if it were exclusively academic and teaching purposed, when in fact much of it corresponds to administration, research, etc.

    If Tuition & Fees income outpaces the expense of the academic experience, then how is the $275M+ state appropriation spent?

    What does it do to an institution’s character when it consistently advances a fictional rationale for the nature of its income and expenses to the public?

    Penn State students should never be treated as a political means to an end. Penn State students should never be treated as activists in a PR strategy. It is the job of administrators to administer—their choices shape Penn State’s annual budget and the rate of increase in spending, and when Tuition & Fees continue to more than cover for the cost of a Penn State education, there is a fiduciary duty to advocate with candor about why Penn State is choosing to spend more on research and other expense areas and why those choices deserve support from Pennsylvania taxpayers.

    I’m hopeful that Penn State administration will eventually develop a new approach, and I’m hopeful that approach will consider the virtue of candor.

    What candor would look like:

    “We’re actively choosing to increase tuition. Yes, it more than covers the cost of the academic experience. Yes, it supports our other institutional interests, like research that shapes our shared future. As a land-grant institution, we aren’t here simply to treat our students as machines needing to be programmed or as consumers filling up a shopping cart. We’re here to cultivate a spirit of inquiry vast in its scope, with the concrete aim of a moral and ethical citizen capable of conserving the good in the world and leaving it better than he or she found it. This requires investment far beyond the scope of classroom instruction, and like any investment it requires sacrifice that we believe is worthwhile.”

    If there’s not serious interest in making an absolute decrease in tuition a reality, I would support a radically different approach to genuinely justify the its rate of increase.

  • Following on from last week’s thoughts on nonprofit traits for sustainability and this weekend’s board meeting. Here’s a great a16z podcast episode on corporate boards and directorship. For small or startup nonprofits that are volunteer-led, I think it’s critical for board members to shape strategy. But as the mission gains traction and more of the work is professionalized, that’s when board members should shift:

    Diane Greene — who is on the boards of Google and Intuit — has some golden rules when it comes to serving on boards. No 1: “You don’t want to tell them how to do strategy, whether it’s a big company or a small company,” she says. “That’s not your job. Your job as a director is to ask questions.” Lots of questions.

  • Miserere

    It’s Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week for Christians. This is the week of Christ’s passion and death, preceding Easter. I want to mark today by sharing a piece of music that’s timely and remarkable:

    This piece is Psalm 51, but first set to music by Allegri around 1630. It is one of the finest and most popular examples of renaissance polyphony. It is often heard in Churches of the apostolic Christian tradition…

    Miserere mei, Deus is Latin for Have mercy on me, God. I think this transports the listener.

    A 2008 NPR interview brings out some of the history of this piece:

    Composer Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” is a piece of choral music so powerful that a 17th-century pope decreed it could be played only during the week leading to Easter—and then only in the Sistine Chapel. Jesse Kornbluth of talks about the “Miserere” with Jacki Lyden.

  • I’m in Philadelphia today for a Nittany Valley Society meeting.

    As a cultural conservancy, our mission and work is deeply rooted in physical place. But as a group we decided from the outset that we would meet once per year in either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. We regularly meet in State College, but we felt it was important that we were attuned as a group to the impact we ultimately want to have on Penn Staters and friends across the Commonwealth.

    This is why we’re meeting in Philadelphia today, specifically at the headquarters of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which lent us meeting space.

    If you’re curious about why we exist, start by picking up a copy of our first book, Is Penn State a Real University?. And after that, try The Legends of the Nittany Valley.

  • This piece on Leadership Lessons from Great Family Businesses caught my attention on Twitter last week. I saved it to Pocket and read it yesterday. Key parts:

    Only 30% of family businesses last into the second generation; 12% are viable into the third… And yet family-owned or -controlled businesses play a key role in the global economy. They account for an estimated 80% of companies worldwide and are the largest source of long-term employment in most countries. In the United States they employ 60% of workers and create 78% of new jobs.

    The piece describes “great family businesses” as having four key traits:

    They found that top family-led companies do four key things: establish a baseline of good governance, preserve “family gravity,” identify future leaders from within and outside the family, and bring discipline to their CEO succession.

    As I was reading this I instinctively adapted these four traits in my mind to the nonprofit space. I’d adapt them roughly as follows to describe the role of a “great nonprofit boards:”

    1. create baseline for good governance, with emphasize on term limited service to encourage impact
    2. continually restate the culture and ethos of the organization
    3. identity future leaders from within the board’s social and professional network, occasionally going farther afield for the right candidates
    4. encourage staff discipline in terms of attention to mission, or in cases of volunteer-led nonprofits, focus board committees on operationalizing mission execution
  • When I complained last month about WordPress’s iOS app still not supporting rich text creation, I wasn’t expecting change anytime soon. It was something on my radar for years. Of course, WordPress released an iOS rich text editor earlier this month. It’s been great, and has really made writing from my iPhone a lot easier.

