U. of Kansas Professor is Placed on Leave after a Scathing Tweet Denouncing the NRA!

Dear Commons Community,

The University of Kansas has placed a journalism professor on indefinite administrative leave after he posted a tweet denouncing the National Rifle Association in the wake of the recent mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, The Kansas City Star reported.

The September 16 shootings at the Navy Yard left 13 people, including the gunman, dead. That day, David W. Guth, an associate professor of journalism at the university, posted a tweet saying, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

University officials called his words “repugnant,” and on Friday Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said Guth would be put on leave.

“In order to prevent disruptions to the learning environment for students, the School of Journalism and the university, I have directed Provost Jeffrey Vitter to place Associate Professor Guth on indefinite administrative leave pending a review of the entire situation,” Gray-Little said in a statement.

Mr. Guth wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press on Friday that he agreed with the university’s action in light of threats he and others had received.

“It is in the best interests and peace of mind of our students that I remove myself from the situation and let cooler heads prevail,” he wrote. “I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light.”


Pope Francis on Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Contraception!

Dear Commons Community,

In a remarkable interview released last week, Pope Francis said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and said it should focus more on socioeconomic issues.  As reported in the New York Times:

“Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception…

His surprising comments came in a lengthy interview in which he criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a “home for all” — which is a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.

Francis told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

The pope’s interview did not change church doctrine or policies, but it instantly changed its tone. His words evoked gratitude and hope from many liberal Catholics who had felt left out in the cold during the papacies of Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, which together lasted 35 years. Some lapsed Catholics suggested on social media a return to the church, and leaders of gay rights and gay Catholic groups called on bishops to abandon their fight against gay marriage.

But it left conservative and traditionalist Catholics, and those who have devoted themselves to the struggles against abortion, gay marriage and artificial contraception, on the defensive, though some cast it as nothing new.

While not ignoring such bread and butter matters, American bishops have saved their greatest fury for those sexual and reproductive issues. At the same time they have criticized efforts by nuns to improve social welfare efforts, which the pope now says should be emphasized.”

Pope Francis’ words surely were a call to change the stringent tone that has dominated the Catholic church’s positions but they do not change any official doctrines.  As pope, Francis has the unilateral power to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk.


A Liberal-Arts Education is the Key to Navigating the Changes that Come Or What to do with a Philosophy Degree!!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times Magazine had an article exploring the role of Andy Chan, head of Wake Forest University’s Office of Personal and Career Development (O.P.C.D.).  It focuses much of the time on how Chan replies to concerns from the parents of freshmen about their children’s choice of major particularly if it is in a liberal-arts area.  It starts with a review of his presentation at freshmen orientation:

“At orientation, Chan gave a rousing talk to parents, encouraging them to let their children follow their interests, knowing that his office was looking after their employability: 95 percent of Wake Forest’s graduates, he told them, were either fully employed or in graduate school within six months of graduating. (Eighty percent of the class of 2012 responded to the survey.) The room suddenly felt festive with affirmation. “Wow,” one parent said, loudly enough to be heard across the room… Chan explained that his chief strategy is “to create a kind of ecosystem where everyone has a vested interest in helping our students be prepared for life and for careers and for work” — a university-wide, collective assumption that the faculty was there not just to expand students’ intellectual horizons but also to help however it could in creating job-ready students.”

Chan’s message is surely important as higher education keeps creeping to a commodification model where a college degree is seen basically as a ticket to a job and career.  The article also refers to the opinions of several faculty some of whom welcome Chan’s approach and others who have concerns:

“…Susan Rupp, a professor of Russian history at Wake Forest, said she had misgivings…She said she would not be very likely to invite someone from O.P.C.D. into her classroom to explain the class’s professional value. “It reduces an education to the marketplace,” she said. Instead, she says, teaching history should be about helping young people to understand “the relationship of the individual to the larger society.”

Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, writes in his book, “College: What It Was, Is and Should Be,” that colleges should help students develop “a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.” Can liberal-arts schools encourage students to question the status quo while simultaneously reminding them from their first days on campus to keep their employability in mind?

