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Education and “Internet Time” June 30, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in Teaching, university.
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I saw this link on techcrunch go by discussing the state of venture capital in the education sector. There is a general feeling, at least in the article, that when dealing with universities that things are not moving at internet speed:

“The challenge is, in general, education is a pretty slow to move category, particularly if you’re trying to sell into schools and universities … In many cases they don’t seem to show the sense of urgency that the corporate world does.” says Steve Murray, a partner with Softbank Capital, and investor in the education technology company, EdCast.

I had to laugh a bit. Duh. MOOC’s are a classic example. Massively Open Online Courses – a way to educate large numbers of people with a very small staff. The article refers to the problems with this, actually:

The first generation of massively open online courses have had (well-documented) problems with user retention.

So why have universities been so slow to just jump into the latest and greatest education technology? Can you imagine sending your kid to get a degree from the University of Washington, where they are trying out some new way of education that, frankly, fails on university scale? We are a publically funded university. We’d be shut! The press, rightly, would eat us alive. No institution is going to jump before they look and move their core business over to something that hasn’t been proven.

Another way to look at this, perhaps, is that each University has a brand to maintain. Ok, I’m not a business person here, so I probably am not using the word in quite the right way. None the less. My department at the University of Washington, the Physics Department, is constantly looking at the undergraduate curricula. We are, in some sense, driven by the question “What does it mean to have a degree from the University of Washington Physics Department?” or “What physics should they know?” or another flavor: “They should be able to explain and calculate X by the time they are awarded the degree.” There is a committee in the department that is responsible for adjusting the courses and material covered, and they are constantly proposing changes.

So far only certain technological solutions have an obvious “value proposition.” For example, the online homework websites. This enables students to practice problems without having to spend a huge amount of money on people who will do the grading of the exams. Learning Management Systems, like Canvas, allows us to quickly setup a website for the course that includes just about everything we need as teachers, saving us bunch of time.

Those examples make teaching cheaper and more efficient. But that isn’t always the case. Research (yes, research!!!) has shown that students learn better when they are actively working on a problem (in groups of peers is even more powerful) – so we can flip the class room: have them watch lectures on video and during traditional lecture time work in groups. To do it right, you need to redesign the room… which costs $$… And the professor now has to spend extra time recording the lectures. So there is innovation – and it is helping students learn better.

I think most of us in education will happily admit to the fact that there are inefficiencies in the education system – but really big ones? The problem with the idea that there are really big inefficiencies is that no one has really shown how to educate people on the scale of a University in a dramatically cheaper way. As soon as that happens the inefficiencies will become obvious along with the approach to “fix” them. There are things we need to focus on doing better, and there are places that seem like they are big inefficiencies… and MOOC’s will have a second generation to address their problems. And all of us will watch the evolution, and some professors will work with the companies to improve their products… but it isn’t going to happen overnight, and it isn’t obvious to me that it will happen at all, at least not for the bulk of students.

Education is labor intensive. In order to learn the student has to put in serious time. And as long this remains the case, we will be grappling with costs.


Really? Is it that different? May 11, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in life, university.

An article from the New York Times is making its rounds on various social media circles I’m a member of, “What is the Point of a Professor?” It has lots of sucker-punch quotes, like

But as this unique chapter of life closes and they reflect on campus events, one primary part of higher education will fall low on the ladder of meaningful contacts: the professors.

Or this one:

In one national survey, 61 percent of students said that professors frequently treated them “like a colleague/peer,” while only 8 percent heard frequent “negative feedback about their academic work.” More than half leave the graduation ceremony believing that they are “well prepared” in speaking, writing, critical thinking and decision-making.

