Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Will UVa Provide the Data Needed for an Open Discussion about Race?

UVa president’s house. Will UVa’s new president open up the data needed for a honest and open dialogue about race and racism at the university?

As I blogged last week, the University of Virginia is organizing a seminar with the goal of equipping faculty to teach their disciplines “in relation to the history and present reality of race and racism both locally and nationally.” Sessions will “connect historical events and struggles with contemporary concerns such as health, educational, and economic disparities, as well as white supremacist discourse and actions and present efforts toward justice and equity.”

It was unfair of me in that post to suggest that the exercise might be dominated by a politically correct, social-justice-warrior perspective which, while illuminating the views of white supremacists, will give short shrift to mainstream conservative and libertarian views. UVa has assured me that the seminar will “encourage open dialogue among the seminar participants.”

I also have every confidence that the university will take an honest look at its own practices regarding race, not just in the past but in the present. In the spirit of open dialogue, I offer a few data points to consider.

A good place to start is the demographic breakdown of Virginia’s population (2010 census):

White — 68.6%
Black — 19.4%
Asian — 5.5%
Other — 3.7%
Multiracial — 2.9%

(Hispanics, a cultural group apportioned between the aforementioned racial groups, comprise 7.9% of the population.)

Now, here is a breakdown of UVa’s undergraduate student population, based on data from its Diversity Dashboard:

By percentage, that works out to:

White — 58.9%
Black — 6.5%
Asian — 14.0%
Hispanic — 6.5%
Multiracial — 4.3%
Other (foreign, unknown, other) — 10.6%

Even accounting for the differing ways of categorizing by race and culture, it’s clear that blacks are severely under-represented at UVa, Asians are over-represented, and whites are represented in rough proportion to their percentage of the overall population. Examine the charts on the UVa website for graduate students, staff, and faculty as well. While there are some differences (foreign students push up the “other” grouping among graduate students), comparable racial disparities exist across the board.

Here’s the first question. Do the disparities reflect institutional racism at the University of Virginia? Or do disparities reflect the dismal realities of the labor market (there are fewer African-Americans possessing the educational credentials to teach at UVa) and the dismal realities of the educational pipeline (fewer African-Americans meeting the UVa entry requirements)?

Here’s a second question. How does one account for the massive over-representation of Asian students — 14% of the student body but only 5.5% of the student population? Does UVa discriminate in favor of Asian students? Or does it have a meritocratic admissions policy that favors Asians based on objective criteria such as SAT scores, high school class rankings, and other factors?

Once we have touched upon those issues, we can move to a related matter. UVa has stepped up its diversity efforts over the past decade. Perhaps the university could document its dedication to the task by providing an accounting of the manpower and budget devoted to diversity. Yet the number of African-American students actually has declined from 1,199 in 2009 to 1,049 today. Has institutional racism at the university gotten worse, or might there be a different explanation? (Interestingly, the decline has been the most marked among African-American women. Has UVa become more sexist as well as more racist during this period?)

One way we can answer these questions is to provide admissions data that the university administration has heretofore held close to its chest. What is the average SAT score broken down by racial/ethnic group? If average SAT scores of African-Americans are higher than those of other racial/ethnic groups, we could reasonably conclude that they are being discriminated against. Conversely, lower scores would suggest that UVa admissions criteria are designed to increase representation of blacks. So, which is it? It is within UVa’s power to answer this fundamental question. Will it?

Another way to approach the issue of institutional racism is to examine graduation rates by race and ethnic origin. UVa publishes graduation rates for all students.  According to UVa’s data, almost 90% graduate within four years, and 94% within six years. The university even publishes graduation rates for athletes (75% within four years). But curiously, it does not publish a breakdown by race. The information is vital to an open and honest dialogue, however, so I feel confident that the UVa administration will make it available.

It’s also curious that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which maintains a voluminous database for all public colleges and universities, does not break down 4- or 6-year graduations by race. It does, however, break down graduation rates between “majority” students and “students of color.” The database does not define “students of color.” By common definition, however, the term refers to non-whites, thus it includes Asians as well as blacks, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.

According to SCHEV data, “majority” students graduate from UVa within four years at a rate of 86.3%. (I can’t explain the discrepancy between UVa data and SCHEV data.) “Students of color” graduate at rate of 83.5%. Given the proclivity of Asians to out-perform all other racial/ethnic groups academically, it is reasonable to assume that they graduate at a rate at least as high as the white rate of 86.3%. Remove them from the “students of color” category, and the average four-year graduation rate drops to 80% or so. That’s just a guess, of course, but if I’m off, UVa can provide authoritative data any time it wants.

