Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Considering the Voters

This election season, it has been hard not to talk about politics in situations where one normally avoids it.  Recently, I was at an “appreciation dinner” for donors and volunteers.  At my table, we pretty much avoided talking about the individual candidates, but one of the guests could not resist asking, “Why is our country so polarized this election year?”
            There are lots of reasons, of course, but I see three things—three major fault lines where American solidarity has begun to crumble, opening the way for strange politics.
            One of the fault lines is generational.  Over the past few years, Baby Boomers have begun to move past their leadership roles and into retirement.  At the same time, Millennials have arisen as the largest segment of today’s population, ready to take responsibility as the Baby Boomers move out.  It promises to be a messy hand-off of power and responsibility between generations. Millennial democrats were drawn to Senator Bernie Sanders not for his age, but for his ideas—the progressive vision that has faded in the Democratic Party as Congress has become dominated by conservative Republicans.  As the election nears, both major party candidates are early Boomers, born in the 1940s—the oldest candidates for President ever—and unable to communicate a vision that will attract Millennials; thus, many of them are considering a protest vote for Gary Johnson, another Boomer, born in 1953.  The 2020 election should give Millennials their first opportunity to put their own candidate forward; meanwhile, the generation gap gapes open, with none of the candidates really making a coherent case to the emerging majority age group.
            A second fault line is class.  Over the past decade, we have seen the progressive isolation of the American working class—who I will define as men and women who work in manual labor and skilled industrial jobs that do not require college degrees.  This group of Americans has had a difficult time in the United States since the Great Recession of 2007-08.   For years, leading up to the economic downturn, the working class had been largely ignored by both Democrats and Republicans.  We saw the power of labor unions begin to fail.  We saw government increasingly under the sway of big corporations and moneyed interests, including the Supreme Court’s decision that business interests can fund political campaigns as if they were individual citizens.  At the same time, we saw the rise of a new, global information economy that has shaken old assumptions about work and community.  Historically, the Democratic party had been the party of organized labor.  Historically, the Republican Party was the party of small business, including farmers.  However, by 2007, those constituencies often felt abandoned. 
            A third fault line is race and culture.  In 2008—at the height of the recession—we elected our first African-American President.  The working class, already struggling and having increasingly to compete with newer immigrants from Asia and Latin America, now felt abandoned.  The Republican Party determined to totally isolate President Obama.  The “Tea Party” arm within the GOP got started.  Legislative paralysis set in, and the working class, with no one backing them, paid the price.
            Someone recently noted that, this year, the political dividing line is not between the right and the left.  Instead, the divisions cut across these economic, class, and racial fault lines.   The challenge for everyone—in and out of government—is to avoid an earthquake.  In 2017, the new President, the new Congress, and the States will need to set aside the “do nothing” tactics of the last eight years and work together to address the issues facing working Americans.  And, they will need to do so in a way that avoids the traps set by corporate interests—Second Amendment scares, for instance—and that engages working class Americans in decisions about how best to meet today’s challenges.  For instance, while working people do need some federal support, they have also made it clear that they want to protect their individual freedoms.  Finding the balance will require open discussion, increased understanding, and compromise.  It is time to work together.
            Several issues stand out as potential winners in this environment:
·      Tax Reform – Very clearly, our tax system is unbalanced in favor of very wealthy citizens.  Reducing income taxes—state and federal—for working class citizens makes sense at two levels.  First, it leaves them with more net in their paychecks.  Second, it begins to recognize the importance of workers in creating a positive, productive dynamic in the new economy.
·      Wage Reform – We need a minimum wage that allows full-time front-line workers to make a living from their work.  This is fundamental in a democracy. 
·      Free Higher Education – Democrats have proposed making some level of higher education free to students.  This is a natural extension of free elementary and secondary education—a product of the industrial revolution—that recognizes the need for a more educated frontline workforce.  I have elsewhere proposed that we complement this by promoting a year of public service, so that young people make a contribution to their community—and learn about the nature of work—as part of their common educational experience.  Regardless, if the nation needs a better educated frontline workforce in order to compete globally, we need to ensure that young workers have access to education.
            These are examples of initiatives that would empower the working class and help them regain their footing in the new global information society.  It may be one of the most important domestic issues for the new President.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning Communities