Obviously implicit is that they aren’t well prepared! This is from an op-ed bit written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory. He also authored a book titled (which I have not read):

“The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”

You can probably already tell this has pissed me off. Smile

This sort of hatchet job of a critique of university students gets it part-right, but, I think, really misses the point. Sorting through the article and trying to pull out a central idea that he wants all professors to adopt, I came away with this quote:

Since the early 2000s, I have made students visit my office every other week with a rough draft of an essay. We appraise and revise the prose, sentence by sentence. I ask for a clearer idea or a better verb; I circle a misplaced modifier and wait as they make the fix.

This one-on-one interaction he stresses as the cure for all the ills he has outlined. Let me just say that if I were devote this much time to each of my students I’d still be single. In the modern day and age of universities and professor’s lives (and jobs), there just isn’t time! Too many people want a university education, and there just isn’t enough money in the education system to fun this sort of interaction (and it is getting worse in many of the national largest publics).


But, frankly, if I look at my life and my work, it doesn’t seem that bad. I’m constantly mentoring undergraduates and graduate students. He claims that professors who do research don’t want interaction with their students because it detracts from their research… I doubt it is any different in English than it is in Physics – but that interaction is pretty much the only way I can get good undergraduates to start working with me! And I’m far from alone at the University of Washington.

The two views (I’m doing plenty of mentoring and his that there isn’t enough contact) are compatible: student/professor ratios are an easy explanation. But that isn’t everything – my students are not the same sort of student I was. This quote really irked me as being rather arrogant:

Naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding.

Wow. I don’t think he has met most of my students! By the time they get to me they have a pretty good understanding of how the world works. I can help guide them though quantum mechanics and the philosophical questions that raises, but the internet and their friend groups are much stronger influences than I am for everything else!

His book title also makes me think he has missed everything that the new digital age has to offer. It feels like the constant discussion I have when organizing a conference: should we turn off wifi in the conference room and force everyone to listen to the talks, or leave it on? I see benefits and detriments to both – but you can’t hold back progress. Especially as the younger generations grow up and start attending conferences this will not be an option. And they and forward conference organizers will find ways to use it to the attendee’s benefit – the same way I hope it will happen in classrooms. I should say as a caveat, I don’t know anyone has universally cracked that nut yet!

In short:

  • He is right, in large classes can undermine the interaction between students and professors. Blame lies not just with the professors as his article implies here.
  • There is a lot of interaction going on none-the-less. Taking advantage of electronic communication, not just in-person.
  • Undergraduates learn at a university from many sources (e.g. the internet, social groups/media, etc.) in a way they didn’t a generation ago. This is good, not bad.
  • The kids are better than he seems to be giving them credit for. Smile

Edit: I originally saw this post in my fb feed, and my friend Salvatore Rappoccio had a fantastic response. It was private at the time, but now that he has made his reply to the article public”":

What? I can’t hear you over the four undergrad students I’m sending to Fermilab for the summer or the two undergrads per semester I’ve mentored for three years. If you want to chat you’ll have to take a number behind the 20-ish students per semester I sit down with for philosophical discussions or career advice outside of my office hours. I have, in the last semester, discussed physics, career choices, fatherhood, kerbal space program, and drywalling with a 3-tour vet, a guy working full time as a contractor to put himself through school, an electrician going back to school for engineering, and a student practically in tears that I bothered to tell her that she improved a lot over the semester, just to name the most memorable ones.

So What’s the point of a professor, you ask?

To educate, obviously. And not just in the classroom. Maybe it’s just you who falls into the “useless” category.

Big Time University Presidents February 5, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

I was going to write about something else this month, but this really got to me. My university, the University of Washington, just lost its president, Michael Young, to Texas A&M. I have issues at many levels with this. First, on the trivial side, I went to the University of Texas at Austin. Big football rivalry… they would catch our mascot and brand him, we would… well. You get the idea.