What accounts for the 6% to 7% disparity in graduation rate? Is the graduation gap evidence that UVa creates an environment that is hostile to blacks? If the graduation rate is higher for black women and lower for black men (as I suspect it is), does that mean the university environment is more hostile to black men than to black women, and, if so, how does that comport with the pervasive academic theory that black women are victims of both pervasive racism and sexism? I hesitate to bring up yet another possibility, but the question must be asked: Is it possible that campus identity-based ideology based on grievance and victimhood contributes to blacks’ sense of alienation and affects their commitment to graduate?

Another area worth examining is disparities in what students of different ethnic/racial origins pay to attend UVa. The university, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the federal government dispense a significant amount of financial aid based upon the student’s family income. Whites on average come from more affluent families than blacks, so it goes without saying that they need, and receive, less financial aid. But any dialogue about “health, educational, and economic disparities” should take into account measures designed to reduce those disparities. Thus, it would be worthwhile to know how much whites pay for tuition on average versus how much blacks pay. If blacks benefit more than whites from financial aid, that discrepancy undercuts the idea of institutional racism. But we won’t know unless UVa publishes that data. Will it?

Any honest, open dialogue on race will encompass both perceptions and facts. The perceptions are real in the sense that people hold certain ideas about the world around them, but not all perceptions are equally grounded in the facts. It is important for UVa to provide the data so the discussion can proceed on the basis of both perceptions and facts.

Clowns vs Menhaden Goes into Overtime

by D.J. Rippert

Northam channels Tom Brady. The ongoing battle between The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources) and Brevoortia tyrannus (aka menhaden, bunker, pogy, mossback, etc) has reached a new low. Our always corrupt General Assembly decided it didn’t like the latest ruling of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and tabled the legislation that needed to pass to put Virginia in compliance with the ASMFC ruling.

This action opens the door for the ASMFC to declare Virginia “out of compliance” to the Federal Departments of Commerce and the Interior. From there, Commerce and Interior can, at their choosing, impose a moratorium on all menhaden fishing in Virginia until Virginia comes into compliance. Apparently, the clowns in Richmond took one look at President Trump’s orange hair and decided they had a friend who would look the other way as the Commonwealth raped the Chesapeake Bay once again. However, newly installed Governor Northam is not so sure. He has proposed last-minute legislation to implement most of ASMFC’s ruling. If passed, this would avoid allowing the Trump Administration to decide what to do with the state that put forth Hillary’s running mate, contributed 13 electoral votes to her, and elected Terry McAuliffe as its past governor. Northam’s “Hail Mary” pass is in the air.

Who knew pigs hated fish? When it comes to killing menhaden Virginia stands alone. Virginia is the only state on the East Coast that allows large scale extraction of menhaden. Despite the presence of large schools of menhaden up and down the Atlantic seaboard Virginia manages to kill 80% of all the menhaden taken on the East Coast. In fact, that large scale extraction is the province of a single Canadian company, Omega Protein, operating out of Reedville. Seven ships, assisted by spotter planes, locate menhaden schools and use giant suction tubes to scoop the fish out of the water and into their holds.  They are eventually used to make dietary supplements, dog food, livestock feed and other generally low value items.

So, why is Virginia the only East Coast state to allow this level of butchery?  Because Virginia is also the only East Coast state that allows unlimited campaign contributions from corporations to state politicians. And guess what? The pigs of Richmond are at the trough, snout deep in slop, contentedly “oinking.” Over the years Omega Protein has stuffed $539,499 into the pockets of our state politicians. In return, The General Assembly has passed a law making menhaden the only fish in the sea that the General Assembly regulates. Or, more accurately, fails to regulate.

Menhaden have more teeth than ASMFC. ASMFC was chartered back in 1942. However, it was essentially an advisory body to state regulators. That all changed when the striped bass (or rockfish) fishery collapsed in the early 1980s. Individual states wouldn’t implement effective limits on striped bass fishing for fear that their fishermen would lose to other states. So, in 1984 Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and gave ASMFC semi-regulatory authority. Any state that failed to implement ASMFC’s rules would be reported to the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior. Those departments would determine if they agreed that ASMFC was correct in holding the state in non-compliance. If they agreed, ASMFC could impose a moratorium on fishing for the species that was in non-compliance in the state. ASMFC dramatically curtailed the limits for striped bass, and by 1995 the striped bass population was declared to be fully restored. As it became clear that ASMFC had succeeded where the individual states had failed, Congress gave ASMFC authority over all East Coast fishery management.

