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2011 March 31

Campaign for the Future of Higher Education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 07:57
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The AAUP has just announced to its members the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, issuing the following Guiding Principles:

  1. Higher education in the twenty-first century must be inclusive; it should be available to and affordable for all who can benefit from and want a college education.
  2. The curriculum for a quality twenty-first century higher education must be broad and diverse.
  3. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require a sufficient investment in excellent faculty who have the academic freedom, terms of employment, and institutional support needed to do state-of-the-art professional work.
  4. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century should incorporate technology in ways that expand opportunity and maintain quality.
  5. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require the pursuit of real efficiencies and the avoidance of false economies.
  6. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require substantially more public investment over current levels.
  7. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics.

They are planning action (letter-writing campaigns, teach-ins, and similar faculty actions) on 13 April 2011.  That is rather short notice for anything very substantial to get organized, and I suspect that 99% of the population will never notice that anything has happened.  The formal launch for the campaign (at the National Press Club) won’t be until May 17.  It strikes me as rather strange that they are asking for action on very short notice, but taking another month to organize a press conference.  This seems backwards to me:  the press conference should be easier to put together than meaningful coordinated actions nationwide.  The AAUP often seems to me to have its heart in the right place, but to be rather clumsy in unexpected ways, as with this backwards ordering of events.

The principles they listed seem reasonable, though they do not address how to achieve quality or determine if it has been achieved.  They are basically pro-diversity, pro-technology statements that recognize that the current disinvestment in public higher education is not a sustainable model.  They are not specific to higher education: exactly the same statements could be used (dropping the adjective “higher”) to primary and secondary education—except that in some parts of the country there is now adequate public investment in K–12 education (though not in California, where I live).

2011 March 30

Management growth at UC

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:27
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Charles Schwartz of UC Berkeley has posted on a nice comparison of the growth of management at UC to the growth of employment overall in UC.  It is clear that management bloat has gotten severe, and all the campuses are at fault: New Data on Management Growth at UC.

Charles Schwartz's plot of relative management growth and overall employment growth at UC. The overall employment is scaled to match management size in 1991.

Prof. Schwartz also computes the number of “excess managers”—the number more than there would be if there had been just proportionate growth—for each campus.  UCLA has 1000 too many managers, and UCSC has 200 too many, assuming that they number of managers was reasonable in 1991.  I suspect that the older campuses were already suffering from serious managerial bloat in 1991, so that UCB and UCLA may actually be more bloated than Schwartz’s figures, and UCSC slightly less so.

2011 March 29

The new American witch hunt

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:45
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One of the students in my department suggested I blog about the issue in the following NY Times article: William Cronon and the American Thought Police. It refers to the abuse of open record laws by the Republican party to attack academic freedom, asking for copies all the e-mails sent by Prof. William Cronon that mention the word “Republican” from his University of Wisconsin mailbox.

They’re not likely to find much, as Prof. Cronon has been much more scrupulous about not using his university e-mail account for personal e-mail.  (I, on the other hand, have used my University of California e-mail for all my e-mail correspondence.  I’m sure that if someone wanted to attack me, they could find something in my e-mail that could be misinterpreted or taken out of context.) This NY Times article  is not the first I heard of this issue—I saw a blog post earlier on Remaking the University: Wisconsin Republican Party Attacks Academic Freedom, which gives more details of the case.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has picked up the case as one of the most obvious assaults on academic freedom in the past 50 years, and there is a Facebook page for supporting Prof. Cronon.

There is a difficult problem for public universities with respect to freedom of information laws.  We want the administrators held to the same rules as other state officials, to check the sort of waste and corruption that bureaucracies everywhere are prone to.  But we don’t want arbitrary harassment of faculty or students for political reasons (as in the Cronon case).  I don’t mind that my salary is in a public database on the website of the local paper—that is the sort of information that tax-payers have a right to if they pay me, but I would object to someone with a vendetta against me going on a fishing expedition asking for every copy of my e-mail that mentioned any of several common key words, so that they could find something they could twist into a smear.