First let me say that I like the guy. And I think what he has been doing at the UW is generally the right thing. He has seems effective, and the state legislature seems to like him (amazingly important for a State school). I have no real problems with him as president at UW. In fact, I wish he would have continued. He as been quoted in papers as saying that money is the reason he is leaving – but it is the size of the funding for Texas A&M, not his salary. The Texas schools are remarkably well funded for public institutions, btw. This is probably true. But still…

But there are several things that really get to me about this move. First, he just arrived. He was settled on as a president of UW in April of 2011, and started the following summer/fall. The University of Washington is like a giant container ship: if you are going to turn it, it will take many years to do it! I don’t think he really has been at UW long enough to effect any real change. Course adjustments, and some ground work for a new directions, perhaps. But that is all. We’ve had a revolving door of presidents recently – no one staying for very long. Public education is going through a very bumpy time right now – it seems that in general the public is divesting itself, and navigating the politics of establishing a new relationship with the state requires a relationship with the state legislature. Beyond that, there is just the idea that UW needs to settle down and concentrate on doing things, rather than being constantly distracted by searches like this. I believe we are the largest recipient of federal grants for research of any public university in the United States. We should be concentrating on teaching and research (and our hospital), not distracted by another year long search for a new president. As a result I find this sudden departure frustrating on an intellectual level.

But I find this frustrating on a more emotional level as well. It took me a day or two to figure this out. But these presidents that show up, are basically rock stars, and then walk away, discarding the old institution as if it was just a stepping stone on their career goals. What am I? Chopped liver? Smile The problem is that I put a lot of my self into this job. You insult my job, you insult me. Ok, perhaps not the most healthy, but, frankly, I can’t imaging doing a job that I wasn’t passionate about. And Young being here for such a short time and then moving on (to what sounds like a much higher paid job) is difficult for me to swallow. Is money really all that drives presidents of large universities these days? I want a president that is as invested in my University as I am. And so this really “irks” me.

Again, I have to ask. Texas A&M? Really? Winking smile

Under Attack March 23, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, university, University of Washington.

I’ve been trying not to make a comment on the budget situation in the USA. Or on the current discussion about teacher pay and benefits. Or about the state of science funding in this budget atmosphere. Or the drive to eliminate the Department of Education. Or the revival of the teach the controversy push. Others have made the case much more eloquently than I could have. This is more of a personal take on some of this: I’ve never felt under attack quite the way I do right now.

There seems to be a concerted attack on science funding in the US at the federal level. The feds fund most research that is too long term for a company to fund – which is becoming more and more as the stock market forces companies to think more and more short term. A healthy research program in a country needs to contain a balance for the sake of the long-term health of the economy. And a healthy economy is the only way to make jobs. The large cuts that are reputed to befall the Office of Science, which funds most of the national labs, will force lab closures. Facilities where we do science – gone! 1000’s of people layed off. Heck, if you are trying to cut out 60 billion you can take a guess as to how many jobs that is worth. At $100,000 per person per year – so really nice jobs! – that is another .6 million added to the unemployment roles. Right. That’s going to turn out well!

Second is this constant discussion about teacher pay. I’ve seen comments on newspaper articles with statements like “we are just paying them to babysit our kids.” Seriously?? Maybe we should just eliminate the schools and have the kids all at home. No formalized education system. Now, that has never been done before! And so obviously it must be better! Oh… wait. I guess it has been done before. I think it was called the middle ages… Arrgh! Yes, our K-12 system needs some real work. But beating the crap out of teachers in newspapers is not the way to get good people into the classroom! And the idea that teachers are overpaid paid? Seriously? [I’m not trying to channel Grey’s Anatomy here] I find that hard to believe. Perhaps they are getting better retirement plans for what they are paid – but I suspect that is because when the unions couldn’t negotiate a pay raise – so they went for an increase in the pension. I wonder if you paid teachers a more fair wage, but kept their pension plans the same size, if the rate would be more in line with normal?