Flaky fluke ruling. The big failing of the ASMFC process is the need to appeal to the Departments of Commerce and Interior in order to get deemed non-compliant. In twenty cases since 1993 states have been non-compliant. Nineteen times the departments of Commerce and Interior agreed with ASMFC. Then came the first Trump Administration ruling in a case over summer flounder (aka fluke) in New Jersey. ASMFC wanted the minimum size raised from 18” to 19”.  New Jersey wanted to stay at 18” and concocted some bad science to plead “conservation equivalency.”  The Trumpies sided with the Garden State and the ASMFC’s authority was undermined.

So, you feeling lucky, Clowns? In November, 2017 ASMFC ruled on a number of questions regarding menhaden. By and large, conservationists and recreational fishing interests considered the ASMFC rulings a disastrous loss. The catch limit was raised 8% and is now higher than the limit in 2012 when the fishery was severely compromised. The gains that have come from the 20% reduction in 2012 are likely to disappear. Virginia still will kill 80% of the menhaden killed on the East Coast to help a Canadian company make dog food.

The one ray of sunshine was a cap on fish taken from the Chesapeake Bay. The level of the cap is about the actual catch in the Bay from the last few years but it’s lower than the previous cap (which was never reached). Pigs will be pigs and that Omega money is still in the tough so, The Thundering Herd of Corruption in Richmond wants to table the legislation, fail to comply and take their chances with the Trump Administration. Gov Northam’s legislation would probably avoid all that but it still has to get through the Clown Show and the ASMFC clock is ticking.

Stay tuned.

What’s This? Medicaid Expansion Pays for Itself?

Reversing its long-standing opposition to Medicaid expansion, the House Appropriations Committee yesterday adopted a budget proposal that would accept more than $3 billion in federal funds to provide Medicaid coverage for more than 300,000 uninsured Virginians.

Here’s the remarkable thing: You can read the news accounts of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, and Daily Press and never discover that the state of Virginia will save more money from “Medicaid Transformation” than the state share of supporting the state-federal program will cost.

I started out this blog post trashing House Appropriations for capitulating on Medicaid expansion. But after absorbing this report of the Health and Human Resources Subcommittee, I had to delete everything I wrote and start all over. It appears that House Appropriations has figured out how to eliminate the biggest objection to the program’s expansion, namely that it would constitute a big, ongoing drain on the General Fund. This turn-about is so extraordinary that I have to say that I, a long-time foe of Medicaid expansion on fiscal grounds, feel compelled to support it now.

Medicaid Transformation would provide coverage to adult Virginians up to 38% above the federal poverty line, injecting billions of federal dollars into Virginia’s health care system. The federal government will provide a 94% match in 2018, 93% in 2019, and 90% in 2020. The state share will level out at 10%.

The estimated cost of the program to Virginia will be $80.8 million in FY 2019 and $226.1 million in FY 2020. But  the state expects to save $101.3 million and $269.7 million respectively from programmatic cost reductions.

Where do the savings come from? Primarily from cutting indigent care funding to hospitals, and from reducing expenditures on state-funded community behavioral health, prison inmates, the FAMIS program for pregnant women, and the GAP program for the seriously mentally ill.

The proposed legislation also includes a 0.5% assessment on hospitals’ net patient revenue in FY 2019 and 1.4% assessment in FY 2020 on the grounds that Medicaid expansion will reduce indigent care costs (charity care and bad debts), resulting in significant improvements to hospital bottom lines. I’m not sure why this tax is necessary if the Medicaid Transformation results in a net savings to the General Fund without it. The hospital lobby opposes it, and for once I can sympathize.

I still have long-term concerns. The United States entitlement state is unsustainable, and the recent round of federal tax cuts and spending hikes has done nothing to change my opinion. At some point, the federal government will experience a fiscal crisis that will force it to shift the cost burden of Medicaid to the states, in which case Virginia will have to shoulder a much bigger share of the cost at hideous expense or dump hundreds of thousands of Virginians from the Medicaid rolls. But that’s 15, 20, or 25 years from now. And participating in the program will inject billions of dollars in federal funds into the Virginia health care system and economy right now.