Michele Gillespie, another history professor at Wake Forest, has been receptive to O.P.C.D.  but has concerns about some of its innovations — among them, classes on career development for academic credit that teach students how to “brand themselves,” how to identify themselves through personality tests and form a customized, consistent description of the self. “These kids’ frontal temporal lobes are barely formed,” Gillespie says; as teachers, she and her peers “are trying to open their minds, to see complexities and tensions.” The emphasis on translating academics into skills also struck her as problematic. “They want to know what the calculus is: How will doing an honors thesis translate into my ability to persuade my manager to put me on the management track? How can I sell this? How can I market these things? I fear that the students see the learning as a means to an end and don’t connect as much to the learning that’s taking place.”

The article provides important insights into the concerns and anxieties of students, parents, and faculty as to the selection of a major. My view is that students should follow their passions.


Charles Blow on the Kamikaze Congress!

Dear Commons Community,

We are coming again to what has become a ritual every nine or so months with the Republican Party in the House of Representatives threatening to shut down the government as part of the negotiation to expand the country’s debt ceiling.  As in the past, the House is offering to expand the ceiling only if the Affordable Care Act ( also known as Obamacare) is repealed.  Everybody except a small group of House Republicans think this is insane.  Charles Blow uses the term “Kamikaze Congress” to characterize their actions.

“That is the House Republicans’ brilliant plan in their last-ditch effort to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It is a plan that threatens to grind the government to a halt and wreak havoc on the economy.

If they can’t take over Washington, they’ll shut it down. It’s their way or no way. All or nothing.

This is what has become of a party hijacked by zealots.

It would be tempting to blame all Republicans for this absurdity, but that would be unfair. There are still Republicans who are interested in good governance, but they’re being dragged to the nether regions of nonsensical policy making by younger, more ideological members of Congress, many from safely gerrymandered districts that form virtual echo chambers of irrationality.

The old guard has warned against the recklessness of the tactics of far-right House Republicans.

John McCain told CNN on Thursday: “In the United States Senate, we will not repeal, or defund, Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational.”

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said of the House Republicans’ strategy of threatening a government shutdown to force the defunding of Obamacare, “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, has said: “There isn’t anybody that thinks that Obamacare is going to get defunded. It cannot happen.” He added, “It is as impossible as anything can possibly be in Washington, D.C.”

Even Karl Rove struck a rational tone in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published online Wednesday evening, saying:

“Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively. The defunding strategy doesn’t. Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.”

But all those pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears, or at least defiant ones.

On Friday, House Republicans (and two Democrats) passed a spending resolution that would cut all funding for the health care law.

This bill has no chance of passing in the Senate, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to gum up the works and to force vulnerable Democrats in heavily red states to go on record as refusing to defund the health care law.

These Republicans aren’t afraid the law will fail as much as they’re afraid that it will succeed and become part of the fabric of the collective conscience — and worst yet, be a clear legacy victory for President Obama.

There is no more bitter Tea Party loss than a perceived Obama victory. The president is the focal point of the party’s frustrations. Tea Party representatives have been sent to Washington with a singular mission: obstruct Obama.

These Kamikaze members of Congress have made the House of Representative a house of horrors, where smart thinking is smothered, where rabble demand respect.”

The actual Kamikazes deserved more respect than this group of Congressmen who basically are cowards who care little about their country as a whole and whose only support for their cowardice is among themselves and a few of their deep-pocket financial backers.



An Adjunct Faculty Member’s Death Raises National Alarm!

Dear Commons Community,

An op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which the last days of a Duquesne University adjunct instructor were described as emblematic of the plight of part-time contract faculty, is receiving attention in much of the media.  Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column that he was likely the last person to speak to Margaret Mary Vojtko prior to her death. Although Vojtko had taught at Duquesne for more than 20 years, Kovalik said that she only earned around $3,500 per three-credit course at the private Catholic university. Vojtko was not making enough to get by — less than $25,000 annually, with no health care benefits — and her class-load was reduced while she was battling cancer. Then the university let her go in the spring.  More specifically, Kovalik wrote:

“On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.  Vojtko died at age 83 on Sept. 1, two weeks after a heart attack.”