On a more local note, one of our state legislators was heard to say “Higher education is a luxury we no longer can afford.” I don’t even know where to start with that. Washington is like every other state, it has some rich people and some poor people. UW is a state school – the state provides subsidies for the in-state students to make it more affordable. A robust state and federal scholarship program back fill for people really in need. The idea is if you are good and you want to get a higher level education, the federal government, the state government, and the university will do its best to make sure that finances do not get in your way. This has been a bedrock of all higher education in the USA for many years now. Do we go back to a class based system? What are people thinking, really? I get they are trying to cut the budget, but think for a few minutes about the implications of what you are saying!

And to those who say education is radically more expensive than it has been in the past – at the UW that is definitely true that the cost an instate student pays has gone up a lot over the last 10-15 years. Definitely more than inflation(by a bit). But if you look at the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant. Wait. For. It… That is right! State support has dropped dramatically. So the university has to cut expenses and find other sources of income – i.e. raise tuition. Blaming the university for this is misplaced. Last year in the state of Washington after the state legislature cut the UW funding by 26% the university raised tuition by 14% over two years. Legislatures were known to stand up at town halls, etc., and express their displeasure at UW for doing that in hard economic times. I’m happy with them being displeased – I was displeased – but at least be honest and say that the state cut 26% of the university’s funding. It isn’t like that was a capricious raise!

Next is another is the push to increase the teaching load. I currently teach one class a quarter – so three a year (I get paid for only the 9 months that I’m teaching – I have to find my own funding for the rest of the year). That one class is about 3 hours in the class room in front of students. Pretty cushy, eh!? I taught graduate particle physics this year. This is my third year so I’d like to think that I know it by now (not) – but all told during the week it would take about 20 hours of my time. The first time I taught it – when I had to teach myself some field theory – it was taking more like 50 hours a week. When I teach the easier undergraduate courses I tend to have 100’s of students – so it also works out to be about 20 hours a week. Some weeks a lot less, some a lot more. So, it would seem I have at least enough time to take on another course! Except there is one big problem here – my job isn’t just to teach undergraduates. My job is to also teach graduate students, mentor post-docs, and do research. UW is the #1 public institution in the USA when it comes to bringing in $$ from grants. You add another class, then you will effectively change the nature of the University of Washington – make it a teaching institution rather than a research institution. The ramifications of something like that are huge – rankings, desirability, research & undergrads, etc. Do people to say things like this understand how all this is connected?

This last election brought in a lot of new people (at least at the federal level). I remember being elected to a few positions having to do with HEP. I had all sorts of ideas – but I discovered that when I arrived that all the decisions that had been made were all made for a reason! They weren’t arbitrary. You can’t go wrecking around like a bull in a china shop – you have to carefully consider what you are doing and the ramifications. I get the feeling many of these new folks just don’t care. Really just don’t care. Even worse, they don’t know history – which means they are doomed to repeat it. Many of the ideas on the table around America have been tried before – if not here, then other places. I would love them to take a careful look. There is plenty of room for new things to achieve some of the same goals – why not try them rather than closing your eyes and just letting the knife fall where it may? In physics we call this a “prescale” – we just randomly through out data because we have too much. Here we are randomly throwing out programs because we have too little. In both cases this is an implicit admission of defeat: we aren’t smart enough to make a strategic cut.

Ok. Enough. Thank goodness there is a counter balance in most cases to these drives to change things so radically. It won’t be pleasant, but the system is too large and what comes out of it too valuable to actually destroy it in a few short years, despite best efforts of some. Now that I’ve vented, back to working on my classes and my research!

Update: Fixed “under paid” –> “over paid”. Of all the typo’s! Smile

Tests are Good for You January 21, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Teaching, university, University of Washington.

The New York Times had an article the other day talking about a discovery that is making rounds:

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

I’m here to tell you: duh!

In fact, we’ve institutionalized this in our physics graduate schools. Most university physics departments have the mother-of-all tests. Here at UW we call it the Qualifying Exam. Others call it a prelim (short for preliminary). And there is a joke associated with this exam, usually said with some bitterness if you’ve not passed it yet, or some wistfulness if you long since have passed it:

You know more physics the day you take the qual than you ever do at any other time in your life.