I also question how much Medicaid expansion will actually improve medical outcomes. There’s still a physician shortage, many physicians refuse to take on Medicaid patients, and most add-on patients likely will continue seeking treatment in emergency rooms. But any improvement to the public health, even if marginal, is better than nothing. And it seems foolhardy to reject billions of federal dollars that cost the state nothing.

House budget writers are at loggerheads with their counterparts in the Senate Finance Committee, who propose a budget without Medicaid expansion. But if the House numbers stand up to scrutiny and Virginia can actually save money from the expansion, I don’t know how the Senate can resist. Medicaid expansion looks like a done deal.

UVa Snags $27.5 Million Computer Research Grant

Kevin Skadron

Thanks to a $27.5 million grant from the Semiconductor Research Corp., the University of Virginia’s Department of Computer Science is tackling one of the most pressing problems in computer science and engineering — the so-called “memory wall,” reports the Daily Progress.

As health care, science and technology systems grow more and more data-intensive and analytics become more sophisticated, current computer systems are unable to feed data to the processor fast enough, wasting time and energy. That gap between needed power and ability, first articulated by UVa professor emeritus William Wulf and graduate student Sally McKee, is often called the “memory wall.”

The 20 faculty members on Skadron’s team will investigate how to rebuild the entire computer processing system, from better memory chips and wiring to new software that can process complex and fragmented problems. They are focusing on several specific areas of application, including advanced genomics, new cancer biomarkers and predictive home health care.

“The volume of data here, as well as the ways that we have to mine it, are basically impossible to work with in today’s systems,” Skadron said. “But if we can make that tractable, we can help do things like diagnose cancer patients.”

From an economic development perspective, the grant sounds like unalloyed good news. Kevin Skadron, chairman of the computer science department, says that he expects the university will garner some intellectual property rights from the research, providing funding for more research and innovation at the university. Who knows, perhaps UVa’s computer science school will form the nucleus of a Charlottesville-based innovation ecosystem that spins off new enterprises and highly paid private-sector jobs.

The program also could contribute to Virginia’s workforce development. According to a university press release, the center will create opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in research as well as internships with companies that are program sponsors. Tens of thousands of IT jobs in Virginia are going unfilled, and this program conceivably could increase the supply of qualified workers (although it’s not clear if Ph.D.s with expertise in computer design match up with the skills demanded by Virginia’s IT companies).

Before we get too excited, it’s also worthwhile asking, “Who’s paying for all this?” As the Daily Progress notes, “Over the past few years, UVa’s School of Engineering & Applied Sciences has been pouring investment into cyber infrastructure.”

In other words, UVa had to make a big investment to get the computer-science program to the point where it could attract the “memory wall” research grant. How big of an investment? The Daily Progress did not think to ask, and UVa apparently did not volunteer a number. Moreover, there is the matter of overhead. Research contracts typically allocate a negotiated percentage of the grant to cover overhead such as lab space, computers, the labor-intensive grant-application apparatus, and general administration. It would be useful to know how much this research grant pays for, and whether it fully covers all costs.

In recent posts, Bacon’s Rebellion has asked to what extend university R&D programs are subsidized by undergraduate tuition. Interestingly, the new Center for Research in Intelligent Storage and Processing in Memory, or CRISP, will fund positions for about 100 Ph.D. students. One might infer from the wording of the press release that the graduate-student positions will be fully funded by outside money. If that inference is correct, perhaps we can likewise assume that graduate student stipends are not being subsidized by undergraduate tuition. But we don’t know for sure until someone asks.

UVa and Virginia’s other research universities are not accustomed to much oversight of their research programs. Research institutions have been free to pursue their dreams of R&D glory by running monies through an accounting black box. Meanwhile, state policy is to foster university research, even to support it with General Fund dollars, in the name of economic development, so no one in state government is asking questions. 

The Daily Progress reporter didn’t ask where the money is coming from, what investments UVa made to reach the point where it qualified for the grant, and what ongoing obligations it might incur that aren’t covered by the grant. That’s no slight on the reporter — until a few months ago, I would have assumed that the grant meant, “Whoopee! Free money!” Indeed, I still don’t pretend to know how the system works. But I am going up the learning curve, and I’ll keep asking questions.

How Critical Is “High Quality” Electric Power?

Among the more influential business groups backing the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018 is the Northern Virginia Technology Council. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today, President Bobbie Kilberg outlines her reasons for supporting the legislation, which would repeal the electric rate freeze and plow utility over-earnings into modernization of the electric grid.