Duquesne University officials have denied Kovlik’s side of this story claiming that the support it provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues. It was wholly unrelated to her employment status or classification, or to any issues of adjunct unionization.

However, Kovalik responded saying that Vojtko needed a real salary and benefits, not just “intermittent charity and prayers.”

Robin J. Sowards, an adjunct instructor at Duquesne, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Kovalik’s account of Vojtko’s situation rings true for many non-tenured part-time faculty.

The story of Margaret Mary Vojtko is playing out on campuses all over the country.  Adjunct professors are paid pitifully low wages without health benefits and if they have a serious medical situation frequently face financial disaster.



Poverty Rate Up in New York City and Income Gap Widens: Census Data Show!

Dear Commons Community,

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data show that poverty is up in New York City and the income gap between rich and poor has widened considerably.  The poverty rate rose to 21.2 percent in 2012, from 20.9 percent the year before, meaning that 1.7 million New Yorkers fell below the official federal poverty threshold. That increase was not statistically significant, but the rise from the 2010 rate of 20.1 percent was.  In the city, median household income inched up to $50,895, from $50,657, after declining for three years from its recent high of $54,695 in 2008. And 6 of the nation’s 10 largest cities had higher poverty rates, although 4 recorded declines compared with 2011. On average, New York had a lower poverty rate, fewer people without health insurance and a higher median household income than other major metropolitan areas.  However, a yawning income gap seemed to show a city that has become stratified with wealth concentrated in a small percentage of the population.   Citywide, the mean income of the lowest fifth was $8,993, while the highest fifth made $222,871 and the top 5 percent made $436,931 — about 49 times as much as those with the lowest income.

Relating these data to the messages of NYC’s mayoral candidates, the New York Times commented:

“Bill de Blasio’s path to the Democratic nomination for mayor was built in large part around his theme that New York has become a tale of two cities. New data released  by the Census Bureau lend support to that argument, showing that even as the recession has ended, the city’s poverty rate continues to inch up and the gap between the rich and poor remains stubbornly large…

Mr. de Blasio, who has attracted populist support with his message of economic inequality, said the latest census data reinforced the need for the next mayor to alter course. “I wish it didn’t,” he said.

His Republican opponent, Joseph J. Lhota, has accused Mr. de Blasio of promoting class warfare, but Mr. Lhota acknowledged on Wednesday that poverty remained a critical problem.

“There is no question that people are suffering in this economy,” Mr. Lhota said. “The key to lifting people out of poverty is through the creation of career jobs and education.” He said he would focus on diversifying the economy and creating additional affordable housing “to ensure more people make it into the middle class.”


De Blasio Has Commanding Lead over Lhota in WNBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll in NYC Mayoral Race!

Dear Commons Community,

While the New York City mayoral election is still weeks away, a new poll released by WNBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist College shows Democrat Bill de Blasio with a commanding lead over the Republican Joseph Lhota.  Mr. de Blasio enjoys support from 65 percent of likely voters, compared with 22 percent who back Mr. Lhota, according to the poll released yesterday.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal:

“Mr. de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, is outpacing Mr. Lhota, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, 65% to 22% among likely voters, including those who are undecided but leaning toward a candidate. Adolfo Carrión Jr., a former Bronx borough president running on the Independence Party line, had 3%.

“It’s a very lopsided contest at this point,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Coming out of the starting blocks, it is playing de Blasio’s way in a big way.”

The poll was the first since the Sept. 10 primary, from which Messrs. de Blasio and Lhota emerged as victors, according to unofficial returns. The results show that Mr. de Blasio’s late surge is continuing and highlight the challenges Mr. Lhota faces in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1.