The exam usually happens at the end of your first year in graduate school. The first year classes are hell. Up to that point in my life it was the hardest I’d ever worked at school. Then the summer hits, and you get a small rest. But it is impossible to rest staring down the barrel of that exam, often given at the end of the summer just before the second year of classes start. You have to pass this exam in order to go on to get your Ph.D. And for most of us, it is the last (formal) exam in our career that actually matters. So physiologically, it is a big hurdle as well.

How hard is it? My standard advice to students is that they should spend about one month studying, 8 hours a day. For most people, if they study effectively, that is enough to get by. Some need less and some need more. This is about what it took me. What is the test like? At UW ours is 2 hours per topic, closed book, and all it is is working out problems. No multiple choice here! It lasts two days.

So, how do you study? There is, I think, really only one way to get past this. For 30 days, 8 hours a day, work out problems. There are lots of old qualifier problems on websites. Our department provides students with copies of all the old exams. Even if you don’t know the solution, you force your self to try to work it out with out looking it up in a book – break your brain on it. Once you can solve those problems with out having to look at a text book, you know you are ready. Imagine trying to study by reading a text book, or by reviewing your first year homework problems. There is no way your brain will be able to work out a new problem after that unless you are a very unique individual.

Note how similar this is to the results shown in the article:

In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions.

A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

The last group did the best, as you might imagine from the theme of this post!

This is also how you know more physics than at any other time in your life. At no other time do you spend 30 days working out problems across such a broad spectrum of physics topics. If you study and try to work out a sufficiently broad spectrum of problems you can breeze through the exam (literally, I remember watching one guy taking it with me just nail the exam in about half the time of the rest of us).

Working out problems  – without any aids – is active learning. I suppose you could follow the article and say that forcing the brain to come up with the solution means it organizes the information in a better way… Actually, I have no idea what the brain does. But, so far this seems to be the best way to teach yourself. You are actively playing with the new concepts and topics. This is why homework is absolutely key to a good education. And this is why tests are good – if you study correctly. If you actively study for the test (vs. just reading the material) then you will learn the material better.

And we need to work better at designing tests that force students to study actively. For example, I feel we are slipping backwards sometimes. With the large budget cuts that universities are suffering one byproduct is the amount of money we have to hire TA’s to help grade our large undergraduate classes is dropping. That means we can’t ask as many open-ended exam questions – and have to increase the fraction of multiple choice. It is much harder to design a test that goes after problem solving in physics using multiple choice. This is too bad.

So, is this qualifier test hazing process? Or is there a reason to do it? Actually, that is a point of controversy. Maybe there is a way to force the studying component without the high-anxiety of the make-or-break exam. Certainly some (very good) institutions have eliminated the qual. Now, if we could figure out how to do that and still get the learning results we want…

The Higher Ed Protests in California January 18, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, university.

I suspect most readers of this blog have seen or heard about the protests in California staged by students at the Berkley, Davis, and other campuses. As a member of a state that that had the worst single-year cut in its support of higher education until California whacked its system, I was quite happy to see some folks complaining about it in a way that got real press. Of course, this took more than it should have: they shut down buildings, there were some mass arrests. I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt (but I’m not sure). Things have been amazingly silent up here in Washington. Students have staged small protests, but as far as I can tell no one in the papers noticed.

I’m getting most of my information about California from a recent New Yorker article, A Letter From California, which tries to give an inside look at what has been going on there. I don’t like the article too much – it spends most of its time concentrating on one woman, only to suddenly decide at the end that perhaps she isn’t the real story. However, it does a good job at explaining many of the moving parts. Short conversations with some of my friends in California seem to back this version of events. I also was attending a workshop in UC Davis, arriving the day after students took over a building and the police brought in helicopters to flush them out.