How can freedom of information laws be properly crafted to provide reasonable oversight of university bureaucracies without enabling witch hunts and destroying academic freedom?  Are any of the current laws properly constructed?  For Cronon, is Wisconsin’s?  And, for me, is California’s?

Disclaimer: I’m a member of AAUP, as is any faculty member who joins the Faculty Association on our campus.  Our local “union” has been toothless and useless (for years I referred to them as the Parking Association, since car parking was all the then-leadership cared about), but AAUP has been doing good work in protecting the rights of faculty in other parts of the country, and so I have kept my membership in the Faculty Association.

IEEE endorses hybrid open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:04
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The IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization and a major publisher of academic journals, has adopted a policy about open-access publishing: Five-Point Plan to Address Open Access.

Basically, they are taking a rather low-key approach:  the weakest form of hybrid open-access, where the journal and author retain full rights to the material, the default is subscription-only access, with authors allowed to post the articles on their own or their institution’s web site, but with authors allowed to pay ($3000) for open access.

This is weaker than the model I favor, which is that used by the journal Bioinformatics, published by Oxford University Press.  It differs in one particular:  the Bioinformatics articles become open access after a year, while the IEEE articles remain hidden behind a pay wall forever if the author can’t pay the open-access fee.  I suppose that the difference is that IEEE believes that there is little time value for their articles, and that no one would pay for a subscription if they could just wait a year to get the material for free.  Given the slowness of publication in computer science and electrical engineering, there may be some truth to this belief, as anyone who needs timely access can’t rely on IEEE journals for their information anyway.

I think that the IEEE may be a bit too cautious, but I’m more comfortable with that than with the eager embrace of open-access journals (without much thought about how unfunded researchers will get published) of the ISCB, whose policy I posted about in  ISCB open access policies.  Perhaps I’d feel differently if I were a generously funded researcher who had never had a dry spell in funding.

2011 March 27

Computational Thinking

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:07
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In Research Notebook: Computational Thinking—What and Why?, Jeannette M. Wing presents a definition of computational thinking and an explanation of why it is important for everyone, not just computer scientists.

Her definition is

Computational thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be effectively carried out by an information-processing agent. [Jan Cuny, Larry Snyder, and Jeannette M. Wing, “Demystifying Computational Thinking for Non-Computer Scientists,” work in progress, 2010]

though she credits Al Aho for some of the thought behind it.

A key part of computational thinking is the value of levels of abstraction: being able to represent just the “relevant” information and manipulate it, without having to worry about lower and higher levels of representation, other than in explicit terms of the current level.  To my mind, good computational thinking requires being able to switch levels of abstraction and to work in 2 or more levels at once, but just being able to abstract problems and hide some of the less relevant details is a valuable skill.

Jeannette gives some of examples of computational thinking in everyday life, one of which particularly rang a bell with me:

Hashing: After giving a talk at a department meeting about computational thinking, Professor Danny Sleator told me about a hashing function his children use to store away Lego blocks at home. According to Danny, they hash on several different categories: rectangular thick blocks, other thick (non-rectangular) blocks, thins (of any shape), wedgies, axles, rivets and spacers, “fits on axle,” ball and socket and “miscellaneous.” They even have rules to classify pieces that could fit into more than one category. “Even though this is pretty crude, it saves about a factor of 10 when looking for a piece,” Danny says. Professor Avrim Blum overheard my conversation with Danny and chimed in “At our home, we use a different hash function.”

The analogy is not perfect, as there is usually no collision resolution method when a bin gets too full.  (In our house, collision resolution usually requires reallocation of space, which is a very expensive operation, just as in programming. Rehashing has been known to take months, and the temporary space used for the rehashing operation is not available for other tasks.)

Note: I’ve posted on computational thinking twice before: Algorithmic vs. Computational Thinking and Computational Thinking Lesson Plans.

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