Monday, January 6, 2014

Always Suspected

There’s a surprisingly common belief in this country that major universities – and especially those with highly successful sports teams – maintain phantom courses on their schedule; classes that are recorded and graded as if they were normal academic subjects but which never meet and for which no work is ever required. It’s part of the stereotype of all college athletes being dumb jocks who are only there to play their particular sport, and of college athletics as hopelessly corrupt – effectively professional sports in everything but name. Like most generalizations, this one is at least partly hogwash. I have had a number of student-athletes in my classes at Michigan State, and I can confirm that all of them sat for their own exams and did their own in-class work, often brilliantly. I’ve actually had fewer attendance problems with the athletes in my classes than I have with the general population, and I’ve never heard of any of these “phantom” classes, at least in the Business School. According to a story that popped up last month, however, this may not be the case at North Carolina…

You can pick up the original story on the New York TimesSports page online if you want to, but what they’re talking about is an internationally-known professor and long-serving chairman of the African and Afro-American studies department at UNC Chapel Hill being indicted for having received payment for teaching classes that never happened – and which mainly enrolled athletes from North Carolina’s more popular and lucrative varsity teams. In many universities this sort of thing would be detected quickly, since it is unusual for the chair of a department to teach classes at all, and typical oversight would have noticed something fishy, but apparently the African and Afro-American studies department and related disciplines at UNC are highly Balkanized, and very little scrutiny is given to anything. The first, and frequently only, defense against this kind of shenanigans is the supervision of the department chair – which will not help much when he or she is the one committing the fraud…

Now, it’s possible that this is an isolated case, and the rest of the classes taken by student-athletes at North Carolina are completely legitimate. It’s even possible that this whole story is a misunderstanding, a witch hunt, or just really bad record-keeping, and that none of these allegations will prove to be true – there has been no court decision yet, and until there is we must assume that the professor in our story is innocent. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that every one of these accusations is correct, or even that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m calling it to your attention mostly because of the breakdown this represents in the university system – and the fact that any of these events are taking place is enough to prove that the breakdown, at least, is very real…

In almost any business enterprise, the individual who spends the money and the individual who authorizes the expenses should not be the same person. In the case of publically-held corporations, third-party audits are a Federal requirement, and in most government organizations (including state universities) the fiscal officer who reviews expenditures (including salary) can’t be the same person who is authorizing those expenditures. Unfortunately, such protocols are often ignored or circumvented as cumbersome, slow, or wasteful, since “everyone knows” that their company or agency would never hire anyone who would falsify financial records in the first place. In extreme cases this leads to scandals like the Enron and Global Crossing situations, but in academia it can lead to a well-respected institution granting college credit for classes that never actually existed…

In the long run I strongly suspect that the UNC case will prove to be a rare aberration in an otherwise honorable profession. Whether that will come about because no one is actually perpetrating such frauds, or because everyone else in America who is guilty of such malfeasance takes the hint from this case and starts looking for other ways to game the system remains to be seen, of course…

Saturday, January 4, 2014

For-Profit Revisited

A few months ago I wrote in this space about the issue of for-profit colleges, and the ongoing debate regarding whether these can be considered legitimate institutions of higher learning, or if they are actually a means of suckering prospective students into paying large amounts of money for meaningless degrees and certificates. I was forced to conclude that it depends on the college. On the one hand, there are some instructors at University of Phoenix, for example, whom I know personally and can attest that they know their subject and teach worthwhile lessons; on the other hand, you have “schools” like the so-called Trump University which don’t even pretend to offer anything that an accrediting body would consider education. Reports of outright fraud have remained rare, however, which is what makes a story from last month so disturbing…