The students have (as far as I can tell) two targets: high administration salaries and tuition hikes. The second one they should definitely be mad at. Ca is raising their cost of in-state tuition by 32% in one year! One year! UW is raising it 14% two years in a row – so 28% – almost the same as Ca, just spread over two years. Ouch! That said, both institutions are doing their best to put financial aid in place to help students who need it pay for the increases, and compared to private schools these two public, state, institutions are still an good bargain. It is important to keep in mind that in Ca the university system has direct control over the tuition and in Washington while the legislature has direct control, UW doesn’t have to raise the fees even if the legislature gives them permission – so it seems logical that university administrations be a target over the anger in tuition increases.

Second: the administration. I’ve seen the president of the Ca system, Yudof, and the president of the UW system, Emmert, have both been targets of their respective school student’s anger. And, it would seem, main targets in some cases.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see why they are easy targets. They make boat-loads of money. In some respects, they are a symbol of the general corporate drift of public universities – and get paid to match (i.e. they get paid a lot). And cutting their salaries and those of the top administrators down would certainly free up some cash.

But in the grand scale of things – it won’t free up that much cash. For example, the budget that was put together for UW last year by the state had our funding dropping by 26%. That is close to a 70 million cut in UW’s yearly budget. If you slashed all the administrators salaries to be mine, I suspect you’d save about 2 million per year. Those salaries aren’t the main problem!

The problem is the what the state! Higher education is not a priority. In California they spend more on prisons than they do on higher education! That doesn’t seem right – invest in the future, not the past! In Washington higher education is one of the few expenses that isn’t required by some law – so it is also something that gets cut often:

emmert_budget[1]That red line on the right hand side is the funding per full time student (adjusted for 2009 dollars) from 1990 until the present. While this last drop was steep – this has been going on a long time. Public universities all over the USA have been seeing similar trends – this is not unique to California or Washington – it is just particularly bad here.

And, I think, that is where most of the anger of the students should be directed. The president of UW, Emmert, has decided that the state really doesn’t care any more – and that red curve will never return to its former level – so it is time to stop acting like it will and move on and negotiate a new relationship with the state. Still a public university, perhaps, but not in the same way. No matter what there will always be a better deal for in-state students – but that only works to the level that the state continues to kick in some cash. I suspect he is right – and it is too bad.

While the anger might sometimes be misdirected (and it sounds like the Ca administration made some pretty serious missteps), I do hope that in the future most students target legislators and other government officials. Who knows, perhaps a constitutional amendment is the answer?

Tuition Rates Going Up == Evil Universities October 29, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

The CollegeBoard recently did a study for college tuition prices with the sub-title Public Four-Year Tuition Continues to Rise at Faster Rate than Private Four-Year Tuition. The report actually isn’t that bad:

The College Board announced today that college prices for the 2009-10 academic year continue to rise as state funding and endowment values decline. The financial difficulties facing households across the nation are putting increased pressure on financial aid budgets.

This was picked up by lots of news paper articles – for example this one from the AP:

With the economy struggling, parents and students dared to hope this year might offer a break from rising college costs. Instead, they got another sharp increase.

Average tuition at four-year public colleges in the U.S. climbed 6.5 percent, or $429, to $7,020 this fall as schools apologetically passed on much of their own financial problems, according to an annual report from the College Board, released Tuesday. At private colleges, tuition rose 4.4 percent, or $1,096, to $26,273.

From there it turned into articles talking about how universities were taking advantage of the students and families. At least the article that appeared in the New York Times got the real reason right – here is paragraph 2:

Hit hard by state budget cuts, four-year public colleges raised tuition and fees by an average of 6.5 percent last year. Prices at private colleges rose 4.4 percent, according to a report issued Tuesday by the College Board.

The next quote in that article takes a sharp left turn into.. well:

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, called the increases “hugely disappointing.”