Mr. de Blasio was winning by large margins in a sweep that transcended race, gender and borough. He led among blacks (86% to 3%); Latinos (74% to 11%); whites (50% to 37%); women (68% to 18%) and men (61% to 26%). He led in every borough, including Manhattan where he is ahead 70% to 19%. The only group favoring Mr. Lhota was white Catholics, 45% to 40%.

Of those who are unaffiliated with any party and likely to vote in the Nov. 5 election, 50% support Mr. de Blasio, 24% back Mr. Lhota and 9% are going with Mr. Carrión. A quarter of likely GOP voters back Mr. de Blasio.”

But anything can happen in an election and with six weeks left in the campaign, we will have to wait and see.



Carnage in our Nation’s Capital: Thirteen Dead at Navy Yard!

Navy Yard III

Dear Commons Community,

Once again, violence and carnage in the United States is on the front page of major media outlets. Yesterday, a former Navy reservist killed at least 12 people in a mass shooting at a secure military facility that led the authorities to lock down part of Washington, D.C.  in a hunt for two other armed men spotted by video cameras.  By yesterday evening, the federal authorities said they believed the shooting was the act of a lone gunman, identified as Aaron Alexis, 34, who was working for a military subcontractor. Three weapons were found on Mr. Alexis: an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol, a senior law enforcement officer said. It was unclear whether he had brought all the guns with him, another law enforcement official said, or if he had taken one or more of them from his victims.

Another senseless tragedy brought on in part due to the easy availability of assault weapons!


Navy Yard I



Navy Yard II

William Thompson Concedes Democratic Mayoral Nomination to Bill de Blasio!

Dear Commons Community,

The Associated Press is reporting  that New York City mayoral candidate Bill Thompson conceded the Democratic primary race to front-runner Bill de Blasio earlier today, averting a potential runoff and clearing the way for de Blasio to campaign for the general election.

Thompson endorsed de Blasio at City Hall, saying he was proud to support him as the party’s nominee.

The potential runoff had loomed as another act in the Democratic drama over choosing a successor to three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg – a fight that would keep Democrats tilting at each other while Republicans and independents looked ahead to the general election. With Thompson, the Democrats’ 2009 mayoral nominee, out of the race, de Blasio will face Republican nominee Joe Lhota on Nov. 5.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo played a role in brokering the deal, according to two people familiar with Thompson’s decision who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who supported Thompson said he’s now backing de Blasio.

“Clearly we need to change direction,” Mulgrew said, citing the explosion in the number of kids in homeless shelters. “Something is horribly wrong in [this] city.”

Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota has said he would continue current Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies.

“That’s all I need to know once I hear that,” Mulgrew said, explaining his support for de Blasio.

The mayoral race is now on!



Bilinguals Have Higher Level of Mental Flexibility: Penn State Study!

Dear Commons Community,

A critical issue in many school districts with large numbers of English language learners (ELL) is what type of academic program would be most appropriate for them.  Most school districts opt for an English immersion program that prepares them to do all of their school work in English over a bilingual program that would allow them to study subject matter in both English and the home language.

A recent study at Penn State concluded that bilingual education is beneficial stating that bilinguals with the ability to switch languages seamlessly have likely developed a higher level of mental flexibility than people who only speak one language, researchers at Penn State said Tuesday in a press statement.

“In the past, bilinguals were looked down upon,” Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Women’s Studies Judith F. Kroll said in a press statement. “Not only is bilingualism not bad for you, it may be really good. When you’re switching languages all the time it strengthens your mental muscle and your executive function becomes enhanced.”

Researchers performed two experiments on English and Spanish speakers to assess whether both languages were active in their minds at all times. In the first, subjects read 512 sentences in either English or Spanish, switching between the two every two sentences, and had to read cognates out load in red as quickly and accurately as possible. The subjects rarely tripped up. The linguists then performed the same experiment, one language at a time, with similar results.

The study is part of a growing body of evidence upending the traditional view that growing up bilingual hindered cognitive development.