    There’s another feature which seems to be making its way into core WordPress, which is tagging your location when writing. I’m in New York tonight, and this post is tagged with Hell’s Kitchen specifically.

    But post location isn’t something that’s public-facing yet. There’s no simple way for a post to display where it was created yet, though I’ve got my fingers crossed that it won’t be years before public location becomes an option.

    We learned this week that Twitter and Foursquare are partnering to offer more granular location data in tweets. Soon we’ll be able to post a tweet with a location of “Museum of Natural History, New York,” rather than “Manhattan.” It’s tough not to get excited at the potential for location-based writing through WordPress and generally.

    It would be really fascinating at minimum, and probably very useful practically speaking, to be able to pull up streams of WordPress posts written in specific towns or cities.

    Imagine taking a business trip or vacation and being able to quickly search for content like news articles, personal blog posts, etc. for where you’re visiting. You’d be able to get a sense of the latest news to strike up conversations, the stuff that locals are writing about on their blogs, and maybe dive even deeper into things like the latest on the local music scene.

    Even more to the point, imagine how towns, neighborhoods, or cities might be able to come together better if residents are able to use location data to more easily connect with their local institutions, make new friends, engage, etc. Location data that customizes streams on WordPress, Twitter, and the web in general could do a better job at letting people connect with their communities than the newspaper did twenty years ago.

  • Amazon Fresh

    Amazon Fresh

    After trying Amazon Prime Now, I decided to try Amazon Fresh. It’s still super limited in terms of geography served, but it was a great experience. Like everything else on Amazon, except with Amazon Fresh I’m able to order any of the groceries I’d normally pick up.

    The process was simple. A minimum order of $50 and no delivery fee. I scheduled checkout for the next morning, and an Amazon courier arrived right on time. Packaged with dry ice in sturdy styrofoam-lined containers that you keep. Simple process but great.

    In Philadelphia, I never once went to the grocery store. There wasn’t one in Manayunk, in Newbold, or near enough in Old City. Lots of delivery, lots of take out, etc. So I think Amazon Fresh can be a game changer in places where food deserts are still a reality. It’s my new default for groceries.

  • Jazz vespers

    Jazz vespers

    I first learned about St. Peter’s jazz vespers service in September. Specifically, from this feature on Vincent Piazza, who starred in Boardwalk Empire as Lucky Luciano. Since then visiting St. Peter’s has been in my Todoist in the “new experiences” list.

    Vespers means evening prayer. As a form of ritual prayer, it’s an ancient Christian practice. What I experienced was a very contemporary interpretation of vespers. St. Peter’s is in Midtown at 54th and Lexington. It’s a Lutheran parish that’s been doing “jazz vespers” for decades.

    Although strange to hear, “a reading from C.S. Lewis” (rather than from Scripture) from what seemed to be a pulpit in a place that purports to be a church, it was a peaceful service that seemed to touch people. I recorded a few minutes to share:

    Worth experiencing.

  • Considering the end

    Jon Mooallem writes in California Sunday Magazine on “Death, Redesigned: A legendary design firm, a corporate executive, and a Buddhist-hospice director take on the end of life:”

    So much about death is agonizingly unknowable: When. Where. Lymphoma or lightning strike. But Bennett recognized there are still dimensions of the experience under our control. He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date.

    The piece tells the story of a stillborn app that was hacking at the opportunity to apply a consumer centric approach to genuine end of life issues. A platform that could do everything from making wills easier to make and update from a mobile device, draft and schedule letters to family that could continue after your death, and generally better organize those decisions.

    It feels right to move in the direction of more direct control of all of that. The industries that exist from social to legal dealing with end of life haven’t had technology applied to them yet. Making those decisions easier by empowering people through technology would change a lot of lives.

  • Life-supporting economy

    Wendell Berry considers the changing American landscape in The Atlantic this month. He addresses the subtle way that a connection to physical place, to the actual soil, complements cultural experience. And how losing a connection with one can mean the loss of cultural diversity:

    I have my own memories of the survival in a small rural community of its own stories. By telling and retelling those stories, people told themselves who they were, where they were, and what they had done. They thus maintained in ordinary conversation their own living history. And I have from my neighbor, John Harrod, a thorough student of Kentucky’s traditional fiddle music, his testimony that every rural community once heard, sang, and danced to at least a few tunes that were uniquely its own. What is the economic value of stories and songs? What is the economic value of the lived and living life of a community? My argument here is directed by my belief that the art and the life of settled rural communities are critical to our life-supporting economy. But their value is incalculable. It can only be acknowledged and respected, and our present economy is incapable, and cannot on its own terms be made capable, of such acknowledgement and respect.

    If you’re into any of this, it’s worth checking out Berry’s entire piece.