“Given the financial hardship of the country, it’s simply astonishing that colleges and universities would have this kind of increases,” Mr. Callan said. “It tells you that higher education is still a seller’s market. The level of debt we’re asking people to undertake is unsustainable.

I’m sorry, but give me a break. I totally understand the tuition problem. My university is going to raise tuition by 30% over the course of two years. Ouch. That will certainly strain students that don’t have financial aid. But what exactly were people expecting?

The state of Washington cut almost 30% of the UW budget. The voters in Washington made it clear that there were other priorities. So, UW has two choices: shrink by 30% in 6 months (about the length of time we knew what was going to happen). Shrinking by 30% is certainly possible – but it would be huge. We’d have to take about 30% less students than we do now – that probably would mean no incoming students this year at all (or we would have to kick out students that were already here), fire 30% of the faculty, close lots of departments. Probably have to completely kill off research. Actually, that would help with firing 30% of the faculty – most of us would just leave as fast as we could. Students who came to a major research university for learning would now be at what was basically a teaching college full of very pissed off professors – not what they signed up for. So Seattle raised tuition by 30% and took a 6% over all cut to the operating budget. All signs point to the same thing happening in the next two year budget as stimulus money disappears.

So look – we like to call these things public universities – but that implies public support. Frankly, the more the state backs out of its implied contract with the university, the more like a private university these institutions will look. At some point the state support will be small enough that the universities will want to change their relationship with the state. Heck, why deal with the oversight if they aren’t getting anything in return for it!?

Somewhere out there there is a year-by-year trend plot of state support of universities. It has been steadily falling for over 20 years. This last year was particularly bad, but not really that different from the trend overall. California is at risk of destroying one of the best university systems in the country over this very same issue.

Want to keep tuition down? Keep public universities accessible? Don’t just yell “cut costs, get rid of waste” at the universities. Make sure your state legislature continues to support the university as well. The budget has to balance. If the state gives less, then that extra money has to come from somewhere!

Ah, the soap box. How I have missed thee.

Fizzle! August 4, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, Fermilab, LHC, Tenure, university.

The biggest, most expensive physics machine in the world is riddled with thousands of bad electrical connections.


So starts a mostly accurate article in the New York Times about the current state of the LHC. There is good news and bad news in this sentence. To paraphrase a famous politician currently sight-seeing north of South Korea, it really depends on your definition of the word bad. To most people, if someone says that the electrical connection between your light and the wall socket is bad, then that means your light won’t work. That is the normal definition of bad. We High Energy Physicists have a different definition of bad. 🙂

For us, bad means that the connection isn’t going to conduct as much current as it could (I had a blog post about this a while back – but this article contains an excellent explanation – well worth registering if you have to to read it). And this is the reason behind the timing of this article. As I mentioned in that article it would not be until the beginning of August that the LHC group of scientists would have finished measuring all those connections – all those splices – and know exactly how bad they were. Tomorrow the LHC and CERN will announce exactly what energy they will run the LHC at initially.

But scientists say it could be years, if ever, before the collider runs at full strength, stretching out the time it should take to achieve the collider’s main goals…

And that is the bad part of the news. The bad connections mean that we can’t run at the full 14 TeV energy – we will run something short of that (I’m betting it will be 7.5 TeV – if I get it right it isn’t because I have inside information from the accelerator group!). The article is correct that running at this reduced energy won’t give us the access to the science we’d all expected and hoped for if we were running at 14 TeV.

But another thing to keep in mind is: we need data. Any data. And not to discover something new – because we need to tune up and commission our detectors! We’ve never run these things in anything but a simulated collider environment or looking for cosmic rays. We would probably be able to keep ourselves busy for almost a year with two months of data.

Peter Limon, a physicist from Fermilab got it right:

“These are baby problems,” said Peter Limon, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., who helped build the collider.

Indeed, these are birthing problems – no one has ever run a machine like this before. Which brings me to the one spot in the article that got my hackles up:

“I’ve waited 15 years,” said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “I want it to get up running. We can’t tolerate another disaster. It has to run smoothly from now.”