According to a piece on the Huffington Post Business page, an outfit in Atlanta that calls itself Everest College has been paying local companies up to $3,000 to hire their graduates and continue employing them for long enough to claim these dubious positions as “placements.” Similar accusations have been made regarding Everest facilities in six other states, and the linked story claims that the school’s parent company, Corinthian Colleges, was behind these practices – which would make this systematic fraud. There are legal actions pending in several of the states, including California, which claim that the entire set-up is nothing more than a scam to obtain money by getting customers to take out massive student loans (which can never be discharged in bankruptcy or otherwise escaped) in return for technical and professional training which is generally no help in getting a job in the first place…

Naturally, the company is claiming that all of these complaints are coming from a few disgruntled former students, and that all of the accounts of fraudulent behavior are being taken out of context. And, in fairness, we should probably concede that Huffington Post is not the most pro-business organization in the world. But given some of the complaints profiled in the linked story, the idea that these are all misrepresentations or isolated incidents passes beyond credibility and into the fantastical. The company’s advertising claims are a matter of public record, and so are the amounts paid for tuition – many of which would be preposterous for any college or university, let alone for a six-month certificate program in a technical skill that would be useless without years of experience and a contractor’s license…

Now, we should also note that it is possible for the average person to identify what entry-level jobs in a given field are likely to pay – there are a number of online salary calculators that will even account for the region in which you are attempting to find work and the specific education and experience you can offer to an employer. One might reasonably expect a careful consumer to investigate such matters and compare the potential raise in pay to the added expense they will incur in the form of student loan payments should they go through with a given training program – unless they have a high-pressure salesperson telling them that they will be placed in a much higher-paying job as part of the package. It’s that last part that takes all of this out of “let the buyer beware” territory and into outright fraud…

I can’t help thinking that the whole thing is an abuse of the trust placed in teachers and “educators” by a surprisingly na├»ve public. It’s true that no one goes into teaching for the money; it’s true that most people you will meet working in or running institutions of higher learning are professionals who consider what they do a vocation more than a career; and it’s true that no one associated with a legitimate college or university would ever consider misrepresenting the prospective income levels of graduates from any given degree program (or that they’d be fired immediately if they did). What the general public needs to consider is that for-profit colleges are run for the benefit of their owners, just like any other company, and are not operating on behalf of the public good – and therefore, that their advertising claims are no more trustworthy than those made by any other company in a poorly-regulated industry…

It would probably also help if we started regulating those schools a little more closely, too…

Friday, January 3, 2014

Equal Time

I’m not sure why being a fair-minded man is so important to me. It’s possible that it’s just how I was raised – our family is known for a very direct honesty, to the extent that some of my cousins don’t understand me when I try to tell them that this behavior is unusual. But whatever the reason, I do try to see both sides of a discussion, and to provide both sides of the case when I present news stories for your consideration in this space. So in the interest of even-handed discussions, I should probably acknowledge that just because I spend so much time in this blog making fun of the airlines, that does not mean that transporting huge numbers of people great distances in complex machines according to an arbitrary schedule and set of rules is easy. On the contrary: as recent events have shown, even something as small as a mishandled diaper can bring a flight to a sudden halt…

According to a story on the UPI “Odd News” page this week, a United Airlines flight from Phoenix to Cleveland was delayed and ultimately cancelled because one of the passengers tried to flush a diaper down one of the onboard toilets, causing the plane’s waste disposal system to back up and shutting down most of the rest of the lavatories. The story does not specify the type of aircraft or the total number of passengers affected by the cancellation, but if there were over 71 people on board it wasn’t a CRJ or ERJ type; you would need something at least the size of a 737 or A320 to get that much payload. What that tells us is that this wasn’t just a case of some small puddle-jumper not being up to the challenge; this was a major episode aboard a 200-ton airplane – caused by something weighing less than a pound when empty…

Now, the point of my bringing this up is that I really don’t feel we can blame the airline. Every lavatory on every United aircraft is equipped with signs in multiple languages, as well as International pictograms, telling the user not to put foreign objects down the toilet, and anyone with the intelligence of a newborn hamster should be able to figure out that doing so is a bad idea. By the same token, United’s maintenance and repair people could be the very best in their field, and follow all FAA, NTSB and manufacturer’s specific requirements for maintaining their aircraft, and there still wouldn’t be anything they could do about sabotage – which this is, albeit unintentional sabotage. At least, I certainly hope it was unintentional…