Kilberg cites several advantages of an upgraded grid, including faster responses to power outages and greater security against cyber sabotage or physical threats. What intrigued me most was this statement: “High-quality power must be available on a 24/7 basis; even minute disruptions can have serious consequences for technology-dependent businesses.”

What does Kilberg mean by “high-quality” power? My primitive understanding is that high-quality power equates to electric current subject to a minimum of voltage fluctuation and micro-interruptions. Electronic equipment is designed to work at a specific voltage, and one of the great challenges of electric utilities is to maintain stability as customers dial their consumption up and down and as power sources kick in and drop off. That challenge will grow as Virginia comes to rely increasingly upon intermittent solar power. The problems appear to be well understood, however, and technology exists to address the problem. It just needs to be installed.

So, here’s my question: Are tech companies more dependent upon high-quality electric power than ordinary businesses that rely upon computers? Are tech enterprises more vulnerable to minute fluctuations in voltage and frequency? What costs are imposed by variations in electric current that might be imperceptible to the rest of us? Finally, if the quality of electric power is an essential input for tech companies, would modernization of Virginia’s electric grid confer a competitive advantage for the Old Dominion? These questions would seem to deserve greater scrutiny.

If the answer is yes, high-quality electricity does confer a competitive advantage in the tech sector, that introduces an important and under-reported consideration into the debate over grid modernization. There may be multiple paths toward the goal of high-quality electricity — the Grid Transformation Act is not the only way to finance upgrades to the electric grid — but whichever approach we choose, it would be useful to gain a keener clearer understanding of the economic-development stakes involved.

The Crisis in African-American Student Indebtedness

The student loan default crisis is bad… and getting worse, finds Judith Scott-Clayton, a Brookings Institution scholar, based on her analysis of the latest student loan data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Debt and default has reached “crisis” levels among African-Americans, and even a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of security. Black B.A. graduates default at five times the rate of white B.A. graduates (21 versus 4 percent). Black graduates are even more likely to default than white dropouts.

Trends are most alarming among for-profit colleges, says the report, “The looming student loan crisis is worse than we thought.” The results, Scott-Clayton argues, justify robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, improve degree attainment, and promote income-contingent loan repayment options.

Remarkably, the conclusion that I find most obvious eludes Scott-Clayton: Student loans are handed out so indiscriminately, in such disregard to a student’s academic potential or prospects of repayment, that a program designed to promote social mobility for the poor and minorities has exploded like a Loonie Toons cigar. Student loans have become a instrument of immiseration for the very people they were designed to assist.

While the author’s public policy musings are debatable, her presentation of the data is useful. Rather than looking at the entire body of student borrowers, she tracks the fate of different student “entry cohorts” — those who entered postsecondary school in 1996 and and 2004 — and tracked them 12 years and 20 years after entry.

In this chart, we can see what happened to people who entered college in 2004 twelve years later. Despite significant financial assistance for lower-income students available at every four-year college and university, African-Americans racked up more than $21,000 in undergraduate debt on average. Total amount borrowed, which includes graduate school debt, was nearly $56,000. In contrast to other racial/ethnic groups, which managed to pay down some of the debt twelve years after entering college, African-Americans saw average debt loads increase — to $64,000. More than one in five blacks were in default, compared to one in twenty-five whites.

It fascinates me how social scientists such as Scott-Clayton obsess over the black-white differential. As the data clearly shows, Asians have the lowest default rate of any racial/ethnic group. Why aren’t Asians the standard for comparison? Why isn’t the disparity described as an Asian-black disparity and an Asian-white disparity? Because, I suspect, emphasizing the gap between whites and blacks reinforces the “white privilege” narrative, while framing the gap as between Asians and other groups would undermine the narrative. “Asian privilege” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

One thing seems undeniable, though: There is a student loan crisis among African-Americans. Scott-Clayton does her best to explain this crisis as the fault of for-profit institutions, which, in a narrow sense it is. But her analysis ignores a couple of things. First, there is considerable variability between for-profit institutions. Some are fly-by-night, others do a pretty good job of graduating their students and placing them in jobs. Second, there is considerable variability among non-profit colleges. Historically black colleges and universities have student loan profiles comparable to that of many for-profits.

The real problem runs much deeper. There is a widespread belief in America that everyone has a right to attend college and that the federal government should help make that education accessible by means of student loans. Moreover, there is an assumption that student lending programs should not “discriminate” against students on the basis of academic preparation, family financial resources, or other factors predicting the applicant’s likelihood of graduating and repaying their loans the grounds that blacks and minorities would be negatively impacted.