Last year, I wrote a piece on “Re-Imagining Continuing Education,” which focused on the need for universities to re-invigorate the continuing education function in order to meet the needs of the dramatically changing communities that we serve.  One thing I suggested was that Continuing Education units could adapt the MOOC concept in order to deliver noncredit services to groups within the community.  Today, I’d like to expand a bit on that idea.
            First, though, we need to get beyond the “MOOC” model as it has emerged.  MOOCs were initially advertised as a way to extend noncredit education to under-served areas.  They became shadows of credit-based online courses.  They also became a business for some.  At any rate, true noncredit Continuing Education programming goes well beyond what the public identifies with a MOOC.  It is time to start from scratch.
Continuing Education can best use online learning technologies in a noncredit environment by creating online “learning communities”—systems that allow universities to maintain an ongoing engagement with a client group through which multiple learning opportunities can be developed.   Learning Communities would have several key elements:
·      The ability for participants to enroll and participate in faculty-led noncredit online courses, research transfer seminars, and training workshops.  Some of these may lead to certificates, “continuing education units,” or badges.
·      Access to open educational resources (OERs) developed by the host institution to provide specific research-based content that users can apply in their local working environment.  These may be small training modules, demonstrations of new processes and procedures, backgrounders on regulation, or academic content that members can use to train local staff.  OERs might include video lectures, process demonstrations, computer models, etc.
·      A social media environment that allows members to interact informally with each other and with academic experts on local issues as they arise and to share experiences in using OERs and applying the content acquired from the Learning Community.
·      A data bank where ideas, discussions, etc., can be stored for later access.
            Each Learning Community would be led by faculty in the sponsoring academic unit and administered by the Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension office.  The institution should assume that the Learning Community’s needs may extend beyond the major discipline around which it is organized; one role of the Continuing Education office, then, would be to help attract other disciplines to the Learning Community when the need arises.  The Continuing Education office would also be in a good position to ensure that successful innovations generated by one Learning Community are shared with others. 
            Learning Communities could benefit any number of professional groups that are geographically dispersed or work in different organizations.  Some examples:
·      School Teachers
·      School Administrators
·      Hospital Professionals
·      Farmers
·      Local Government Professionals, such as Borough Managers, Financial Officers, Police, Firefighers, etc.
·      Elected Officials
·      Tourism Directors
·      Small Business Owners/Operators
·      Specialized Professionals
·      Leaders in Civic Organizations
·      Civic Clubs and Service Organizations
·      Librarians
            While each Learning Community would have a distinctive set of services and programs, all might operate under a similar business model that would have three major components:
·      An annual subscription fee would fund basic operation of the Learning Community.  The fee might apply to the organization or to its members.  For instance, a school district could join a Learning Community, giving a specific number of teachers access in a given year; or the district’s membership might be based on the number of teachers in that district.
·      During the year, the Learning Community would offer a variety of formal noncredit training programs.  An individual registration fee would be required of all participants (either paid by the member organization or directly by the participant).
·      A Learning Community may choose to charge a subscriber to download OERs.
            The goal would be to keep membership fees low, with the understanding that the value of the Learning Community increases with the number of members.
            Ideally, each Learning Community would also have an advisory board that would give members a voice in governance.
            Most institutions involved in Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension have some experience with organizing constituents in order to coordinate services.  In many cases, existing business models could be adjusted to the online environment. 
            The Learning Community model offers new ways for colleges and universities not only to extend their academic expertise into the community, but to create an ongoing two-way relationship between faculty and their constituencies for research and technology transfer—and to identify new areas for future research and development.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In Defense of Hillary Clinton

I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me.”
That is Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   Throughout her campaign, she has had to deal with what people see as differences between her public persona and her private self, between public speech and private speech, between public actions and private actions.  It is something that all politicians—in fact, all leaders—find themselves dealing with at one time or another.  But for Hillary Clinton, it is an especially open and onerous issue.
Hillary Clinton is not the only female national political figure who has had to deal with differences between her public persona and her private life.  Think of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think of Jacqueline Kennedy.  But she is the first woman to be nominated by a major party to be President of the United States, and as such she is being examined on issues that most male candidates never have to face.  Questioning her private versus public persona is one of those issues.  Moreover, she has stepped into this limelight not only with more than five decades of public service behind her (see her website for details), but she is doing so in a time when privacy is very difficult to maintain and when one’s past is always in danger of popping up in the present.  Today’s online environment leaves very little to be truly private.   The 24-hour news channels are always hungry for new material.
This came up at the October 9 televised “town hall” debate, where she was asked about comments she made in private meetings that were leaked to the public in an attempt to discredit her.  She used as an illustration, the scene in the move Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln talked privately about the CSA sending a delegation to Washington to pursue peace while publicly stating that no delegation was in D.C.   His goal:  getting Congressional support for a Constitutional amendment on emancipation before the Civil War ended.

             In a recent New YorkTimes Magazine article Robert Draper notes that, since Bill Clinton’s first loss as a candidate for Governor of Arkansas,  Hillary has built defenses between her private self and her public persona.  He quotes Gay White, the wife of the candidate who defeated Bill Clinton, as saying that, as a result of trying to differentiate her private and public personas, Hillary “has not been able to be an authentic person.”
Well, one might ask, have other Presidents been “authentic” people?   What did the public really know about the “authentic” presidents of the past?  Did we really see the authentic Jack Kennedy when he was elected in 1960?  What about the authentic wheelchair-ridden Franklin Roosevelt?  We tend to focus on whether a public person presents an “authentic” public persona, understanding that some things remain private.  Not so, apparently, for a woman.
           There is another important factor in the case of Hillary Clinton.  Draper notes in his article that, when Bill Clinton first ran for governor, his wife was Hillary Rodham. This Baby Boomer had learned the lesson of the women’s movement and had kept her birth name in marriage.  In fact, much of her early career had been as a social advocate for children and families.  As I have noted in a recent blog posting popular culture has long ago buried the experience of the 1960s.  Today’s young adults enjoy the benefits of the social revolution of the sixties—civil rights, women’s rights, gay/lesbian rights, etc. – but most have no idea what the young social activists of the sixties went through to expand opportunity and rights to all Americans.   I cited Carla Bingham’s comment that, “even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much.”
            After that first defeat, Hillary Rodham changed her name to Hillary Rodham Clinton.  She began to accept that the public passions of the sixties needed to be privatized if she was to achieve public change.  The result is a tension between private passion for improving lives and public position on how that improvement can be effected—a tension heightened by the public’s tendency to be over-concerned about the private personality of the person who, I certainly hope, will become our first female President.
            Hillary Clinton has been a public figure for most of her adult life.  Much of that has been beyond the scope of any elected position.  Instead, she has simply devoted her life to the public good, seeking elected office for herself only in the last 15 or so years.  She stands as perhaps the most qualified candidate for President in many decades.  I hope that, as we move into the final weeks before the election, the American public will focus on her qualifications—her real achievements in public life—as well as her qualities as a person.  She is not just the best alternative to her opponent; she is the best candidate for our times.