Nima, whom I also know (and like), is a theorist. If an experimentalist said this we would all make them run outside turn around three times, and spit to the north to cancel the jinx they would have just placed on the machine. I think we can all guarantee that there are going to be other failures and problems that occur. We hope none of them are as bad as this last one. But if they are, we will do exactly what we’ve done up to now: pick up the bits, study them, figure out exactly what we did wrong, and then fix it better than it was originally made, and try again.

There was one last quote in that article I would have liked to have seen more of a back story to:

Some physicists are deserting the European project, at least temporarily, to work at a smaller, rival machine across the ocean.

The story behind this is fascinating because it is where science meets humanity. The machine across the ocean is the Tevatron at Fermilab (I’m on one of the experiments there, DZERO). There is plenty of science still there, and the race for the Higgs is very much alive – more so with each delay in the LHC. So scientifically it is attractive. But, there is also the fact that a graduate student in the USA must use real data in their thesis. Thus the delays in the LHC mean that it will take longer and longer for the graduate students to graduate. In the ATLAS LHC experiment the canonical number of graduate students quoted I hear is about 800. Think of that – 800 Ph.D.’s all getting ready to graduate – about 1/3rd or more of them waiting for the first data (talk about a “big bang”). Unfortunately, you can’t be a graduate student forever – so at some point the LHC is taking long enough and you have to move back to the USA in order to get a timely thesis. Similar pressures exist for post-docs and professors trying to get tenure.

UPDATE: Just announced earlier today: they will start with 3.5×3.5 – that is, 7 TeV center of mass. This is exactly half the design energy of the LHC. The hope is that if all runs well at that energy they can slowly ramp up to 4×5 or 8 TeV. At 8 things start to get interesting as a decent amount of data at 8 will provide access to things that the Fermilab Tevatron can’t. Fingers crossed all goes well!

More Ca July 14, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

From an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Faculty and staff members at the University of California will be placed on furlough starting in September for seven to 26 days per year, according to a plan released today by the system’s president, Mark G. Yudof. The plan, which is expected to be approved by the university’s Board of Regents next week, will amount to a salary cut of 4 to 10 percent, with the highest-earning employees facing the largest cuts.

The temporary furlough will push the university’s faculty compensation to about 20 percent behind comparative institutions, university officials said at a news conference. “We’re going to really have to work hard to come up with creative means to retain the excellent faculty that we have now and to further recruit people,” said Mary Croughan, chair of the university’s Academic Senate.

I feel for California. The state of Washington was in the same place. They are cutting salaries, reducing classes offered, and increasing tuition to try to close the budget gap. We did almost the same thing except for the salary cuts (and we raised tuition considerably more than they did). The trade off is interesting. That second paragraph points out the danger to this approach – others will poach the faculty. Hopefully California can fix the problems they have (economy comes back enough, change proposition 13, etc.) – they have some time as very few people have money to be poaching other universities.

Things are bad here in Washington, but at least I know the future and can plan on the cuts. The California budget crisis is still ongoing – and perhaps the legislature will pull back at the last minute. But given the constraints I don’t see how that will happen. The University of California system is one of the gems in the nation – it is too bad seeing something like this happen.

Stop Making Fun Of Me! July 6, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.


This cartoon made me a bit sensitive. Here I am in the South of France. I’m in an apartment with a great view of the sea… It sure feels like I’m kicking back. Of course, I’m still working like crazy (especially since my family hasn’t joined me yet). What was the first thing I spent money on here in Marseille? It wasn’t cheese. It wasn’t even Pastis. It was a bit 1080p monitor for my computer so I could work efficiently from the apartment I’m renting. I spent 150 euros for my three months here.

But 2 days a week? What university is that guy planning on working in!? 🙂 And do they pay decent money? Sign me up!