As these beliefs and assumptions play out in the real world, millions of African-Americans are winding up in financial peonage. As blacks accumulate loans that cannot be discharged, they ruin their credit scores, impair their net worth, ramp up their debt-to-asset ratios, and, as we have seen in a recent post (“Racism, Racism, Everywhere You Look,”), find that their home mortgage loans are rejected at a higher rate than whites.

But some people are incapable of peering past the paradigm of omnipresent racism. So scholars like Scott-Clayton try to frame the issue as for-profit colleges, and investigative reporters compile data purporting to show discrimination in mortgage lending without accounting for credit scores and debt-to-asset ratios. Thus, apologists for the status quo perpetuate policies that entrap African-Americans in poverty.

Grading Virginia at Crossover? Give them an A! 

by Chris Saxman

We are now on Day 38 of the General Assembly and only have 22 more days to go before Sine Die (adjournment) on March 10th. Tuesday of this week marked Crossover when each legislative chamber must have acted on its respective legislation, which is then sent over to the other chamber. House bills go to the Senate and the Senate bills go the House — the legislation “crosses over” to the other side of the Capitol.

If you are a follower of Virginia politics, you probably heard your inner monologue say, “Yes, I know. We do this every year.”

In November of 2014, leaders of Virginia FREE gathered at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs to examine the “Virginia Way” of governing. We were joined by former governors George Allen and Gerald Baliles who offered us their perspectives on how Virginia should govern itself following the trial and conviction earlier that year of former Governor Bob McDonnell. Baliles was then the Director and CEO of the Miller Center and had flown back the night before from the Clinton Presidential Library in order to participate.

Baliles offered that in order to restore broken trust, we must take the time to identify the real problems while intellectually agreeing on solutions through mutual respect and consensus. We also must work together to help our political leaders govern by example; however, it will take time. While that is not a direct quote, Baliles did quote 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asking us to “remember the context.”

So let’s “remember the context” of our political reality in this year’s General Assembly and gubernatorial inauguration of Governor Ralph Northam.

The election results of 2017 here in Virginia were, to say the very least, unexpected. Those results followed the unexpected results of the 2016 election. In fact, today marks the 32nd month since Donald Trump announced his campaign for President of the United States on June 16, 2015.

What’s the context then of the 2018 Virginia General Assembly? Consider the timeline first.

2014 – McDonnell conviction
2015 – Trump
2016 – Presidential nominations and elections
2017 – Virginia Governor and House of Delegates elections

Previously, I have shared the Napoleon quote “There is no destiny, only politics.” Now, allow me to insert into your consideration a quote from journalist Andrew Breitbart “Politics is downstream from culture.”

So what’s the context? Disruption. Massive disruption. Not simply change. Disruption.

Disruption – noun. disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process.

Our culture and economy have been disrupted. Naturally our political disruption then follows since we are a republican democracy in which we elect people to represent us. Elected officials reflect us.

Enter the 2018 General Assembly and newly inaugurated Governor Ralph Northam. New delegates (a lot of them – 19), a new executive branch, and a not so new building in which to work.

Chaos, right?

NO! Not at all. In fact, there is relative calm and a high level of productivity.

Amid all the disruption and potential for chaos, the ship of state is, so far, weathering the storm.

But why?

Well, it just doesn’t happen.

Speaker Vance Wilkins and I were walking across the varsity baseball field of Riverheads High School in the spring of 2002 following an event he had initiated for the nearby elementary school. It was a thrilling event for this old history and government teacher as scores of students and teachers were learning about American government. I said, “Mr. Speaker, that was awesome!” Wilkins never broke stride as we walked replying, “Thanks. You know, nothing happens without leadership.”

So what’s happening so far in Richmond?  Continue reading

The Accounting Games Universities Play

Slowly but surely penetrating the black box of higher-ed accounting

I have received correspondence from a professor, who prefers to remain unnamed and is employed at a Virginia university s/he prefers not to identify, regarding how colleges and universities account for the funding sources for research. Thinking that his/her observations would shed light on yesterday’s blog posts on the same subject, I publish them here.

At [University X], and most other institutions, the “source” of [research] funding is mostly a matter of labeling.