The American Author Tom Clancy once pointed out that the minimum number of mines your need to build a minefield and keep anyone from moving through a specified area is zero – you just need to issue a press release claiming those waters or lands have been mined, and then watch your adversary try to prove a negative in a life-or-death situation. Recently, the same point has been made about using disinformation to shut down airports in the U.S. – you don’t even need actual bombs; just leave a suspicious package in the baggage claim area and the whole airport will be shut down for days. Do this in enough cities and you could completely disrupt commerce in an economy that is already on the shaky side; economic warfare at its most basic level. And now we find out that you could completely cripple the U.S. airline industry, and possibly that of every other nation in the world, using nothing but a battalion of colicky babies and really stupid parents…

I’m not saying the airlines don’t deserve public mockery and scorn for some of the outrageously stupid and incompetent things we’ve seen them do over the past few years, or for the political idiocy that led directly to making the terrorist outrages of September 11 possible. I’m just pointing out that given how inherently difficult it is to run an airline in the first place, it would really behoove them to get the little things right. Because it approaches a mathematical certainty that somewhere, sometime, some other passenger is going to try flushing something unfortunate at the wrong moment – or something equally stupid…

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

One More Time, With Feeling!

Earlier this week I was putting together materials for my annual review at work, and trying to think of something profound to say for a New Year’s post. This is a bigger problem than you might think, given that I do not have many profound thoughts. Most of the time I’m doing well just to have coherent thoughts, and there are days when the most deeply philosophical conversation I have is going to be with a large calico cat. For that matter, there are days when I’m pretty sure the cat thinks I’m a blithering idiot and is only talking with me just to be kind. But fortunately I’ve never cared what people (or cats) think about me; when you work in public – and teachers do, even more so than bloggers – you really can’t. All we can do is stand up straight and speak the truth as we see it; everything else depends on the people who may (or may not) be listening…

The year just concluded was a busy and very strange time, as I taught eight classes at Michigan State University, tried to learn more about being a teacher, served as Faculty Advisor to a group of really amazing young people, and somehow managed to convince the Management Department to keep me around for a while longer. I’m still not sure what is stranger to me: that I’m doing what may be the last job I ever expected to have, that I don’t actually suck at it, or that this is still the most fun of any gig I’ve ever had. I never expected to be any good at this, and I certainly never expected to enjoy it as much as I do. But then I look back on my hopscotch career path, and I think that might actually be the point…

I’ve been a salesman and a sales manager; a customer service representative and a customer service manager; an A/P clerk and a collections officer; a process auditor and an audit team leader; a business analyst and a forward planning specialist; a management consultant and a grant writer and the vice president of the consulting firm; a grant writer and a business plan writer and a program manager and a teacher. I’ve worked in the service sector, banking, executive recruiting, entertainment, retail, food service, energy (petroleum), wholesale, consulting, non-profit, government service (municipal and Federal) and education. And the amazing thing is, I’m not actually that old; I could easily end up working for a few more decades and add a few more job titles and industries to my collection…

Every time I’ve thought I had it all figured out there’s been another plot twist, and I’ve found myself going on to a new challenge, a new industry, a new city or state, and a new set of life experiences. And despite being at a point in my life when most people have settled down into the routine that will take them the rest of the way to retirement age, I’m still not sure where this voyage is taking me. The thing is, neither is anyone else. The one thing we know for sure is that nothing is certain, the world around us is going to change without warning, and the future will not merely be stranger than we imagine – it will be stranger than we can imagine…

Ready or not, there’s a new year starting right now, and a new semester starting on Monday, and all we can do is the best we can do. So, one more time everybody, with feeling: “It’s been a long December, but there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last…”