Faculty member Y is paid $100,000. At [University X], the “standard” teaching load is 12 semester hours per semester. Hardly any tenured or tenure-line faculty member actually teaches 12 hours, however. If I teach only 9 hours, then I am considered to have one-quarter of my time assigned to research and scholarly productivity. Hence, tote up $25,000 of my salary for research support. I suspect, but don’t know, that much of Virginia Tech’s huge institutional contribution comes from this sleight of hand. Wherever this occurs, if you do it for 1,000 faculty members, then the numbers add up.

Why play this game?  To make the research numbers look larger when [the National Science Foundation] and similar organizations report research rankings. Prestige. It’s analogous to reporting SAT scores, but leaving out a segment of the freshmen class (which several institutions in Virginia regularly find innovative ways to do).  The end result is that the data don’t really say what casual readers think they say.

There is partial legitimacy to this potential legerdemain if faculty actually are doing reputable things and one can see firm output. The practice breaks down, however, when one is dealing with a professor who really isn’t doing much of consequence, but is protected by colleagues who aver that he is working on something of long-range importance that eventually, surely will bear fruit, or they exaggerate the importance of this professor’s occasional contributions, or they protect him by including him as a co-author on a piece every now and then.  “He” obviously also could be “she” in these examples.

There is the additional ticklish issue of whether another article on Milton’s Paradise Lost really should be considered to have the same significance as pieces dealing with, say, cybersecurity, cancer, or drones. Should such disparate contributions really be equated by placing their released time dollar values in the same financial column?

More questions. Let us recall that Virginia Tech reported $219 million in research from “institutional” sources of funding in fiscal 2016. Where did those institutional funds come from? I speculated that they might originate from tuition, state support, or endowments. But my professorial friend from University X suggests that the funds really reflect the contribution of professors’ labor spent on research.

That raises a new set of questions. In just six years, Virginia Tech saw a $123 million surge in such “funding,” an increase of nearly 130%. Was the increase real or an accounting fiction? If it was real, it suggests a massive shift in the time that professors spent teaching to time spent “researching.” It also calls into question the seemingly impressive increase in R&D, which was coincidentally almost exactly the same amount: $124 million. Was Virginia Tech research activity truly booming over those six years, or did it flat-line? I suspect that Tech board members would like to know the answer to both questions.

One more point: My correspondent’s insight explains the mechanism by which undergraduate tuition and state support subsidizes research. Tuition and state support pay professors’ salaries and fringe benefits. A percentage of that compensation, reflecting professors’ time, is shifted from instruction to research. Over the years, it appears, an increasing share of faculty time is dedicated to less to instruction of the people paying the bills and more to research.

As I have said on many occasions, we cannot begin to understand the affordability crisis in higher education without deciphering higher-ed accounting and tracking the right metrics. Faculty productivity and the allocation of faculty time, we now know, is one of those metrics.

Teaching Race at UVA

Incoming! … Duck, T.J.!!

Ever wonder where the University of Virginia’s research dollars are going? Here’s one new initiative: “Teaching Race at UVA.”

The following missive was distributed to UVa faculty by Provost Thomas C. Katsouleas and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Kerry Abrams:

Faculty from all schools and departments at UVA are invited to participate in the first cohort of a faculty development seminar called “Teaching Race at UVA.” The seminar, sponsored by the Office of the Provost, will provide UVA faculty with an in-depth understanding of the history of race at UVA, in Charlottesville, and in the context of Virginia and the United States more broadly. The goal of this initiative is to equip a cohort of faculty from across UVA to be able to teach in their disciplines effectively in relation to the history and present reality of race and racism both locally and nationally.

All participants will receive $3,000 in research funds, with an additional $1,000 available to those who turn in revised syllabi that incorporate seminar content. These additional funds can be used to support site visits, guest speakers, research projects, or other aspects of the newly developed course. Please see the Call for Applications for more details about the program and for information about how to apply to participate.

The UVa website provides more details about the seminar itself:

All participants will be expected to incorporate at least part of the seminar content into an existing or new course.

The seminar will include the historical periods of early colonial Virginia, the founding of UVA, the history of enslaved laborers here and regionally, Emancipation, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and struggles for justice and equity by African Americans at UVA and in Charlottesville. We will connect historical events and struggles with contemporary concerns such as health, educational, and economic disparities, as well as white supremacist discourse and actions and present efforts toward justice and equity. Sessions will include a combination of site visits, presentations by subject matter experts, and discussions with colleagues.

Hmmm… Am I wrong to assume that the only non-politically correct points of view to be presented will be those of white supremacists? Will views of mainstream conservatives and libertarians be explored?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but this initiative looks like an effort to inject a social-justice-warrior perspective into a broad cross-section of courses that have nothing to do with race and race relations. I can think of nothing more damaging to the university than this. If the incoming administration wants to alienate a large swath of its alumni base and friends in the legislature, this is just the ticket.

I desperately hope my fears are unfounded. I will endeavor to find out more from UVa.

(Hat tip: Steve Haner)

Update: UVa spokesman Wesley Hester provided the following response to my questions regarding who would teach the courses, how much the initiative would cost, and whether journalists could attend the seminars:

The seminars are offered as part of UVA’s faculty development programming and will be taught by UVA faculty members and other subject matter experts, primarily scholars of history. The faculty members will offer historical perspectives on race and encourage open dialogue among the seminar participants. The Provost’s Office has not set a total budget yet as planning is ongoing. At this time, we are anticipating seven seminar sessions that range from three hours to half a day in length.

More details about the seminars will be announced as faculty proposals are reviewed and plans are finalized.

Racism, Racism Everywhere You Look

Pseudo-data alleging racial disparities in mortgage lending in Hampton Roads.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has published an in-depth analysis of lending data showing that African-Americans have been denied home loans at a significantly higher rate than whites in 48 out of the 61 metropolitan areas examined. The Virginian-Pilot picked up that research and published an article yesterday stating that African-American homebuyers in Hampton Roads were more than twice as likely than whites to have loans denied.

It just goes to show, if you look for racism hard enough, you’ll find it anywhere and everywhere.

Let’s take two theoretical findings. Let’s say six percent of whites have their loans denied, and 18% of blacks have their loans denied. That means blacks are three times more likely to be denied a mortgage! Now, let’s say that 94% of whites have their loans accepted, and 82% of blacks have their loans accepted. That means whites are only 14% more likely to qualify for a mortgage.

Which one sounds more racist to you? The first statement, right? Of course, the two statements are based on exactly the same data. It’s just that one is framed to make lending patterns look more racist and the other framed to appear the opposite. Which way did the Virginian-Pilot and Center for Investigative Reporting choose to present the data? The way that framed mortgage lending as racist.

Likewise, the investigative report emphasized that racial discrepancies were found in 48 metros, largely overlooking the fact that none were found in 13. Who would be interested in running a headline, “No Sign of Racism in Twenty Percent of American Cities”?

But the problems in the analysis run far deeper. The data is inherently flawed and useless.

The intrepid investigators describe how they adopted a “binary logistic regression” methodology that assesses the relationship between multiple independent variables against a single binary input (whether or not a mortgage was denied). Then it looked at nine different variables:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Sex
  • Whether or not there was a co-applicant
  • Applicant’s income
  • Loan amount
  • Ratio between loan amount and applicant’s income
  • Ratio between median income of the census tract and median income of the metro area
  • Racial and ethnic breakdown by percentage for each census tract
  • Regulating agency of the lending institution

The authors do concede that they leave out two important variables — credit scores and debt-to-income ratios — because the data is unavailable. However, those are the two of the most important variables of all! If someone has a lousy credit score, regardless of their income or income-to-mortgage ratio, lenders are less likely to finance a mortgage. If someone is loaded up with credit-card debt, student loan debt, or auto loan debt, those other obligations will figure rightly  into a bank’s calculations.

The Center for Investigative Reporting notes in its article that, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median net worth of African-American families is $9,000, while the median net worth for whites is $132,000. That’s a real disparity, and it’s based on complex historical reasons arising from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Society. But racially blind lending algorithms look at credit scores, net worth, and debt obligations — not the historical reasons behind them.

In sum, running a binary logistic regression without including the most critical lending variables is a worthless exercise, and making broad indictments of the mortgage banking industry on the basis of such worthless findings is reckless. Race relations are frayed enough as it is, and the last thing the country needs is another “study” alleging discrimination where it does not exist, and engendering resentment that is unwarranted. It’s bad enough that Russian bots are spreading fake news to intensify racial animosity. We don’t need journalists feeding the fire.

Like the boy who cries wolf, such studies deeply damage the credibility of those who issue the alarms. One is tempted to assume that the methodology of every study showing institutional racism is just as shoddy and the ideological biases of the authors are just as blatant. There is a danger that many people will ignore instances in which claims of racism actually are justified.

If a properly conducted study adjusted for credit scores, net worth and indebtedness, who knows, it might show that residual racism still exists. But after enough studies like this, millions of Americans would slough it off as more noise from social justice warriors passing themselves off as journalists.